Teaching abroad and recognizing the effects of culture
I'm spending a few days in Trininad/Tobago teaching a qualitative research methos course for PhD students. The whole exercise makes me consider the effects of culture on education.
Yesterday we were devising research questions. Day one! This is a very intense course. We meet for four days and learn about research dsign and methods. I come home for a month. They use the mnth to collect data from a limited number of people. I return for four more days over fall break. Those days serve as a writing workshop. The students write and present their simple research paper.
Things did not begin smoothy. The textbooks had not arrived, and so the students were unprepared. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. (Would have been at the small liberal arts school where I do most of my work.) Still, we accomplished our goals for the day, and I think neither students nor teacher were terribly frustrated. By the middle of the day the students were actively involved in asking good questions and heing each other improve the quality of their first attempts at a research question.
How can that be? Well, I think most of the variables lie in culture. First, the culture of undergraduates versus PhD students anywhere. PhDs expect to really need to stretch and they generally rise to the occasion. Undergraduates still tend to think that this might be a reason to do less. Second, the educational culture and fundng mechanisms of the country.
One student's research question was about the transition into a PhD rogram and how it can be eased. This led to a comparison of three very different educational systems; US, Trini, and French.
The students were amazed at the price of a US private college education; their own is almost completely publicly funded. Even the poorest can attend. Their largest cost is textbooks, and they pay no tution. But there is no secondnchance for the student who does poorly. In the US, even public colleges are costly and because we treat education as a provate good, students can graduate with levels of debt that make life difficult and cannot be avoided even in bankruptcy. But second chances are readily available. In France, education is relatively low cost, but students are tracked based on test resuts from middle school age.
Not surprising that these different cultures lead to different student attitudes and performance levels. ,