The willingness to promote inclusivity and embrace diversity is an expectation in our publicly funded, Canadian education system. To bring these values to their professional practice, at home or abroad, teachers require an expanded skill set that will allow them to be attentive and responsive to culture within their classroom context. This paper explores the development of intercultural learning based on participants’ experiences and reflections from an international service learning experience as an alternative practicum placement. Data was collected through interviews and focus groups. A discussion of the project and key findings about knowledge, skills and attitudes are detailed. Conclusions and implications for international service learning programs to assist pre-service teachers with their progression towards intercultural competence are presented.
Diversity is not a new concept in Canada; it has been shaping our history since the earliest settlements. Each year, Canada welcomes immigrants with 20% of the population as foreign-born citizens (Statistics Canada, 2007). The diversity within Canada’s population will continue to increase; by 2030, Statistics Canada projects that at least 25% of the population will be foreign-born. In addition to diversity within Canada, Canadians are also increasingly mobile; the Government of Canada suggests that three million Canadians live abroad. The implication of this mobility and increasing diversity is that, citizens of this country need to understand the pluralistic cultures represented within society. The Conference Board of Canada (2014) describes this as a practical and moral imperative, which impacts all aspects of our society.
As diversity continues to play a significant role within our country, and in the world beyond, there are consequences for the preparation of teachers. Public education plays a critical role in shaping the values, attitudes, behaviors, and skills of our future generations (Guo, Arthur& Lund, 2009). Educators working within and beyond Canada need to understand issues of diversity and inclusivity. Specific curricula focusing on cultural diversity and inclusive practices are an essential aspect of pre-service education (Dei & James, 2002). At minimum, pre-service teachers must be aware of the dispositions, knowledge, and skills that will allow them to guide a diverse population in ways that promote inclusion within the pursuit of academic excellence.
While the ethos of diversity and inclusion is part of the Canadian rhetoric, the implementation in practice is far more challenging and complex. Our Canadian teaching population does not reflect the diversity of our student population and many systematic barriers exist (Ryan, Pollock, Antonelli, 2009). Mwebi and Bringham (2009) note that, most pre-service teachers continue to be relatively homogenous in terms of race, class and sex (i.e., white, middle-class, and female). Many Canadian trained teachers may not recognize that they have a culture and may not be attuned to the differences or similarities with other cultures. In fact, research suggests that those who attend pre-service teacher education feel ill-prepared and under confident when it comes to working effectively with students from different backgrounds (Guo, 2006, Mujawamariya & Mahrouse, 2004). Limited confidence or perspectives of diversity or cultural awareness within pre-service teacher populations may diminish the potential for full inclusiveness in education or society more broadly. Faculties of education need active strategies to enhance diversity and inclusion within pre-service teacher education programs.
Experiential learning is a long-standing part of teacher education programs stemming from the work of curriculum philosopher, John Dewey (1904; 1938). In Canada, pre-service teachers are required to complete placement hours observing and teaching in classroom settings to become certified as a teacher. These practical learning environments are viewed as an essential aspect of the pre-service education. Yet, providing classroom placements that purposefully encourage an understanding of diversity and inclusivity is a challenging task. Alfaro and Quezada (2009) cautioned that “colleges and schools of education have responded without urgency in restructuring their field … few have organized international field and clinical experiences that meet intercultural competencies, international collaboration, global awareness, or motivation to teach from a global perspective” (p. 47). If diversity and inclusion are a priority, Heyl & McCarthy (2003) propose that, “a key role for higher education institutions must be to graduate future K-12 teachers who think globally, have international experience, demonstrate foreign language competence, and are able to incorporate a global dimension into their teaching” (p. 3). Programs and placements that offer students opportunities to learn about culture, diversity, equity and inclusion within the Canadian system and beyond are a necessary evolution within the field of education.
