Worlds Apart: Exploring Cultural Differences in Education
One of the beautiful things about studying abroad is the opportunity to learn first-hand about a new country’s culture. It’s an absolutely amazing experience, and it is eye-opening if you let it be. While many of the more obvious differences from the US have been present in my time here, a couple of them have just affected me in the last couple weeks, and I want to take a minute to share some of my thoughts on these topics.
The first area of difference: education. Overall, my classes have been incredibly easy here. I thought I had it easy at AU, but it’s been even easier here. That is, until I reached my first set of exams. I did well (better than expected!), but I definitely noticed the difference between measuring understanding here versus in the US. Since I began studying at AU, I have taken very few exams in comparison to the number of essays I have written. Here, the exact opposite is true. Essays don’t really exist, and exams are everything (my mid-term essay for TESOL is a blog post of 550 words!). A single exam is 15%-20% of your grade for the semester, and that’s not even a final exam. Personally, I prefer writing essays, and I think they are a better measurement of true understanding (in most fields). For example, I took a literature course last fall and I’m in another now. In the course last fall, we took SMALL quizzes over each group of authors, mainly to test us over which author wrote which piece, and then we wrote 4-5 page analysis essays. In my literature course here, we take exams over the authors, the pieces, and the little details that come with it. There’s significantly less analysis, and our only essay is part of our final. To me, I think that essays are a better measurement for literature courses and others. I think it’s more important to display the ability to analyze and think for yourself than to memorize random facts about authors and their work. But that’s what they value here. We were told in our orientation week that Dominicans have a great respect for authority and don’t question anything said by authority figures. We were told that plagiarism is actually accepted here because those are the words of authority, and it would be wrong to come up with ideas contrasting those of authority. Students have lost points on short-answer exams for not writing the exact wording found in the textbook. There’s a strong respect for authority, and it carries over into the education system. It’s taken some adjustment for me, since US universities value critical thinking and encourage students to question and challenge what has already been said in order to form their own beliefs.
The second area of difference: music education. I’m taking a course here in singing, and it has been an incredibly interesting experience. We meet once a week in a “theatre,” which is actually just a large classroom with tiered rows of desks and a small stage in front. There’s no piano or other musical instruments. There’s actually nothing music-related in the room at all. Our class consists of the professor calling us onstage one at a time to sing a capella in front of the class (which is frightening, because the Dominicans in our class are intimidatingly good!). Yesterday, our professor brought in a small electric keyboard to use, and we worked on some very basic ear training. He would play an arpeggio, and we’d have to sing it back to him as a group. Then he’d play a single note and pick one of us to give the notes of the arpeggio to the others, making a chord vocally. In reality, this is a very simple task. But I was amazed at how everyone struggled, other than another US American and me. They couldn’t match the pitch the professor gave them, vocally or on the piano. And when they were told to sing the arpeggio, the couldn’t get the intervals right. I was blown away that these amazing vocalists couldn’t do something as simple as match pitch or sing an arpeggio. But as I thought about it more and asked some questions, I realized yet again how blessed I am. I’ve never had intense aural training or anything, but I’ve had music class in school since first grade. Here, music and art education isn’t a thing. The only music or art instruction kids receive here is private, and only wealthy families can afford to put their kids in these classes. They don’t have these options as electives until college (if they go), and even in college, there are incredibly limited options. Majoring in anything artistic simply doesn’t exist, nor do ensembles. Incredibly basic classes are the only offerings in the arts. So how did these students learn how to sing so well individually? They listened to recordings and copied what they heard. And they do it well, but it doesn’t help them sing in a group setting. When I realized these things, I suddenly realized how I’ve taken for granted the education I’ve received in the US. And it makes me want to fight for music and art education even more.
I feel like I can’t go a single day without realizing even more how blessed I am and how ignorant I am. I know I’ve said it before, but I am just so incredibly grateful that God won’t let me stay ignorant and continues to teach me and show me new things. I have learned so much in my time here, and I know that there’s so much more to learn, too much for just two short months. But that means I have reason to come back again in the future, right? ;)