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Beliefs about teaching 'other people's children': A descriptive study of pre-service teachers in Japan, Australia and the USA

Anne Campbell
University of Canberra
Rieko Hanashiro
University of the Ryukyus
Ethel Shockley
University of Canberra
This study investigates the beliefs and attitudes of three groups of preservice teachers in Japan, Australia and the USA toward teaching in classrooms where the children they will teach are culturally different from themselves. By comparing differences and similarities among the three groups, the study explores the relationship between the cultural context of these preservice teachers and the beliefs they hold regarding their roles as teachers in culturally diverse classrooms. The results indicate that the beliefs of these preservice teachers vary among the three groups, although in some cases there is more similarity between the beliefs of the Japanese and USA groups than between Australia and the USA.

Both the USA and Australia are countries with culturally diverse populations, a diversity which is represented in the nations' classrooms, if not necessarily among the teaching profession (Gomez, 1996), or among teacher educators (Baker, 1997). In contrast, the population of Japan appears relatively homogenous, particularly as cultural minorities within Japan have been suppressed by Government policies and ignored by the Education system for many years (Taira, 1996; Yoshida, 1996).

This apparent homogeneity of contemporary Japanese society may be misleading. The indigenous Ainu from the northern island of Hokkaido and the indigenous Ryukyuans from the southern island of Okinawa are, like the indigenous people of many nations, claiming the rights to their own cultural heritage (Taira, 1996). Immigrants from middle eastern countries, descendants of the Korean labour force and second or third generation 'Japanese' returnees from Canada, Mexico and Brazil make Japan a far more culturally diverse nation than is generally acknowledged (Kawai, 1998; Yashiro, 1995; Yoshido, 1996).

Like Australia and the USA, the Japanese education system is also feeling the effects of a globalised economy and the internationalisation of education. In 1996 there were approximately 53,000 overseas students studying in Japan and many Japanese students complete part of their education overseas (Tokutake, 1988; Yoshida, 1996).

There is certainly a change toward an acknowledgment of cultural diversity in Japan (Kawai, 1998), although Japan's classrooms still are not as culturally diverse as those in Australia, where 23.3 percent of the population is born overseas and 2.1 percent are Indigenous Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1998a, 1998b). The Australian Government has supported cultural diversity since the multicultural policies of the 1970s, which attempted to overcome the disadvantages of being from a non-English speaking background and at the same time acknowledge the benefits of Australia's diverse ethnic population (CERI, 1989; Singh, 1988). These policies are frequently contradictory and the emphasis over the last 25 years has alternated between providing English as a second language support, so that the ethnic minorities would assimilate more readily into the dominant English-speaking culture, and a cultural pluralism aimed at promoting a tolerance of cultural diversity (Kalantzis & Cope, 1984).

As Malin (1999) has pointed out, current government policies explicitly legislate for equity of access and accommodation of diversity and this is reflected in Australia's educational policies. In response, many Australian universities have established courses for pre-service teachers which aim to prepare future teachers for the responsibility of teaching students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

The dilemma of establishing 'unity in diversity' (Falk & Harris, 1985) is common to many countries, especially those which have large immigrant communities (Baker, 1997; Bullivant, 1981; Leyser & Ben-Yehuda, 1998). The USA is no exception, with 40 percent of the K-12 population in 1990 identified as 'children of color' and 72 percent of the students enrolled in the 25 largest USA school districts in 1994 representing minority cultures (Chisholm, 1994; Cooper Shaw, 1997; Gomez, 1996).

As in Australia, most university teacher-education programs in the USA have a multicultural education component (Tran, Young & DiLella, 1994). Whether such courses have any effect on the beliefs or attitudes of pre-service teachers is open to question (Baker, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Malin, 1999; Nieto, 1992; Zeichner & Gore, 1990). Students come to their teacher education courses with many years of acculturation behind them. Most teacher education students are representative of the 'mainstream' cultural group in their country and a single teacher education course is unlikely to change the beliefs, attitudes and values formed over a lifetime (Baker, 1997; Chisholm, 1994, Haberman & Post, 1992, Sleeter, 1993).

