Making the best of two different learning styles
By LIM KWAN-LYN
There has been a lot of criticism on the education system in Malaysia. I’m sure you would have heard someone say, “It’s too exam-oriented,” or “It doesn’t teach you to think for yourself.” Perhaps you’ve even said it so yourself. In fact, this is a common trait found in eastern education.
On the flip side, if we shifted the spotlight onto western education, it was just back in 2014 that the British Education Minister, Nick Gibb, told schools to imitate China – to abandon trendy teaching methods such as independent learning for “chalk and talk.” Gibb told The Mail, “I would like to see schools across the country adopt whole-class teaching methods, particularly in mathematics and science. Research shows it is significantly more effective than other methods that concentrate more on personalised learning.”
For me, personally, half of my formal education was done in Malaysia, and the other half was completed in New Zealand. And so I find myself often being asked the same question, “Which is better?” In fact, many people in Malaysia simply seek confirmation by stating, “Education overseas is better, right?”
Unfortunately for them, my answers have always been quite inconclusive.
I would explain that contrary to popular belief, no, I did not find learning in a local, Chinese-medium school stressful, despite barely being able to utter a word of Mandarin on my first day of school back in standard one. Instead, I actually appreciate the discipline it built into me which helped with my transition into the New Zealand education system. As for learning in New Zealand, I would share that I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom it provided and the fun style of learning.
It’s actually quite ironic, I feel, how critical people can be of their own learning backgrounds. In Malaysia, people assume that western education is better. In New Zealand, people admire how Asian education sets you up for excelling academically.
This leads me to the topic at hand – culture and learning styles.
Differences in culture affect our learning styles. While Asian and western cultures both value learning, they have contrasting views about learning. Living in today’s globalised world, many Malaysians have access to both styles of learning.
The question we should ask ourselves is this: How can we make the most of both worlds?
Continuous learning as an adult
I believe that as adult learners, it is important for us to do two things:
Firstly, understand how the learning environment we grew up in has shaped how we learn today so that we can build on our strengths.
Secondly, be open to different learning cultures, and be able to draw from each of them to expand our perspectives and horizons.
We will explore this topic by using some huge generalisations and focus on the most widely known and researched learning cultures, which is also what most Malaysians would be familiar with: Asian and western learning.
Asian learning is usually described as having a strong focus on academic excellence, such as aiming for straight As.
It is also said to be more passive, where learners are generally quiet and disciplined. Students would readily follow their teachers’ orders and would seldom disagree with what teachers say. When learning, students prefer to keep their answers short, focusing mainly on memorising, task difficulty and past year exam questions.
Research shows that this can be traced back to the culture. According to Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, Malaysians are socialised into collectivistic ways and large power distance. Of the six different cultural dimensions in this research, we will focus on where Malaysia scored the highest and the lowest.
‘Yes boss’ & ‘We’ vs ‘I’
The highest is in power distance, which can also be described as the “yes boss” culture. What this indicates is that Malaysians tend to accept and expect that power is unequally distributed. At home, Malaysians are taught to be obedient to elders, treating them as superiors. At school, teachers are the experts and we are taught to show respect to them. As employees, there is respect for hierarchy. As subordinates, people do what they are told.
Working in Malaysia, chances are you would have heard the phrase “yes boss” frequently thrown around, and interns referring to themselves as “just the intern.”
So, hazard a guess at where Malaysia is ranked in the world for power distance?
If you guessed number one, you got it right! With a very high score of 100, Malaysia ranked the highest in the world in the Power Distance Index, which means Malaysia has the biggest “yes boss” culture in the world. This is closely followed by the Philippines (94), Bangladesh (80), Sri Lanka (80) and China (80).
On the other hand, Malaysia scored only 26 for individualism, making it a collectivistic society, where people’s self-image is defined in terms of “We” rather than “I.” According to Yong (2010), this can be explained through how Malaysians usually maintain extended family relationships, showing loyalty and responsibility in return for protection from elders.
Take for instance the fact that many young adults live at home until they are married, or that parents pay for their children’s university education and in return children support their parents as they age.
