Friday, 2 April 2010

Why do I do student exchanges?

International school projects and exchanges have been a central part of my career for over ten years. Every so often, I start weighing the pros and cons, and questioning the point behind it. After another such exchange, this time taking eight students to Singapore on a return visit after hosting a group of Singaporean students two years ago, it is a good time to reflect and take stock again.

My philosophy behind the value of such exchanges hasn't changed in all these years. I have quoted this before, but after many more exchanges, it is even truer than before:
“Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.” (Caleb Colton)
First-hand experience, even if brief, of a place always gives you a better insight than any book or virtual tour ever could. No other means so far allows you to holistically immerse yourself in the new environment, using all your senses. This is why, whenever the opportunity arises, I jump at the chance of taking students on home stay visits to partner schools ourside Finland. Getting a glimpse into the host student's home and family life, and taking part in the daily school activities opens their eyes much more, and forces them to work out a way of participating in a strange culture and getting along and collaborating with very different people. This is something you can totally miss out on, or avoid on a touristy visit.

One of the fundamental roles of such school exchanges is to sensitise students to seeing the relativity of phenomena in the world, and the fact that if something is different from what they are used to, it is not automatically stupid or wrong. It is essential to have frequent reflection sessions with the students, and try to open up new perspectives and ways of perception and understanding for them. First impressions of a new place are so often based on stereotypes, and even reinforce such preconceptions. This is where a teacher can guide the students towards a more rounded and open mindset in new situations.

Being thrown into a host family, with totally different customs, possibly religion, and a foreign language is daunting to many students. Approaching Changi airport after our almost 24-hour journey, almost palpable nervousness started spreading amongst our students. What will I say when I first meet my host family? How will I feel, will I be able to eat the food, will I feel isolated and alone? All these questions and many more were criss-crossing our students' young minds, as this was the first time for most of them to travel without their own families. In the end, they all pulled through wonderfully, even despite the age difference between them and their hosts, who were 3-4 years younger. I was really proud of all of their adaptability, and I hope they all got lots more self-confidence and a sense of being able to cope.

One more significant advantage in these exchanges is the chance for students to practice oral communication skills, which will most likely be called for in their future careers. During each exchange, students are expected to present something in a foreign language, usually a talk about their culture and background. We always prepare these presentations as a team, practice them together, and students really rise to the challenge and shine when the time comes. In Singapore, it was wonderful to see their confidence and pride after a successful performance in front of a huge audience.

Many colleagues think I must be crazy to get into so much trouble and extra work without any extra pay. Maybe so. However, I feel I'm on a mission, which can't be completed inside the closed foreign language classroom at school. It is not uncommon for Finnish people, with almost perfect passive knowledge of English, to suffer from 'a reduced personality syndrome' when having to use English. They do brilliantly in isolated, written language exams, but are totally unable to adapt that knowledge into creating a fruitful and pleasant communication situation with real people. Overcoming this disability is my mission - for me, as much as for my students. After our week in Singapore, I am happy to say that we proved that Rudyard Kipling wasn't quite right in writing: "east is east, and west is west, and never the two shall meet..." For a short period, we did bring them closer together!

As before, we kept an online travel blog during the exchange for families and friends at home. Unfortunately, it's only in Finnish.

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