08 March 2007

Break all the rules of sensitivity, politeness and courtesy

A teacher explains: "I'm sure we think we're trying to help our students, encouraging them to speak, urging them, filling in awkward silences, repeating instructions to 'clarify'. In fact we dominate and intimidate them. They can't get a word in."

This teacher and others have given some very good and practical advice. Even Edward De Bono, the father of the approach to Lateral Thinking, had trouble with this and offered no revolutionary solutions except for calling on students directly.

But I suppose I often break all the rules of sensitivity, politeness and courtesy.

I know how to warm up to a class and how to get a class to warm up to me. After being a teacher for awhile you can start to read a classroom of students like a book. (But like all good books, you do get surprised from time to time.)

I usually reach a point with my students, here in China, when I give them "the talk". I tell them what Westerners think of them. I tell them Westerners think that they are often too quiet, too reserved, afraid to make a public mistake, afraid to step out, to give their own opinion and too concerned with unity with the group. I have heard many Western managers complain about this trait. (In fact, when I was doing teacher training around China, I even heard experienced Chinese ELT teachers complain about it, too. Funny thing was, even these teachers would sit quietly when I asked a group of them a question. They were really surprised when they discovered they were doing it as well.)

I tell students about the invisible wall that is between the teacher and students or speaker and audience. I tell them why they can feel safe in not answering my questions, because they are doing what the group is doing, nothing. To various extents, all peoples do this. I even tell them the tricks I use to break down this wall at the start of each class (games, warm-ups, etc.)

Is there something wrong with Chinese culture? No. It's different. But if my students are going to be talking to the world, if they want to be able to be effective with all manners of people, they need to realize what Westerners think and expect just as much as we need to sensitize ourselves to the different ways of Asians.

I then demand that they speak up and not do the group thing to me.


  1. OK, I'll speak up. You are, I assume, aware that there are quite different reasons why Chinese (or Japanese) won't speak up in class, and why Brits or Americans won't.

  2. There can be many reasons why people don't speak up but the end is the same.