Teaching across cultures in an international seminar.
This article describes the process of introducing interactive pedagogy in countries making the transition to democracy through education reform. The article is based on the authors' experiences as facilitators and learners during an international teacher education seminar in the Republic of Georgia. The seminar was part of an initiative, funded by the Soros Foundations Networks, called the Step by Step Higher Education Initiative.
The Step by Step Higher Education Initiative
The Step by Step Higher Education Initiative was a teacher education program based on democratic principles and theories of inclusive education currently practiced in the United States. It was a collaborative project of the Open Society Institute (OSI), a worldwide operating and grantmaking foundation of the Soros network, and Children's Resources International (CRI).
The OSI has played a major role in promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union. Its mission is captured in the following statement: "An open society is characterized by the rule of law; respect for human rights, minorities, and minority opinions; the division of power; and a market economy" (Soros Foundations Network, 1998). The OSI has been a catalyst for reform in higher education, particularly in eastern and central European countries--regions experiencing the transition to democracy.
The goal of CRI was to foster understanding of the relationship between early childhood education and the capacity to function effectively in a democracy (Ford & Coughlin, 1999; Hansen, Kaufmann, & Saifer, 1995). CRI established the Step by Step program in 1994, and provided an extensive range of education services for teachers, caregivers, and parents. Recognizing that a change in teacher preparation should be a key part of the goal, CRI developed exemplary curriculum materials, designed courses, and organized international seminars for early childhood faculty from universities, pedagogical institutions, and teacher retraining institutions in over 25 countries. This part of the project was known as the Step by Step Higher Education Initiative.
The goal of the Higher Education Initiative was to share ideas on how to "teach" Step by Step courses in institutions of higher education. Typically, countries had three seminars, each focusing on different content. The course content areas included individualized Teaching, Learning Through Play, and School and Family Partnerships. While the content was important, even more critical was the demonstration of how one might teach this content to adult students through the use of interactive methods.
The American authors were invited to be facilitators at international seminars organized by CRI. Participants included faculty and administrators representing the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Mongolia, and Montenegro. This article explores what we, the American facilitators, learned during the process of interactive teaching across cultures.
Philosophy of Education
The Step by Step approach to teaching and learning upholds the ideals of an open society and is committed to:
* Equality of rights and responsibilities
* Promoting an understanding of diversity
* Sharing of "power" and fostering autonomy
* Participatory education
* Freedom of thought and speech
* Recognizing and integrating the individual needs, interests, and backgrounds of learners.
The teacher education seminars organized and developed by CRI modeled these ideals. Seminar leaders engaged participants in inquiry learning, collaborative problem solving, negotiation, decision-making, and creative/innovative thinking. The seminars emphasized the process of learning, not simply the products (memorizing information) or content of teaching materials.
Orienting Adult Learners to Interactive Teaching
The concepts of participatory learning and interactive teaching were new for many of the participants. Thus, community building became a major goal of the Higher Education Initiative. In order to nurture a sense of community, interactive exercises were presented that required teamwork and collaboration. As an orientation, the American facilitators introduced activities to create a relaxed, noncompetitive climate for the seminar workshops. Opening activities and other icebreakers promoted interaction and a sense of playfulness, informality, and spontaneity. These icebreaker activities lowered social barriers and helped participants see each other as individuals with special interests, skills, and life experiences.
Throughout the seminar, the American facilitators demonstrated strategies and techniques used in teacher preparation programs in the United States. Some of the interactive techniques utilized were: workshops, games, simulations, role-playing, case method, and a town meeting.
The Challenges of Teaching and Learning Cross-Culturally
Although the participants were eager to learn about this "new" methodology and the Step by Step program, the facilitators encountered various challenges in the process of teaching across cultures. The following are insights the American facilitators gained about cross-cultural teaching and learning.
Despite being briefed about cultural aspects of post-communist countries, we had limited knowledge of the specific culture of the host country and the cultural differences represented by the seminar participants. Many of the participants' cultural norms and expectations remained unknown to us until we had developed more personal relationships. While it was our desire to be accepting (and accepted), we crossed cultural boundaries without understanding that we were doing so (see Janko Andrijasevic's article on page 344).
