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‘The chinese approach to learning’ Cultural trait - or situated response - the case of a self-directed learning programme

‘The chinese approach to learning’ Cultural trait - or situated response - the case of a self-directed learning programme

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the case of a self-directed learning programme
the case of a self-directed learning programme

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System 33 (2005) 261–276 www.elsevier.


‘The chinese approach to learning’: Cultural trait or situated response? the case of a self-directed learning programme
Simon Gieve


, Rose Clark


a School of Education, University of Leicester, 21 University Road, Leicester LE1 7RF, UK School of Languages and Area Studies, University of Portsmouth, Park Building, King Henry 1st Street, Portsmouth, PO1 2DZ, UK

Received 31 October 2003; received in revised form 30 July 2004; accepted 8 September 2004

Abstract This paper raises the question of how Xexible approaches to learning are to contextual factors, as opposed to being culturally determined, with speciWc reference to autonomy in Chinese students studying in the UK. We describe the outcome of a research project which investigated Chinese undergraduates studying English language as part of their UK university degree. The programme in question required students to engage in self-directed and Tandem learning. ReXections written by Chinese students were compared with those of European (Erasmus) students, and it was found that the Chinese students expressed at least as much appreciation of the beneWts of autonomous study as did the European students, and claimed to make equally good use of the opportunity. DiVerences in responses to the programme could be attributed to diVerences in language abilities and learning needs. This suggests that, given appropriate conditions, what are apparently culturally determined dispositions towards a certain approach to learning can turn out to be quite Xexible. The alternative explanation, that the particular students in the study were not typical Chinese learners, should alert us to the heterogeneity in supposedly homogeneous cultures of learning, and the danger of characterising groups of learners with reductionist categories.  2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


Corresponding author. Fax: +44 116 252 3653. E-mail address: sng5@le.ac.uk (S. Gieve).

0346-251X/$ - see front matter  2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.system.2004.09.015

Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 Keywords: Autonomy. dependency in student–tutor relations. 1996). Areas most frequently cited by lecturers as problematic for Chinese students undertaking courses in British higher education institutions (or perhaps they are only problematic for the lecturers!) include classroom participation patterns (non-participation. in comparison with a group of European Erasmus students participating in the same programme. and that student responses to particular contexts are not stably predicted by . Chinese learners. This is in the context of both a pragmatic requirement for and a principled commitment to independent learning. HE institutions are oVering orientation courses and study skills and EAP training prior to and during courses which otherwise make few concessions to Chinese or other overseas students. The route of accommodation towards what are seen as characteristically Chinese learning styles (in the spirit of what Jin calls ‘cultural synergy’) seems hard to bear. Instead. There are three possible explanations for this Wnding: (1) the students in the study were not ‘really Chinese’. We will conclude that on the basis of the evidence. writing which simply reproduces published literature without critical or independent thinking. and lack of autonomy in study practices. These are often attributed to China being a collectivist culture. Jin and Cortazzi. culturally determined approaches to learning are far more Xexible to contextual variation than we might expect. given apparent diVerences between British and Chinese cultures of learning (Jin and Cortazzi. Introduction As increasingly large numbers of mainland Chinese students come to study in the west many of us in British universities have had to face questions about how to provide a successful educational experience for them. Independent learning. Learning strategies 1. to a strong sense of hierarchy in social structures. or that there is a suYciently wide degree of heterogeneity to make the concept of a single ‘Chinese approach to leaning’ suspect. 1995. we will examine some evidence to assess whether or not a particular group of Chinese students responded ‘in a Chinese way’ to a programme of self-directed language learning. (2) the supposed characteristics of ‘the Chinese approach to learning’ are false. R. 1993. Littlewood.262 S. to Confucian attitudes to education and learning. and in this paper we will focus on expectations for Chinese undergraduate students to display autonomy in the British higher education context. lack of questioning. or (3) that apparently stable. or to the importance of face (Ho and Crookall. Institutions faced with often large numbers of Chinese students are wondering what to do about these perceived problems. we have there was very little diVerence to be found between the responses of the two groups. Gieve. no indications of understanding or lack of understanding). 1993. and that what diVerences there were are in large part attributable to their diVerent language learning needs and not to their cultural background. that is to say not typical of the vast majority of Chinese learners. Cultures of learning. After a brief review of the literature on the place of learner autonomy in Chinese educational culture. 1999).

