The Impact of Local Culture on Education in Laos
2019-04-15 Mark Crocker Alumni Experiences
The local cultural environment undoubtedly plays a crucial role in a community’s education system. When specifically talking about developing countries, it is unavoidable to include Laos among those with a strong cultural background. Although Laos can be considered a fairly small country, it surprisingly contains more than 45 different ethnic groups, most of which boast their own traditions, culture, and language. This is a peculiar context that certainly needs to be taken into consideration when talking about education development. In a country like Laos, where old traditions and beliefs are still strongly followed by the community, the education system tends to absorb many of the local customary rules.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Beatrice S.
Challenges Facing an English Teacher in Laos
Here the official language is Lao, but more than 30 other languages are present in the country. This wide variety is undoubtedly a cultural treasure, but it means that Lao is, for the majority of the community, the second language, and English would be the third. A further challenge comes from the fact that many of the ethnic groups do not have any written tradition. As a consequence some people from these communities are likely to have never had any contact with any type of alphabet. In this context not only the new language is a great challenge, but also the sudden approach to a written tradition is an important factor that must be taken into consideration. In this environment it usually takes a long time to get the students confident enough to communicate and interact with their peers. Also, this challenge becomes even greater when these communities face their first contact with the English language.
The Problem of Losing Face
Having a glance at the Lao community as a whole, it is possible to find a shared cultural sensitivity. The fear of losing face in the community can be considered as one of the main cultural issues that has a great impact on the education system. This constantly leads the students to avoid feeling exposed in front of their peers, and to avoid questioning their teachers when in need. Considering that the main aim of teaching is the student’s understanding, if the student themselves is not willing to collaborate with the teacher, it becomes harder and harder to provide an effective teaching strategy. This student behavior generally triggers confusion in the learning process and as a consequence leads to a tendency to copy and cheat during activities, exams, and homework. Overall, the students tend to give more importance to their score, rather than actual understanding. For this reason, in Laos the act of copying from classmates is not generally considered as actual cheating, but instead, it is seen as communal help between friends. Local teachers themselves normally allow this behavior, but for foreigner English teachers and volunteers this can be a real problem in the classroom.
The Impact of Culture on Teaching Methods
This strong part of the culture also has a great impact on Lao methods of teaching and learning. Students here are mainly required to memorize parts of the textbook, and from time to time copy them into their workbook. Evaluation tests are also mainly made up of multiple choice or short written answers to avoid public humiliation in case of mistakes. This teaching strategy for the students, when in contact with a western method of teaching, can cause confusion and frustration. Students are also not generally exposed to open conversations. While In western schools active communication with the teacher is usually encouraged and supported, in Laos their personal opinion is never required in the classroom, nor is it in the community. This is particularly evident in public schools, where the critical thinking process is not even taken into consideration as part of personal and mental development.
Hope For the Future
When working in this country as an English teacher, a radical change in EFL teaching methods is required. A step by step process to lead students to develop their critical thinking is of great importance for their future personal and professional goals. English teachers and volunteers have to bare in mind the fundamental differences in culture, and develop new creative methods to encourage their students to slowly expose themselves in order to build their confidence, and make the English lesson as effective as possible. Other major issues such as the role of women and children as a workforce in rural areas, and the young age of marriages are also relevant issues with regard to education in Laos. However, slow progress has been made in the past decade and hope for the future can be seen through a gradual increase in access to education and public institutions making an effort to move forward.
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