Teaching in Asia

Ross Woods, 2014

An Australian was leaving for Asia and asked me what he specifically need to know about teaching Asians. Here's my answer ...

There isn't really any such place as "Asia." There are many, many ethnic groups, and they are all different in some way. In fact, each person is a little different, so be careful of generalizations, including this one. This list will probably only make sense after one or two years experience, so don't be too literal in interpreting it now. Here are some of the lessons I learnt.

Adjustment and relationships

  1. You need to change, adapt, and grow. Don't expect your students to change all that much.
  2. Good manners are essential. Indonesian people are very friendly but value politeness over friendliness.
  3. Avoid confrontation wherever possible.
  4. Learn to laugh at your mistakes. You'll make plenty.
  5. Your students usually have a much better read of what kind of person you are than you think. But they probably won't tell you.
  6. Listen lots; talk only as needed.
  7. Have people to ask for advice.
  8. You are in a position of respect, so live up to it and set the example.
  9. Be willing to be the special guest. It's often part of the job.
  10. Don't embarrass people. Sometimes asking them to challenge an opinion or expecting them to critique something can be very off-putting. I often found that students were reluctant to question the "great experts" who wrote their textbooks. It worked better when there are several opinions and they can debate the relative merits of each.
  11. They are very different when you know them well. While they know when to be polite and deferential, they can sometimes be extremely blunt.

Approaches to learning

  1. Indigenous Indonesian learning styles favor auditory learning and stories.
  2. They will probably expect you to lecture information at them and that assessments will comprise written exams of memorized information.
  3. My students liked me to put content into a step-by step "how to do it" procedure and then look at the major concepts. Westerners like to do it the other way around.
  4. Engage students. Indonesian students will show you respect even if you are boring, but they love someone who can engage them in learning.
  5. Socratic questioning techniques work wonders when students get used to them. Students often come up with good reasons for their opinions that you couldn't possibly have foreseen. You also get to admire some very clever thinking.
  6. Writing often serves a different function in the east rather than the west.
  7. Javanese don't distinguish sharply between objective and subjective knowledge. Knowledge is closely related to character.
  8. They can work to Western standards and sometimes greatly exceed them. (Westerners just look foolish when they presume that Asians aren't as smart.)