Littlewood (1999) refers to this conception as ‘proactive’ autonomy. Gieve. She suggests that social factors contributing to Chinese teaching and learning practices may have been more important than the cultural. determining when and how to work on each objective. 83) in providing instances which . Littlewood (1999) recognises that the inXuence of culturally shared beliefs. Their own position. 2. We suggest that the explanation is to be found somewhere between the second and third possibilities. 240). attitudes and practices on individual learning preferences. evaluating the learning programme. p. 121). time management. Moreover. nurture and benevolence which goes with such authority. p. 1995. In addition. proposing that “the extent to which ideologies of collectivism are internalised in the thought processes of Chinese people in general can be overstated” (1997. 121). which will eventually manifest in educational contexts. and current changes in Chinese social. Stephens proposes that much of the observed diVerence in the behaviour of Chinese students in Britain may in fact be due to linguistic issues. and Ho and Crookall maintain that their Hong Kong Chinese learners have “ a cultural background that is almost diametrically opposed to autonomy” (1995. political and economic conditions may now be legitimising ‘individualism’. Cultural variation in autonomy and dependency Autonomous or self-directed learning is said to include the exercise of the following skills: choosing instructional materials. is that it is possible to “create learning environments that will facilitate and enhance the development of learner autonomy”. skills and attitudes which are characteristic of learner autonomy” (op cit p. Stephens (1997) suggests alternative explanations to that of cultural conditioning. 242). as distinct from a ‘reactive’ autonomy in which the teacher sets the learning agenda but leaves learners to work independently on that agenda. setting learning objectives and prioritising them. R. p. with an emphasis on the expectation of care.S. to high rather than low acceptance of power and authority. and that individual diVerences may “eventually seem more pronounced than initially perceived or expected similarities” (p. may be contradicted in individual cases. and they describe a simulation/gaming activity which exploited other aspects of Chinese culture to “develop certain knowledge. coping with negative aVective factors. with due regard for cultural norms and expectations. though. assessing progress and achievements. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 263 macro-scale characterisations of nation scale ‘cultures’. would make it “easy to see why Chinese students would not Wnd autonomy very comfortable emotionally or indeed intellectually” (op cit p. 236). self-motivation and self-discipline (Ho and Crookall. styles and strategies is moderated – or even negated – in individual diVerences. p. Literature on the cultural speciWcity of the value of autonomy in learning suggests that a requirement to work independently of a relational hierarchy which values teacher authority. and to belief in the value of eVort and selfdiscipline. Thus the East Asian tendency towards the interdependent rather the dependent self. 237). he acknowledges the “powerful role of the learning context” (1999.

Gieve. as represented in the stereotype of the passive rote learner. These are positions that we endorse. This study reports an example of a learning context which appears to have the power to promote attitudes and behaviours which contradict expectations of Chinese learners regarding their disposition to engage in autonomous learning. he says. It thus becomes problematic to talk about the Chinese learner at all. but also how ‘Chinese’ do I feel I want to be at any time. that is what my students are like’ – and vice versa – and espousing a more contingent notion of culture within particular social contexts. If ‘being Chinese’ does not necessarily mean ‘not Wnding autonomy very comfortable’. (for whom) ƒ school is the setting where students absorb the knowledge ƒ (and) the teacher decides what is correct and little room is given for the students to exercise personal initiative in the context of traditional Chinese learning culture (1996. 52) can in fact be attributed less to cultural factors and more to structural elements of the educational system itself. Jones (1995) also reports how learning activities can be designed for Cambodian students which both acknowledge normative Cambodian educational beliefs and practices and give opportunities for self-directed learning that students respond to positively. 2000) emphasise the Xuid and complex nature of identity. R. Pierson likewise suggests that the stereotype of Chinese Hong Kong students as passive rote learners dependent on the syllabus and lacking in intellectual initiative. might not have the eVects as originally postulated” (op cit p. show little initiative. The programme that we report on does however provide a signiWcant degree of concrete support and opportunities for involvement with signiWcant others. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 contradict generalisations about collectivist. It is not just a question of how being Chinese aVects me. In the study reported here. Moreover. 75) says constitute the ideal facilitating environment for autonomy as ‘autonomous interdependence’. we claim that the expectation to display signs of autonomy is not necessarily resisted by Chinese students studying in UK Higher Education. p. “the determining role of Chinese culture. all factors that Ryan (cited in Littlewood. However. who seem to want to be told what to do. rejecting an essentialising notion of culture that claims that ‘if that is a characteristic of Chinese culture. as well as wide freedom of choice and absence of control. authority-dependent East Asian learners. we have to also enquire whether individuals necessarily feel themselves to ‘be Chinese’ wholly. rather than ‘independence’. 1999. irrevocably and consistently. and family background cannot be taken for granted. 55). urban/rural settings. Thus. p. The extent to which Chinese-ness is shared across regions.264 S. We suggest that the willingness to adopt practices apparently characteristic of a diVerent culture of learning cannot be understood without also stepping back from a monolithic notion of personal identity. and accordingly have diYculty dealing with autonomy ƒ where learning is perceived as something static and directed by others. the forms of self-directed learning that we found Chinese students responded to well are not . Recent understandings of the role of identity in language learning (for example Norton. we could go further than just noting that there are individual diVerences to be found within cultural groups.

