This month, I thought I would cut a quick outline of the Chinese situation here at my university. I can’t remember whether I mentioned this previously or not, and am too lazy to check back and find out (I can remember at least starting out mentioning this on a few occasions) – I came back to Thailand from Korea because I far prefer working with Thai students, or because my experiences here were so much nicer. To be confronted, upon my arrival, with the facts that at this university there is an international program in which there are many students from the south of China, and that I would predominantly be teaching them instead of Thais. I was pretty cool with this at first, because I really liked the Chinese academics at the last Rajabhat institute at which I worked, and because my Chinese students in Australia had always been quite nice – I can tell you though, that for everyone here, this international program has been quite an experience.
There are quite a few parallels to be drawn between my Chinese and former Korean students (albeit, remember, that these things are far more serious on the former count, because my Chinese students are adult students and my Korean students were still at high school). To begin with, a noticeable number of them couldn’t care less about learning the things that are being taught in class, let alone making at least a pretense of living up to the, from mine and the Thai’s perspective, very serious obligations of the learning contract in which they are involved – I had to make it a ticket of entry into the classes to get them to bring their pens, notebooks and other learning materials to the class, and a ticket to stay there to get them not to sleep, and to actually do the activities. Furthermore, they are (or were, because I addressed this in similar fashion) completely unconcerned about, as well as ignoring the lesson, speaking to each other loudly in Chinese about anything except what’s related to their present responsibilities during classes – even worse, they were completely unashamed to do this while it was mine, the teacher’s, and the other students’ turn to speak. Lastly, and this is something that now sets them quite apart from the Koreans, who to their credit I never noticed doing any such thing to any untoward degree, they are chronic exam cheaters – it would be in no way unfair, and in fact would perhaps be somewhat of an understatement to say, that cheating is one general approach to taking exams that our Chinese students display.
Nor is this, of course, entirely my experience, and this is what makes the situation even more interesting – I was a bit shy about complaining at first, because being critical of Asian people for very ignorant reasons seems to be part and parcel of a lot of Western people’s attitudes towards their role in Thailand’s education system, or because outright racism is after all an integral part of the West’s traditions, and has come to be expected of us. However, when I started to do a bit of grumbling, I realised that it was actually the case with my Thai colleagues that they were wondering if and when I was going to fall into a rage over the untenability of the situation the way they all had already. I instigated a meeting for everyone teaching on the international program so that we could get together and talk about it – I was keen to know what the official policy on dealing with this situation was, so that I could remove what had suddenly turned into this very unpleasant thorn in the side of my otherwise very enjoyable working life. What was uncovered at this meeting being that every last one of us, irrespective of subject that we taught or the nationality of the academic, was suffering from exactly the same problems, and was completely up in arms over them in all of the same ways (first time I’ve seen ‘jai yen yen’ altogether blown out the window). Official policy wise, there wasn’t really anything in place – the very lovely thing about teaching Thai students, you see (or at least this is what makes Thailand the gem of the ESL world for me thus far), is that you don’t have to spell out and enforce the sort of civilised behaviours you expect your students to engage in (or at least not beyond the degree that seems to be our human nature). And, because this international program is a new program, and because the Thai educational environment was the educational environment to which all the Thais were previously accustomed, there were no mechanisms in place to deal with this astounding eventuality. Yes, it would again be somewhat of an understatement to say that what we’d stumbled into was astounding – it was completely outside all of our experiences in universities to find such widespread cultural proclivities for aggressive non-participation and exam cheating.
Now at this point, there are probably a few of you thinking ‘hmmm, but the Thais cheat in exams too’. And I must admit that I continue to, in the present, catch them now and then ‘helping’ each other in exams, or, as is usually the case, furtively peering (and it’s easy to pick here because the have a dark complexion and such wide eyes when they open them for copying) at each other’s exam papers. I think it should be emphasised here, however, that with the Chinese, it’s an altogether different kettle of fish – my Thai students are very shy about cheating, or at least look mortified when they are caught, I have never caught a one of them with forbidden materials in the exam room, and it is rarely necessary to outright fail them in their exams. With the Chinese, though, if you kindly try to stop them before they get themselves in trouble, they get angry at you as a group, as though you’re picking on them because they are Chinese, and not because they cheat – furthermore, if you remove one piece of paper on which they have written their ‘exam notes’, as was the case with the Dean of my department on one occasion, and tell them this is their last warning, they can pull out another, and then, even after you’ve done this twice, one more – they press you to the point, that is, where you are forced to take direct action against them. And then, they treat you like dirt when you do what you have to, and fail them. What would the rest of you reckon – readers, I mean – when I say that this is a particularly unpleasant predicament to be caught in? Or, that it would be far nicer if the students followed the rules themselves, rather than having to be at continual loggerheads with them?
