Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

When belief systems clash: How do we work with conflicting belief systems as these emerge in the course of an educational program?

Don Chandraratna, Fran Crawford and Sabina Leitmann
School of Social Work,
Curtin University of Technology
The genesis for naming our dilemma was an incident that occurred in the classroom for our second year social work students. The experience was so powerful that even those who were not present were familiar with some version of the event. In keeping with our School's curriculum intent of enhancing cross cultural understanding, a Muslim guest lecturer was invited to speak on aspects of Islamic culture. Both local and international students were present in the class. An unintended outcome was the discomfort and distress experienced by participants as their beliefs and values were challenged.

As part of a research project on internationalising the curriculum the presenters are currently undertaking, students both local and international, talked about the impact of this incident and named the strategies used - such as silence, withdrawal, anger, rejection and devaluing the other - to survive such disturbances. Students stated quite clearly that 'that was where the learning stopped'.

In disciplines dealing with human subjectivities, there is need for students and teachers to name and move beyond such resistant stances. In this session we want to explore with participants the teaching/learning relationships that could transform such obstacles to learning into bridges for understanding the changing contexts and cultures in which we work.


In the ongoing development of the Curtin Bachelor of Social Work curriculum, since the early 1980s the School has emphasised the importance of all students learning to work cross culturally and contextually. Social workers have always been required to work within and between different cultural groups. Our history testifies to our varying success at this and as educators we are conscious of seeking to do it better. These concerns of serving a multi-cultural client base, have recently been mirrored in the wider Australian higher education context. With an ongoing reduction in public funding, Australian universities are increasingly dependent on fee paying overseas students to sustain their programs ( Crawford, 1997). Though the economic imperative remains, what has also emerged is an articulation of internationalisation as a process of integrating diverse cultural perspectives into the teaching, research and service functions of higher education institutions ( Knight 1996 cited in Cannon 1997).

As educators we are aware that overarching objectives like internationalisation and cross-cultural awareness are in tension with what can be achieved in the actualities of our learning communities. This surfaced strongly when the 1996 cohort of fourth year international students told us that they felt marginalised and unheard by other students and staff as the end of their Curtin experience neared. If cross-cultural and contextual practice was so difficult to achieve in our classroom setting, under the close guidance of professional social work educators, what possibility was there that graduates would be equipped to achieve these ends in their professional employment?

These five female international students shared their feelings by chance at the conclusion of a class one of us was teaching. All students had voted on their choice for final topics to be covered. In the process a split emerged between the interests of international students and the majority of local students. In seeking to debrief this with some of the key players we unknowingly began the journey that has now become a funded research project on internationalisation in the classroom.

The international students felt confident and angry enough to express their dissatisfactions. They identified what they saw to be a disjuncture between what we taught about working cross-culturally and what happened in class. At the same time they were enthusiastic about sharing their reflected experiences to bring the real closer to the espoused ideal. Concurrently domestic students talked about gaps they experienced between their cross-cultural cognitive awareness and their confidence in being able to act on such knowledge. The voicing of these concerns provided a rich, naturally occurring opportunity to focus, gather and document the meanings groups made of their curriculum experience. How did Curtin's support of internationalisation (Curtin 1994) as "preparation of staff and students for life in a global community through greater understanding and respect for other cultures"(p2) intersect with our students' course experience?

From November 1996 through to April 1997 two of the researchers (Crawford and Leitmann) conducted three focus groups, one with international students from all years (ten participants of a possible 12, all female), one with graduating local students (13 participants of a possible 45, three males and ten females) and the final one with a mix of both (five international and six local with three males). We sought student input on how they experienced the classroom environment and ways of creating a learning community more conducive to cross cultural education.

A search of the literature indicates our approach of dialoguing with and between local and international students marks a new development in such research. To date most Australian research has focused on academic staff and/or international students ( Barker et all 1991; Burns 1991; Mullins et al 1995, O'Donoghue 1996 and Samuelowicz 1987). A New Zealand study (Mills 1997) is the only research located that includes the experiences of overseas students, local students and academic staff.

All three focus groups were lively sessions as students readily took advantage of an opportunity to engage with and unpack issues that were very real for them. The transcripts of the sessions run to hundreds of pages and a number of common themes emerged . Some of these were language difficulties, the emotionality in challenging belief systems of oneself and others, the importance of relationships, the dominance of classroom process by a confident few, the risks and rewards involved in engaging in unfamiliar territory and what was perceived as effective staff facilitation.

Perhaps the major differences emerging evolved from the relative vulnerability the international students felt throughout the course as compared to the relative privileging local students expressed in being able to retreat to comfort zones when under pressure. Both sets of students said that when their values, ideas and certainties were challenged the natural response was to disengage with difference that discomforts and seek likeness that affirms. For the international students however, there were clearly fewer such spaces.