The Chinese students in this study formed the Wrst two. From interviews with their former teachers it appears that such children spent a large part of their leisure time indoors. Gieve. The decision to study abroad was usually made by their parents. Whilst these students were not high achievers they did nevertheless express desires to follow a career in business after graduation. cohorts received in the School of Languages at a UK University. and it could be argued that fulWlling parental aspirations. seemed to be a common home environment for such students. and from discussions with both Chinese and American teachers. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 265 only reactive and group-based. They had previously been at a private college in Beijing and were primarily the only children of wealthy parents. in addition. which include the economic and political environment. there was no evidence to suggest that self-directed learning existed as a concept or formed a part of classroom practice in the Chinese College. and reported a strong motivation towards taking business-related courses. p. need to be acknowledged and described as well as they can. 87) predicted. often without the company of other children. there has been both a lack of focus and detail about the pedagogical and socio-economic contexts in which the subjects (Chinese learners) developed their own approaches to learning and. taught by Chinese teachers. monolithic view of culture. The inXuence of such contextual factors. relatively small. where parental Wnancial sacriWce is involved. in view of our resistance to accepting the notion of a Wxed. 3. They diVer signiWcantly from Chinese students who have previously been sent to study in Britain on government scholarships in that the former were high academic achievers. apart from the Wnal two years where they had had American teachers for business and language classes whilst attending their private college. On the other hand. it is possible that the children of rich parents have little incentive to study hard abroad. There was no evidence of either pair or group work in the language classes and the students rarely . The students were divided more or less equally between the genders and were aged between 19 and 21. in the company only of adults. From direct observations of such classes.S. any description of who the particular students are. None had work experience or the equivalent of a gap year before coming to study in the UK. but also proactive and individual. The American teachers who were observed used lectures as the basis of delivery for the business classes and a lock-step approach to language learning. A childhood spent interacting with a computer. Context of the study In the literature reviewed above. R. and were to spend two years studying here at undergraduate level. All their education had been in China. We record here some background information about the group of students involved to indicate something of their particularity. as Littlewood (1999. could lead to a high degree of motivation. for which good English language skills are a pre-requisite. The great majority of our students were enrolled on a BA International Trade and English degree.

as perceived by the authors. and in particular what you have learned from the programme about English language. and the process of learning. leave taking. Students were prepared for the SDL programme with in-class material to enable them to better understand their own learning needs. Our view of promoting autonomy: self-directed and Tandem learning As part of year 2 studies. These were typically from Spain. they do not appear to be any more practiced in self-directed and autonomous learning than any other Chinese students. and a group learning activity (Tandem learning). Much of the classroom time in the language learning classes that were observed was devoted to IELTS practice material. In the second semester.1. money. France. men and women. Italy and Germany. either to seek clariWcation or to practice the spoken language. and linking these words to the social context in which they were being used. Thus. focussing on regional diVerences. the tasks were more oriented to raising sociolinguistic and cultural awareness. comprising selfdirected and Tandem learning. . henceforth SDL). Autonomous learning. greetings. what you might have done better. Over each 12-week term students had to write six 200 word diary entries describing and evaluating what they were doing. The Tandem learning part of the programme required the students to form multilingual groups with other international students. what use it was to you. The material in the Wrst semester was designed to explore topics that were familiar to them (being an international student. holidays and celebrations as practiced in their home countries). They were given suggested material designed to explore cross cultural issues as a motivator for communication and joint reXection. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 spoke. R. other tasks involved gathering and analysing diVerent forms of. for example. 20% of the assessment requirement on the Business English course was to follow an autonomous learning programme. for example. They were additionally asked to submit a 300-word ReXection at the end of each term. The style of instruction that the students received in their language classes taught by American teachers was not signiWcantly diVerent from that being delivered by Chinese teachers. Supporting materials and tutors were available to be consulted in the resource centre. entailed both an individualised programme of self-study based on students’ own perceived linguistic strengths and weaknesses (self-directed learning. and were on the year abroad element of their university courses. gender. gift giving. mostly involving English and business studies. and register. and to put together a proposed plan of SDL work. Tasks included Wnding diVerent words for. They were then asked to identify aspects of language learning that they were going to concentrate on. Twenty four European Erasmus students participating in the same programme were included in the study for the purpose of comparison. The guidelines stated that this should be an honest evaluation of what you have done. 3. the students were asked to Wnd at least one native speaker to act as an informant for their group.266 S. In the second semester of this programme. culture. Gieve.

