Covid-19 an opportunity to truly internationalise Western education

“Little progress has been made in embedding non-Western ideologies and philosophies in current teaching”

There are currently more than 5.3 million international students furthering their education outside their home countries, writes Thanh Pham of Monash University.

The majority of which are non-Western students studying in Western countries. There have been growing calls for the need to support international students in Western countries, including providing financial aid, creating safe environments, and respecting cultural diversity.

To respond, Western education institutions have tried to internationalise education by incorporating international students’ cultural and educational values in teaching and learning.

However, Western academics and researchers have failed to acknowledge these students’ intellectual heritages, having instead focused on their cultural values, particularly overlooking heritage from marginalised cultural traditions (for example, Africa and Asia).

International students are still largely seen as “inferior others” who need to be filled with Euro-American knowledge and assimilate in Western academic conventions.

Responding to recent problems in standards of literacy, numeracy, general knowledge and behaviour of students in many Western countries, researchers are increasingly calling for researchers in the Global North countries to pay more attention to intellectual resources of Southern countries, as these intellectual heritages might offer alternative and, in some cases, better solutions to existing problems.

While little progress has been made in embedding non-Western ideologies and philosophies in current teaching and learning programs at Western institutions, somewhat ironically, Covid-19 is creating opportunities for true education internationalisation.

The possibilities of online teaching

Online learning has been widely embraced during the pandemic, a trend we can expect to continue. After delivering intensive online teaching for the past couple of months, many academics have agreed that for successful online learning, teachers and students need to be engaged in explicit pedagogical approaches; without clear instructions, students could easily become lost.

Therefore, in online delivery, teaching practices widely utilised in Western classrooms – independent, critical, and inquiring – are increasingly being replaced by common practices in Asian classrooms, including “high scaffolding” and explicit teaching. This is being reinforced, and becoming a “must”, due to the enormous stresses students are currently facing.

More fundamentally, traditional Western educational principles such as Vygotskian, that stress interactions and verbal discussion lead to learning, are being challenged by Confucian pedagogical principles that emphasise cognitive involvement, lesson preparation, reflection, thinking and self-study.

These Confucian education philosophies may sound “problematic” and are less favoured in Western classrooms where verbal participation is preferred. However, seminal research of John Biggs, David Watkins and some others on Chinese learners have consistently found that Chinese and Asian students produce learning by being actively cognitively engaged but not verbally debating and warned that “lively” and “orally active” lessons do not necessarily mean good lessons.

Online teaching and learning are clearly pushing Western teachers and learners to go beyond their comfort zone where they do not have much space for verbal discussion, so need to familiarise themselves with Asian new but old pedagogical practices. This process is actually making the true internationalisation of Western education to happen.

What pedagogies can internationalise Western education?

To internationalise pedagogies and curricula, several forms of pedagogies have been developed, but are still largely absent in Western education.

For example, Moll, Amanti, Neff and Gonzalez developed the “funds of knowledge” approach requiring teachers to bring minority students’ knowledge into the mainstream curriculum. Singh advocates the deployment of “pedagogies of intellectual equality” to help international students critique Western educational theories and bring in their homeland theoretical tools. Zipin suggests the application of “funds of pedagogy” in transferring remote students’ lifeworld knowledge in the elite curriculum.

In my own work, I emphasise the need to develop “hybrid pedagogies” to ease the implementation of foreign pedagogies that disharmonise deep local cultural values.

The international education sector of Australia, and many other Western countries, has been seriously impacted by the pandemic. The promotion of non-Western and marginalised pedagogies will convey respect and appreciation on the part of Western countries, in turn contributing to the recovery from the current economic losses.

The current global suffering is forcing us to face a fundamental question: To make a better world, should South learn from North, or should both North and South learn from and support each other?

About the author: Thanh Pham is a senior lecturer in Globalisation Leadership & Policy at Monash University. Her research focuses on internationalisation of curricula and pedagogies. She is currently researching graduate employability with a focus on unpacking how graduates develop strategies to navigate barriers in the labour markets.