Cultural differences emerged during interactive discussion sessions. Some participants were reluctant to express their ideas because they believed they would be challenging the "power" or status of the facilitators, thereby being disrespectful. We were initially confused by the participants' reluctance to share their ideas, but then gained a better understanding of their perspectives from the translators and from informal, personal encounters during meals or evening walks with small groups of participants.
While exploring cultural territory, the facilitators tried to avoid acting as the stereotypical "Ugly Americans" who believe that their systems and ideas are superior to those of other countries. Therefore, we emphasized that we would share new teaching approaches and content, with the understanding that participants would adapt information and processes to suit their particular institutional cultures. The seminar was presented as a forum for exchanging ideas and strategies where participants and facilitators would form an international community of learners. We acknowledged that we had a great deal to learn from our international colleagues, whose depth of knowledge in particular areas (e.g., play, and Piagetian and Vygotskian theories) far surpassed our understandings.
We learned that successful cross-national and cross-cultural seminars necessitated that we display certain characteristics such as openness and flexibility. These dispositions were particularly valuable in cases of different individual and cultural beliefs and practices. Some of the cultural differences we encountered were: varying preferences for the use of time; differences in teaching, learning, and communication styles; and class/status differences among and between professors participating in the seminar.
Use of Time. As facilitators, we felt obligated to keep to a fairly tight schedule so that we would have ample time to share the content that was a critical part of the seminar. For some groups and individuals, however, the pace was too fast; for some, it was too slow. For example, the interactive style of the seminar (so unlike a traditonal lecture format) required more time for completion of learning experiences; at times, participants found this pace too slow. The facilitators believed that sufficient time should be provided for the participants to experience and understand a hands-on approach with materials, which initially confused those more familiar with direct instruction methodology. On other occasions, we would intend to give just a sampling of an activity; some participants found that pace to be too fast. Once engaged with the activity, the participants wanted more time to complete the work in detail.
As workshop leaders, we hoped that the participants would use the evening hours to study and write reflectively in their journals or do group work on assigned projects. Although some of the participants did just that, they were more likely to spend their evenings socializing, singing and dancing, and learning about each other's cultural traditions. Because of time constraints, the authors needed the evening period to debrief each other about the current day's activities and to prepare for the next day's work. This created a dilemma. As team members, we feared that our absence from the evening social functions would be perceived as rude. We realized we needed to participate in the evening events, which provided rich opportunities for interaction--a key component of the seminar. We developed a plan that allowed some of the facilitators to participate in each of the evening events. Often, the team member responsible for the next day's content would prepare, while the other team members joined the social activities. The informal and spontaneous social events played an integral role in strengthening the bonds among cultures, and helped the facilitators understand individual perspectives and cultures much more fully through one-on-one interactions.
Teaching and Learning Styles. One of the criteria for being selected as a seminar leader/facilitator from the United States was that the facilitator (an early childhood teacher educator) would model adult learning methods, using strategies other than lecture. With adult learning principles as our guide, we actively engaged the participants in a wide variety of methods. This was different than the tradition of professors and pedagogues in eastern Europe. We later learned that the higher the status of professors in eastern European countries, the more likely it would be that they would lecture. This notion was reflected in a comment made by one of the participants, who wondered whether we facilitators "were serious professionals." In the United States, the opposite view was prevalent: use of participatory and interactive methods indicates that a teacher educator is using a more current and effective teaching approach.
Communication. Although some of the American facilitators spoke other languages, they did not speak the native languages of the participants (e.g., Armenian). The international participants, on the other hand, all spoke Russian (a requirement in the former Soviet Union countries) and some English, as well as their home languages. As the U.S. team did not speak Russian, the communication mode for the seminar, they relied heavily on the translators to convey the deeper meanings and concepts about education theories. This placed great demands on the translators, whose backgrounds were not always in pedagogy. On many occasions, we were uncertain whether our intended meanings were accurately communicated. To ensure the best communication, we reviewed the content of the sessions with translators prior to each session.
Another challenge we encountered concerned communication styles. Participants often were asked to share information through small-group reports. Although we repeatedly requested that each group select a spokesperson to make a brief report, the participants appeared more comfortable reporting at great length and in detail. Eventually, the participants and facilitators reached a compromise, but this took some time.
