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.



Acknowledging Cultural Variation during Classroom Participation- Karly Neath

In 2012, 32% of graduate students and 11% of undergraduate students enrolled at the University of Waterloo were international students, representing a broad range of cultural and educational backgrounds. This cultural diversity has tremendous pedagogical potential, but it also poses challenges to our ever growing emphasis on classroom participation.  As we begin a new academic year with thousands of new students it is important to remind ourselves of these challenges and work to overcome them.

 Students’ actions in the classroom may be based on different cultural understandings of what constitutes appropriate student and instructor behaviour. When a student is quiet during a discussion, for example, they are not necessarily unprepared or bored; they may simply be behaving according to their own culture’s standards of classroom etiquette.

 Most North American (N.A) students have had experience with class discussions in high school. Thus, they are at least familiar with the discussion conventions (e.g., small group work, expectations for preparation and participation) that they will encounter in the university classroom. Here in N.A, discussion classes, labs, and projects are valued as important parts of the learning process along with lectures instructor (e.g., Brookfield, 1999).

 However, in many cultures, lectures are the sole mode of instruction. Thus, some international students may not see the benefit of discussions or group work, believing that they cannot learn anything substantive from their peers. Additionally, the students may not have learned the skills necessary for participating in group-work or discussions, and may only feel comfortable participating when they can answer questions the instructor has posed. The challenge here is that instructors may assume that these students are not interested or have not done the assigned reading.

 Another challenge is that the unwritten rules for discussion may be different. For example, in one culture, it might be acceptable to interrupt or talk more loudly to gain control during a discussion; in another, it may be considered polite to allow short silence; in another, students might expect to be called upon before offering their opinion. Consequently, international students may find the N.A conventions of discussion frustrating and may be viewed as too shy or rude.

 Perhaps instructors simply need to be more aware of cultural differences and sympathetic to the challenges that students face in adjusting to them. However, this does not require them to lower their standards or apply a different set of performance criteria for international students. Consider the following simple pedagogical practices:

 Make expectations explicitExplain why you think discussions are valuable, how they will be evaluated, and ground-rules.

  1. Model the kinds of work you want your students to doFor example, have students observe two faculty members engage in an animated debate.
  2. Represent the material you are teaching in multiple ways.
  3. Give students ample opportunities to practice applying the knowledge and skills you want them to acquireFor example, ask students to discuss a design, case study, or experiment in small groups (without being assigned a grade).
  4. Provide varied opportunities interactionFor example, encourage students to email you with ideas and questions. Also, monitor student groups to correct misconceptions and encourage everyone to be involved.

 While this may post may seem very “common sense” I believe it is important to constantly remind ourselves of the cultural diversity within our university and to help make the transition into our classrooms smooth by using these simple tips.

International Women’s Day Turns 100 — Trevor Holmes

IWD logo
Logo for IWD centenary

As I write, I am reading news reports of men harassing women in Cairo, women who assembled to celebrate International Women’s Day, women who protested alongside men to oust Hosni Mubarak.

As I write, I am hopeful about initiatives to help women and girls get educated all around the world.

I note tertiary education efforts too, like Women’s Education Worldwide.

And I think hard about the post over at Hook and Eye, a blog co-owned by Aimée Morrison (Waterloo English) and guest-blogged today by Shannon Dea (Waterloo Philosophy).

I feel like we need to act locally and think globally about feminism… a point I keep making to my own first year students still, relentlessly…


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

How many “Asians” does it take to make middle-class white kids uncomfortable? – Trevor Holmes

It’s International Education Week at Waterloo.

I say this because I had thought perhaps I could blog about my own personal framework for “internationalism” and intercultural awareness. I grew up in an adoptive family with a Scottish-Welsh mother (whose parents were immigrants) and an Irish father (who himself came from Dublin at age 12). My birth family are all Irish-Scottish on the mother’s side but Cape Bretoners since the mid-1800s, and Romanian on the father’s side (also immigrant parents). Somehow, though, the blog topic I thought I was going to consider has been overshadowed by another one, and it reminds me of my white background rather uncomfortably. Continue reading How many “Asians” does it take to make middle-class white kids uncomfortable? – Trevor Holmes

