Understanding the Cultural Context in Education

I started teaching in China in 2019; even though I was recruited to teach the international curriculum to a diverse population of students, I found myself learning a lot about the educational philosophy and the cultural context in China. I discovered the underlying principles of education in China deep-rooted to the Confucianism philosophy. Teaching an international curriculum requires teachers to first understand the cultural and regional context; having taught in three different cultures I was very cognizant of this requirement hence I made it an objective to read and learn more about the educational philosophy, aims and objectives in China, purely to be able to connect with my students and be a better teacher. This led me to a journey of traversing through ancient pedagogy only to realise that contemporary pedagogy has evolved from age-old ideologies with a sole objective to make the world a peaceful place (Confucius, 551 – 479 B.C.E.).

Confucianism is a dominant ideology in many Asian countries and has shaped the education policies, approaches to teaching and learning objectives. It has survived through time as it is relevant, fluid and practical in its approach, something that is very similar to modern-day pedagogy. The success can be measured in the ways schools in Asian countries score high on most assessments, statistics gathered from tests like SATs, PISA, ISAs have proved that students from Asian countries, especially those influenced by Confucianism, do very well in academics. To be clear from the beginning, these tests not only assess rote knowledge but also assess critical thinking, analytical thinking and problem-solving abilities hence it is worth analysing what is working well these cultural contexts.
Let us look into a few famous quotes of Confucius which will help us understand this better:

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

It is very clear from the above Confucian quote that knowledge has to be understood, memorizing is not enough, it has to be applied, hence there is the need to ‘do’ or in a very simple way Confucianism promotes experiential learning, something we teachers are trying to integrate into our pedagogy every day. This can be linked to understanding the concept by taking action or by doing which is very much part of the cultural context in China.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Another quote by Confucius proves his deep thinking into the inquiry process, learning through reflection on action and experience. This can be compared to the contemporary pedagogical approaches of the inquiry cycle: ‘Inquiry-Action-Reflection’. There is an explicit focus on reflection being the highly regarded way to acquire knowledge.

“Acquire new knowledge whilst thinking over the old, and you may become a teacher of others.”

Once again there is alignment with present-day pedagogy, that new knowledge builds on existing knowledge or in other words there is reinforcement on prior knowledge to be able to acquire new knowledge, this also begs educators to make connections between the present and the past to create the future. A very well established nuance in creativity and criticality.

In China and Chinese schools, Confucianism is integrated as neo-Confucianism which focuses on creating the ideal man who gains perfection in his craft/skill and exists peacefully with others. The quote below reinforces how the purpose of education in neo-Confucianism aims for peace:

“Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”

In fact, Confucius believed that the way to transform society is only through education (Xueji I). Xueji is Confucian text on education, focusing on teaching and learning. Further ideas of Confucius can be found in the book ‘The Analects’. It is interesting to discover that Xueji explains an approach to teaching called the ‘enlightening approach’ where a teacher should teach to open up the students’ minds, helping them to find solutions and not giving them the solutions (Xueji XIII). Further, there is a strong emphasis on memorizing only to get to understanding something very similar to Bloom’s Taxonomy; learning by reflecting; collaborative learning; higher-order thinking and learning as a life-long process. Confucianism primarily focuses on developing critical thinking through respectful ways of inquiring and reaching the conclusion through inference.

Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping at an international symposium to commemorate the 2,565th anniversary of the birth of Confucius endorsed the transmission of Confucian tenets (Xinhuashe, 2014). An official document titled “Notice by the Ministry of Education on the Issuance of the ‘Synopsis of the Education Guide on Perfecting Excellent Traditional Chinese Culture’” calls schools to “deeply excavate and elucidate China’s excellent traditional values by articulating benevolence, valuing the citizens, abiding in integrity, upholding uprightness, treasuring harmony, and seeking common ground” (Ministry of Education, 2014).

Understanding this context has helped me to focus on the global objective of education that is to be dynamic, ethical, universal in order to create a peaceful world. It is an experience that has made me realise all great education systems in the world are grounded on the values of humanity, to coexist peacefully. This learning also helped me to understand the needs of my students, their learning style and respond better to their requirements situated in their cultural context. As an international educator, knowledge of the cultural context has helped me understand my role in shaping the future of learners in different cultural settings and how to respond to different approaches to learning.

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