Roundtable Three: Understanding Cultural Differences in the Classroom

Understanding Cultural Differences in the Classroom

by Brittany Rock

So there’s a problem…

Whether you have taught before, or this is your first time at the front of the classroom, teaching in Japan can sometimes pose obstacles. One day you walk into your classroom with a great lesson ready to go, but the students do not react the way you want them to and your JTE does not seem to be helping either. Instead, what you get is a classroom full of silence and a JTE who makes excuses for the students or gives away answers. Why is that? Instead of getting frustrated and giving up, let us explore what might be behind this.

Understand Your Own Lens

The way we view the classroom is based on our own personal experiences. Think about the lessons you had in your home country.

If you’re like me, your classroom style was very informal. In my high school, each student’s schedule was tailored to his or her individual ability and interest in each subject (within the government curriculum). This meant that motivation and skill levels were fairly uniform within a specific subject’s classroom. When the bell rang, the teacher would focus the attention of the noisy class as they settled into their seats, and then begin speaking to show that class had started. During the class period we were able to raise our hands to ask the teacher questions or submit our own viewpoint on a topic. Sometimes this would lead to discussion among the classmates each sharing opposing perspectives. While off-topic remarks were halted, the teacher would often encourage interruptions to the lecture and guide them so that they corresponded with the material. In fact, this part of the classroom experience would be part of the grade, sometimes even up to 25%! Do any of these points sound familiar to you?

This was not the school environment I was confronted with in Japan.

Experiences in the Japanese Classroom

When I arrived to teach my first English class in my Japanese high school, I was thrown back by just how different this environment was. The formal atmosphere felt a bit intimidating. In my high school all students take the same courses together at the same pace. The students would remain silent throughout class except for the opening and closing bows during the bell chime. When I felt unsure of the student’s understanding of my lesson, I received no facial or body language clues to understand if they were confused or not. When I asked a question, fear permeated the room as each student hoped they wouldn’t be called on and the JTE would lean over and tell a student something to repeat.

The Research

So why are these environments so vastly different? Scholars point to the large influence that the teachings of Socrates and Confucius had on their respective regions. Here is what I gathered from my research. For a deeper understanding of this comparison, I suggest you check out this article published in 2002 by Darrin R Lehman and Roger G Tweed. This publication is also the source from which I based a majority of my article today.


Socrates was a man attributed as saying that all men are ignorant and that no one can truly claim to be very knowledgeable, including himself. He would use questions to probe deeply into people’s beliefs and expose their lack of knowledge. He argued that truth is located within the individual and cannot be obtained through society or an authority figure. The path to truth is achieved by questioning oneself. The goal of teaching is to help others understand their own truth by guiding them with questions. He encouraged his students to doubt their own beliefs and find the rational justification for their opinions rather than accept them as the truth. He believed in learning for the sake of learning.


Confucius on the other hand is characterized by his focus on educating men for civil service positions. The goal of learning for him is to improve the harmony of society overall, especially in regards to behavior. The path to knowledge was obtained by extensive and continued effort on behalf of the student. The student must strive to improve their skill until they can avoid mistakes. The Confucian ideal is someone who is modest about his abilities, thinks carefully before speaking, and always attempts to learn from and imitate the respected people within the community.

Connecting Theory with Experience

Perhaps by now you are able to see the connections between the theories and my personal experiences. Allow me to attempt to put these generalities into more practical situations.

Attitudes Towards Failure/Making Mistakes

The Difference: The Confucian student will believe more strongly in the importance of “doing your best” in the classroom. If they keep trying, eventually they will succeed. This is opposed to the Socratic student will place stronger focus on their own (lack of) ability or the skill of their teacher.

Suggested Approach: Repeating concepts, phrases, or words over multiple English lessons will help the Confucian student build confidence that they can reproduce the points from your lesson without errors.


The Difference: The Confucian student will see education as a means to an end more strongly than a Socratic student. The Confucian students are studying so they can get into a good university and then get a good job. They are motivated when a trusted peer or authority figure decides their path for them, while a Socratic student is more motivated by free choice. With Confucian students, learning for enjoyment is not as strong a motivator, even if they do enjoy your games. If a student does not see a big company job in their future, their motivation to study will be very low.

Suggested Approach: Show the students the utility of your lesson for their University Entrance Exams. Try to apply your lessons to their future goals.

Speaking Out In Class

The Difference: The Confucian student will see submissive behavior towards the teacher as the respectful way to behave. They will not ask questions or speak out for fear of disrespecting the teacher or unbalancing the harmony of the classroom.

Suggested Approach: Allow consensus building among the students through pair or group work before asking them to speak out. This will hopefully lessen this anxiety.

What to Take Away From This Article

You will find differences between your home culture and Japanese culture in every aspect of your life including the classroom. If you notice any differences, point them out to your JTE! Opening up a dialogue about these differences will help you form better relationships with your JTEs and improve the structure of your lessons. Hopefully by taking the time to consider these differences you have already come up with ways to blend these two styles in your plans.

Disclaimer: While we realize that individuals have varying backgrounds, for the purposes of a thought experiment this article assumes that all ALTs come from a Socratic learning environment while Japanese teachers and students come from a Confucian environment. Additionally, this article provides anecdotal evidence from the point of view of an American ALT working at a high-level Japanese high school. The goal of this article is to encourage the reader to consider these anecdotes within their own contexts. Student and JTE personalities and attitudes may vary.

Want More?

Here is an essay written by a Japanese student studying in America. This account makes some great additional observations not covered in this roundtable and hints at some tips that might be useful to assist your students in the classroom:

If you have any comments, questions, or would like to continue the discussion on this topic, you can reach the author at:

You can download a PDF version of this workshop by clicking here.
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