Experiential learning across cultures: Creating mutual benefits – Interview with Ms. Candace Mok
In our previous issue (Issue 3), Dr. Gary Harfitt discussed the recent transformation of the Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) programme in the Faculty of Education i. In particular, the experiential learning opportunities have been expanded with multiple credit-bearing projects that are curriculum-based and linked to course goals and learning outcomes. As one of these new projects, Ms. Candace Mok undertook a 10-day experiential learning trip with three PGDE students to Delhi, India in November, 2016.
An informal interview was conducted with Candace about the learning experience of the students and of herself as a teacher. You could see from the conversation below that there were moments of joy, satisfaction, surprise, or frustration, some of which have ultimately turned out to be valuable learning opportunities.
Tracy: Could you briefly introduce the project?
Candace: This experiential learning project is part of the new PGDE programme. It aims to raise awareness among students on important social and cultural issues and empowers them to adopt an inquiry-based approach to learning these issues. We collaborated with Happy Tree Social Services, a non-government organisation helping the poor and the weak. The major tasks for students included voluntary teaching in a primary school and some community services. We also did a bit of sightseeing to get a feel for the culture and to become more familiar with the environment. It was an area of great poverty and the community services were about food and nutrition for children there.
Tracy: What are the benefits for the PGDE students in this project?
Candace: I think the most impressive benefit is that our students have developed new perspectives about teaching. Since these students are relatively new to teaching, they have not thought that they could engage their students so deeply and build such a close bonding with them within only three days. On the day of departure, all of our three students burst into tears as they received ‘thank you’ cards from their students. Another learning gain is that they have reflected on the poverty issues and thought about in what ways education might help tackle some of these issues.
Tracy: What do you think are some of the critical learning moments in the journey?
Candace: We had an opportunity to know and actually feel about the Caste System in India, which categorises people into classes. Those at the lower classes are deprived of many education and work opportunities. We talked to a priest who worked very hard through the lowest class. The conversation inspired deep thoughts in us around whether there is anything we can do about it. This is completely different from the classroom type of learning. In the classroom, you would probably regard it as a type of knowledge item. When you actually talk to the people that were affected by the system, you would learn more profoundly. The experience was unforgettable.
Another critical learning moment happened when our students worked together with local teachers in the primary school. With very limited resources, the local teachers kept an open-minded attitude and trialled new teaching pedagogies with our students. Their attitudes and local knowledge helped our students better shape the lesson plans. This resulted in a great deal of mutual learning experiences between our students and the local teachers in the school.
Tracy: In what ways have the cultural elements influenced the learning journey?
Candace: One thing related may be the counting system and numerals. We are used to counting in thousands and millions but India is using a completely different system. One PGDE student designed a new way to teach the expressions for counting numbers in his English lesson that is more easily adopted by local students. We often say that we want to develop ‘a global outlook’ among our students but how it might be actually realised still needs more discussion. One way, I believe, is to expose them to different systems so that they would at least see how the diversity creates challenges and opportunities in teaching. Another example was that a student majoring in geography embedded some comparative angles between Hong Kong and Delhi in his teaching. He encouraged the students to explore the similarities and differences between the two cities and discuss how they might be related to the geographical features.
Tracy: Was there any challenge for the students?
Candace: One big challenge for service-type of learning is associated with the difficulty to obtain accurate information before the trip. This exactly happened in our trip. Before departure, our PGDE students tried to understand the level of their potential students through very limited information on the Internet and prepared their teaching materials accordingly. They did not know until they arrived that there would be an examination week immediately after their visit. Our students made spontaneous adjustments in order to help the local students better prepared for the exam.
Tracy: What was your role in the project? Could you share your learning experiences and insights?
Candace: My role was to facilitate students in the integration of their experiential learning with the teacher education. When students were reflecting on their experiences, I would observe first and try to help them make a better connection. The facilitation cannot be prescribed; instead, it has to be acted on the spot based on the progress of the students.
We also had a ‘huge’ incident during our trip. At the beginning of November last year, some of the paper currencies were denominated in India. One student had exchanged some of those currencies, which then became useless. There were also restrictions on the amount of currency one could exchange per day. So we had to survive with very limited amounts of money. Under such extreme circumstances, I really appreciate the problem-solving capacity of our students. One had an idea of exchanging goods with the locals and it worked perfectly – a type of bartering. The local people were very kind to us and willing to help.
This is actually my first trip to India. I felt that it is my experiential learning too. More importantly, I haven’t learned anything less than my students. Their courage and problem-solving skills inspired me a lot.
Tracy: How do you see the project fit the university’s 3+1 I’s strategic goals (internationalisation, innovation, interdisciplinarity, and impact)?
Candace: I believe the project contributes to each of the 3+1 I’s. In terms of internationalisaiton, this project facilitates a mutual learning process and creates benefits for both our students and the local community. For interdisciplinarity, the three students come from different majors and they have taken advantage of the diversity in their background to develop their lesson plans. Regarding innovation, students had opportunities to experiment with new pedagogies that they would not possibly use in Hong Kong. In a word, the project enables students to achieve their intended learning outcomes and make a real impact on the local community as well.
Tracy: Do you have any advice or suggestions to us based on your experience in this project?
Candace: I would conceptualise internationalisation as a two-way process. We go into the local community not because we want to show something that others do not know but because we want to engage in mutual learning. Otherwise, it would not be sustainable and might become a form of imperialism. To prepare students with the right mindset, we briefed them on this concept and provided them with the readings ii.
Experiential learning is not a new concept in education. I feel that we have arrived at a stage where we might wish to reflect on what ‘experiential learning’ really is and how it can exert a real impact on student learning.
- i Please refer to the feature article ‘Taking the classroom overseas: How experiential learning is transforming teacher training in the Faculty of Education’ by Dr. Gary Harfitt: http://www.cetl.hku.hk/teaching-learning-cop/taking-the-classroom-overseas/
- ii Santoro, N. (2014). ‘If I’m going to teach about the world, I need to know the world’: Developing Australian pre-service teachers’ intercultural competence through international trips. Race Ethnicity and Education, 17(3), 429-444.