The visiting lecturer

A story told separately in both initial groups and then referred to again in the final mixed group, captures some of the dynamics involved in these connections and differences. The happening occurred two years earlier in a second year unit. So powerful was the experience that even those not present were familiar with some version of the event. In keeping with our curriculum intent of enhancing cross-cultural understanding, a lecture on Islamic culture was programmed. The unintended outcome of this event set students thinking about the complexities involved in the seemingly harmless aim of teaching cultural awareness.

Though none of us were present, our received knowledge of what happened is as follows. In order to help students understand the importance of belief systems and culture in shaping behaviour, a woman professional was invited to lecture on her Islamic culture. With no possibility of disruption foreseen, she was left to deliver the lecture on her own, without any staff being present. Quotes from international and local students in their separate sessions bring to life "what happened".

Local Student:She stated that she is not a lecturer. This is the first time that she has actually done something like this. She said she had gone away and done a lot of research on her culture so that she could try and answer our questions. . . . Do it right! Explain to us the best way she can. And the subject of female circumcision came up and that is basically where the conversation and learning process stopped because there was a backlash from the classroom as to how bad that practice is.
International Student:(X) was invited by the Social Work Department to do the lecture on Islam. . . . Some students like you know, they didn't agree with what she was saying. And they really walk out! On her! It was so embarrassing. Even though you not agree with other peoples' . . . culture or religion, you don't do that sort of thing! They don't agree with what she is saying so . . I was really, really feeling frustrated and upset.

And then they asking you, "Did you do that sort of thing? You are a Muslim, did you do that sort of thing?" You know! I couldn't believe that, you know, what they say. . . I feel really upset when they sort of look at you, like whispering you know.

Local Student:I mean I walked out of the lecture. I think it came after she tried to convince us that female circumcision stops venereal disease. She was really justifying. . .
Another Local Student:But you weren't the only person. A lot of people left the lecture. Lots of people. A lot of people were upset about it and the learning process stopped. People forgot to listen.
Third Local Student:It was a really bad time for me as a student. It really tested me. Especially when the conflict around us walking out was carried over into future lectures. That was really bad news.
One of Us asked:Who gave you the bad feedback about walking out. Where were they coming from?
Local Student:That we were rude to her, that we didn't hear her and that we only walked out because we were radical feminists.

Moving back to the international student group transcript there were further reflections connecting the event to other such experiences around what they termed exclusionary practices:

International Student (also Islamic):I think people just don't understand. If you have strong values, religion or something, they can't accept that. But I really don't think you can change that.
Second International Student (Non-Islamic):It is more than that. I think there is a selective, exclusive, they purposely exclude us.
One of Us:And who is us?
Second International Student (Non-Islamic):The non-white students. The non-blue eyes. (laughter). But the basic thing I am asking is just respect. They don't have to agree with everything I say. . . And I am not finding (respect) in a lot of people. Not all of them but a lot of them. There is no respect there. And again it comes down to them, OK, it is OK for me to hold this view but it is not OK for you to hold that kind of view.
Third International Student:And sometimes you get that coming from lecturers as well. . . . Some people don't know my culture and at the end of so many assignments they said "I don't understand the idea of 'your culture'. And like that is your fault. It ends up somehow like it was my fault. . . . If you don't understand or accept or whatever it doesn't mean I have to be put down. . . So there is exclusion not just in class but I think lecturers too. We respect different values but that does not mean we have been accepted in that sense.

The local students in turn shifted the focus of their conversation away from the Islamic lecture to talking about the value and consequences of speaking out in class.

Local Student:One of the big things we have all experienced in this group is that we like to say what we think but our ideas were never really challenged.. (Debates between the talkative ones in tutorials were ) like two opposing groups going hammer and tongs. . . .Towards the end a lot of these people became less and less functional in these groups because they realised all they were doing was expressing and being given back their own ideas. . . .
Another local student:I don't have any problems speaking up. I throw this idea onto the table without giving it consideration and it has been a contribution and other people have given me feedback. So I found that valuable. We do tend to migrate, or I do, towards those certain groups of people . . .to a comfort zone.

As researchers, it struck us that the visiting lecturer story, told with such energy by both international and local students, remained unresolved. There was general agreement that a social work lecturer should have been there to mediate. Beyond this there were no suggestions on how with hindsight students might have acted differently. As researchers we mentioned the story in the final joint session but the subject was quickly changed.

Obviously this incident emotionally impacted on those who experienced it and indeed even on those who experienced its telling. In many ways telling this tale reproduces the bizarre 'othering' that can take place when we talk of culture. "Radical Feminists" and "Mutilating Muslims" are easy targets to demonise. Such categorisation into a stereotyped 'other' was played out in a classroom designed to develop culturally sensitivity. Students carried from the experience distrust, anger, confusion and a confirmation of a cultural chasm.

