Applicability of contemporary western Human Resource Development concepts in the People's Republic of China
A cross-cultural investigation of employees' attitudes at a multinational corporation
Master's Thesis 2010 79 Pages
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. LIST OF TABLES / FIGURES
2.1 Context and Purpose of the Research
2.2 Structure of the Paper
3. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE.
3.1 The Strategic Human Resource Development Proposition
3.2 The Shift from Training to Learning
3.2.2 Action Learning
3.3 The Chinese Culture of Learning
3.4 Conclusions from the Literature Review
4. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY.
4.1 Refratechnik – The Unit of Analysis
4.2 Research Approach and Strategy
4.3 Data Analysis, Sampling and other Quality Aspects
4.4 The Primary Data Gathering Instrument
4.5 Ethical Considerations
5. PRESENTATION AND DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS
5.1 Response Rate and Profile of Survey Participants
5.2 Cultural Conservatism in Training Situations
5.3 Attitudes towards Contemporary Western HRD Concepts
5.4 Expected Trainer / Trainee Role Allocation
5.5 Self-Assessed Learning Style Disposition
5.6 Self-Assessed Training Needs
5.7 Final Discussion and Recommendations
Appendix 1. The Questionnaire (Chinese/English version)
Appendix 2. Feedback from the Pilot Survey Group (excerpt)
Appendix 3. Interview Protocol Yingkou Refratechnik
1. LIST OF TABLES / FIGURES
Figure 1. The Experiential Learning Cycle
Table 1. Visible Artefacts of Chinese Culture
Table 2. Structure of the Questionnaire
Figure 2. Responses to Question 11: Would it be appropriate to criticise an
older, more experienced colleague publicly in a training situation?
Figure 3. Responses to Question 12: Would it be appropriate to criticise
the trainer publicly in a training situation?
Figure 4. Responses to Question 10: Would it be appropriate to criticise a subordinate publicly in a training situation?..
Figure 5. Grouped Frequency Distributions of Accumulated Responses to
Questions 17 - 20 (usefulness of contemporary western HRD concepts)
Figure 6. Responses to Question 20: How useful would an action learning
training programme be for you personal development?
Figure 7. Responses to Question 19: How useful would coaching be for your personal development?
Figure 8. Responses to Question 21 (usefulness of instructor-led training)
Figure 9. Semantic Profile (modified) of an Idealised Trainer
Figure 10. Semantic Profile (modified) of an Idealised Trainee
Figure 11. Responses to Question 16 (preferred learning styles)
Figure 12. Summary of Full-Text Responses to Question
(self-assessed training needs)
2.1 Context and Purpose of the Research
The People’s Republic of China (PRC), after passing through various tumultuous revolutionist stages, succeeded by gradualist reforms since Deng Xiaoping managed to put through the open door (kaifang gaige) and modernisation (xiandaihua) policies in the late 1970s, has emerged as the fastest-growing economic superpower of our time (Naugthon 2007). As a severe collateral effect of this development and especially the accompanying intensification of commercial relations with western nations, the governing communist party is faced with the challenge of upholding their ideal of a harmonious society based on Confucian values, which is constantly exposed to the conflict between a socialist political system and a free market economy (Warner & Goodall 2010).
With the increase of foreign direct-investment in China and the burgeoning of privatised international companies such as joint ventures (JVs), numerous management concepts from the western world have been imported with mixed results (Ng & Siu 2005). One area which seems to be of particular importance to be investigated, given the fact that employing a highly-skilled and adaptable workforce is considered the decisive competitive advantage for any organisation which is competing in today’s global economy (Harrison 2009), is that of human resource development (HRD). Contemporary western HRD concepts propagate a shift away from traditional training interventions, in which the participants play a rather passive role, to the organised stimulation of pro-active learning through critical reflection processes (Sloman 2005).
Since this requires an attitude on the side of both trainers and trainees, which is almost completely contrary to the conservative code of conduct expected in an educational environment shaped by Confucian values, which attribute to the teacher the pivotal function of an unquestionable emitter of wisdom (Le 2003), it seems questionable whether methods derived from the contemporary western paradigm are at all applicable in China (Chee 2003).