Many of them commented on the diVerences between Chinese and British approaches to teaching and learning. ReXections on approaches to study ‘ReXections on approaches to study’ are statements about whether the students saw SDL/Tandem Learning as constituting or requiring a diVerent approach to language study compared to the teaching and learning behaviours they had been used to in the past. I thought that a mature person was able to organise his/her work by his/her own. were collected from all 37 Chinese students and 24 European students.1. The comment below is perhaps the most explicit on this. 4. they try to guide the students to get most knowledge by themselves ƒ I didn’t adapt this kind of teaching methods very well when I began my study in our university Wrstly. I have to admit that I wouldn’t have focussed on so many structured and systematic activities. but it continues by showing appreciation for the degree of structure built into the programme: At the beginning I didn’t agree with this way of teaching. Gieve. Of those. during these weeks I have changed my mind: even if sometimes I didn’t feel like working on self-directed learning program.000 words. Wnding out how many they could beƒ Anyway. R. Analysis produced the results reported below. in which categories of statements emerged from repeated perusal of the data. The written ReXections constitute the data for this study. or the activities took a long time to complete. I was still waiting for the teachers imparting knowledge to me directly. Seven European students made comments in this category (30%). Otherwise. four made negative comments to the eVect that such a compulsory programme was not conducive to maximum eVort. I found that I was backward some European students. I would really like to carry on working systematically on particular areas ƒ Sixteen of the Chinese students (43%) made statements in this category. 4. for example: My Wrst impression of English university is the teachers’ teaching methods are quiet diVerent from Chinese: Chinese teachers always do a lot of works to impart their students knowledge directly. coming back to Italy. according to his/her needs. Comments indicated that it was not the expectation for autonomous learning that was new but the requirement to show evidence that it had in fact been done. Some were explicit about the diVerences they noticed.S. totalling approximately 22. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 267 Assessment criteria for both diaries and reXections were also given to all students (see Appendix A). Analysis of student reXections The texts of the ReXections. . but English teachers prefer to do works on heuristic method teaching. without being forced. so I began to study hard by myself. so I wasted a lot of time and lost my direction of my academic study at Wrst ƒ After a period study. and were subjected to a content analysis.

All the changes were reported positively.2.3. after do it I can direct to study knowledge by myself. and also can discover new ways for myself. The diVerence may be attributed to European students already being accustomed to managing independent learning. There were three negative assessments. Gieve. It covers a much wider range. and caters more directly to our needs. time management (8). Before it I just received knowledge from teacher. 4. but also how it made a wider contribution to their lives: To sum up this semester. For example: By self-study and tandem learning I also know a good way to receive knowledge. I found that self-study is far more important than schooling. and learning how to operate in learning groups (2). I can learn in every possible way. and just one resistant to the whole idea of compulsory self-study.4. The others mentioned the beneWts of having tasks associated with the selfstudy activities. to provide motivation and structure. In the case of the European students. discovering diVerent study strategies (4). Evaluation of the Tandem Learning Programme Twenty European students (83%) and 31 Chinese students (84%) made comments positively evaluating the Tandem Learning programme. one asking for weight to be given to self-directed learning in the overall assessment pattern. and the beneWts of working in independent groups were a new discovery. 4. one asking for more support from tutors to keep up the motivation for doing self-directed learning. learning speciWc study skills such as how to prepare for their assignments (7). and a single Chinese student voiced a negative view. . Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 Twelve explicitly said that they had recognised and met the challenge successfully. Evaluation of the SDL Programme Sixteen European students (67%) made positive evaluations of the outcome of the SDL programme.268 S. The Chinese students reported learning how to structure independent study systematically (eight students). Statements about changes in ways of study Four European students (16%) and 24 Chinese students (65%) declared that they had learned or adopted new study habits as a result of the programme. one claimed that group-learning was not practiced in France. Twenty Chinese students (65%) made positive evaluations. 4. R. The large proportion of Chinese students who gave positive reports of how they had adopted study practices which met the challenge of working on their own is striking. So after university study I can study without teacher. The positive comments showed appreciation of how much the programme facilitated their language learning. and despite the diYculties had changed their approach to learning. Fifteen of the European students (62%) made explicit reference to the interpersonal beneWts they derived from it.

