Working across cultures presents significant challenges both for the trainer and for the course participants.
The trainer is always aware of the issues that are just different from her home situation. The participants in the training may find themselves equally challenged.
Working with small groups in classrooms has a tendency to perpetuate the sense that the trainer, at the front, is an expert. The fount of knowledge that can be absorbed and reproduced more-or-less accurately time and again depending upon the competence of the participants – trainer and students.
Reading Parker Palmer’s useful reflection on education as a spiritual journey provides a helpful reminder that the traditional classroom approach works against the powerful capacity for a community of learners to work together to co-create knowledge (Palmer 1993:36). It is too easy to embrace what Palmer calls the ‘pedagogical convenience’ of the large group. Put enough scholars in a room and it becomes easy to dispense the wisdom of the one to the many.
Conversations with colleagues have underscored the change in knowledge. What we discover together is different in context and content depending upon where we are co-located. Our shared understanding is unique to the people and place. The knowledge that is re-created in the learning process has both different application and impact drawn from the context. Truth is communal and mutual rather than objective or subjective. “Truth is between us, in relationship, to be found in the dialogue of knowers and known who are understood as independent but accountable selves.” (Palmer 1993:54)
The work of trainers in sub-Saharan Africa, and other transitional contexts, presents a challenge to the idea of co-creation. Trainers aspire to sharing in the discovery and yet find themselves placed on a pedestal by the scholars who are seeking the wisdom of the expert. The education process over many centuries has presented the teacher as senior, revered, wise, honoured, above critique, and subject to deference. The respect for the teacher is reflected in my own experience. I have, now, grown accustomed to being greeted by former students who then insist on carrying my bag to the training room even if the task takes them out of their way or interrupts some other activity in which they are engaged. When I first experienced this sign of respect to the teacher I resisted the offer. I learned quickly that it would be impossible to resist and liable to cause offence if I was successful. Now I engage in the cycle of discussion that I know I will lose. The offer is made. I say ‘no, I’m sure I will be fine.’ The bag is taken by the former student and I say, ‘Are you sure. I’m happy to carry my own bag.’ But by then the bag and former student are heading off to their destination without me. I lose the debate but feel somewhat satisfied that I at least attempted to refute the implied status and recognition of a wisdom that I really do not own. The truth is that I know that what I know has been co-created with many co-participants I learned alongside. We are learners together. We participate in the process together and we create and re-create knowledge together. Our skills develop together and our attitudes are very different at the end of the learning event because of our interactions. There is a significant impact on the learning built upon the relationships that develop which in turn affect the shared understanding of the outcomes (van den Bor 1985:179).
The deferential understanding of the relationship between teacher and student has many roots. The colonial history gave teachers status which continues although the status is not reflected in the rewards. There is also a recognition education as a process which places great value on achieving qualifications to the extent that education becomes valued not for what is learned but for its own sake – what is seen by some as ‘diploma-disease’.
The classroom is, perhaps, the epitome of a space where power is exercised. Conventionally, classrooms are not a place of practice. Instead they are spaces which are convenient places to deliver the wisdom of the one to the many. Palmer (1993) offers the hope that might actually become places ‘in which obedience to truth is practised.’ What happens in the classroom is happening in the world. Our learning and doing shapes our relationships in the world. The training space is, conventionally, not so very different. The resistance of students to engage in shared discovery of knowledge preferring to receive the knowledge of the trainer and tendency of the educators/trainers to allow themselves to be placed upon the metaphorical pedestal both value the knowledge of the one over the that discovered and created together.
We need professionals who are “in but not of” their institutional context, whose allegiance to the core values of their fields makes them resist the diminishment of those values by accepted norms of the field. Palmer identifies what he describes as spiritual disciplines which contribute to our ability and the requirement to learn how to develop consensus in teaching and learning. These are not conventional ‘spiritual’ disciplines. He calls for educators to study and teach outside their normal field in order to be able listen to the subject itself (to hear its voice) and to the students (who may know more than the teacher themselves) (Palmer 1993, 2007).
The areas in which trainers working across cultures often find themselves in difficulty include
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