This research will investigate this question by attempting to gauge the attitudes towards contemporary western HRD concepts and expectations regarding a training situation of Chinese employees based in China at the subsidiary of a German multinational corporation (MNC) and comparing them with those of their western counterparts in Germany. Although the results of this cross-cultural study cannot be expected to provide a generally valid answer to the question of applicability, it is hoped that some useful insights can be gained which may add to existing literature in this area and furthermore inform future decision-making on training and development investment and design at the unit of analysis.
2.2 Structure of the Paper
In order to establish a sound understanding of what is meant by contemporary western HRD concepts and subsequently be able to discuss whether these are applicable in the Chinese working environment, the literature review undertaken in chapter three will first unravel the importance of training and development initiatives to be aligned with the strategic goals of an organisation and clarify some corresponding terminology. In the second part, the currently propagated shift from training to learning and some selected HRD methods falling into that category will be discussed before the distinctiveness of the Chinese culture of learning will be explored and a first tentative conclusion can be reached.
Chapter four explains the methodology of the quantitative cross-cultural comparative research design selected to investigate the attitudes and expectations of employees based in China and Germany. The data gathering instrument and results of the pilot study will be presented in detail and corresponding questions of reliability and validity as well as some ethical considerations will be discussed.
The presentation and discussion of results will be conducted in chapter five using basic descriptive and standard inferential statistics. Significant findings are related to and compared with the insights obtained from the literature review and concrete recommendations for the unit of analysis are given.
A final conclusion is drawn in chapter six and ultimately, some avenues for further research will be suggested.
3. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
3.1 The Strategic Human Resource Development Proposition
It has been argued that strategy can be referred to as ‘the match an organization makes between its internal resources and skills … and the opportunities and risks created by its external environment’ (Grant 1991, p 114). Although it may appear to be potentially limiting to merely assume one distinct position in what has become an ever-burgeoning debate for strategists (Luoma 2000), this resource-based view supports the contemporary opinion that the management and especially the development of an organization’s workforce’s capability – frequently labelled its human resources (HR) - constitute essential components for formulating and implementing strategies successfully (Armstrong 2007).
Some authors postulate such development endeavours must be considered a priority activity, especially for those businesses operating in the environment of today’s globalised knowledge-based economy, which is predominantly characterised by fierce competition, almost constant technological change and an increasing complexity of job requirements demanding a high degree of adaptability from employees (Harrison 2009). Others talk about the emergence of the knowledge worker, an individual who contributes to reaching an organization’s business goals not only by being highly adaptive but more through constantly challenging rigid processes and outdated beliefs, thereby providing innovative solutions, creating novel products and hence becoming ‘the single most significant source of competitive advantage’ (Walton 1999, p 85).
In order to both harvest and cultivate the potential of such idealised workers, a discussion about how to conduct HRD more strategically has emerged in the literature since the end of the last century (Torrington & Hall 1998). This is the result of growing critique in response to many previous years of piecemeal approaches in which HRD interventions were more or less isolated activities, which quite often were presented in a “one size fits all” format and failed to demonstrate a clear contribution to implementing business strategies (Mumford & Gold 2004, Ketter 2009).
Leonard Nadler originally distinguished between ‘three essential activity areas’ (Nadler 1992, p 2). He saw training (1) as an activity which focuses on improving current job performance of an employee, education (2) as a set of activities which prepare an individual for any potential future job role and development (3) as the term which refers to the general promotion of long-term personal growth. The overarching concept of learning as the incidental as well as intentional acquisition of new knowledge, skills and competences leading to relatively permanent changes in behaviour and attitudes was considered the vehicle for those activities which, in the context of professional HRD, were delivered as planned experiences by the employer within a specific time period and with the intention to improve the daily performance of employees (Nadler & Nadler 1989). Although his differentiation is still acknowledged throughout the literature, Nadler has been criticised for placing too much emphasis on the employer or HRD professional as the primary initiator of employee learning (Walton 1999), an aspect which shall be revisited in the next section of this literature review.
