Turner, Marianne (2009) Adult South Sudanese students in Australia: A systemic approach to the investigation of participation in cross-cultural learning. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.
This thesis explores major influences on adult South Sudanese student participation in Australian learning environments. Between 2000 and 2006 Australia’s offshore humanitarian program accepted an increasing number of South Sudanese refugees (DIAC, 2007). Research related to this new group was minimal at the time of this study, and a theoretical framework was generated as a way of exploring the South Sudanese students’ everyday participation in cross-cultural learning.
The theoretical framework mainly draws on perspectives from sociocultural theory, cultural schema theory, research on expectations in cross-cultural learning, and sociological theories of agency. First, sociocultural perspectives provide a way of conceptualising students’ participation in cross-cultural learning as ‘here and now’ but significantly affected by engagement in past practices. The perspectives, with their focus on participation, also allow a conceptualisation of identity as situated in students’ experience of themselves in specific practices. This notion of identity was used in the study to explore the extent to which students’ past forms of participation were changed or negotiated. Next, research on expectations in cross-cultural learning and cultural schema theory offer a conceptualisation of how students’ participation may have been affected by past experiences. In the study, cultural schemas were taken to underpin expectations shared by all of the students, and these cultural schemas were positioned as aspects of the students’ identity. Finally, sociological theories of agency explore agency as co-regulated, transformative, and generating both intentional and unintentional outcomes. The dynamics of teacher-student and student-student interactions were taken to be a major influence on student participation, and these interactions were conceptualised as teacher-student agency. The theoretical framework is proposed to be systemic because the influence of students’ past practices and the influence of current social interactions interrelate.
The research was designed as an abductive study. Abduction, with its blend of induction and deduction, allows a ‘bottom up’ approach where hypotheses are formed as much as possible from the data (Coffey and Atkinson, 1996). This approach allowed observation of everyday classroom practices, and then subsequent engagement with theory in order to interpret these practices. Ethnographic participant observation was used during initial data collection. Then further participant observation, a focus group and semi-structured interviews were used to investigate significant emerging themes. Over a nine month period, 36 students and 10 teachers were observed across three groups and learning environments: a women’s community group, a university group, and a technical college group. 25 students and 11 teachers were interviewed.
The findings reveal that students had firm expectations in terms of displaying deference to the teacher, receiving very close monitoring from the teacher for both learning and behaviour, and competing against other students. The first expectation was found to apply across the learning environments, while the second two were found to apply only in formal learning environments. Teachers’ expectations were found to vary according to the learning environment. When there was a lack of congruence between students’ and teachers’ expectations, students appeared to differ in their attachment to cultural schemas proposed to underlie their expectations. The findings also reveal that students had a strong cultural schema of interdependence which was negotiated differently depending on the student, and depending on the incentive provided by the learning environment. Furthermore, the findings reveal that teachers and students were able to modify teaching and learning practices to differing degrees according to the learning environments, and the opportunity to modify teaching and learning practices did not always lead to desired learning outcomes.
This research provides insight into the everyday participation of adult South Sudanese students across different Australian learning environments. The relationship between students’ past experiences and current social interactions with teachers and other students is highlighted through the systemic approach of the study. The research also provides a theoretical framework which may have applications in teacher education in the field of cross-cultural learning.