Creating ‘Asia Literate’ Classrooms

This week my Year 7 Geography class had the pleasure of hosting Andrea Myles, CEO of the China Australia Millennial Project (CAMP). Andrea and I studied together a few years ago and my students were very lucky to hear about her experiences living in China and of her work with CAMP.

When discussing Andrea’s presentation with my class, I was struck by my students lack of cultural knowledge and understanding of China. This shouldn’t have surprised me. For a population of over 1.35 billion and with the second largest economy in the world, Australians’ (myself included) know a surprisingly little amount about China. Reflecting on my visits to other schools and conversations with colleagues, it struck me how little we are doing to prepare our students for the so-called ‘Asian century’.

I feel that Australia has consistently missed educational opportunities to strengthen our cultural understanding of China and other Asian nations. While curriculum development is one issue, it’s also a cultural one. As former Prime Minister Keating said in his 1992 ‘Knowing Who We Are’ address, Australia’s destiny is as an Asia-Pacific nation. He argued that to achieve this we needed a cultural reform to change our ‘outlook’ as a nation. Nearly 25 years later, that cultural reform is still slowly taking place, but our students are ready to shift their focus towards Asia.

Many of the students in my classes are already beginning to be ‘Asia literate’. Our school runs student exchange programs with Taiwan and has multiple sister-school arrangements. Some students have visited or lived in an Asian nation, others have and share their Asian family heritage and many are studying Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian within our Languages Faculty. I enjoyed watching my Year 7 students sharing with Andrea some of the Chinese words they knew, and the facts they have learned in their studies.

While this is a good beginning, all teachers need to take a more active role in shaping students cultural understanding of and appreciation for Asian nations. While I was pleased to be able to integrate some study of China into both my Ancient History and Place and Liveability units, I know that many students will leave high school without a sound cultural literacy of China, or other Asian nations.

A former ANU Alum Sue-Lin Wong wrote this 2012 New York Times article on ‘Asia literacy’ in 2013. She writes about the need to think more broadly than just China, or just a language when it comes to understanding Asia.

For me, ‘Asia literacy’ in the classroom about ensuring my students have a high level of respect for and understanding of the opportunities within Asian nations. It’s not simply about knowing a few facts or words, it’s about embracing Keating’s notion of a ‘cultural shift’. We must continue to shake of the shackles of colonialism and see Australia as a confident nation within the Asia Pacific and value the opportunities to be had within Asian neighbours in particular.

To support students to embrace this attitude, I will do a number of things:

  • ensure that my classroom displays cultural images from Asian nations;
  • actively use and promote the use of words from languages that children are studying at our school (Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian);
  • incorporate more information on and conversations about Asian nations into lessons;
  • work with the ANU to bring Asian international students into my classroom; and
  • ensure my assignments incorporate components where students are required to complete research into Asian nations.

I naturally do these things for United States and Europe, it is about time I more actively integrated Asia into my teaching. While these are only small measures, they will help ensure my students begin to see Asian nations as places where they may want to travel, work or even live in the future.


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