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Culture affects learning strategies

Different national characteristics can make it dangerous to assume that other country's educational
ideas - or performance - are 'better', according to research.

It says cultural attitudes have a big impact on pupils' attitudes to learning, the way they learn and are
taught, and what they get expect of and get from their education.

So transposing a teaching method that apparently produces good results in one country does not
mean you will get an improvement in educational performance in another country - and it could do
more harm than good.

The researchers from the University of Bristol studied 400 English and 400 French children aged
between nine and 11. They report their findings in a book, Promoting Quality in Learning.

The two countries were chosen as having superficially similar but in many ways fundamentally different
education systems.

The authors say that English teachers typically made much more effort than those in France to
motivate children - but it was French children who were noticeably more positive about school.

Assumptions

"Despite experiencing a typically more formal and authoritarian classroom, they were more likely to
see teaching as helpful and useful to them and appeared to be more highly motivated towards
educational success and academic goals," they say.

This appears to be a cultural thing: In France, there is a "nationally-derived assumption that


educational success is based on effort, rather than ability" and "negative feedback is perceived in
relation to the quality of the work and the effort expended, rather than to the pupil's very self."

In England, there is an emphasis on innate ability, so that "lack of progress is more likely to be
perceived by pupils as a result of their being 'thick' or 'dummies'."

"Equally, the strong French tradition of national conformity may help to explain the absence of the
fear of being a 'goodie' in French primary schools which is such a characteristic feature of the same
schools in England."

Tests were derived to measure pupils' performance in maths and language.

These took account of cultural factors. So, perhaps not suprisingly, each national sample out-
performed the other at its 'own' test.

Different strokes

But English pupils out-performed French pupils in items from the French maths test which involved
interpreting geometric language, area and perimeter and visualisation.

And French pupils out-performed English pupils on those items in the English maths test which
involved the application of the four rules of number and decimals.

There was evidence that many English pupils "had not grasped the concepts of multiplication or
division" though they were stronger than French pupils at handling data and in applying maths.
When it came to the language tests, English pupils performed significantly better in many aspects of
language including spelling, punctuation and creative writing. They were both more able to infer
meaning from what they had read - and, significantly, more willing so to do.

To French children, the main goal was to get the answer right - so they would tend not even to try
questions about which they were unsure. English children were more likely to devise a strategy for
solving an unfamiliar problem.

Have-a-go spirit

"There were significant national differences in pupils' levels of confidence and their willingness to 'have
a go' and to take risks. English pupils were much stronger in this respect, whereas French pupils
seemed to be constrained by their desire to avoid making mistakes and to refer constantly to
authority," the researchers say.

"The overall picture which emerged from the assessment results was that English pupils had a more
individualistic approach to maths and language which could be categorised as 'thinking for
themselves', over a wider range of topics."

The other side of this coin was English pupils' tendency to use non-standard and inefficient approaches
to maths questions - a problem which the authors say the national numeracy strategy in English
primary schools is intended to address.

But what the authors conclude from their study is that there are significant creative and problem-
solving strengths in the English primary education system which the national curriculum tests do not
assess.

They say it also raises questions about the validity of international league tables of comparative
national performance.

Head start

"At the very time when English teachers are being urged to adopt the methods of their allegedly more
successful Asian counterparts, the latter are being urged to become more like their English
colleagues," they say.

"Countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong are looking to increase the proportion of co-operative
group work within the curriculum and to encourage a greater degree of critical thinking."

They argue that government policy towards the system is "obsessed with driving it back to familiar
and reassuring educational territory" just as other countries are challenging that.

The English tradition is risky, because it makes pupils vulnerable to a sense of failure.

"Nevertheless, in a world of lifelong learning, it is arguably only by engaging pupils emotions, as well
as their minds, that the necessary empowerment of learners will be achieved.

"In this respect, English teachers and pupils arguably have a head start."