In a more recent publication, Thomas Garavan (2007) proposes a multi-level model, in which he defines strategic HRD as a ‘coherent, vertically aligned and horizontally integrated set of learning and development activities which contribute to the achievement of strategic goals’ (p 25). The underlying notion that the creation of an open and constructive learning climate is an inevitable prerequisite for that alignment to be feasible is present throughout the literature (McCracken & Wallace 2000, Ulrich et al 2009).
Ideally, such a climate and the systematic alignment of HRD activities with the organizational and the external context could open up a kind of constructive learning arena in which tacit knowledge -which is usually typified as know-how and intuition and can be understood as context-relevant data based on personal experience, emotions or subjective values that have not been explicitly articulated (Polanyi 1966)- can be externalised and new one may be created through manifold yet controllable socialisation and combination processes between all members of an organisation as well as its external stakeholders (Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995). The outcome of such processes can be stored physically within the structure of the organisation in forms of databases or manuals, and furthermore change and guide the behaviour of current and future employees who find themselves exposed to novel challenges at the workplace, and again implant their experiences in dealing with them in this organism-like dynamic system, which is thereby perpetually reshaped and enabled to maintain its adaptability (Argyris & Schön 1996).
Although this theory about organisational learning has been rejected by those who say that only the individual can learn and it is nothing more than the accumulated output of these activities which is being generated in organisations (Field 2004), the underlying implications for any approach to HRD, which is intended to be strategic, remain substantially unchallenged. Training, education and development opportunities, which are set out to meet clearly specified and measurable objectives, must be provided to all employees in a positive learning climate, one which rewards flexibility and encourages creative, self-guided experimentation as well as an open and honest exchange of externalised knowledge through group interactions, so that the full potential of all of the organisation’s resources may be utilised to both shape new strategies as well as identify and take advantage of those which might be emerging before its competitors do (Mintzberg 1998, Pedler et al 1997, Wilson 2005).
3.2 The Shift from Training to Learning
Whereas the initially presented definition of learning, derived from Nadler’s (Nadel & Nadler 1989) work, primarily emphasises products (e.g. newly acquired knowledge), another approach, which is based on research conducted by the psychologist Kurt Lewin and propagated by the educational theorist David Kolb, focuses on the process itself and the abstract mechanisms revolving around subjective experiences and ultimately leading to those outcomes (Kolb 1948). According to Kolb’s (1984) explanations, it is the conscious reflection in the aftermath of a concrete experience that enables human beings to form abstract concepts which can subsequently be tested actively in new situations to create new experiences, which can again be reflected upon and thereby reinitiate this cyclical process of learning.
Figure 1 depicts this concept of experiential learning as a transformational process, in which the reflection stage turns experience into tacit knowledge that can potentially be externalised in the active testing phase (Kolb & Kolb 2005).
[illustration not visible in this excerpt]
Figure 1. The Experiential Learning Cycle
(Source: adapted from Kolb 1984)
Experiential learning differs from traditional behaviourist approaches to learning as it attributes to the individual a more active role in the process than merely being a conditioned and passive respondent to external stimuli (Collin 2004). Central to Kolb’s argument is a humanist-constructivist perspective which emphasises the competence and motivation of the learner to proactively reflect and draw conclusions (Randall & Thornton 2001). It is exactly this conscious act of reflective practice which constitutes the foundation for building the capacity to challenge one’s own taken-for-granted assumptions, externalise tacit knowledge, increase adaptability and ultimately accept or even embrace change (Johnston & Badley 1996, Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995).
This concept has provoked numerous critics. There are those who argue that experimenting with new ideas could also create bad experiences, which might potentially trigger learning fatigue and fortify the tendency to get stuck in old habits (Cunningham 2007) or lose interest in both task and learning entirely (Mumford & Gold 2004), that there is insufficient scientific evidence for the proposed sequential progression through four neatly distinct stages (Jeffs & Smith 2005) and – which is probably most important for this investigation – that the underlying assumptions are based on western philosophy and hence not directly transferable to different cultural settings (Beard & Wilson 2006, Holman et al 1997). Others criticise that Kolb simply attempts to isolate the human learning process as he fails to acknowledge the essential contribution which social interaction and the environmental context of the concrete experience make to the capability of drawing reasonable conclusions (Miettinen 2000). This is supported by long-standing evidence presented by Bandura (1977) who states that learning always involves the observation as well as imitation of models and usually requires the reinforcement or punishment from the environment.
