Taking the classroom overseas: How experiential learning is transforming teacher training in the Faculty of Education – Gary Harfitt

In line with the University’s focus on internationalisation, the Faculty of Education has transformed its curriculum at Undergraduate (our double degrees) and Postgraduate (Postgraduate Diploma in Education or PGDE) levels. Experiential and hands-on learning have always been a mainstay of the Education Faculty’s curriculum through Professional Practicum and Knowledge Exchange programmes, but in the last year the Faculty has expanded its Experiential Learning (EL) initiatives to include multiple credit-bearing EL projects that are curricula-based and linked to course goals and learning outcomes. It will also incorporate a compulsory EL block into its re-vamped full-time and part-time PGDE teacher education courses this academic year.

We believe that education should not only be confined to classrooms, books, or video demonstrations and this aligns with global research on boundary crossings between organizations and teacher education institutions (TEIs) that have shown the importance of building sustained links between universities and local communities to promote teacher learning. With this in mind, our EL initiatives include overseas research projects, language-immersion programmes, exchange studies, regional service learning projects, and internship opportunities. The response from our UG students in 2015-2016 was overwhelming with more than 140 students from the Faculty participating in a range of projects based in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Australia. These learning opportunities have allowed our students to connect conceptual understanding with classroom practice and helped to shape their beliefs and practices.

Feedback from student interviews, presentations and reflective journals has demonstrated multiple moments of learning for our student participants. One example has been our students’ inward-looking concerns about pedagogy and individual teaching presence, particularly for those who were engaged with teaching-related EL projects in Cambodia, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Student teachers talked about the nervy feeling of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ before delivering their first lessons (many of our UGs have yet to start Professional Practicum in HK, so these formative teaching experiences are crucial in their development), and this echoes our student teachers’ experiences in HK-based TP schools. However, while the Practicum is vital in honing the pedagogical skills all our teachers-to-be need, EL projects offer the chance for our students to see the global landscape as a powerful new knowledge space where they encounter very different types of learning experiences than they might in traditional practicum schools here in HK.

Once immersed in experiential projects on very different landscapes to HK our student teachers were able to reflect insightfully upon their own culture. It seems that our student teachers have been challenged pedagogically, personally and intellectually and one striking feature was the students’ sense of discomfort with new, unfamiliar learning contexts on their EL projects. Certainly, these disquieting learning contexts encouraged our students to make cross-cultural comparisons between their home learning environment and the location of their EL project. In reflective journals students shared their concerns about the danger of ‘short-term volunteering programmes’ in countries like Cambodia and Vietnam along with ‘the trap of ‘voluntourism.’ These reflections also made them re-examine some fundamental beliefs about education with one student teacher casting doubt on whether the answer to every problem in the world is actually the provision of education by outsiders like themselves (“who are we to tell people how to change or how to receive an education?”) and reflecting on her “short-sighted vision on the role of education.” In these reflections, perhaps, we see the emergence of global citizenship in our young educators.

Our student teachers’ comments on social justice and diversity revealed a much more outward-looking reflection as a result of participating in these international learning projects. Other participants commented on experiencing painful feelings of ‘abandonment’ after leaving their respective community-based projects and reflected critically and insightfully on the role of NGOs in the region. This supports one of the findings from research on EL that warns of service-learning projects doing more harm than good unless they are accompanied by pre-trip input on cultural, educational and political issues relevant to the country where the project is being held, sustained support during and after the project, and reflective space throughout to ensure that participants can make meaning from their engagement in EL. This offers a challenge to teachers and coordinators of EL projects, but the rewards of co-constructing learning opportunities with regional NGOs and our students have been obvious.

As a result of internationalising our curriculum we are seeing the development of transformative young educators who not only possess the technical skills necessary for a career in teaching, but who crucially have an understanding of ethical aspects that assist in their understanding of teaching as a moral practice as well. We have found that our student teachers have not only developed an increased awareness of their own culture as well as that of others, they have also learned more about themselves through overseas EL projects. Please visit our EL website at http://web.edu.hku.hk/current-students/tpg-ug-programmes/experiential-learning for a better understanding of what the Faculty of Education is doing in this area.

Dr. Gary Harfitt
Dr. Gary Harfitt

Associate Professor and Assistant Dean (Experiential Learning)
Faculty of Education
The University of Hong Kong

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