Hofstede (1998) takes an even stronger position, arguing that cultural values, attitudes and beliefs are acquired before the age of ten or twelve and thereafter remain unchanged. One would therefore expect the beliefs attitudes and values of pre-service teachers in cultures as different as Japan, Australia and the USA to be different; but, as this pilot study demonstrates, this is not necessarily the case.


The study used a convenience sampling of 168 second year pre-service teacher education students selected from universities in Japan, Australia and the USA. The sample consisted of 70 students from the University of the Ryukyus in Japan, 71 students from the University of Canberra in Australia and 27 students from Kennesaw State University in the USA. The students had little or no prior teaching experience and had not commenced the practice teaching component of their course. They were predominantly female (87%), between the ages of 21-25yrs (81%), and identified themselves with the mainstream culture (92%).

A twenty question survey was distributed to the participants to determine their attitudes and beliefs concerning various aspects of teaching culturally diverse students. The questions were translated into Japanese for the Japanese participants in the study and questions were amended to suit the local cultural context, that is, references to 'English' and 'Australia' were replaced by references to 'Japanese/Japan'. To ensure consistency wit h the original, the final Japanese survey form was back-translated into English. Question 14, which measured beliefs about the appropriateness of ethnic jokes and phrases being used in a society of varied racial groups was deleted from the Japanese survey, as the Japanese researcher did not consider it applicable in a culturally homogenous society such as Japan.

The participants completed the survey form using a Likert scale ranging from 1 to 5. A rating of 1 indicates strong agreement and a rating of 5 indicates strong disagreement. Each question was subjected to a simple analysis of variance test and if the resulting p-value was less than .05, the null hypothesis was rejected, indicating that there was a significant level of difference among the responses of these groups. When this was the case, the data underwent further statistical testing using t-tests to see which pairs of means were different. As with the ANOVA, a t-test with a resulting p-value of less than .05 showed enough of a difference to warrant attention.


Although there were differences in the beliefs and attitudes among the students from the three different countries, these differences were not consistently limited to a difference between the attitudes of the Japanese and the Western students (see table 1). On some issues there was agreement among all students, while on others there was more similarity between the responses of the Australian and American students. The Australian group tended to express their opinions on many issues more strongly than the students in the other two groups.

There was more variation of opinion within the Japanese group than either the Australian or the American group. This result is somewhat surprising, as both Australia and the USA are generally described as individualistic cultures, while Japan is generally described as a collectivist culture (Hofstede, 1998). One might therefore expect students from the individualistic cultures to have individualistic opinions, but this was not the case.

As can be seen in table 1, the three groups of students had similar attitudes and beliefs on issues related to the recognition of cultural differences and dealing with language problems. There was mild agreement among the three groups on question 2 (It is important to identify immediately the ethnic background of the children I teach) (mean of 2.0 versus 2.5) and somewhat stronger disagreement on question 11 (When correcting a child's spoken language, one should role model without any further explanation) (mean of 3.3 versus 3.8). The respondents in all countries clearly believe that modelling correct language is not enough, although the responses from the Japanese participants were closer towards the neutral end of the spectrum (mean of 3.3) than those of the Australian and USA participants (mean of 3.6 versus 3.7).

