Professors bust ‘myth’ of unquestioning Asians

Eastern and Western students are silent in different ways, academics say

November 23, 2019
quiet zone
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China experts have called out the “myth” that Asian students are passive and unquestioning learners, saying that the reality is far more complex.

Popular theory holds that Chinese and Japanese students are unwilling to speak up in class because it could be perceived as impolite. “Asian students take more notice of the teacher [than their Australian peers] and are more respectful of authority,” Griffith University historian Colin Mackerras told the Foundation for Australian Studies in China (Fasic) conference in Suzhou.

“Is this a reasonable generalisation, or is it just a myth? It’s a very complicated question.”

Tsinghua University’s Hamish Coates said the characterisation was “largely true” in public situations, but not in private. “A much more complicated form of cultural dynamics…is important for understanding the teacher-student relationship,” he said.

“It’s time to bust some of those old myths and come up with new theories.”

Professor Coates, an expert in educational assessment, said he had taught Chinese students for 20 years at Tsinghua and the University of Melbourne. He said the “silence” of Chinese students in class was not replicated in other situations, where they were far more willing than their Australian counterparts to make their views known.

In China, for example, surveys of higher education students attracted response rates of about 95 per cent compared with just 15 per cent in Australia. “About 85 per cent of Australians will not respond – they’re silent for those surveys. In that case, China is very non-silent and Australia is very silent.”

Griffith Asia Institute director Caitlin Byrne said that Chinese students’ silence in class often reflected a lack of confidence in their spoken English, with some far more comfortable in their written communication skills.

“Public speaking for just about everybody is tough, [let alone] doing it in another language,” Professor Byrne said.

The conference heard that Australians’ “great silence” was their widespread failure to speak second languages. “Governments have poured tens of millions of dollars into trying to promote the study of Asian languages, yet the [percentage] of students who take Asian languages as subjects is still in very low single figures. Until that is properly addressed, the relationship [with Asia] is always going to be fragile.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

What's so interesting is that all of the previous research that is now being debunked invovled and relied on a whole host of Asian students and academics acquiesing and confirming the biases that are now being challenged. To what extent are the participants in research studies right or wrong?

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