This is the third post in a series highlighting how different institutions are supporting intercultural learning. This month, the spotlight is on Taylor University, a non-denominational Christian liberal arts college in rural Upland, Indiana, with just under 2,000 students.
According to the university’s website, approximately 80% of students have an overseas experience while at Taylor. Short-term faculty-led programs are growing rapidly, with Taylor sending about 15% of the entire student population on such programs (referred to as “global engagement experiences” at Taylor) each January the past few years.
For that reason, Dr. Charlie Brainer, Associate Dean of International Programs, explains, “Increasing faculty intercultural learning and expertise in leading student groups abroad is vital to our efforts.” In early 2017, Brainer reached out to me about partnering with True North Intercultural to build the intercultural capacity of Taylor faculty and staff.
A Long-Term, Systemic, Capacity-Building Approach
Since the beginning, we have focused on using a nested approach to simultaneously provide foundational intercultural training for global engagement experience leaders while also providing more in-depth training and support to staff who could be potential intercultural trainers and mentors for their peers.
In spring of 2017, I developed and facilitated a 2.5-day intercultural retreat for a group of approximately 20 Taylor faculty study abroad leaders. In addition, a small group of the most experienced participants were identified as potential intercultural trainers, and they also participated in a half-day of pre-briefing and debriefing before and after the retreat. All participants took the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) and received an individual debrief. The faculty identified as potential trainers received additional one-on-one intercultural coaching following the retreat.
This spring, Brainer and I have been in talks about how to continue these intercultural capacity-building efforts and are in the process of developing a multi-year plan. I will continue to provide intercultural support and training in a way that gradually develops internal capacity, eventually phasing me out of the equation by developing a team of competent intercultural educator leaders able to provide intercultural support, training, and mentoring to their peers, ultimately creating more intercultural educator leaders.
Brainer explains that “faculty interest and desire to grow in intercultural learning/global engagement practice has not been an issue. By far, the biggest challenge for us has been to find significant training windows in the year to provide professional development opportunities to faculty of sufficient depth.” The approach that has worked best at Taylor is to use a three-day period in May right after graduation for in-depth training, and supplement that with special topic and reading and discussion lunches throughout the year.
Developing Intercultural Educator Leaders
Earlier this month, I returned to Taylor to facilitate a one-day intercultural workshop for more faculty who lead global engagement experiences. This time, however, I worked with two of the Taylor staff members who went through the more intensive train-the-trainer experience last year to both design and lead the workshop. (The intercultural workshop was actually the second in a three-day retreat for global engagement experience leaders; the first and second days were facilitated entirely by participants from the original intercultural train-the-trainer group.)
Brainer says that “seeing several of our faculty move from participant to developing trainer has been tremendously gratifying and will extend the reach of intercultural training among our students.”
Once again, the trainer group met to pre-brief and debrief the intercultural workshop, as well as to brainstorm ways to continue to support and promote intercultural capacity-building at Taylor in the coming years. We discussed future training and mentoring possibilities, as well as potential systemic changes that could further promote intercultural learning at Taylor.
Advice for Other Higher Education Leaders
When asked what advice he has for other leaders interested in developing intercultural capacity at their institutions, Brainer says, “Invest in faculty development. Look for faculty with interest and desire to grow in intercultural learning and invest in professional development for those who also have the capacity and interest in mentoring/coaching other faculty. Each faculty member who moves into a training role greatly extends the effort and reach of our efforts. Resourcing their efforts with release time or other incentives will pay back significant dividends.”
So far this blog series has discussed intercultural efforts at Taylor, Purdue, and Augsburg universities. What themes are you noticing? What have you learned that you might apply to your context? Later this summer I will be writing a post summarizing some of the themes that have emerged from these institutional spotlights, and I’d love to hear from you about what stands out or resonates most! Please post a comment below.
I often get asked by educators, “What are other schools doing to foster intercultural learning?” So I’m answering this question with a blog series highlighting several institutional approaches to intercultural learning.
For background on how I’m defining intercultural learning (hint: it’s about much more than learning about other cultures), see last month’s post, which featured Augsburg University, a smaller, private school in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
This month, the spotlight is on Purdue University, a state school with more than 40,000 students in West Lafayette, Indiana.
A Focus on Developing Intercultural Competence at Home and Abroad
In late 2011, Dr. Charles Calahan, then a faculty member at Purdue, was asked to take on a new position that would focus on developing intercultural competency both on campus and through more intentional, targeted study abroad efforts.
Calahan, whose title is now Assistant Director of Global Learning Development in the Center for Instructional Excellence, began by reviewing the literature and research in the field and attending the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication. He decided that the developmental model—specifically the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC) and the AAC&U Intercultural Knowledge and Competence VALUE Rubric—would work well at Purdue. Calahan stresses the importance of having a solid construct on which to build intercultural competence. “You need a research-based model to hang your hat on.”
Calahan then started exploring whether there were any faculty or staff on campus who had gone through the training to become a Qualified Administrator (QA) of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI)—a tool that assesses intercultural development according to the IDC. He found a few, but they were using the tool rather sparingly. Calahan wanted to move toward getting more people to use the IDI as formative assessment, as a developmental teaching tool.
Eventually, Purdue was able to bring intercultural learning expert Dr. Mick Vande Berg to campus to provide training for a group of faculty and staff involved with study abroad. Calahan emphasizes that having an outside expert is very important to get momentum going.
As part of that training, participants became IDI QAs, and also participated in one-on-one intercultural coaching using the Individual Development Plan (IDP), which is based on their IDI results.
Dr. Katherine Yngve, Associate Director of Learning Outcomes at the Center for Intercultural Learning, Mentoring Assessment & Research (CILMAR) at Purdue, explains that faculty who participated in the program found the intercultural coaching piece to be particularly helpful and have even asked for more. Initially this coaching was provided by Vande Berg, the outside consultant, and core intercultural staff at Purdue, but now some of the individuals who went through the initial QA training are serving as intercultural coaches to their peers.
Institutionalizing Intercultural Capacity-Building
Since the training with Vande Berg, Purdue has focused on institutionalizing the intercultural capacity-building efforts. A key initiative is the Growing Intercultural Leaders (GIL) program, which is “a professional development opportunity in intercultural competency for the faculty and staff of Purdue University.” Intercultural Learning Officers (many of whom participated in the initial training with Vande Berg) in each of the schools or colleges at Purdue nominate potential candidates for participation in the program, which is by application only.
There are three different levels of the GIL program, each of which “includes individualized mentoring of intercultural competency for faculty and staff in their role of fostering and assessing the growth of students.” Participation in the second and third levels includes discretionary awards.
Yngve explains that providing monetary incentives is important because it demonstrates to faculty that this is something the university values. In addition, Purdue recently added mentoring as a new element in tenure, and the GIL program provides opportunities for faculty to gain mentoring experience, creating an additional incentive.