At school, students strive to achieve what their teachers advocate. Employer-employee relationships are like a family link, where people are commonly hired and promoted because of relationships, whom they know and even whom their family knows.
So is this good or bad? I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself.
Western learning is generally more independent and active, involving a larger emphasis on creative and critical thinking. There is more interaction and society is more accepting of creative subjects like drama, design and music.
Many would proclaim that Western learning yields better communicators, whereas Asian learning produces excellent mathematicians.
In New Zealand, there is a commonly known term, “the Asian five.” Hazard a guess at what five high school subjects these refer to. If you said Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics with Calculus, and Mathematics with Statistics, you are right.
The supposed logic behind the choice of these subjects is: most Asian students would take them to guarantee themselves a great career that is both stable and financially rewarding. You can also assume that this is what most Asian parents expect of their future sons-in-law/daughters-in-law.
Returning back to Hofstede’s research, Western countries are on the other end of the scale for power distance and individualism. Therefore, students would usually question their teachers more and be more comfortable with exploring their interests, rather than pursuing what is deemed as safe and right by society. This would also tend to yield learners with less discipline and teamwork, who are less inclined to excel in subjects such as Mathematics and Science.
The best of both worlds
The first step here is to leverage on our own strengths, rather than to put down our own learning backgrounds.
Asian learning has its benefits, and since most Malaysians would have certain necessary skills gained from this particular learning style from a young age, it is vital to really make the most of it.
Rather than closing off or discounting certain learning styles, focus on what each learning style is good at. Asian learning is good at honing discipline, memorising skills and pushing students to strive high in exams. Western learning is good at encouraging you to step out of the box, be creative, and communicate well.
Recently, I asked a friend to think back in time and describe his educational background. He began by sharing that he spent his first few years in an international school overseas, and felt that it was a great place to learn. It was fun and hands-on, with exposure to a variety of subjects including drama and music from a young age.
However, as he started talking about his experience in a local Chinese-medium school when he was nine, his tone changed. Basically he disliked the system as he found it to be rigid, stressful, strict and that it came with a high workload.
I then asked for his thoughts on the positive aspects about this particular learning style, and surprisingly, he could very quickly and easily come up with a list of items, which also resonated with me personally, and has been backed by some of the research I’ve done. Let me share them with you:
1. Asian education focuses heavily on memorising and amassing factual knowledge
Using this skill in the workplace for example, can optimise your efficiency. The key is to figure out how to apply the knowledge. Too often, Asians memorise without understanding why the facts are important. They also tend to remain silent despite having great answers or valuable input to share from their hours of preparation and hard work.
This is where Western learning styles can help. If we learn from the Western style of learning to help cultivate better communication skills, and are able to apply our knowledge and facts practically, we can then create a winning combo. You can then become someone who is able to excellently communicate valuable input that stems from the knowledge you have acquired.
2. The Asian learning style promotes discipline and responsibility
This is a great training ground for perseverance and thriving in difficult environments. Combine this with Western learning styles, by stepping out of the box and being confident in working independently. You can then become a person who is not only adaptable but thrives in tough environments. Because of that foundation built within you, you can be confident in your abilities and start a new adventure or explore new areas.
3. Beating the system
Looking at the Malaysian culture, people are good at figuring out how to excel in academics. Even when it comes to shopping, Malaysians will find where the best deals are. If we combine this with western learning styles, we can then expand on it by becoming more collaborative with others and thinking creatively.
This is great for improving and streamlining processes. You become someone who is resourceful, able to budget well, and to gather and brainstorm ideas with others to come up with the best solution.
In a nutshell
At the end of the conversation, I once again asked my friend how he felt about his Asian learning background. He shared that he actually felt a sense of pride in going through what he felt was a difficult education system, as it allowed him to come out on the other side, a better learner.
Even though it may have been somewhat torturous at times, the knowledge he acquired during those schooling years actually became very useful, and set him up well when he furthered his studies in a western learning environment, and even now that he is a part of the workforce.