Rationale for Service Learning in Education
Service learning (SL) promotes growth of understanding while meeting wider community needs through carefully crafted experiences. Furco (1996) proposes that “service enhances learning and the learning enhances the service” (p. 12). SL promotes the ideology that teaching and learning can happen beyond the walls of a classroom and enhance civic commitment. Learning through service to others has been incorporated into educational programming for decades; recently, this trend has focused on the implementation and implications of this within teacher education (Barnes, 2002; LaMaster, 2001). Research suggests that when SL is a component in the preparation of teachers the benefits include: a broadening of pedagogical methodologies that are applicable to diverse settings as well as increased understanding of moral and social teaching responsibilities and abilities (Anderson, Swick & Yiff, 2001; Barnes, 2002; Root & Furco, 2001; Watson, Candall, Hueglin, & Eisenman, 2002). The challenges for successful SL are well documented by Anderson & Pickeral (2000); it is a complex method of teaching and learning that must be carefully attended to.
International service learning (ISL) builds on the experiential components of community based service learning implemented in an international context. There are many goals in linking international education, service and travel. Past research has established that overseas placements provide empowering opportunities, where pre-service teachers develop personal qualities as well as pedagogical skills (Ferry & Konza, 1999; Faulconer, 2003). Crabtree (2008) suggests that include: “increasing participants’ global awareness and development of humane values, building intercultural understanding and communication, and enhancing civic mindedness and leadership skills” (p.18). Yet, McLeod and Wainwright (2009) claim that more needs to be done to fully understand study abroad experiences. There are many research studies that document the merits of ISL (e.g. Crabtree, 1997; Hartman & Roberts, 2000; Monard-Wiessman, 2003) and others that document the benefits the positive competencies pre-service teachers develop when working in international education (IE) contexts (e.g. Baker, 2000; Mahon & Cushner, 2002; Stachowski & Brantmeier, 2002). Boyle-Baise (2002) found that when teacher candidates have authentic experiences within communities different from their own, they change their preconceived perceptions about others and feel more confident about their ability to work in diverse settings. Student placements that are conceived of ISL have the potential to nurture the values of inclusivity by challenging pre-service teachers to adapt to teaching and learning within a new culture.
Promoting Intercultural Learning
One aspiration of ISL is the enhancement of intercultural learning. Intercultural learning is defined in many ways and has been positioned as a continuum from ethnocentrism towards cultural sensitivity (Bennett, 1986). It is also positioned as a set of competencies that can be identified and assessed (Deardorff, 2006; 2008). Each of these authors situate intercultural learning differently but they share a premise about “acquiring increased awareness of subjective cultural context (world view), including one’s own, and developing greater ability to interact sensitively and competently across cultural contexts as both an immediate and long-term effect of exchange” (Bennett, 2009, p. 2). One of the benefits of ISL in teacher education is an intentional and systematic commitment to fostering intercultural learning. Long-term intercultural learning may allow participants to progress along a developmental continuum towards intercultural competence. Intercultural competence denotes a more complex awareness of perceptual discriminations of difference that allows for a transferable skill about how to learn about culture (Fantini, 2009).
The context for this research study was developed and situated within the pre-service teacher education program at a mid-sized university in Ontario, Canada. In Ontario, teachers are required to complete their Bachelor of Education and also obtain a certificate from the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) to work as an educator in publicly funded classrooms. The research context describes the faculty, course and project where this study about international service learning as an alternative placement is situated.
Faculty. Approximately 700 pre-service teachers candidates are enrolled in a pre-service program that emphasizes learning from and through field-based experiences across educational settings. One initiative, to promote inclusion and diversity is program focus courses. Each course lasts the full year and offers an experiential learning component that is framed as an alternative practicum placement. Candidates complete a total of 16 weeks in school placement experiences during their pre-service year; at least 3 of these weeks are part of an alternative placement connected to their program focus. Alternative practicum placements encourage student understanding of diversity and inclusion by introducing pre-service students to non-traditional classroom settings, including the ethos of service learning within local, national, and international communities.
Course. Educators Abroad (FOCI 255) is a program focus course that promotes awareness about international education and intercultural learning. Candidates enrolled in FOCI 255 complete their alternative placement in one of the broad areas related to international education, culture or globalization. Students can choose to work locally, nationally or internationally. The Bachelor of Education program at this institution has a reputation for placing pre-service teachers in accredited international schools, but there has been growing interest in working within international communities. In response to this interest, the faculty constructed two ISL placements; the ‘Tanzania Project’ featured in this paper is one of the alternative placements.