The GIL program involves a lot of individualized support and therefore will likely remain relatively small. The potential impact of such intercultural capacity-building efforts, however, is quite big.
Training faculty and staff is starting to have a noticeable impact on students’ intercultural learning. For example, one faculty member created a cross-cultural engineering course based on the developmental model. Students took the IDI at the beginning and end of the semester-long course (which took place in the U.S.) and, according to Calahan, the average gain was an incredible 28 points (on a 90-point scale).
Several study abroad leaders have incorporated more intentional intercultural learning into their programs, requiring students to complete and turn in their Individual Development Plan (IDP), the self-guided workbook that individuals receive after taking the IDI to aid their own intercultural development. Participants in these study abroad programs—many as short as two weeks—have averaged 11-15 point gains on the IDI (again, a significant impact).
In addition, faculty and staff interest is spreading. A group has formed called the Purdue InterCultural Learning Community of Practice, which meets monthly for participants to continue their learning and share what they’ve been doing in the field.
When asked what advice she would give to other schools wanting to build intercultural capacity, Yngve points out that the process at Purdue has been relatively organic. “Start with the people who want to play,” she says. “Give them the tools to become leaders in their department; support them. Then widen the circle.”
Purdue started by providing training and support to faculty study abroad leaders who wanted to make those experiences more meaningful for students but didn’t necessarily know how or have the tools to do so. With effective intercultural training and coaching, they have been able to make those programs more transformative, and interest is now spreading, especially as it becomes evident that this is something the university values and supports.
Yngve also stresses the importance of the assessment and research piece. One of her goals is to get faculty to think more about how they can use assessment to improve intercultural learning. This also provides an opportunity for faculty to publish. Yngve says it’s been very important to get faculty “to own their own intercultural development,” to realize focusing on their own development is meaningful.
When asked about what has been helpful in moving intercultural learning forward at Purdue, Calahan goes back to the importance of having a research-based intercultural model on which to build. Choose a model that has proven reliability and validity and that fits your context. Then, “start with the low-hanging fruit,” such as by working with those involved with study abroad.
As you do that, it’s really important to collect and share out data. This is the case even if resources are limited. If, for example, you’ve chosen a certain model, but can’t use it with all students, do it at a level that you can pilot and collect data. “You have to have data or you just have opinion,” says Calahan. Data helps create further momentum.
Two other critical ingredients, according to Calahan, are an influential champion and funding. Purdue didn’t really start to make progress on intercultural learning until Dr. Michael Brzezinski came on board as Dean of International Programs and attended an intercultural training with Vande Berg. His understanding and support have been critical to the success of intercultural capacity-building initiatives at Purdue.
In regard to funding, Yngve points out that, as a state school, Purdue doesn’t necessarily have an excess of resources, but what they do have is “a commitment to the mission.”
That commitment to intercultural development is clearly evident at Purdue. And while not all schools can (or should) try to replicate what Purdue is doing, I would encourage you to think about how the lessons learned there might translate to your context.
How might you be able to apply a lesson learned from Purdue to your own context? Share in the comments section below.
References & Resources
Purdue’s Growing Intercultural Leaders (GIL) Program
The Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC)
(also see this related blog post)
AAC&U Intercultural Knowledge and Competence VALUE Rubric
I often get asked by educators, “What are other schools doing to foster intercultural learning?” So I’ve decided to answer this question with a blog series highlighting several institutional approaches to intercultural learning. In this month’s post—the first in the series—the spotlight is on Augsburg University.
Defining Intercultural Learning
First, let’s define intercultural learning, an often-misunderstood concept. Intercultural learning involves developing one’s intercultural competence. Intercultural competence can be defined as the ability to communicate and act appropriately and effectively across cultural differences. Effectively means we achieve our aims. Appropriately means we do so in such a way that any other parties involved feel respected.
Learning about other cultures is not the same as intercultural learning. Ideally, as one develops their intercultural competence, they also learn about other cultures; however, learning about other cultures doesn’t necessarily lead one to develop their intercultural competence. Intercultural learning is developmental and involves building understanding and skills that can be applied in a wide variety of intercultural experiences.
It’s also important to emphasize that developing intercultural competence isn’t simply about engaging with people from different countries. In this globalizing world, cultural differences are all around us—when we engage with people of different nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, political viewpoints, socio-economic statuses, religions, etc.
[For more information about what intercultural learning entails, get your free copy of “An Educator’s Guide to Intercultural Learning” here.]
I have long advocated that to best support students’ intercultural learning, we as educators first need to focus on our own intercultural development. I’ve been happy to see a number of schools working to build the intercultural capacity of faculty and staff. Augsburg University is one example.
Augsburg University is a highly diverse school of approximately 3,500 students in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In a city with large Somali and Hmong immigrant and refugee populations, more than 30% of the 2017 student body identified as students of color.
Augsburg’s current efforts to promote intercultural learning are focused primarily on developing the intercultural competence of faculty and staff using the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI).
According to Jim Trelstad-Porter, Director of International Student & Scholar Services, Augsburg has been using the IDI in some fashion for approximately ten years, but has been doing so in a deeper, more intentional way the past several years. The key change has been that the school is working toward a deeper understanding of intercultural competence as a developmental paradigm, as opposed to an attribute paradigm. This has helped Augsburg bring together efforts related to social justice, diversity and inclusion, and intercultural development. Trelstad-Porter explains that many people think the intercultural framework doesn’t get into the “heavy stuff” that social justice does, for example, “but if you look at it developmentally, it absolutely does.” As leaders at the institution have come to recognize this, they have grown increasingly supportive of the intercultural development initiative.
Augsburg now has a team of approximately 15 faculty and staff members from across campus that have become Qualified Administrators (QAs) of the IDI; the QAs administer and debrief the results of the assessment with various groups and individuals across campus. The QA group is developing as a team, learning together, trying to coordinate efforts, and working to adhere to best practices. Their work together and in their respective departments is changing the nature of conversations on campus, according to Trelstad-Porter.
Most of the school’s leaders have now all taken the IDI at least once. More than 50% of faculty and staff have taken the IDI, and all new hires are given the option to take it and debrief their results with a QA as part of the on-boarding process. In addition, Augsburg has created a Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program, which “is designed to help faculty and staff continue to grow in their intercultural competence and to build the awareness, knowledge, and skills necessary to create more inclusive campus spaces inside and outside the classroom.” All participants take the IDI.
Trelstad-Porter is quick to point out that getting to where they are now has not been an easy process for Augsburg, and continuity of the intercultural initiative depends heavily on the support of leadership. The focus on the intercultural development framework is often threatened by forces trying to reintroduce the attribute approach.
