Amani came to study in the United States from a middle-eastern country. She was on a government scholarship and had to meet specific academic benchmarks to keep it. Her freshman year consisted primarily of general education courses plus freshman English. Amani did well in her courses except for the parts that were discussion-based.
In her courses, Amani would be placed into small discussion groups to explore a topic related to the course content. Many of the topics made her very uncomfortable because they focused on cultural issues within American society. She was afraid to express her own views because of her cultural differences. Her classmates didn’t help. They often made ill-informed comments disparaging her background. Amani was also afraid to make comments that might threaten her scholarship. She was aware that some students from her country might be keeping tabs on their fellow students. They might report any comments that could be seen as critical of her government. As a result of these constraints, in any course with a discussion component Amani resigned herself to receiving a letter grade lower than she might otherwise have earned.
Amani moved into her major in her sophomore year. While many of her major courses still used discussion or project groups, they were set up to allow her to stay with the same students in each group. She especially bonded with a few of the women students in her group who really wanted to know about her home country. Amani was very stylish. The other women loved talking about the clothes she wore and especially her jewelry.
The discussion groups gradually became easier for Amani. One thing that helped was that the students were taught how to discuss topics more collegially, and especially how to value the thoughts of others.
Amani was expected to facilitate discussions as well. She was terrified of doing this. When her facilitation day arrived, the first thing that she noticed was that her female classmates were all wearing hijabs. Her confidence soared because her classmates really went out of their way to show they were on her side. At the end of the class, her professor complimented her on a very successful facilitation. This was another great boost to her confidence.
In contrast to her first discussion-based classes, her classmates showed her respect. They would often ask follow-up questions to better appreciate the culture that she came from.
Amani’s experience is like that of many international students who come to America. How might we better understand the issues they’re facing before they enter into classroom discussions? How might we better frame discussion experiences to foster cross-cultural understanding? How could we use discussion groups to develop learning communities that are sustained beyond just one class? What background in the process of discussions do we need to provide for our students so that discussions boost rather than diminish their self-confidence?
* * *
Discussion experiences can have a great multiplier effect if designed and executed properly. Without careful design, they can also be damaging. We need to think of how our students are entering into classroom discussions—and where they are coming from.