Michael Cochez with a chef's hat


Hello and welcome to my prestigious restaurant. This website describes my personal experiences during a program on teaching in inter-cultural environments. Before serving anything I would like to introduce myself.

I grew up in a country which is rich in cultures and poor in establishing governments. We are famous for fatty foods like chocolate and French fries, but I am not French. French is however the second national language of the country where I come from and one of the languages I learned at school. Belgium is the country I am talking about. This country can be found in the middle of France, Germany, and the Netherlands and is a channel away from the U.K. in the west of Europe. In Belgium there are about 13% foreign born people and has a population of about 11 million.

After finishing secondary education with a focus on mathematics and natural sciences I started studying computer science at the university of Antwerp. Antwerp is home to one of the biggest harbors in Europe and has a long history as a trade city. I finished my bachelor studies with an exchange at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland for one year. In this Scandinavian country in the northeast of Europe I met my partner and I decided to continue studying at the university. I also got a part-time job as research assistant in the Industrial Ontologies Group of professor Vagan Terziyan. After about two years I started helping out in courses of my colleague Michal Nagy. This was my first experience with teaching.

After finishing my master studies I applied and qualified for a position as doctoral student. I also accepted more teaching responsibility, but realized that teaching in a foreign country to a mix of students with different backgrounds can be quite challenging. Therefore, I decided to start the Teaching Academic Content trough English (TACE) program organized by the language center of the University of Jyväskylä.

This website contains the portfolio I built during and after the program.

Bon appétit!

Preferences in TACE

At the beginning of the program we were asked to indicate our individual goals and preferences for the modules. The overall goal I had in mind, being quite an unexperienced teacher, was to avoid common problems, which other teachers run into when teaching in multi-cultural settings. I realized that it is very difficult to make these goals more concrete when not having much experience with teaching. It is much like choosing from a menu card in a foreign restaurant where the menu is only available in a language you do not understand.

I started out from the modules which where described on the TACE website and tried to eliminate these which I considered less needed.

  • Spoken English for interactive teaching.

    I had been using English for quite much all communication in the few years before the TACE program started. I had also given quite a few presentations in English. I realized that I would need some training on didactic skills, but perhaps less on the use of the language as such. Of course extra training is always a plus.

  • Teaching through presentation - interactive lecturing.

    While doing my tasks as a research assistant I was regularly giving presentations. I thought I knew how to do this. - Little did I know ...

  • Use of New Learning Environments.

    Using this type of learning environments has from the technical side never been any problem for me. However, as a student I hardly ever saw the benefit of this type of system compared to the freedom which a normal website gives. Especially the multitude of systems available at the University of Jyväskylä, like korppi, moodle, moodi and optima to just name a few, was extremely confusing. Perhaps I should take the module to do a better job as others or to be better able to argue my point.

The modules I prioritized where:

  • Orientation and formulation of learning outcomes
  • Managing inter-cultural groups
  • Guiding research and academic writing
  • Small group teaching methods
  • Evaluation and assessment

The reason I prioritized these topics was mainly that I didn't have much experience with them.

What did I learn?

The TACE program went into many directions. During the program students had to keep a blog with their reflection on the aspects which were discussed. I kept my blog using wordpress. The following articles are direct reflections of content looked at during TACE sessions:

Next to these sessions I also made the TACE summer task. Therein I reviewed a paper related to teaching in my field of study. I wanted to use that paper as a base for my own teaching methods used in class. The paper also had a strong impact on my teaching philosophy. More information can be found in the short article I wrote about the task. Later, I used the teaching method during the first course I taught independently and wrote a paper about the experience together with the original authors of the reviewed paper.

TACE and teaching philosophy

Before joining in the TACE program I had never taught my teaching philosophy trough. During TACE and while teaching I realized that there are things which you as a teacher want to do in a certain way. Then it is a difficult question how you as a teacher transform these ideas to the classroom setting.

In the next-to-last TACE session we had a discussion going on about whether there can be such thing as a teaching philosophy for teaching trough English. I have the strong opinion that there is no such thing. A teaching philosophy is something which you have independent of the language. The philosophy can take language and other cultural differences into account but can in principle not be split in one for inter-cultural and non-mixed groups. One strong argument against this kind of split up is that it is nearly impossible to speak about a non-mixed group except when the 'group' is just a single student. All student have different independent needs and one can not find two students who would always be best of with the same treatment in all situations.

That being said I would like to present my general teaching philosophy. As an unseasoned teacher, the philosophy I am writing down here is still limited in scope and will most likely evolve over time. The philosophy is strongly influenced by the TACE program and the paper I reviewed.