Reflections on Learning as an International Student – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a former international student pursuing two graduate degrees in North America, I can relate to the many academic challenges experienced by international students on our campus. At the heart of these challenges is the process of navigating the various aspects of the new academic culture and learning the language of academic communication, both written and oral. Continue reading Reflections on Learning as an International Student – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Knowing Oneself and Appreciating Others Through Leadership Training — Katherine Lithgow & Mohammad Feisal Rahman

Feisal is PhD  student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Student Leadership Certificate Program (SLP)- “one of the great resources on campus”- Feisal Rahman.
The Student Leadership Certificate Program (SLP) provides an opportunity for any current student (undergraduate or graduate) at UW to develop leadership capabilities which will serve them well on campus and long after they graduate.  For example, among the many workshops offered through the SLP are workshops which address principles of teamwork and collaboration.  The program is designed to encourage all students to participate regardless of whether they are in a leadership role.  The intent of program is to explore and enhance UW students’ leadership capabilities, and to help students gain knowledge and develop skills in leadership on campus and within the community. Continue reading Knowing Oneself and Appreciating Others Through Leadership Training — Katherine Lithgow & Mohammad Feisal Rahman

eHarmony: CTE’s relationship with KSU — Mark Morton

Recently, staff members in the Centre for Teaching Excellence went on a two-week “blind date” with 20 faculty members from King Saud University. I call it a blind date — even though it was really an instructional development program — because none our staff had previously met or even spoken by phone to any of the KSU faculty members. All of the coordinating took place over the course of several months via email between CTE’s Director, Donna Ellis, and KSU’s Dean of Deanships, Dr. Mohammed Al-Sudairi. On the morning of July 12, when the KSU faculty were scheduled to arrive in CTE’s FLEX Lab, our staff members were nervous: Would they like us? Would we like them? Would cultural differences make it hard to talk about issues pertaining to teaching and learning? Would they appreciate my jokes?

Our anxiety, as it turned out, was needless. Within an hour of arriving, CTE staff and the KSU faculty members were laughing together and engaging in excellent discussions about educational issues, teaching strategies, and learning technologies. We discovered that the instructional challenges facing KSU faculty are essentially the same ones our own faculty face at the University of Waterloo: finding ways to effectively motivate and engage students, devising opportunities for active learning, managing large classes, encouraging students to focus on “mastery” (or “deep”) learning rather than “performance” (or “surface”) learning, discerning which educational technologies are most effective, and balancing teaching and research. Moreover, the KSU faculty members’ evident dedication to their students also mirrored that of our own faculty, as did their willingness to reflect on their teaching, and their generosity in sharing pedagogical insights with one another and with us.

Our CTE staff, too, did a first-rate job in developing and offering a host of workshops, with the first week devoted to educational technologies and the second week devoted to teaching excellence. We also strove to make our guests’ visit to Southern Ontario as enjoyable as possible by developing an online description of leisure activities they could undertake on weekends. We heard many stories from KSU faculty members about memorable trips to Niagara Falls, Grand Bend, Long Point, Toronto, African Lion Safari, and elsewhere. Many KSU faculty members also took the opportunity to meet with UW faculty members working in their discipline, who kindly made themselves available. I might mention, too, one of my own highlights — namely, the lunches catered by Kitchener’s Arabesque. The food was delicious and the pleasant lunchtime conversations among KSU faculty members and CTE staff re-invigorated us for the afternoon workshops.

At the end of the two-week program, our Centre hosted a closing ceremony, attended by UW’s Dr. Leo Rothenburg, Associate Vice-President International, Dr. Geoff McBoyle, Associate Vice-President Academic, and Drew Knight, Director of International Programs, during which every KSU faculty members received certificates recognizing their completion of the program. We also viewed an interactive presentation using an online platform called Glogster, showcasing photos and videotaped interviews from the program. We were sad, at the end of the day, to say goodbye.

After returning to Saudi Arabia, the KSU faculty members sent us many emails expressing their thanks and warm wishes. My favorite message is this one, because it also reflects the feelings of our CTE staff:

“I have acquired knowledge and skills from attending these workshops, but certainly I won so many friends. I am proud of knowing such great people like you. Hopefully we continue seeing each other again.”


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.