Trelstad-Porter also emphasizes that the IDI needs to be used not just for assessment or awareness, but for developmental purposes as well. This is something Augsburg is focusing on more heavily, trying to figure out how to make best use of the Individual Development Plan (IDP), which is basically a self-guided workbook individuals receive upon taking the IDI that they can use to work on their own intercultural development.
When asked what advice he would give to institutions interested in building their intercultural capacity, Trelstad-Porter encourages others to take the time to allow for thoughtful consideration of the intercultural competence (i.e. developmental) framework—what it is and what it offers—without bringing your own baggage or pre-conceived notions to the conversation. “There really is no other framework like it,” he explains, “because it includes so many areas—global and domestic diversity issues.”
Augsburg—like any institution—“is an imperfect place where we are all operating at our own developmental levels, and this impacts us every day,” Trelstad-Porter says. To be successful as educators, “we need to pay attention to how we’re navigating cultural differences and how it’s impacting our ability to be effective.”
References & Resources
For more information about Augsburg University’s Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program, click here.
For an explanation of the developmental approach to intercultural competence, see the following chapter:
What are you or your institution doing to foster intercultural learning? Share in the comments section below. Who knows—you might get featured in a future institutional spotlight!
Have you ever stopped to consider how your syllabus—and even your institution and country’s educational system—is influenced by cultural values, beliefs, and assumptions?
Our educational institutions—and everything we do within them—are socially and culturally constructed. We all have beliefs, values, and assumptions when it comes to what “good” and “bad” education look like, and it’s important for us to reflect on what those are, where they come from, how they shape our work, and how they might be perceived by and impact others.
But where to start? How about with your syllabus!
Examining the syllabus as a cultural artifact is a helpful exercise for educators to deepen our own self-awareness and create more inclusive communities on our campuses and in our classrooms. In addition, it can be a great activity to do with students who are studying in another country so they can examine their own assumptions and expectations, and consider how education in their host country may differ from what they are used to.
To engage in this exercise, grab a syllabus from a class you teach (if you don’t teach, this can be helpful to do with any syllabi from courses on your campus). Try to imagine that you are from a completely different planet; you know nothing about Earth or this particular country, and have just arrived to participate in an educational exchange. You received this paper (the syllabus) about the first class you are going to take. Examining the syllabus with curiosity and an open mind, answer the following questions:
What did you learn through this reflection?
Now, imagine yourself as an Earthling once again. Based on your understanding of the diversity on your campus, consider the following:
As a next step, you might want to find some syllabi from other countries with which you are involved in some way, leading study abroad programs to those countries or teaching international students from there (or learn whether such a thing even exists; if it doesn’t, reflect on what that difference might mean). Compare and contrast these documents with the syllabi from your own cultural context, using the following reflection questions as a guide:
Exploring these questions can help us better understand our own expectations, assumptions, values, and beliefs surrounding education. Becoming more aware of the fact that others may have different expectations, assumptions, values, and beliefs around education can help us learn more effectively and adapt in new contexts, appreciate rather than judge cultural differences, and create more inclusive learning spaces.
I’d love to know what you learn, if anything, through this exercise! Please share in the comments section.
In November I facilitated a webinar entitled, “Assessing Intercultural Learning: Beyond Assessment Tools.” Due to the high interest in and positive reception of that session, I decided to also write a blog post on the topic.
In this post, I discuss some of the challenges involved in assessing intercultural learning, and share the webinar slides, which contain practical examples of ways to address these issues.
Formative & Summative Assessment
First of all, it’s important to distinguish between two primary types of assessment—formative and summative—and think about the role both play in intercultural learning.
Summative assessment is typically given after the instruction or learning experience is over. It provides information about what has been learned. The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.
Formative assessment, on the other hand, is given throughout the learning process. It’s used to check understanding and determine how students are progressing toward a certain learning objective. The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback.
Formative assessment is very important in intercultural learning because of the developmental nature of such learning. It’s important to understand where our learners are developmentally and provide them with the support and/or challenge they need to continue their intercultural learning journey.
Challenges in Assessing Intercultural Learning
Let’s talk about some of the challenges of assessing intercultural learning, and then explore how these might be addressed with some practical examples.
One challenge is that there is often a focus on assessing intercultural learning at a university-wide or high-level, in a summative way, yet without formative assessment to support students’ intercultural learning along the way.
Many colleges and universities these days mention intercultural learning, global competence, or similar in their mission statement. They then ask, “How do we know if students are indeed becoming more interculturally or globally competent?” The next step is often to seek out a reliable assessment tool that can be used pre- and post- to assess whether students are developing in the way the university wants. The challenge is that if you find out that students aren’t making the gains that you’d like, it’s oftentimes too late to remedy that, at least for that cohort of students.
We need more program- and course-level facilitation of intercultural learning that incorporates effective formative assessments along the way, providing students with the type of challenge and support that they need to develop in this area. That simultaneously provides us as educators with helpful information about whether students are on track to achieve what our mission statements set out to achieve.
Another challenge that I’ve encountered—at the extremely practical level—involves grading assignments that are meant to assess students’ intercultural learning and growth. Intercultural learning is developmental. We can’t give a student a C because he or she is not as interculturally developed as others. So how do you grade assessments when the focus is intercultural learning?
Structuring Assessment into Program/Course Development
Before discussing some practical approaches to assessment, I want to emphasize the importance of using backward design so that you are thinking about the role of assessment in your program or course from the very beginning. Also known as reverse engineering, backward design simply means starting with the end in mind and working backward from there. According to backward design, you should develop your learning objectives and decide how you will assess students’ progress toward these objectives before creating the curriculum.
For more information about backward design and developing intercultural learning objectives, see the October 2017 blog post.
The following are a few examples of assignments that can be used to assess students’ intercultural learning.
Reflective journals are a great formative assessment opportunity. Through journals, you can assess students’ understanding of intercultural concepts, theories, and practices, and their ability to make connections between these and their own personal experiences.
Intercultural learning needs to take into account where students are developmentally and meet them there. When you provide feedback to students on what they’ve written in a journal, you can individualize your response to provide the necessary challenge or support that each student needs.
I suggest providing prompts and ideas about what students might want to address in their journals, yet offering flexibility as well. I would advise against just asking them to keep a blog or turn in a reflection paper without offering any guidance.
Students also need concepts, theories, and processes that they can use to help make sense of the experience. If you’re not providing them with such frameworks to process the experience, the reflection will not be nearly as meaningful.
Grading reflective journals can be a challenge, so I suggest taking a loose approach to grading, such as a check mark or full points for successful completion unless it doesn’t meet certain criteria. The main point is to provide useful feedback that will challenge and/or support students as needed during their intercultural learning journey. I often grade reflective journal entries based on their depth of reflection and the connections students are able to make between their experience and the content.
See the slides for examples from students’ reflective journals and instructor responses.
Digital Storytelling Projects
In a course I designed called “Intercultural Communication and Leadership,” which is taught at CIEE study centers around the world, students create a digital storytelling project for their final.