Nevertheless, the main aspects of experiential learning and the underlying humanist-constructivist paradigm, which places the learner at the centre of the process, has had a significant influence on the way western commentators suggest HRD interventions should be designed in order to fulfil the strategic requirements outlined in the previous section. Honey and Mumford (1992) have identified four general learning styles based on Kolb’s (1984) circular process. While the reflector feels most comfortable observing and analysing, and the theorist prefers to create abstract generalisations, the pragmatist seeks to test the applicability of those theory-based courses of action in practice, and the activist is enthusiastic about gaining as many new experiences as possible and without bias.
Following the proposition that effective learning only takes place when the individual progresses through all four phases (Kolb 1984), Honey and Mumford (1992) suggest that training endeavours in companies are most successful when the learning style preference of the individual participant is identified beforehand, and the trainer does not merely address one predominantly (e.g. by solely giving lectures about abstract concepts to theorists) but acts more like a facilitator, a skilled individual who assists trainees in completing the full cycle by adopting various techniques and methods, and helps learners to become more confident and able to direct their own learning (Harrison 2009).
This fundamental idea is reflected by the contemporary notion of both scholars and practitioners in the HRD area that there must be a shift away from the emphasis on traditional instructor-led training approaches, which seek to change employees’ behaviour by imparting content, towards enabling them to proactively pursue self-directed learning opportunities directly at the workplace (Sloman 2005). Research from the United States and Europe, which has underlined that adults acquire and retain new knowledge best when they are put in charge of their own learning by exposing them to an environment in which they can proactively seek out their own solutions to workplace-relevant problems, seems to validate this call (Knowles et al 2005). Mumford and Gold (2004) differentiate between three distinct types of learning opportunities in companies. Type one corresponds with the earlier mentioned incidental acquisition of knowledge and occurs subconsciously in workaday life. The second type is also an informal yet very conscious activity with a clear development objective, which is set autonomously by the learner. Type three is a formally conducted development intervention - such as coaching or action learning (AL), both of which will be explained in the next section. In accordance with the hypothesis outlined above that improving the adaptability of employees creates competitive edge, any strategic approach to HRD should entail the intention to transform type one into type two, as this features a high level of concern for the learning itself as well as the work task concurrently. Type three could then be deployed as the vehicle for supporting employees in ‘learning how to learn from work experiences’ (Mumford & Gold 2004, p 106).
Traditional instructor-led training interventions, however, remain important in specific circumstances or simply to comply with regulations (Harrison 2009) but should be designed in a way which maximises participation of trainees through the integration of group-work activities and furthermore be as thought-provoking as possible (Truelove 2006).
In the following, two HRD instruments, which share the intention to address the described learner-centred approach, shall be explored in detail.
A concise definition describes coaching as ‘a process that enables learning and development to occur and thus performance to improve’ (Parsloe & Wray 2000). This specific development technique is fundamentally a trustful relationship between a coach and a client (also called a coachee), in which the earlier assists the latter in improving long-term performance by learning how to critically self-reflect through the identification and analysis of behavioural patterns, in becoming more confident to take corrective actions in various situations and ultimately in developing self-directed learning competence, which can be applied to increase adaptability and seek out and reach new skills or personal goals. (Flaherty 1999). A capable coach operates somewhere in the overlap of the areas of personal counselling and business consulting, understanding the complex reciprocal interdependencies with the environment in which clients are embedded, while at the same time balancing personal and professional requirements of coachees (West & Milan 2001).
The most important tool of a coach is the constructive dialogue with clients. In order to achieve this, the coachees need to be sensitised and made aware of the various filters – such as cultural values, credibility or personal expectations of the interlocutor – that are in place between the sender and receiver of words and might potentially distort the communication. This is important when the coach intends to utilise feedback as a means to motivate clients to critically reflect on their behaviour and create an awareness of how the environment perceives them (Parsloe & Wray 2000).
