About this blog

Students can feel constrained by ways of communicating and learning that seem opaque and fixed because they are permeated with norms never made explicit, knowledge they do not share, or the language of others.

Janette Ryan and Rosemary Viete
Respectful interactions: learning with international students in the English-speaking academy.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Talking Pedagogy with Colleagues - A potential minefield

This week I presented a paper on International Pedagogies to my entire faculty at a staff conference. The conference title was "Engaging Students in the 21st Century". I spoke about the intersections of Quality in higher education, and learner-centred teaching theories and practice.

We only teach international students at our college, and this is a cohort of students with unique learning challenges. I talked about some of the recent research looking at the international student experience in Australia; about the need for educators to reflect on their "western" values and assumptions, and about negotiating the ever-changing terrain of ICT in education. I spoke as a student of all these areas of education - as I am undertaking a graduate qualification in tertiary teaching. Many higher education teachers in Australia, and elsewhere I assume, come to their roles with a PhD, but no teaching qualifications. Most of my colleagues are far more experienced than myself, and I was at pains to acknowledge my somewhat novice position. I only ever spoke through the lens of research.

The response was initially very positive, with some good questions from the audience, and some debate about some of the provocative things I discussed. I got good feedback from a handful of people in the lunch break, that my presentation was thought provoking and challenging.

For me the challenge will be to maintain some momentum. A few of us in one department (Literature) are keen to increase collaboration across the different discipline areas in the college. Others are less enthusiastic. My interest is to broaden participation by faculty in conversations around pedagogy, and in collaborative efforts to communicate and share the research interests, teaching approaches, and challenges we all face with this unique group of students. I am realistic enough to see this ideal as an uphill challenge.

No-one likes to have to examine their assumptions, or to reflect too deeply on what they are doing in the classroom. But I feel there is so much going on in the different discipline areas that I want to hear about. The challenge will be getting other teachers to overcome their reservations, and contribute with generosity and in a participatory spirit. There is never enough time, either.

Indeed, the kinds of reflective and collaborative things we should want to cultivate in our students, are exactly the same things educators need to do themselves. Ironically, the barriers to participation among both students and teachers, are identical.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Frisson in the computer lab - handing over control?

This week, I took my students to one of the campus computer labs - not usually a teaching space - to work on "visualising" the word and idea they had chosen in their groups last week. It is holidays for most of the student intakes, so the lab was relatively empty. The inspiration for this 'visualising process', came from an article by Patricia O'Connor, available at the Visible Knowledge Project Library on the Academic Commons website Here.

This was something I have NEVER done before, and the first problem was keeping them off their Facebook pages - unless, I said to them, one of the ways they might visualise the different aspects of their idea / word was located on their Facebook page.

HOWEVER, there was this fantastic "frisson" (panic??) in my mind and body as I felt control slipping away, and their attention diverted to their personal spaces and "real" lives - and it was very interesting to be at the nexus of that teaching / learning / real-life intersection. I'm still remembering the moment, and thinking about what it means for my approaches.

From all the scholarship I am reading, and information and ideas gained from conversations happening in the education field, and on Twitter's #edchat especially, social media is one of the "social environments" in which today's students of all cultural backgrounds participate. But at the moment, I am unsure how, or in what way, I might integrate social media into my classes. But I am opening the door to see what comes in! And what comes from the students themselves.

It's a process of slow exploration, I think.

But, back to the students. They were all logging into You Tube, Google Images, and some of the Chinese students were using Baidu - the official Chinese search engine, looking (I hope) for resources on their topics in their own languages. I didn't mind this - one thing I'm kind of trying to do is value the cultural and personal knowledge these students bring with them to Australia, and let it have a space that is acknowledged by the teaching "authorities" they encounter.

I went from group to group marvelling at the strange things they had found, and reminding them of the objectives - to teach the class the 'depth' of ideas behind a surface word. I suggested looking for positive and negative connotations, or aspects, to demonstrate the diversity of ways words, and the ideas behind words, can be appreciated.

Next week, we are back in the lab, following up the work they have done collaboratively in the previous week. Most of them were exchanging Facebook info so they could share stuff together, and planning interactive presentations for the class in two weeks time.

Because I am deliberately trying to surrender some control, I've indicated their presentations can be in a format of their own choosing. Each group of three (and one of four) have ten minutes. It will be in the reflection exercise I have planned for after each presentation, where the learning they have achieved will, hopefully, be brought back into the objectives.

What have the students watching learned?
Which pieces of visualised evidence were most helpful in conveying the depth behind the word / idea?
And finally, (because this is a Literature class) has the group tied their exploration to a human story? This can be a real story, or one they have made up together.

My next post will be on something different - a presentation I'm making at the academic staff conference about research trends in International Pedagogy - and the ideas behind constructivist and culturally responsive teaching approaches. It should ruffle some feathers - I think.

I'm now going back to the huge pile of essays from my eight other classes. And it's the weekend too!


O’Connor, Patricia. 2009. “Close reading, Associative Thinking, and Zones of Proximal Development in Hypertext”. In Bass and Eynon. The Difference that Inquiry Makes: A Collaborative Case Study on Technology and Learning, from the Visible Knowledge Project. Academic Commons. Centre for New Designs in learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University. https://digitalcommons.georgetown.edu/blogs/vkp/library/

Saturday, September 4, 2010

First Class - Introductions and setting the scene

I arrived this Thursday to meet the ten students arrayed at the far end of a long U shaped classroom. This group of students from a range of South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, aged 17-20, were comfortable in one another's company, and were laughing and joking together. One young man was playing his guitar while waiting. This made all the difference, I think, in putting me and them at ease. My usual class groups are quiet and reserved on day one - not usually having met one another.

