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How to Integrate Intercultural Learning Into Your Classroom

Today, Melissa Liles, Chief Education Officer, AFS Intercultural Programs, shares some ways to get started with integrating intercultural learning into your classroom. 

By guest blogger Melissa Liles

First things first: How important is intercultural competence?
Over the past decade, we educators have grappled with defining and assessing the most critical education goals for the 21st century:

  • Science, technology, engineering, math? Check.
  • Critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making? Of course.
  • Intercultural awareness, foreign languages, competence in working across borders, and respect for other cultures? Really? Tell me more...

AFS France.pngThere is broad agreement that the first two sets of goals above will be crucial for the decades ahead. But many still aren't convinced about the importance of intercultural competence for 21st century learners.

Fernando M. Reimers, Harvard Professor, Connie Chung, Harvard Research Program Director, and their co-authors address this disconnect between what is taught and what critical skills and competencies are needed in the world today—and tomorrow—in their latest book, Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century: Educational Goals, Policies, and Curricula from Six Nations.

They suggest that the processes of increased globalization create new cognitive, attitudinal, and skill demands, and therefore also create new educational opportunities for schools and teachers as well as for the non-formal learning organizations that support them.

"In order to participate, as citizens or producers, all people need to be able to understand globalization, be curious about the world and global affairs, know where to deepen their knowledge when necessary, and be capable of communicating and working productively and respectfully with people from other countries and cultural backgrounds," explains Reimers.

Bottom line according to Reimers and colleagues? "The development of global competence is a necessity for all students in the 21st century."

Fortunately there is growing evidence, especially from employers, that students aren't truly prepared for the future unless, alongside STEM and other "hard skills," they are also able to embrace the reality of rapidly evolving, increasingly diverse communities and operate effectively in a more and more interconnected world—no matter what field or profession they follow.

And, beginning in 2018, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will assess the skills needed for students to be considered globally competent in its standard-setting Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). 

So what are teachers to do if this thinking is not yet guiding curriculum development in their schools—or indeed in most schools around the world?

If your school has not yet fully embraced the necessity of global competence but you are anxious to help ensure your students don't fall behind, here are some simple yet effective steps you can take. In this article, I start with a recommended process framework for introducing intercultural learning, along with some elementary resources to help you put them into practice. 

1. Start small and build safe spaces.
To do this, use warm-up exercises that help everyone, including the teacher, relax and get to know each other on a personal level, before advancing to a cultural level. For example, invite your students to bring one (small) object to class that is significant to them, and discuss how it represents them, their hobbies, or family.

2. Distinguish between personal, situational, and cultural differences.
As you observe and discuss intercultural issues, bear in mind that not all conflicts or disagreements are based on cultural differences. Note the specific elements of the situation or personalities involved, and help your students learn to consider all angles of an issue before making a decision.

3. Build up activities and discussions to deepen learning.
Tackle cultural issues that exist within your local communities, then make connections between these and the larger world to help learners realize they are shaped by their surroundings while simultaneously connected to much more than what is immediately around them. As a result, your students will broaden their worldviews, become more flexible, and become able to respect different perspectives.

4. Recognize and encourage healthy conflict or sharing of different, even dissenting views.
Often there is a concern that dealing with differences can become very personal, and perhaps uncomfortable, even for the world's newest learners, "Generation Z" students, arguably some of the most comfortable people on the planet with diversity. Guide your students to actively listen and suspend judgment in uncomfortable conversations to maximize their learning potential.

5. Recognize and redirect conflict that is not productive.
Sometimes conversations need to be slowed down or even redirected. Overheated situations don't make a productive learning environment, so you can defuse them by using historical or literary references to take a step back and provide a more comfortable way to tackle bias or stereotypes.

6. Help learners process through a three-step debriefing.
For intercultural learning activities to be most impactful, follow-up discussions or "debriefing" with students is crucial. Do this by first helping students reflect on and discuss what they learned; next, encourage them to imagine how they can apply these lessons to their daily lives; and finally, come to a shared understanding with the learners about why the activities were conducted: global competence is necessary in our communities, and our world shouldn't be kept a secret!

Embarking on an intercultural journey in the classroom takes preparation and practice, but you should know that resources (such as books, teacher training, and opportunities to exchange experiences) are available to support your efforts. Creating curious and open-minded global citizens through intercultural learning is an ongoing, necessary, and very gratifying task. 


Connect with AFS and Center for Global Education to share your resources or to get involved.

Photo credit: Guillaume Kerhervé, AFS France.

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