Proactively seeking, as well as being able to receive and utilise feedback constructively with the conscious intention to increase self-awareness, can be a powerful promoter for change as the coachees become more self-confident, set out new personal goals for themselves and ultimately develop a more holistic and less biased understanding of the world that surrounds them, as the filters of their own psychology are incrementally removed (Downey 2003, Folkman 2000). The importance of possessing the ability to give and receive feedback has also been acknowledged by many companies as the idea of 360° appraisal – which involves getting feedback not only from managers or professional coaches, but furthermore from subordinates and customer or business partners – incrementally enters performance management systems and reward schemes (Harrison 2009).
In accordance with the paradigm shift described above, the role of the coach can be described as that of a facilitator, who initially guides clients through the four stages of the experiential learning cycle (see page 6) by creating optimum conditions for personal learning to occur and with the intended outcome to ultimately foster independent self-correction and development. This cannot be achieved by merely attempting to impart information and command reflection, but needs to be conducted in a highly skilled, analytical manner, falling back on techniques from disciplines such as psychology, learning theories and organisation behaviour, in order to enable coachees to step back from the constraints of their workplaces and engage in critical dialogue to re-evaluate taken-for-granted assumptions and get a broader perspective (West & Milan 2001). Asking questions plays a crucial role in this endeavour, and it is paramount that the coach-coachee relationship features a high degree of trust, respect, freedom of expression and the mutual intention to identify problems and turn these into targets for improvement (Parsloe & Wray 2000).
Coaching in companies can be done by external professionals as well as internally trained managers. There is, however, a great deal of uncertainty regarding the assessment of a coach’s quality, as there are no generally accepted professional standards (Harrison 2009) and, despite the fact that the majority of clients reports receiving benefits from coaching, it has proven hard to measure the predominantly intangible elements of coaching and whether these have any direct impact on the bottom line of a company’s income statement (Fillery-Travis & Lane 2006). Furthermore, the collateral effects of globalisation increasingly expose coaches to situations in which they have to deal with clients of a cultural background different from their own, and concerns have been raised that this might hinder the formation of an open and mutually trustful relationship as called for above, especially as some of the proposed coaching techniques might appear alien to coachees or simply be rejected (Donnison 2008, West & Milan 2001).
3.2.2 Action Learning
Another instrument to develop the adaptability as well as the potential of employees, which concurs with the principles of adult learning (see page 8) and stems from the concept of reflective practice (see page 6), is AL. Revans (1982), who did some pioneer work on the concept, states that there is no one single definition but essentially describes it as a learning by doing approach which focuses on the ‘social process, carried on among two or more learners, who, by the apparent incongruity of their exchanges, frequently cause each other to examine afresh many ideas that they would otherwise have continued to take for granted, however false or misconceived’ (p 627). The underlying hypothesis that learning (L) occurs when taken-for-granted assumptions – referred to as programmed knowledge (P) – are enriched by questioning insight (Q), is closely related to Kolb’s concept of experiential learning, as the conscious act of reflection, which subjects one’s own beliefs and behaviour to critique, leads to the formation of new theories that need to be tested through a pronounced sense of pragmatism, which becomes central to the whole process (Zuber-Skerritt 2002).
Generally, AL occurs in a set of employees, and the group can consist of individuals from the same or different levels of hierarchy. An external facilitator may be deployed to structure their endeavour and oversee their compliance with pre-established rules. The intention is to address real and current problems at the workplace in constructive group work over a period of time, in regular meetings using critical discussion as the means to find innovative and novel solutions through exposing one’s own suggestions intensely to critique and thereby stimulate self-reflection, which ultimately improves the individual learning process, externalises tacit knowledge and potentially leads to the creation of new one. AL further intends to dismantle groupthink as the composition of a set is usually heterogenic, which allows questioning issues from different perspectives (Bourner et al 1997). Represented by the mathematical formula L=P+K, Revans (1982) falls back on the concept of double-loop learning, which claims to be regenerative in contrast to the more commonly and sub-consciously occurring receptive single-loop learning. While the latter merely constitutes an adaption of habitual behaviour according to the problem at hand, the former manifests itself in unlearning exactly these patterns by questioning the values, beliefs and assumptions which are embedded in the subsurface structure of the organisational culture, to which the members of the AL set belong to, and analyses the problem more holistically from a meta-level perspective (Argyris & Schön 1978).
