Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Dismantle those national stereotypes

We tend to think in stereotypes. They are often unavoidable, sometimes even helpful, unless whole nations are reduced to crude generalizations, often based on prejudices, typically negative about neighbouring nations, in particular. For a Finn, thinking about Sweden, our arch-rival because of historical baggage to do with them as the conquerors and us as the subjugated, instantly evokes certain associations, with a total disregard to the diversity of individuals inside each nation.

You might think that young people are more open to diversity than older generations, but from my many years of experience with intercultural school projects, this is not necessarily the case. The 'us and them' mentality is still strong even among, on the surface more globally-minded, teenagers. I can remember one instance from the time when a group of students from a partner school in Singapore visited us for a week. We had organized a whole school assembly with presentations, music, and dance from both schools. Part of the programme was also a quiz with simple multiple choice questions to test which group knew more about each other's country. Afterwards our students were up in arms, claiming that the questions unfairly favoured the guests, who beat our own team. I now realize that the whole set-up of the competition was wrong - national pride surfaces the moment you want to find the winner, be it general knowledge, sports, or music (as became evident again last weekend with the notorious annual travesty of the Eurovision song contest!).

Another example is from last week when I posted some photos of our end of school year project celebrations on our international project site. These two pictures with the caption were among them:

Kaarina Senior High School - "International group" - pot luck food from Whazzup? project countries - crostini from Italy, baguettes from France, pita break and tsatsiki from Cyprus, soda bread from Ireland, pine kernels representing Korea, naan bread, mango chutney and raita from India and orange/mango juice to represent exotic Malaysia and the Philippines.

In no time at all, this comment appeared, after which I, diplomatically, tried to widen the perspective a little bit.

I am now trying to shift my own mindset into designing true collaborative problem solving tasks for mixed teams of students, instead of each national group producing their separate work, or worse still, competing against each other. Hopefully this will bring forth the idea of us sharing the same planet and caring about its sustainable future collectively, forgetting each nation's selfish own interests. Idealistic perhaps, but then I'm an eternal dreamer at heart!

I feel with our next online project, one of the important principles to be shared among all teachers involved will be breaking out of too much flag-waving and boasting about your own country and culture. But where is the golden middle-ground - how to be proud of your culture in a healthy way, while at the same time appreciating, embracing and giving credit to other cultures, too?

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