Table 1: Questionnaire Results

MeanStDevMean StDevMeanStDev

Responses to question 12 (There are times when the use of non-standard English (Japanese) should be ignored) and question 19 (The displays and frequently used materials within my setting should show at least three different ethnic groups or customs) had means for all groups ranging in the neutral zone (mean of 2.5 versus 3.0), indicating that the respondents did not feel strongly about these issues one way or the other. As respondents had little or no teaching experience and were only in the early part of their teacher education courses, it is possible that they were not prepared to make judgements on what they should or should not do in their future classrooms.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Japanese respondents tended to agree with question 1 (My culture is different from most of the students that I will teach) (mean of 2.2). The Australians were neutral (mean of 3.1), and the Americans disagreed, with a mean score of 3.6. There was a significant difference among all of the groups, with no two groups alike in their beliefs. One would expect the Japanese and American beliefs to be the reverse, given the demographics of their societies, the findings of researchers such as Baker (1997), Gomez (1996), Haberman & Post, (1992) and Yoshida (1996), and the comment of the Japanese researchers, who deleted question 14 because they considered that it did not apply to a homogenous society like Japan. It is possible that the group considered themselves Ryukyuan, and therefore different from mainstream Japanese culture. Another possibility is that they were aware of the rapid changes occurring in Japanese society, and that the difference in culture between the respondents and their future students is perceived as a generational difference. In contrast, the American respondents regarded themselves as culturally similar to their students, even though research findings indicate the contrary (Baker, 1997; Chisholm, 1994, Gomez, 1996, Zeichner & Gore, 1996). Given the number of possible interpretations of this response, it would be very interesting to investigate further the reasons for these differences among the three groups.

Australians appeared to feel more positive than the other two groups about working with children from cultural backgrounds different from their own (question 3). Americans were fairly neutral about this (mean of 3.5) and the Japanese indicated a preference for working with students from cultural backgrounds similar to their own (mean 2.4).

The Australian and American groups were also more positive than the Japanese group about interacting with people who speak non-standard forms of language (question 4: I would be uncomfortable in settings with people who speak non-standard English/Japanese), with means of 3.9 and 3.5 compared to a mean of 2.9 for the Japanese group. The use of non-standard Japanese as a means of identifying those from minority cultural groups within Japan and as the basis of racial discrimination has been discussed by researchers such as Taira (1996), so it is perhaps not surprising that the Japanese respondents indicated that they would feel slightly uncomfortable in such contexts. It is also possible that the Japanese education system emphasises correct language use and that prospective teachers may therefore feel uncomfortable when speaking with those who do not use the language correctly. Testing these hypotheses obviously requires investigation beyond the scope of this study.

The Japanese and American respondents neither agreed nor disagreed on question 5 (I would be uncomfortable in settings with people who exhibit values or beliefs different from my own), with neutral means of 3.1 and 3.4 respectively. The Australians strongly disagreed with the statement (mean of 4.0). It would be tempting to interpret these results as confirmation of the success of Australia's multicultural policies, Japan's homogeneous values, which do not readily accommodate minorities (Yoshida, 1996) and the failure of America to address the needs of its culturally diverse population (Gomez, 1996). There may, however, be many other explanations for these results and further investigation in this area would be very productive.

All three groups agreed that their interactions with parents should include telephone conversations and activities outside school (question 6). The level of agreement was close between all three countries but only significantly different between the USA and Japan, with Japan (mean 2.1) being in stronger agreement than the USA (mean 2.7) on this issue.

On question 7 (I am sometimes surprised when members of certain ethnic groups contribute to particular school activities), the Australian group said they were not likely to be surprised in such situations (mean of 4.2). The Americans were more neutral with a mean of 3.7, as were the Japanese with a mean of 3.0. As there are very few students from non-Japanese ethnic backgrounds in Japanese schools, it is possible that their lack of experience of a culturally diverse classroom may have left the Japanese group unwilling to make a judgement.

The Americans and Japanese groups responded similarly to question 8 (I sometimes experience frustration when conducting culturally different parent conferences) with means of 3.0 and 2.8 respectively. The Australians tended toward disagreement with a mean of 3.5. This was probably a hypothetical question for most respondents, as very few of the students would have had an opportunity of participating in parent conferences, although it does suggest a degree of confidence in handling intercultural communication among the Australian respondents. It would be of interest to see how they responded after field experience, particularly if a language barrier was involved.

