Fostering integration: moving from activities to personal learning and growth

Fostering integration: moving from activities to personal learning and growth

How can we foster integration? Universities typically arrange a range of activities to promote this, yet often with minimal impact. So what can be done? The key is to move from a primary focus on activities to an additional focus on personal learning and growth. In today’s addition to Forum Week on the blog, Professor Helen Spencer-Oakley shares two helpful techniques for fostering integration of international students.

Learn from critical incidents

Students are likely to experience uncomfortable encounters from time to time. These can be unsettling and can lead to negative feelings and judgements if they are ignored. It is very important, therefore, to encourage intercultural learning from such incidents by training students in reflective techniques.  Here’s how this can be done:

An example critical incident

I had just given a one-hour lecture and after a 10-minute break, students were returning to class for a seminar. One of the international students commented as follows as she came in: “I am so angry I won’t be able to concentrate on the class. One of the office staff has just been extremely rude to me!” I was shocked to hear this, since I had never before heard a complaint like this about the office staff. Since the course was intercultural in focus and this could be a valuable learning opportunity for all the students, I decided to take the time to talk through what had happened. It turned out that the student had handed in her work, but then, without speaking to the administrator, taken it away again to check on something.  The administrator rather sharply asked her what she was doing, but the student did not understand what she had done wrong. They each had differing understandings of the protocols associated with submitting a piece of coursework and these had given rise to the misunderstandings.

How to use critical incidents for learning

When critical incidents such as these happen, it is important for all participants to separate out and talk through the following:

  • The facts of what happened;
  • How the participant(s) felt and why;
  • Underlying assumptions that gave rise to participants’ particular expectations;
  • The differing interpretations and evaluations that could be given to the same event;
  • Re-evaluations of the initial judgements.

In fact, it is not as easy to separate facts from judgements as it might seem. Also, in order to gain different perspectives, it is particularly helpful to work with a peer (preferably from a different cultural background) in thinking and talking through the above issues. I have found it very useful to use a structured tool to help with this, such as the Global PAD 3R Tool. This provides prompts to help students think through incidents in three stages: reporting what happened, reflecting on what happened and re-evaluating what happened.

Learning from comfort zone stretching

Learning from critical incidents is just a first step on the route to integration and intercultural growth. It helps with adjustment in thinking, but it does not deal explicitly with behaviour. Here I have found work by Andy Molinsky particularly helpful. He introduces two key concepts:

  • Zones of appropriateness
  • Personal comfort zones

He points out that in any given setting, there will be a range of ways in which people can speak or behave appropriately. For instance, some people may be more or less direct than others in making a request or giving feedback. However, a zone of appropriateness is by definition not endless. There will be points at which the level of directness or indirectness will be perceived by others as inappropriate. If someone’s personal comfort zone overlaps or partially overlaps with the zone of appropriateness of the other parties, then there will be little or no problem. However, if it does not overlap at all, people will need to expand their personal comfort zone. He suggests achieving this by making small but meaningful adjustments; ie comfort zone stretching.

An example of Comfort Zone stretching

Some of my international students found UK greeting behaviour difficult to adjust to. One of them explained as follows:

“You need a greeting to start the conversation or show you’re polite to the strangers. It was quite frustrating when I found myself bad at greeting, and it could be a barrier for me to make friends and I worried that if I can’t respond to their greeting properly, they might not think I’m polite and easy to get along with. That’s why I have to make it properly.”
This student made significant progress in adjusting her behaviour (ie in stretching her personal comfort zone) and later commented that while others might not notice any change, “I gained an unexplainable proud of myself.”  Others had similar experiences.

How to implement comfort zone stretching

So how can this be done? I have summarised Molinsky’s suggestions in the Stretch Tool, which has four key steps (DISCo):

  • Discern any different cultural patterns.
  • Identify your personal behavioural challenges.
  • Stretch your thinking and behaviour.
  • Consolidate your personal adjustments.

Stepping outside one’s comfort zone is not easy, yet as the famous anthropologist, E.T. Hall, has argued, “Most cross-cultural exploration begins with the annoyance of being lost.” We need to encourage our students to embrace such challenges and stretch their thinking and behaviour. Then social and academic integration will follow more naturally.
Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey is Director of the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick.