Cultural Chameleon BLOG

Turning the multicultural classroom into a positive learning experience
Posted by admin on 16th May 2019

Few can escape the current scrutiny given to Australia’s university sector. On 3rd May 2019 our massive export market of International students, especially from Mainland China, was the subject of an ABC 4 Corners report. Furthermore, the rhetoric was far from positive. Plagiarism, the lowering of English language standards and high levels of foreign student depression were key topics discussed during the report. The program brought concern from Melbourne university’s Associate Professor ‘Fran Martin’ who has been tracking the experience of 50 Mainland Chinese female university students studying in Australia. A week after the 4 Corners report, Martin was interviewed by ABC radio Sydney. During the interview, albeit agreeing with some of 4 Corner’s findings, Martin expressed concern that the TV coverage could further stereotype some negative perceptions of international students studying in Australia.

However, as an educator of international students, my main concern was Martin’s comments from her observations that domestic and international cohorts often don’t appreciate having to work together. According to Martin, students preferred to stay within their already established culturally homogenous groups. As I teach cross-cultural management, I have always encouraged students to embrace diversity. I see the forming of in-class cross-cultural teams as a vital component to successfully mastering my subject. More importantly, many studies have shown that being able to successfully navigate a culturally diverse workplace is highly sort after by many employers. In 2012 an ‘Economist Intelligent Unit report’ commented that 90% of company directors interviewed, saw cultural misunderstandings as directly impacting their profit margins. This begs the question, why are some of our highly internationalized university classrooms not addressing the need to strengthen cross cultural communication.

Having heard Martin’s prognosis, I felt it would be helpful to highlight some of the most successful strategies I have used in my teaching practice to encourage students to embrace cultural diversity. Therefore, listed below is some tried and tested tactics that has resulted in higher levels of student cultural integration.

1) Make it in the students’ interest to work with peers from different cultural backgrounds.

Given that most students want to at least pass, if not excel, at their chosen subject, there are often far greater levels of enthusiasm for forming diverse teams if there is an incentive towards their final grade. I have even offered a small prize for a team that contains the greatest level of diversity. If you are teaching a technical subject, you can still encourage students to find out how systems and processes differ from one country to another, or how the law may be applied in different ways.

2) Make sure a relevant individual exercise is a prerequisite to a group assignment.

This strategy was introduced to me while tutoring for Dr. Dan Caprar at the University of Sydney Business School. Students were required to carry out a group presentation based on relevant case studies. Culturally mixed groups often dread such activities as they believe their marks may be compromised by differing cultural work ethics. However, having each team member research the case study in order to complete an individually market assessment, mitigated many of these fears. When the students meet for the group component, they have already formed a strong

common foundation of knowledge to build their presentation around. Both domestic and international students often told me how much easier and enjoyable this structure made their group work.

3) Give students tools for resolving conflict.

As a facilitator, resolving conflict without escalation was always top of my clients’ agenda when putting together corporate workshop content. Conflict is an inevitable part of life including our careers, yet all too often we are not equipped with basic skills for solving common disagreements. I always give my students some basic strategies for moving through times of conflict. These include focusing on big picture goals rather than getting too immersed in detail that will not necessarily eventuate in a greater mark. I also encourage students to give each team member an equal voice, stopping the more confident and outspoken from dominating. Many students have told me that this has helped them work together and has even opened their thinking to new ideas.

4) Make team co-operation accessible.

As mention in point one, students, generally, want to do well in their disciplines. Incorporating teamwork as part of the overall participation mark means students have an incentive to resolve disagreement. Finding a solution to differing opinions becomes of mutual benefit to all team members. Furthermore, I encourage tutors to observe how students are working in their teams to see if they are putting the recommendations given in point 3 into practice.

One practical issue faced when forming diverse teams is that some tutorials consist of high levels of international students from a specific country. On one occasion I asked my Chinese students to start conversations with peers from different parts of China. After all China is a vast country comprising of many cultural differences sometimes referred to as subcultures. This resulted in a broad scope of learning for all class members including myself.

Finally, I would like to add that against a backdrop of unfavourable publicity we forget to focus on the many advantages our overseas students gain when studying at a top Australian university. I often hear international students speak of challenges they faced when coming to Australia. However, I also hear how they have adapted and thrived in their new environment and how they are thankful for the experience that has opened their thinking to new ways of learning and problem-solving. We need to acknowledge that International students are currently a vital component for Australia’s prosperity. Consequently, Australia’s universities offer new and valuable learning approaches for our international cohorts. Therefore, when university staff embrace cultural difference in the classroom, both overseas and domestic students benefit and, moreover, so do Australian employers

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