I am just about to embark on an online course at Oxford Brookes University called ‘Teaching International Students‘. As preparation, I have been reading Teaching International Students edited by Carroll and Ryan. One of the first messages that strikes me is that in order to teach international students me must first know ourselves. This means being aware of our own culture; both the national culture and the academic culture. By being aware of the cultural aspects of higher education in the UK, by being aware of the unconscious, taken for granted beliefs (as Schein puts it) or the habitus of HE (as Bourdieu puts it) we not only do better for our international students but also our home students. This is because, even for our home students, the academic culture may be very unfamiliar to them. By being aware of the cultural artefacts we can be more explicit about what is required of students and hopefully this means they can succeed.
This should be fairly obvious and is clearly explained in the book. What is not so obvious though is our role in being self-aware. Yes we can be self-aware and sensitive to difference and this is a good thing. However, what does this really mean for us as individuals? For me, it requires a flexibility in beliefs. Beliefs about ourselves and beliefs about others. We all hold beliefs which others would contest are false. In the case of international students and students more widely, these could be well meaning generalisations based on past experience. We can make the mistake (due to time pressure or class size) of grouping certain students together and assuming they will behave in the same way rather than treating everyone as an individual. I think how we deal with challenges to our beliefs are important. I have come across some scientists who dismiss out of hand alternative approaches (mainly qualitative methods) to research such as those found in social sciences or education. I don’t want to single out scientists. The same could be said for many individuals. The key defining factor about such people is their unwillingness to question their own beliefs and look at the alternative perspectives presented to them (or at least try to understand why the other person holds an alternative perspective).
So linking the two thoughts together, it seems that to teach international students (and indeed all students) well we need not only to be self aware and aware of our own cultures but also to be flexible in our understanding of our own beliefs such that challenges to them are carefully considered. This will allow us to at least come close to walking in the other persons shoes, to better understand them in order to help their learning.