The Internet TESL Journal

Cultural Kickboxing in the ESL Classroom: Encouraging Active Participation

Jan Guidry Lacina
mjlacina [at]
Stephen F. Austin State University (Nacogdoches, TX, USA)

Kickboxing has become a popular sport in the United States. The goal of the sport is to achieve an aerobic workout while attempting to stay in groove with the rest of the aerobic group; it is merely a new form of extreme high impact aerobics. English teachers often participate in a form of cultural kickboxing when teaching Korean and Japanese students. This sport, at the academic level, occurs in the classroom since both groups sometimes compete against each other, and there is often a cultural conflict between the two groups and the English as a second language (ESL) American teacher. These studentsí expectations often conflict with American curricula that encourage a student-centered environment in the ESL classroom. This article explores Korean and Japanese studentsí classroom expectations of the teaching and learning process in the United States and suggestions are given to help ESL teachers encourage a classroom in which multiple cultures can work cohesively together toward their common goal of learning English.

Korean and Japanese Students

While teaching Speaking and Understanding classes at the University of Kansas' Applied English Center, I learned the importance of understanding not only my students' own backgrounds, but I learned that it was also important to recognize the differences between American, Korean and Japanese educational systems. Unlike the United States' student-oriented, active approach to learning, the Japanese and Korean educational systems stress a Confucian discourse system. Students from Japanese and Korean educational systems tended to expect teacher-centered lectures. This type of classroom conflicts with the way that ESL teachers are trained to teach in the United States. Teachers in the U.S. are trained to advocate a student-centered approach in which the teacher becomes more of the facilitator in the classroom. The curriculum is built upon the students' own interests, and the teacher acknowledges the students' own background and experiences as important. The differences between educational systems in the U.S., Korea, and Japan often present a conflict between ESL students and their American teachers. These three groups often disagree on how English should be taught to speakers of other languages, and this disagreement sometimes leads to conflict in the classroom.

Decreasing Stereotypes

Based on my six years of teaching ESL in the United States, I have found that many international students tend to stereotype American teachers and students. Since I was a fairly young female teacher, I believed that many of my students did not find me as credible as my male counterparts. Hyman-Fite (1998) acknowledges that for many Korean students, there is a dissonance when acknowledging females in authority positions. At least traditionally, women have not been accorded positions considered as superior as their male counterparts in the academic world in Korea. One way to obliterate the misconception that women in the U.S. are not valued as authority figures in academia is to administer a cultural quiz. This is a quiz an ESL teacher can design that presents both facts and stereotypes about Americans. Such a quiz might give broad statements such statements as "all Americans attend church" or "all American women stay at home to raise children". By presenting students with both facts and common stereotypes about Americans, a dialogue about the differences between our cultures will be framed. Discussing these differences is the first way that ESL teachers and Korean and Japanese students can understand one another. For those instructors who are also young and female, credibility is built over time with students. By providing researched based explanations as to why you are conducting class in a certain way, your students will eventually grow to respect you.

Student-Centered Classes

Participation Grades

Both Korean and Japanese students tend to expect teacher-centered lectures, and they often try to avoid initiating topics directly. Because students of all cultures are more likely to give undivided, ongoing attention to materials they deem relevant, it is important that teachers understand the expressed needs of their students (Peacock, 1998). Teachers who expect students to complete tasks merely because they are assigned are likely to encounter difficulties with students of Asian heritage. Lack of explanation as to why a student should perform a certain tasks can result in increased anxiety and lowered motivation (Niederhauser, 1997). One way that ESL teachers can encourage the relevance of a student-centered environment to Korean and Japanese students is to grade students on their classroom participation. When a grade is given on participation, students may feel that talking in class is important if they want to receive a high grade in class. Teachers can keep a participation journal or chart to keep track of who is participating in class. Each time a student participates in class, record it in your journal. Teachers should constantly remind students why participation is important. Many Japanese and Korean students often feel anxious or nervous about participating in class. For that reason, I used several strategies to help ease my students' nerves.

Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is a well-known strategy among educational researchers and practitioners. Cooperative learning takes place when students work together in small groups instead of competing for recognition or grades. This idea of cooperative learning began with John Dewey's ideas of group activities. Dewey maintained that participating in a mutual shared experience prepares students for democratic living (1916). Cooperative learning was popularized by Robert Slavin and David and Roger Johnson in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, although it was first reintroduced in the 1960s by Japanese educators to promote the ideal of teamwork (Orenstien & Lasley, 2000). In the traditional classroom, students compete against one another promoting an environment of "winners" and "losers". However, in the cooperative learning classroom competition among groups is encouraged, and students work together to solve a common problem. Working in these groups is an excellent way to overcome silence in the classroom. To initiate such groups in your classroom, assign four to five students to a group. Each person should have a specific role such as: recorder, group spokesperson, monitor, etc. For the group to be successful, each person in the group must participate in order that the group will be able to complete the task at hand within the time limit set by the instructor.

The Jigsaw Method of cooperative learning is also a good way to involve all students in speaking and learning in the ESL classroom. In a Jigsaw activity, a reading selection is cut up and divided among the group by the teacher. Each person reads their individual part silently and then presents the information they learned to their group. Next, each cooperative group teaches the whole class about what they learned from their reading selection. This activity is a wonderful way to elicit participation from each class member. Students also feel less inhibited by first presenting in small groups, and after much practice they often feel more comfortable presenting in front of the whole class.

Panel Discussions

Shimizu (1998) points out that Japanese education does not recognize differences in individuality or ability, but rather strives to educate each student alike. Perhaps Asian students who have believed since birth that there are no innate differences are reluctant to speak out more in class for fear of appearing different or feeling ashamed. For ESL teachers who want their students to speak in class, thinking of ways to avoid students feeling ashamed or embarrassed is often a concern. Initiating panel discussions in class are a good way for students to work together as a group, and at the same time speak in class. To form a panel discussion, assign five students to be prepared to be the "experts" in class over their homework reading assignment. The remainder of the class is responsible for asking the panel questions. For example, you might tell the class that each person is required to ask two questions in order to receive an "A" for participation for that day. This can be a fun activity for students because they become the experts about a particular issue, and their opinions are valued. You might also want to videotape this discussion and have the students critically evaluate their discussion.


By understanding your Japanese and Korean students' expectations of the teaching and learning process, you will be able to create a more comfortable and interactive classroom. Likewise, when these types of activities are implemented in the classroom, you students may feel like their individual participation is an integral part of their own learning process. Cultural kickboxing does not have to become part of your ESL classroom; different cultural groups can exist amicably in your classroom. Through consideration of diverse cultures and learning styles, educators can better serve all students.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VII, No. 10, October 2001