Teaching Mistakes – Nadine Le Gros

Teaching Mistakes – Nadine Le Gros

We don’t become good teachers overnight: we learn to be good teachers. And, like everything learned, first mistakes must be made. I’ve always wished for a forum in which instructors could put their learning from students to good use. It would appear that there is one!

Faculty Focus: Special Report (Mary Bart, Ed.)
Teaching Mistakes from the College Classroom (March 2010)



Communicating with International Students – Nadine Le Gros

I work with international graduate students to help them understand the norms of communication in Canadian academia.  International students need to be familiar with Canadian expectations about communication in order to be successful when they teach, communicate with their supervisors, participate in class, and apply for jobs, as cultural differences in communication exist in all these realms.  One of the recurrent comments that I hear from my students is, “I wish my professor/supervisor could take this class.”  I don’t think they really want them to take the class …. I think what they really want is for their professors and supervisors to understand more about what’s behind the differences in communication patterns. 

The following is a reprint from the Teaching Support Centre’s newsletter Reflections from Spring 2006. In addition, I’ll take this opportunity to mention the e-manual  Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students: Surviving and Thriving in Canadian Academia.  The e-manual can be accessed free of charge by everybody at Western with a Western user name.  It is also available for sale to other institutions: a single purchase gives everybody on campus the ability to register for access to the manual.  For information, go to:  www.uwo.ca/tsc/csigs.html.

Teaching Tip

 Have you ever asked a student, “Do you understand?” only to have the student answer in the affirmative when you just knew that he or she did not understand?  Many factors will result in this answer, most of which involve the issue of saving face.  This situation is exacerbated with international students because of cross-cultural patterns of communication.  Only, did you know that this white lie was actually about trying to save you face?

 In Canada, responsibility for understanding is placed on the speaker’s shoulders.  This is why we explain things step by step: we want to be very clear, and we don’t want to forget to include any points.  We don’t mind it when people tell us that they don’t understand; in fact, we expect our students to do so.  If they do not, we might feel stymied while we are trying to teach.

 In many other countries, especially those in Asia and the Middle East, it is the listener’s responsibility to understand what the speaker is saying.  Speakers will imply a great deal, and it the listener’s responsibility to infer exactly what the speaker is saying.  In countries where this is a communication pattern, students will not tell an instructor that they do not understand: to do so would be rude in the extreme and would constitute a loss of face for the instructor

 So, how can we overcome this difference in how we communicate in order to ensure good teaching and good learning?  I have three suggestions:

 1)      At the end of a class, ask the students to take one minute to write down what the muddiest point for them is on index cards.  They can submit these anonymously or they can include their names.

 2)      Ask students open-ended concept questions, and generally try to avoid questions that require a yes/no answer.  For example, if you were discussing the issue of academic honesty, concept questions would involve asking for examples of plagiarism.  

 3)      Explain this difference in communication patterns, and reassure your students that you want and need to know when they don’t understand.  Do, however, understand that mere knowledge of this pattern won’t be enough for the students to overcome the situation immediately.  You will need to teach them that it’s okay to tell you when they don’t understand.

Life-long Learning as Sensitivity Training

Some years ago, I decided to learn to kayak. I had rowed during my university years, and I’ve always been something of a water rat, so I had no fear about learning a new water sport. But within five minutes of being on the water, I mistakenly transferred what I knew about taking a stroke in rowing to kayaking, and promptly capsized. As if the capsize itself wasn’t a big enough slice of humble pie for the day, I also struggled to release the skirt around the opening to the kayak. So there I hung for a moment, upside down in the water, experiencing real terror. When I came to the surface, I was scared and embarrassed, and all I wanted to do was say, ‘Who wants to learn this stupid sport anyway?’ and skulk home. I didn’t, because I had sufficient emotional intelligence and maturity to process the situation. My larger lesson for the day was how important it is as an instructor to be constantly learning myself so that I never forget how vulnerable an activity learning is.

And then I remembered. I remembered a student in her late twenties who was in tears at the prospect of not having access to a bilingual dictionary in an ESL class. I remembered a friend whose dreams of being a journalist were crushed when a teacher stated, “You have difficulty writing.” I remembered a colleague who was scorned for being so inept as to not have learned how to use chopsticks before venturing to teach in Japan.

