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Issue 95. Peripheral Vision October 11, 2010

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
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There is a story — true or not, I cannot say — that my mother’s cousin found some cigarettes somewhere when she was about five years old decided to try them. When she was caught smoking and scolded by her parents, she apparently defended herself by saying,

You never told me I couldn’t smoke!

Anyone who has read Edward Hall’s work will probably remember that the USA is characterized as a “low-context” culture because we focus largely on what is explicitly expressed in our communication. Just as parents would exhaust themselves trying to expressly forbid every unwanted activity that their daughters or sons might think to do, even a low-context culture cannot construct itself without some shared and unspoken context. Even my mother’s cousin’s belief that anything not expressly forbidden is allowed is an assumption that fails. Why wouldn’t she as easily assume that anything not explicitly allowed is forbidden?

It’s hard to imagine a five-year-old child in the USA who truly believes that her parents would allow her to smoke, and I have no reason to doubt that even in the first half of the 20th Century in the USA, my mother’s cousin also picked up enough information from the context around her to sneak the cigarettes and smoke them outside somewhere away from the view of the kitchen window rather than simply to ask for them, as she would have asked for a drink of water or something to eat. Her defense is disingenuous, a clever way to soften the punishment. I suspect also, that this was not the last time in her life that she pleaded ignorance of the rules in an attempt to avoid the consequence of not following them.  Perhaps it is an indication of the low-context culture in the USA that this often does work.  How could you be expected to know something if you weren’t explicitly told?

But in fact, we are expected to know many things that we aren’t explicitly told, even in the US. Part of growing up is learning to observe and evaluate the social context in which we live as well as participate in it. Of course, parents will teach their children specific rules and manners and provide guidelines for making judgments about new situations, but even at the age of five, children already have picked up much more than their parents ever told them about the society in which they live. They can often distinguish fairly accurately what sorts of behavior one parent will accept that the other will not. They will have noticed the fact that there are norms and values that exist in the larger society that are substantially different from those of their parents and will draw conclusions about the position of their family vis a vis the larger society.

Exchange students and others going abroad to a new country will often try to find the “Dos and Don’ts” — a list of rules to avoid social missteps. Sometimes this can be helpful, especially when the rules are both subtle and unexpected. It’s comforting to have some answers, but a few explicit rules are as inadequate in guiding your social skills in the new culture as the bilingual dictionary you may carry is in guiding your conversations. Much of the knowledge needed to understand and participate in another culture is like what you observe in through your peripheral vision. If you wear blinders to go from Point A to Point B, you only get to Point B. Intercultural learning is seldom about Point B and the narrow path to get there. But if you knew when you were 5 that smoking was forbidden, and no one told you so, you probably still have some of the skill needed to learn a new culture’s unspoken rules.

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Eyes on NAFSA June 6, 2010

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
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I have just returned from the NAFSA conference in Kansas City and have written some of my impressions of the sessions I attended in the “Research and Relevant Bits” section of this blog. From a personal perspective, I was pleased to reconnect with old friends, both at NAFSA and in the suburban neighborhoods where I grew up and attended school.  I was also pleased with the interest shown in my poster session about my research on educatoinal goals in US independent and private high schools: research that is still incomplete since I need to devote more time to my  new job.

It was also exciting to know that the community college where I now work was honored with a “Simon Spotlight Award” at the Friday plenary. It was a great way to conclude the conference.

Read more at Eyes on NAFSA

Issue 92. What is education trying to do? February 27, 2010

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
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I recently started a new job in higher education, and along with my ongoing research on culture and educational goals, I’m finding new questions about how we learn and the role that culture plays in educational systems and in assessing learning. Education in the US currently is focused on accountability and evidence that learning is taking place. But there are many ways to interpret evidence and there are many types of learning. The more interesting questions may relate to what education is trying to do.

A week ago I was struck by Stan Katz’s blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education. There seems to be wide agreement that “international education” is crucial, but there seems little consensus on exactly what this means. Katz complains about the language he frequently sees that talks about international education in terms of US competitiveness in a global economy. Those who follow Intercultural Eyes may recognize some of the familiar themes that I have advocated based on my long career of working with intercultural learning through high school exchange programs. For me, international education involves flexibility and communication skills to build relationships across cultures. It demands perceptual skills and self-awareness to recognize subtle variations and nuances of life in a different place. And it requires an attitude that views the self in an international context with humility and respect for all humanity. I am still struggling to find the rubrics to assess these “educational outcomes” than relate more to character development than content. But I also need to clarify my theory about the development of respect, for instance. Or how flexibility is developed: My hypothesis is that flexibility is related to comfort and confidence while rigidity is related to fear and discomfort. But I don’t know this for certain. Courage without fear is only foolishness.

Language and communication skills can be tested, and the IDI is related to perception and awareness as well as attitudes. Anxiety can me assessed, but low anxiety is not equal to bravery. As we seek to assess education, it is important to understand our goals in their cultural context, and to continue to study other cultures to explore new approaches, new theories, new learning objectives. My hope is that we do not simplify our teaching efforts to meet only those goals that are simple to define and measure.