Cross-culturalism and the Application of Leadership Education in Mainland China

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Focus Research Social GoodResearch for Social Good is a MethodSpace focus for October. We are delving into this broad topic with guest posts, interviews, and links to articles or instructional resources.

This guest post by Dr. Brendon Fox describes research conducted with Dr. Jeff Bourgeois. Both are American expatriates who serve on the faculty at Fort Hays State University at SIAS International University.

My partner, Jeff Bourgeois, and I engaged in an explanatory sequential mixed methods study to examine the uni-directional nature of teaching western-based leadership courses, the associated knowledge transfer, and the cultural Classroom tensions associated with our pedagogy in mainland China.  We conducted our research at the university where we teach from a sample size of N=467 for the statistical data in the quantitative phase, and N=30 for the qualitative phase, which consisted of focus groups.  The research questions were: 1) To what extent do students perceive the applicability of curriculum in a western-based leadership education program to experiences outside the classroom? And, 2) To what extent are Chinese students’ in-class experiences and competencies aligned with preconceptions of a western (United States) Leadership Education curriculum?

Research Decisions

This research was borne out of discussions Jeff and I had about whether we were engaging in “elitist neocolonialism,” defined by Nguyen, Elliott, Terlouw, and Pilot (2009) as prioritizing western values over that of the host county.  It seemed that as assistant professors of leadership studies of a U.S. university based in Mainland China, we were working exhaustively to teach students who were largely  not synthesizing the material from one course to the next, or for that matter, one class session to the next.  The aspects of human social behavior related to leadership that we discuss seem greatly intuitive, but were far less so for our students. This suggested a vast cultural divide.

Implications of the Research

Jeff and I learned that there are existent and glaring gaps in student preparation, teacher pedagogical practice, and student-teacher expectations. US in China Chinese students are taught to memorize material rather than engage in inductive, critical, or creative thinking.  Since there are glaring extant cultural rifts in all of these areas, there is a severe and looming dichotomy in pedagogy that renders current teaching practices virtually ineffective relative to desired outcomes and expectations of the conferring institution (Bourgeois & Fox, 2018).  Therefore, our study advocates a change in practice that allows for experiential learning models found in internships or partnership programs with non-profit or for-profit institutions to deepen knowledge transfer.  The mixed methods approach mitigated researcher bias by revealing information that we had not considered in the quantitative phase.

Dissemination of Findings

Jeff and I presented our research at the 2nd Annual Lead in Asia conference in Bali, Indonesia on July 7, 2018, using PowerPoint.  We will pursue publication in the Journal of Leadership Education (JOLE) this fall.  To support change in teaching practice, we are incrementally shifting from lecture-only classroom instruction to involvement in field study across two or three courses.  These changes are made with full disclosure and approval of our department in the States.

Things that I Wish I Had Known

Many of my colleagues that teach at the university in China wonder about the impact we are having on our students.  There is an unease that is present across disciplines.  What I learned as a result of this research was that Chinese pedagogical practice, like many other things, is diametrically opposed to our approaches in the West— from how students are expected to learn to classroom behavior.  Westerners sometimes take offense to student habits and conduct, however many of our assumptions are erroneous.  One such example is how we assume their comfort with collectivist activities and group-work, when in effect many find group work disquieting because of peer reliance on high achievers and their unwillingness to reject appeals for assistance.  Although we have been asked by the hosting institution to provide western-based instruction, in practice it is ill-suited to the way students in China have been conditioned.

For future study, we recommend similar research in larger tier-one schools in China to examine whether higher academic performance is positively related to synthesis of western-based instruction including leadership, business, management, or any discipline involving social science.  We also encourage longitudinal studies to assess student outcomes post-graduation.

More about the Researchers

Dr. Fox is an Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies within the International Partnership program between Fort Hays State University and Sias International University in XinZheng, Henan, China.  Prior to teaching at Fort Hays, he worked as an administrator over two programs at Southwestern College:  as the Director of the Student Success Center and as the Director of the Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB) Initiative, which is a mentoring organization.  Brendon’s research interests are in leadership development, critical theory/pedagogy, and social justice and power structures at varying levels of human interaction.  In addition to playing tennis and basketball, Dr. Fox has a son who is a tennis coach in Wichita, Kansas.

Dr. Jeff Bourgeois joined the Fort Hays State University Leadership Studies Department in 2017. Jeff’s research interests include university presidents, culture & leadership, university accreditation, leadership education, and cultural intelligence. Jeff recently completed his dissertation in which he investigated the leadership styles and cultural intelligence of university presidents at American accredited universities located in foreign countries. He is active in the International Leadership Association, and is currently part of a research group that is developing a measure of cultural mindset. When not teaching or writing, Jeff enjoys traveling, scuba diving, music, and watching sports.

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