I have been reading the excellent tour de force that is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you haven’t read it, do! It is an observant and witty take on what it means to be on the outside of a culture you are now within.
The novel focuses on the story of two students, Obinze and Ifemelu, from Lagos who fall in love and then split up whilst at university. She is in the US and he is in Nigeria (with a short stay in the UK). I won’t go into too much detail but Ifemelu makes some comments about the US education system that got me thinking.
When describing her initial experience of studying at a US university, she describes feeling uncomfortable with participation. She decries it as encouraging “students to talk and talk” for the sake of talking, asking “why must you always say something in class” (Adichie, 2013: 134). There is an implicit contrast here with her university education in Nigeria which we could assume based on her words was more didactic and teacher focused, the sage on a stage set up. This key pedagogical change leaves Ifemelu unsure of “how to be in class” (Adichie, 2013: 134).
As someone who never got on with lectures, I believe in Active Learning methods. I like students to participate, to engage, to learn together. For me, education is not simply transferring knowledge from my head into theirs, but is a relationship. I work very much in the vein of bell hooks who seeks to teach to transgress, build community and cultivate practical wisdom. All of which involves students talking, to the teacher and to each other (hooks, 2010).
But sometimes I do meet resistance in the classroom to this way of working. I teach one-shot sessions so we don’t get much time to build a sense of belonging or familiarity. There are certain things I do to create the right environment for learning, based on the work of Nancy Kline and the Thinking Environment (Kline, 2015). In my experience, students do enjoy these experiences and comment approvingly in feedback that working with their peers was an incredibly rewarding and effective way to learn.
In later pages of Americanah Ifemelu has reconciled herself with the new pedagogy, albeit without much confidence in its rigour. But she says she is happy to contribute: “thrilled” she could disagree with her professors and her opinion be respected (Adichie, 2013: 136).
What is gnawing away at me though, is the anecdotal evidence that international students do struggle (at least initially) with this. Oblique references to certain educational cultures (particularly Chinese education) are made in my workplace but I don’t know if there is any hard evidence of this. I can’t help feeling we might be falling prey to cultural stereotypes.