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

May 2, 2022

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

We continue our series on the four invitations we as mentors receive as we work 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.

Last week, we examined the second invitation regarding collectivist cultures vs. individualist cultures. This week, we are turning our attention to the third invitation: culturally appropriate assignments and assessments.

Invitation #3: Culturally Appropriate Assignments and Assessments

This third invitation is perhaps the most stretching for mentors who were educated/formed in Western educational settings. It’s even more so when we have never experienced the realities of a student’s context, especially when that context is in an entirely different culture. This invitation is complex because it gets at the heart of the question: “What is academic?”

In the past, we in the Western world have assumed that we know how to best answer this question. We have often imposed our answer on most of the non-Western world through our colonization efforts, both past and present. This has resulted in what anthropologists call “authoritative knowledge”: certain types of knowledge gain a place of authority not because they are necessarily biblical but because they were (or still are) promoted by those in power, especially in situations involving colonization. In the past, the “academy”—the gatekeeper of authoritative knowledge—determined that academic theological knowledge is best achieved through book-based learning, credit hours and seat-time, results presented logically and systematically, and assessment linked to quizzes, tests, and academic paper writing, among others. The beauty of the Kairos philosophy of theological education is that we have moved beyond the confines of this limited view in determining what is, or what is not, academic. We embrace the fact that standards of excellence are contextually defined. This allows us as mentors unprecedented freedom in helping our students best achieve proficiency in the areas of content, character, and craft as we walk with them on a journey of discipleship.

So How Do We Mentor?

Part of the role of a mentor in Kairos has always been to help students adapt their assignments (and the assessment associated with them) so that they are more connected to the contextual and vocational realities of the student. In many cases, however, many of us may still struggle with how to adequately do this with students who have a non-Western background or context. In other words, the invitation to emerge from the confines of our own understandings of authoritative knowledge regarding assignments and assessments is one we may embrace but struggle to practice. This can be even more difficult when we are working with students who may be coming from educational contexts that are, or were, beholden to the authoritative knowledge of their former colonizers. For example, in one training session for a partner in the Philippines, the faculty and mentors said, “We are in a non-Western context and desire to have an educational model that is non-Western. However, all of our faculty have been educated in Western settings, and we struggle to develop culturally appropriate methodologies.”

The reality is that authoritative knowledge as an area of study is exceedingly complex and we won’t get into it all the intricacies here. (If you would like to read more about these complexities see Larry Caldwell’s chapter in Harkness, ed., Tending the Seedbeds here; also his chapter in Shaw and Dharamraj, eds., Challenging Tradition.) Instead, let’s dwell on some practical implications for us as mentors to consider.

First, as we always do, but especially with our non-Western students, we as mentors must really work with students to develop truly context-specific adaptive assignments. Our experience is that this requires mentors to encourage students by helping them become aware of the fact that they know more about their cultural context than we do. It could be that this cultural awareness needs to be drawn out through questions or conversation. By identifying cultural realities, we can help students take charge of the adaptation of assignments. Here is where the vocational mentor can be especially helpful, especially if he/she lives in the same cultural context as the student.

Second, this is where mentors need to trust their students in adapting assignments in ways that work best for them and their cultural context. We have found that many non-Western students in Kairos, if given the opportunity, excel in this area and maintain culturally appropriate academic integrity in the process. For example, with our Persian Gulf cohort students, after discussions with mentors and huddle groups on the best way to do adaptive assignments, we together came up with culturally appropriate conclusions: weekly group readings and discussions of the book and article assignments; group discussion of how the character and craft competencies were best to be carried out, group accountability of their members in the areas of character and craft, group video presentations of the results of their research, and group assessment of how they had grown in their competency, including the eventual master assessment. In their group meetings, they used their local Filipino languages; in our mentor meetings, English was used.

The above example worked with these Filipino students because they are coming out of oral-dominant collectivist cultural contexts. Other non-Western students may need different approaches. Furthermore, these Filipino students were all fluent in English; this will be more complex when English is the third or fourth language of a student yet it is the primary language of the members of the mentor team. We believe that students whose fluency in English may not be as strong should be encouraged to do their assignments and assessments in their own local language. For example, one Moldovan Kairos student was able to speak English but was much more comfortable writing (and speaking) in Russian. As a result, he would give his English-speaking mentor team written English summaries (often PowerPoints) to supplement his oral English presentations on adapted assignments. We as mentors need to be very flexible in our approach to our students and their needs, both as individuals and as groups.

Next week, we will turn our attention toward the fourth invitation we receive when mentoring students in/from non-Western contexts: plagiarism and honor.

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