The Creative Mentor in the Making

The Creative Mentor in the Making
My very first teaching experience was a rather painful one, as a seminar leader for a group of international master students at NCFS. I was without experience and extremely insecure. Moreover, I was not able to reflect over my own teaching. Since then I have had a lot of teaching experience, but in this text, I want to focus on teaching in a multi-cultural setting.

The reason for this is that my first real teaching experience was in Vietnam at the University of Nha Trang (NTU) in the Norad sponsored Fisheries and  aquaculture Economics and Management (NOMA-FAME) program, but also that I presently teach in a multi-cultural setting at the program International Fisheries Management (IFM) at NCFS/UiT. However, I will also draw on my experience in teaching a more “traditional course” in Introductory
Statistics (FSK-1121). At the NOMA-FAME program, I was responsible for designing and teaching a course called Communication Skills. This was an obligatory class in the first semester of the first year, which I taught for four consecutive years. Initially the course was to cover skills needed to communicate academic work, i.e. tools like Word and Excel, but also to improve English proficiency. All I knew about the students prior to going to Nha Trang was that there were twenty of them of which half were Vietnamese and the rest from other Asian countries. I did not really know what to expect; thus, designed flexible teaching plans.

In the following, I will describe and discuss my approach to teaching, my teaching philosophy and strategy, and reflect over my own teaching approach.

My understanding of learning and what promotes learning
I understand knowledge as expertise or skills that a person gets thorough experience or education – theoretical or practical. The way I understand learning is the process of acquiring expertise or skills. Good learning is the embodiment of knowledge, or the internalization of knowledge; in other words, a deep understanding of the phenomena at hand, or what Vermunt
(2007) calls meaning-directed pattern of learning.

I am also partial to the idea of Transformative Learning (Mezirow 1997) – that I am able to teach the students new ways of looking at phenomena. Transformative learning is the process of changing a frame of reference, or the structure(s) through which we understand our experiences and shapes our perspectives, as humans have a tendency to reject ideas that fail to
fit our preconceptions. Hence, transformative learning moves the learner into a new frame of reference, one that is more inclusive, self-reflective and integrative of experience. Thus, the learner will re-evaluate experiences and beliefs and becomes critically aware of his/her own tacit assumptions and expectations. To aid transformative learning, the teacher has to help students become aware and critical of their own assumptions and that of others, to recognize frames of reference and redefine problems form a different perspective.

As inter-cultural communication is a central theme in the Communication Skills course we try to create a learning environment that fosters trust and cooperation across cultures (Mezirow 1997). This type of learning does not only have to do with different cultures, but also holds across disciplines. I went through this type of learning as I entered the world of Sociology, after years of being in the field of quantitative economy. It was tough and difficult to enter the qualitative world of “shades of grey” in Sociology. Well here I still am…

Teaching Philosophy and Strategy – what I emphasize and why?
To start off, I want to focus on how I learn, or how my own learning patterns have changed over time, as I think this type of personal experience also shape me as a teacher. During the first couple of years of my Bachelor program, I had an undirected learning pattern (Vermunt 2007), which entailed problems separating important material from unimportant material, with unclear learning objectives. I continued the learning pattern from secondary school – cramming the night before the exam. Later on in the Bachelor program, I became
reproduction-directed (ibid). Learning was about memorizing and passing the exam, but did not get a deep understanding of the course content. Consequently, I have forgotten most of it now.

In the master program, I developed meaning- and application-directed patterns (ibid). I enjoyed the program and the courses, and teachers were more inspiring. I started to be able to synthesis knowledge and find relationships between arguments and concepts. I was also much more active in my own learning. I was able to tie my knowledge to the world around me, or the world I was studying. When working in other cultures it is useful to be aware of their learning patterns. As my students are master students, I should be able to assume that they are past stage one. However, cultural aspect influence how we learn and in some cultures the reproductive-directed learning pattern has been more prevalent. For instance, being from a culture where one does not question authorities, will affect how we learn. Thus meeting an academic world focused on critical thinking may lead to transformative learning processes (Mezirow 1997). The implication of this is that, depending on learning patterns and teaching traditions, some students may need more guidance and encouragement.

