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Cross- cultural experience

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Introduction

I used to be a teacher in Thailand, a Thai educator as sometimes we are referred to, before I moved to Australia to continue with my teaching profession. As expected of two countries with obviously different cultures, my teaching experience in these two countries has been decidedly different. Generally, the structure of the education system is almost similar in both countries and it is funded by the government. All children are also expected to attend school at least up to a certain age after which they will choose whether or not to continue with their education or pursue vocational training.

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However, significant differences emerge in terms of school attendance and literacy levels, which subjects are given priority in schools and perhaps most significantly, the teaching practices of Thailand and Australian teachers and the teacher- student relationship. There is a world of difference in how Thailand and Australia approach education and teaching. To understand these differences further, there is need to first of all understand how the Thailand education system looks like and how the Australian education system looks like.

Educational Systems: The Thailand Experience

Being a member of the Southeast Asian Minister of Education Organization (SEAMEO), Thailand follows a particular curriculum structure that has been laid out by this organization for its member nations. Thus the Thailand education system is structured in such a way that there is pre primary education which is mainly targeted at children between the ages of three to five years. This stage lays emphasis on the integration of physical, emotional, intellectual and social development before the child can actually begin formal education. It is however not compulsory for a child to attend preschool thus most of the institutions providing preschool education are owned and managed within the private sector. They are however under the supervision of the Office of Private Education Commission (Hoare 2004, p.122-123; Thanakansit 2003, p.246).

After pre- primary education, a child between the ages of 6-11 years will be able to access primary education which is compulsory, publicly funded and supervised by the Office of the National Primary Education Commission. The curriculum of Thailand’s primary education lays emphasis on literacy, arithmetic as well as communication and language skills. Language skills go beyond learning how to read and write in Thai, the official teaching language, and also encompass the basics of English vocabulary and Grammar from the primary level to enable students to develop adequate communication skills for oral expression and to gain knowledge of foreign culture. The two languages are studied parallel to each other throughout the formal education. It is important to note that the backgrounds of students vary due to unique cultural elements as well as ethnicity from different regions within the country. Thus the curriculum is designed to accommodate these differences (Hoare 2004, p.123; USA International Business 2007, p.39-40).

Education at the secondary level is structured into sections, namely ‘lower secondary’ and ‘higher secondary’ each of which lasts for a period of three years. Here, the curriculum covers five core areas; language whereby lessons in the English language are mandatory, social studies, work education, science and mathematics as well as character development. The lower secondary curriculum emphasizes on moral ethics as well as basic academic skills. Also on offer are a wide range of academic as well as vocational subjects. The aim of vocational subjects is to enable the student to explore and discover his or her interests and strengths. Once the student’s personal strengths have been determined, higher secondary will provide courses which correspond to those interests so that focus is on honing and developing these skills to enable the student develops as a professional in the area which interests him or her the most and which corresponds to his or her strengths. If it is the wish of the student to pursue a specific field such as business accounting, a profession related to computers or any other technical field then they will only be required to finish lower secondary education after which they may enroll in a training institution that offers training in their preferred field. However, if the student wishes to enroll in a post secondary institution such as University or College, then higher secondary education has to be completed. Secondary education is highly encouraged but is not compulsory in both levels (Hoare 2004, p.123); USA International Business 2007, p. 40).

Higher learning focuses mostly on developing the student intellectually and socially as well as enabling his or her advancement into the preferred field of specialty. Thailand has sixty five colleges and Universities which are supervised by the Ministry of education. State Universities are regarded as the most prestigious and desirable to enroll in. They have closed enrollment meaning that entry into them is a bit restricted and admission is very competitive. On the other hand, the private Universities and colleges have open enrollment. Admission into State Universities is achieved through a national university entrance examination which is sat each April and is given by the Ministry of University Affairs. The results of the examination including the name and the school in which he or she has been admitted to are then broadcast in June on national television. If one’s name is not broadcast then it shows that he or she did not pass the exams and has to apply for admission into private Universities or colleges which unfortunately are more expensive. Thus there a very few students enrolled in the private institutions (Hoare 2004, p.124).

Students in Thailand are encouraged to pursue educational paths that center on business, science and technology and even their curriculum is focused in that direction. On the other hand, arts and humanities are not highly looked upon and are all but discouraged. Thus even though Thailand’s Fine Arts legacy is held in high esteem, the future of Thailand is viewed as being dependent on how it is able to keep up with the global network. All in all, there is a University called Silapakawn that actually offers formal education on performance arts such as theatre, interior design, painting and sculpting and archaeology to keep the artistic spirit of the Thais alive but it would be preferable if students pursed other subjects.

