Tuesday 22 Nov 2022

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Learning Principles: Exploring Cultural Complexity

By Alison Eaglesham, Head of Development for the Institute of Learning and Teaching at International School of Geneva

In the first session of the professional learning programme 'Learning principles: A thinking toolkit for teachers', hearing the names of prominent anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead took me fondly back to a lecture hall in Edinburgh as a social sciences undergraduate. Patrick Alexander, the Programme Leader, asked us to consider what is culture? The fire was lit. Discussions touched on traditions, languages, values, laws and, of course, the complexity associated with even asking such a question. 

The Learning Principles programme was designed and intended to do just that - to help equip teachers with concepts and ways to think critically about diverse aspects of their professional lives and to consider how their reflections could have an impact on their classroom practice. The course focuses on the following five essential statements that we hope a child could claim:

My teacher…

  • Knows me (Culture, Structure, and Diversity)
  • Checks what I already know and can do (Learning, Knowledge, and Understanding)
  • Teaches in lots of different ways (Mind, Memory, and Meaning)
  • Pauses to see if I understand (Fear, Failure, and Flourishing) 
  • Gives me choices (Confidence, Courage, and Criticality.

As we considered the first statement, ‘My teacher knows me,’ and chewed over the question ‘what is culture’, it was clear that we have come a long way from the Boasian view that culture is bounded - the idea that culture can be scientifically mapped and compared so that we can say with a degree of certainty that someone from one culture will behave in a given way. Culture, as we all know, is profoundly fluid and complex. 

Discussing how this impacts our work in education, Patrick shared the work of Danau Tanu, author of Growing up In Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School. An ethnographic study of her time researching children of globally mobile and networked migrants at international schools, this work challenges the notion of culture in international schools. 

Tanu highlights the contradictions between the ideology of international schools and what actually happens. Drawing on Tanu’s research, we were pushed to reconsider how culture is represented in our own schools: Where is it visible? Where is it less visible? Are our schools the multicultural havens we profess? In thinking deliberately about how culture manifests itself in the curriculum, pedagogy, in physical spaces and everyday interactions, we are able to critically reflect and explore our practice so as to better understand and respond to the cultural complexity that surrounds us. Collectively becoming more self-aware of our unconscious biases - what better way to start our journey on this learning programme. 

Learning Principles: A Thinking Toolkit for Teachers is a professional learning programme delivered in collaboration between The Institute for Learning & Teaching at Ecolint and the School of Education at Oxford Brookes University. The programme is led by Dr. Patrick Alexander, Reader in Education and Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University and Director of the Centre for Educational Consultancy and Development.