Teaching philosophy

I follow the opinion that learning should happen in learner directed way. This means that learners should be the ones who decide whether they do or do not want to study a given subject and that learners must be given a forum in which they can express their opinion about the subject. In this light the task of the teacher is to convince the student that the content which is being taught is actually useful for the student. Once students see the usefulness of the material they will have the drive to study and experiment with the given material. Here I touch another aspect of my philosophy. Studying and experimenting. I do strongly believe that a student will learn more from experimenting with the content as from learning it by heart in order to reproduce on an exam.

The educational system as implemented in most universities in the European Union is based on grading students and continuously measuring their performance. This implies that it is possible to measure performance and therefore implies that we can only teach skills which are measurable. Measuring performance is easy for basic courses where only one answer is possible for any given question. One plus one is two, if the student writes a three or a seven then the answer is wrong. Imagine now that we want to teach students to work together in groups. How should we now measure performance? This is a very difficult question and most teachers will, instead of measuring this kind of performance directly, target the work which has been created by the group. The outcome of this measurement is, according to own experiences in group work, far from correct.

Combining the thoughts from the previous two paragraphs, I think that measuring performance should be avoided. If really needed, it should happen as much as possible on individual level or using a reasonable way of deriving an individual grade from the group work. One way which I use is to give students first group work and at the end of the course individual tasks. These individual tasks will be easier if the individual has been working in the group in the expected way. Otherwise, the task will be more challenging. It is important that while doing the group work competition between the members and between the groups is avoided. Competition will cause a decline in the amount of help which students are willing to give to each other. It might however be good to give well performing students a chance to show their skills to others. There can be for instance more advanced exercises for students who work faster. This way a more healthy type of behavior is stimulated with learners willing to show others how things can be done.

All students are different and it is important to keep this in mind. It is however not always feasible to treat each individual student in the way which is most optimal for that student. The main constraints are time and cultural differences. The teacher and learner do not have the time to get to know each other up to such extend that they are able to adapt to each other. Often students are unwilling or not able to formulate how they learn best. This might be due to limited experience, a background in a culture with a high power distance or a culture in which thinking about learning is not stimulated. Despite these limitations I can as a teacher still make sure that I do not make learners feel embarrassed and hence loose face. It is essential to avoid situations where this might happen. Important examples of situations during which face loss might happen is when giving examples and make students individually answer questions. It is this important to choose examples in a sensitive way, avoiding cultural conflict if possible and without expecting too much culture dependent background knowledge. Sometimes the learning environment might have to be adapted for students with limited mobility or other other reasons for not being able to perform the task in a similar way as others. As a teacher I want to assist in this kind of situations if reasonably possible.

An important part of my pedagogy is that I try to explain to students what kind of learning method we will be using during the course. By doing so I hope that students will be motivated during the course even if the mode of learning is different from what they are used to.

As I mentioned above, students should be given a forum for expressing their opinion about every aspect of the course. I have been using a middle of the course feedback and end of course feedback form. The middle of the course feedback is used to adapt the rest of the course to the needs of this specific group of students. The end of course feedback has been used to improve the course for the next edition and for general teaching method development. Finally, I would like to remark that I think that it is important that teachers write about their experiences. Therefore, I try to publish articles related to my teaching whenever I notice an aspect of the teaching which might be useful for other teachers.

Many of the ideas collected in my teaching philosophy are reflected in the follwoing introductory presentation of one of my courses. (Click to go trough the slides)

Instructions for assignments given to students

Thanks to the TACE program I was able to realize that the way we quite often receive and give out tasks is strongly context dependent. We looked trough tasks descriptions and saw for instance that in Finland the word 'essay' is frequently used to indicate which shape the answer should have. We then looked up from different sources what that word stands for. It seemed that depending on the source the meaning can go from an informal text expressing the individuals opinions till a text thoroughly supported by references to other work. The conclusion was that we cannot make the assumption that students know what to do when we use words with such context dependent meaning to describe what we expect from them.

The main field in which I have been teaching and in which I expect to be working in the future is computer science. I expect my courses to include a certain amount of programming work most of the time. The main requirement which I have for the code is that it works. Then, depending on the level and scope of the course there will be more requirements related to choice of programming language, tools, code commenting and code style. In most cases there is little room for cultural confusion when giving this type of assignments. Interpretation differences might still arise when learners come from different backgrounds, but the confusion will likely not be related to their ethnic cultural background.

Language issues in inter-cultural teaching

Inter-cultural teaching is a subset of inter-cultural communication and hence similar problems will occur. When communicating a sender tries to transmit a thought from his or her own being to a receiver. In order to transmit thoughts there is a need to use a medium which we call language. There are many places where this language communication can go wrong. Even when cultural differences are not at play, it might be that the people involved in the communication are unable to get the messages trough. One example could be if someone tries to explain complex mathematics to a toddler. The brain of the child is simply not developed enough to decode the message.