According to the Digital Storytelling Association, “Digital Storytelling is the modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling. Throughout history, storytelling has been used to share knowledge, wisdom, and values. Stories have taken many different forms. Stories have been adapted to each successive medium that has emerged, from the circle of the campfire to the silver screen, and now the computer screen.”
A digital storytelling project typically consists of a 3- to 5-minute video. It combines mostly still images with a story and sometimes music. It’s produced by someone who is not a media professional and is typically constructed as a thought piece on a personal experience that is important to the author.
One of the great things about digital storytelling is that it provides an easy means through which students can share their learning with others if they’d like.
The slides contain further information about the CIEE assignment. Below you can also see an example of a final project.
Digital storytelling projects can be used as summative, but also formative assessment. They allow us to see how students are making sense of the course content and their ability to connect it to their own lives. This can help us evaluate their learning. But ideally the final project is part of a larger process during which you can assess students’ learning along the way and provide feedback as well.
Similar to the reflective journals, it’s important to keep in mind that grading might have to be based on factors other than the students’ demonstrated level of intercultural competence. Grading also shouldn’t be based on the technical skill demonstrated in creating the project, unless that’s related to one of the learning objectives. Instead, it’s helpful to grade based on things such as level of reflection or analysis, connections made between the concepts learned and real-life examples, etc. In addition, it’s important to provide information to the students early in the process about how they will be graded, perhaps in the form of a rubric (see example in the slides).
Here's one example of a digital storytelling project (google "ICL digital storytelling project" for more examples):
The last example I want to mention involves using group projects to assess students’ intercultural learning. Many professors assign group projects, but oftentimes the focus is more on the final product than the process. To assess students’ intercultural competence, the focus should be just as much—if not more—on the process as the product.
We can help students learn to engage effectively across cultural differences by requiring them to actually do it, while providing tools, space to reflect, and support that can help them learn through the process.
To do this effectively, it’s important to assign students to diverse groups rather than letting them choose their own. If you’re thinking that your students aren’t a very diverse group, keep in mind that people don’t have to be from different countries or ethnicities to have different perspectives or approaches to group work.
It’s really important to make sure students understand the project is as much about process as product. They also need to understand why focusing on their ability to work effectively across difference is important. If this is an engineering class, for example, you could provide some examples of the countless times, in your own life as an engineer, you’ve had to work in diverse teams, and how important the team dynamic has been for your success.
It’s also critical that students have some intercultural frameworks—like concepts and processes—to help them work together more effectively. You can’t simply place them on a team and ask them to reflect on the experience, because they may very well just complain about the teammates that they feel aren’t pulling their weight. Students need to have more value-neutral frameworks to reflect on, compare, and contrast approaches, including their own.
Make sure to have students reflect on their own role in the process. What have they noticed about their own values and assumptions surrounding teamwork?
With regards to assessment, the final product can serve as a form of summative assessment. The focus on process throughout can serve as formative assessment.
You want to find ways to provide feedback on both process and product. As far as the formative aspect goes, you can have students respond to written reflection questions during the process, or have in-person meetings or check-ins. This allows you to gauge how they are engaging the process as individuals and as a team, and provide feedback along the way.
Grading should reflect both process and product. You send the wrong message if you tell students process is important, but grade only the final product. Again, you don’t really want to grade based on how interculturally competent they were during the process. Instead, it’s probably better to provide a grade based on their depth of reflection, attempt to apply what they’ve learned, etc.
To wrap up, I’d just like to summarize a few key points. First, I want to emphasize the importance of formative assessment in intercultural learning. Becoming interculturally competent is a developmental process, and we need to provide feedback that helps students along their journey. In doing so, try to offer both validation and support and also challenge students in developmentally appropriate ways.
Second, while we can assess students’ intercultural learning, we can’t necessarily assign grades based on a student’s level of intercultural competence because it is such a developmental process. Instead, we can grade them on whether they are doing things that will help them develop interculturally—like reflecting deeply, connecting intercultural concepts with personal experiences, listening for understanding, etc. It’s helpful to use rubrics and share these with students ahead of time so they understand how they will be graded.
References & Resources
References and additional resources are available in the slides.
What are you doing?
I’d love to hear what you and/or your institution are doing to assess intercultural learning, as well as the challenges you face! Please share in the comments section below so that we can learn from one another.
Winter break is almost here, and many of us will soon be gathering with family and friends to celebrate various holidays. These holiday gatherings can be a lot of fun, but they can also be stressful. One reason is because they oftentimes require us to engage with people with whom we don’t always see eye to eye.
I’d like to invite you to re-frame the holidays as an opportunity to practice intercultural competence, and perhaps build some bridges and promote peace in the process.
Two difficulties that even fairly interculturally competent people oftentimes have (see the July 2017 blog post for more information about developing intercultural competence) are applying their intercultural skills when engaging with people who have a more polarizing (“us” vs. “them”) approach to cultural differences and when engaging with close family or friends. Yet intercultural competence is relevant not just when traveling abroad or interacting with someone from a different country, but in any situation where you’re engaging across difference.
Most of us have been at a family gathering where someone makes some type of polarizing statement that sets us on edge (or worse). Or perhaps every time we see our father we are deeply frustrated by the fact he is not taking care of his health as we believe he should. What do we do in these situations?
Imagine for a moment that you are going abroad this coming semester—let’s say to Senegal—to conduct research or lead a group of students. No matter what your familiarity with the country, you’re likely expecting to encounter cultural differences. If you are a relatively interculturally competent person, you will approach the experience with curiosity, a desire to learn, and an understanding that these differences exist for a valid reason. You know that you see the world through a socially- and culturally-constructed lens, and that the Senegalese people you will engage with likely see the world through a different lens, which you ought to respect and seek to better understand if you want to be able to bridge the differences and promote peace.
What if we took that same mindset and applied those same skills when we’re at our next family gathering and, for example, Uncle Bob makes a negative comment about a politician or a cause we support? What if, instead of immediately reacting, we take a deep breath, notice our physical and emotional sensations, and attempt to suspend judgment for the time being? What if we instead get curious about the other person’s point of view and seek to understand, rather than refute? To empathize, rather than ignore? To practice compassion, rather than combat?
I’m not saying this is easy. I know from experience that it’s incredibly challenging.
That’s why intercultural competence requires practice. We are continually presented with opportunities to notice our judgments, to re-frame, to try to re-see from another perspective what we may feel we already see so clearly. To move toward difference—even difference that we don’t necessarily expect or like—instead of away from it. To build bridges. To promote peace and understanding. Not just with people across the ocean, but with people across the dining room table.
I invite you to join me, this holiday season, in practicing intercultural competence when and where it’s perhaps least expected.
P.S. I’d love to hear how it goes! Please share by adding a comment below.
