Bridging Belief Gaps in ELT Teacher Education in Cross-cultural Settings
by Qing Gu

This article first appeared in the IATEFL TTEd SIG Newsletter Issue 2, July 2003


The increasing demand for English as an international language is no longer a new topic in the ELT profession (Kachru 1992, Crystal 1997, Widdowson 1997, Nunan 2001). In the "global village" (Mok 2000: 148), improving the quality of ELT in developing countries through teacher training programmes with the input of expatriate teacher trainers has attracted intensive attention for some time (Prabhu 1987, White 1987, Kennedy 1988, Holliday 1994 & 2001, Kennedy 1999, Markee 1997 & 2001). Interest mainly focuses on cross-cultural professional communication. This paper demonstrates that in such programmes the observed differences in perception on issues in ELT arise not only across cultures - between ELT professionals with different sociocultural backgrounds but also arise within cultures as a result of expatriate teacher trainers holding different perceptions within the same aid projects. It draws upon case studies of Sino-British institutional development projects carried out by the author to investigate the implementation of English language teaching innovations at tertiary level Chinese institutions.


A programme of eventually twenty-seven Department for International Development (DFID) programmes of assistance to China in ELT aimed at institutional strengthening, was initiated in the late 1970s, jointly administrated by the British Council and the Chinese Ministry of Education (British Council 1999). These projects were intended to introduce 'more effective communicative language teaching methodologies' (British Council Webpage 1999) in Chinese ELT, and all included a teacher training component. The projects ended in July 2001 when the last ELT teacher training programme was completed in Gansu province. As well as teaching materials and other ELT resources, most projects enjoy the input of British ELT specialists based in the English departments of selected Chinese universities as teacher trainers (The British Council 1999).

Belief gaps across cultures

In spring 2001, the author carried out a field study of these Sino-British ELT projects. The study involved an interview and questionnaire research conducted in 24 Chinese universities that were involved in the projects. Analysis of these data strongly suggests that a substantial degree of common ground exists between British teacher trainers and Chinese teachers of English on some crucial issues concerning English language teaching in China:

  • On how English has been taught in China (general overview)
  • On how a foreign language should be taught
  • On the status of English language tests in ELT
  • On Chinese students' learning styles and strategies

On the whole British teacher trainers have presented a quite legitimate picture of Chinese ELT, which bears striking similarity to Chinese teachers' descriptions. A strong criticism expressed by British teacher trainers was that 'English was being taught like a dead language' in some places. This accords with a finding of the study that the large majority of Chinese respondents take a sceptical attitude towards the efficiency of Chinese ELT methods as Figure 1 below shows.

Effectiveness of Chinese ELT methods with the majority of students

Figure 1: Effectiveness of Chinese ELT methods with the majority of students

There are shared views between British and Chinese ELT teachers on the general advantages provided by CLT, such as learner autonomy, its meeting of learners' needs, its cultivation of students' abilities to use the language in real-life situations. Such shared views provide common ground on which the two groups, despite their different sociocultural backgrounds, may work together towards a shared goal.

The critical belief gap between the British teacher trainers and the Chinese teachers of English appears to lie in their interpretations and understandings of the local context and its impact on language teaching and learning. The following two quotations from the Chinese respondents interviewed in the author's fieldwork reveal the local voice.

"The British specialists should think about the cultural appropriacy of the methodology he/she proposes. They need to work out what CLT is like in the Chinese context. If they don't know much about our own context and abstractly sell their theories, I would not listen or use them at all. … We should like to work with experts who think for us and who understand and know our expectations."
(Non-case study participant 1)

"It is very important for the British Council to consider someone's ability to adapt themselves to the local context when they select specialists to work in developing countries. They should be able to adjust themselves to the context in developing countries."
(Non-case study participant 2)

A questionnaire survey was made of Chinese teachers of English who were involved in the Sino-British ELT projects. The data gathered confirm the attitude identified in the interview work. Figure 2 below shows that only 31% of Chinese respondents think British specialists are experts in Chinese classrooms. In contrast, 99% of Chinese respondents would like British teacher trainers to work collaboratively with them on the implementation of ELT innovations and change in the local classroom.

View of British Specialists

Figure 2: Teachers holding positive attitudes towards each of the five issues
Key: Issues 1 to 5 range from left to right side of the graph
Issue 1 - British specialists are experts in Chinese classrooms.
Issue 2 - British and Chinese teachers have different ideas about
'good' teaching performance.
Issue 3 - Chinese teachers learn methodology from British specialists.
Issue 4 - British specialists and Chinese teachers should work together on ELT innovations.
Issue 5 - British specialists respect Chinese teachers' experience.

