The social development and acculturation of young people varies widely across different parts of the world. As a teacher in Thailand and Australia, I have had the opportunity to observe the results of upbringing from two divergent cultures. The classroom behavior of Thai and Australian students reflects upon the differences in their cultures.
Thai students are very quiet and respectful in class. However; they are very reluctant to participate in class, answer questions, or ask questions themselves. This behavior can be explained by examining the cultural mores and standards of Thailand. 95% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist, and they treat Buddhism as a culture and a way of life. (Limanonda, 1995) One of the prevalent beliefs in Buddhism is the belief in a vertical hierarchy of relationships that is central to the Thai culture. (Limanonda, 1995) Part of the reason that Thai students are so subservient in class is that they view themselves as lower on the hierarchy than the teachers or the theorists about whom they are learning. As a result, they are very reluctant to imply criticism of those who they feel are “above” them in the social order. In addition to education and the position of authority, the teacher in a classroom would be older than the students, and thus they would be considered higher on the social hierarchy. This phenomenon extends to the faculty as well. A younger administrator would be constrained by cultural norms from offering critique of an older instructor. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) Similarly, Thai people believe that all people are due respect, regardless of their position on the hierarchical ladder. (Limanonda, 1995)
In the Thai family, every one has a defined and understood role in the order of things. To talk out of turn or criticize another is to upset the social order. That attitude translates to the classroom. The students feel that their role in the relationship is to learn, rather than question the theories presented. (Limanonda, 1995) A third element of Thai culture that may contribute to their lack of participation in questioning theories is the consideration that students feel that Western theories are more advanced and are more likely to take them at face value without question. (Limanonda, 1995)
Another element of culture that may effect the Thai students’ behavior in school is the role of the parents in education. Unlike many western cultures, parents in Thailand are not likely to involve themselves in a critical interaction with the child’s education. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) Having been brought up with no backstop for challenging authority in school, this pattern of behavior is deeply instilled in students by the time they reach the college level. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) Without the prospect of support outside the school for a challenge to authority, the students will be far less likely to do so. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998)
Another possible element of the dynamic of Thai university students is the fact that the universities are state-run, which brings into play the cultural attitudes of the Thai students with respect to the state. (Ganesan, 1998) As the citizens of Thailand are used to a fairly strict government, they may be reluctant to appear critical of the theories being presented. (Ganesan, 1998)
Within the school system, administrators are chosen by the government, based on such criteria as age, experience and test scores. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) They are not rewarded specifically for improving the performance of the schools for which they are in charge. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) This would make them unlikely to initiate changes to improve performance. The attitude of preserving the status quo is likely to be translated to the students as well. This would lead to an attitude with respect to the classroom of being as non-disruptive (i.e. asking questions) and allowing the flow of teaching to continue uninterrupted and unchallenged. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998)
Another element that may have had the observed effect on the university classroom is that of the education of the students leading up to the university level. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) The school structure and culture, in addition to discouraging critical questioning, also teaches students in a standardized manner. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) Thus, any theory that conforms to that which the students already know would not be subject to questioning. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) If a theory did not conform to what the students know, it would be assumed by the student that they were merely mistaken in their belief. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998)
With respect to other forms of participation, teaching methodology tells us that involving the student in the learning process by having them teach to others, or perform a more proactive role in their own learning. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) This flies in the face of many of the cultural norms already discussed. The importance of social roles is emphasized in both the religion and culture of Thailand. It would take a very significant departure from these norms for a student to actively participate in their own learning. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998) The culture conceptualizes learning as a passive process, not an active one. For a student to become a teacher, not matter how limited the scope of the exercise, would be seen as a violation of cultural and religious norms. (Halinger & Leithwood , 1998)
The Buddhist religion conceptualizes the student as a blank slate to be written upon by the teacher. (Cohen, 2001) This dynamic does not leave much room for the student to be part of the learning process, and it is this dynamic that university students bring into the classroom. It is unlikely that a short speech or even a year-long urging from a single teacher would allow the students to shed a life-long training. (Cohen, 2001)
Australian students, on the other hand, have not grown up with the same cultural and religious restraints. The entire cultural and religious framework of the Australian nation is radically different from that of Thailand.