They can not attract me to talk about them and have a good discussion with my friends because they don’t like them too. Nine of the Chinese students (24%) made speciWc reference to the opportunity for friendship and personal encounters: I was able to get to know people from other country as well as the culture. and 25 Chinese students (68%). the diYculty of Wnding a native informant willing to cooperate (3). and more varied. Some of the responses referred to the suggested topics for investigation and discussion being unsuitable or uninteresting (6). there was little to discuss within the Tandem groups after they had already interviewed their native speaker informants. Table 2 summarises the range of self-study strategies reported by the two groups of students. however: Actually. of course. Statements about learning strategies adopted With regard to reports of learning strategies that were adopted. The nature of the negativity was similar to that expressed by the Chinese. 4. On the part of the Chinese students. the worksheets were onerous to complete. and marks a stage towards full autonomy. both their fellow learners and native speakers. we assume that the more. Seventeen European students (71%) reported adopting particular learning strategies. Students reported using the strategies given in Table 1. there was also a widespread appreciation of the interpersonal contact which the program aVorded. strategies reported the more importance was attached to self-study activities and the more investment was being made in the programme. Some caution is required in accepting this assumption. Apart from that.S. problems with getting the group to work well together (5). That’s way we always try to change topics or did not do it very carefully. it did not improve their language skills (2).5. I really don’t like the given topics for the subject because they are boring. One of these students did recognise that the time could be spent in whatever way they wished. I like this kind of exercise. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 269 Wnding being required to both interview British informants and then discuss their Wndings in groups a good way to make contact with other people. Twelve European students (50%) were negative about the Tandem programme. R. apart from the gains in cultural knowledge and the opportunity to practice language skills. We can see from these tables that Chinese students are ahead of the European students in terms of the . However. This constitutes a constructive approach to Tandem learning. the learning tasks for this semester were very relevant for either a wider contact with native speaker by interviewing which helped me to know more about the importance of “British Culture” in the business study Weld. Four Chinese students (11%) voiced strong criticisms of the Tandem programme: the topics were boring or silly. It breaks through the paradox of structured self-directed learning as a form of autonomous learning. Gieve.

270 S. R. particularly news Taking dictation from radio Summarising the news Extensive reading (books) Novels Summarise story of a book Daily newspaper Magazines Analyzing newspaper articles Systematic vocabulary study Grammar exercises Textbooks Using dictionaries Using internet resources Watching Wlms Tell story of a Wlm to friends Watching TV Sub-titled TV Taking notes from TV CDs Audio tapes Writing an English diary Recording own mistakes Preview/review lecture material Taking/making opportunities for spoken interaction a % 44 4 4 40 4 4 20 4 4 16 28 4 12 16 44 4 32 4 4 4 8 4 4 4 20 European students Listening to radio. Gieve.4 25 1.6 15 0. a Table 2 Range of strategies reported as adopted by Chinese and European students Chinese Total number of students reporting strategy use Total number of strategies reported Average number of strategies reported per student Total number of strategy types reported Range of strategy types reported/number of students 25 84 3. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 Table 1 Self-directed learning strategies reported as adopted by Chinese and European students Chinese students Listening to radio.0 Europeans 17 61 3. particularly news a % 24 11 1 1 10 1 1 5 1 1 4 7 1 3 4 11 1 8 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 5 4 Extensive reading (books) 8 47 Daily newspaper Magazines Systematic vocabulary study Grammar exercises CD-ROM grammar exercises 6 2 3 7 1 35 12 18 41 6 Using internet resources Watching Wlms Watching TV Sub-titled TV Taking notes from TV Audio tapes 1 9 8 1 1 1 6 53 47 6 6 6 Taking/making opportunities for spoken interaction Pronunciation tasks 7 2 41 12 These columns contain Wgures for the number of students within each group who reported using that learning strategy.88 .