Feiman-Nemser and Floden (1986) introduce the notion of the cultures of teaching to highlight the beliefs about appropriate ways of acting on the job of teaching as well as the knowledge that enables teachers to do their work. They illustrate a common thesis - 'the cultures of teaching are shaped by the contexts of teaching' (1986: 515). A prominent issue addressed by both the interview and questionnaire work is that of cultural sensitivity. Below the surface impression of shared views between the Chinese and British teachers lies a marked difference in their perceptions of the local teaching and learning context. Because British specialists and Chinese teachers come from different teaching cultures, their perception of appropriate classroom behaviour usually differs. It is of crucial importance for external change agents, in this case the British teacher trainers, to assess the cultural appropriateness or compatibility of innovations with recipients' - Chinese teachers' current practices (Markee 1997: 13) and be ready to make changes if necessary.

Cortazzi and Jin (1996) introduce the notion of culture of learning to explain the difference in behaviour in language classrooms. They maintain that a culture of learning has its roots in the educational and, more broadly, cultural traditions of the society, and that the 'Western and Chinese cultures of learning sometimes weave past each other without linking' (1996: 10). The way to establish a bridge between the different cultures is through dialogue. Kennedy (1987: 167) argues that the success of change programmes is likely to rest on the extent to which any different attitudes to language teaching and learning can be openly discussed and resolved.

In a cross-cultural setting, the recognition of shared views between the expatriate teacher trainer and the indigenous teacher may serve as the starting point for ELT professionals from different cultures to begin to establish mutual understanding and a collaborative working environment. Failure to recognise the common ground will lead to an over emphasis of differences and difficulties and may establish an impossible barrier to the implementation of change.

Belief gaps within cultures

The study identified two clusters of British ELT specialists differing in their understandings of language teaching and learning. Table 1 below sets out the differing beliefs and views of English language teaching held by these two clusters, as summarised from the interview data.

Cluster One - Interaction
Cluster Two - Contextual Needs
  • Learning English through interaction
  • Paying attention to conversation
  • Need to practise speaking and listening
  • Importance of communication
  • A lot of group work, discussion, pair work
  • Developing more language skills besides reading
  • Looking for bridge between CLT and the traditional methods
  • Looking for various methods suitable for contexts
  • Teaching/operating from within a discourse
  • Teaching within context
  • Adapting according to local contexts
  • Culturally appropriate methodology

Figure 3: Observation of two clusters of British specialists - beliefs and views of ELT

All the 19 interviewed British specialists clearly showed beliefs in teaching English through communication, and emphasised the importance of interaction in learning a foreign language. Nine specialists particularly highlighted the necessity to improve Chinese students' spoken English and listening skills. In contrast, the other ten interviewees registered the meaning of contextual needs in language teaching. They repeatedly emphasised the relevance of the social-cultural context and believed that their job was to help Chinese teachers to improve teaching quality within their own educational context. The second cluster of ten British specialists had more positive views about Chinese ELT approaches than the first group. They saw 'pragmatic reasons' for English to be taught in a certain way in Chinese classrooms, and showed an understanding of the rationale for existing teaching approaches within the Chinese discourse of language teaching and learning.

The following quotations from two British interview respondents, one taken from the first cluster and one taken from the second cluster, exemplify the views listed in Table 1 and demonstrate contrasting observations.

Cluster One - Interaction

"We had been taught Latin in a similar way, sort of Grammar-Translation methods. I found that in some places English was being taught like a dead language. … People still are memorising vocabulary, memorising dictionaries, thinking that that would improve their English, and absolutely no concentration on communication. … So Intensive Reading was something that I did not understand at all."
(British respondent 8)

Cluster Two - Contextual needs

"I'd always assumed in the past, coming from these traditions, very strong sort of British type CLT tradition, an Intensive Reading class would not involve participation. It would have assumed the students to be in a very sort of passive mode … What I noticed was that there was a lot of communication going on in the classroom, but it was subtle. And the teacher was very much in tune with the flow of the class."
(British respondent 4)

Figure 3 below summarises the two clusters' emotional feedback on their experience in China as teacher trainers. Among the first cluster of nine people, only one thought of the experience in China as 'wonderful'. In comparison, five out of ten people in Cluster Two enjoyed their professional experience in the Sino-British ELT projects. There are no confused faces in Cluster Two as in Cluster One who appeared to have had some demanding time in the projects. Cluster Two people tended to regard their experience in China as a professional investment that had led to the progression of their academic careers.

