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Teaching is a Cultural Activity: Reflections on Pedagogy in International Schools

By Simon Probert
Teaching is a Cultural Activity: Reflections on Pedagogy in International Schools

I was reflecting recently on a 1998 paper by James Stigler and James Hiebert examining pedagogy in America and Japan respectively. They argue, “Teaching, like other cultural activities, is learned through informal participation over long periods of time,” emphasizing the importance of our own experiences as school students in our expectations of the classroom as teachers, alongside the role of “cultural scripts” as learned implicitly through observation and participation, not through deliberate study. Conversely, in their study How Teaching Happens, Hendrick, Kirschner, and Neal write of the “pedagogy delusion” as approaches to the curriculum characterized by a “rejection of evidence or an acceptance of the romantic or philosophical.” In this sense, the role of culture and tradition in pedagogy relative to academic research about education represents an area of debate. This is an area I have been reflecting on as part of my doctoral research in terms of the importance of engaging with pedagogy from a cultural, as well as research-based perspective.

Contextualizing Research

Whilst I am committed more generally to ways in which we establish a culture of research-based pedagogy as a school, I am also interested in ways this engages with local culture. As I have described elsewhere (Probert, 2023), the shift in the international education market in Asia to local rather than expat students as the dominant demographic has significant implications for the ways we frame our curricula, as well as our communities more broadly. As Adam Poole describes, “much of the discourse around international education is derived from the Global North, whilst the sector is predominantly based in the Global South – there being a mismatch between the research-base and the reality of the international education market.” In this sense, where academic research on pedagogy has not had the impact which might have been expected this may be due to ways it clashes with a local cultural context. Although a medical analogy is often used to describe ways in which teachers should be researchers in the same way as doctors, this is hardly the case in all medical contexts. Traditional Chinese medicine is an interesting counterpoint in terms of interactions between cultural practice and academic research, given the role of history/belief/tradition in traditional Chinese medicine (or teaching), and in turn the extent to which teaching (or medicine) is (or isn't) a cultural activity.

China as a Case in Point

More broadly, China represents an important and relevant case study in terms of the interaction with research-based pedagogy and national or localized cultures. As Charlene Tan has examined, despite attempts by the Chinese government to create more Westernized, inquiry driven cultures of learning in Chinese schools, such reforms have had limited impact due to the role of Confucianism as a critical influence on contemporary education in China, and the consequent failure of education reform to overcome deeply embedded cultural scripts. Equally, as I have described elsewhere (Probert, 2021), the United Kingdom (UK)-China math exchange failed to have the intended impact on UK math teaching due to significant cultural differences in the UK relative to China. Simultaneously the emphasis on recall and rote-learning in Mandarin teaching in Chinese schools appear broadly in line with the findings of cognitive science with an emphasis on retrieval practice and knowledge as the basis for understanding, suggesting similarities as well as differences between a Chinese and a more Westernized educational context.

The Heart of the Matter

Paulo Friere’s belief in the danger of “cultural invasion,” alongside his broader stress on the power of dialogue is of importance in considering ways in which we ensure the pedagogical models used in our schools meet the needs of the students in our communities. Cultural understanding must underpin ways in which we work with our students at all levels, not least given the role of teachers in fostering a sense of student identity. As Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley have recently argued, “learning to live together involves creating a ‘spirit of tolerance and guidance’ among the young, there being a ‘legitimate aspiration to preserve traditions and collective identity’.” In this sense, at the heart of any debate around the extent to which teaching should be viewed as an explicitly cultural activity is the extent to which it connects with the needs, values, and identities of our students.



Friere, Paulo (1970), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Donaldo Macedo transl, New York: Continuum

Hargreaves, Andy and Shirley, Dennis (2024), The Age of Identity New York, Corwin

Kirschner, Paul A; Hendrick, Carl and Heal, Jim (2022), How Teaching Happens, London, Routledge

Poole, A. (2021), International Schools Teachers’ Lived Experiences: Examining Internationalised Schooling in Shanghai, London: Palgrave

Probert, Simon, (2021) ‘Policy Transfer and Isomorphism: A Case Study of the English-China Maths Teacher Exchange’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 70.3, 305-321.

Probert, Simon (2023), ‘International Education in Asia: The Changing Market’, in Journal of Research in International Education, 22:3, 280-295.

Stigler, James W., and Hiebert, James (1998), ‘Teaching is a Cultural Activity’, in American Educator, 22:4: 4-11

Tan, Charlene (2016), Educational Policy Borrowing in China: Looking West or Looking East? London, Routledge


Simon is Deputy Head at Harrow Shanghai. He is coming towards the end of his doctorate examining student perceptions of internationalism in international schools in China.

LinkedIn: Simon Probert
X: @simonjdprobert

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