Project. The ‘Tanzania Project’ in Butiama was designed to fulfill the alternative placement requirement. Initially the project was spearheaded through the Career Placement Office within the Faculty of Education, with one Placement Coordinator responsible for the initial communications with our Tanzanian hosts and preliminary aspects related to pre-service teaching, service learning and living. Once it was clear that the there was support from both the institution and the project partners, one of the course instructors, who is also an author on this paper, volunteered to facilitate the pre-service teacher involvement.
In setting up the project each year, joint introductory sessions were held between the placement coordinator and the course instructor to explain the idea of service learning and the opportunities as well as the responsibilities. When possible past participants would attend in-person or via web based conference to share their ideas. Next there was a brief application process in which students outlined their interests and provided a rationale for successful participation (i.e. past travel, language skill, support from family). These applications were used to determine the extent of their commitment and begin a dialogue about opportunities and expectations.
Once students committed to the ‘Tanzania Project’ they formed a team who met weekly after the FOCI course and each person, as part of a committee, assumed specific roles and responsibilities for managing the process of the project. Some responsibilities included: communicating with the school and housing hosts, arranging visas and documentation for travel, coordinating flight arrangements, planning ground travel and in-country excursions, and organizing educational and fundraising initiatives prior to and post departure. Student engagement in these organizing structures was essential to the viability of this project. While their support was valuable from an administrative perspective, it also provided opportunity for these pre-service teachers to create a community of practice who understand the depth of details required in planning for ISL.
Over five years, the ‘Tanzania Project’ provided an experience for pre-service teachers who were interested in ISL. Each year since its inception, the group totaled 6-10 pre-service teachers spent approximately six months engaged in the project. Five of these months were spent preparing to spend one month in Tanzania. In Tanzania, three weeks were spent on a practicum placement where students taught during the day and worked on service projects during the evenings and weekends. The final week was spent exploring the country. Each pre-service teacher provided their own funding, although some funding was available through our institution in the form of an Elliott/Upitis/Bamji Travel Fellowship.
Purpose of the Research
This research documents participant experiences across multiple years to identify ways in which this project promoted intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes. Three questions guided this research study:
- What can be uncovered and discovered from participants’ experiences?
- What new understandings emerge in this project?
- What insights can this project provide about international service learning as an alternative practicum experiences in pre-service education?
Design and Methodology
This inquiry recognizes the difficulty of analyzing data from overseas encounters and therefore employed a range of data collection procedures (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Kim & Gudykunst, 1980). As Patton (1990) stated, “no single data source can be trusted to provide a comprehensive perspective” (p. 144). Crafting data from multiple sources emphasizes diverse ways of engaging and learning through inquiry. The approach used in this research is consistent with recommendations for using multiple strategies where participants are treated as active interpreters who construct their realities through discussions, stories, and narrative (DePoy & Gitlin, 2005).
The participants include 11 educators; nine of these were Tanzania Project participants, eight were female and one was male. The remaining two participants were the researchers of this paper, one of whom facilitated the group each year and travelled with them in 2009-2010, and the other who joined the group in an observational capacity during the 2009-2010 year. This gender imbalance is representative of the predominantly female group over time.
Data was collected through a series of iterative qualitative processes that included: (a) pre, during, and post experience focus groups with 3 participants from the 2009-2010 cohort; (b) interviews with 6 past participants spanning each of the cohorts from the project inception in 2007; and (d) researcher observations and field notes spanning 4 years involvement in the project. All data was collected, transcribed, and coded by the researchers-authors.
Initially, coding of data was undertaken by each researcher and then discussed to enhance a set of common codes (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). After the initial coding, a discussion about emerging themes and patterns took place. This collaborative analytic process furthers the reliability by allowing themes to emerge and then revisiting the data in light of these themes (Alfaro & Quezada, 2009). Based on this, key concepts drawn from the field of intercultural learning were used as an organizing heuristic. This provided an ideal framework for analyzing data about participants’ thoughts, behaviors, experiences, and observations.
