Scott Hipsher

Teaching in an intercultural environment

What are some of the issues facing educators in a foreign land?

Most "experts" advocate the use of cross-cultural training as valuable preparation for taking on an overseas assignment. However, few individuals before taking on the role of English teacher in a foreign land go through any type of formal training program.

Many teachers and educators living abroad often downplay the importance of the idea of "book-learning" when it comes to culture. To digress, it is surprising so many individuals engaged in professions in education show a disdain for formal learning and academic sources in their own processes of learning.

Studying culture is no substitute for the practical experience of working and living abroad, however having some mental frameworks in which to analysis experiences could be helpful in adjusting to working and living in a new cultural environment.

To use a language learning analogy, using academic classifications created in cultural studies can provide individuals with structures in which to use to make sense of new experiences in much the same way the knowledge of grammar provides a framework which allows a language learner to make sense of new words and phrases.

The most used classifications used to study national cultures over the past 30 years has been Geert Hofstede's dimensions of culture. More can be found here. While there has been criticism of the methodology used in the research in creating the dimensions and Hofestede himself acknowledges the limitations of these dimensions, they have stood the test of time and continue to be the basis for much cross-cultural education and research.

Hostedes's original four dimensions of culture are 1) power distance, which refers to how much a society accepts differences in power; 2) individualism which refers to societies that have fairly loose ties between individuals as opposed to collectivist societies where there is more focus on group membership; 3) masculinity, which refers to societies that are more competitive and aggressive as opposed to feminine societies where cooperation and caring are of added importance; and 4) uncertainty avoidance, which refers to how comfortable societies are with ambiguity and uncertainty.

One sees a huge difference in Hofstede's scores on individualism between Thailand and the Anglo-American cultures where native English speaking teachers mostly come from. The USA, UK and Australia are on the extreme end of the individualism scale while Thailand is much more of a collectivist society. This difference may require some adjustments on the part of incoming foreign teachers. For example, the main focus of many native English teachers is likely to be on his or her individual class, while for the Thai administrators and colleagues the focus may be more on the school as a collective. Also, it may be noticed students have less of a desire to stand out from the crowd and do something original individually in comparison with students from "back home." Instead there are strong pressures for more group conformity.

One also notices a distinct difference in power distance scores between Thailand and Western countries. Thai society in general is much more accepting of differences in power and is much less egalitarian than are Western societies. On the plus side, teachers in Thailand may enjoy more obedience from students than is the norm in classrooms in Western societies. Also, it is less likely Thai students will openly contradict their teachers. But this difference can also lead to misunderstandings, especially with school officials. Western teachers may expect to be part of the decision making processes while Thai school officials may be less familiar and comfortable with egalitarian management concepts.

Thailand is unique in Asia in having a very low score on the masculinity scale which would indicate Thais are far less competitive and aggressive than other Asian societies (However this is hard to believe when watching a Thai boxing match). This relative lack of aggressiveness and competitiveness (the mai bpen rai attitude) often is what attracts many foreigners to Thailand in the first place. However, in the classroom it can often be a source of frustration for a foreign teacher. Grades and scholastic achievement are often less important that enjoyment and harmony. A classic example is the common complaint of foreign teachers to what is considered the "no-fail" policy. In Western competitive values, students who achieve should be rewarded and those who do not should be punished. While in Thailand, there may be more emphasis on maintaining group harmony and less emphasis on the competitive nature of education, therefore there may be felt there is less of a need to fail students for lack of performance.

It can also be seen that Thailand has a high score for uncertainty avoidance and therefore Thais may tend to avoid ambiguity, although in my own personal experience I often find Thais can be quite tolerant of ambiguity. However this trait of uncertainty avoidance may be evident in the fact that Thai students rarely like to take "chances" on assignments and prefer structured assignments. Western students, particularly at the university level, seem to often prefer general guidelines for assignments in which they have room for personal expression, while Thais (and other Asian students) often prefer to avoid uncertainty and prefer to have detailed instructions in order to ensure meeting the teacher/professor's expectations.

An understanding of these four dimensions of culture may provide a starting point for foreign teachers in Thailand and other locations to think about teaching and working in a cross-cultural environment.

There are a few problems that are inherent when studying culture. First, human nature seems to make it difficult to look at differences without being judgmental. Which is better, pizza or ice cream? Dumb question, right? It is felt asking which is better, Western or Thai culture, is just as much a dumb question. Western culture is like pizza and Thai culture is like ice cream, each very different from the other and both very enjoyable. It is recommended that accepting the cultural differences without being judgmental can assist teachers in helping their students more effectively as well as enjoying the experience to a greater extent.

Another problem when studying culture is the tendency to over-generalize and stereotype others. Most individuals are aware of the great variations in their own culture but are less aware of the great variations in the cultures of others. When referring to Thai culture, one should keep in mind the attitudes and behaviors of Thais can be as varied as are the attitudes and behaviors of the British or Canadians.

Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,

The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective,

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries

and numerous articles in academic journals, academic conference papers and contributions in other books.

Please e-mail me if you would like book discounts. 


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