Friday, February 25, 2011

Differences in Educational Culture - Part 2

Okay, last time I left off I was pretty upset with the way my lessons had gone and so I decided to blog about differences in culture between Russia and the US.  I'm here to continue the discussion, but with less exasperation and irritability.  So here goes.

One of the main differences I notice (at the university level) is the differences in types of classes that students take.  Let's focus on language students since those are the ones that I work with most often.  These students have 2-3 professors throughout the week and have several language classes (of the same language) each day.  For example, the typical first year student here will have, maybe, 1-3 classes of varying English lessons (all with the same professor the entire week), the same thing in German and maybe a history class or two.  This is pretty much how their class schedule goes for years 1-5.  I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this, but as an American I would get a little bored.  It's the same for different departments: economics students have classes that are virtually focused entirely on economics, same with math, law, etc. You get the idea.

As most of my readers know, American university schedules are quite different.  For most of us, years 1 & 2 at university (yes I'm using university instead of 'college' - deal with it) include a huge variety of courses. Maybe a language class, some history, maybe poly-sci, certainly a math and science class or two.  For some of us this extends into our third years and only when we finally choose our majors, do we narrow the focus of the classes we enroll in.  As I said, I don't generally consider this a problem, except I can anticipate that students could very easily get burned out with their fields.  I focused on my undergrad major (European Studies) for maybe 85% of my junior and senior years and by the time I was done, I hated the topic and haven't really thought about it since.  I can only imagine having several language classes a day, always with the same teachers throughout the entire year and with the same group of students for every year (Russian university students move in groups, so 1 group will have the same classes with his/her group for years 1-5...crazy!).  Personally, I'd go insane, but I think this can certainly have an impact on the education students receive.

Writing papers & research. Russians, on average, don't do this, don't know how to research, don't know how to write an argumentative/research paper, or do citations. These things are often part of their requirements and while I've never seen a thesis done, I know they do them in their 5th years, but, as an American...no as an academic, the sheer amount of plagiarism that occurs here is beyond belief.  I cannot, however, make any claim to plagiarism in areas outside the study of English. I believe that students researching in Russian would be able to do this much more successfully (by Western standards), but in English it's...wow.

Ask English students to do a project on someone, to write a paper and you will get stuff literally copy and pasted from the internet. They don't bother to correct anything. If they find something in Russian, they will throw it into a translator and just use that.  They often times cannot even pronounce half the words in the report.  Another ETA even had an instance where she was chatting online with one of her students and her student proceeded to copy and paste their chat and use it in a paper.  By American standards, you wouldn't survive a month at university.  You'd fail classes left and right and eventually just get kicked out.  Again, however, I cannot blame students for a lack of trying *usually* because this is the norm throughout Russia and most teachers here take no issue with this.

Now don't get me wrong, I hate citations. I believe you need them, but all these different pointless formats? APA, MLA, Chicago, NRA, NCAA, NBA, CFL, NAFTA, NAMBLA, etc (you get my point); there are so many different types of citations and why we can't have just one is beyond me so long as the appropriate people get credit.  Oh well. Anyways, as a bi-product of this, I am working with my students on teaching them to cite their sources in a very basic way: author, title, date or website, address, date.  I've had varying success, with some students going way overboard and I think listing sources they didn't or wouldn't even use, to students continuing the plague of plagiarism.  Since I work with Access or "school" students, this seems to be a travesty occurring at all levels.

*I'm also going to throw in the concept of cheating in this area.  Much of the focus of Russian education is on memorization, not conceptual understanding, and as such a lot of cheating occurs.  Give students a test in class and they will use their phones, they will blatantly look and copy off another student or they will just plain turn and start to talk and ask if they don't know.  When you don't need a conceptual understanding of ideas and aren't asked to give opinions, thoughts, etc, it can be a breeding ground for cheating. When teachers simply want the right answer and that's it, it can lead to a breeding ground for cheating. *

Russia is working hard, however, in pushing their students to be better writers and to stray away from plagiarism. It's a process and old habits die hard, but they are pushing for this and it's my understanding that significant progress has been made in the more metro regions.  Out here in the boonies, educational reforms such as these are slower to arrive, but they are happening and it's encouraging to see.

Attendance here in Russia is also interesting.  Interesting because half the time it seems optional, whether at the university or school levels.  At the school level, in the US, attendance is much more strict and missing an X number of days can result in consequences due to missing lessons, homework and tests.  That is not the same here and students frequently miss classes, sometimes for reasonable reasons (doing Math Olympics, etc) and other times not (playing video games at home).  I am, as a teacher, also discouraged; from the perspective of the students who often choose to skip and parents who don't enforce their children to attend, but also because teachers don't take initiative.

At the university level, it's not so different. I skipped more than my fair share of undergrad classes, particularly the lecture classes where I wasn't going to be missed.  Here they're a bit more brave in skipping since the class sizes are quite small (anywhere from 2-10 students and the teachers know each of the students personally).  I don't think I'd be that brave, but you never know. If I had as much repetition, I just might be.

Finally, I'm going to discuss respect in general.  I had intended this last bit to focus solely on mobile phones, but I realize that isn't enough. There is a considerable gap between what respect looks like in Russia and in the US and it's important to note.

First, students here stand up (at least in Elista) when the teacher enters the class. It's a sign of respect and one I have certainly not become accustomed to, but it's not such a bad thing.

Second, if you've ever been to Russia, you know that Russians mobile phones are attached to them in a way that Americans can't compete with.  This is generally not awful, except during class. Americans turn off mobile phones, put them on silent and tend to not take a call unless we know it to be an emergency.  That's not to say we don't text or use our computers or find numerous other ways to be disrespectful during classes in the US, but we try much harder to be sneaky about it.  Both teachers and students here in Russia leave mobile phones on during lessons. Should a phone ring while the teacher is speaking, he/she will stop, grab the phone and start to talk. If a student's phone rings, they will ask to step out and have a chat.  This is really difficult for Americans to get used to and one that I personally find, at least from a US perspective, very disrespectful.  Just today I asked a student to put his phone away so he looks at me, hides his phone and then turns his back to me like I didn't know what he was doing. The result was me holding on to his phone for the rest of the class. Fun for him!

Finally there is general conversation.  In my experience, and this may certainly not be the norm, when one person who is not the teacher (and occasionally is) is speaking, people chat and they chat loudly.  Despite repeated shh's or quick notes of "so and so is speaking and I can't hear them" this trend persists and again, as an American, is very frustrating.

Overall, Dear Readers, I hope these posts on educational differences don't come off as me complaining (though some of it surely is) or condemning Russian culture.  Russian culture is simply different than what I am used to and it requires adjusting in many different areas. I do have my preferences as to what I think works and what doesn't, but I have no intention of voicing those, although I think these preferences come through quite clearly in what I've written despite my best efforts.  In the end, perhaps these are my observations from the view of a purely annoyed, angered teacher or perhaps they are just general observations from someone teaching in a foreign country. Either way, I'm sure there's several lessons to be learned.

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