Cultural competence in this day and age is no longer an option; it is an absolute necessity. Our ever-increasingly more diverse population means that classrooms will look, feel and act differently, and educators must develop an appropriate mind set, skill set and heart set to address it. According to the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the intercultural classroom refers to the interaction between cultures where “each group values the traditions, perspectives and contributions of the others.”
Most assume that diversity refers to ethnic diversity. However, now more than ever, diversity goes far deeper than ethnicity. Diversity can refer to family composition, socioeconomic status, religion, and physical and mental disability. Despite the diversity reflected among students, teachers overwhelmingly represent majority culture. This poses an interesting dynamic in the classroom that can be problematic if educators are not properly trained to address the needs of their intercultural students.
What are the challenges in the intercultural classroom?
Communication styles: Both non-verbal and verbal styles differ across cultures, which can range from how students and educators gesture to how they use formal or informal speech. Cultural values and practices will place different levels of importance on certain methods of communication. As such, the relationship between educators and learners can be complicated in an environment, where the likelihood for misunderstanding is high.
Assumptions: Conflict, marginalization and ostracism can occur when assumptions are made about a particular student based on stereotypes, generalizations and similarities. Educators need to be aware of in-group cultural differences (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012).
Cognitive styles: Individuals from different cultures cognitively process in various ways. This leads to a difference in use of logic, level of abstraction, problem solving ability and method of acquiring knowledge. Educators need to be aware of this as different cognitive and learning styles due to cultural differences can cause conflict in the classroom.
How are these challenges resolved?
Best Practices in the Intercultural Classroom
- Assessment of cultural identity. Educators must assess their own cultural values which shape and guide thoughts and actions. Knowledge of one’s own cultural identity will uncover possible biases, prejudices and discriminations that can underlie one’s view of the world.
- Evaluation of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Educators also need to gain a better understanding of their ability to interact with other cultures. They should ask themselves questions such as: Am I open to individuals from different ethnic, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds? Do I value cultural differences? What is my worldview?
- Become culturally competent. Educators must also seek further education on cultural sensitivity, appropriate terminology, identity models and integration of intercultural dialog in the classroom.
- Build an inclusive, culturally-competent classroom. Educators are responsible for creating an environment that fosters a safe space for students to feel welcomed. This involves engaging in courageous conversations about cultural differences when necessary as well as confronting inequalities and assumptions in the classroom. Educators also need to model effective cultural competence to their students.
- Incorporate cultural perspectives in the classroom. Educators can expand cultural competence and appreciation in the classroom through the initiation of engaging dialog, which allows for different perspectives from various cultural backgrounds. This also creates an opportunity for educators to model appropriate terminology for learners. Various cultures can also be represented through course materials and lectures by including information that is relevant to a variety of cultures rather than just the majority culture.
The classroom can often be a microcosm of the diversity that exists in the real world, and as such, it is extremely important for educators to provide a foundation for learning in an intercultural environment in order for students to be better prepared to act as informed, responsible, and culturally-competent citizens.
Check out these guides for more information on how to teach an intercultural classroom.
Ponciano, L., & Shabazian, A. (2012). Interculturalism: Addressing Diversity in Early
Childhood. Dimensions Of Early Childhood, 40(1), 23-29.