On cosmopolitan settings

Today, a friend shared an article about international students in Australia. The piece lamented the lack of integration between Chinese and Australian students, and called for change.

This is common rhetoric: international students have limited interactions with locals, what a missed opportunity for both sides! Yet if we dig a little, where exactly does the problem lie? In a city like Melbourne, where one person in four was born overseas, who are these mysterious ‘Australian students’? I’ve been here for seven years, and hold two passports. When I go to Monash University for my PhD, am I a local?

More surprising is the way we seem to consider interactions between Chinese students. They spend most of their time among themselves, I read – well, maybe. But with over a Billion people in China, I doubt they’re spending their time with cousins or village neighbours. More likely, they’re developing entirely new networks across their country, and discovering its culture and diversity from the safe neutral ground of Australia. Not to mention their encounters with Korean, Japanese, Indian, or Latin American students.

When Gertrude Stein invited Hemingway for dinner in Paris, did they yearn after the presence of ‘a real French person’ to make their experience worthwhile? To what extent does it matter that international students in Melbourne integrate with elusive locals? Not if they have a deep experience of learning about the world and themselves, and leave with rich networks and countless insights. But focusing on that may put too much pressure on universities to think hard about their current methods and mission. Beside, who said foreigners could have a good time in our country without us?

Core beliefs: there’s more to the ‘real’ world than you think

One of the most important lessons I learnt was during a French lesson in preparatory class. Our teacher, a wise and erudite man, proposed that we should never listen to the statement that opposes ‘literature’ and ‘reality’. ‘Literature is real’, he said, ‘there’s forty five of us in this room together on its account, libraries are full of heavy books, taking up space, in valuable locations, people spend considerable amounts of time engaging with literature, there is a whole economy based on literature, and teachers are getting paid and recognised for helping understand it.’

Since then, every time anybody simplistically opposed ** insert context here ** and ‘the real world’, I remember the wise words of this teacher, and smile to myself.

Recently, at an Asialink function, I stumbled on one of these conversations. Three ‘project manager’ type leader-women were talking about academics, and how their teaching would not last students long in ‘the real world’.

One of them was working within a university, and heavily critical of academics around her. ‘They have no concept of reality. They just say, ‘we’ll do this project, funding won’t be a problem’, and they do, and they find the funding. But I’m here to help them clarify all this.’ In other words, a system that works perfectly – according to a logic different from hers – was about to be wrecked by her conception of how reality should operate. Surprising from a person who just completed a course on cross-cultural intelligence.

The world is a diverse place, and includes both corporate institutions, and universities; project managers and academics. Reality is polyphonic, and includes a broad range of attitudes and sets of values. Let’s not be deluded by this fake talk of ‘reality’. Culture, the arts, universities, are ‘real’. Real transactions, real emotions, real weight. If anything should be thought of as unreal, it is the strange dealings corporations recognised as persons by a legal fiction. But who will say that this is unreal?

Purple is for education, no culture

1.

In October last year, I was living in Nanjing, and I organised a translation night at a local cafe, with the Nanjing University graduate student English club. The local branch of an Australia-China Youth Association partnered with us. Their role was to bring in Westerners – their people told me they would have no problem bringing in 10 or 15 people. But on the night, only one Polish girl turned up. Furious organisers from the Nanjing University graduate student English club requested apologies – which I managed to deliver. They had brought 25 people, expecting interactions with foreigners, why did I promise ten, and only one came? There was not too much harm in the end, but some disappointment.

I later debriefed with the president of the partner Australian Youth association, and another Australian friend. ‘What time was your event?’ one of them asked. ‘6h30 to 10pm’, I replied. Both Australians had a smirk: ‘Now that makes sense. People just won’t come at that time. It’s a Saturday evening, at 6h30 they’re preparing dinner, then they’re having dinner, and then they’re going out for a drink.’ The tone was condescending, but I stood my ground. ‘People won’t come at that time? Well,’ I replied, ‘twenty five Chinese people came. We might have to deal with a cultural issue here.’ Yet I wasn’t really surprised – neither by the touch of unconscious racism, nor by the poor rate of showing up among Westerners. When I organise events in Melbourne, Aussies rarely come – while Chinese people do turn up.

On the night, in Nanjing, I ended up chatting with three people who’d come as observers. As I found out, one was the head of the Nanjing University Business club, one was the head of the international club, and the third was a friend of theirs, managing editor of a Shanghai-based online magazine specialising in digital media. They’d heard of our event, and were interested.

I went out for dinner with them – a local street restaurant, serving the best barbecue fish in town. Another friend was with us, highly educated Chinese woman writing a Master’s thesis about the reception of European modernism in China. Our conversation was warm, smart and friendly – the Chinese internet, the Chinese video games industry. Then we spent a long time comparing the power structures of the communist party with those of the Catholic Church, alternating between English and Mandarin. I became good friends with these three guys – and as it turned out, through one of them, I found myself one handshake away from Mohammed Yunus, and connected with a group of Guangzhou based innovators and IT entrepreneurs. I think these people will do stuff – and I built the foundations for ongoing relationships with them. How did I achieve that? I rocked up at an event, and I demonstrated a respect for culture.