Findings and Discussion
A heuristic focusing on knowledge, skills, and attitudes serves as an organizing concept to explore the intercultural learning of participants who were involved in the Tanzania Project across multiple years. Intercultural learning is viewed as having numerous dimensions with interrelated and interconnected aspects (Deardorff, 2008). Yet, examining three of these areas independently allows for a close exploration of participants experiences that can contribute to a holistic understanding of their intercultural learning. Quotes are selected and included for their representational nature and the themes they explore. Overall these findings extend the existing research by attesting to the impact of ISL.
Knowledge of self and others
In Canada, the teaching profession may have limited understanding of important dimensions of intercultural learning because teachers typically reflect a predominantly small percentage of our diverse population (Ryan et al., 2009). Many pre-service teachers in in the Canadian context have not had significant intercultural experience prior to entering the classroom. Examining the knowledge of self and others provides one way to consider the potential for educators’ intercultural learning.
Project participants identified as having limited experiences with people who lived outside of Canada. Those involved also described having limited prior knowledge or lived experience of other cultures. When asked about key facets of their culture, most participants identified and explained themselves as “Canadian”. Although many of the participants had travelled abroad, the nature of these experiences was almost exclusively vacations. Many participants described how their families/friends supported the idea of an international placement but expressed concern about the rural area. One pre-service teacher shared how she talked about this experience with her family, “I explained there are these protocols, I had a whole university looking out for me.” Another participant also referenced the safety found in being part of a group travelling from a reputable institution, she said, “it has helped, just knowing you can travel somewhere that’s not a Caribbean resort and still be okay.” Seven of the nine students interviewed for this research commented that they learned a lot about how to prepare for international travel through this experience. In contrast to the participants, the researchers were both experienced teachers who had worked/lived overseas and embraced diverse culture contexts.
Both the researchers, and the two students who had previous international travel experience recognized the commitment in planning for group travel. A five-month pre-departure involvement, as an extension of their education program, enhanced participants’ knowledge by providing opportunities for understanding motivations and goals for those participating. One participant reflected:
It took us so long to figure out what each other wanted that the process of getting to know each other was slow. I thought everyone was of the same mind. Not that people can’t have different opinions, but I think it would have at least helped to know that, okay, not everyone has the same mind as me, and not everyone is going there for the same reason.
Each participant had a unique reason for wanting to be involved. For example, one pre-service participant described, “I want to understand more about how to teach in a school that has limited access to resources.” While another commented on her desire to “use my artistic skills to help make the classrooms nicer places for kids to learn, to paint stuff on the walls that can help motivate and promote learning.” A third participant described how she wanted to go to because she had always wanted to see Africa. Looking across all of the responses shows three main goals that often overlapped: working with others, learning about schooling in different cultural contexts, and fulfilling a desire to travel. During the pre-departure sessions educators discussed alignment between individual aspirations and project goals.
Participants learned about themselves and others by taking an active and intensive role in planning the project for that year. Students were expected to work with project partners and past participants to construct their experience. One person summed up the sentiment of this teamwork, “allowing a free flow of information between multiple people means we get to collaborate with real teachers and we’ll be able to take these skills into our future practice.” Collaborative practice meant making decisions about project goals with partners, group and individual fundraising, group travel plans, basic Swahili acquisition, and forging local connections to raise awareness of the project. Participants described these meetings as stressful, felt that they had a lot of responsibility and needed more direction. Every participant commented on the time invested prior to travel. One cautioned that, “it is a really big commitment… the Tanzania Project is a major part of your life.” Another participant suggested that, “the planning has been a challenge because there are a lot of decisions to be made … it is hard to work with a group of people you don’t know.” Yet, many recognized the commitment yielded learning valuable for the project and the future. One person said, “I was so glad for the limited amount of Swahili we were able to learn before we went there, just having those phrases made all the difference.” Six of the participants indicated that they wished they had learned more Swahili. One student revealed, “I never knew dealing with an Embassy would be so stressful!”” Overall, data from across Tanzania participants is important because it identifies the possibilities for self-learning when students have active roles in preparing and planning for ISL experiences.
