Opportunities to study abroad are increasingly popular and possible and students choose these experiences with an eagerness for challenges and adventures. Yet when embarking into the world of international education, students may face clashes between cultures, languages, and learning styles. I learned this as an American-study-abroad-student in Prague, and again when I returned to the Czech Republic as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) through the J.W. Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
As students and higher education become more global, where do the differences in educational background present a disadvantage in students’ skills and preparedness, versus the traditionally perceived advantage of a diverse and global perspective?
The right way?
I am wholly a product of a public American education. From day one, we are taught to write: write notes, write reports, and write arguments. I was admitted to university based on the ability to express myself in an essay, and at university I was assessed based on seemingly never-ending papers for courses in departments from Sociology to Business. Then, during my third year of university study, I spent a semester abroad in Prague, Czech Republic. After 15 years of navigating an education system based on writing, I was entirely unprepared when asked to speak.
My first-ever oral exam took place as the final exam for a course I took with a Czech professor at the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. I had done everything right according to American education system expectations: attended every class, participated, read (most of) the required reading, and turned in assignments on time. Theoretically, I would have been able to write decent responses to some short answer questions, or even come up with a coherent essay. However, when I walked into the examination room, the examiner asked me a question; for the first time in my career as a student, I had to answer, “I don’t know.” All of my skills as a student vanished when I was faced with an unfamiliar kind of test.
Czech emphasis on speaking
Luckily, this discouraging experience did not deter me from again using my writing abilities to apply to return to the Czech Republic this past year. As a Fulbright ETA in a public gymnaziúm in Znojmo, I once again saw the difference in Czech educational emphasis on speaking over writing. My first impression of my students was awe at their abilities to speak to me in English. I am fully aware that Americans are not renowned as foreign language learners. However, I have taken Spanish classes for almost 14 years, travelled to several Spanish-speaking countries and still found that some of my 14 year-old Czech students could speak their second (and sometimes even third) language of English better than I could speak Spanish. Moreover, I was amazed at the depth of what they could speak about. I’ll never forget one day when I went to a class of 16–17 year olds to hear them give three-minute speeches, in English, about what is most important to them. I prepared myself for generic answers and vocabulary sets in favour of family, friends, pets etc. I was instead shocked by complex philosophies on happiness, health, and love. I am 23 and can barely fathom articulating these ideas in front of a group of peers in my first language, let alone my second.
Re-setting the balance
Although my school initially applied for me based on my prowess as a native English speaker, teaching my Czech students how to write may have become an equal if not greater contribution to them. You can imagine my surprise when, during my first week on the job, my Czech colleagues asked if I could give a presentation about the basic steps of writing an essay. I soon learned that not only do Czech students write very infrequently in their foreign language courses, but also very rarely in their other courses. Within weeks, I found myself teaching lessons on basic writing strategies or paragraph structure, arguing with English teachers about including more writing exercises in their lessons, and going to extra classes each week to focus solely on writing, all in my students’ non-native language.
In the foreign-language-learning classroom, I could see the competing priorities of reading, speaking, listening, and writing. While I know that the first three are highly important for communicating, I found that writing could be an effective tool for experimenting with knowledge and building confidence. In general, it can also be an important form of expression because it can be read, seen, spoken, manipulated, and spread across time and space.
Exposure to different teaching methods
Without the rise of international education, these different philosophies of teaching and pedagogy may never have presented a problem. Yet for students who wish to study and succeed in a foreign education system, often in a foreign language, the weakness of core skills like speaking or writing can have a large impact on their experience. One of my most gifted students this year came to me to ask for help writing her personal statement essay to apply for university study in England. While she had all of the qualifications and impressive experiences, her initial drafts lacked the coherence, style, and perhaps the bit of Western immodesty that simply is not taught in the Czech school system.
Just as my American education would leave me unprepared to attempt entry to a Spanish-speaking school that required me to give a three-minute speech about myself, some international students may find themselves unprepared for an application process based on written expression. The disparity in success would only widen upon enrolling and participating in a higher education setting that has unfamiliar expectations. As students desire more educational mobility, it will be important to analyse whether their skills are mobile and adaptable when compared to the skills that are expected within the international education community. Only then will the ability to exchange ideas and learn from each other occur effectively through international education.
If you’re attending the EAIE Conference in Prague this week and you are interested in learning more about Czech higher education, come along to session 1.01 ‘Introduction to higher education in the Czech Republic’ on Tuesday morning to hear more from the locals!
By Mariel Tavakoli, U.S. Fulbright Program English Teaching Assistant 2013–2014, Czech Republic