2.

The Victorian government organised a trade mission through China, which culminated in a Shanghai event at the Pudong Shangri-La. Hamer scholars were invited alongside alumni of Australian Universities to meet the delegates and a few Victorian ministers.

The formal part of the ceremony started with a moving speech by a very wealthy Chinese investor who told us about his time of studies in Melbourne, where he discovered the full value of education and curiosity – which he called ‘the Australia spirit’. In his reply, our Premier expressed his own version of ‘the Australian spirit’, by quoting at length how much income Victoria derived from education exports, in full dollar value. Was I the only one to wince and experience a tinge of shame?

The overall event organisation was chaotic, unsurprisingly, given the large attendance. There was a table plan for the dinner, and coloured laniards for each profession. I tried explaining I worked in the cultural sector, and was there a colour for that? But the Chinese hostess replied, pointing to a pile of laniards: ‘purple is for education, no culture’. I later wandered across the tables, and bumped into one of the organisers. ‘I’m trying to find a table with people working in the cultural sector’, I said. ‘Good luck’, she replied, and left.

I ended up sitting alongside a very nice young Chinese woman, who worked in a bank, but considered a career shift to language teaching ‘I’m a Christian, I like to help other people’. Other people were boozing up on Yarra Valley bottles, while an ad about ‘Dairy Victoria’ rotated on the centre screen. I left early to get back to Nanjing, slightly bitter – with a sense of lost opportunity and misalignment.

3.

In December, I went on a ‘great trip down south’, to Guangzhou via Wuhan and Changsha. I had never heard of Changsha before, and Wuhan was just a name on the map. I learnt it used to be the centre of ‘Chu’ culture, one of the three great cultures of Ancient China; the Dao De Jing manuscript had been found nearby; it is called ‘the Chinese Chicago’; ten million people live there.

I visited the Hubei Museum, and was confronted headfirst to thousands of years of history – and a tradition I was entirely ignorant about. I would normally count myself as well-educated. Yet in this museum, for the first time in many many years, I felt a very deep and almost shameful sense of ignorance.

4.

There’s a quote I really like by Sergio Pitol, a Mexican diplomat and writer, back-slapping Americans: “in my country, it’s not respectable to be ignorant”.

Teaching is listening

Has everyone heard of ‘the flipped classroom’? I bumped into the concept a number of times when following an education course on Coursera, and more recently, saw allusions to it in my partner’s reading notes for his Master of Teaching. The ‘flipped classroom’ model proposes that, instead of students listening to a lecturing teacher in class, and collaborating outside on homework, they should listen to recorded video lectures at home – and at their pace – while facilitated classroom time is reserved for collaborative exercises.

When I taught at the Sorbonne, I was not encouraged to develop group activities. However, my basic assumption was consistent with the flipped classroom model. Students have a motivation to learn, and previous skills to build on. My role is not to feed them new knowledge as if it fell into a void, but to rectify their imperfect understanding of some point of grammar, or how language works – as well as continuously sustain their motivation. In other words, my role as educator is not to pour knowledge into student-vessels, but guide spontaneous movements and correct harmful postures. And in order to rectify, I need to understand what’s wrong.

This is by no means an original idea of education. It does entail, however, that the main skills teachers need is not speaking or reading – but observing and listening. This New York Times editorial, expresses it with great eloquence: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”

Listening requires a different type of preparation from speech delivery. I couldn’t entirely script a class – and definitely not read my notes as some of my colleagues did – but needed the capacity to rephrase and identify errors. Partly, this comes through experience. Partly, this comes through general intelligence and emotional intelligence. Partly, this comes through relaxation. I would come with three basic points I wanted students to learn, and a general idea for potential conversational pathways. Then I would improvise, systematically taking my cues from students’ interventions.

Teachers certainly should be good speakers, but more importantly, they must be good listeners. Do you agree with this statement? And if so – how can we train as teachers to become better at listening?

Educating global leaders? Let’s give them Humanities!

On the Hub Melbourne yammer network, a friend recently posted the following note: “Am currently at a collaboratory meeting to recreate management and leadership education. These are the 3 questions today ; 1. How does the future leader look like ? 2. What is a globally responsible leader ? 3. Can we teach how to become a globally responsible leader.”

I found it inspiring, and suggested the following: “A good education base for future global leaders will be found in classics, history, philosophy and humanities, rather than ‘business and economics’. Management and leadership theories – or economics and ‘social sciences’ more broadly – tend to come in flashy new clothes. They decay more quickly than solid Aristotle, Plutarch and Montesquieu. In a fast-changing world, you don’t want fast-aging leadership education. Close-reading texts of ancient wisdom will teach future global leaders how to find meaning in complex, ambiguous settings; and reflecting on the distance between past and contemporary value systems will prepare them for accepting diverse, sometimes conflicting, world-views – and negotiate their way forward.”