What I am looking at here are cultural influences which prevent messages from arriving at the receiver side in the way the sender intended them to arrive. Examples are easily found. The sender might be using a language or language register which the receiver is unfamiliar with. Or the sender might be using the language in a non-standard way. Other problems arise from assumptions about concepts. The sender describes the thought using certain concepts which he assumes the receiver to know about. Then the receiver get the message, but has a different mapping from the concept used to the real world, the communication will fail.

While teaching this type of problems are unavoidable. As a teacher one should try to make sure that the concepts used in discourse are known by the learner. It is also important to make sure that you as a teacher understand the concepts, which a student uses, in the same way as the student. The easiest way to prevent this kind of communication problems is to ask the student whenever in doubt.

Writing tasks form a specific problem on their own. It is very difficult to tell which level of language is required. Most of the time the courses which require written assignments are not themselves language courses and therefore language use should not have a major influence on the grading. The big question is then what to do when the teacher is unable to actually understand what the learner has been writing about (or vise verse). A solution might be to let the written work go trough several revisions from peers (other students or teachers). This would eliminate certain problems, but induces extra work as well.

Reflection on personal goals set at the start.

I think that the best way to improve skills in inter-cultural teaching is by building experience in a multitude of environments and allow for change in your own habits and teaching style. I do not have much teaching experience and when I heard about the TACE program I thought I could get a heads up about problems which I will run into at some point. My goal was thus to prepare myself for future situations and being able to better cope with them. Since the program has just ended there haven't been much of this type of situations. Only time will for sure tell whether the program was worthwhile.

In the meantime I can tell that I feel, for sure, more secure about my abilities to foresee problems in inter-cultural situations. The program has also made me more aware of the importance of reflecting about one's own teaching methods and the importance of feedback from students. It has also helped me to understand situations from the past which occurred to me as a student.

Future goals, possible co-operation and coherence - Where to go from here?

The TACE program has already had an influence on the way I am teaching. Starting from the academic year 2013-2014 I will be one of the main teachers in a new international master's program which starts in the department where I am working. I hope that the TACE experience will also help me there.

Also, after this training I feel more ready to go on teacher exchange. The European Union Erasmus and other programs offer options for teachers to go abroad and teach a certain topic for a couple of weeks. These opportunities would allow me to put the learned skills into practice.

Further, the TACE program has ensured me that I should publish articles about my teaching in order to help other teachers when they are running into similar problems. I hope to publish an educational article specifically targeted towards cultural issues in the near future.

Lastly, I am strongly considering taking more courses in education. The current offering towards international staff at the university of Jyväskylä seems limited, but this will hopefully change in the future.

Feedback on TACE

I was overall satisfied with the TACE program and will encourafe others to join the program as well. The feedback I am writing here might sound a bit on the negative side since I will mainly focus on parts which can be improved or tried. At first there is a problem with coherence in the program. There didn't seem to be a proper overview about why topics were covered in the order they were and there was never information available more as one session in advance. Hence, it was quite difficult to keep some kind of overview or to understand which goals we were working towards. Secondly, the course was sometimes to much focused on teaching languages ans social sciences. The teachers in the course are mostly teaching language themselves and their experiences are collected from that type of teaching. This is not a big problem, but might induce some kind of bias or annoyance when learners in the program have difficulties connecting to the examples. Fortunately, there was a good atmosphere in the classroom and also the learners shared their experiences very openly. Thirdly, the feedback on the summer task and the presentation was purely language use feedback. This was useful, but not really to the point in the TACE program. I would have liked more content feedback and perhaps even discussions and presentations about the articles during the sessions. Lastly, the discussions in the classroom do often repeat themselves. One of the reasons is that the program is so long that people forget that we talked trough similar things three or four sessions before. Perhaps it would be good to try a shorter, but more intense program. This might, on the other hand, prevent people from developing their own courses during the program.

There are several things which I was thinking about which might be worth trying out in the future. One thing I was thinking about is having some kinds of role playing games where a situation with a cultural clash is played and participants should come up with the next steps and seek a solution for the situation. This would help them to cope with this type of situations in the future. Another thing might be some sort of exchange. There might be similar programs going on in other locations. Some collaboration might be useful. Finally, as a person with an IT background I was often thinking that others in the group would be helped if I would be giving a few sessions on certain technologies which we use which makes our lives much simpler.

In this last course on the menu, I would like to thank all people who made this TACE program possible. The instructors Anne Räsänen, Kirsi Westerholm, Marlen Harrison, Weldon Green, and Josephine Moate and all participants. Many of these people have become friends and I hope to have a chance to meet them again in the future.

Thank you TACE!

Finally, I wanted to share this striking video about a teaching practice which gives pupils a chance to express their emotions more.


The dishes presented on this website contain ingredients which might cause permanent changes in the consumers' way of thinking. Eat regularly and diversely.

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