Mini-series: Learning from a critical incident in an internationalised classroom

Mashup image of students in the library with a world map in the background.
Photo source: Unsplash, CC0 remix by Joe Arton

In this second post for the Mini-series “Curriculum as a Site for Social Justice and Anti-Discrimination”, Omolabake Fakunle, Teaching fellow at Moray House School of Education and Sport, reflects on how uncomfortable questions posed by students can engender transformative learning and teaching practices…

It was supposed to be an innocuous classroom session for students to discuss their understanding of the impact of globalisation on education in different countries. Mid-discussions (in the front of the classroom), one student rather sharply uttered:

“Did you come to my country because of the tea?”

The question above was posed by a Chinese Masters student in my classroom. It was addressed to an American student when the latter made a statement about how globalisation has benefited every country.

The whole class fell silent the moment the question was posed.

As the class tutor, I could feel all eyes on me. My reaction was to interject and suggest to the students that there seems to be an interest in conducting a critical examination of globalisation, and I will work towards facilitating an opportunity for a class discussion. I shared my experience with the Course Organiser, and we agreed to create a specific space for critical discussion on the topic of globalisation.

The aim in this blog post is not to examine the underlying issues around colonialism that prompted ‘the question’ from the Chinese student. However, the example does point to the possibility that there may be underlying historical and cultural issues that frame the outlook of our diverse student population.

A positive outcome from that occurrence is that it engendered the inclusion of a class debate on the ‘merits and demerits of globalisation’ in the course workshop. Students were asked to form two groups with mixed nationalities, do their homework on globalisation, and present their arguments in class. In the last four years of teaching the course, it is always interesting to hear students share their perspectives on the topic, fostered in an inclusive learning classroom.

A key lesson learned from the event is that we can use a disruptive issue raised by students to develop an effective transformative pedagogical environment.

Over the past years, I consider that provocative question as a critical incident that has aided my development as a reflective tutor. That experience has helped me to reflect on who are our students. I also reflect on my role as a tutor and how I can foster an inclusive and anti-racist learning environment.

I continue to draw on the lesson learned from that critical incident. For example, in Semester 1 of the last academic session, some students asked for a meeting ‘ahead of next week’s [workshop] session’. During the meeting they requested to be reallocated from their mixed cultural group to a single group consisting of themselves as they were fluent English speakers. These students also happened to be white and were asking to be removed from a group composed of students from different nationalities and ethnic groups for whom English was not their first language. The students’ request was ironic given the purpose of the workshop was to critically interrogate educational policies in different global contexts. The workshop provided a forum to learn about different educational contexts.

I did not concede to that request for three reasons. First, the request did not align with the learning outcomes and the Advanced HE standards for professional practice. Second, I was uncomfortable with the students’ motivation for the request. And on a third, related note, I did not think it would augur well for class dynamics if the workshop groups were seemingly reallocated along racial lines, based on a student request. I  encouraged the students to work in the groups in which they were originally allocated, as they can also learn from their peers whose first language is not English. After the meeting, I thought the matter was settled. The following week I walked into the workshop and was surprised to see that the white students had grouped together. Other students were looking puzzled. I asked all the students to reform into two groups, as agreed during the previous workshop. After the workshop, I asked a senior colleague for advice. To prevent disruption in the class, I would come in half an hour ahead of a workshop to encourage group harmonisation (for example, by asking how their group work is progressing), and to ensure that students remained in their assigned group, rather than groups of their own choosing despite being asked not to.

A tutor who teaches mixed cultural groups may not encounter similar conundrums explicated in this post. While this blog draws on my personal experience, the question is: how can tutors be expected to deal with a similar situation in an internationalised classroom environment?

Perhaps, the question is better framed as, how are tutors taught to deal with such a critical event?

I am black and female. At the time the critical event occurred in my classroom, I was a ‘guaranteed-hours’ tutor. None of my compulsory skills development sessions on teaching, assessment, and feedback, had aided me in addressing issues that might arise as a result of a ‘culture clash’ or situations with racial undertones in an internationalised classroom.

There is a need to support tutors and to share practices on how to foster inclusiveness in our increasingly internationalised classrooms.

Drawing on my research expertise in internationalisation and the student experience, I am interested in contributing to exploring ideas and issues around inclusiveness in internationalised classrooms. Current interest in this topic from across the university is very encouraging. I am currently working with colleagues on a research project to address questions, such as, how do we facilitate equality and inclusiveness in an internationalised classroom? To what extent does our teaching practice allow us to facilitate an environment where students can discuss and critically debate problematic issues around equality and discrimination?

In sum, as reflective practitioners, we need to consider how and to what extent does the access to diversity in our classroom enable us to foster creative, transformative, and disruptive learning spaces where our students develop attributes that can prepare them to contribute to a more equitable world.

photograph of the authorOmolabake Fakunle

Omalabake is a Teaching Fellow and Coordinator of the MSc Education General Pathway at the Moray House School of Education and Sports. She is the Course Organiser of the MSc Course, “Higher Education in the Global Context”. She teaches MSc Education courses, including Education Policies and the Politics of Education. Her research areas include internationalisation, student experience and employability. She is particularly interested in exploring missing voices in dominant discourses in internationalisation processes.

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  1. Thank you so much for this blog. I think it is really important to share these experiences as no matter how much we prepare for them they are always surprising when they happen, and can really be difficult to deal with at times. I think this really highlights the importance of making our classrooms global and inclusive and keeping on doing that despite challenging situations such as this. I think deeper consideration on how we can prepare our tutors for this is definitely a good idea!

  2. A very thought-provoking article with many areas of importance.

    The theological and practical advantages of a globalised classroom are advantageous to everyone present, however also cause significant cultural challenges. You indicate in your article that the students were requesting to be split down racial lines, what was the antecedent to this request?

    From my experiences of teaching in globalised classrooms, this is common behaviour of minority groups within these classrooms, regardless of the ethnic divisions outside of said classrooms. A humanistic trait that we as humans have is seeking commonality between ourselves to form friendships, so is forcing students not to follow humanistic instinct beneficial for anyone involved? Making friends within a new group of people is always tricky, so it is natural to attempt to form friendships with the people that you have the most commonality with (sport, music, language etc.) first. Subsequently, after initiating these friendships, the logical next step is to create relationships with members of the group that you share less mutual interests or traits, which takes substantially longer to do and to initiate. I want to ask did splitting the students to ensure globalised groups thwart the students developing relationships between themselves, creating a more divided classroom? Besides, is splitting the classroom to purposely avoid racial lines in itself condoning and promoting racial divides? Additionally, if the classroom composition requires forced separation, is it, in fact, a ‘globalised classroom’ or a classroom with a significant majority and a token number of other students making it an ‘artificial globalised classroom’? If that is the case, are the students themselves to blame or the system and people that created the classroom?

    A more profound contextual explanation may answer these questions, while these questions within themselves may influence future attitudes and actions when experiencing a similar situation.

    Thank you for your blog; it was illuminating.

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