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Intercultural Awareness through the Looking Glass

Intercultural Awareness through the Looking Glass

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Dr Anatoly Kharkhurin joined HSE University in 2019 as an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences. He received his PhD in Experimental Psychology from the City University of New York and taught in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. This academic year he is teaching Psychology of Thinking and Reasoning and Psycholinguistics. Dr Kharkhurin shared with The HSE Look his perspective on the prospects for the digital transformation of social communication.


Dr Anatoly Kharkhurin

You have taught over ten different courses over the last decade. Which of them was the most ‘digitalised’?

I have never done online teaching before. In the States and the Emirates, everything was done the old-fashioned way. This year is the first time I am lecturing in a blended format and everything will most likely be transferred online.

What are you planning to do in the upcoming year in terms of ‘digitalising’ your teaching activities at HSE University?

Digitalisation enables access to audiences from all over the world, an opportunity we have never had before. Nevertheless, when we were asked what format we would prefer, I voted for ‘live’. This is because live communication gives the kind of synergy that Zoom just cannot provide.

In the classroom, a charismatic figure of a teacher inspires students, energises them to become curious and thirsty for learning, and they reciprocate giving the energy back. I have had this experience quite often - when you are lecturing for 1.5 hours in front of the audience of 100+ people and, when you finish, on the one hand, you are tired, but on the other hand, you have so much energy and feel ready to go on. I doubt that this would happen online.

How can you compensate for the loss of this energy?

I don’t know yet. We need to come up with new methods and techniques to make the students vibrate.

You argue that one of the ways of facilitating creative thinking is by speaking multiple languages and having multicultural experience. And what about those who don’t have a chance to study abroad (especially in light of the current reduction in outgoing mobility)? Will digitalisation help?

First of all, I want to make clear that I don’t see digitalisation as panacea for all problems. Digital tools are just tools, an additional means of solving problems.

Digitalisation can help in the creative process, but it’s just like any other tool.

Traditional artists for example have paints at their disposal, they can use them to implement their ideas. Contemporary artists employ digital tools like the VR. In both cases, one can produce a piece of art or piece of … not art, and the media would not compensate for the lack of creative capacity. The same with development of creative potential: it can be successfully achieved in both old-fashioned way and using cutting edge technology. I don't really see any fundamental difference.

Coming back to your question, second language acquisition literature makes a clear distinction between learning in natural environment and in the classroom setting. Immersion is important not only for language learning, but also for developing intercultural competences. My research shows that both factors facilitate development of creative potential. Inability to directly acquire multilingual and multicultural experiences can be compensated by consciously restructuring the educational process. And that's exactly why we have just recently launched the educational project Plurilingual Intercultural Creative Keys (pick.hse.ru), which was supported by HSE University’s Faculty of Social Sciences. Since I joined the HSE only a year ago, this is an important sign for me personally and for my team.

By the way, I am very proud of my team, which I managed to assemble despite the pandemic. It consists of ten highly motivated individuals: two HSE faculty, several psychology and education Master’s and PhD students, an expert in educational law, and an English teacher from the Gazprom School.

The major goal of the PICK programme is to construct a unified teaching model, which harmoniously and systematically develops important competences: linguistic, intercultural, and creative. These competences encourage the development of a socially and professionally integrated person. This in turn, would contribute to students’ systemic adaptation to the contemporary world. Without the expectation that people will study or live abroad, within their home environment, we give them enough ground to develop these competences. After completing special PICK training, teachers who could have limited international experience themselves would be equipped with educational tools allowing them to nurture linguistic and intercultural competences as well as creative potential of the students. Then, all doors will open thanks to the opportunities provided by the virtual world.

We plan to build a free internet platform for teachers’ and students’ international exchange, which will be available through the school subscription to the PICK programme. This app will integrate in the educational process communication with students from other countries. Just imagine that you have a school in Cherepovets (I am having a conversation with their representatives in an hour), which is involved in the PICK network. And we have schools in let’s say Germany or the Netherlands involved in this network. Communication within this network alone would provide students with international experience.

During the pandemic, international communication by means of internet technologies became as salient as never before.

Today, you can gain intercultural experience in social networks or in multiple Zoom presentations. How long does the average high school student spend on Instagram? If just a fraction of this time is spent chatting with new friends from the PICK network, a student can gain quite extensive intercultural exposure. Yes, it's not the same as living in the country itself, going to the supermarket, buying a baguette in the morning after jogging in the Luxembourg Gardens. Nevertheless, we will be able to give them a good foundation, so that they can further develop intercultural competences.

And to what extent does the teacher intervene in facilitating this process?

One of the main goals of the PICK programme is the transformation of teachers’ perception of the teaching and learning process. We are talking about enthusiasts; we cannot force teachers to adopt a new mentality. We expect that ‘PICK teachers’ will do their job in a qualitatively new manner, which would emphasise development of soft competences in their students. However, I would be cautious with giving teachers a full control over this process. After all, they remain authority figure, at least in the eyes of the students. Teachers would need to make a huge effort to change this, often righteous perception.

On a different note, I’d like to mention that our programme emphasises an ability to consider the same phenomenon from different perspectives. A classic example is World War II and different views Russians, Americans or Germans have on that historical event.

When I lived in the Netherlands, I had a friend who, at some point, revealed to me that his grandfather served in the SS, and I did not know how to take this. My grandfather also fought that war, but on the opposite side.

During my graduate studies in New York City, I worked in the lab in Brooklyn College, which is located between a largely African American neighbourhood and the Jewish Orthodox quarter. All my friends and colleagues were Jewish. Then, I ended up in an Arab country and those whom we called terrorists turned out to be ‘shahids’ in the eyes of my new students. Again, at first, it was a shock. However, after living there for many years I realised what an important experience I had gained.

Any situation can have several perspectives and they can also be completely opposite. An ability to comprehend the multiplicity of people’s perceptions largely contributes to tolerance of ambiguity, a skill which becomes virtually paramount in contemporary reality when we don’t know what would happen tomorrow. And this is one of the key skills that we want to help our students develop.

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