Conflicting stories

Western approaches to learning can be alien to students from other cultures, who learn to a different 'script'. Thushari Welikala explains

June 19, 2008

One human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come to another country with different traditions ... even given the mastery of the country's language, we cannot find our feet with them."

I understood what Clifford Geertz meant in his 1975 book The Interpretation of Cultures only many years later. When studying at a British university, I found that what was generally expected in Sri Lanka did not fit the British context. Many international students share a similar dissonance between their own cultural ways of learning and their UK experience. I explored this in my doctoral research into the mediation of culture in learning within UK higher education.

Through my work, I came to understand learning as the stories told about learning. I also used the notion of "cultural script" as the generalised action-knowledge guiding learners' action in particular contexts. Different cultural scripts for learning in different cultures emerged in terms of activities: talking, writing, reading, thinking and role relations between teachers and students and peer relations among students.

These scripts for learning did not necessarily harmonise with the dominant stories narrated by the host university. For instance, teaching-learning contexts in the West idealise a Socratic method, where teachers and students critically engage each other. However, many students (not just overseas ones) are uncomfortable with such open disagreements.

Cultural scripts for teacher-student relationships show considerable diversity in different cultures. A Mauritian student said: "We are not supposed to disagree and argue with the teacher. We have to respect them. They are our gurus." Learners from Mauritius talk of learning within a special code of conduct reserved for teacher-student relationships.

As a Malawian student described it: "It's not just teaching something and vanishing. The teacher is there in the community living with you." While Chinese learners may feel that: "Here the teacher-pupil relationship is simple - do the lecture and go. Teachers in China are more responsible regarding their students. They are moral guides to them."

Likewise, a Brazilian student described her UK university teachers as "acting as if they are so helpful and highly approachable. Oh, not at all! They teach you something and go. You just pay. Pay and be gone! They were never interested in me or in my questions." There were criticisms, too, from a Taiwanese student who said: "They have written a lot, done a lot of research. They have the authority in writing. Everything is from their point of view. They do not even say why their way of writing is better."

Writing also does not mean the same across cultures. As another Brazilian student explained: "In my culture, we go round and round before coming to the point. English people are very direct; they never beat about the bush." In this culture, writing is embedded in the cultural scripts for talking. Similarly, there are different scripts in different cultures in terms of reading and thinking for learning.

When learners find such contrasting scripts for learning, they do not necessarily immerse themselves in the new scripts for learning. Instead, they may look at them critically, questioning the need to follow the host university's script for learning and sometimes even reject these dominant stories.

For instance, talking about critical discussions in the host university, an Italian student stated: "I am not used to this silly way of shouting in class, this pub way of talking with nothing learnt at the end of the lesson." And a Japanese student said: "We do not talk and that is how we are. We are self-critical but we do not go criticising others, not openly." The Japanese script for learning talk is entwined with their script for talking in daily life, which holds that people can have diverse views without conflict.

Yet the dominant assumption is that learners from different cultures come to UK universities to follow British ways of learning. My research reveals that we need to find out how students from other cultures go about their learning so they can make more sense of what we are teaching them.

Thushari Welikala is an associate of the Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, University of London, and co-author with Chris Watkins of Improving Intercultural Learning Experiences in Higher Education: Responding to Cultural Scripts for Learning, which will be launched at the meeting of the Society for Research into Higher Education's Student Experience Network at De Montfort University on 24 June. Details from:

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