Before going into my teaching philosophy, the reader probably needs to know my
position within the scientific theories, as to some extent explains my approach to teaching, but also my partiality to particular theories. I have been working interdisciplinary for years and today I find myself within the relational perspective. In this world, the social is constructed through social relations and actors actively contribute to their construction. Social networks are transient (Marglin 2008). As a result, the actors (i.e. the students) do not have set identities, but are constantly being constructed and re-constructed in different settings and over time (Latour 2005, Law 2000).

I was very fortunate, as the professor in charge of the NOMA-FAME program gave me free rein to form the course. I received the learning objectives1, which allowed me to use a huge arsenal of teaching methods, such as ordinary lectures, seminars, presentations, group work, filming of students, role-play and card games. The students were truly guinea pigs.

The first week of the course was reserved for Excel and Word. However, after mapping the students, I found the majority of the students to have higher  competencies in the use of this software than I. There was no reason for me to lecture, so I delegated the teaching to the students. All students had some knowledge in various application of this software, but needed experience in teaching, especially in teaching in English

Over time, I have increasingly aligned by self with Vermunt’s definition of teaching: to prepare student for “lifelong, self-regulated, cooperative and work-based learning” (Vermunt 2007:73). Skills and knowledge students develop should be lifelong, useful, applicable, and transferable (Doyle 2008). Thus, it is important to create a learning-centered environment and give students new learning roles and new learning responsibilities (Doyle 2008). This was put into practice the first year in the NOMA-FAME program, as negative cultural divides and fierce competition characterized the first cohort, and which was not conductive to good learning. Hence, we needed to create a learning environment built on understanding, trust and cooperation. Through our focus on communication, particularly  intercultural communication, we tried to create a “community” based on “intellectual camaraderie” (Bransford and Brown 2000:25) and a world in which the students supported and learned from each other, rather than competed and undermined each other.

There are various perspectives upon the process of learning. On the one hand there is the Empirical Perspective in which the human is a “blank slate” that is to be filled with experience and knowledge. On the other hand, there is the Rationalistic perspective, which focuses on the intellect and biology, in which learning comes from within and is a process driven by natural and innate characteristics. These two aspects seem to be two extremes on a continuum, and both perspectives lack the understating of the human as a historical, cultural
and communicative being. Thus, the Socio-cultural perspective appeals more to my “relational world”. In the Socio-cultural perspective the human is a “tool-producing” and “tool-using” being that lives in a world, but also participate in creating his/her world in line with own experiences and knowledge. Social interaction is a central element in this view and learning is a result of human behavior in different situations and contexts. Consequently, we are heterogeneous actors with varying ontologies and epistemologies (Johnsen 2004, Latour 2005, Säljö 2006).

So what does this relational perspective on teaching and learning imply for me? In particular, how does it relate my teaching in intercultural contexts? Students have more roles than solely being students. Students are not a blank slate that enters my classroom to be filled with knowledge and skills. They have pre-existing knowledge upon which they build new knowledge (Biggs 2003, Bransford and Brown 2000). In NOMA-FAME, the students brought in their own personality, culture and experiences and my job was to give them some tools to increase their awareness and improve their skills. The tools I offered were of different characters. Some tool were purely practical, such as how to plan and carry out a scientific presentation. Other tools aimed at a deeper understanding of intercultural communication, to enable intercultural interaction with confidence and openness. It is also important that students develop their own approach; thus, I have chosen to use a large variety of teaching
methods. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, it is easier to understand new concepts and adopt new skills if the new ideas are not too far outside the students’ own frame of reference (the proximal development zone (Dybesland Opsum 2002)).

Secondly, I students are not a homogenous mass, and they will thrive better with a variation in teaching methods – one size does not fit all. Hence, the  Communication Skills class was a perfect class for testing various
teaching methods. According to Postareff et al (2008), in order to ensure the best learning outcome the teaching should preferably be what they call Reflectively learning-focused. In a Reflectively learning-focused approach the teacher is aware of and has reflected deeply over his/her teaching philosophy and strategies. This approach sees teaching as a “way to facilitate the students’ learning processes”. The focus is on the individual student. Opposed to this view is the Content-focused teaching approach, which is more about information transmission to passive recipients. The focus is on content not the recipients benefit (Postareff et al. 2008:49). In this regards, I find Doyle’s (2008:4) recommendation to ensure learning-centered teaching useful. He states that learning-centered teaching is ensured when we: “subject every teaching activity to the test of the following question: ‘Given the context of my students, course, classroom, [culture], will this teaching action optimize students opportunity to learn?’”.