Participants learned about the Tanzania people from direct communications with our hosts during pre-departure planning, from the anecdotes shared by past participants, and from their own interactions with others once they arrived in Tanzania. Participants had many positive things to say about their experiences learning about others from the Tanzanian culture. One sentiment that captures the group feelings is, “I had a lot of positive things to say about the people in Tanzania and how we were treated there and the experiences that we had.” Once they had the opportunity to get to know Tanzanian people, the participants began to understand the differences within and across culture sand were able to identify some preconceptions they had.
When we first landed, I surprised at how modern and urban most of the city was, this changed my thinking and I think it has tweaked the thinking of my family back home when I show them pictures and tell them stories.
This experience changed my vision of how quick we are to make a decision about what a continent looks like and is like, now whenever I think about international subjects, I still think about that… this isn’t one country with one belief, one look to the entire place.
There is just so much to learn here, the language, the people, their schooling… it is all so different; I am both overwhelmed and excited about this. Every person I have tried to speak with responded and I just wish I could understand more Swahili.
Some of the learning about others took place when confronting their own judgments and stereotypes, others experienced revelations that allowed them to gain a deeper understanding about Tanzanians and the diversity within the Tanzanian culture. As one participant identified, the time she spent in Tanzania was insufficient to learn all about Tanzanian culture, but it was still invaluable to her; she explained:
Now, mind you, can I really say how life is in Tanzania? No, but I have a better idea about how some people live in the communities that I was in and that’s something that can be brought back into the classroom and talked about with students and a way to engage students in Canada and talking to them about what do they think can be done to help the situation of students in these countries with the struggles that they have and what kind of struggles the students have in Canada and what things do they have to be thankful for. So, just kind of opening up a dialogue within Canada about what’s happening, not shutting our eyes to the different learning situations that kids have all over the world.
Her voice echoes that of other participants who recognized that this represented a first experience into an extensively layered world of international education.
Part of learning about others was gaining an awareness of the Tanzanian curriculum and culture. In different ways, at different times, all participants experienced anxiety about this aspect of the project. The varying levels of confidence pre-service teachers held about their teaching were played out in classrooms that were culturally different from any of their previous experiences. Two participants commented on how frustrated and shocked they felt when they were expected to lead the classes in Tanzania. Participants knew they had much to learn and told stories about how they learned by watching the Tanzanian teachers to observe what was working. One participant explained, “we spent all these practicums with teachers giving us critical advice and then, here was this woman who has been teaching longer than all of my associate teachers put together and she thinks our teaching is wonderful, great amazing!” The differences they observed provided new knowledge about approaches to curriculum and culture.
In Tanzania, it’s assumed that because you went through high school you can teach. I felt lucky to know something about teaching and assessment when I was there, although I didn’t know as much as I do now after teaching full time.
It changes my view of how you can teach, on the first day we walked in and he [Tanzanian teacher] said, you’re going to teach and he was giving us a book and saying, just read it to the students, go for it! And we were like, no, we can do better than that. I think it was about the structure of government, so we made a diagram and then we would read a part, and then, we’re learning it as we’re reading it because it is Tanzania history and then we were able to quickly transmit it to the students. It really brought my confidence up…
I feel like this experience gave me a lot more confidence in myself as a teacher, I don’t have to be 100% prepared to teach as long as I know enough to spark communal knowledge. We would often teach, between three of us, just sort of building that knowledge with the students and so it has changed how I look at preparation.
A lot of my teaching now evolves around discussion and community because that is what I saw working in Tanzania and that is what I aim for.
These four quotations provide examples of beliefs that project participants held. The pre-service teachers were simultaneously learning about themselves and others while also learning about the curriculum and the culture in Tanzania. The opportunity to confront their previously held cultural views and expand their understanding strengthened the potential for intercultural skills. Their ability to master content quickly, use the pedagogical expertise they developed and practiced through their teacher’s college affirmed their skills as an educator while also showing them there was more they could learn.
