How to: Mentoring Students in/from Non-Western Cultures

April 25, 2022

by Larry Caldwell, Chief Academic Officer, Kairos University and Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University 

Last week, we were reminded about the growing globalization of Kairos and four of the related invitations that mentors experience in light of this fact, both with Kairos students residing in non-Western cultures, as well as the growing number of Kairos students in North America who are originally from non-Western cultures.

We examined the first invitation of mentor/student roles and expectations. This week, we are turning our attention to the second invitation: collectivist cultures vs. individualist cultures.

Invitation #2: Collectivist Cultures vs. Individualist Cultures

Most Western cultures tend to be more individualistic. In other words, the needs of the individual are stressed over the needs of the group. Not so in most non-Western cultures. Here, the vast majority tend to be more collectivist, meaning that the needs of the group are stressed over the needs of the individual. The differences between collectivist and individualist cultures are complex and we won’t go into all the specifics. Many Bible schools and seminaries located in non-Western cultures were developed by individualistic Westerners. As a result, many non-Westerner students engaged in theological education today may be “used to” an individualist educational system. When given the opportunity, however, our experience has shown that many may prefer the collectivism of their culture. In practice, this means students in or from non-Western cultures may be more open to learning experiences that emphasize group learning, group involvement, and even group evaluation. Interestingly, there is a growing amount of “Western-oriented” research that points to the value of group evaluation/assessment. In some studies, such peer evaluation has been more effective than evaluation conducted by “expert” faculty.

So How Do We Mentor?

It behooves us as mentors to strive to use educational approaches that are culturally appropriate. In many cases, this is an invitation for us to move out of our individualistic learning comfort zones to better accommodate our students coming from collectivist cultures that prefer group learning and even group evaluation experiences. Here is an extended example of what this might look like.

For a few years now, we have worked with a group of Kairos students who are a part of a Persian Gulf cohort. Most of the students are Filipino bi-vocational missionaries who are planting above ground and underground churches throughout the Persian Gulf region, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to the United Arab Emirates. We began Kairos with them in version 5.0 which came with a curriculum chock-full of individual assignments. Even with the transition to Pathwright, the default educational approach by and large was still individualistic. At the beginning of their Kairos journey, we (their mentors/leaders) defaulted to the individualistic approach which was Kairos. The students in the cohort made slow progress.

After two years of such slow progress, we revamped what we were doing. Instead of the individualistic approach, we followed a collectivist approach based on the culture from which these Filipinos came. Now three or four students were assigned to a huddle group that met weekly as peers either in person or via Zoom. They were encouraged to do their assignments together as a group, with each person contributing in their own way to the successful completion of the group’s assignments. Most of these assignments involved video presentations which allowed their creativity to come to the forefront, resulting in wonderful group presentations. Reading assignments were group-based, with various individuals reading parts of an assigned book or article with the group who would then come together to share their insights and to learn from one another. Even when it came to master assessments, the other mentors and I did this in a “peer” group format where together members of the huddle group went through the master assessment process and contributed to the evaluation of each other’s competency under the guidance of the mentors. This peer approach to master assessments proved to be especially fruitful to both students and mentors and made the master assessments the highlight of the group’s discipleship journey.

The result of this group approach to all things Kairos? Within a year after the change, a significant number of these students had completed their Master of Arts program. In fact, some of these graduates are now leading the second generation of huddle groups throughout the Persian Gulf. As a result of the success of this group approach, we are discovering how peer/group-based learning may be appropriate for other Kairos students too. We think that it’s safe to conclude that students from collectivist cultures, given the opportunity to learn according to their cultural preferences, will flourish. Fortunately, the flexibility of Kairos allows mentors to make such learning possible.

Next week, we will turn our attention toward another invitation we receive when mentoring students in/from non-Western contexts: culturally appropriate assignments and assessments.

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