Study Abroad classes represent a unique opportunity for meaningful learning and undergraduate research in higher education. In my inquiry-centered classes, which deal with immigration, cultural diversity, and identity in Israel, I aim to create meaningful experiences for students. These experiences are designed to challenge students to reach more complex understanding of subject, place, the world, and themselves. Designed for students to engage in interpretation in different context, students integrate their experiences and their understanding into a research project. For these projects, students engage in qualitative inquiry, and integrate their experiences and class readings into a research project.
When Americans talk about the college experience they many times refer to partying, going to games, or having fun while studying abroad. John Dewey (1938), claimed that it is through experience that humans grow and develop as human beings. If that is the case, why is it that the college experience is a general reference to the experiences that students have outside of their college education? To me, the answer is that in much of the formal educational system in the Western World does not expect students to engage in meaningful experiences, and very rarely does it asks these students to reflect upon, understand, or use any significant learning that they bring from experience to the context of the college classroom.
Study Abroad programs possess a unique educational space within higher education. It can be argued that having experiences is built into these classes. But many of these classes still take a lecture format, with the professor and texts as the main sources of knowledge. Though the vast majority of these classes include tours, site visits, and sometimes family stays, these experiences have very loose connections to the students’ academic work, and students are rarely expected to integrate any of their personal perspectives and experiences into their classwork.
By creating classes that are centered on qualitative inquiry, and following the project approach (Katz & Chard, 1989), students’ experiences become the most important part of learning abroad. Even before students begin my class, they are required to write a reflection on their experience and knowledge of cultural diversity, immigration, and identity. These classes center on field experiences, and even before the syllabus is officially introduced, the students and I venture to Central Jerusalem. After a short orientation, students are told to sit somewhere in a designated area, observe for two hours, and talk to at least three people in the street. Students submit a short observation report, and repeat this activity two more times during the course, in the Old City of Jerusalem, and in the Nahalat Benyamin area in Tel Aviv. Other experiences include visiting a research and development center in Kfar Qara, one of only two R&D centers in the Arab Community in Israel, meeting representatives of the Immigration Absorption Department in Ashdod, and going to the Weizmann Institute of Science to learn about a program teaching science to at-risk students.
These experiences, together with readings and discussions on topics such as the relationship between Zionism and the Arab community in Israel, immigration absorption, and integration of different groups in politics, education, and the Israeli economy help students to design their own research project. Projects need to meet two main criteria in order to be eligible for this class: (1) to be related to cultural diversity, immigration, or identity in Israel, and (2) to be based on students’ experiences. To do this, the projects have to have a strong qualitative aspect to them. Even students who had 20 interviewees, have little by which to go in a quantitative direction. By employing this approach, there is no separation between readings and students’ experiences, or between class topics and the students’ surroundings. Instead, these are integrated so that students’ growth is documented, shared, appreciated, and evaluated.
To explore the learning process in these classes, I will use a framework developed for my dissertation research. Based on this research, I developed three approaches to interpretation in educational context: (1) Learning an Interpretation, (2) Learning to Interpret, and (3) Learning through Interpretation.
Learning an Interpretation occurs when students read a text chosen by the teacher, and the teacher provides them with her interpretation of that text. This is many times the approach taken in K-12 schooling, and in most undergraduate classes. In this approach, a teacher or professor believes that there are interpretations that are seminal in the field, and which students need to know to gain some fundamental understanding of that field. The text is interpreted by the teacher and the meanings are delivered through lecture. Students are expected to internalize these interpretations, and demonstrate (usually in the form of an examination) that they grasp these meanings. In these cases, interpretations are presented to students as complete and unquestioned, and though the teacher’s interpretation may change as she continues to engage with the text, there is a fixed nature to the presentation of seminal understandings to the students. In this context, the teacher is the interpreter, and the student is the receiver of the interpretation. As students continue to progress in their studies, the teacher may indicate the incompleteness of an interpretation (Gallagher, 1992, p. 76) , and encourage students to find their own understandings. This is when students need to learn to interpret.
Students learn to interpret through different means. In most graduate programs, students are taught research methods in their specific field, and in graduate seminars students and professor discuss texts, instead of a participating in a lecture. In these classes, the process of interpretation is highlighted and shared, but the products of these processes can be different for the students and the professor. Interpretations in this context are presented as somewhat fluid, and the teacher’s interpretation is not necessarily more correct or true than that of the students. When learning to interpret students and teacher discuss each other’s interpretations, and adjust their understanding of text and phenomena together. While learning to interpret, students may engage in their own interpretations, which prepares them to work independently as researchers.
As independent researchers, students are learning through interpretation. For many, the first opportunity to do this kind of work is in their doctoral dissertation, where coming up with a unique and original interpretation is a pre-requisite in most cases. As students work with their advisors, the professor takes the role of facilitator of the interpretation, and the student’s learning happens as they struggle to understand a phenomenon. The student is the interpreter, and the professor is charged with asking questions that would help the student in her process. The resulting interpretation comes from the student and their own work and learning, and it presents an opportunity for the professor to learn something new to her.
The progression from learning an interpretation, through learning to interpret to learning through interpretation seems reasonable if we thing of students as novices entering a field. It is the way schooling is built through college up to the doctoral level. Conversely, I would argue that an educational system that waits until students are at the doctoral level to allow them to learn through interpretation, is doing an educational disservice to those students. Myself and many of my colleagues struggled with our doctoral dissertation research, because we very rarely had opportunity to engage in this kind of work before graduate school. Study abroad programs present a great opportunity for students to learn in all three forms of interpretation. Giving undergraduate students opportunities for meaningful learning should be central to higher education. In many fields, ideas such as experiential learning, and independent undergraduate research may seem to be superimposed on teaching and learning. Conversely, study abroad can be viewed as an opportunity for meaningful learning, and is already considered an important aspect of the college experience. Universities and study abroad programs can and should integrate meaningful experiences and inquiry-based learning into their programs.
Having led study abroad programs for the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Michigan State University, and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I find that teaching these classes through inquiry has contributed significantly to my own understanding of Israel and its issues. These classes allow the students and I to create a learning community, where we all have opportunities to learn from each other, from our experiences, interpretations, and research. We grow together.