Pre-service participants learned many skills through this ISL experience. These skills documented here encompass aspects of the existing research about the impact of ISL. One participant stated, “this experience has left me with a lot of questions about teaching and learning and student motivations.” Questioning is a valuable skill in intercultural learning, it can create many opportunities for relating to others. Another skill developed was working with others within and across cultural contexts, a skill that many participants valued.
At first I just planned with the other Canadian teachers, but then included the local Tanzanian teacher because he knew about their resources and the students. When we planned with him he explained what students needed to learn for the exams and it was easier.
Team teaching taught me the value of using local resources and showing, I mean demonstrating, how to use the resources we brought with us. We helped to plan for their use within the curriculum.
At first we were just planning together, but then he asked me to help him with his calculus. He showed me how his phone operated as a scientific calculator. We debated the nature of learning calculations and their role in both math and science, since we both taught these.
Shared planning reinforced participants skills of interaction, provided a shared focus, and allowed pre-service teachers to consider various factors in their planning. Talk about logistics of planning evolved and lead to the nature and purposes of schooling and its multiple structures. These philosophical exchanges allowed everyone to practice their skills of listening and interpreting.
It is interesting to see what it’s like, the emphasis on exams … I think the students, at first, were just kind of caught off guard at our teaching style, like asking them questions rather than telling them the answers, getting them to really think. I think it just allowed me, as a teacher, to grow to see the benefits of the Ontario curriculum system. You can kind of see how that inspires critical thinking and just the liberty to think outside of the box that sometimes people abroad don’t necessarily get. So, it forced me to re-evaluate what I wanted to be and how I wanted to be as a teacher and I think I couldn’t have come at a better time in Teacher’s College.
All of the participants described changes to their understanding or pedagogy as a result of their involvement in the Tanzania Project. One of the skills that all participants engaged in was that of reflection. One participant shared:
They needed water and they needed food and they needed a lot of things besides laptops from Queen’s University and it didn’t really hit me while we were preparing for the trip, but when I got there and I was able to sit down and see what we had brought and what we were planning on doing, that was one of the biggest things that jumped out to me. I would stay awake at night sometimes and think, like, what are we doing here?
Although this quotation shares a reflection from only one participant, many expressed similar questions about what we brought to the experience in terms of our knowledge and skills. Others asked tough questions about teacher education processes, gender, health of children, and access to health care. This form of questioning and the reflective comments points to the significance of this ISL practice as an authentic learning experience, which strengthened teachers’ skills across multiple areas. Participants were asking tough questions of themselves and the project that could have a positive impact on their intercultural learning.
Attitudes and awareness
A third dimension is the attitudes and awareness that participants brought to and cultivated within the ISL experience. This dimension is significant as it offers evidence to further strengthen ISL as an opportunity for expanding pre-service teacher thinking about intercultural learning prior to entering the classroom. All participants expressed a commitment towards respecting one another and the host culture. Each also identified that they were open to learning from others and wanted to form relationships. Seven of the nine participants described the complex nature of friendships across cultures. This is a significant discovery because some participants felt they were able to make friends but they often questioned the intention of that friendship and the role that economics played in it.
I would get upset by people who I felt were friends asking me for money because it is not a very Canadian notion. However, in Tanzania you ask everybody for money. There it was par for the course, I still find it tricky when I communicate with my friends there.
I struggle with what genuine friendship is, you know maybe it can mean a lot of things. I had to adapt to that in another society. I still wonder about that sometimes, I still think about what it means to make friends across international lines.
It’s hard to make decisions, the whole time having people go, well do it this way and friends telling you, well I can use the money. The kids really need your help and so we put it off deciding about the money as long as possible.
Participants approached relationships with people from other cultures by becoming aware and responsive to their own values while trying to withhold judgment. Closely linked to this openness is their development of empathy; both of which are attitudes valued in the Canadian teaching context. During a discussion about one participant’s experience purchasing books in a store in Tanzania, she shared a few moments of shock, confusion, and eventually an empathetic conclusion.
