You can learn a lot about cultures by how they chose to express themselves through idioms. The metaphors captured by the idiom often can give a greater insight into the cultural values of the language user.
Let’s compare two idioms—one from America and the other from Asia.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Usually this means that the person or thing that stands out the most gets the beneficial attention and the reward.
In contrast from Asia
“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
While this is a phrase from Japan I have heard it attributed to both Korea and China as well.
The person who is noticed is the person to first be hit. This is quite a contrast in the advice being given in the societies.
While we could go into the cultural differences between individualistic societies versus more group centered societies, as expressed in these idioms, I am more interested in how this translates into classroom experiences.
We all have the experience of sitting in class when the teacher calls out a question to the class. It is like them throwing a beach ball out into the crowd. They want someone to pick it up and throw it back (answer the question). In many ways this seems to be the primary method that teachers use to check comprehension of the whole class.
Now, in a more individualistic culture students will respond to this questioning (admittedly often reluctantly). They will try to be noticed by the teacher even if they are wrong, because teacher attention is equated with improvement.
However, in cultures which heavily emphasize group cohesion, people will be unwilling to stand out. If they get the answer correct they can in fact signal themselves out as targets by their class mates, and if they get the answer wrong, their social standing can go down as well. In this sort of situation the standard beach ball questioning method is a lose—lose proposition for the student.
The real world consequences for the student of engaging with the teacher are high in group centered cultures. This stands in direct opposition to what the psychologist Eric Erickson has identified as a major factor in effective learning; “a psychosocial moratorium”, an environment where the learner can take risks with a reduced real world consequences. This is known in the language teaching field as reducing the affective filter.
So what can a teacher do to reduce the consequences?
Given that you still want to check for comprehension in your classroom, there are several tactics that you can employ.
Students tend to feel more comfortable talking with two or three other students than being listened to by the entire class. The smaller group can come to consensus on the answer to the question, which reduces the stress that any one individual will experience on being asked a question.
If this is combined with either jigsaw style activities or a Think, Pair, Share framework the students will feel less exposed.
Instead of the classic situation where the teacher writes student answers on the board as they are given, the teacher hands the students a board marker or piece of chalk and asks for the students to write the answer to the question on the board. This is a great activity in the language classroom to check pre-existing vocabulary knowledge. This can be used in conjunction with small groups or as a whole class activity.
Instead of answering the question, the students hold up a card with the correct answer written on it. This is very effective at checking multiple choice question answers. When students are asked to say the answer out loud, they will often wait until they have heard the answer and then follow the crowd. With a hold up, the teacher can see who is hesitating and unsure, and because everyone is holding up a card, the fear of a wrong answer is reduced.
Different cultures will generate different classroom management challenges and so need different tactics. A teacher needs to be aware of how the cultural context can impact the effectiveness of instruction.
For more tactics that you can employ take a look at