diYcult. compared to 12 European students (50%). When it comes to expressions of aVect about the programme itself.6 diVerent strategies reported by European students compared with 3. Typical expressions include onerous. they reported pursuing strategies within that narrower range slightly more often (mean of 3. 4. There is no basis then. The pattern is broadly the same for both groups. One student was disappointed that her Italian accent had not completely disappeared.6. and generally records feelings of happiness and enjoyment engendered by meetings with informants and peers as part of the Tandem activities. but it remains the case that these students expressed their belief that the time spent on the programme was time well spent. concluding that these Chinese students were less committed to Wnding ways of undertaking self-study. four of the . conWdence. it can be said that the Chinese students showed as much enthusiasm and enjoyment as the European students. on grammar activities. memorable. not interesting. harassed. Typical expressions include interesting. There was also a certain amount of expression of negative aVect in relation to the programme. Statements about learning About 75% of the European students and 97% of the Chinese students made explicit statements that they believed that at least one of their language skills had improved as a result of the programme. eager. boring. except that the Europeans mentioned vocabulary improvement more frequently. Expressions of aVect One set of expressions of aVect relates to the interpersonal dimension of the programme. hard.7. the Chinese students were somewhat more demonstrative than the Europeans. Gieve. Six Chinese students (16%) and eight European students (33%) displayed positive aVect of this kind. We must be cautious about how much of any improvement we can attribute to these activities alone. so the diVerence in the numbers claiming gains is expectable. Twentyeight Chinese students (76%) made expressions of positive aVect. 12% of Europeans). (16% of Chinese. not happy. enjoyable. frustrating. tedious. While the European students focussed on a narrower range of strategies. The Europeans seemed to concentrate on extensive reading and listening. enthusiastic.S. in this case more so by European students (Wve students. expressed dissatisfaction with their language skills in their reXections. About the same proportion of students from each group. The European students generally speaking started oV with higher levels of language skills than the Chinese. and the Chinese mentioned reading and writing more frequently. 13%).3 by the Chinese). 21%) than Chinese students (Wve students. In the case of the Chinese students. annoying. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 271 range of strategies that they reported using (25 compared to 15 diVerent strategies). 4. happy. and on making use of opportunities for oral interactions. two other Europeans felt that the way the Tandem activities were structured did not promote learning. On this evidence. delightful. nice. for. A large proportion of Chinese made use of radio listening as well. however. R.

So I will keep my self-direct learning. feelings that they did not like the course may have been tempered by a recognition that this is what they had signed up for in opting for a UK university. I still have some weaknesses in grammar and other aspects of English language. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 six provided their own remedies for the language problems they felt they faced. In addition. in order to improve my English to a higher level. In fact I did not do much self-study for my writing. There is no evidence here however for attributing diVerential self-presentation to cultural traits. and had improved their knowledge and understanding of Britain and other cultures. This cannot be ruled out. in the sense that Chinese students might be more likely than others to write strategically. R. As a result I met the problem on my homework. 5. although other feedback exercises involving Chinese students have found them far from reticent in voicing dissatisfaction. one Chinese student wrote: In brief. It is hard to say whether the use of ReXections written for course assessment purposes as data is more or less likely to aggravate . 4. 13 Chinese students (35%) and 13 European students (54%) observed that they had learned something apart from language. Although it was made clear in the brief for the ReXections what kind of statements would be valued (Appendix A). because I found sometimes I could not use the new words freely. Expressions of future plans and prospects Five European students (18%) and 10 Chinese students (27%) made declarations of future intentions which indicated that they took self-study seriously and would make eVorts to continue to structure their own independent learning.272 S. Therefore. as manifested in the self-directed and Tandem Learning programme. may have been prompted by a perception that positive remarks would be assessed more highly than negative ones. Discussion The positive remarks made by the Chinese students about how successfully they had identiWed and met the challenge of the British university approach to teaching and learning. We conclude from these data that the Chinese students felt that they were able to beneWt linguistically from self-directed and Tandem learning at least as much as the European students. the self-direct learning and tandem learning are very beneWcial for me. However. These are votes of conWdence in self-directed learning. For example: I realised that I ignored to improve my writing ability. I plan to strengthen writing.8. Also. Gieve. For example. we can never be sure of the extent to which the ReXections were written with an eye to Xattering the readers.

