Julia Knight

Cultural differences in teaching

The only way is Britain.....or is it?

I was teaching a year 8 class yesterday about Victorian England in preparation for Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol; the Horrible Histories excerpt which depicted an advert for a Victorian Maid in the style of a well known (in the UK at least) cleaning product was lost on my 15 Thai pupils, as was Victorian Wife Swap and Made in Victorian Hertfordshire.

It happened again in my Year 7 lesson, we are writing children's books for KS1 and I asked them to tell me their favourite childhood book- they said the generic fairy tales interspersed with cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, failing to mention any of the classic children's books. So I suggested literary vintages such as Meg and Mog, Funny Bones et al- they looked at me like I had just fallen out of a coconut tree.

I went home to look at the reading matter of my 2-year old. His aunt Melissa had sent him some books recently. Toddle Waddle by Julia Donaldson is the new favourite - it is a 'follow the leader' style book using onomatopoeic and rhyming words (hence the name) The pictures are all based around a seaside resort and pier. The characters all reflect the diverse ethnic backgrounds of modern Britain but this doesn't transcend to a Thai pupil's understanding or knowledge of a quirky seaside town in Britain complete with foibles and an innate character.

Last week's favourite was Barry the Fish with Fingers by Sue Hendra. It's a picture book about a fish with fingers which resemble the British dish of fish-fingers. I find this book hilarious, as does my son but Thai children don't eat fish-fingers for tea, do they? The cultural significance is lost and there is no cultural equivalent or way of explaining it - Barry the Fish with Fishballs... doesn't quite work somehow.

I often wonder about the morality of a British education for Thailand's international school pupils which are mainly Thai or Thai mixed. Where is their cultural relevance? Their literary legacies? The moments where they connect a memory to a place or taste and belly-laugh with contentment that only resonance can bring.

Are we international educators the new imperialists? The new missionaries taking Britain and its culture around the world? Demanding, imposing, subjecting, inflicting the likes of Dickens, Austen and Hardy? Do we offer a superiority in language and literature that no other (or Eastern?) tradition can offer? Or are we teaching to an antiquated examination board's view of literary supremacy?

It's Book Week next week and the English department are attempting to make it intercultural- the new moniker for multiculturalism. We have given each year group a country, genre and an era. For example Japan, Manga Comics, 20th century. They will have to research and create a classroom display for other students to visit, a bit like a mini-museum curation.

We are a diverse school, some of our students hail from Japan, Korea, China and Indonesia as well as mixed heritages from Europe and America. So Book Week this year will reflect this and send a message of value, worth and respect to all our global learners that there is an alternative to 'the only way is Britain'

About me


In my experience teaching at both an international school and Thai University as well as working in several Thai public schools, I think the level of Western cultural influence unfortunately needs to vary according to the amount of future anticipated exposure to western Lit and idioms necessary for the students to achieve a measure of success and the literature needs to follow accordingly to some degree. But I think we can all agree this has been extremely "neo-colonial" now for far to long and needs to be more regionally and internationally focused across the board to a greater degree.

On the other hand however, I understand the sentiment of "when in Rome"... Why not honor the host culture predominately much more than we currently do, regardless of how much we might feel inclined to tailor the curriculum to where we think our students most probably will end up? Tracking students is not a very useful approach. I know many Thais all have a similar background with certain commonly told Thai folk tales and "mainstream" historical events such as the much revered Sukhothai period in the Kingdom. These kind of events and folklore might not be a bad place to begin to show more awareness and cultural sensitivity.

By Hugh Slesinger, United States (11th November 2013)

Hi Tom, we need to look at education from the future looking back. It is high time we had a debate about the future needs of learners and our role as educators. Many thanks for your comments, JK

By Julia, BKK (10th November 2013)

Hi Julia, I couldn't agree more with your statements about cultural imperialism - in my experience it is absolutely rife among westerners in Thailand, and is often proportional to their level of ignorance in general and in particular regarding "foreign" cultures. Though I've come to expect this as the norm I'm still shocked to encounter it among supposedly educated groups - like teachers - so your post comes as a refreshing antidote, cheers Tom.