Oh, there’s a little corruption happening there, we’re pretty sure. They kept kicking us out of the store and they would only talk in Swahili and whenever anybody from our group would walk in the store and start to look at another book, they would kick us out … no matter how much power you have within the community, you know, you have a career, but, you’re still struggling yourself and you’re still looking out for your family and [we think] there is still that corruption, because it’s a matter of survival. You’re going to take your little bit in order to help your family and that’s just part of [doing business].
This quote reflects a shift in thinking that was articulated by most of the group. When pre-service teachers suspected corruption they were at first very angry and upset, but later, in reflecting they were able to cultivate a openness, avoid judgment and be empathetic to social conditions they were just beginning to understand. Promoting a sense of empathy for others was an awareness driven by the ISL experience.
There were multiple dimensions to the ISL project that provided opportunities for curiosity and discovery. In addition to providing service by volunteering in local schools, pre-service teachers had engaged in collecting donations prior to departure. Yet, through the ISL experience many participants came to understand the complexity associated with giving. One participant describes how a previous project participant shared that one of their hosts was proud of having his own books; this motivated her to bring books with her to give. She described, “the books had been given to him and they were so old. He liked textbooks, he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to read fake stuff, because fake stuff is not real.” Although, the participant had travelled with several fictional books to give her host, she realized that these were difficult gifts to give. She explained, “I just didn’t think to ask the question of what types of books. It was funny, because the kids there were far more interested in what types of crops we have and they had a million questions that were not answered by story books.” From this example, we can see the teacher has an attitude of humility, is learning the complexity of giving. Another teacher shared a story that reveals her desire to give and provides insights into the transformations that can take place during ISL.
On my last day of being there … I needed to do something to thank everyone … I made them Indian food and they really appreciated that and to think that, at the end of it all, it also taught me about small gestures, how much that can mean… It was really nice to see at the beginning of the whole experience, I had kids running away from me and screaming because I looked different from the other Canadians; as much as it kind of hurt my feelings, at the end, you know, you had them playing with your hair rather than being scared. It was really such a unique experience … I’m pretty sure the experience sort of touched their lives, kind of broadened their understanding of the world – I know it did mine.
This teacher speaks of the attitudes she encountered and the impact of these attitudes on her feelings and beliefs. In a short anecdote she reveals a lot about the power of time and interactions brought about through ISL as an alternative practicum placement.
One question raised in the research is the length of time immersed and the potential impact these ISL experiences can have. More than one student described feelings of culture shock when returning to Canada. In many examples, their experiences shook their world view, made them ask new questions and opened their eyes to the ways in which other people are conducting their lives.
I still look at flights sometimes, I wonder what I would do and how much they cost and I think about going back there to see my friends. I know it wouldn’t be the same but I am always trying to find a way back.
When I came back, I felt really good about how my attitude and habits had changed, especially my consumer habits and my awareness of money. But like anything, after a while, you get back into your life. Sometimes, I just want to go back for a reality check.
I was standing there and people were angry because someone had more than eight items in the express line and I was thinking, this is not important, there was so much stuff and I had seen children who had so little. It was upsetting, but after a while you get desensitized again.
Participants gained an awareness of another culture, an experience of having been immersed in that culture, and a heightened sensitivity about their home culture. All of the participants commented on an awareness of the interconnection of teaching and learning. One participant said, “we go there to teach, but we learn so much more!” This sentiment was common from simple statements where we heard such as, “it just changes people; we go back and we look at things differently” to more complex unveilings. Examining your attitude or gaining awareness when you are living and working with a group in a different cultural context provides many layers for intercultural learning.
Conclusion and implications
Within the Canadian context, extended involvement in an ISL project as part of pre-service education provided significant opportunities for strengthening intercultural awareness and skills. This research has drawn on a body of literature and participant experiences to show that there are many benefits for pre-service teachers who choose to experience diverse cultures by teaching and learning overseas (e.g. Fitzsimmons & McKenzie, 2006; Mahan & Stachowski, 1992; Wilard-Holt, 2001; Wilson, 1993). This ISL project created an opportunity for immersive learning, where dialogue and shared experiences facilitated a deeper understanding of oneself and others, as well as the interconnected world in which we live (Cushner, 2007). ISL as an alternative placement provides a valuable opportunity for international exchange that has lasting consequences on participants ability understand diversity and foster inclusivity.
