Friday, February 25, 2011

Differences in Educational Culture - Part 1

I'm actually pretty surprised that I haven't taken the time to blog about this yet, but my classes today pushed a button and it just so happens that button was my self-destruct button.

Before I dive into what happened today, I believe a little background info is required.  My main responsibility here in Elista is working with Access students. The Access program here in Russia provides students aged 13-16 (or in 'school' in other words) with after school classes, camps and summer camps all aimed at learning English in an interactive and fun atmosphere.  Well this new semester, I was told that we wanted to make things slightly more American, so I should give out homework, give grades etc.  This was great news for me. It would provide a nice and certainly unique opportunity to finish my graduate work and would also be a big help in preparing me for the trials and tribulations of taking over my own class next year.  I eagerly planned my lessons, readied homework and even created a class contract for my students.  Here, however, is where my excitement was abruptly and unceremoniously cut short.

The other ETAs in Russia can certainly attest to this, but for those of you who don't know, Russian students are notoriously bad at doing homework.  Not that they can't do it, just that they don't. Ever. Sure, there's one or two of the really good students in each class who always do every bit of homework and go above and beyond what's expected, but in general it ain't happening.   I was hoping this semester would be differently precisely for those reasons listed above, but I was disappointed. I let optimism get the better of me and didn't follow the age old maxim of 'no expectations, no disappoints'.

Well today, as I said, pushed a button.  Being Black History month in the US, I had assigned me students to do a presentation on Martin Luther King, Jr.  I gave a lesson on him, assigned this to them two weeks ago, gave them the option of doing a power point or writing a paper, gave them a rubric with parameters that I felt were well within their English capabilities. Well today came and out of the 45 students I teach, 10 turned in presentations.  This upset me a bit, but wasn't what really set me off.

Here's what set me off. Monday was President's Day in the US so naturally I chose that as my topic for Tuesday's lesson. We had a good time and did some activities and at the end I gave them this homework assignment: complete this sentence with what you would do: 'If I were President of the USA I would (do)....". I gave them a simple prompt and asked only one sentence of them and how many did this? 7. Seven students, including just 1 from my highest level class for whom this was an extremely easy lesson.  Needless to say, I was disappointed, let down, heartbroken. I had devoted this time and effort and nothing came of it.

I was, and am, sad about it, but as the title of this blog reads, this is due, in my believe to differences in educational cultures.  While I was upset with the students for not doing their homework, it wasn't really them I was mad at. It was me for hoping I stroll into their classroom, with my well-planned lessons and change how they think and how they study and learn in a matter of weeks.

I get asked by students, quite often actually, if I think Russian students are more hard-working than American students.  Often times, my Russian students are of the opinion that they are, in fact, certainly more hard working and I usually end up having to dodge this question because from a teaching perspective, I get upset and know that if I don't dodge it, I'll say something regrettable. Not necessarily because I believe it, but just out of frustration.

I don't think Russian students are more 'hard-working' than American students, nor do I think the American students to be more 'hard-working', but I think you have to look at the idea of what a hard worker is within the constructs of each individual and of each culture.

The first big difference, again as any ETA or anyone who's ever taught in Russia can tell you, is the idea of discussion is non-existent.  Ask students, teachers, anyone in a class to have a discussion, whether as a class, in groups or with a partner, and you'll get a bunch of blank stares like you're standing there completely naked...even if they understand you perfectly.  In schools in the US, at all levels, one of the major focuses is on student-oriented learning; getting the students to take control of their own learning, teaching them to be responsible for it and learn to enjoy it, while we, as teachers, are there to provide some information and guidance along the way.

This is not a widespread concept within Russia. The Soviet style of teaching here is still popular where the teacher talks and talks and talks and drills students and instills the fear of God in them (yes I see the irony in this), berates, calls them 'stupid' (sometimes to their face) and evokes a terrifying image that can easily cause a student to shell up. Not all teachers are this harsh and this was a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. This method is changing, but it still has a long way to go.  And as far as discussion in concerned? Not a chance. I've heard this is part of Soviet system as well, but less educationally and more of a fear of sharing one's opinion for fear of repercussion from the authorities.  That kind of true fear can certainly make a large impact on culture.