By Tom, Thailand (10th November 2013)

Argumentative? Not at all, as. I said you raise some interesting points and I am happy to develop or collaborate ideas to improve writing but I don't know about you, I find it is the vocabulary that lets the student down, oh and their love for all things violent and zombiefied.

By Julia, BKK (2nd November 2013)

That's fair enough. Sorry if I came off as argumentative.

I would still suggest that the amount of English language literature and poetry from Thailand is small and relatively undistinguished (a gross generalization, I know), at least as compared to the amount from the UK/US. This situation could obviously be improved on in years to come, especially if students are galvanized into writing in English with suitable levels of grammar, imagination and flair (unfortunately, something which I am rarely able to achieve with my own students, but I wish you all the best in inspiring yours).

By jbkk, bkk (1st November 2013)

Hi JB, you make some good points. There are definitely differences and disparities between the teaching and learning methods of East versus West methodologies. I am yet to discover the perfect model between Confucius and Socrates. Yr 8 are doing Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Yr 9, Thai folk tales and Japanese Manga is the medium- the genre is poetry. There is a plethora of Thai culture and literature, we should be teaching it alongside not negating it altogether in favour of one.

By Julia, BKK (31st October 2013)

I have never understood this idea of "relevance". Even though I am British, I didn't feel I had anything in common with the characters in most of the Shakespeare plays I read at school, and didn't recognise many of the locations/customs/etc.

So? I could still understand them after a time, and even though a lot of it was alien to me, there are universal themes in them (yes, these themes can apply to Thailand as well).

You can read English translations of Crime and Punishment, or 100 Years of Solitude, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and enjoy and learn from them- why can't Thai students (aside from the language skills)? Do they not have empathy? Maybe you are selling them short.

A reader with sufficient language skills should be able to read stories set in other cultures (given some easy explanation). Do we have to pander? Isn't it good if we expand the rather narrow cultural parameters that many Thai students (and people) at least appear to have? Should they only see things through their own eyes?

Where are the students' literary legacies? Well, nowhere really, because frankly, Thailand doesn't have much of a tradition in this area. I am not trying to denigrate, but as has been said very often by many others, theirs is not so much of a reading culture. Look in a bookshop and notice the scant offerings in Thai language literature (no, I'm not talking about a big Bangkok bookshop, more like a standard mall).

Does England have a better claim? Yes. Sorry. The historical wealth is vast, as is the influence on others. American literature also has such claims. This disparity is due to many factors, many of which may be unfair, but which don't dispute the point that there are many more great books available in the English language from those cultures, and there are not nearly so many (in English) from other cultures. I'm not being a cultural imperialist, just a realist.

By the way, it is not stretching Thai students much at all to use Japanese manga- most of what they read in their spare time are translated versions of this. Did the students suggest this? It's about as unusual in Thailand as eating rice.

By JBKK, BKK (30th October 2013)

Hi Louise, I think that is a great idea. I have tried to teach texts to appeal to the heritages of my classes as well as those prescribed by the exam boards. Mother tongues must be appreciated, embraced and there are definitely questions to be discussed. JK

By julia, BKK (30th October 2013)

Fully agree with you Julia. I feel the literacy we are expected to teach from the NC bares no relevance on the Thai children, and we are catering to them more as we don't have as many international children at our school.
There should be an International Curriculum for literacy that can be adapted for teachers who are teaching in countries other than the UK. I am going to teach Literacy this term from a book about a monkey getting lost in Bangkok. At least the children will recognise and hopefully of visited a lot of the places mentioned.

By Louise Meethongsai, Bangkok (30th October 2013)

I have a BA in English Lit too, I studied texts from all over the world including the Caribbean and US. English is a language and you will note I used the term British; American literature is written in English, it does not mean the author is English. For Book Week next week, we chose 20th century America, Civil Rights to recognise the valuable contribution from US authors such Harper Lee, Mildred D Taylor, Ntozake Shange to name a few. Or we could further categorize the latter two as Afro-American authors, either way they are still American authors writing in English.

By Julia, BKK (29th October 2013)

When I earned my BA degree in English, I studied works by British and American authors. I hope that the author of this article can enlighten herself to the point where she embraces American authors also as 'English' authors ... or maybe that's asking too much of a British imperialist.

By Guy, Bkk (29th October 2013)

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