Accidental, Informal and Formal Learning in Intercultural Education – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As International Education Week on our campus (and many other campuses around the world) draws to a close, I am thinking about my past and current connections to the field of intercultural and international education. In particular, I am thinking about unexpected sites of intercultural learning in our daily life and work. (Coincidentally, this week CTE is hosting four visiting professors from China who joined our PostDoc teaching series to learn more about teaching and learning in the Canadian context).  At the start of the PostDoc series, I asked the participants (28 this time) how many of them got their doctorates outside of Canada.  More than half of their hands went up.  So here we are, a group of almost 30, coming from various cultural backgrounds and bringing our diverse educational (hi)stories gathered in a room in EV1 to spend a week talking about teaching and learning.

The next evening I attended an event organized by a local non-profit that works with immigrant and visible minority women new to KW. There I met a  Laurier student born and raised in Canada who shared with me her experience of volunteering in Panama last summer.  It was challenging, she said, but I also heard a talk by a Chinese Canadian high school student who is in the midst of submitting her university applications. She talked about the change in her reasons for going to university after participating in the Immigrant Women and Voice Youth program. In her inspiring speech, she told us that she is no longer interested in going to university because of familial expectations or peer pressure. Instead, she wants to go in order to hone her leadership and communication skills so that she can overcome her fears and self-doubts and do the work she aspires to do in her community.

These are just some examples of the unplanned intercultural moments/encounters that find their way into my daily life and work. In our daily interactions on campus we experience many moments like this. Both in and outside of the classroom. Both within and outside our departments. In the context of formal and informal curricula.

The history of international education fascinates me. Looking at the current numbers of students who pursue postsecondary education abroad (more than 4.1 million in 2010, according to OECD data), I ponder the question of *when* student sojourners started to venture abroad to pursue higher learning. Thanks to a quiz on the history of international education, I discover that Emo of Friesland was the world’s first recorded international student. Apparently, he traveled from Holland to Oxford in 1190.

I think my CTE colleague Mark, who grew up on a grain farm in Saskatchewan and has been a diligent student of Arabic over the last few years, would find this little factoid fascinating (Mark also shares my passion for Ethiopian food, but that’s an aside). And perhaps Mark has a story about it that will send me to the dictionary to discover new words in English that I haven’t encountered before. As a non-native English speaker who arrived to North America in her twenties  – past the period of achieving native-like competence, according to the proponents of the contested Critical Period Hypothesis for second language acquisition – I can’t think of a better place to work than with English and communication majors and a former English professor. My second (well, actually third) language vocabulary is so much richer for that.

I am also reminded of the fact that my other CTE colleague, Julie, did a teaching presentation to the French department in, well… French. I think it’s really cool that we have a bilingual educational developer at our teaching centre. And while we at CTE have not yet explored our individual and collective frameworks for doing international and intercultural work and have not yet articulated a framework that defines and guides our activities in these areas, we often find ourselves *doing* various kinds of international and intercultural work – accidental, unplanned and planned. I think the same is true for teaching and learning that happens on our and other campuses. Most of the ‘international’ happens accidentally, unexpectedly, informally.

Intercultural exchanges and interactions have the potential to be immensely educational, even transformational. However, a growing body of scholarship on intercultural education reveals that we often fail to take advantage of available opportunities for intercultural and international learning.  Many intercultural/international possibilities are left unexplored, unexamined or simply left up to a chance. Some activities labeled ‘international/intercultural’ lack clear intent. They are not guided by purposeful and intentional framework based on institution-specific goals, academically-driven agenda and mutually beneficial partnerships. Some examples? The notion that bringing more international students on campus will naturally lead to more intercultural learning for home and international students (research and experience have shown otherwise).  Or that students participating in study abroad programs will acquire intercultural and international competencies when left to their own devices (this excellent book available through the  university library provides research-based evidence to the contrary).

So my question, then, is how can we take advantage of accidental and informal types of intercultural and international learning in our work as teachers and/or teaching  developers? How do we connect them into a more intentional and systematic framework grounded in our personal and professional frameworks for internationalism? How can we use them to guide our educational work and shape the formal curriculum/programming?  How can we make connections between the planned and unplanned, informal and formal, accidental and intentional in intercultural education? As I write this, I am reminded of Paul Gorski’s words that when it comes to intercultural education, good intentions are simply not enough.


Gorski, P.(2008). Good intentions are not enough: A decolonizing intercultural education. Intercultural Education, 19 (6), 515-525.



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Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a Senior Instructional Developer, Svitlana Taraban Gordon oversees all aspects of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program and works with graduate students who are interested in developing their instructional skills and expanding their teaching horizons. She is also developing new programming related to the internationalization and university teaching. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Svitlana worked with the international education office at York's Faculty of Education, taught several courses at York's teacher preparation program and coordinated Microsoft-funded project on youth and technology through her work with Toronto-based NGO TakingITGlobal. She received her PhD in Education (Language, Culture and Teaching) in 2006 from York University. In her free time, Svitlana enjoys traveling with her husband and young son.