Culture, Power and Learning from Experience

As I work on implementing project-based learning in different countries in Asia, one objection, that this 'idea' is not Asian, comes up all too frequently. Citing anecdotal evidence, my correspondents tell me that the Asian students are taught not to challenge and to ask, and that this approach to learning, built around a passive and respectful learner-teacher relationship, is too Asian to be swept away anytime soon. Correctly, they point out that the Asian students often behave the same way when they study abroad, at least initially, attending the lectures and displaying unquestioning respect for the teacher, trying to photograph every slide, note down every word. 

The usual argument is that the same students will start learning differently, if exposed to a different system of learning, should be investigated in the background of these observations. Because, this discussion is not just about teaching methods, but learning: A Different approach to inquiry may lead to a different outcome (see my earlier post here). In fact, observers report engagements based on discreet learning events and respectful engagement leading to a number of 'if-then' conclusions, but not enough of 'what-if' experimentation which ought to be the essence of experiential learning.

The challenge, seen this way, seems to go beyond mere structuring of learning experiences: In fact, recasting Peter Drucker's observation that culture could eat strategy for breakfast, one could say that the inherent cultural factors may produce unintended consequences from even the most carefully constructed experiential learning engagements.

Yet, I shall claim culture is the wrong place to look. That Asian students are naturally subservient and given to followership is a wrong conclusion, easily disproved by a number of anecdotal examples defying this stereotype. Many Asian students at Western universities amply demonstrate a high level of pragmatism in learning the ropes quickly enough to overcome the barriers of language and different upbringing. In fact, many Asian students acquire second or third languages quite adeptly and continue doing business in it all their lives, which should fly in the face of the theory of their being inward looking and not open to experiences. 

I shall, therefore, connect the supposed docility and linearity of Asian classrooms not to the cultural stereotype, but the power equations we consciously or unconsciously build in those classrooms. Particularly when we apply this to the emerging middle classes, the language of the classroom (often English), practices, the selections and admissions process (which reinforce the power equation), the projections of the world outside (global as well as the world of work), all establish a tilted playing field, where the student is at a disadvantage. Even when s/he is being asked to learn from experience, she is not being told to experiment with the experience: She has already been put into a highly structured environment with subjects chosen, credits assigned, activities selected and outcomes premeditated. Given that the student is coming from a highly unequal society, not just economically but socially, and into an education system which is an integral part of that systemic inequality, inspiring the students to get into the experimentation mode with the learning design alone is akin to believing in miracles.

Imagine a student who is coming from a family which was perhaps not poor but not rich enough to idle away their days, whose parents put their life savings into the child's education with the expectation of her having a better life than theirs. The student arrives at the school through a highly structured process, which reinforces to her that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. She was given a syllabus and assessment criteria, and told that she has two chances of passing the examination. And then she was told to be creative and experiment with her experiences - and then blamed for her cultural DNA once she tries to take the sure path, pragmatically trying to choose only what matters to pass the examination and get to a decent job! The employers may complain that the kind of learning she did is useless, and indeed it is, but it is not the national culture but the equations of power deeply embedded in the classroom that makes learning from experience so difficult to achieve.

What should an educator do then? Being conscious of the power equation is perhaps the first thing: If one could create an environment to set oneself free, showing respect for the student's self, her sensibilities and existing knowledge (imagine a friendly conversation with a mentor to assess suitability and motivation replacing the admissions test and interview); a system which is tolerant of people failing and designed to prevent them from being a failure (where experimentation gets credits rather than results, for example); a curriculum that is based on one's life experiences and aimed at developing a wide range of behavioural and linguistic repertoire rather than unintelligible subject matters devised in another country and delivered in a language usually associated with rich people; and an outcome aimed at developing the whole person rather than giving a limited tool kit aimed at a limited number of situations, and the like! This will require a different institutional design and sensitivity to students' own persons, something that the whole discipline of learning design has constantly overlooked with its pursuit of industrial scale and focus on standard outcomes! However, if one has to get people learn from experience, there is no other way but to start challenging the power equations that hinder such learning.  


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