My culture shock in an international school

“NOW discuss your answers with the person next to you.” Without wasting time, everyone started talking about their solutions.

My office mate turned to me expectantly only to be greeted by my blank stare.

Wasn’t that the part where the teachers showed us the grading scheme? Why did we need a discussion when we weren’t sure our answers were correct?

Amid my confusion, the only thing I recognized was that I had underestimated how different the Western education system was from an Asian system.

Throughout my primary and secondary studies, I had an Asian-style learning experience.

Thus, when choosing my pre-university course, I wanted to change my environment and I opted for an international school to prepare for my International Baccalaureate.

Little did I know that at the end of my first week, I would feel disoriented and lost. My social battery was flat, my mind was trying to make sense of what I had learned, and my heart was yearning for a time machine where I could mentally prepare my past for the challenges I would face.

My familiar old pals – the thick stacks of lecture notes and revision guides – were nowhere to be found in this new environment. Instead, in each lesson, I was forced to befriend “real-world examples,” which terrified me because I was forced to apply real-world situations to theories.

I also took some time to get used to mind maps, with their sprawling lines and circles.

To further solidify our knowledge, we were told to turn to our classmates, instead of our end-of-chapter textbooks or practices.

I was surprised by the regularity of class discussions at seemingly random times, as I was used to working on the practices independently.

So you can imagine how perplexed I felt when we were asked to do a scavenger hunt for different types of text in an English class or swing our bodies to model the movement of particles in different states during a chemistry lesson.

While I could understand that these were attempts to lead lessons creatively, I was skeptical how they could better illustrate a concept to us than PowerPoint presentations or bullet points.

To be alien to a concept of learning was a strange feeling, especially when I had been a student all my life. Nevertheless, I persevered, because had I not chosen this path to get out of my comfort zone and broaden my perspective of learning?

As friends offered their opinions in discussions and teachers hinted that I seemed confused, I gradually learned to appreciate the environment of active student participation and how much it instilled in me a feeling of curiosity.

Faced with a difficult question, I found myself trying to model my classmates’ thought processes to come up with a solution. Similarly, in math exams, a subject I had always struggled with, I tried to remember what variables I had added to function simulations, which helped me visualize and apply the knowledge I had learned.

It was only in these cases that I noticed my shift in focus from my learning products, whether responses or outcomes, to my learning process, and if I really understood the essence of various concepts.

Now, if you asked me if I could make the same decision to step out of my comfort zone as six months ago, I would agree without hesitation.

If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have discovered a new style of learning and reaped the benefits that come with it.

Shinz Jo, 18, a student at Selangor, is participating in the BRATs Young Journalist Program run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team.

1. There is an English expression often used to describe a person who feels uncomfortable or out of place in a new environment. Can you guess what it is? Hint: There are five words in the sentence. Starting out at the new school, Shinz Jo felt like ________ ________ ________ ________ ________.

2. Mind maps are used to visually represent information. Can you draw a mind map based on the information provided in an article featured in today’s copy of the Sunday Star newspaper? Do this activity with a group of friends. When you’re done, share your findings with each other.

3. Imagine you were Shinz Jo’s best friend. How would you encourage her in the first few weeks as she struggled to adjust to the new style of teaching? Work with an activity partner to set up a phone conversation between you and Shinz Jo, in which she talks about her struggles and you in turn give her moral support and encouragement. Record your role play so you can review your performance later.

Since 1997, The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) program has supported the teaching and learning of English in primary and secondary schools nationwide. Through Star-NiE’s teacher and student workshops, annual competitions, and monthly English resources for use in the classroom, program participants reportedly showed strong interest in the language and progress in their fluency. Now in its 25th year, Star-NiE continues its role of promoting the use of the English language through a weekly activity page in StarEdu. These activities can be used individually and in groups, at home and in the classroom, at different skill levels. Parents and teachers are encouraged to work on the activities with their children and students. Additionally, Star-NiE’s BRATs Young Journalist program will continue to be a platform for participants to hone and showcase their English language skills, as well as develop their journalistic interests and instincts. Follow our updates on For Star-NiE inquiries, email