Exploring these dilemmas we begin by drawing from the quotes those sections that struck us as useful in making practical sense of what happened. We have linked the quotes to some of the prevailing discourses around international and cross-cultural education. These can be categorised into three main themes: anti-oppressive models (Domenelli 1988; Roger 1995; Harlow and Hearn 1996; Macey and Moxon 1996), deficit models (Biggs 1997) and multi-cultural models (Sanders 1980; Gould 1995; Biggs 1997) of international education for social work.

Who's the oppressor here?

Anti-oppressive models on the workings of culture name power as the key issue and seek to challenge and resist the hegemonic workings of dominant discourses around race, class and gender. It is a framing that strongly resonates with us for the way it works for change and social justice. At the same time, the students' determination to stand up against infibulation by walking out on the lecturer suggests that in some situations an anti-oppressive framing can be a blunt instrument for change.

The act of walking out was experienced by some as itself an oppressive act. "The learning process stopped" is how one local student expressed what happened. Reflecting on the same incident, the international students also named it as oppression. "They purposely exclude us." "It comes down to them." 'Otherising' the oppressors was shared by both groups, but this left them with little possibility of working for reconciliation.

Though both international and some sections of the local students felt oppressed it is noticeable that it was the local students who felt empowered to vent their feelings so publicly.

Subjugating fee paying students

Deficit models tend to cast the cultural other as the outsider in need of support in adjusting to a new environment, which is taken-for granted as 'normality'. Much migrant literature is so cast and it has relevance in certain situations. A serious shift to internationalising education however challenges any idea of fixed normality. Capturing this is the international student's report that staff commented on her work, "I don't understand the idea of 'your culture'." A full fee paying customer of Curtin, she was not satisfied with such treatment. "and like that is your fault . It ends up somehow like it was my fault ... If you don't understand or accept or whatever, it does not mean I have to be put down." Perhaps we can take pride as educators in having successfully taught her to stand up for her rights with a language for naming what happened in that interchange.

Deficit models can be positively framed as being about giving outsiders access to cultural capital. So, some international students may need access to language programs, orientation programs or other support structures to fully participate in their studies. Yet as Biggs (1997) concludes 'if we look at it from the students' rather than the teacher's perspective, and linguistic and personal adjustment problems aside, the problems international students experience in learning is no different in kind from those experienced by any student'(p19).

Researching your culture

The framing of multi-cultural models is apparent in the dialogue when a student said, "She said she had gone away and done a lot of research on her culture". This reflects an understanding of culture as product. It tends to take for granted that there is a truth about each culture and educators will imbue it correctly. Gould (1995) commenting on the implementation of a multi-cultural curriculum in the North American context, argues that in practice a multi-cultural world view has often amounted to nothing more than 'a one directional model of pluralism.... that at best taught students to look at rather than into the lives of (other) people.' This leads to a mechanical process of learning about different groups.

The guest lecturer was positioned as someone who could speak the cultural truth, naming and claiming what it is to be Islamic. Usually the voice of the expert acts to silence dissenting or oppositional voices. In this instance rather than silence there was an eruption by those who had different truths to tell around this territory.

With the knower standing to deliver to a room full of those in need of the knowledge, there is much about the structuring of university education that perpetuates this concept of culture as product. Apparent in all the focus group sessions is the ease with which all of us as cultural beings (staff, local and international students) slip into accepting culture as a fixed entity.

What gets in the way of listening?

A clear finding from our research was the energy and agency each of our participating students brought to the task of reflecting on their experiences to seek better ways of working with difference. They brought themselves to the task. Yet in social work education a framing of knowledge as separate from self is prevalent. This leads to teaching for practice that remains focused on 'them' as cultural entities to be studied without an ongoing consideration of the practitioner's own cultural being. Geertz (1973) explicated people don't have culture but live culture. In our post colonial, post modern times it becomes obvious that We are all natives now in the sense of being cultural beings.

With this understanding culture is conceived not as a static thing, but rather as learned, shared, complex, changeable and open ended dynamic interactions. The classroom is a meeting point of a number of interlocking power dimensions such as male privilege, white privilege, communication privilege, class privilege among many possibilities. Since Geertz (1973) wrote, there has been a general agreement that neither the insider/emic nor the outsider/etic point of view is enough in itself to develop cross-cultural competence Rather we need to work between the etic and emic and doing this effectively draws on reflexivity (an awareness of self in the ongoing dynamics of process). The environments for which we are preparing our students are not ones in which there can be certainty and closure as to who is subjugated and who is in control of normality (Hartman, 1991).

