An international classroom experience for adult learners?

When thinking of spaces for intercultural learning, one space has attracted much attention in higher education in the last decade: the international classroom. This is a format adopted, especially in the Northern countries of Europe, to allow international students from all over Europe (and further afield) to study at a foreign university as an exchange student for one or two semesters.

By and large, it is regarded as a powerful space for intercultural learning, even though this is not its primary objective. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, some of the characteristics are: a group of students from diverse backgrounds (in culture, education, experience etc.) who study a (credits) course together, developing (learning) activities and projects together in purposeful interaction at a foreign location, as part of a bachelor or master programme at their home university. Their educational experiences are enhanced in the multicultural and multilingual learning environment by an informal curriculum, supported by staff from a diversity of backgrounds allowing plenty of room for intercultural dialogue and exploring multiple viewpoints.

The core ingredients of an international classroom

Could we possibly derive from this format any pointers towards arranging spaces for intercultural learning for another target group, namely adult learners? So, let's take a closer look at the concept and its core ingredients.

First of all, the contents of the course is often of an international or comparative nature and/or based on international literature or theories, whatever the theme of the course. Whenever possible, the input of the international students is welcomed, e.g. by inviting them to provide their countries' as well as their own know how and experiences on the issues dealt with. Their international backgrounds are often effectively used as a resource and considered as added value to enhance the learning process.

Secondly, the lecturers teaching the course often have mixed backgrounds, sometimes because their parents have mixed roots, sometimes because their parents were expats, sometimes because they themselves married a partner from a foreign country. Because of this background, they have no difficulties identifying with the international students as they went through similar experiences. They may also have taken part in international exchange programmes themselves, or any international project or training course. In fact, all of these experiences develop the capacity to see situations from multiple perspectives and welcome other viewpoints, an essential quality in an international setting.

Thirdly, the students: those who go abroad for an international classroom experience took a well-considered decision to participate, even though their motives may well differ. These are students who demonstrate a willingness to take up the challenge of study abroad, of meeting people in a new context, in an unfamiliar country. As all is new to them and as they are often there on their own, one of the first things they do is find support and friendship in their immediate surroundings which is the international group more often than not. Bonding starts early on as they are all in the same boat: away from home, away from friends and family. Many international courses explicitly address this by setting up getting to know each other and other teambuilding activities, as part of the informal curriculum.

Despite the fact that these students choose to go for an international and intercultural experience,  it doesn't mean that it is all plain sailing for them. Most of them experience ups and downs, as well as each other's (sometimes frustrating) working methods, other methodological approaches that they don't feel at ease with, other learning styles, other teacher-student relationships etc., plus all that in a language that is not their mother tongue.

In order to derive full benefit from this total immersion, most curricula make sure to build into the programme moments to reflect on experiences, either in debriefing sessions or in intervision-type of peer groups.

Creating spaces for intercultural learning for adult learners

To what extent can adult education centres or courses replicate such an international classroom experience? In fact, many of the core ingredients can be applied when creating spaces for intercultural learning for adult learners (as well as for adult learning staff in a professionalization track for that matter). Admittedly, there may be quite a difference between eager students on an international exchange and adult learners, as far as motivation is concerned. However, as any educator knows initial motivations to start out on a course may change after the first few sessions when they’ve met their fellow learners and their trainer. A stimulating and inspiring kick off built on a well-considered scenario can do wonders. Learners need to know from the start that they are in good, stable hands and that there’s something valuable for them to learn.

Listening, for one, is one of the most important necessities for trainers. People will always listen to you when you listen to them and to what is on their mind. Everybody wants to feel important and special. The act of recognizing another is a strong motivator in any learning process, as well as an important first step in any intercultural encounter. Especially where intercultural issues are concerned, spaces for learning and discussions about prejudice, stereotype and creating understanding of“the other” need to be safe environments.

Apart from this there could be another issue that could present some trouble in arranging, and that is diversity. What if there’s actually little diversity within the group of learners or within the teaching staff. How to solve that issue?

The Human Library – a tool for enabling meaningful conversations and dialogue

How are we to understand each other, if we do not have the opportunity to talk to each other?  It was this question asked by Danish Ronni Abergel that initiated a global movement called The Human Library. Its aim is to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotyping and prejudice through dialogue.

The Human Library is best described as a place where real people are “on loan to readers”, a place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered. This innovative approach enables non-confrontational and friendly conversations by engaging real people in meaningful conversations. How does it work? Individuals from typically marginalized groups volunteer as “human books” and openly share their life story with participants who want to “read” them. This provides an opportunity to meet people you might not otherwise meet and allows you to exchange inside information, feelings and insights into the type of diversity you are curious about.

“The Books” share very personal stories that promote dialogue about faith, gender identity, survival, privilege, handicaps, ethnicity and so on. In open and honest conversations “the readers” are asked to examine their assumptions and stereotypes around those issues. It’s these types of face to face, intercultural encounters that any adult education course provider can organise as a space for intercultural learning (and probably as part of a course for either adult learners or adult learning staff.)

A short video explains this inspiring and powerful concept of the human library on YouTube: The Human Library Promo. The Human Libary Organization's website gives you a good overview of the many types of diversity of “human books”, ranging from HIV to homeless, ADHD, autism, brain damaged, deafblind, muslim, sexually abused to refugees, naturists, bipolars, obese etc. As you can see in this map, these human libraries are organised nearly all over the globe. So in case an adult education course provider lacks a diverse staff or if a rich mix of backgrounds, heritages, experiences among the learners is missing, here’s a potential approach worth trying out.

In case you do, feel free to share your experiences with us.

Anja Stofberg

The writer is a senior lecturer as well as in charge of international affairs within the School of Social Work of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. Her motto is: think global, act local.