Despite these theoretically well-supported claims, there are similar concerns analogous to the critique of coaching with regard to the efficacy of AL in practice and a corresponding lack of impact-measurability (Harrison 2009). The group work dynamics in place and corresponding strengthening mechanisms may lead to more extreme action than the individual would have taken independently, and it is doubtful whether the learning can be transferred to a member’s everyday work environment because of the artificiality of the set (De Loo & Verstegen 2001).
Both of the presented concepts are fair representatives of the contemporary learner-centred paradigm as discussed by western scholars. Judging from what has been outlined so far, it is essentially a social constructivist approach to developing the potential of employees. Through the facilitated – not imposed - initiation of a critical discourse with one’s own assumptions and interpretation of experience in the context of complex dynamic social systems, which organisations usually are, new knowledge is constantly being created, questioned, enriched or even made obsolete through the manifold interactions which take place at the workplace (Schuck 1985, Wenger et al 2002). It furthermore assumes an intrinsic longing for self-actualisation, as the motivation of employees to move on towards a more complex challenge on a higher level and the desire to discover and exploit their full potential grow with every positive learning experience (Maslow 1943). Hence, it should be considered paramount for any strategic approach to HRD to take advantage of these immanent potentials and intrinsic motivations of the workforce, nourish them through learner-centred training and development interventions, and align them with business goals in order to ultimately harvest them in the form of competitive edge (Armstrong 2007, Walton 1999).
3.3 The Chinese Culture of Learning
Although literally hundreds of multi-faceted attempts have been made to define culture, most of them concur in that it is a complex abstraction of concrete behaviour, which transmits the distinctiveness of a given group of people to its new members through the recognition, acquisition or interpretation of meaningful symbols and artefacts which reflect a shared pattern of values, beliefs, thinking, customs and habits, moral, feelings, acting and interacting (Hofstede 2001, Trompenaars 1993).
The predominant characteristics of the Chinese culture’s distinctiveness date back more than 2,500 years to the teachings of the philosopher Confucius. He proclaimed a highly hierarchical society in which the minister serves the king, the wife is servant to the husband, the father is the master of the son and the elder brother the role model for the younger. This society should be governed by the following five norms. At the centre of Confucianism is the concept of harmony, which can be achieved through goodness (1), which consists of virtues such as tolerance, forgiveness and filial piety as a pivotal aspect. Rightness (2) emphasises personal loyalty in friendships and fraternity. It also means relinquishing one’s own benefits for the good of someone else, hence yielding an omnipresent sense of reciprocal obligation. People should always abide to ethical norms, as harmony should be strived for by establishing rituals (3) in society that maintain law and order instead of reverting to sanctioning and castigation. In order to be good, right and apply rituals for the benefit of the whole society, people must achieve wisdom (4) through knowledge and experience, which highlights the crucial importance that learning has always had in Chinese Culture for millennia. All of these components require a high degree of personal credibility (5) in order to act jointly, and ultimately to secure harmony (Le 2003).
Confucius thus strongly advocated the erection of a very hierarchical bureaucratic system that should be based on moral norms in order to govern people wisely and with benevolence, so that they in turn would always obey and respect their leaders (Chu 1991).
Acknowledging the fact that attempting to understand an alien culture as a potentially biased outsider has severe limitations, and that producing stereotypical generalisations should be avoided - especially in a country as diverse as China with its numerous (partly disputed) regions (Ember & Ember 2009) – the four basic concepts summarised in table 1, which can be considered derivatives of the Confucian worldview, are amongst the most visible artefacts of Chinese culture for western researchers in the areas of management and organisational behaviour.