There was a marked contrast between the response of the Japanese group to question 9 (The solution to communication problems of certain ethnic groups is the child's own responsibility) and the responses of the Australian and American groups. The Japanese agreed that this was the child's responsibility (mean of 2.7), whereas the Australian and American groups strongly disagreed, with a mean of 4.2 for both groups. This is not surprising, since both the USA and Australia currently subscribe to policies that call for English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in their schools to help students acquire English language skills (Bambrick, 1994; Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, 1997; National Association for Bilingual Education, 1998). Japanese language training for immigrants is a relatively recent concept in Japan. The International Japanese Center in Saitama Prefecture opened in 1989 to help those wanting to learn Japanese and there are some private schools that offer Japanese as a foreign language in their curricula, but the acquisition of Japanese is primarily the student's responsibility rather than that of the government (Tokutake, 1988).

All groups agreed that the language of instruction (English/Japanese) should be taught to non-speakers of that language as part of the school curriculum (question 10), although levels of agreement differed. The American group agreed most strongly, with a mean of 1.7, followed by a mean of 2.1 for the Australian group and a mean of 2.3 for the Japanese group. As stated above, these responses could reflect student awareness of the multicultural education policies of their governments regarding the provision of language support for children who do not speak the language of instruction.

Japanese students agreed (mean of 2.6) that families should be asked how they wished to be referred to regarding their ethnic background (question 13). The Australian and American students were less definite in their agreement with means of 3.2 and 3.1 respectively. This possibly reflects the societal attitudes and manners of the respective countries.

There was a significant difference between Japan and Australia on whether or not to ignore racial statements (question 15). The other pairings resulted in differences which were not significant. The Japanese students agreed that it was better to ignore such remarks (mean 2.9) while the Australian students disagreed (mean 3.8). The attitude of the American students was more neutral with a mean of 3.4. These attitudes may reflect either societal attitudes or inexperience in providing alternative courses of action.

The greatest difference in attitudes about parental knowledge of how their children are assessed (question 16) was also between the Japanese students, who strongly agreed with the statement that parents do not know how their children are assessed (mean of 2.1) and the Australian students, who strongly disagreed (mean of 4.0). The response of the American group was more neutral (mean of 3.4). As the Japanese have traditionally placed a high value on education and have taken a great interest in it (Foreign Press Center, 1998), one might expect Japanese parents to understand how their children are assessed, but this is clearly not the opinion of the Japanese teacher education students in this study.

The response of the Australian group differed from the responses of the students from the other two countries regarding the school's responsibility in teaching ethnic customs (question 17). The Australian group strongly disagreed that the teaching of ethnic customs is not the responsibility of the school (mean 4.1). The Japanese and American groups were both neutral on this issue (means 3.4 and 3.5 respectively). In all three countries there is currently an emphasis on teaching students about different cultures (Covert & Gorski, 1998; Yoshida, 1996), but the Australian students seem more convinced than their counterparts in America and Japan that this is the school's responsibility.

All groups agreed that it was the teacher's responsibility to provide opportunities for students to share their cultural heritage (question 18). The Australians were strongest in their agreement (mean of 1.6), followed by the Americans with a mean of 2.1 and the Japanese with a mean of 2.5. This response is not surprising as the education policies of all three countries encourage teachers to allow time for sharing cultural differences (Covert & Gorski, 1998; Kalantzis & Cope, 1984; Yoshida, 1996).

The final question (question 20) asked if teachers' knowledge of a particular culture should influence their expectations of a student. The Australian and American groups believed it should not, with means of 3.8 and 3.5 respectively, while the Japanese group believed that it should (mean of 2.7). As this is an issue which has raised considerable debate (Gomez, 1996; Habe rman, 1992; Malin, 1999; Sleeter, 1993), it would be interesting to investigate the reasons for these beliefs.