Our attempts to address this paradoxical position included oVering complete freedom within the SDL programme to undertake any kind of work. who explore the opportunities available. so that we can assess your work’. The message is ‘you must do what you want to do in this way. which explicitly outlined its autonomous study expectations and provided structured support for them. . It seems that some of the European students had higher expectations of the opportunities that the Tandem Learning programme potentially oVered but which did not satisfy their needs. We wanted to create a perception that selfdirected learning was an integral part of the language programme. We would consider it a strength of the programme if the structure itself promoted the possibility for making ‘deviant’ uses of it. Two examples were found in evaluations of the tandem programme in which students reported that they went a step further in making a better Wt between what the structure of the programme aVorded them and what they perceived as most relevant for their own needs. compared with interview or other techniques of data collection. Students were advised that these were only suggestions for activities. however. For the Chinese students. This line of argument requires us to examine closely how the self-directed and Tandem learning was setup. and designing a reporting and assessment structure which aimed at valuing process (reXection) rather than product. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 273 this potential problem. on the grounds that. students might not be aware of what it was they needed to become aware of. apart from language programmes. would be likely to Wnd equally positive responses from Chinese students in terms of their willingness and ability to respond to it. Gieve. or even to look for. and self-directed learning. Appreciation of the SDL and Tandem Learning programme does not in itself constitute a display of autonomy. We suggest that any programme. not assessing the work itself or even asking for proof that such work had been done. however. the Chinese students were clearly able to recognise and take advantage of the self-directed and Tandem Learning programme.S. it may demonstrate rather the opposite – that Chinese students feel comfortable with the programme because it does in fact structure their learning for them. But it is not an adequate criterion for the success of a learning programme that participants exactly follow the process and learn the content given to them by the programme. the opportunities seemed to match their needs more closely. In fact. and no evidence of having followed them was required. The Tandem programme did involve a more tightly speciWed series of suggested activities. and what we understand by ‘autonomy’. Any self-study requirement emanating from within such a programme is therefore starting from a paradoxical position as far as the promotion of autonomy is concerned. and the SDL and Tandem activities were part of assessed course-work. if it additionally prompted learners to think about what they could do that they could organise for themselves. even more so than in the case of activities with an explicit language learning focus. R. We spent some time attempting to establish links between classroom learning and independent learning so that they should be seen as complementary to each other. As active participants. centred around the classroom. Our own approach to self-directed learning was that there should not be an exclusive distinction between course work.

that individual behaviour constructs the context of its own performance. which identiWes processes in which prior cultural values. would allow for students taking on the attitudes and practices of diVerent social and cultural groups simultaneously. Conclusion An appeal to culture as an explanation for variation in learning practices and preferences has the eVect of making these practices appear less amenable to variation than if they were attributed to the context of situation. But. LoCastro. material and assessment rubric. 1988). Culture is seen as a set of more or less deeply rooted normative practices. however. to discover how Chinese students in British higher education – or indeed any group of students commonly thought to display a lack enthusiasm for independent learning – organise their study strategies in contexts structured . and simply observation of the classroom behaviour of East Asian learners. instrumentally. it may be that generalised concepts such as collectivism. which may. Sarwar. A monolithic notion of personal identity would suggest that as Chinese students adopt new attitudes and practices they are becoming less ‘Chinese’ and more ‘British’ or ‘Western’. is manifested here only indirectly insofar as the authors’ experience with the way students carried out the Self-directed Learning programme was reXected in subsequent versions of guidelines. is an ethnography of autonomy (as advocated by Riley.274 S. 2001. and Xexibly. and high power distance. the interdependent self. and deference to the requirements of diVerent authorities. contingently. 2001) suggests that we may be unaware of the focused learning activity that students engage in independently of a teacher. What we have not done here. A conceptualisation of identity which accepted Xuid and multiple identities. We would emphasise that these results relate to this speciWc group of learners. a way of doing things for certain purposes. Certainly the work on the learning strategies of learners in large classes (Coleman. The obverse. Although we have made little of it here. be created or adopted relatively quickly. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 6. personal identity also has to be considered. and what remains to be done. which focuses on how aspects of social context. given the right conditions. R. of course. The view presented here also accords with acculturation theory. situationally based cultures of learning. They might still feel themselves to be very much Chinese. rather than cultural heritage. will encourage the display of cultural values and behaviours more typical of the Chinese stereotype. 1989. may not be suYciently robust to predict how learners behave outside classroom contexts. This implies. we suggest that on this evidence an ethnically based notion of culture may be less powerful than commonly assumed compared to local. Gieve. attitudes and practices are relinquished in favour of new ones with which individuals come into contact. aVects individual behaviours. insofar as they are one group of Chinese learners. as we are presumed to carry our ‘culture’ with us unchanged wherever we go in a wide range of diVerent contexts. and not acknowledge any contradiction between ‘being Chinese’ and following ‘Western’ learning practices. that they may be equally rapidly unlearned and cast aside when situational constraints change and accommodation to diVerent peers. so a ‘Chinese culture of learning’ would be seen not so much as the way they do things in China. On the other hand. as the way learning takes place in contexts often found in China. This point of view would accord with Accommodation Theory.