What does this mean for an American teaching in Russia though? It means you have to adapt in different ways because if you're like me, you can't stand there and talk for an hour and a half, you don't want to even if you could and you don't think anyone gets much from it (I personally get 10 or so of a lecture before I pull out my phone and play games or generally tune out).

  • It means you have to be creative and learn to fill (lots) of down time in your classroom because these 'discussions', 'group work' things are going to go by in a flash because there's not a lot of discussion really going on.  
  • It means your students must truly be able to relate to the content you're teaching them or they must find it very interesting.  The more the students connect with you're teaching them, the more likely you are to find a common ground between the activities, exercises you'd like them to do and a place that's comfortable for them within (or just outside) of what they normally do.  Here, in Elista, students are very proud of Kalmyk culture and I usually find that it's a good activity to relate my lessons back to this in some way.  
  • It also means you have work extra hard to foster this idea of discussion. I also run evening classes a couple times a week and the students who show up every week have become accustomed to my style of teaching and now when asked to work in groups, they set off and get going right away. They are absolutely brilliant at it. Sure, the conversation might be all in Russia, but that's okay because 1) their English may or may not be advanced enough to do this and 2) the end result of the task will require them to create, speak, write, perform or do something in English so they will have to focus on that. This evening class has shown me that, over time and with perseverance, these habits can be changed.
So in this sense are Russian students harder working? No. Are Americans? No. Neither Americans nor Russians would have an easy time if simply plucked out of their classrooms and set down in one in the other country.

Let me discuss the homework differences in this first post since it was one of, if not the main, reason for my writing this. I haven't been to a school (primary/secondary) school here in Russia so I can't attest to homework in those settings, so I'm going to discuss what I see at the university level.

Students here are often given homework, but as with my classes, most of it does not get done.  I've seen this as an outsider, but also took over a teacher's lessons for 3 weeks and not an extraordinary amount of homework got done.  And why should it? At worst, the usual repercussion of failing to do so is actually being forced to do so.  I hate saying this as a teacher, but I'm also saying it because I've been a student, still am a student and have much more experience being a student: part of doing homework comes from the idea that something bad will happen to your grades if you don't.  This idea is not the same in Russia.  In Russia, from what I've seen they don't often have presentations, certainly they don't have the idea of mid-terms and as such littler tests, etc are also not very common.

The big thing in Russia are final exams at the end of the semester, most of which are oral (perhaps all, but I'm not sure).  When there are tests or homework, cheating is extremely and as for researching or doing a project, plagiarism is the name of the game (we'll get to that in the next post, it deserves it's own section).  These things, combined with virtually zero weight being attributed to homework means that it doesn't get done or it doesn't get done on time.  I've also noticed that many of students, when it comes to turning in homework, want to speak out orally and do it; the idea of turning in homework (with my Access students anyways) seems completely foreign to them.

Anyways, all of this is extremely frustrating for me and I haven't figured out a way around it yet.  Really guiding students, giving them options, making topics relatable, none of it seems to work.  I'm certainly not assigning these topics to punish them, but to, at least in my mind, help them process the information I'm giving them and help them with their English, but it's not working.  As with discussion, the idea of being 'right' here in Russia is what most teachers look for and what most students want to give, so when it comes to homework I give, part of it clashes with this cultural idea of always being right and plays a role in the homework not getting down, but then again what do I know....

So again, is one or the other more 'hardworking'? No. i think Russians would be overwhelmed in America and Americans would be terrified in Russia.

Stay tuned, Dear Readers, for part 2 coming up in a day or so.  But for those of you might actually take the time to read this long piece, I'd love your feedback, thoughts, insights, corrections, judgments, opinions, etc because I feel I may have taken a few too many liberties with this idea of Russian educational culture and what I think it is.


  1. i am definitely in a parallel situation cameron. we spent the past month working on civil rights in the united states in my classroom. our final project was to create a book as a classroom, compiling the one-page papers each 6th grader wrote about a prominent african american of their choice. don't worry i got 6 papers. even after extending the due date to monday this week. i was equally heartbroken. we should talk on skype or something in more detail! it can be really disillusioning and disorienting sorting your way through your first year of teaching in a very foreign system...

  2. Yeah we should definitely Skype it up because it is SUPER frustrating! When is a good Skype time for you?