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Student Involvement: When Cultures Clash in the Classroom

Posted By Gina Vega, Thursday, September 06, 2012

Gina Vaga

This post is part of GBSN's Case Method Month efforts to bring you expertise and perspectives from around the globe.

We’ve all had this experience when teaching with cases: As the instructor, you prepare heavily for an exciting discussion, you design a creative teaching method, you review your notes before class, and you are ready to go. The students arrive, take their normal seats, greet each other and you, and class begins. You ask your ice-breaker questions, the ones "guaranteed” to get students talking, and wait for hands to shoot up or students to speak out. Nothing happens. It’s dead quiet in the room, and the students wait expectantly for your next move.

You wonder what they are waiting for. Are they all unprepared? That seems unlikely. Was your initial question unclear? Possible, but also not likely. Are there basic language understanding issues? Perhaps, but surely not with all the students. So, what’s wrong? Why are the students not engaging with you?

The problem may lie somewhere in the nexus between mutual expectations and culturally-based conventions. Students and instructors alike are subtly (and not so subtly) constrained by their upbringing and social conventions. For example, students from some Asian and African countries have been raised to show formal respect for their teachers and, as a result, are unlikely to feel comfortable disagreeing with an instructor’s opinion or even contributing aloud in class. This is in sharp contrast to American students who have learned that their instructors’ expectations involve verbal engagement, controversy, and mutual disagreement.

In the same way, instructors from certain cultures may be uncomfortable having students address them directly or question their conclusions. This sort of professorial behavior is anathema to American academics, who welcome the give-and-take of the engaged classroom.

Because case learning is social learning, both parties to the learning process must stretch their comfort levels with traditional roles and join forces to create a new classroom model, one that succeeds in engaging students’ hearts and emotions as well as their intellects. This model must be acceptable (not offensive) to the instructor and, at the same time, not intimidate students. This is not as daunting a task as it may seem if all involved agree to temporarily suspend their normal modes of communication.

The leader in this suspension must be the instructor, because the instructor normally sets the tone for the learning environment. Some of the following suggestions for instructors may help change the classroom culture for the sake of improved case learning:

  • Create a "safe” environment for learning—one in which students are encouraged to express an opinion. Learn to use phrases like, "That’s interesting. Who else has another idea on this subject,” instead of, "That’s incorrect. Who knows the answer?”
  • Present your questions as open-ended, following student answers with, "Why?” or "Why not?” to generate discussion.
  • Divide the class into teams and assign positions for the teams to take on opposite sides of a discussion point.
  • Keep yourself (as instructor) out of the conversation, just nudging it gently to keep it on track. Require that students talk to each other, rather than using you as a mediator.
  • Take a lot of care not to express your own opinion, as this discourages alternative perspectives.

There are many other methods of engaging the reluctant student participant—please share your successes (and failures) with this blog. We can have an interesting and fruitful discussion right here!

Gina Vega is a professor at Salem State University and is visiting academic to ecch under the Fulbright Scholarship Program.

Tags:  Case Method  case studies 

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Nyla Ansari says...
Posted Friday, September 07, 2012
That’s absolutely right to offer a safe environment to the students, but the question is; ‘what is a safe environment?’

Ideas before starting the case in a diversified environment:

1. Select a case that represents students level of competence—undergraduate/ graduate, international practices to some extent.

2. A little discussion of how the case will be run; class participation, respect for all students and objectives of running the case.

3. No case has the perfect wrong or right answer; however, the action taken by the organization (case) is shared at the end. But the main objective of any case is to stimulate discussion, analysis and possible actions, and not absolute solutions. This is just not possible as perspectives differ in different contexts.

4. Lease involvement of the teacher enables more discussion; however the board plan will be initiated from the person who runs the case.

5. Maintain a balance between arguments and counter arguments to entertain healthy discussion in the classroom.

6. Clarify between S2T—student to teacher and S2S—student to student discussion in the beginning of the case. The student can raise his hand and say: S2T please or S2S.

Nyla Ansari, Assistant Professor, Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, Pakistan
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