For some students, learning is a breeze – it’s an adventure, it’s fun, and they’re good at it. Such was the experience for many instructors, which may be partially why they entered academia as a profession. For other students, learning is a path fraught with pitfalls – crevices to fall into with faulty logic, rocks to stumble over while struggling to articulate questions, and roots to make them trip and fall in the absence of sufficient background in a subject. As instructors, I feel it behooves us all to undertake activities that are beyond our comfort zone from time to time if only to keep us humble and to remind us to be sensitive when dealing with students. And I would paraphrase Yeats to remind us to tread softly, for we tread on their dreams.

Inoculations in Classes – by Nadine Le Gros

No!  Don’t turn away!  This isn’t about H1N1!  Using an inoculation in your teaching is about placing well chosen words early in a class (or even a conference) to anticipate criticism,  reduce resistance, and encourage learning.

 I’ll give you an example.  I do a lot of work on campus with different groups to help people realize that their norms and expectations surrounding communication patterns are not universal.  But having a discussion about cultural differences in communication frequently invites the comment that I’m “stereotyping,” which erects resistance and shuts down learning for some.  I know this, I expect this, and I plan for this. I inoculate.  My inoculation consists of the following.   First, I define the concept of cultural norm using the following image. 


This image illustrates how in any given population (I use the examples of Japan and Canada), a population will be distributed across a spectrum.  The largest clusters of individuals will represent a society’s cultural norm.  The society will then have its outliers, who might approach the cultural norm of another society in their values. 

 The spectrum I use here is the dimension of individualism and collectivism.  In their most basic terms, individualistic cultures tend to stress the importance of individuals over the importance of the group, whereas collectivistic cultures tend to value the importance of the group over those of the individual (Hofstede, 1980).  The diagram indicates that Canada is more individualistic than Japan.  However, some cultures would be further along the individualistic spectrum than Canadians and other cultures would be further along the collectivistic spectrum than the Japanese. 

 The next step in my inoculation is to distinguish between speaking in generalizations and speaking in stereotypes.  When we use a generalization to describe a culture, we refer to a tendency that most people in a given group might have to believe certain things, behave in certain ways, and hold certain values.  However, if we apply a generalization to all members of a culture, then the statement becomes a stereotype (Bennett, 1998).  For example, we could say that Canadians tend to value multiculturalism.  For the most part, this would be true.  An example of a stereotype would be: all Canadians like hockey.  All Canadians do not like hockey; some despise it and consider it to be a very violent sport. 

 The distinction between generalizations and stereotypes needs to be drawn in order to enter into any dialogue about cultural differences in communication norms.  While norms do exist, all societies have people whose behaviour, beliefs, and values do not reflect those of their larger society.  Unless I draw such a distinction, I will have lost members of my audience before I begin. 

 To think about how to employ inoculations in your classes, consider the points where you encounter the most resistance, and consider why you encounter resistance.  Are you challenging the long-standing beliefs of your students?  Is there some reason they simply would not want to believe what you are saying? Is it threatening to them at some level?  Would it require too large a paradigm shift?  Does it involve reconceptualizing something?  If so, before you present your target lesson, what can you do to address these issues? 

 Before closing, I need to stress:  classroom inoculations frequently work wonders, …but now and then, students still get the ‘flu.’ 


Bennett, M.J. (1988).  Intercultural communication:  A current perspective.  In M.J. Bennett (Ed.,) Basic concepts of intercultural communication.  Yarmouth, Main:  Intercultural Press.

Two Metaphors to Reflect Upon Our Teaching – Nadine Le Gros

I love metaphors. I love metaphors both as a former literature major and as an occasional drama queen, as their use allows me to be expressive and interpretive. I also love metaphors for what they give us license to explore. Lakoff & Johnson (1980) maintain that metaphors aren’t just accidental turns of phrases: metaphors reflect our realities. The issue that I’m interested in exploring in terms of teaching via the use of metaphor is our use of power in the class – not just in terms of maintaining it in vis-à-vis our students, but also in terms of how we control the content of what we teach and what we hope the outcomes of our teaching will be.

Baptist (2002) writes of the garden as a metaphor in teaching, and hers is truly an invitation to participate in the divine. She suggests six views of metaphor which include faith, power, cultural expression, personal expression, and healing, and when she writes of metaphor, she seeks not to address the daily grind issues of teaching, but to examine the need for psychic, emotional, and intellectual healing on the planet today. Baptist invites us to explore the creative power of metaphor to expand our thoughts. She chooses the gardens as metaphor as “the garden is primarily a social construct that reflects the intent of the maker and the prevailing cultural ideologies of the time” (Baptist 2000, p.20).

