Dead Ideas in Global & Intercultural Education

Apr 11, 2023

I was recently a guest on the podcast Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning, hosted by Catherine Ross, from the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. The podcast encourages educators to reflect on what they believe about teaching and learning by exploring ideas that persist in the field despite evidence to the contrary. The “dead ideas” theme really resonates with me since much of my work involves dispelling deeply-held and often unconscious assumptions surrounding global and intercultural education. While I’ve discussed these misconceptions elsewhere over the years, I thought it might be useful to bring them together in one place.

In this post, I summarize five key “dead ideas” surrounding global and intercultural learning in higher education. In the spirit of focusing not just on problems, but also offering potential solutions, I suggest a “mindset shift” along with each dead idea.

Dead Idea #1:  Intercultural = International

The first dead idea is related to how we’ve traditionally thought about culture—and therefore intercultural learning and development.

What comes to mind when you think of the word “culture”? What does it mean to you? Do you think of people from different countries? Ethnicities? Do you think of different foods, languages, political systems, etc.? For many people—especially those from dominant cultural groups—culture is something “out there,” something other people have. International students bring cultural diversity to our schools, which might be otherwise seen as “lacking culture.”

But culture is more than nationality, more than ethnicity. It’s more than foods, music, or languages. Culture has to do with our values, beliefs, and ways of making meaning of the world. It influences what we feel is right and wrong, normal and abnormal, respectful or disrespectful. Culture is within us and all around us. It is something we are constantly constructing and co-constructing with others.

We are all multi-faceted human beings belonging to, identifying with, or influenced by many different cultural groups—such as religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, differing abilities, vocation, and more. Yet many people are largely unaware of how their own cultural lenses impact how they experience and approach the world, and how differently others may see and experience the world based on their own unique identities, background, and experiences.

Just like “culture” is frequently equated with “country,” so too the terms “intercultural” and “international” are often used interchangeably. Many people assume intercultural learning is simply learning about other countries. “International education” may be seen as the vehicle, or synonymous, for “intercultural learning.”

The necessary mindset shift starts with understanding culture is something within and all around us, and that intercultural learning involves much more than simply learning about other countries.

I define intercultural competence as the capacity to communicate and act appropriately, effectively, and authentically across cultural differences, locally and globally. Intercultural learning involves an ongoing process of developing this competence—developing our mindset, heart set, and skillset to navigate cultural differences and similarities in more complex ways. In other words, it’s about learning to engage better with people who are different from us, whether they’re from a different country, religion, socio-economic status, ethnicity, or all of the above.

Dead Idea #2:  Intercultural Experience = Intercultural Competence

There tends to be an unspoken assumption in higher education that intercultural experience leads to the development of intercultural competence. Unfortunately, research has shown this simply isn’t true, at least not consistently.

This assumption shows up when we list intercultural competence, inclusive excellence, or similar as a goal in our mission statement or strategic plan, and identify means for achieving that goal such as increasing participation in study abroad or diversifying our campus. The assumption is that exposure to difference will automatically produce the type of outcomes we’re hoping for.

But research has demonstrated that exposure to differences—even immersion in another culture—does not consistently lead to the development of intercultural competence.

Thankfully, research has also found that intercultural competence can be developed when such experiences are coupled with skilled, intentional facilitation. So the mindset shift I offer is this: we should focus not just on increasing participation in intercultural experiences, but on designing and facilitating those experiences (at home and abroad) around our desired learning objectives.

Dead Idea #3:  This Work is the Responsibility of a Few Select Offices

The third idea we need to rethink is that this is the work of select departments. There’s a tendency to assume that fostering intercultural learning is the responsibility of the international education office, International Relations department, Chief Diversity Officer, or similar. Of course, many of these offices and people are doing great work toward developing interculturally competent students and creating more inclusive communities. However, if our goal is for all students to learn to engage more effectively and appropriately across cultural differences, at home as well as abroad, no one or two offices can achieve that objective alone.

The mindset shift I suggest is that intercultural learning needs to be seen as an institutional responsibility. Almost all experiences on our campuses are opportunities for students to interact with people who are different from them, meaning opportunities for intercultural learning are all around us.

In this sense, I liken intercultural learning to critical thinking. We don’t expect one office or department to be responsible for helping our students develop critical thinking skills. Instead, we weave this kind of learning into everything we do. Why? Because critical thinking is a skill all students are going to need, in any field, and we can develop it in context. The same goes for intercultural learning. Developing intercultural competence entails learning how to engage more appropriately and effectively with people who are different from us. That’s needed everywhere and can be developed in almost any educational context—inside and outside the classroom, at home or abroad.

Dead Idea #4:  Overemphasis on Students’ Development

This leads to the fourth thing to rethink, which is the current emphasis on students’ intercultural learning. If we truly want to develop students’ intercultural competence in a sustainable way, I suggest we focus first and foremost on developing the intercultural capacity of faculty, staff, and leaders. This includes helping educators develop both their own intercultural competence and their capacity to facilitate intercultural learning.

Developing the intercultural capacity of faculty, staff, and leaders is critical for a number of reasons. The first is that developing our own intercultural competence helps us create inclusive communities where everyone—students, faculty, staff, and others—can thrive. Second, it helps us become better facilitators of intercultural learning. Plus, this approach is more sustainable because educators tend to be at an institution much longer than students, and each one can impact the experience and learning of hundreds, if not thousands, of students during their tenure.

Ironically (and sadly, I feel), it seems that most colleges and universities—institutions dedicated to learning and development—invest much less in the growth and development of their employees than organizations in other industries typically do.

Dead Idea #5:  Taking a Short-Term Approach

Lastly, building on the previous point, I invite higher education institutions to rethink the typical approach to work in this area, which is often short-term and reactive. Currently, few institutions provide intercultural training for faculty and staff. Those that do primarily offer what I call “one and done” trainings, rather than the kind of ongoing support that best fosters intercultural development.

These efforts are often reactionary—there’s some sort of incident that occurs on a campus, perhaps drawing negative media attention, and trainings are offered to hopefully prevent such an incident from happening again. A fellow trainer friend of mine, Dr. Terrence Harewood, once called this the “diversity hose” method, explaining that he’s often called in when there’s some sort of emergency, basically to “spray his diversity hose on things” to put out the fire.

Instead, we need to shift to more long-term, proactive approaches. There is no quick-fix when it comes to developing interculturally competent global citizens. We need to embrace the long-game and focus on developing our own intercultural capacity as educators, understanding this is foundational to fostering students’ intercultural learning in a sustainable way.


In sum, I would argue that most colleges and universities could benefit from thinking more expansively and intentionally about fostering intercultural competence, and I suggest starting by developing the capacity of faculty and staff to foster intercultural learning and create environments where all students can thrive.

In most cases, this will require a significant shift in priorities and investment of time, resources, and energy. We may feel we can’t afford to do this work. But the more important question is: In today’s highly diverse, complex, and uncertain world, can we really afford not to?

Related Resources & Next Steps

Click here to listen to the Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning podcast episode (season 6, episode 5) where I discuss some of these ideas with host Catherine Ross.

If you’d like to explore how True North Intercultural can help develop intercultural capacity at your institution, visit our website or click here to schedule a free strategy call.

Photo credit:  Pawel Czerwins, Unsplash

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