Drawing on the research from their latest book, Doris Dippold and Marion Heron describe how educators can build disciplinary communities through classroom interaction and language. This is the way to internationalise universities.
He’s – no, he’s just – other than his accent, he’s- like, he’s… another eighteen year old […]. He’s exactly the same as- as me or anyone. Which is kind of weird. You’d always think that being so far away, they’d be completely different.
This quote is from a research project on the lived experiences of first-year UK university students. In this instance, a student is reflecting on his experiences of working with others in a group, expressing a sense of puzzlement that the other student described, who is an international student, is not markedly different from himself.
Readers might feel that this statement is perhaps not hugely remarkable. However, we believe that the comment is noteworthy in the context of the higher education (HE) research literature on internationalisation, which generally highlights the barriers to equal participation of international students in the UK learning environment; in particular, the differences in language ability and in learning style that sets them apart from their UK peers and the UK HE learning environment.
Both of us shared a professional interest in classroom interaction as well as frustration at the lack of studies on classroom interaction drawing on transcripts of authentic data in mainstream HE journals. Research, which examines authentic classroom data, can provide insights into how knowledge is co-constructed on a moment-by-moment basis, and the contingent nature of classroom interaction. Our shared interests and frustrations, prompted us to organise a one-day conference on classroom interaction at the University of Surrey in December 2018, and to subsequently write the proposal for our recent book Meaningful Teaching Interaction: Moving from Research to Impact. The aim of this volume was to draw together the latest thinking, research, and practice related to classroom interaction at internationalised universities. It discusses a range of theoretical approaches to classroom interaction (e.g. dialogic teaching), features studies on classroom interaction in a range of disciplinary contexts (e.g. theatre studies), and ends with case studies on how students’ and teachers’ ability to engage in classroom interaction can be developed.
We summarise the shared insights from the wide range of chapters in our book below.
Language is key
It is important to look at the actual language used by teachers and students in classroom contexts to see, for example, how classroom talk scaffolds disciplinary learning, or, in some cases, marginalises students whose first language is not English. Whilst most of our chapter authors have a background in language teaching or linguistics, our experiences delivering professional development sessions on classroom interaction to HE tutors across disciplinary backgrounds have shown that linguistic expertise is not necessary to learn and reflect on classroom interaction in specific contexts. For example, teachers in HE can analyse their classroom talk and interaction using transcripts of their teaching, widely available using Zoom and Teams software for online teaching. Such an evidence-based approach to reflection can provide authentic data and requires no linguistic knowledge.
in an age in which universities are working hard to address the BAME attainment gap, it is surprising that language continues to be an afterthought
Inequality is intrinsically linked to language
In an age in which universities are working hard to address the BAME attainment gap, it is surprising that language continues to be an afterthought in efforts to address these issues. Yet, our chapters show that effective classroom dialogue and interaction fosters student belonging, has the potential to improve international students’ experiences of HE, and prevent international students’ being silenced and marginalised. The book presents a range of approaches to address these issues practically, for example English as a lingua franca, philosophy for children, oracy, and dialogic teaching, which all have the development of effective language and communication in the classroom at the centre of their practice.
A disciplinary gaze towards classroom interaction
The chapters in our volume show that interest in classroom interaction in disciplines outside of language learning is limited. Despite an emerging body of research which considers practices associated with EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) – the teaching of subjects in English in an educational context in which the majority of participants do not have English as a first language – the scope of study is still narrow. This lack of attention to language is not helped by the fact that, to our knowledge, university-run teacher training courses (e.g. postgraduate certificate in higher education courses) do not include a focus on classroom interaction and the role of language in the classroom, despite them being an ideal breeding ground for a new generation of university teachers, who use these courses as a springboard to develop their disciplinary pedagogic practices.
Academic language is no-one’s native language
So, back to our opening quote, “He’s another 18 year old.” This student does not just show openness towards diversity and inclusion; he overlooks linguistic and cultural diversity to focus on communalities, such as being from the same generation. Yet, in contemporary UK HE, we tend to do the opposite. For example, by grouping our students into ‘home’ and ‘international’ and by focusing all our efforts on a deficit view of international students, who are told that they need to remedy their English through pre-sessional and co-curricular English classes.
We do not propose that we get rid of this support and abandon all efforts to group students along national, language, and ethnic lines – doing so would not allow us to continue monitoring where real inequalities exist, and take away opportunities for further development from those who need it. We do argue, however, for supplementing support with the one thing that unites students: their respective disciplines, be it pharmacy, business studies, education, linguistics, politics, or engineering. Academic language is no-one’s native language, and by developing all students’ ability to engage in disciplinary classroom interaction practices, use disciplinary language, and engage in peer-to-peer interaction which avoids marginalising those whose language does not represent a standard native variety, we can go a whole step closer to addressing inequalities in HE, improving the student experience and creating a better learning environment.
On reflection – and this was an issue raised during an online book launch – we realised that using the term ‘internationalised’ to describe UK higher education, was probably slightly premature. UK universities traditionally focus their efforts on ‘internationalisation abroad,’ such as international student recruitment, international research collaboration, and campuses abroad. In contrast, ‘internationalisation at home’ includes “the appreciation of the diversity of language and culture by students and staff, and a commitment to equality and diversity.” We believe that building disciplinary classroom communities through a look at classroom interaction and the role of language is the way forward towards internationalising universities.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.