Cultural education – easing the transition to the UK education system for international students

“Telling a Chinese student to critically appraise a text can often make them feel uncomfortable and the word ‘critical’ suggests ‘censure’”

A recent survey from UKI Student and School Forum and featured in The PIE News highlighted that international boarding school students, despite having potentially studied for several years in the UK, still worry about studying at degree level.

The transition to the UK education system is not an easy one for any international young person to make, but Paul Breen, from University of Westminster has some strong views on how the transition could be eased.

Almost 46% of all international pupils with parents overseas, studying at UK schools come from Hong Kong or China and Paul has spent time studying their particular challenges, although he is keen to point out that some of the challenges they face are not necessarily unique to Chinese students.

Paul suggests that many students from the East have a more ‘Confucian’ focused approach to learning – they look at how existing opinions can be ‘enhanced’ or improved upon, rather than dismantled and then reconstructed.

For example, learning from and improving an existing idea is sometimes a more effective way to engage international pupils in ‘critical thinking’.

“Asking a pupil to propose what the London underground system could learn from the Chinese underground is critical evaluation in everything, but name, but is a much more relevant approach to Chinese pupils who view that things are more likely improved via continuous improvement rather than knocking down and starting again,” he says.

This viewpoint is backed up by Elyse Conlon, head of EAL, Moreton Hall and Freelance teacher trainer: “critical thinking is something which is encouraged and nurtured by us in the West but often our students from the East may perceive ‘disagreement’ in the classroom, in any form, as impolite and a questioning of authority,” she says.

“How we approach this viewpoint is very important, not only to academic success, but also to personal wellbeing and a growth in confidence and reviewing the language we use is a critical aspect in helping to address this issue,” she adds.

Paul Breen agrees that the terminology used is often part of the problem.

“Telling a Chinese student to critically appraise a text can often make them feel uncomfortable and the word ‘critical’ suggests ‘censure’. Chinese students respond much more positively to words like ‘evaluate philosophically’ rather than ‘critically.’”

What about handling more sensitive subjects that may make many overseas pupils uncomfortable? Some pupils find it difficult to engage in discussions about LGBTQ rights for example and Paul suggests that this is where some pupils use of an ‘English’ name as opposed to their ‘birth’ name can be helpful.

“Many people question the adoption of an English name by some international pupils who think their birth name might be too difficult to pronounce and this view has some merit, but it can prove useful to help pupils using their ‘British persona’ to explore subjects they would feel unconformable exploring via their birth name…”

Paul mentions a colleague who was able to explore LGBTQ rights with a mix of international students, but asking their thoughts as, for example, ‘Julia’ rather than ‘Jie’.

The use of VR can also be used to help pupils explore in a ‘non judgemental’ space topics that they might otherwise find very difficult to discuss in a classroom environment.

Clearly, there is plenty more to discover and it is fascinating to explore how terminology and the learning environment can help international pupils and students so much.

Paul Breen is a senior lecturer in the University of Westminster’s Centre for Education, Teaching and Innovation. He is the author of several works relating to international education and teacher education.