Happy belated Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate this holiday! As an interculturalist, it can be a bit difficult for me to reconcile celebrating a holiday that is related in some way to one group of people taking over another peoples’ land (that’s a conversation for another blog post). So I try to focus on what I am thankful for and how I can do my small part to help prevent such things from happening in the future.
I’ve been reflecting this Thanksgiving on all that I’m thankful for, not only in my personal life, but especially since leaving my steady international education job to begin True North Intercultural LLC, and the recent success of the Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching professional development program.
This company started as an idea in the back of my mind while I was working as the Academic Director of Intercultural Learning with CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange). I was developing intercultural curricula for CIEE’s study abroad programs and—more importantly, in my opinion—providing support and training to the resident staff around the world responsible for helping students make the most of these intercultural learning opportunities.
Inevitably, every time I presented on this work at conferences, several educators would approach me and excitedly ask if I could provide the same kind of training to faculty and staff at their school. While these institutions were not in a position to employ a full-time intercultural learning specialist, they understood that their faculty and staff could benefit from learning how to better facilitate intercultural learning. I recognized an important need, and eventually left CIEE to fill it.
Fast forward a year or so. True North Intercultural had become a reality, and I was enjoying providing support—through training, consulting, and coaching—to a number of institutions engaged in innovative, forward-thinking intercultural work.
Yet I recognized another need. I would often hear from educators who wanted to bring me to their campuses, but knew it was not yet a possibility for various reasons. This caused me to reflect back on a project I’d done at CIEE. In order to provide training and support to resident staff around the world, I created an online program that was focused on developing their own intercultural competence and their capacities to facilitate students’ intercultural learning. I will admit—I was initially quite skeptical that deep intercultural learning could happen online. However, I was forced to move past the question of “Can I facilitate intercultural learning online?” to “How can I facilitate intercultural learning online?” The six-week online cohort program was much more successful than I had suspected or even hoped, and I learned a great deal about how to facilitate intercultural learning online in the process.
Drawing on this experience, I decided to develop and offer an online program through True North Intercultural that would cater to individual educators who are eager to help their students bridge cultural differences and maximize intercultural learning experiences, but who don’t necessarily have the tools to do so most effectively. The intention was to reach educators who might not be able to attend in-person trainings, but also to take advantage of the ability to extend the learning over time so participants would have opportunities to integrate their learning into their lives and work during the program.
With more time to develop the program and a better understanding of what’s most effective in facilitating this type of learning online (as well as offline) with educators, I designed a more robust eight-week program and incorporated an element that I feel is critical in intercultural learning—all participants take the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment and receive a one-on-one debrief with me so that they understand their personal intercultural strengths and developmental challenges.
I put the program out there in the world in fall 2017 and crossed my fingers that they would come. And—hallelujah—come they did! The first session of the program filled up before early bird registration even ended (the program is limited to 20 participants in order to create an effective learning community).
We had several participants teaching English as a second/foreign language around the world, faculty who teach other languages in the U.S., faculty from a wide variety of departments who take students abroad and/or work with students from diverse cultural backgrounds in the U.S., folks who work in international student services and study abroad, and a number of resident staff working with U.S. students around the world. I was (happily) surprised to find that many of the institutions who have hired me to do in-person trainings on their campus jumped at the opportunity to have their international staff participate in such a program.
How did it go?
The evaluations and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive. The most touching and humbling feedback I received came in the form of an email from a participant who said that the program had inspired him to reach out to a close family member he hadn’t spoken to in years as a result of a “political” disagreement. He wrote, “I started my side of the bridge and I’m happy to report, [the family member] responded positively. In this age of divisiveness, I’m so happy to say that it does look like it’s possible that people can build bridges. Thank you for teaching us how to build more bridges!” I’ll admit, knowing this program affected someone in that way got me a little choked up!
The following are a few additional comments from participants:
“This program combines a vast gamut of all aspects of intercultural teaching and learning and it is all well-contained and structured in 8 modules that slowly but surely progress as the learning deepens and evolves.”
“This is my first experience taking an online course and it was surprisingly interactive. I appreciated that Tara’s lectures were detailed, involved an experiential component and were brief enough to complete in 10-20 mins. I appreciated the reflective writing exercises, the videos and the mindfulness teaching the most.”
“I really appreciated the materials used, and the flexible nature of the timing involved. Also, I think a lot of people could benefit from this, and especially the IDI.”
“Thank you so much! Overall the course was very well done and informative!! I will definitely recommend it! Great job!”
I am so thankful to the educators who chose to undertake this learning journey with me, as well as the countless educators I engage with regularly who are committed to furthering intercultural understanding (which includes you if you’re reading this!). I am also grateful for the privilege I have that has allowed me to follow my own path and impact the world in my own small, but hopefully positive, way by supporting, helping, and inspiring fellow educators.
I’m excited to announce that, as a result of the demand and positive response to this program, two sessions of Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching will be offered this spring. If you’d like to learn to better understand and navigate cultural differences, facilitate others’ intercultural learning, and be a more effective and inspired educator, consider joining me on this journey!
For more information about the program, including upcoming dates and registration information, click here.
I’d love to hear what you are grateful for (whether you celebrate U.S. Thanksgiving or not)! Please share in the comments section below.
Significant learning is learning that makes a difference in how people
live—and the kind of life they are capable of living. We want that which students learn to become part of how they think, what they can and want to do, what they believe is true about life, and what they value—and we want it to increase their capability for living life fully and meaningfully.
— L. Dee Fink
It is with this optimism, balanced but not overtaken by a heavy dose of realism, that I do the work I do, helping educators foster intercultural learning. And it is with both this optimism, and my real understanding that most educators are busy folks who share my desire to promote intercultural learning but could use a hand figuring out how to do so in between committee meetings and grading sessions, that I wrote this chapter.
Below, I share an excerpt from the chapter that focuses specifically on how to develop intercultural learning objectives.
While this excerpt discusses how to develop specific, concrete learning objectives, I think it’s important to emphasize that we should first begin with the big picture objectives. If you run into a student of yours on the street in five or ten years, what do you want them to recall about this particular learning experience and how it has impacted them? As Fink says, what do you hope that “students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the [course, program, etc.] is over?” If you start there and work backward with that in mind, chances are your work will produce significant ripple effects.
The following excerpt is reproduced with permission from NAFSA: Association of International Educators from: Harvey, Tara A. 2017. “Design and Pedagogy for Transformative Intercultural Learning.” In Learning Across Cultures: Locally and Globally, Third Edition, eds. Barbara Kappler Mikk and Inge Ellen Steglitz. Washington, D.C.: NAFSA: Association of International Educators, pp. 109-138.
