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What I learned from teaching in a foreign culture

Back to basics.


Instructors always face the unknown when they start a new term – a classroom of unfamiliar students with individual weaknesses, needs, strengths and expectations that are only gradually revealed.

For me, the unknown quotient was even higher last year, when I taught for a term at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya, Japan. I had been appointed the visiting professor in Canadian Studies. One of my classes was an undergraduate course called Bioethics in Canada. I planned to introduce students to contemporary debates in bioethics and encourage them to compare North American perspectives with those in Japan. I also wanted to help them develop their skills of philosophical argumentation.

As it turned out, I had failed to anticipate two key characteristics of my class. First, the students’ competence in English ranged from complete facility (two Canadian students who were taking a year abroad), through the adequate abilities of some students who had spent a term studying English in North America, to the minimal functioning of a few who could barely understand what I said. Secondly, while the two Canadians were confident and assertive, the rest of the class, all Japanese, were quiet, modest, and very reluctant to speak.

I had to give up assuming that everyone could read the assigned textbook and speak English competently enough to discuss it. I had to get students involved in the material at whatever level they could manage. I had to convey the basics of analyzing ethical issues and engaging in philosophical reasoning. And I had to find ways to keep the two native English speakers interested while not completely leaving behind those with minimal comprehension.

I’d like to say I quickly figured out how to revamp my plans, but in fact it took me several weeks to adjust the course content and my teaching. I made two major changes.

First, instead of focusing on a range of bioethical problems and theoretical approaches to them, I assigned brief descriptions of real Canadian cases of assisted suicide, surrogate decision-making, the competence of children to make medical decisions, and the medical treatment of disabled persons. Even those with weak English reading skills were able to comprehend these case descriptions, which I then connected, in class, to more general ethical and social policy debates.

Second, I introduced a new practice at the end of each class. I gave all the students a piece of paper and asked them to write down their answers, anonymously, to two questions: What are one or two main ideas or concepts you learned in this class? What question or questions do you still have?

I collected all their responses, then read them over as I prepared for our next meeting. These “tickets out of class” were revealing. In most instances, I was relieved to find, the students had understood the main themes I was trying to convey. Some asked empirical questions about the long-term outcome of a case or the Canadian laws relevant to it. Others were clearly thinking about the ethical implications of the cases we studied. They would sketch a perspective on the topic and ask my opinion of it.

In the following class I would read out some of the most interesting questions, and then either provide information in response to the empirical questions, or discuss the relevant ethical debates in relation to their philosophical observations and queries. This regular feature of our class prompted new comments from my students, and also created a bridge from the previous week to the new class.

When I first asked the students to fill out their “tickets,” they gave me only brief responses. But when they saw that I took their answers seriously and was committed to discussing them, they began writing longer and longer responses. Despite their shyness and lack of confidence in English, the Japanese students became more assured in their writing. Often they stayed past the end of class to finish what they wanted to say. The classroom became livelier and the students’ engagement in the material deepened.

My experiences in a Japanese classroom reminded me of three fundamental pedagogical principles, which apply whether one is teaching at home or abroad:

  1. Stay flexible. When something isn’t working, be ready to make changes.
  2. When in doubt, reinforce the basics. For me, the basics are writing well, speaking clearly, and developing skills of argumentation.
  3. Explicitly ask the students what they are thinking, what they have learned, and what they still need to know — and don’t wait until the final test or course evaluation to find out.

Christine Overall is a professor of philosophy at Queen’s University.

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