We were further challenged by gender expectations that differed from ours. For example, the male participants in some groups believed they should have the responsibility of speaking as the leader for their groups. The facilitators strongly encouraged each person to have an opportunity to take a lead role, perhaps on a rotating basis. Further subtle complications arose as some men did not expect to be questioned or "challenged" by the female team members. Once again, a collaborative effort to understand each other's perspectives was necessary to find a workable solution that supported the goals of the seminar (e.g., autonomy, sharing of power, equality of rights and responsibilities).
Resources. The U.S. team also found it challenging to teach in situations where resources differed in type and availability. For example, certain technology formats often did not match in one manner or another. Videotapes required a change in format, and computer avail ability and access was not resolved until the team was on-site. These were not insurmountable obstacles, but they did create a need for numerous and last-minute changes. Materials that we thought would be readily available sometimes were not. We realized that it was beneficial to bring essential materials with us, which could be donated to the host team at the conclusion of the seminar. Another challenge concerned the provision of texts. While some U.S. publishers were willing to provide English language texts for use in other countries, copyright issues arose when translations were considered. As a result, the U.S. team was restricted to using those texts for which copyright permission was given.
Reluctance To Share American Culture. The participants from eastern Europe had a strong tradition of singing songs, playing games, and dancing. We perceived ourselves as much less skilled in these arenas and always felt that our "performances" paled in comparison to those of our European colleagues. We managed to brainstorm a very short list of songs we could all sing, but we were never comfortable doing so. In most cases, we relied on songs we learned as children.
When asked about specific details, we sometimes felt uneasy describing the level of everyday existence in America, especially given the stark contrast to what many individuals in these countries were experiencing. Professors' salaries in America surely would have been considered extravagant by their standards, as would the fact that many Americans own their own cars and homes.
What We Learned
While we faced many challenges teaching in cross-cultural settings, the rewards were rich and multi-faceted. We often found creative responses to the challenges, which lent authenticity to the dispositions of openness and flexibility that were goals of the initiative. We learned that facilitators must have a sense of their "audience"--an understanding of the cultural norms, political/social conditions, backgrounds, needs, and interests of the participants who attend the seminar. That information could best be provided by someone within the culture--a mentor who could orient facilitators prior to, and during, the seminar proceedings.
Most important, we learned that the eastern European and American educators, administrators, and program developers participating in this international seminar shared many qualities and dispositions that contributed to the success of the initiative. The following outcomes were considered evidence of that success:
* A willingness to learn from one another
* A positive, constructive attitude
* Intellectual curiosity (e.g., How are other countries preparing their teachers?)
* Commitment to quality education (What works? What are examples of effective teaching?)
* Efforts to establish links, collaborative projects, and networks
* Creative energy and synergy
* Commitment to research
* Ability to use technology as a tool for disseminating knowledge and enhancing communication
* A sense of humor and the ability to laugh at oneself.
The cross-cultural teaching and learning described in this article is an example of a global learning community united around common goals and aspirations. The mission of the Open Society Institute and the Step by Step Program served as an important link and the first "step" in establishing this sense of community. Educators from diverse backgrounds and countries worked together as agents of change to improve the quality of education (and life) for children and adults in their respective countries. A common commitment to democratic principles and social justice was ample motivation to take action and institute education reform.
Ford, E., & Coughlin, P. (1999). The Step by Step Program: Linking democracy and early childhood education. Young Children, 54(4), 32-35.
Hansen, K. A., Kaufmann, R. K., & Saifer, S. (1995). Education and the culture of democracy: Early childhood practice. Washington, DC: Children's Resources International.
Soros Foundations Network. (1998). Building open societies: 1998 report. New York: Open Society Institute.
Amelia Klein is Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education, Wheelock College, Boston, Massachusetts. Elaine Surbeck is Professor and Associate Division Director of Initial Teacher Certification, College of Education, Arizona State University, Temple, Arizona. Joan Moyer is Professor Emerita, Arizona State University, Temple, Arizona.
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|Title Annotation:||Step by Step Higher Education Initiative|
|Date:||Sep 15, 2003|
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