I wanted to share this reply here, and reflect further on the topic. Everyone likes pushing their own agenda. I was trained in the Humanities – and find myself now more and more among people with a background in business, management and economics. Diversity benefits groups: people solidly trained in arts and classics are rare both in corporate and small business worlds, and their presence is likely to make for better decisions. I also do believe that the practice of translation and close-reading, which I learnt in France, is precious when working as an innovator. Translation is a good bullshit detector, and finding good ideas and people requires a solid capacity to filter out the dross. Innovation is also typically nothing but an old idea adapted to a new settings – who knows whether Medieval monastery rules, immigration models in old Athens, or Teutonic lending systems don’t hold the key to some future and precious model for social innovation in Australia.

Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.

Language levels – beginner, intermediate, advanced

Students of a foreign language are typically classified into three bands based on competence: beginner, intermediate, advanced. In my experience, progression is not strictly cumulative, but requires returning often to the same contents until the student integrates it. For that reason, most students are at an ‘intermediate’ stage, which is also the most difficult to teach. Language is a performance, like sport or music – you don’t only ‘know’ a point of grammar or the word for a certain object or action, but you can apply it in a setting to perform a communication or expression task. This is very common knowledge. Less often understood is this second point. Each language is a system, and forms a totality. Therefore, each new element we learn needs to find its proper place in the system. Tenses or word order rules, for instance, form a whole, but so does vocabulary. For that reason, language learning requires three very different activities:

  • ‘Growth’. Learn new words or refine the meaning of known words, learn more advanced grammatical patterns, improve pronunciation accuracy, and develop more adapted rhetorical skills.
  • ‘Clarification’. Correct errors in pronunciation, grammar, use of words; fill up gaps in certain semantic or pragmatic areas, so that the learner will understand and correct recurring errors. This clarification phase could also be called ‘systemic integration’, as what needs to happen is a fast check of the whole system every time an error is detected.
  • ‘Endurance’. Automate whatever is known already: the same task should be done with less effort and more quickly, with more distractions present, or in a more stressful setting.

Based on this analysis, I would advocate for a radical rethink of language teaching pathways, while keeping the traditional division between beginners, intermediate and advanced learners.

Beginners should have a clearly articulated pathway to grammatical and core vocabulary building. I base my teaching on quickly developing basic syntactic patterns for localising and naming the immediate environment, expressing modality (I want, I can, I must), and simple interactions (a similar method is described in this blog post). In classes, growth, clarification and drills should be balanced, to ensure quick integration of the core structures. The beginner stream should finish by one or two sessions of systematic revision focusing on automating question and assertion; time, space, and aspect; persons and possession; modality and causality. Meanwhile, beginners’ vocabulary may be limited to a few essential objects, family names, and core action/relational verbs.

Distinguishing intermediate and advanced students is in itself a challenge, but I would propose the following criterion: advanced students are autonomous language learners, which means they can progress on their own without a teacher or structured method, through sheer immersion, while intermediate learners still require scaffolding from a teacher, a book, or any structured learning system.

Advanced students still benefit from the presence of a teacher or structured environment, along two different lines. On the one hand, advanced students can particularly benefit from a few targeted one-on-one sessions that will focus on correcting remaining errors in pronunciation, syntax or semantics. On the other hand, classes on a topic of interest delivered in the target language by teachers aware of linguistic difficulties can be particularly beneficial to build endurance, nurture motivation, grow vocabulary in specific areas, and clarify some confused pockets – particularly in semantics. But mostly, advanced students will strongly benefit from a stay in-country, where their existing levels will allow them to enjoy full immersion, and practice informally in all sorts of social settings – while building up confidence and training their endurance.

Intermediate students present by far the biggest challenges to teachers – mostly along two distinct lines:

1) Intermediate students are extremely diverse. All have a thing in common: they have major gaps in their linguistic knowledge to fill. However, not all have the same gaps, because not all followed the same beginner’s track – or any track at all – and not all integrated the same parts of whatever they learnt. That’s before even considering their individual motivations and learning styles. Even though institutions do their best to stream intermediates into various bands, each class will have massive discrepancies that have to be dealt with.

2) Intermediate students need very strong internal motivation. On the one hand, their level is still too low for them to enjoy a film, a book or even a conversation in the target language, unlike advanced students. On the other hand, their progress is less perceptible than beginner students; and since perceived progress is one of the strongest motivators for further studies, their risk of dropping out is very high.

I haven’t cracked the code yet of how to best teach intermediate students, but I believe the ultimate solution is to find ways of reducing the time students spend at ‘intermediate level’. My personal style is to delude myself into believing that I’ve reached an advanced level very soon, so that I can sustain motivation through direct encounter with quality contents. But less confident learners may feel discouraged by materials or situations too hard for them – and lack the generic cross-linguistic skills I’ve developed through years of language practice. Another possibility would be to remain in the beginner track longer, and ensure that bases are extremely solid, so that ‘intermediate’ studies mostly focus on growth.

Do you have any experience of teaching intermediate students? Please share them here!

I used grammarly to proofread this post. I’m not a native speaker of English and sometimes still wonder if my grammar’s all OK. They do a great job of spotting minor mistakes, and it means I can save my native friends’ brainspace for more in-depth advice on the contents of my writing.