What does culturally responsive facilitation look like? A reflection

I have been delaying writing up this reflection for a long time…more than a couple of months in fact – the notes I took during the session have sat in draft format and I have ‘mulled’ over what happened and why.

Part of the reason, I guess is that it is connected to those gnarly subjects ‘cultural appropriacy and responsiveness’, which can lead to some strong, occasionally critical, reactions. The elephant in the room is often the feeling of not knowing how to react appropriately, and a fear that the people with whom you are interacting would not be sympathetic to your not knowing.

What happened?

The session I was participating in was a professional development session about facilitation. We discussed the idea that facilitation can take many forms, and whether it is ‘good’ or not is in part dependent on context and interpretation – and all of these are factors are likely to change over time as beliefs around learning and teaching shift.

All great so far…then my brain went into overdrive – for me, given the points above some of the interesting conundrums included:

  • If a person does not share your values around how facilitation is conducted, what are the implications around that?
  • Can a person elect to not engage with the way a learning experience is set up? What is the result of this?
  • Can you go in with humility if you have a set of values up front – should they be negotiated as part of the process?
  • Can we assume that every school, institution, iwi or whanau accepts that the values you go in with are the most valuable ones for them?
  • What do we have to learn about the people that we are going to be working with?
  • A suggestion was that it is necessary to bring something to a session that is ‘part’ of the people – analogies, images, ways of talking about things. But, how do you do that in a diverse community. What if the analogies are meaningless to some of the people in the room? Do you focus on the majority? Do you try to cover most of the cultural groups? Do you cover all of them? How? Or, is the main focus the people in the room with the most influence? People who are from that part of the world?
Image by Lazar_Shlevich

And finally, the ‘pear-shaped’ moment…I started to have a visceral reaction to being advised that I would need to share a specific set of values, and it felt as if there was little or no room for discussion around what was included and how it was interpreted. Furthermore, with my rapidly increasing  sense of distress, there appeared to be one main culture that was being put-forward…and much of the language being used to describe some of the values was totally foreign to me – literally. I hadn’t a clue what was going on half the time. During the session I typed “I am being made to feel like an outsider…somehow lacking in cultural knowledge and awareness. And maybe that is an uncomfortable truth. It is an area that I am unfamiliar with. Is it because my own beliefs are being challenged? I find the language being used as exclusive / excluding of me and my culture“.

Image by hazelowendmc

So what?

I think of myself as a person who has travelled a reasonable amount through Europe, South East Asia, and Australasia, and I have spent several years in the Middle East. It came as quite a shock, therefore, when I realised that I was having an emotional reaction around cultural responsiveness in this session – something I had experienced before, but never so strongly. It was always something that I read about in articles and research papers, and saw as an integral aspect of learning design.

Another thing I noticed, though, is as soon as I started feeling uncomfortable – I stopped really listening and engaging with the other people in the session. The only reason I remember anything except the emotional response was that I could access the notes I took at the outset of the session.

I have since spoken to other people who have experienced similar reactions…but interestingly people would have a “wow, I’m so pleased you mentioned that. No-one has before and I just thought I was being precious” type reaction. Often the reaction is dismissed as an over-reaction.

Bigger question for me, therefore, is how many times have I made students and colleagues feel similarly uncomfortable? Only one time has a student spoken about this to me (and after the sense of mortification on my part dissipated a little, I was able to consult with another student to help me work out what I had done to offend, how to address that situation, and how to make sure I didn’t do it again…phew!).

What next?

There are several things I need to do and think about including:

  • grasp every opportunity to learn about other cultures in a meaningful (rather than token) sense;
  • work with individuals who I know I can ask dumb, and perhaps what turn out to be insensitive, questions –  where that they will understand I am learning…and making mistakes;
  • find the courage to speak to people in a non-confrontational way when they make me feel culturally ‘other’…but to go with suggestions around how this might be addressed so as to not leave them feeling high and dry; and
  • work on, read about, and research how to design culturally responsive and appropriate online spaces and experiences – such that they are neither ‘sterile’, nor inclusive of only one or a few cultures. Rather I would like to design great spaces to learn and communicate for as many cultures as possible.

There are several more things I will add as I continue to reflect, but that will continue for many years I suspect! A couple of really positive things to have come out of this. There’s nothing quite like experiencing something to start to understand it, and…well, I didn’t even really consciously acknowledge I had a culture up until that point. As an immigrant to New Zealand I have been so busy trying to integrate and feel accepted that I guess I had stopped thinking of myself as having cultural roots, and that they may be important to me.


About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ (http://www.ethosconsultancynz.com/). I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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