How do we navigate the pandemic? Intercultural dialogue in teaching and learning

As we come to the end of 2020, an opportunity to reflect on what living through the Covid-19 pandemic meant for us professionally and personally is warranted. I would like to reflect specifically on the issues that Covid-19 has brought to the forefront in relation to intercultural teaching and learning. As an educator and a researcher, the diversity of experiences that each individual had in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted to me more than ever the importance of approaching our interactions and relationships from an intercultural standpoint.

As 2020 unfolded, and with it the Covid-19 pandemic, three main aspects emerged from engaging with students and colleagues: (1) the heightened sense of uncertainty shaping teaching and learning experiences; (2) the longing for connection and communication practices that helped us make sense of an overflow of information; and (3) the undeniable material and social consequences of the pandemic as they reverberated in teaching and learning experiences. These main aspects were certainly not the only ones, but a focus on them can lead to insights to interesting issues as we move beyond 2020.

Uncertainty is a common trait of human experiences and lives. As individuals, we learn strategies to manage uncertain situations and how to best navigate the unexpected outcomes that arise from such situations. In the early stages of 2020, as the pandemic became central to our lives, a heightened sense of uncertainty emerged both for students and educators. Uncertainty about what teaching and learning meant when it had to be delivered wholly online. Uncertainty about how relevant teaching and learning was given concerns and worries about the health and wellbeing of individuals. Uncertainty about what roles teachers and students played while learning remotely and dealing with the effects of the pandemic. Students responded to this uncertainty in diverse ways, some by becoming more engaged, others by losing motivation to learn, and some worried about what the pandemic meant for their future lives. The diversity inherent to how each one of us, students and teachers, dealt with the uncertainty arising from the pandemic highlights the culturally shaped ways in which our resources and capabilities are put to test in times of crisis, as well as how we can tap into our collective ways of dealing with uncertainty for working through these times.

As we lived through different forms of lockdown, and experienced the overflow of information from different sources, students and educators longed for connection and communication practices that helped them make sense of this unprecedented situation. It seems that as individuals and as a society we took for granted connecting to one another. The pandemic highlighted how much disconnection we all felt as we did not go about our daily activities in the same way, including teaching and learning. As I engaged with my students, I realised that creating spaces for them to share how the pandemic was affecting their lives was an opportunity to maintain connectedness. With so much of our attention diverted to the pandemic developments, communication practices in teaching and learning also seemed to require adjustment. At times, engaging in teaching and learning activities was a useful distraction from what was happening elsewhere, but at other times, it seemed almost impossible to focus on discussing concepts and ideas with so much going on in our lives and the world. The diversity inherent to how we communicated and connected to each other, both in and out of teaching and learning activities, accentuated that even though each of us experienced the pandemic very differently, our shared humanity brought us together when we listened, talked to and acknowledged our distinctions.

Teaching and learning never occurs in a vacuum. The political, social and economic contexts in which teaching and learning take place reminds us that individuals have different opportunities in life and this has a flow on effect on teaching and learning. The material and social consequences of the pandemic reverberating in teaching and learning became even more explicit. These varied from students with different access to digital devices to learn from home, or who had lost their casual jobs and had no income to afford rent and food, or who had a close family member battling with Covid-19, to those whose mental health and wellbeing deteriorated as the months of the pandemic progressed. The same material and social consequences became more explicit for educators as some had to deal with working from home while taking care of children, or some lost their teaching hours due to the reduced number of classes. The diversity of consequences, both material and social, that the pandemic exposed as I engaged in teaching and learning activities with my students and colleagues demonstrated more than ever how important it is that we all fight for a more socially just and fair world regardless of individuals’ differences and circumstances.

As I reflected on these three issues that emerged during the pandemic – uncertainty, connection and communication, and material and social consequences – it became clear that some of the discussions in intercultural studies could enable us, individually and professionally, to navigate these critical times and deal with the tensions impacting teaching and learning. Both as an educator and as a researcher, I questioned to what extent we could learn from the pandemic and transform a difficult time with so many different consequences for people into energy to move forward. The most important principle that could govern such learning, in my opinion, is recognising that diversity and complexity are core features of human experiences and practices, and at the same time that we share commonalities that enable us in ‘understanding’ and ‘seeing’ each other.

The notion of intercultural dialogue, defined as the “readiness to question well-established value-based certainties by bringing reason, emotion and creativity into play in order to find shared understandings. […] It is a process that comprises an open and respectful exchange of views between individuals and groups with different ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds and heritage, on the basis of mutual understanding and respect” (UNESCO, 2013, p. 14), seems to resonate as a practice that can allow us to unpack the multifaceted nature of experiencing the pandemic, and its reverberation in teaching and learning. Practicing intercultural dialogue does not presuppose interacting with individuals from different countries and regions (though on a global scale we can definitely and probably should do that). Practising intercultural dialogue means acknowledging that each of one of us, students and educators, belong to diverse groups, with diverse orientations to the world, enacting diverse identities and, in turn, these groups, orientations, and identities refract in multiple ways how we experience life.

With the notion of intercultural dialogue in mind, I envisage that we can all improve who we are as individuals while dealing with the traumas, and difficulties, arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. My initial suggestions, grounded in intercultural studies and by no means exhaustive, would be:

At the individual level, practise intercultural dialogue to

  • reach out to each other and recognise how different backgrounds and experiences shape people’s response to the pandemic.
  • listen to the diverse experiences of people during the pandemic and shift our perspectives.

At the community level, practise intercultural dialogue to

  • create safe spaces for individuals to share and learn from the emotions, experiences, and distresses caused by the pandemic.
  • re-assess existing practices and collectively find ways to navigate the world ahead of us (full of challenges but also full of opportunities).

Intercultural studies, and the notion of intercultural dialogue, do not present all the answers to deal with the pandemic and its challenges for teaching and learning. But I strongly believe that they provide us sound theoretical lenses to examine the culturally shaped ways in which our dispositions and experiences coloured our perceptions of 2020. Additionally, intercultural studies and intercultural dialogue, in alignment with its inclusiveness, openness, and flexibility ethos, could further contribute by engaging in conversations and practices brought by other disciplinary fields. I’d like to conclude this reflective piece with a quotation that, in my view, speaks to where we are headed in 2021 as we keep on learning from the pandemic and adapting our intercultural teaching and learning practices:

“The world may be shrinking and the possibilities of dialogue expanding, our ultimate goal nevertheless remains to achieve unity beyond diversity as a tapestry of peace where common threads of intellectual and moral solidarity bind us together. Without this sense of common purpose, the very fabric of human existence will sunder.” (UNESCO, 2013, p. 29)

References

UNESCO. (2013). Intercultural Competences: Conceptual and operational framework. UNESCO: Paris, France.

Written by Dr Lucas Santos, Monash Intercultural Lab