The importance of cultural learning

Mary Memarzia, of Bellerbys College, discusses the three most important areas to focus on to facilitate international students’ transitions

With the new academic year well underway, international students will be getting to grips with the UK’s syllabus, academic expectations and classroom culture. For many, it will be a significant departure from what they are used to. In order to facilitate their transition, we need to remind ourselves both of the demands a new education system can bring, as well as respecting what these students bring with them in their study tool kit.

The following are three of the most important areas we must focus on in order to do this.

1. Understand students’ different notions of success

British tradition places great emphasis on learning to be critical and creative. However, in some cultures, this is a very different focus which, when encountered without explanation, has the potential to blur a student’s expectation of what constitutes a good learning outcome. Students who hold onto the notion that first comes mastery of a topic, which requires deep thought, reflection and considered assimilation of new material, can feel disconcerted and even disappointed when faced with this new learning process, especially if that process relies heavily on group discussion. “I came here to learn from an expert, not spend it talking with others who are on the same level as me,” some might say.

In their experience of successful learning, it is only once the topic is mastered that the student will feel empowered to debate and discuss, having first acquired the confidence to be creative. We need to respect this concept of listener responsibility and understand that students can blame themselves for not understanding and therefore not seeking help from the tutor, who they may regard as a moral leader showing them the right path, which they are struggling to follow. 

The emphasis in some cultures on the value of deep knowledge, which takes time and investment to acquire, can be a solitary process of study and has the potential to isolate a student who is already struggling to integrate into the community.

Mary Memarzia

2. Be considerate of individual behaviour in the classroom

Classroom activities such as group discussion can pose challenges for teachers and for the international students with whom they are working. These are challenges which are not limited to those brought about by language difficulties. Interrupting a teacher whilst they are disseminating information can be seen as rude and disrespectful in some cultures. Similarly, in other cultures, it is considered appropriate to wait until invited to participate in a discussion, so a student listening quietly may find they are waiting a very long time for the invitation to offer a contribution. In turn, the tutor may misinterpret their respectful quietness as a lack of confidence, evidence of poor understanding or weak English, or infer an unwillingness to engage actively. 

Such negative assumptions can not only distort the tutor’s assessment of the student’s ability and attitude, but also create barriers to learning, as the student can start to feel overlooked or even undervalued. In the same way that we encourage students to be open to new teaching methods and learning styles, teachers should avoid imposing judgements based on our own cultural expectations of what characterises an effective learner. 

3. Experiment with alternative learning methods

If international students are forced to adapt to these new learning methods, it can create stress and resentment, which can add to the already heavy burden of dealing with homesickness and culture shock. Rather than impose new methods, we must unravel these different expectations and, through explanation and exploration, discover together the value of what can appear to be conflicting approaches. In so doing, the learning is likely to be valid, authentic and relevant and the learner confident, engaged and enthused.

In educational contexts enriched by the presence of international students, learning is not a two-way process between student and teacher. Rather, it can be seen as an interconnected process with opportunities for the productive exchange of knowledge and ideas between students from different cultural backgrounds, enriching the diversity within the education workforce community.

The metaphor of the student journey is well worn, but with half-term nearly upon us, we would do well to remember that we travel together, and education is a reciprocal process. We can all benefit from evaluating and reflecting on our familiar and comfortable pedagogies and practices, with a willingness to embrace the cultural learning that the students bring with them. It is through learning about learning that we can continue to develop as educators. 

Mary Memarzia is Director of Student Services at Bellerbys College

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