S. R. or only half-heartedly. able to devise strategies that enable you to identify your own wants. Leeds. Prentice Hall Macmillan in association with The British Council.. Dudley-Evans. 1995. . 1993. Lancaster-Leeds Language Learning in Large Classes Research Project.). Jin. Clevedon. Cortazzi. what you have managed to achieve and what went wrong. L. Gieve.). 1989. of supposedly ‘individualist’ learners studying in a ‘collectivist’ educational context. what kind of opportunities for cooperative involvement with others.. You are able to identify what opportunities were missed or could have been developed better. This way is very diVerent from chinese ways. are required to counteract individual and group approaches to learning which fail to meet institutional expectations and requirements? Appendix A. Breaking with Chinese cultural traditions: learner autonomy in English language teaching. D. In: Hewings. You review your needs wants and goals in the light of your experience. References Coleman. Hemel Hempstead. showing little or no attempt to think about the success or failure of your Self-Study and Tandem Learning programme. M. wants and goals. Ho. D. Evaluation and Course Design in EAP. Thompson. and to learn from your experience. L. Low marks will be given for ReXections in which ƒ You do none of the above. M. and what kinds of out-of-class activities would have better served your needs.. in which you evaluate what you have personally learned about the process of learning. H. and the reasons for these successes and failures. M. Cortazzi. T. You provide little evidence that you are self-aware as a language learner and a resident abroad.. needs. Learning and Teaching in Large Classes: A Bibliography. problems and goals and Wnd ways to address them. Marking criteria for self-directed and Tandem learning reXections High marks will be given for ReXections in which ƒ You oVer a systematic retrospective analysis of the work described in the diary. BAAL and Multilingual Matters. (Eds. and say how you would go about your independent study in the future in the light of your experience during the semester.. In: Graddol. 205–216. Byram. 235–243. (Eds. M. Crookall. as well as what you have learned. pp. System 23 (2). You do not show that you are self-critical. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 275 diVerently from what they have been used to. Language and Culture. and what degrees of freedom of choice and absence of control. Jin. L. Cultural orientation and academic language use..... It would also be interesting to see what happens in reverse situations. 1996. You identify and reXect on the productive and unproductive uses of your time in both self-study and tandem learning.. Just how sensitive are diVerent groups of learners to diVerent expectations and diVerently structured learning programmes provided by educational institutions? How much and what forms of concrete support. J.

. Modern English Publications in association with the British Council. DeWning and developing autonomy in east asian contexts. 2001. Language and Education 11 (2). 1995. 228–234. E. TESOL Quarterly 35 (3).. Cultural stereotyping and intercultural communication: working with students from the People’s Republic of China in the UK.).. Clark / System 33 (2005) 261–276 Jones. In: Brookes. 2001. Grundy. Individualisation and Autonomy in Language Learning.. Self-access and culture: retreating from autonomy. Z. Applied Linguistics 20 (1). (Eds. K. Gieve.S. TESOL Quarterly 35 (3). Riley. 1997. Ethnicity and Educational Change. (Eds.. P.). H. Learner culture and learner autonomy in the Hong Kong Chinese context.. J. ELTJ 49 (3). Hong Kong University Press. In: Pemberton.. 2000.276 S. A.. Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning. Identity and Language Learning: Gender.. 493–496. Innovations in large classes in Pakistan.. W. V. R.F.F.D. . Norton. 1999. 1988. Harlow. P. B. W. Littlewood. London. The ethnography of autonomy. Pearson Education. 113–124. Or. Sarwar. Large classes and student learning. LoCastro. 71–94. Pierson. 1996. Hong Kong. 497–500. Li.. Stephens. R.

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