A Wi-fi enabled laptop was already connected to a large plasma screen, loaded with an image to show them to begin our discussion about words.

My opening comments were to introduce myself. I sat not at the front behind a desk, but down close to the students on a chair between the U-shaped array of desks. I then asked the class if they had any knowledge about Literature. One student admitted she had no idea what Literature was. (I should mention that my classes are a compulsory subject in the English component of the program, so, these are not necessarily students who come to class with intrinsic interest. This group is undertaking a preparatory program before the main one.)

In my explanation, I focussed first on my own passion for Literature, and the personal dimension of that passion. Then I spoke about national literatures, and mentioned some of the great names in both Western and Eastern Literature - including the Persian poets Hafez and Rumi. I then explained some of the learning objectives for the course, and one particularly important goal, that I was aiming to learn as much from them about their lives, cultures and experiences, as they would learn from me.

To understand how to make connections between words on a page, and what they mean in the immediate context, one must have experiences to connect with the new words and ideas. So my next invitation was for each student to tell me what they liked to read - not just fiction, but something they feel excited enough to bother reading about. This discussion was fantastic - and there was a broad range of interests brought to light. It gives me information to refer back to.

In a few weeks, this reflecting on reading will hopefully form the basis of a presentation from each student, where they will need to "teach" the class the most significant, and personally meaningful aspect of a story (fiction or non-fiction) they know and understand. I'll talk more about this in later posts.

The image I showed then was of the top and underneath (photoshopped) of an iceberg (above). For a western student group, the "tip of the iceberg" is a familiar saying. Not so for these students, but the image made the point about 90% of something being "below the surface." Given that in Literature I frequently distinguish 'surface' and 'deeper' readings, this image was maybe unoriginal, but it made visible the meaning I wanted them to appreciate.

They all seemed to "get it" - but rather than assume understanding, I reinforced the analogy with an activity. Australia was a new place for all these students. With what did they associate Australia? They loved this opportunity: kangaroos, koalas, the Opera House, Uluru, boomerangs, the Harbour Bridge, beaches, deserts, footy, etc.

A visualisation was required here to reinforce - so I did a Google image search via the screen which showed, yes, maps, flags, (symbols); kangaroos, Aboriginals playing didgeridoos, the Opera House, Nicole Kidman in "Australia". The new Google Images interface was good, in that the images were able to be magnified. In short, the "surface" symbolism of a nation appeared. I asked how many of the students had "seen" any of these things since coming to Australia. None. What makes up the depth of a nation, I asked? People, history, customs, culture - came the answer. No-one, I pointed out, had mentioned any preconceptions or knowledge about Australian people, or history, or current events - the details which form the "depth" of any nation. What would they find after staying longer, looking harder? Again, a simple activity, but one I can do again later in different cultural / social contexts - maybe their own.

After this, I asked the group to think of a controversial topic, which elicited a few responses, but nothing everyone was equally aware of. So I fell back to a binary idea - an ultimate black and white debate - that of East / West. What did each student think defined "The West"? Free, vigorous discussion ensued as the group discussed their opinions, and listed some features of the west. They reported back, and the list was illuminating.

Behind each of the areas identified, will be a story. One of the students remarked that the West is synonymous with democracy - something his own country does not experience. One mentioned the laws and regulations which help control standards of health and safety - something with which her own country is still coming to grips. Another mentioned the West's waste, greed, cultural domination and world power. Another thought outside the box, and reflected on the "west" of his own country. These perceptions will have been shaped by human stories, and can be communicated to others using the same human stories.

Next week, these stories are going to be brought to life: made visible. The students will, hopefully, draw from the stories the words, and through the words the ideas which lie under the surface. Because this is a Literature class, the second part of the the activity will be to work in groups to fit their words, images, and ideas into a poem - one that already exists, but makes itself open to be filled with new words, images and ideas.

It occurs to me that this simple work must happen in primary school classrooms all over the world - but perhaps this is something these students have never done. I am going to be ramping up the complexity as I gauge the students' understanding, and the ultimate aim is to move from the tip to the bottom one step at time.

I can't wait for Thursday!


I am a Literature teacher and higher-education researcher in Melbourne, Australia. I teach only international students, in a specialised multi-disciplinary bridging program for students to enter higher education. I have a Ph.D, but am studying part-time for a graduate teaching qualification.

The socio-constructive theories and writings of Lev Vygotsky, seem particularly suited to the needs of international students in the western classroom. In most disciplines, developing a deep understanding of how language, concepts, and processes work in different social and cultural contexts is vital. I am working with one "extended" (unassessed) class, designing and experimenting with some new activities to enhance their deep understanding through knowledge creation. I want to learn as much from these students as they learn from me.

I don't find space for such diversions in my regular teaching, where the curriculum and assessment tasks are created (and fixed) for use in a team, with about 400 students between us. My aim is to also think deeply about what I want students to learn in my classes, and more importantly, why.

In this blog, I am hoping to describe, justify, and evaluate the process of practicing a consciously "constructivist" and "dialogic" pedagogy. The context will be enabling students' understanding of language connections, meanings, cultural and historical dimensions of Literature, but the pedagogies to which I will refer are interdisciplinary. My vocab (and spelling) will be Australian.