Intercultural experiences have the potential to not only help participants live and work more effectively and appropriately across cultures, but also produce deep, transformative, and significant learning, such as that described in the quote by L. Dee Fink above. This chapter brings together research and literature in the areas of intercultural training, international educational exchange, intercultural communication, and the scholarship of teaching and learning to address how to design effective intercultural curricula that will do just that. “Intercultural curriculum” is broadly defined here as a structure or framework through which educators intentionally facilitate intercultural learning. […]
This chapter begins with a discussion of several pedagogical “best practices” that educators should take into consideration when designing an intercultural curriculum. The bulk of the chapter then describes the steps involved in designing an intercultural curriculum using backward design. Backward design (also known as reverse engineering) simply means beginning with the end in mind, and it is fundamental to designing significant, transformative intercultural learning experiences (Fink 2013; Wiggins and McTighe 2005). […]
In order to effect significant and transformative learning across cultures, the entire intercultural experience, including but not limited to the curriculum, must be designed with the end goal(s) in mind. This is what is often referred to as “backward design” (Fink 2013; Wiggins and McTighe 2005). The process of backward design can be summarized as follows:
The designer starts the process by imagining a time when the course is over, say one or two years later, and then asking, “What is it I hope that students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the course is over?” The answer to this question forms the basis of the learning goals. […] (Fink 2013, 71)
While Fink is referring specifically to designing college courses, this process is also applicable when developing other types of learning experiences. Indeed, educators would be well advised to thoughtfully and intentionally apply such design principles to any learning experience, in or outside of the classroom. There are seven key steps in the process of creating an intercultural curriculum using backward design (adapted from Fink’s  Twelve Steps of Integrated Course Design):
Step 3. Identify/Define Key Learning Objectives
Learning objectives are the heart and soul of strong curriculum design. Pusch (1994) notes, “Objectives are nothing more or less than our hopes, dreams, and desires, stated succinctly. They provide the justification for every planning decision, the guiding principles by which we operate, and the foundation for any evaluative process we undertake” (115). How can we design an effective curriculum if we cannot first articulate what we want participants to get out of it?
There are various types of objectives. The first, and most general, has to do with the long-term objectives to be accomplished. Why is this particular curriculum being created? This is something that should have already been identified, most likely during the needs assessment. With the overall goals in mind, the next step is to develop more specific and concrete learning objectives. When doing so, it is important to consider what is known about the context and audience. For example, the learning objectives must be realistic given the length of the program and the participants’ background or previous experience.
Another factor to take into account when developing learning objectives is the desired blend of culture-general and culture-specific learning for the given context and participants. “Culture-general learning” refers to intercultural concepts, theories, and frameworks that can be used to help one learn in, or from, any type of intercultural experience. It is critical to include culture-general learning in any type of intercultural curriculum because it helps build transferrable skills and understanding that can be used in a wide variety of intercultural situations. “Culture-specific learning” involves learning related to a given culture. Students who plan to study in Thailand, for example, will obviously want to gain knowledge, understanding, and skills specific to their experience with Thai cultures. The more that participants interact or will interact with specific cultures, the more culture-specific learning should be woven into the culture-general objectives. The following framework can be useful when creating intercultural learning objectives.
INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCIES FRAMEWORK
Building on the work of fellow intercultural scholars, and influenced by fields such as mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and neuroscience, Michael Vande Berg (2016) developed a four-phase framework for intercultural learning. It highlights the following four competencies—self-awareness, awareness of others, tuning into and attending to emotions, and cultural bridging—as being critical to the development of intercultural competence, and thus, collectively, they provide a helpful framework for designing intercultural learning objectives.
These four competencies offer a framework for developing learning objectives in virtually any type of intercultural learning experience. They build upon one another and are mutually supporting; we must possess the first three competencies, at least to some degree, before we can succeed in achieving the fourth. Without these competencies, it is difficult, if not impossible, to consistently interact in ways that are both appropriate and effective across cultural differences. Taking into account these competencies and their relationship to one another, in conjunction with other factors such as audience needs, length of the training, etc., can help when developing learning objectives. Table 1 offers several examples of program-specific learning objectives related to each of these four competencies.
META-CURRICULUM OF IMMERSION EXPERIENCES
It is important to recognize that in an international or domestic immersion experience, program logistics also impact learning; these logistics are effectively part of a “meta-curriculum” supplementing the more formal curriculum. If involved with such a program, to the extent possible, the goal should be intentionally designing not just the curriculum, but the entire program, with the learning objectives in mind. John Engle and Lilli Engle (2003) identified seven defining components of cross-border overseas programs and discussed how intentional design in these areas can contribute to student learning. These areas include:
The Georgetown Consortium Project (Vande Berg, Connor-Linton, and Paige 2009; Paige and Vande Berg 2012) examined how these components impact intercultural learning and suggested that the most effective approach combines immersive program components with intentional intercultural facilitation. Thus, whenever possible, we need to consider how the backward design process might take into account the ways in which all components of a program could be intentionally designed to contribute to the learning objectives. […]
I’d love to hear about how you’re using intercultural learning objectives to help guide your courses and programs and cast your stone into the pond. Please share your successes and challenges in the comments section below.
And if you’ve enjoyed this post, check out the full chapter and the rest of the book, which includes fascinating yet practical chapters by experienced and emerging voices in the field that provide a holistic perspective on learning across cultures.
Bennett, Milton J., and Ida Castiglioni. 2004. “Embodied Ethnocentrism and the Feeling of Culture: A Key to Training for Intercultural Competence.” In Handbook of Intercultural Training, 3rd edition, eds. Dan Landis, Janet M. Bennett, and Milton J. Bennett. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Engle, John, and Lilli Engle. 2003. “Study Abroad Levels: Toward a Classification of Program Types.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, IX:1–20.
Fink, L. Dee. n.d. A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. Online Guide. https://www.deefinkandassociates.com/GuidetoCourseDesignAug05.pdf.
Fink, L. Dee. 2013. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Pusch, Margaret D. 1994. “Cross-Cultural Training.” In Learning Across Cultures, 2nd edition, ed. Gary Althen. Washington, DC: NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Schaetti, Barbara F., Sheila J. Ramsey, and Gordon C. Watanabe. 2008. Personal Leadership: Making a World of Difference: A Methodology of Two Principles and Six Practices. Seattle, WA: FlyingKite Publications.
Vande Berg, Michael. 2016. “From the Inside Out: Transformative Teaching and Learning.” Presented at the Workshop on Intercultural Skills Enhancement (WISE) Conference (February 3). Wake Forest University. http://global.wfu.edu/files/2016/03/Training-WISE-workshop-second-version-2-3-16.pdf.
Vande Berg, Michael, Jeffrey Connor-Linton, and R. Michael Paige. 2009. “The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, XVIII:1–75.