I think it has touched my students in Canada that I have been able to talk to them about somewhere else, that I have made a difference in understanding someone else, they are really interested and ask a million questions.
I teach geography and I can offer experiences to the kids, first hand experiences, which they always find more interesting … I bring many world issues into the classroom and that is quite significant since I teach internationally now. And when I get back to Canada, I will have constant interactions with people from so many backgrounds.
This experience makes you think a lot about the rest of the world and what’s going on everywhere. This is just one small community of millions and millions of kids.
Every participant in this study reported that the ISL was a valuable alternative placement. We extend existing research by documenting examples of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, which demonstrate a progression of intercultural learning. The discoveries participants made about themselves and others provide powerful and lasting impacts of the experience. Participants learned new skills that are transferable to future schooling contexts and may have a positive impact on their future interactions with diverse populations. By their own reports, participants have more empathy, and are finding ways to convey cultural understandings to others. Of particular significance is that the ‘Tanzania Project’ provided a space for applying, refining, and enhancing intercultural learning. As participants engage in future intercultural learning experiences they raise awareness about the multiple aspects of culture in ways that can continue to positively change attitude and behaviors about differences (Bennett, 2009). These changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes have the potential to positively impact participants’ lives, the lives of their students and others.
One of the new understandings from this research is the value and responsibility of teacher education programs to provide ISL experiences to pre-service teachers as an immersive opportunity for learning about diversity. By experiencing diversity in culturally different contexts, pre-service teachers are provided an opportunity to see, feel and reflect on the importance of inclusion. Engaging issues of diversity and inclusivity through field work that is constructed as an ISL alternative placement provides a structure and vision that allowed participants to take risks, develop relationships and engage in a reciprocal teaching and learning experience.
By undertaking this learning as part of a group experience that is connected to their program within a faculty of education, participants have the opportunity to engage in dialogic and reflective practice about diversity. The examples from this study illustrate that participants often had strong responses and shifts to their experiences. Providing opportunities for formal and informal debriefing enhances the opportunities for individual and collective sense-making. In addition, these participants are able to articulate ways in which they are able to carry this ISL experience forward into their own classrooms. Now that they are aware of the power of this type of experience, it is possible they will work to create ISL experiences within their classrooms, schools or professional communities. Within Canada, these beginning shifts can result in lasting changes for our diverse population. Teachers learn from these experiences, learning that affects their professional and personal development and forever shapes the way they work in classrooms and with students, no matter where they teach.
The value of ISL as an alternative placement is already established within our faculty, although it is not embedded throughout our faculty culture. For this type of learning to have sustainable processes, faculty who provide leadership need support and recognition for ISL within the academic structures. Gilliom (1993) initially raised this issue as one of global education and sadly, almost 2 decades later, limited learning about diversity and inclusivity persists. Research from the study of the ‘Tanzania Project’ as an alternative placement begins to understand the implications for participants; exploring the significance of this complex ISL experience needs further investigation. This research, and further research in the area of ISL, as part of the preparation of teachers can play a role that goes beyond simply teaching in an international context, and can further provide opportunities for developing a more inclusive society.
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About the authors:
Michelle J. Searle
Michelle J. Searle, Ph.D, OCT is a lecturer in the Graduate Studies and Bachelor of Education programs, Faculty of Education, Queen’s University and an assistant professor (adjunct) at the Faculty of Education, Western University. Dr. Searle taught internationally and volunteered internationally for a decade. She provides instruction in international education for aspiring teachers. Her current research involves assessment of curriculum and program evaluation in international education.
Alicia Hussain, PhD(c) is a lecturer in the Bachelor of Education, Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. She completed her MEd studies at York University with a concentration in cultural and policy studies. Prior to graduate school, she taught overseas. Her current research interests include: school discipline and safety, social inequities in education policies and settings, health behavior in school-aged children, and theories and practices in teacher education.