In general, the data from this study support the hypothesis that there are differences in the beliefs about teaching in a culturally diverse classroom among preservice teachers from Japan, Australia and the USA, with the Australian group generally displaying a more positive attitude towards cultural diversity and expressing a greater degree of confidence in dealing with children and parents from diverse cultural backgrounds than their Japanese or American counterparts. As Australia has been described as 'one of the most innovative countries in multicultural education' (CERI, 1989, p. 50), with well-established multicultural education policies since 1972 (Kalantzis & Cope, 1984), this result is perhaps not surprising.

What is rather surprising is that responses from the American group were neutral or tended toward neutrality on 70 percent of the questions, compared to 30 percent of the Australian and Japanese groups. This appears to suggest that the Australian and Japanese pre-service teachers are more prepared to state their position on issues related to teaching in a culturally diverse society and are more definite in the opinions they hold than their American counterparts.

This result raises a number of questions regarding the socialisation process in the three countries, particularly in a country such as the USA, where the reluctance of the respondents to commit themselves to an opinion seems at odds with principles of democracy, freedom of speech and a highly individualistic value system (Hofstede, 1998) An alternative possibility is that the American students were not prepared to respond to hypothetical questions and may have selected a 'neutral' response to mean 'I don't know enough about this issue to have formed an opinion' rather than 'I do not feel strongly about this issue'. As du Bois-Reymond (1998) has pointed out, a survey result does not provide insights into why people have one attitude or another, but simply that this is so.

Another unexpected result is that on some issues the Japanese and American groups were more closely aligned in their attitudes and beliefs than the Australian and American groups, especially on issues related to teacher interaction with parents. As both Australia and the USA are societies which are culturally diverse and in which parent/teacher contact is part of the education policies, it is surprising that the beliefs of preservice teachers from the two Western cultures differed on these issues.

It seems unlikely that the similarity in beliefs between Japanese and American pre-service teachers can be explained by the American influence on Japanese schools and culture since World War II (Tokutake, 1988), particularly as Japan has very few culturally diverse classrooms and no established policies on multicultural education. It is possible that the role of the teacher is similar in both cultures and that as Baker (1997) suggests, contact with people from cultural backgrounds different from those of the teacher may be as limited for preservice teachers in the USA as it is for those in Japan, so that both the Japanese and American groups are less enthusiastic about interacting with students and parents from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds than the Australian group.

Other questions arising from this study are ones dealing with the societal attitudes, customs, and norms of behaviour which may have influenced the responses. University students have been conditioned by their own cultural context for many years. They may know what attitudes and opinions they ought to have, especially when these have been spelled out in Government policy documents and are enforced by legislation (Malin, 1999), but this does not necessarily mean that such attitudes and opinions are translated into action.

As stated earlier, the most effective teaching tool for multicultural training of pre-service teachers appears to be the reflective assessment of one's own experiences, beliefs, attitudes and values (Chisholm, 1994; Covert & Gorski, 1998). It would be very interesting to conduct a more open-ended research study to determine why the students from these three quite different cultures responded to the questions in this survey the way they did, and whether classroom experience will have any effect on their attitudes and beliefs.


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Author details: Dr Anne Campbell is an Associate Professor in the Division of Communication and Education at the University of Canberra and Director of the Centre for Research in International Education. Professor Rieko Hanashiro is a Lecturer in School of Education at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan. Ethel Shockley has extensive experience in teaching in American schools and has recently completed her Master of Education at the University of Canberra.

Associate Professor Anne Campbell
Division of Communication and Education
University of Canberra ACT 2601
Email: annec@education.canberra.edu.au

Please cite as: Campbell, A., Hanashiro, R. and Shockley, E. (1999). Beliefs about teaching 'other people's children': A descriptive study of pre-service teachers in Japan, Australia and the USA. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(2), 193-206. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/campbell.html

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