From a religious standpoint, most Australians were brought up in Western Judeo-Christian theology. (Elder, 2007) This theology has a different take on education and the process of learning. There is nothing in the religious ideology that prohibits the student from questioning the teacher. (Elder, 2007) While respect for elders is an important part of the religious culture in Western Nations, it lacks the force of religious zeal that it is associated with Buddhism. (Elder, 2007) The focus of Western theology is monotheistic, with reverence focused on a single god. Buddhism, in contrast, places a premium upon respect for elders, teachers and givers of knowledge. (Elder, 2007) “Buddha” actually means enlightened one. (Elder, 2007) Thus the theology of Buddhism has a veneration for the learned that borders upon worship. Western theology has at its basis monotheism. (Elder, 2007)
Even more relevant to the differences between Australian and Thai students is the Western school of philosophy and thought. (Angus, 1993) There are several Western philosophies that would make it more likely for a student to question an instructor and participate in classes. (Angus, 1993) One such philosophy is that of Socrates. (Angus, 1993) Socrates taught that the way to arrive at truth is through a series of questions asked and answered by both the teacher and the student. Further, western schools of thought have a tradition of questioning the establishment that goes back to the enlightenment thought. The entire 17th century of Western thought consisted of questioning the established truths. (Angus, 1993) This is not considered to be disrespectful of the educator, but a natural and expected part of the educational process. (Angus, 1993)
Australian students also have not grown up in a culture that reverences parental authority. In fact, the Australian cultural ethic has its basis in rebellion. (Thwing, 1923) Like the American ethic, the Australian notion of virtue is intrinsically intertwined with defiance of authority. (Thwing, 1923) In the modern era, that attitude has been moderated to reflect a healthy mistrust of “established authority.” (Thwing, 1923)
The teen development in Australian culture is another aspect that may have had an effect of student participation in class. (Angus, 1993) Teens in Australia are encouraged to test boundaries, and become engaged with their surroundings. Both of these values are intertwined with a proactive approach to education. (Angus, 1993) Rebellion carries a social and cultural niche that is not reflected in Eastern cultures. While rebellion is not universally admired, a segment of the culture has respect for those who question the established line. (Angus, 1993)
On the other side of the equation, instructors are culturally acclimated to reward participation and engagement in Australia much more so than in Thailand. (Van Kraayenoord, 2007) Rewards can range form grade consideration (even at university level, some professors utilize “participation” as a criterion for grading) to merely positive verbal feedback. (Van Kraayenoord, 2007)Teachers in Australia are taught to value intelligent questioning of existing theory, and participation in class exercises designed to further understanding of a given topic. (Van Kraayenoord, 2007) It is for those reasons that Instructors may offer an environment more encouraging for students to participate in Australia, rather than Thailand.
Also, instructors are challenged in Australia to continue their own education, and explore new ways to improve their methodology. (Van Kraayenoord, 2007) Australian students, long used to instructors behaving in such a manner, would be far more open to participating in new and different exercises than their eastern counterparts. (Van Kraayenoord, 2007)
The Australian attitude toward higher education has an inherent sense of entitlement that is absent in Thailand. (Forlin and Forlin, 1998) The students, many of whom pay for the experience of learning at University, have the expectation that they receive their education. (Forlin and Forlin, 1998) They adopt a consumer-style interaction with the instructors. When students do not receive what they perceive as their “purchase” in terms of understanding of the material, they are more likely to challenge the teacher to clarify their statements. (Forlin and Forlin, 1998) If they do not felt that the theories that they are being taught are clear of correct, they are likely to question that as well. (Forlin and Forlin, 1998) Since Australians believe that education, like most everything else, should be entertaining, they would have little tolerance for a “boring” class design. (Forlin and Forlin, 1998)
It is my conclusion based on my experiences that the cultures in Thailand and Australia are responsible for producing two very different types of students. The Thai student, with a quasi-religious reverence for elders, knowledge and teachers, are passive vessels who responsibly and respectfully absorb that which the teacher has to offer without question or contradiction. The Australian student, on the other hand, is far more engaged in the learning process. They participate as students, peer tutors, and even teachers themselves. They have been acculturated to expect an interactive form of education, and they know that their participation is an integral part of that interaction. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The Thai approach allows students to absorb more material, in terms of being able to articulate theory and examples from text and lecture, whereas there Australian method lends itself to a certain amount of time-wasting in the educational process. ( Neville & Saunders, 1998) On the other hand, many studies have shown that interaction is a key element in retentive learning, so it is far more likely that a lasting change in base knowledge occurs with the Australian students than the Thai. As an instructor, it is certainly better to have the Australian students, who respond to different techniques and questions, than to have students who merely parrot back what you have taught them. It may be a teacher’s dream to have a class of students who silently listen and believe everything without challenge, but the reality would find such a teacher uninspired and frustrated.
Limanonda, B. (1995) “Families In Thailand: Beliefs And Realities”, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 pg. 67 + 1995.
Ganesan, N. (1998) “State Power and Culture in Thailand”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2. pg. 466+ 1998.
Halinger, P. & Leithwood, K. (1998) “Unseen Forces: the Impact of Social Culture on School Leadership”, Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 73, No. 2, pg. 126-142. 1998.
Elder, C. (2007) Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity, Allen & Unwin, Crow’s Nest N.W.T. 2007.
Cohen, P. (2001) “Buddhism Unshackled: The Yuan ‘Holy Man’ Tradition and the Nation-State in the Tai World” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, pg. 227+ 2001.
Angus, L. (1993) Education, Inequality and Social Identity, Falmer Press, Washington, D.C. 1993.
Thwing, C. (1923) Human Australasia: Studies of Society and of Education in Australia and New Zealand, The Macmillan Co. New York, 1923.
Van Kraayenoord, C. (2007) “School and Classroom Practices in Inclusive Education in Australia” Childhood Education, Vol. 83, No. 6, pg. 390+ 2007.
Forlin, C & Forlin, P (1998) “Constitutional and Legislative Framework for Inclusive Education in Australia” Australian Journal of Education, Vol. 42, No. 2. pg. 204+ 1998.
Neville, J. & Saunders, P. (1998) “Globalization and the Return to Education in Australia” Economic Record, Vol. 74, No. 226, pg. 279+ 1998.