The International Department - Disassembling Context

Monday 12th August 2019

Being an international student at John McGlashan College comes with its very own challenges and not just for the students.


I heard a story from a student the other day that highlights one of the challenges, which seems so obvious yet we sometimes underestimate the details of nuance and context, especially with international students who are proficient in their English.

A student was asked to disassemble a particular item and he did so - into its tiniest little pieces. While this was, what the student understood he was asked to do, the teacher had a very different expectation, namely to take the item apart so it could fit into its box. Two things happened here that are challenges for our international students:

  1. The student understood the literal meaning of the word disassemble: ‘taking something to pieces’ and followed the instruction of the teacher to the best of his ability.

  2. The teacher expected the student to consider the context of the instruction and therefore to understand that he was merely meant to disassemble said item to a point where it would fit back in its box but not further.

While this story was entertaining to listen to, it was also an example of how easily frustration can arise for a teacher and a student. We sometimes assume that language proficiency equals cultural and contextual proficiency as well, however, for some students language knowledge might precede cultural knowledge and vice versa. Every culture comes with a different understanding of and approach to the world and this is evident even in the understanding and following of instructions in the classroom. We can learn a lot about the world from our international students, which is one of the reasons why they are part of our John McGlashan community. So our challenge is to go beyond the meaning of a word and expectation of context so we can not only understand but also appreciate each other’s differences and discover the common ground we all have.