To quote from Nakanishi and Rittner (1992),

Most students are only vaguely aware of how much influence their cultural background has on their beliefs and value systems. . . As long as the learning is seen as principally occurring in only one direction there is a potential risk that students will measure other cultures against their own. . . .Inter cultural learning is never linear or orderly. It is a process that occurs in complex ways through increasing levels of cultural self-knowledge. (p.29)
How do we realise the learning opportunities inherent in such events? How do we work with conflicting belief systems as they emerge? How do we turn them into transformational learning opportunities rather than reinscriptions of a monocultural pedagogy which marginalises those it cannot assimilate?


Barker, M., Child, C., Jones, E., & Callan, V. J. (1991). Difficulties of Overseas Students in Social and Academic Situations. Australian Journal of Psychology, Vol. 43, No.2, pp.79-84.

Biggs, J. (1997). Teaching Across and Within Cultures: The Issue of International Students. In Murray-Harvey, R. M. & Silins, H. (eds), Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Advancing International Perspectives. Proceedings of the Higher Education Research & Development Society of Australasia Conference, Adelaide, South Australia, 8-11 July 1997.

Burns, R. B. (1991). Study, Stress and Culture Shock Among First Year Overseas Students. Higher Education Research and Development, Vol.10, No.1, pp.61-77.

Cannon, R. A. (1997). Advancing International Perspectives: The Internationalisation of Higher Education in Indonesia. In Murray-Harvey, R. M. & Silins, H. (eds), Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Advancing International Perspectives. Proceedings of the Higher Education Research & Development Society of Australasia Conference, Adelaide, South Australia, 8-11 July.

Crawford, F. R. (1997). On Being an International Student and Reading University Regulations. In Chandraratna, D. (ed), What's in a Name?: In Conversation with International Students. Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

Curtin University of Technology (1994). Quality Portfolio. Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

Dominelli, L. (1988). Anti-Racist Social Work: A Challenge for White Practitioners and Educators. Macmillan, London.

Hartman, A. (1992). In Search of Subjugated Knowledge. Social Work, Vol. 37, No. 6 pp. 483-484.

Dominelli, L. (1996). The Future of Social Work Education: Beyond the State of Art. Scandinavian Journal of Social Welfare, Vol. 5, pp. 94-201.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. Basic Books, New York.

Gould, K.H. (1995). The Misconstruing of Multiculturalism: The Stanford Debate and Social Work. Social Work,Vol. 40, No.2, pp.198-205.

Harlow, E. and Hearn, J. (1996). From rhetoric to reality: Historical, theoretical and practical complexities in educating for anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive social work. In Ford, P and Hayes, P. (eds), Educating for Social Work; for Optimism, Averbury, Albershot.

Macey, M. and Moxon, E. (1996). An Examination of Anti-Racist and Anti-oppressive Theory and Practice in Social Work Education. British Journal of Social Work, Vol.26, pp.297-314.

Mills, C. (1997). The Lived-in Realities of the Internationalisation Experience. In Murray-Harvey, R. M. & Silins, H. (eds), Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Advancing International Perspectives. Proceedings of the Higher Education Research & Development Society of Australasia Conference Adelaide South Australia, 8-11 July.

Mullins, G., Quintrill, N.,& Hancock, L. (1995). The Experience of International and Local Students at Three Australian Universities. Higher Education Research and Development, Vol,14, No.2, pp.201-231.

Nakanishi, M. and Rittner, B. (1992). The Inclusionary Cultural Model. Journal of Social Work Education, Vol.28, No.1, pp.27-35.

O'Donoghue, T. (1996). Malaysian Chinese Students' Perceptions of What is Necessary for Their Academic Success in Australia: A Case Study at one University. Journal of Further and Higher Education, Vol.20, No.2, pp.67-80.

Rogers, G. (1995). Practice Teaching Guidelines for Learning Ethically Sensitive Anti-Discriminatory practice: A Canadian Application. British Journal of Social Work, Vol. 25, pp.441-457.

Samuelowicz, K. (1987). Learning Problems of Overseas Students; Two sides of a Story. Higher Education Research and Development, Vol.6, No.2, pp.121-133.

Sanders, D.S. (1980). Multiculturalism: Implications for Social Work. International Social Work, Vol.23, No. 2, pp.9-16.

Please cite as: Chandraratna, D., Crawford, F. and Leitmann, S. (1998). When belief systems clash: How do we work with conflicting belief systems as these emerge in the course of an educational program? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 54-60. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/chandraratna.html

[ TL Forum 1998 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/chandraratna.html
Last revision: 5 Mar 2002. The University of Western Australia
Previous URL 27 Dec 1997 to 5 Mar 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/chandra.html