Intercultural Promise

A series of articles and resources for UBC faculty related to The UBC Intercultural Understanding Mid-Level Strategic Plan: The Intercultural Promise by Alden E. Habacon, Director of Intercultural Understanding at UBC.

Watch a video about John Burton’s Front Row Experience on UBCO TV

Episode One:

Professor John Burton’s “Front Row Experience” fosters an Intercultural Classroom


UBC Okanagan professor John Burton

In speaking with faculty and staff for the University of British Columbia’s intercultural understanding strategic plan: Intercultural Promise, I learned that faculty were experiencing all sorts of classroom challenges as a result of the diversity of the classroom and the rapid internationalization of the student body.

This can be a difficult issue to talk about, as it implies that the diversity of the classroom is actually producing negative outcomes or barriers. Despite a generally positive attitude towards UBC’s multicultural character, a mere 53% of student respondents in the 2013 University Experience Survey agreed that the diversity of the student body had a positive impact on their educational experience (UES, 2013).

My research also uncovered some incredible solutions amongst faculty who are determined to find a way to overcome cultural differences. Across UBC, faculty are succeeding at integrating the diversity of the classroom into the learning experience. This episode focuses on one of the most innovative solutions by a faculty member to some of the most commonly expressed faculty pains: a decline in the joy of teaching, cultural and linguistic cliques in the classroom, decreasing levels of classroom participation, and poor peer relationships. All these factors can be attributed to larger classrooms and the diversity of UBC’s student body.

In a conversation I had with John Burton, Professor of Business Ethics at the School of Management at UBC Okanagan, he described feeling a decline in the reciprocal engagement with students that had fueled his passion for teaching in his early days as an instructor. He no longer knew his students’ names, and he observed they weren’t getting to know each other. Group work was getting more difficult as students seemed more content learning amongst strangers.

As a solution, Burton instituted a ‘rolling seat assignment’ for his second-year management class. He assigns seats to the students and each week those in the front row move to the rear of the class, and each row of students moves forward. Every student who hides out in the back row eventually ends up in the front.

“In my class every student spends two class sessions in the front row. When they are finished their second one I ask them to write a one-page reflection paper focused on what the experience was like. 85-90% of students are quite enthusiastic about it for a number of reasons. The one that amuses me a little bit is “You know when you are in the front row you have to be really prepared. When you are prepared for class it’s much more interesting!” Ok, lesson learned!”

Burton also refers to this method as the Front Row Experience (or FRE) and he claims he got the idea from Matt Copeland’s Socratic circle teaching plan—a group study idea named after Socrates and used by educators around the world. But lecture halls don’t lend themselves to students working in circles. The traditional classroom set-up of rows of tables created a barrier for Burton to learn his student’s names and for students to meet each other.

“For me it’s important to learn student’s names, and I don’t claim by a long shot to know every student in my 100-plus classroom, but during that time they are in the front row they get addressed by their name. I think there is benefit to students in terms of validating their personhood and who they are and their identity and all sorts of things like that.”

The method encourages class discussion and takes away some of the anxiety that might come from faculty using a cold call system where only a few students are happy to speak up in class while the rest of the class keeps quiet.

“The truth is I think there is an important teaching style that one needs to be aware of. And that is you are not testing the students, you are engaging them in conversation. My style is to draw something positive about just about anything that a student says, and try to build on it and try to link it back to what we are focusing on. I think my style helps make it a good experience for students.”

Clearly, part of Burton’s motivation for developing the front row experience is to make classroom discussion as comfortable as possible for students. The reason for this Burton revealed is that he empathizes with the anxiety his students feel.

“I was one of those students who hid behind newspapers and really tried to avoid things. I was petrified, and so over the years in my teaching life I came up with this method both as a way to give students an experience about talking about ethics and also, in a sense, to address what I know is an anxiety for many students that I shared.”

John Burton and his front row students

John Burton and his front row students

Burton expects those go-to students in the front row to be prepared to answer questions for each class. He also works to heighten the level of engagement for the rest of the class by asking students to keep notes on two questions: “what did I hear today that was interesting, novel, engaging, and different,” and “if I was in the front row what would I have said in response to what was being discussed?” Burton collects the notes a couple of times each term.

When I asked Burton about the intercultural impact of his method he said this wasn’t the original intent, he was simply responding to student’s feedback that they did not know other students. With the “front row experience” Burton’s classroom interrupts the opportunity for cliques of students to be created. Instead, students engage with the people directly next to them. In a short while, there are no strangers in the classroom and all students have established a relationship, no matter how minor, with each other.

From the perspective of students and faculty, the “front row experience” helps to foster a more intercultural classroom. Through a deceptively simple re-ordering of seating, both Burton and his students are having more meaningful conversations, and cultural boundaries between students are eroding, leading to friendships and a more dynamic classroom experience for all. I’ll let John give the last words to why his method is worth trying:

“Just in terms of reducing student’s anxiety, putting a little structure on how they interact with each other has been helpful. The other thing I’ve come to appreciate is many of us who are instructors take the attitude that it is impinging on student’s autonomy if we run the classroom in a particular way. So I think for me the message is not to accept it as inevitable that students will sit in the back row and hide away but that you can take control of the classroom.”


This series was developed in response to the feedback from UBC’s Heads and Directors, who asked for more concrete tools and resources to support their intercultural goals. They asked for the mid-level plan to be broken down into accessible, 20-minute segments that identify and share promising practices and practical examples, in a range of digital media. In future segments we will see examples of how faculty are either fostering dynamic interaction amongst culturally-different students, integrating intercultural understanding into the classroom experience, and building capacity for courageous conversations.

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