Students in primary and secondary schools are expected to wear uniforms. Boys put on navy blue trousers which are either short or long depending on the student’s age together with a short sleeved white shirt. Girls put on navy blue pleated skirts with short sleeved white blouses and blue ties. This ensures that every student is on the same level without making the class difference too apparent. Thai students are not encouraged to show creative individuality and the Thai classroom environment is that of reasonably stringent conformity (Hoare 2004, p.126). Thus Thai students rarely develop critical and analytical skills and do not speak out; hence a compliance culture in Thai classes. The education system is highly centralized and operates on orders from those higher in hierarchy. Teachers present their lessons and rarely invite responses or participation of the students which is considered disrespectful. Wrong answers also mean losing face in front of one’s peers thus students are mostly silent in class. They are expected to accept everything without question and the teachers are treated as small gods (Hoare 2004, p.127; USA International Business 2007, p.38; Walker & Dimmock, p. 125).

Thai teachers use the chalk board and a rote learning method; which essentially means that they repeat the content until it can be remembered often without understanding its significance. The teacher is regarded as the only knowledge source (Thanasankit 2003, p. 247). Plagiarism is also rife and little is done about it (USA International business 2007, p. 40). Extracurricular activities are also considered vital and are encouraged, with scouting being the most popular (Hoare 2004, p.128). Girls are increasingly enrolling for education with increasing opportunities for them but pursue courses that conform to their social roles. There is a significant school drop out rate, mostly due to financial difficulty and females are five times more likely to drop out of school than boys. It is projected that by 2025, 20.9% of males and 22.9% of females will enroll for secondary and tertiary education, thus Thai education faces a grim future ahead (Hoare 2004, p.129-130).

Educational systems: the Australian Experience

When I came to Australia, the first thing that I noticed was how almost every child of school gong age was enrolled in school. Here, education is considered to be an integral social activity and so many students go to school. Attendance at the primary and secondary level is mandatory and most of the students will finish their secondary education (Marginson 1993, p.4). Probably as a result of this, Australia prides itself in a 99% literacy rate which is considered to be among the best the world over (Haugen 2007, p.10). Interestingly, the Australian educational system is divided into two broad categories, namely the public and the private schools (Jijo n.d, p. 1-2). Thus private schools play a very important role in the Australian education system. However, Public schools are free and majorities attend them (Haugen 2007, p. 9).

The structure of the education system begins from the preparatory year which is succeeded by twelve years of primary and secondary schooling. Primary school going children are aged between six and 11 to 12 years, while secondary school students range between 12 to 16 years and it is compulsory for them to attend school at least until they have finished their secondary education. Tertiary studies typically take two years to complete during which the students can study for a certificate endorsed by the government. Each state has its own secondary certificate but all are generally referred to as Australian year 12 qualifications. Most of the funding for higher education is provided for by the government. Entry to undergraduate courses is based on final secondary examination results (Jijo n.d, p.1-2). After secondary education, one can pursue either generalist or vocational courses, provided under Technical and Further Education (TAFE). What’s interesting is that this includes recreation and leisure courses (Marginson 1993, p. 5-6). Those who quit school after year 10 (secondary level) may go into a technical college or take up an apprenticeship. All students in both public and private institutions must wear uniforms and each school has its own uniform. The most common are sweaters, polo shirts and skirts or pants. There are also uniforms for winter and summer and extracurricular activities are encouraged (Haugen 2007, p.10).

The Australian education system covers eight broad language areas. These are the arts, studies on society and the environment, English and other foreign languages, Health as well as Physical Education, Mathematics, Science and Technology (Australian Education Council 1994, p. 1). The arts are considered as a key aspect of the education and have been integrated into the national educational curriculum and students have a wide range of artistic learning experiences. In fact, many students take pride in their arts courses (Australian Education Council 1994, p. 5-6). For a very long time, the Australian curriculum has been relatively inflexible and limited in cultural specificity. Thus aboriginal students, for instance, have for a very long time been denied their culture and heritage. For this reason, students may not get to learn about other cultures other than their own and aboriginal students are likely to feel left out (Eisenstein 1996, p.121). However, aboriginal studies are now included as part of the curriculum.

Content of the curriculum is emphasized as the most important aspect of education and very little emphasis is placed on factual knowledge. Teachers also emphasize personal and social skills, originality, decision making as well as enquiry.  Some teachers also practice an open mode of teaching which essentially means that they can negotiate the curriculum with their students, they encourage an enquiry approach to learning and they can consult a wide range of materials and also encourage group work (Chapman 1990, p. 285). Thus the teacher student relationship is an interactive one with the students encouraged to ask questions. Part of the aim of Australian schooling is to enable the students to develop critical and problem solving skills. Australian teachers are at one point or another, faced with several discipline challenges from their students such as avoidance of work, unnecessary noise, rowdiness, lateness, out of seat behavior, infringing the rules of the class, speaking out of turn and abusing other students both verbally and physically (Logan & Sachs 1997, p.185).

