Given the respective definitions of heterogeneity and homogeneity
as ‘diverse in character’ and ‘of the same
kind’, it becomes difficult to think of any group of
people as homogeneous. Who could ever claim that a group of
students would be ‘of the same kind’? We might
point to similarities like discipline, age, gender or culture,
but it is rare that student groups will fit into only one
of these categories; they are all ‘diverse in character’.
In this article I want to focus on how working with groups
of students from different cultural backgrounds has challenged
me to be more diverse in my teaching approaches.
Watkins & Biggs (2001) suggest that good teaching practice
is not just a matter of enacting a particular approach, but
also focusing on student learning. They recognise that there
are some universal principles of good teaching that involve
supporting students to engage with learning at an appropriate
cognitive level. These are not new concepts to those of us
who reflect continuously on our teaching and learning practices.
What is less often the subject of critical debate is that how students are encouraged to engage with
learning is also dependent on a culturally appropriate approach
to teaching influenced inevitably by socialisation practices
and educational values.
My approach to teaching and learning has been influenced
by Knowles’ (1990) guiding principles of adult learning
and has developed out of my experience of being an adult learner
and educator working mainly with ‘non-traditional’
students. These students are usually studying part-time, combining
their study with work and family commitments. Knowles’
(1990) principles suggest that adult learning is most effective
- Are involved in planning how the learning takes place,
- Feel comfortable in the learning environment,
- Believe that their experience is valued, and
- Are helped to relate the learning of the ‘classroom’
to their world outside.
Such principles are not only sound and applicable to any group of students, they are also clearly student-centred and
congruent with my belief in the ability of human beings to
reach their full potential. They are however located within
a western view of the world, emerging from an individualist
culture where individual fulfilment is paramount. They may
have less relevance to students who come from collectivist
cultures where more emphasis is placed on group rather than
individual good and where success may involve significant
others (e.g. the family, peers and society as a whole). The
challenge of working in an international multicultural environment
is to acknowledge that my approach to teaching and learning
has developed through my own individual enculturation and
personal beliefs, which may differ from those of the students.
What is important therefore is to develop teaching practices
that are culturally suitable, sensitive and clearly driven
by a student-centred theory of teaching and learning.
Cortazzi & Jin (1997) talk of ‘cultural synergy’
and building bridges of ‘mutual intercultural learning’.
They suggest that cultural understanding and harmony will
emerge through the mutual effort of teachers and students
to understand each other’s academic cultures, cultures
of communication and cultures of learning. In the learning
environment, I seek to work towards ‘cultural synergy’
in a number of ways. I recognise that my own preference for
a highly discursive experiential approach to learning may
be unfamiliar to many students. It may be threatening for
those students who feel less confident about their spoken
English and who may hold culturally-based perceptions of silence
and reticence (Jones, 1999). Such an approach therefore needs
careful introduction. Embedding an explicit statement about
teaching and learning methods in the course outline is one
way of doing this. Using part of the first session to set
a group contract or guidelines for working together is a useful
method of encouraging concerns, including those about language.
For example at the beginning of the academic year in October
2002, one student in my group asked others to excuse his ‘poor
English’; I responded that students also needed to excuse
my English as I might unknowingly use expressions that were
unfamiliar to them and it was important to me that they felt
able to ask me what I meant. Providing suggested readings
as preparation for each session can help students to feel
that they can engage in discussion more easily with others
because they have some knowledge to draw on (Jin & Cortazzi,
To encourage early harmonious working relationships outside
the teaching session, at the beginning of the Autumn term
in 2002, I asked the students to work in small groups each
to prepare a short presentation on a different aspect of a
particular theory. I ensured that the groups were culturally
mixed, as students from similar cultures tend to work together
and then regret lost opportunities for learning from each
other’s cultural diversity. Students have said that
this activity really helped them to begin to get to know each
other at a very early stage of the course and alleviated feelings
of homesickness for some of them. I recognised that although
I wanted to invite questioning and feedback in my groups,
some students would feel uncomfortable, fearing that I would
either receive their questioning and comments as criticisms
or that I would lose ‘face’. Supporting them to
work together to raise questions and allowing them to give
feedback anonymously or to me in a tutorial could help them
to develop their confidence to engage in this kind of open
dialogue. The differences in feedback could then be used to
highlight distinctiveness in learning approaches.
De Vita (2002) draws attention to the varied ways in which
the logic of students’ own culture and language influence
the structure and style of their written work. It is therefore
essential that international students be helped to develop
their essay writing skills by teaching them the local conventions
for presenting and structuring material. The Graduate School
of Education does this through a series of Learning Skills
seminars, by providing a Language Support person, and by tutors’
willingness to comment on draft assignments. I help students
prepare for their written assignments by providing opportunities
for critical consideration of concepts in the ‘classroom’.
As the students are encouraged to discuss the relevance of
concepts in their own context, it enables them to recognise
that this same critical approach is being asked of them in
their written work.
The principles of openness, a willingness to recognise the
cultural and educational influences on the teaching and learning
approach, and a desire for dialogue within the learning community
can be applied to any subject discipline. Implementation of
such principles can give greater confidence in ‘coping’
with a heterogeneous student body, whatever the ‘diversity
Cortazzi, M. & Jin, L. (1997). ‘Communication
for Learning across Cultures’. In David McNamara &
Robert Harris (Eds.). Overseas Students in Higher Education. London: Routledge.
De Vita, G. (2002). ‘Inclusive Approaches to Effective
Communication and Active Participation in the Multicultural
Classroom’. Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No.2, pp. 168–179.
Jin, L. & Cortazzi, M. (1998). ‘Dimensions of
Dialogue: Large Classes in China.’ International
Journal of Educational Research. Vol. 29, pp.739–761.
Jones, J.F. (1999). ‘From Silence to Talk: Cross-cultural
Ideas on Students’ Participation in Academic Group Discussion.’ English for Specific Purposes. Vol.18, No.3, pp.
Knowles, M. (1990). The Adult Learner: a Neglected Species. (4th ed.). Houston. TX: Gulf Publishing Company.
Watkins, D. & Biggs, J. (Eds.). (2001). Teaching
the Chinese Learner: Psychological and Pedagogical Perspectives. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, The University
of Hong Kong.