Larry, a local teacher with 8 years of teaching experience in secondary school, went to a professional development workshop and learnt ideas about students' approaches to learning. In particular, he was introduced the differences of surface approach and deep approach to learning. The former focuses on memorization and the latter focuses on understanding the materials, so that the latter is key in quality learning. The rest of the workshop highlighted the aspects of learning environments teachers can change in order to foster students' use of deep approach to learning. It includes the use of constructivist approach to teaching, assessment for learning and collaborative learning strategies and so forth.
Larry felt illuminated but at the same time puzzled. He was wondering why his students seem to have use surface approach -- memorization and rote learning -- however have performed somehow very well in public examinations. He was thinking whether the research findings he learnt cannot be properly applied to local Chinese context or simply, his observation was not accurate. If so, can those learning environments that yield positive impact on students' learning in the West be used in Chinese context to produce similar impact on students?
Researchers and educators from the West were long intrigued by Asian's positive attitude towards education, their level of motivation and achievement, and also the determination in such pursuit.
However, research regarding students' learning were mainly founded from the West, and the applicability of these findings to other cultures are often questioned. In particular, most of the Asian countries are heavily rooted from the Confucian heritage, which is thought to be very different from the Western Socratic tradition (Tweed, 2002).
Chinese educators and psychologists (Lee, 1996) later discussed the fundamental doctrines in Confucian teaching relevant to education:
A series of Western-based studies suggests that deep approach to learning, the intention to understand, ability to inquire, and to relate newly-learnt materials to oneself all relate to better learning outcomes.
Under this Western lens, Chinese Learners are thought to be good at rote learning and memorization, rarely actively seek meaning and inquire in classroom setting, and therefore may not be able to have high quality learning outcomes or performance.
However, according to empirical research, Chinese learners consistently scored high on the use of deep approach to learning, display good subject-matter understanding, and demonstrated strong academic performance in cross-national studies, which all contradict the previous assumptions of Chinese Learners, therefore, this phenomena is known as 'paradox of the Chinese learners' (Biggs & Watkins, 1996).
With the paradoxical phenomena found among Chinese learners, researchers suspected that the dichotomies (deep approach to learning vs. surface approach to learning; understanding vs. memorization; competition vs. collaboration) used to explain students' learning and attainment may hold different meaning among Chinese students. The following findings may shed light on our understanding of Chinese students' way of thinking:
Chinese Learners and Western Theories
Dichotomies and Polarized Differences
|Surface Approach||<----------------------->||Deep Approach|
|Extrinsic motivation||<----------------------->||Intrinsic motivation|
|Attribution to ability||<----------------------->||Attribution to effort|
|Innate ability||<----------------------->||Malleable effort|
It is tempting to assume learners' characteristics are trait-like qualities, like personality and naturally endowed caliber, so therefore they are, too, very difficult to change. However, this is largely a MISCONEPTION. Learner characteristics are NOT personality traits!
Educational psychologists have found that many learners' characteristics are malleable, sensitive to learning demands and context.
The same student being placed in different learning contexts with different learning demands will manifest drastically different learning characteristics. This implies that we can shape learner characteristics by constructing proper learning contexts and learning demands.
Elements of learning environment and demands that are found to influence learners' characteristics include the teacher’s conception of learning, epistemic beliefs, use of pedagogy and instructional styles, and the nature of the assessment and criteria used just to name a few.
When students fail to learn, it is common to blame the student, the teacher, the parents, the curriculum, the examination system, and society.
Educators need to be attuned to learner characteristics because these influence learning, and most of them can be controlled to some extent.
To understand learning fully, we have to acknowledge the importance of factors other than learners' characteristics and how they interact among themselves as a dynamic system.
Biggs (1996) proposed the 3P model (see diagram below) to capture these factors, which the 3Ps stand for:
The different factors interact in multiple ways producing varied kinds of backwash effects. Teachers do face constraints and challenges, but they also have many opportunities to bring about effective learning in the classroom. We cannot just blame the students for not producing optimal results!