An example, outside the context of intercultural teaching, in which I try to put this into practice, is my teaching introductory statistics to fisheries and aquaculture students (FSK-1121) in which the focus is on practice, rather than traditional lecture – as I believe statistics need to be practiced to be understood.
My teaching approach in practice – creativity and activity To focus students, learning-objectives and student-active learning in the Communication
Skills class was natural in many ways. However, I was curious whether or not I was able to apply it to a more “traditional course” such as introduction to statistics, which tend to be content focused. One important issue in statistical method is data collection and in particular selection bias. Rather than a traditional lecture on the issue, I chose to run a seminar with practical activities (Candy Toss) and discussion. In Candy Toss, the students select 10 candies from a bag of 200, measure them, find the average weight of the candies and then estimate the total weight of all the candies in the bag. The punch line is that the students will always overestimate the total weight, due to the selection bias of picking the larger candies. Apart from understanding how selection bias arise, through discussion and examples from media, this exercise increases awareness of selection biases in studies featured in media. This exercise also relates to real life experience, as aquaculture farms carry out weekly estimate of fish in the pens. The sample fish are prone to selection bias, as it is easier to pick larger and more active fish.

Similarly, in my course in Marine Spatial Planning (SVF-3555) in the IFM program, I have introduced a game-based approach to learning theoretical concepts and practical use of methods. Two years in a row, I have run a game-based workshop in which the students are shall develop a plan for a marine protected area (MPA) outside a fictional island. Stakeholder involvement is central to the course and students act as different stakeholders with different objectives. Through negotiations, they have to agree on the design of the MPA.

Gillamore island used in teaching Marine Spatial Planning (SVF-3555)

What implications may my understanding have for teaching/supervision?
Having a learning-focused approach demand a lot from the students, but it also demand a lot from me as a teachers. It requires that I think in new ways about learning, that I give students new roles, and that I take on a new role as a teacher (the mentor). It takes a lot of planning, and plans must be dynamic. I also  require me to be creative. Moreover, it requires that I never stop learning. Thus, I am the Creative Mentor in the Making.

As I have chosen an interactive approach to teaching, and a role as a mentor, a
problem that could occur is the loss of authority as a teacher and an authority in the classroom. Moreover, as person I am quite open, something that invites students to quickly become comfortable with me. The challenge is evident as I supervised seven master thesis in 2018-19. This is a personality trait I am not so sure I want to change; rather, I think I need to be stingier with my time. However, I do think the ability to balance will come with experience.
According to Skagen (NA), classroom authority comes with esteem or respectability in relation to disciplinary and pedagogical competency. The loss of teaching authority he assigns to many sources, but one being societal changes in general in which the contact between cultures makes it more difficult to hold onto ones own cultural foundation and related values regarding upbringing and education. He may be onto something, but he deals with a Norwegian context and lower levels in the education system. Master level students are in general adults and serious students with solid foundations within their cultures and sometimes with existing careers. My job is not to make international students “Norwegians”. I have to recognize that in Vietnam I am the visitor, and in Norway the international students are not here to stay. Thus, we have to exercise cultural sensitivity when we use Norwegian teaching methods in a multicultural setting. For instance, one of my international students did not show
up for the workshop using game-based learning and role-play. The reason wasn’t clear to me, but could be personal or cultural. Hence, when using teaching methods that require interaction in particular, we need to be sensitive to personal and cultural variations.

Another aspect, especially in Asian cultures, is the “exaggerated” respect for teachers. The positive side is that I do not have to work hard to be an authority in the classroom, but at times, this behavior seems “professor pleasing”, which may be difficult to handle. For a Norwegian teacher, respect is shown through hard work according to the rules. I do completely agree with Skagen (NA) that the teacher has to have the disciplinary and pedagogical overview and knowledge, and design the course-of-learning on behalf of the student. Within a given framework, it is then desirable with as independent student as possible. This is what I try to achieve by communicating clearly the learning objectives, as
well as the expectations.

I use a large number of approaches in my teaching, I find that it is difficult to be excellent at each single method. Thus, there is always some more work to be done. Through experience, however, I have become aware of my previous mistakes, my weaknesses and work to improve them. I have also become aware of my strengths. One particular strength being my openness and sociability. As I still am a “teacher in the making”, my knowledge and skills are continuously expanding. My ultimate objective is to introduce game-based learning in
statistics to enhance students understanding of statistical concepts, but also entice more students to take on quantitative method.

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