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Global academics: teaching and managing across cultures

Options:     Print Version - Global academics: teaching and managing across cultures, part 2 Print view

Article Sections

  1. Managing in context
  2. Teaching
  3. Insights gained


"I think it [management education] has to be about implementation and how to make it all work in a given set of circumstances. That requires teamwork, debate, reflection, thought", Simon Lawder, a strategic management and leadership development consultant based in south-west England.

"One has to be culturally sensitive in terms of content, materials and teaching method", Martha Pennington, lecturer at Georgia Southern University, USA.

Reluctance to change one's values becomes even more pronounced to those who teach in different cultures.

It's a generalization, but Chinese students tend to adopt rote learning, memorizing key themes of lectures which they expect to be tested on. Nor in some cases can the lecturer rely on their having understood, as students may be fearful that questioning may offend, and an insult to the lecturer's exalted status.

Meanwhile, students in the Anglo Saxon tradition, and in Australia, expect – or should expect – to be challenged, to interact with the lecturer, and with one another, and to develop their critical thinking skills.

It is not, however, a simple East-West divide. In Singapore, according to Howard Thomas, students are used to small classes and a wide range of teaching methods, whereas the French style tends to be more didactic.

According to David Weir, now at the University of Suffolk in the UK, but with stints at the French business schools of CERAM and ESC-Rennes under his belt, those who have been through the French lycee system "are accustomed to heavy instruction ... where things are either right or wrong, and they are not used to discovery learning and discussion".

The UK system comes under criticism from Australian Leo Jago, who nevertheless admires the drive of British students to get a 2:1, and the strong pecking order within universities, and contrasts this with the more laid-back culture among Australian students.

He found the teaching system to be more lecture-dominated than in Australia, with fewer seminars, and students less willing to participate in class.

Martha Pennington, an experienced teacher educator and editor of Innovation and Leadership in English Language Teaching has taught (linguistics) all over the world.

She maintains that it is absolutely crucial to adjust your teaching to the students' context, and to be aware that in some cultures, students may be afraid to speak out in class, especially without prior preparation.

When teaching in Hong Kong, Pennington found that students expected to get extensive notes from their teachers. At first resistant, eventually she compromised by giving them a few points, with space underneath for the students to add further points.

This changed Pennington's teaching permanently: now she prepares PowerPoint slides for her students, often with links to online material.

Others make more modest adjustments to their teaching. Richard Li-Hua of Sunderland University and editor of the Journal of Technology Management in China, who has extensive experience both of China and the UK, does not alter his delivery style when lecturing to Chinese students, but offers a lot more encouragement when it comes to question time.

Adjustments may need to be made to allow for special circumstances. For example, Lee Parker, professor of accounting at the University of South Australia (and co-editor of Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal), varies his delivery and the exercises he gives when teaching in Hong Kong, where students tend to work long hours six days a week, and may consequently fall asleep in class.

Teaching uncertainty

Some situations – and subjects – force lecturers to take a more radical, counter cultural approach (at least, counter to the culture they find themselves in).

David Weir and his colleague Simon Lawder both have extensive experience of teaching in French business schools, and both found they had to work hard to get a reaction out of their students.

Both, however, retained their interactive teaching style, getting people to work in groups, deliberately mixing the cultures, using story-telling and case studies, encouraging reflection.

But isn't it a form of cultural imperialism, to assume that the way one teaches in one's own country is better, and is it really wrong to view teaching as imparting expertise?

Lawder is adamant that it is not. In business, there are so many ways of doing things, and it's not simply a matter of learning models and systems.

Lawder teaches business ethics, where there is no one right answer. Weir teaches intercultural management, where cultural sensitivity and listening skills are critical (he has a "coffee shop" exercise where he gets students to pretend they are in a coffee shop so they need to circulate and meet as many people as possible).

Locally appropriate materials

Not everybody to whom I spoke felt the need to vary their teaching style; most, however, commented on the need to alter the substance and use examples that are relevant to the culture they are teaching in.

Anecdotes and jokes also may not translate easily to another culture. The case study has long been a staple of business education, but the tendency is to use cases which reflect American business culture, and are often out of date.

It's far preferable to use cases and other teaching materials which relate to the student's own country or culture: for example, Chinese businesses such as Lenovo for Chinese business students, or small and medium enterprises for countries without multinational penetration.

The Global Business School Network, which helps business schools achieve international standards by organizing collaborative partnerships with top global schools, is helping to create locally sourced case studies available in an online database.

Another useful resource is Emerald Emerging Markets Case Studies, an online collection of peer-reviewed case studies focusing on business decision making and management development throughout key global emerging markets. Written by case writers working in developing economies, they offer local perspectives with global appeal.