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Table 1. Visible Artefacts of Chinese Culture
In his extensive research around the globe, (western) cross-cultural psychologist Geert Hofstede was able to document similar observations about China. He categorised it as a country with a very low degree of individualism on the one side and a high degree of tolerance for unequal distribution of power on the other. In collaboration with Chinese researchers, he furthermore came to the conclusion that Chinese culture features a pronounced long-term orientation, with a corresponding sense of perseverance and consistency, as the necessary guiding principles to maintain harmony and create a prosperous society (Hofstede 2001).
With the entry of communism in 1949, and especially during the time of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, the influence of these Confucian elements on social intercourse were slightly mitigated (Naughton 2007). The communist cadre, however, adopted some of the ancient feudal elements to support their incontestable claim to leadership, especially the deduced notion that people are born unequal (Bond 1991), and that the bureaucratic class is entitled to set the principles for morale and act as the caretakers of tradition and rituals, which today has resulted in a situation in which personal power and status are accepted as stronger than the written law (Le 2003). This in turn has had a great effect on the educational system, which is characterised by an almost indoctrinated, yet again rarely challenged classification of how good people behave and what good things are (hao ren hao shi), as opposed to how bad people behave and what exactly bad things are (huai ren huai shi). As a result of being educated to think in such extremes, the degree of flexibility and compromise, featured by employees tending to their daily tasks, has been reported comparatively low by observers from the west, who investigated the domain of counterproductive work behaviour in Chinese companies (Rotundo & Xie 2009).
A Culture of learning can thus be described as ‘taken-for-granted frameworks of expectations, attitudes, values and beliefs about how to teach or learn successfully and about how to use talk in interaction, among other aspects of learning’ (Cortazzi & Jin 1996a cited in Jin & Cortazzi 2006, p 9). To the external observer, it seems to be especially the Confucian ideology of a powerful hierarchical order and the importance of harmony which constitute the building blocks of these frameworks. Chinese learners quite early in their lives get conditioned to accept their teachers as almost omniscient and non-criticisable masters, as they start memorising and reciting doctrines from the ancient texts, and diligently learn to reproduce the precise stroke order of thousands of characters in front of their instructors to demonstrate their determination to participate in the quest for literacy and wisdom (Warner 1993). It is especially this enforced development of a high appreciation for precision and neatness, required to be proficient in the art of calligraphy to the teacher’s satisfaction, that forms latent awareness that, before any kind of independent thought or creativity can be allowed, basic knowledge needs to be deeply internalised and perfectly mastered, which can only be done through repeated copying (Jin & Cortazzi 2006).
In accordance with this indication of a strong influence of Confucianism on the educational system, various researchers have observed that the Chinese learning style predominantly appears to be a passive and compliant one (Biggs 1994, Bond 1991, Flowerdrew 1998, Sloman 2007). Students are generally highly motivated to learn, continuously diligent and appear extremely receptive, as they place great confidence and also high expectations in the teacher’s ability to transmit relevant knowledge about the right things and the right behaviour to them. The application of such an instructor-led approach is usually conducted by utilising specific examples and subsequently initiating modelling processes which result in the ‘acquisition of a vast store of knowledge through rote memorisation, at the expense of creativity’ (Chan 1999, p 298). The need to master rote learning and being able to exactly reproduce what the teacher, the textbooks or the older students have declared to be inerrant knowledge is further encouraged by a strict examination system that leaves the students little choice of alternatives should they wish to succeed in their education (Yee 1989).
Questioning the teacher in any way, asking for explanations or expressing opinions would be like disrespecting filial piety and considered a selfish and shameful act, which seriously disturbs harmony and possibly causes the teacher to lose face (Kennedy 2002). Furthermore, the application of problem-oriented group work as a more learner-centred and interactive teaching method does neither seem to be appreciated nor applicable, as the mechanisms of an almost omnipresent top-down hierarchy, the rejection of the western philosophy of individualism and the complex network of the individual students’ guanxi seriously conflict with the autonomy, spontaneity and flexibility required for such exercises (Wang et al 2005), as well as with the indispensible willingness to make decisions jointly, while the teacher merely operates as a facilitator in the background (Ho & Crookall 1995).