Interaction (9)
Contextual needs (10)

Table 1: Two clusters' feedback on their experience in Sino-British projects


The belief gaps across and within cultures observed in this study both emphasise sociocultural and contextual factors underlying language teaching and learning. The main disparity lies in the awareness and extent to which ELT professionals realise and perceive the influence of contextual and personal factors on language teaching practices. Pennycook (1989) argues that

… teachers made a whole series of decisions about teaching based on their own educational experiences, their personalities, their particular institutional, social, cultural, and political circumstances, their understanding of their particular students' collective and individual needs, and so on.
(1989: 606)

Pennycook's argument presents a complex picture of teacher personal knowledge. It implies that any teaching method, say CLT, cannot be an abstract label to a teacher. What the teacher has learned from theorists about the teaching method will have to be used and tested in practice before the theoretical knowledge is conceptualised and constructed as part of the teacher's personal knowledge. This is a dynamic, on-going process that interplays with the teacher's contextualised beliefs about teaching and learning. The teacher's educational and professional experience, knowledge of learners' interests, motivation and learning strategies, and understanding of teaching context including the classroom context and the institutional culture play a crucial part in this process.

The ultimate personal knowledge creation is accomplished by the 'complimentary processes of assimilation and accommodation' (Williams & Burden 1997: 22). According to Williams and Burden (1997), the process of assimilation refers to the methods whereby teachers change and modify the incoming information (say, theories of CLT) in their minds so that it will fit in with what they already know. The process of accommodation, on the other hand, refers to the process whereby they modify and adapt what they already know to take into account new information. Elsewhere, Eraut (1994) addresses a similar point on the construction of personal knowledge:

learning knowledge and using knowledge are not separate processes but the same process. The process of using knowledge transforms that knowledge so that it is no longer the same knowledge. But people are so accustomed to using the word 'knowledge' to refer only to 'book knowledge' which is publicly available in codified form, that they have developed only limited awareness of the nature and extent of their personal knowledge.
(1994: 25)

Eventually, teachers' knowledge of the teaching method is anchored in the practical circumstances in which they work and is based on personal understandings of classroom knowledge as well as knowledge of students (Carter 1990, cited in Munby et al 2001). The theoretical claims of CLT will be integrated and reconstructed into individual teacher's schemata or knowledge structures on language teaching and learning, and no longer be the same knowledge in theorists' publications, but of distinctively individualised and contextualised characteristics.

An awareness of the nature of teachers' personal knowledge may help to lift the veil of the belief gaps across and within cultures observed in this study. The identification of two clusters of British specialists highlights the importance of understanding the meaning of sociocultural factors in language teaching and learning. British specialists who tended to mediate CLT to fit in with the local context were more likely to rate their experience in the projects positively than those who held more rigid views on the universal applicability of CLT.

Hofstede's (1986: 301) suggests that in bridging the cross-cultural teaching gap - 'The burden of adaptation in cross-cultural learning situations should be primarily on the teachers'. It is argued here that in the case of INSET programmes in cross-cultural settings the burden of adaptation should be rest primarily on the expatriate teacher trainers. They may need to take one step back from their values and 'cherished beliefs' and get 'intellectually and emotionally accustomed to the fact that in other societies,' people teach and learn in different ways (Hostede 1986: 316). In Kennedy and Kennedy's words (1998: 458), no matter how good or logical some ideas might seem in the generating culture, they cannot be automatically transferred into another culture that may hold different values.

The key to bridging the belief gap between ELT professionals across cultures lies in a realisation of the contextualised nature of professional knowledge, an appreciation of a different teaching and learning culture, and a willingness to establish dialogue. It is of crucial importance to understand that teacher change is a slow cognitive process that involves the reconceptualisation of teaching theories and the establishment of 'a sense of plausibility' (Prabhu 1990: 161). In order to achieve long-term change in teachers' performance, as Richardson and Placier (2001) argue, teacher training should give way to teacher education, focusing on helping teachers to develop ways of thinking. The ultimate aim will be to enable teachers to develop from the competence-oriented end on a professional development continuum to the meaning-building end that requires rationalised reflection of teaching practice and professional empowerment.


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Dr Qing Gu, a former Lecturer in EFL at a Chinese university, has recently completed her doctoral research on in-service language teacher education in cross-cultural contexts in the School of Education of the University of Birmingham. Her research interests are language education, teacher education and comparative education. She has several publications in national and international journals.

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