Analysis of the two educational systems

As mentioned before, the structure of the Thailand and Australian education system is not very different. Both offer free, compulsory education up to a certain level. The only difference in this instance is that for Thailand, secondary education is not compulsory while in Australia, it is compulsory. Entrance into the University or college is also dependent on how one performs in some preceding examination but one can also choose to pursue a vocational training and get into some form of apprenticeship. Both offer the English language as a key area of learning and Australia also offers courses in other foreign languages. Also in both educational systems, students are required to wear uniforms. Thus at face value, I should not have much difficulty adjusting to teaching in Australia, right? Well, not exactly.

The differences between the Thailand and the Australian educational system emerge in the actual teaching experience. As a Thai educator, I was used to being the main source of knowledge and being treated in very high esteem by the students. They could never talk back in class and I rarely encouraged them to do so. My work was to deliver the lesson which the students would quietly follow then sit for the exams which will determine who understood the lesson and who did not. It was considered disrespectful for students to talk in class thus they rarely asked questions and I did not expect them to. You can imagine my surprise; therefore, when for the first time in my Australian class, a student dared raise a question! In Australia, learning is enquiry oriented and students are encouraged to ask questions in class as well as respond to those posed by the teacher. At first, it was quite strange to get responses from the students but I got used to it after a while. There is also a wide range of learning materials which the students can consult and learning is more of an interactive forum than the traditional, rigid top- down kind of teacher student relationship that I was used to. Through the open teaching approach, students in Australia are encouraged to think for themselves and for this reason they develop problem solving skills and analytical capability. What interests me even more is the emphasis that is given to arts which are considered a key area of learning. Australian students are encouraged to pursue the arts and take pride in it. Back in Thailand, the students were discouraged from pursuing arts and pushed towards the science and technological courses.

The reason why teaching experience in the two countries is quite different lies in the differences inherent in their two cultures. Culture is described as a way of life and includes their knowledge, belief, morals, customs; all that is required of them as members of the society. Culture can best be understood through cultural theory which explains the nature of culture and its implications for social life (Smith 2001, p. 2-4). Thus the Australian culture has had a significant impact on their education system as has the Thailand culture. The Australian culture requires people to express themselves adequately and encourages them to be critical and inquisitive. In contrast, the Thailand culture is a bit more restrictive, expecting the students to be conformists and to follow what the teacher is saying without question, even when they do not necessarily agree with the teacher. From an early age, Thai children are taught to revere their elders and to demonstrate high levels of discipline. Respect is considered an extremely important virtue which explains why students would dare not disrespect their teachers who are their elders (Kislenko 2004, p. 133).

Conclusion

When a person moves from one region to another, sometimes even within the same country, they are likely to experience a different kind of culture as people from different regions have different ways of life and different values that they hold in very high esteem. It is therefore extremely important for people to keep an open mind for different cultures to avoid being swamped by the culture shock which is almost inevitably bound to happen.

References

Australian Education Council, Curriculum Corporation, Curriculum Corporation (Australia) 1994, A Statement on Health and Physical Education for Australian Schools

Chapman, J 1990, School-based decision-making and management, Taylor & Francis, New York, NY

Eisenstein, H 1996, Inside Agitators; Australian Femocrats and the State, Temple University Press, Philadelphia

Haugen, B 2007, Teens in Australia, illustrated edn, Compass Point Books, Minneapolis

Hoare, T. 2004, Thailand: a global studies handbook, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA

Jijo, J.K n.d, Overseas studies, Jijo K.John

Kislenko, A 2004, Culture and customs of Thailand, Greenwood Publishing Group, West Port, CT

Logan, L and Sachs, J 1997, Meeting the challenges of primary schooling, Routledge, New York, NY

Marginson, S 1993, Education and public policy in Australia illustrated edn, Cambridge University Press, London, UK

Smith, P.D 2001, Cultural theory: an introduction, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA

Thanasankit, T 2003, E-commerce and cultural values illustrated edn, Idea Group Inc, Louisville, KY

USA International Business Publications 2007, Thailand Research & Development Policy Handbook, International Business Publications, Alexandria, VA

Walker, A and Dimmock C.A.J 2002, School leadership and administration: adopting a cultural perspective, Routledge, New York, NY

Cite this Cross- cultural experience

Cross- cultural experience. (2016, Nov 19). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/cross-cultural-experience/

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