Research week: Catherine Lang and adventures in Malaysia with Education students

In this post, we celebrate La Trobe Research Week, 27-31 August, by sharing an interview with Catherine Lang, Associate Professor from the School of Education.

Like many busy academics, Catherine juggles both teaching and research. And because Catherine’s focus is education, we asked her to talk about some of the research she has done with La Trobe students.

Catherine in Kuala Lumpur

One of Catherine’s projects is a partnership with the Malaysian Ministry of Education to send Education students from Australian universities on teaching placements in Malaysian schools. Supported by a grant from the New Colombo Plan, an Australian government program to promote the Indo Pacific region, Catherine has been taking La Trobe Education students to Malaysia since 2014.

Catherine laughs as she admits how unprepared she was for her first trip,I had travelled in Malaysia on business and holidays, so I thought ‘how hard could this be?’” But that was before she was confronted with the reality of orienting students in the unfamiliar systems of a new country, managing placement issues and student conflicts, navigating taxis to visit unfamiliar regions without being ripped off, all while dealing with oppressive tropical heat.

It was hilarious on reflection, Catherine chuckles.

After that first visit, I came back and I said I’m never going again… And of course I did. Because by the end of the trip, you get to know students on a different level.”

One part of Catherine’s research grew out of the initial discomfort that she and her colleagues experienced on that first trip. “(We were) questioning do students really need to get out of their comfort zone to learn, because we as academics got out of our comfort zones to learn.”

These reflective experiences led to changes to the Malaysian Teaching Placement program, aimed to improve the experience for the students, as well as the academics accompanying them.

Students with their supervising teachers

La Trobe students now take part in a more comprehensive orientation for their Malaysia trip with pre-departure and in-country programs to focus on preparing for new cultural experiences, such as food, language, and dress code.

The experience of the Malaysian teaching placement can also be used as a basis for assignments in other core subjects in students’ teaching courses so that the work students do counts towards the assessment they undertake on their return.

Another part of Catherine’s research looked at student development during these overseas trips.

Do these trips where the students experience a vastly different education system…does it awake their social justice?

Where much previous research has suggested that these short term mobility trips lead to an ethno-centric view of culture, or ‘we are the best’, Catherine’s research focuses on student development of ethno-relativism, where each culture holds an equal place of value.

Catherine discusses how the La Trobe students in her research grew in terms of their cultural appreciation. Some started with ‘this is terrible, these students in the class are all in rows, they have corporal punishment’. But then they grow to see how some of those things have to work in that society because that’s what that society values.”

Students in a Malaysian school

Catherine gives the example of an eye-opener for one of her pre-service teachers. The student-teacher decided to use an English writing activity about the children’s favourite super heroes: In a class of 50, all but one had written about a family member. That would not happen in Australia… this is realising that the differences in the society, what we value, what they value, are different, but both have credibility and value.”

While the learning for Catherine and her students on these overseas programs has been invaluable, the good news is that there is funding for more Education students to take part in this experience. The New Colombo Plan funding allows La Trobe to take up to 60 Education students on the Malaysian teaching experience per year.

If you are an Education student who is interested in taking part in the Malaysian teaching placement, go to the International Professional Experience Forum in the Professional Experience tile on the School of Education LMS home page, and submit an Expression of Interest form.

Dates for the next trips are:

29 October to 23 November 2018 (Applications due soon).  


10 January to 2 February 2019. 

Credit: Credit is given to placement subjects for the number of days teaching.

Funding: Each Masters student will receive an ENDEAVOUR scholarship of $2,000. Each Bachelor student will receive an NCP scholarship of $3000.

Catherine is still in the process of publishing the research on students’ intercultural development, but you can read more about her research on accompanying academics.