Why Don’t Asian Students Ask Questions in Class?

When I was about to embark on my first teaching assignment in Asia, a colleague with lots of overseas teaching experience there told me to take lots of lesson material. When I asked why, he said, “Because Asian students don’t ask questions”. In Canada, the US or other Western country it is normal to have a question and answer period at the end of a lesson. In Asia, forget it! Unless you have a class of students who have studied overseas, you are likely to enjoy the sound of silence.

Why don’t they ask questions? Let me answer that from my experience teaching in Thailand. It holds true throughout Asia and may vary by degree. A young child in Thailand is taught that ‘father knows best’. There is no need to think. Father will tell you what to do. In school, the teacher knows best. Copy down what the teacher puts on the board. That is what will be on the exam. There is little transfer of learning. Change the wording on the exam and most of the students will probably not be able to answer the question.

Later, in business, you don’t have to think, your boss will tell you what to do. Granted, this may be an oversimplified view but in essence it is what happens.

Now, add to that the concept of ‘face’ which is prevalent throughout Asia though virtually unknown in North America and other Western countries. If a student asks a question in class, s/he leaves her/himself open to two possible ‘loss of face’ scenarios. By asking a question, it implies that a) either the teacher did not explain the topic well enough for the student to understand – thus opening up a loss of face situation for the teacher in front of the class, or b) the students was too dumb to have understood what the teacher was saying and so the student loses face amongst her/his classmates. While this may seem ridiculous to some and a little odd to others, believe me, it is a fact of life in Asia – at least in the oriental countries.

Since neither situation is a good one to initiate, it is better to avoid the problem by not asking the question – at least not in class. The student may opt to speak to the teacher outside the classroom after class or sometime later when there is no one else around. Loss of face is a serious issue in Asia, potentially even fatal. I kid you not. Teachers in Western countries who have newly-arrived Asian students should at the very least be aware of ‘face’. These students become ‘westernized’ quickly though.

I think the situation is changing as more and more students are exposed to western thinking, teaching and culture but within Asia traditions die hard.

The ‘face’ issue goes hand-in-hand with a concept that I have termed ‘The Cyborg Effect’. If you recall the Cyborg from Star Trek in their gigantic metal cube, these creatures functioned as individual bodies but one linked mind. In Thailand, students sit in pairs generally. Ask one student a question and you will not usually get an immediate response. The student will turn to her/his partner and confer. You will then receive a collective answer. In some ways this is good. However, it makes it difficult to assess individual student knowledge.