Vande Berg, Michael, R. Michael Paige, and Kris H. Lou. 2012. “Student Learning Abroad: Paradigms and Assumptions.” In Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It, eds. Michael Vande Berg, R. Michael Paige, and Kris H. Lou. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Wiggins, Grant J., and Jay McTighe. 2005. Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd edition. New York, NY: Pearson.
Zull, James E. 2012. “The Brain, Learning, and Study Abroad.” In Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It, eds. Michael Vande Berg, R. Michael Paige, and Kris H. Lou. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Savicki, Victor. 2008. “Experiential and Affective Education for International Educators.” In Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation: Theory, Research, and Application in International Education, ed. Victor Savicki. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
This is the second in a two-part series on the relationship between mindfulness and intercultural learning. Last month, I discussed what mindfulness is and why it’s an important component of intercultural learning (click here to read Part I if you missed it). In this post, I address the need to move from mindfulness as concept to mindfulness as practice, and provide specific ideas about how educators can incorporate mindfulness into their intercultural work.
Mindfulness in the Intercultural Field
Mindfulness has been recognized as an important concept in intercultural communication for some time. In her 1999 book, intercultural communication expert Stella Ting-Toomey explains that stereotyping is inevitable, and we must learn to distinguish between mindless stereotyping and mindful stereotyping. Ting-Toomey (1999) states:
“While mindful stereotyping evokes an open-minded attitude in dealing with others, mindless stereotyping reflects a closed-ended mindset. Mindless stereotyping refers to our tightly held beliefs concerning a group of individuals. Mindful stereotyping, on the other hand, refers to our consciously held beliefs about a group of individuals, with a willingness to change our loosely held images based on diversified, firsthand contact experiences.” (p. 164)
The challenge is that the focus on mindfulness within the intercultural field has remained primarily in the cognitive realm—it’s a helpful concept or idea. But one of the ways in which the intercultural field has evolved is by recognizing that knowing about or even understanding is not enough, we need to practice intercultural competence.
Similarly, in the intercultural field, we need to focus on mindfulness as a practice, not just a concept. (Telling people to be mindful is a little like telling a small child to behave; you’re much more likely to succeed if you help learners practice the desired behavior, as well as model it for them.)
When we talk about “practicing” mindfulness, it’s not practice in the sense that it’s a rehearsal. Practicing mindfulness is really doing mindfulness.
Schaetti, Ramsey, and Watanabe (2008) are the first interculturalists that I know of to address mindfulness as a practice. Personal Leadership—a methodology they developed to help people practice intercultural competence—includes mindfulness as one of its two core principles (the other is creativity). Personal Leadership involves six practices: attending to judgment, attending to emotion, attending to physical sensation, cultivating stillness, engaging ambiguity, and aligning with vision. Practicing mindfulness is not only a means for cultivating stillness, but also improves one’s ability to attend to judgment, emotion, and physical sensation, as well as to engage ambiguity and align with one’s vision.
Ideas for Incorporating Mindfulness into Intercultural Learning
Mindfulness often involves meditation, although there are other means of practicing as well. Last month, I talked about how my favorite practice is to take a daily mindful walk. Yoga is a popular means for practicing mindfulness, and doing any sport in which you are focused on experiencing “flow” is also a mindfulness exercise.
You could incorporate more “mindful moments” or “purposeful pauses” in your day, in which you simply slow down and focus on the present moment. Try using a specific prompt—such as opening a door or booting up your computer—to intentionally remind yourself to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. Or you might choose an activity you do every day—like taking a shower or eating lunch—and do it mindfully, focusing on the present-moment experience (bringing awareness to what you are experiencing through your five senses).
The following are some concrete ideas about how you might incorporate mindfulness practices into your work to help support and promote intercultural learning.
Traditional Mindfulness Exercises. Teach your learners basic mindfulness meditations, such as breathing exercises or body scans. Provide a space to practice these; perhaps you start off your class or meetings together with one or two minutes of breathing. In addition, you can provide some background (or help your learners come to the realization themselves) about why mindfulness is important in your particular context, and when they might find it helpful to practice. For example, if you’re working with students who will be going abroad, or facilitating an orientation with new international students, you might introduce these practices (by doing them, not just talking about them!) and suggest they could be helpful when learners catch themselves having a negative reaction to something they’ve experienced.
Practice “Doing Nothing.” In a graduate course I taught on intercultural leadership, many of my students reported that one of the most powerful exercises we did was when I assigned them the task “do nothing.” That is, I told them to go find a place outside to sit, then to just “be” for a half hour. “Do nothing,” I instructed them—you can’t read, write, look at your phone, listen to music, etc. They didn’t have to meditate, but simply to focus on being in the present moment. After thirty minutes of doing nothing, they were to spend twenty minutes reflecting on and writing about the experience.
Why was this so impactful? In today’s world, most of us tend to be hyper-connected and achievement/doing-focused. We often don’t realize just how addicted we are to our technology or to the need to feel busy until we force ourselves to stop. But don’t take my word for it—try it for yourself. Stop everything you’re doing, find a quiet place to sit, and spend thirty minutes doing nothing. You might find it’s harder than you think. And there’s certainly something to be learned in that.
In addition, cultures differ in the extent to which they tend to focus on and value doing vs. being. This exercise can lead to a great discussion about where participants tend to fall on that spectrum, why that might be, our tendency to have strong—often unconscious—feelings about this, and how challenging yet valuable it can be to adapt to different ways.
Mindful Tours. Several years ago, I was co-leading a faculty development seminar in Madrid, Spain. One sunny afternoon, we were going to visit a local immigrant neighborhood. My co-leader walked in front of the group and I was in the rear. As we approached the neighborhood, I was mindful of our newly-formed group’s strong inclination to socialize. So when we arrived at the entrance of where we were going, I brought this to their attention and invited them to walk through the neighborhood we were visiting in silence. We proceeded to explore the neighborhood that way, then reconvened at the end to debrief.
Participants reported they were grateful for the invitation to be silent, which offered them an opportunity to experience the world around them and the present moment more fully because they did not feel the need to socialize. They reported noticing things that they didn’t think they would have otherwise.
Language Learning through Mindfulness. My colleague and friend, Catherine Menyhart, used to teach French at a public high school. Her first-block freshman students typically arrived late, excited, distracted, or all of the above. One day, because she was teaching verb commands as well as new vocabulary for body and health, Catherine decided to put the two together and begin class by walking students through a mindfulness meditation—specifically a body scan, in which you slowly move your awareness from your toes to your head, one body part at a time—in French. “Slowly close your eyes,” she began...
Catherine says her students loved the exercise, so she began starting in this way every day. Tardiness declined, as students would race to get to class before the door closed for the mindfulness practice. In addition, students were calmer, more centered, and better able to focus on learning throughout the rest of the class period. (And I’m guessing most of them probably still know all their body parts in French and can conjugate a mean French command!)
