Now that I’ve given some context about my teaching in China, I can talk about how I adjust my teaching practice when I teach in China (and when I teach Chinese students at UBC).
The foundation of my teaching practice is compassion and empathy for my students. This doesn’t mean I don’t hold my students to high standards, but I consider the background of my students and teach with kindness, fairness, and respect. I recognize the incredible challenge of learning in a foreign language and in a very different cultural context. This perspective serves my ultimate goal, student learning.
Difficulty with English is the greatest barrier to learning for my students. Though teaching English is not my aim, I have a few strategies:
- I spend more time defining terms (especially technical jargon or commonly used words that also have a different forestry-specific meaning), and I strongly encourage students to interrupt me if I’m using an unfamiliar term.
- I do not share my lecture slides prior to class, but on a student’s suggestion, I share lists of potentially unfamiliar terms prior to lectures, so students can look up translations beforehand.
- On the suggestion of a Chinese transfer student at UBC, I’m overseeing the creation of a multilingual forestry dictionary wiki.
- When I teach in China, I’m happy to let students speak Mandarin. At UBC however, I ask my Chinese students to speak English when they are working on course material (especially in groups). I emphasize that they are being taught and assessed in English, so they will learn best if they are comfortable engaging in the course concepts and skills using English. I recognize this is a challenge, so I’m gentle with reminders. I’m trying to learn some Mandarin in solidarity with my students, and I find that if I approach a group speaking Mandarin and say, qǐng shuō yīngyǔ (please speak English), they appreciate my effort and switch back to English.
As I mentioned in the last post, Chinese students are even more reluctant to answer questions in class than western students because a wrong answer in front of your peers can result in a loss of face. A key part of my course introduction is telling students, “I love wrong answers! Correct answers are better, but wrong answers are important too!” This is a bit of a joke, but it opens the conversation. I explain that when a student gives a wrong answer in class, it helps me assess students’ understanding and adjust my pace and approach accordingly. If one student doesn’t understand something, it is likely that others don’t as well. For these reasons it is important to me that a student who gives a wrong answer in class loses no face. I never criticize or denigrate a student for giving wrong answers. As much as possible, I try to redirect students to a correct answer.
Likewise, I acknowledge that English is a challenging language and I expect mistakes. “Practicing English is the only way to get better, do your best and I’ll help you.” I don’t want a student’s doubts about their English abilities to prevent them from fully engaging in my course.
Collectivism vs. individuality
Though I do ask questions during class for individual students to answer, I most frequently have students discuss questions in groups (e.g., think-pair-share). Even students who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class will readily engage with two or three of their classmates. When I ask a group for their response, the student is speaking for their group, rather than individually, and this seems to lower the stakes (and reduce the risk of loss of face). They also have time to arrive at an answer (and how to say it in English) together.
In a field course I teach for recently arrived Chinese transfer students, I formalize the group work. Each student is in an instructor-selected group of four, and students rotate among four roles: leader, recorder, spokesperson, and devil’s advocate. From my perspective, the spokesperson role is the most important because the students can develop answers as a group (reducing the pressure on any one student), but there is never any question of who will be speaking for the group on that day.
I do my best to reduce the hierarchy that exists between my students and me. This lowers the stakes for students to speak up or otherwise engage with me in the course. Chinese students often default to addressing me with the formal “Teacher”, so I ask them to call me “Patrick” (though Dr. Culbert is fine too). I am still their instructor, not friend or peer, but I believe this helps them feel comfortable speaking more openly and candidly. (I recognize that women or persons of color often lose their deserved authority when students address them by first name, so I acknowledge this is a luxury I have as a white male).
I also strongly encourage students to feel comfortable asking questions or expressing opinions. One cultural difference that surprised me is that Chinese students tend not to ask questions during lecture, but rather come up to me immediately after lecture to individually ask their questions. I’ve been told this is because it is considered rude to use their classmates time by asking a question during lecture. I explicitly state that unless it is a very tangential question, I prefer students ask a question during class, because it is likely that some of their classmates have the same question, and it is not an efficient use of my time to answer questions individually when all students could be benefiting.
Lastly, students and I eat all of our meals at on-campus cafeterias, so I typically ask 2-3 students to join me for each of my meals. This minimizes the hierarchy by giving us a chance to interact more informally. It’s also a great opportunity for students to practice English and for me to learn more about my students and Chinese culture in general.
This is the teaching practice I’ve arrived at after five trips to China and a few years teaching at UBC. This is an iterative process and I’m sure my practice will continue to evolve as I learn more about Chinese culture and gain more experience. Though the details may differ, I hope these thoughts are helpful to everyone teaching students whose culture or background differs from their own. I do my best to engage my students with empathy, in service of the ultimate goal, learning.