Maybe some of you are thinking too that Thais are non-participants, and I am willing to see it is the case that many of you might be the overseers of classrooms in which this is the norm – here again, though, I have to say how markedly more intense non-participation is with our Chinese students. Actually, with the exception of the usual ten percent of students we might expect to be a bit dodgy about their studies, non-participation with the Thais goes completely against my experience, and even the worst ones at least try to follow the academic conventions they’re obliged to – teaching across cultures, I am reminded again how one of the major benefits for me of working in Thailand is that the students are so polite, so genuinely altruistic, and so interested to learn. Obviously too I enjoy a major advantage with the Thais that I do no have with the Chinese – I speak their language. However, this is not a factor to bring into consideration too much in this situation, I believe, because I have had generally had so few Thai students in my classes, and because I am teaching subjects in English usually these days rather than ESL, I have very rarely spoken any Thai in the classroom. What I’m trying to articulate here, I mean, is that there is a one hundred percent certifiable gulf between the behaviours of Thai students and Chinese students in the tertiary setting, and that in my Australian eyes, which see the academic as the facilitator of knowledge and the students people with sufficient integrity to want their application to their studies evaluated fairly, this difference is for the worst.
What you’re wondering by now, I guess, being what we have decided to do about the situation – this, basically, is how things have unfolded. We made a set of official rules for students in the international program to follow – it was eight basic principles designed to prevent all the problems I mentioned earlier. Our Dean also introduced a stricter code of punitive measures – these involved not just the loss of right to entry into the class for failing to meet the conditions that had been set, or the official endorsement of the removal of students who were unprepared to fulfil their end of the teaching and learning agreement; and, the immediate hard-hearted failure of any student who displayed even the most remotely suspicious of behaviours during exams; they also involved follow up action in the form of subsequent interviews with the movers and shakers of the international program (serious stuff). To introduce this new policy to my students, I carefully explained what the problem was, how we’d had a meeting, and how we’d arrived at this solution to our dilemmas – I went through the reasoning step-by-step, and addressed any concerns with it they had along the way. Then, to seal the deal, I made them sign a contract that said that they’d read and understood the rules, that they agreed with the rules in full, that they understood they didn’t have a single leg to stand on if they broke any of them, and that they deserved the penalty they would pay. Interestingly enough, during discussion, it turned out that many Chinese students were as unenamoured of their countrymate’s behaviours as the rest of us were, and were even more keen to see it stamped on the head – I observed keenly how there were some extremely diverse standards of ethics amongst the Chinese student population, and very interestedly how some of them were, in contrast to the trouble-makers, very ethically and intellectually outstanding.
Brandishing the ‘rod of correction’ (can you believe that when I was a kid, we had these full on Christian people next door who got their kids to decorate a stick they used to beat them with, and call it that at the same time…), of course, wasn’t the only step I took either; it didn’t seem to be the root of the problem, but because my previous semester’s courses had, with my arrival here late in said semester, been hastily prepared, and because there was always the offchance that the Chinese were writing off so dramatically because they didn’t completely grasp what we were doing in the classroom, I spent a tremendous amount of effort to make my courses firstly as engaging as possible (I made multimedia supplements to all my lessons, and replaced anything that had been a bit arduous around with more compelling stuff), and secondly, as straightforward and easy to grasp and understand as possible. I made it very clear to them what I expected them to know, and the intellectual significance of everything they were learning, or why it appeared on the curriculum; I also made it very clear to students what they needed to know to be successful in the exam, I reviewed these things with them very helpfully, and I left them with the invitation, which many of the more ethically minded students took up on, to come and see me if there was anything I’d said they needed to know for the exam that they weren’t sure they’d properly taken on board or not. In short, I stuck to the recommendations of the research literature, in terms of making sure that any shoddiness or ‘stiffo’-ness in my behalf wasn’t lying at the root of the problem.
Now all this seemed to be going very well – forcing them to bring learning materials to class, and to participate in learning, by threatening them with officially endorsed expulsion from the class, seemed in my opinion to be what mainly did the trick. Certainly, in other words, in terms of in-class behaviours, while I had to travel a tense route to get there, there was a dramatic improvement.
And dearly, of course, I wanted this to carry over to the exam room, which was probably where the most concerning problems occurred – yesterday, too, was their opportunity to show me they could be civilised human beings, and just do things in the fair and honest way (the way, I’ll just repeat, they had agreed themselves was the best way to go about it – I’m not a nazi, I negotiated things with them). Unfortunately, though, while there was no talking, or while I had mostly succeeded on this count, I was in for disappointment; as the last students were leaving the exam room, this is what happened. One dude, as he was going, right in front of me as though I was some sort of idiot, chucked a little piece of paper to his mate – lo and behold, when I unravelled it, it was the answers to the test. This inspired me to look at a couple more remnants of paper lying around the place – incredibly, they too had secret notes written on them and, fortunately with little difficulty, because the answers were written in grammatically very unique ways, I was able to find one other student who had been breaking the rules. I got all of them in front of me, and tore their papers in half – ‘please Ajarn’, they begged, ‘just give us one more chance’, as if I hadn’t made it quite clear to them what the consequence of what they were doing would be. It was very upsetting, but I hardened my heart and failed them from the exam, my reasoning being that perhaps one or two examples had to be made as the final indication that we were serious about what was going on.
I hope this solves the dilemma – I’ll keep you posted and let you know how things are going. Have a happy new year everyone.