If we use the metaphor of the garden to think about our teaching, we can be reflective about our approaches in a non-threatening way. For example, we may have difficulty with the ‘weeds’ in a class, and we may respond in a way that is looking to contain their encroachment on the class. Our personal definition of weeds will vary from the use of computers to dominant students, etc. Our wish to protect our ‘garden’ may cause us to be overly attached to and controlling of the dynamics in the class. If, however, when we think of a monoculture garden in which somebody has sprayed insecticides and herbicides, we might consider how our philosophy would manifest itself. While some may look at such a garden and consider it to be beautiful, many would be repelled by it. If we then draw a parallel between our intention as educators and the intention of the gardener, how we must adjust our attitude becomes evident. We need to allow for the weeds. We can extend this philosophy further by considering how Morning Glory is planted by gardeners in Ontario for its beauty, and shunned by gardeners in Vancouver because of its tendency to overtake the whole garden.

We can also use metaphor to examine our relationship with what we teach. For example, ceramics is one of the oldest crafts, and for some, it remains a craft. Others have elevated the craft to a highly sophisticated artform. When a ceramist makes a piece of pottery, she must decide whether to use a wheel or to throw the piece by hand. She chooses clay which can vary widely due to geographic factors. Sometimes she begins with the intention of making a bowl, but the clay assumes the shape of a plate. The ceramist must decide whether to stick determinedly to her concept of a bowl, or to allow the clay to evolve organically … to do what it will. The ceramist must wait for her work to dry before proceeding to the next step, because she can’t rush the process. She then chooses a glaze, a process over which the ceramist has a measure of control: if she consistently sticks to a single recipe and knows which amounts of silica or dolomite produce the effect she likes, she can frequently determine outcomes. However, experimentation with glazes will yield unexpected results – sometimes beautiful and sometimes hideous. The ceramist will only see the results of the glaze after the piece has been fired, and the kiln may well fire the piece in an unpredictable way. The outcome may be exquisite – or the ceramist may retrieve a week’s worth of work that is under or over-fired … and destroyed. When pieces are ‘successfully’ thrown and fired, they may be given away or sold, and how the pieces are perceived is again unforeseeable. Recipients of gifts may like or dislike the art, and customers may or may not purchase the objects. The pieces may be used in the way they were intended – as a coffee cup or a flower vase – or they may be put to an entirely different use by the new owner.

Each of these metaphors – that of the garden and that of ceramics – allows us to consider teaching and our role in the education process. Baptist reminds us: “[i]f the gardener attempts to completely control the ‘event’ of the garden, … possibilities may never emerge, rather they become lost in intent” (Baptist 2002, P.25). It’s all too easy in education to become mired in what we perceive to be mud. We forget about the transcendent nature of the vocation. If we relinquish the need for control, we can entertain possibility. When we create something – ceramics or lessons – we may proceed with the mindset of a craft, or we may proceed with artistry. We can’t completely predict what action will precipitate what effect, but being able to relinquish absolute control to allow for what might be is expansive. So, what’s your metaphor?

Baptist, K. (2002). The garden as a metaphor for curriculum. Teacher Education
Quarterly, 29(4), 19-37.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

Books About the Brain for Educators – Nadine Le Gros

If I were 30 years younger, I would enter the field of psychoneuroimmunology … but, I’m not 30 years younger, so I must content myself with reading books for lay people on the role of the brain in learning and behaviour. In the last year, I have read three books that I think all educators would benefit from reading.

From an educator’s perspective, these books are beneficial for a number of reasons:

1) they illustrate why active learning deepens learning;
2) they reveal why learning is a complicated process that doesn’t happen overnight;
3) they support what we have always suspected: multi-tasking while learning inhibits deep learning;
4) they can help us understand some student behaviour such as why some students engage in what we might perceive of as adversarial behaviour while they are learning or why others are anxious learners;
5) they offer strategies that we can employ when working with students.

While we’ve always known that the brain was involved in learning, the research in these books shows how the brain changes when we learn.

The Brain That Changes Itself
Norman Doidge, M.D.

The Art of Changing the Brain
James E. Zull

Change Your Brain Change Your Life
Daniel G. Amen, M.D.

Nadine LeGros