Pre-Meeting Mindfulness Practice. Ever been in a meeting where it seemed like everyone was somewhere else—checking email, thinking about where they need to be next, or carrying with them burdens from a previous meeting? Why not take a minute or two (literally) at the beginning of the meeting to ask everyone to put away any unnecessary technology, leave other responsibilities outside the room, take a few deep breaths, and bring their awareness to the present?
How do exercises such as these help us and our learners act in interculturally competent ways? As Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Practicing mindfulness in intercultural situations helps us create that space where personal growth, shared learning, and ultimately greater peace can flourish.
These are just some examples of ways I have seen mindfulness incorporated into intercultural learning. What are your ideas? In the comments section below, please share what ideas resonate with you, what you’d like to try, or what you are currently doing to incorporate mindfulness into your own life or your work as an educator.
References & Relevant Resources
Gelles, D. (2015). Mindful work: How meditation is changing business from the inside out. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Marturano, J. (2014). Finding the space to lead: A practical guide to mindful leadership. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Rechtschaffen, D. (2014). The way of mindful education: Cultivating well-being in teachers and students. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Schaetti, B.F., Ramsey, S.J., & Watanabe, G.C. (2008). Personal Leadership: Making a world of difference: A methodology of two principles and six practices. Seattle, WA: FlyingKite Publications.
Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating across cultures. New York: The Guilford Press.
More about Personal Leadership: www.plseminars.com
Mindful Teachers: http://www.mindfulteachers.org/
Mindful Schools: http://www.mindfulschools.org/
Mindfulness Apps: There are many apps now offering free guided meditations (the irony of this is not lost on me); for a list of some of the best and what they offer, visit https://www.mindful.org/free-mindfulness-apps-worthy-of-your-attention/
Definition of Mindfulness
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is largely responsible for bringing mindfulness to the secular world, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
We spend most of our lives operating on automatic pilot, with unconscious scripts guiding our actions. This is necessary and useful because it frees up mental capacity to focus our attention on more complex tasks.
However, there is a limit to the efficiency and helpfulness of operating on autopilot. Since our habitual responses are culture-bound, they are likely to be inappropriate when we’re crossing cultures. As a simple example, operating on autopilot and driving on the right-hand side of the street would be very problematic in the UK. Such situations require us to act mindfully, being present in a way that allows us to respond to the world in an intentional way.
Some people think of mindfulness and meditation as synonymous; however, meditation is simply one means of practicing mindfulness. There are other ways of practicing, most of which focus on bringing awareness to the present moment. It can be as simple as taking a few intentional breaths before walking into a meeting or in a moment of stress.
One of my favorite practices is taking a mindful walk mid-day (I literally have “mindful walk” scheduled on my calendar every day after lunch). During these walks, I try not to ruminate on work or my to-do list, but instead focus on the present moment, tuning in to how I’m experiencing the world through my five senses.
I used to think taking a mindful walk every day was a luxury I didn’t have time for. Now I realize I don’t have time not to do it. Because that walk re-energizes me in a way I didn’t realize I needed; I typically return to my work refreshed, more capable of thinking in innovative and creative ways, and am more productive as a result.
Research on Mindfulness
The research on mindfulness has exploded since the early 1990’s invention of the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which allows researchers to map and measure neural activity.
Practicing mindfulness has been linked to increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is associated with self-regulation, meaning the ability to purposefully direct attention and behavior, suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switch strategies flexibly.
In addition to self-regulation, the ACC is associated with learning from past experience to support optimal decision-making. Scientists point out that the ACC may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.
Research has also demonstrated that practicing mindfulness can impact activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as perspective-taking, impulse control, decision-making, and also influences how emotionally resilient a person is in the face of stress and adversity. The left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex regulate emotions differently; mindfulness has been shown to shift activity from the right to left side. Kabat-Zinn (2013) explains that “resilience in the face of emotional challenges is characterized by greater activation of the left side of the prefrontal cortex” (p. 315).
The body of scientific research illustrating the positive effects of mindfulness training on mental health and well-being—at the level of the brain as well as at the level of behavior—grows steadily more well-established: Mindfulness can improve attention, reduce stress, and lead to better emotional regulation and an improved capacity for compassion and empathy.
The Link Between Mindfulness and Intercultural Learning
At this point, you’re probably beginning to see the links between mindfulness and intercultural learning.
Before we go further, let’s think about the students we work with—the majority are in that transitionary space between adolescence and adulthood, known as emerging adulthood. This time in a person’s life tends to be marked by a feeling of liminality, identity exploration, instability, yet also optimism.
Emerging adults have fewer implicit self-regulators and are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors. During these years, their brains—especially the prefrontal cortex (which, as mentioned earlier, is responsible for higher-order functions such as impulse control, planning, perspective-taking, and problem-solving)—are still developing in significant ways.
Consider how that might be affected when a young person crosses cultures, whether they are going to a different country or moving from a rural area to attend college in a big city. No doubt these feelings of liminality, identity exploration, instability, and optimism are significantly heightened.
The following are some of the key ways in which mindfulness can support intercultural learning during such experiences:
These are just some of the ways in which practicing mindfulness can support intercultural learning. This is true for our students, but also for us as educators. Personally, I know practicing mindfulness helps me when crossing cultures (at home or abroad); furthermore, it also helps me be a much more effective educator and facilitator, and in other countless ways.
Next month I’ll talk more about some of the ways we can incorporate mindfulness into the intercultural work we do. In the meantime, I’d love to know more about the connections you see between mindfulness and intercultural learning; please comment below!
References & Relevant Resources
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living; Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (revised edition). New York: Bantam Books.
Marturano, J. (2014). Finding the space to lead: A practical guide to mindful leadership. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Nees, G. (2015). Connecting hearts and minds: Insights, skills, and best practices for dealing with difference. Longmont, CO: Vagus Publiations.
Rechtschaffen, D. (2014). The way of mindful education: Cultivating well-being in teachers and students. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Roeser, R. (2012). Mindfulness as self-care strategy for emerging adults. Healthy Body - Healthy Mind, 26(1). Available online at https://www.pathwaysrtc.pdx.edu/pdf/fpS1204.pdf.
Schaetti, B.F., Ramsey, S.J., & Watanabe, G.C. (2008). Personal Leadership: Making a world of difference: A methodology of two principles and six practices. Seattle, WA: FlyingKite Publications.
Siegel, D.J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.
Mind & Life Institute: https://www.mindandlife.org/
Center for Healthy Minds (University of Wisconsin-Madison): https://centerhealthyminds.org/
Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society (University of Massachusetts Medical School): http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/
Mindful Schools: http://www.mindfulschools.org/
Mindful magazine and online resource center: http://www.mindful.org/
I'm Tara Harvey, Ph.D., Founder of True North Intercultural LLC. I started this blog to provide resources and support to educators interested in fostering intercultural learning. Thanks for reading!
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