A Developmental Approach to Intercultural Learning

Sep 07, 2021

In last month’s blog post, I explained that the approach I take to intercultural learning is fundamentally constructivist and developmental, and discussed what a constructivist approach looks like. This month, I’m diving deeper into what it means to take a developmental approach, and how this combines with constructivism.

Intercultural Learning as a Developmental Process

There exist many different models of development—for example, adult development (Garvey Berger, 2011; Kegan, 1994; Perry, 1970), student intellectual development (Baxter Magolda, 2001), reflective judgment (King & Kitchener, 1994), and women’s ways of knowing (Belenky et al., 1986). The Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC)—which I’ll discuss further in a bit—is a developmental model specific to intercultural competence (Hammer, 2012).  

What these models all have in common is that “thinking evolves from a mode of dualistic either/or options to a mode of more complex and relativistic thinking, then to the use of metacognitive skills that enable a person to hold various options in mind while weighing or evaluating evidence” (Adams, 2016, p. 34).

In other words, development involves expanding and transforming one’s mindset, not just learning new information or even skill building. As Kegan & Laskow Lahey (2009) write, “True development is about transforming the operating system itself, not just increasing your fund of knowledge or your behavioral repertoire” (p. 6).

A Constructivist-Developmental Approach

Constructivism and development go hand-in-hand. Garvey-Berger ( 2011) explains, “Constructive-developmentalists believe that the systems by which people make meaning grow and change over time” (p. 181).

A constructivist-developmental approach to intercultural learning involves becoming more aware of how we make meaning of and engage with the world, and increasing the complexity with which we experience cultural differences and similarities. We can move from a place of feeling subject to certain culturally-constructed ideas, assumptions, and beliefs, to a more complex experience where we are able to take those same ideas, assumptions, and beliefs, and make them an object for our observation, consideration, and learning.

We often think about continuing to develop new skills into adulthood. But rarely do we think about developing our mindsets as we mature beyond childhood. Yet humans are indeed capable of developing more complex meaning-making systems, and increasing our meta-cognitive capacity for reflecting on our own thinking.

Indeed, the increasing diversity and complexity of today’s world demands such continued growth. Kegan & Laskow Lahey (2009) explain that to face and embrace the challenges of the 21st century and beyond, we need more than an ability to simply “deal” or “cope” with the greater complexity of the world. They write:

When we experience the world as “too complex” we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment. There are only two logical ways to mend this mismatch—reduce the world’s complexity or increase our own. (Kegan & Laskow Lahey, 2009)

Intentionally fostering intercultural learning in higher education—and doing so in a constructivist-developmental way—can help students increase their own complexity.

Meeting Learners Where They Are

A constructivist-developmental approach to intercultural learning requires us to understand and take into account that learners may be at very different places—and to meet them where they are—in their developmental journey. Someone who experiences the world and cultural differences in dualistic us/them ways is going to have different learning needs than someone who is making meaning of and approaching cultural differences in a more complex, nuanced way.

There are several different frameworks that can help educators approach intercultural learning developmentally. Two that most influence my work are the Intercultural Development Continuum and the challenge/support hypothesis.

The Intercultural Development Continuum

I have discussed in detail elsewhere
how and why I use the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment and the model it’s based on—the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC) (see Hammer, 2012). Like the various developmental models mentioned previously, the IDC represents an evolution of increasingly complex ways of thinking about and experiencing the world—specifically around cultural differences and similarities. It includes five orientations toward cultural difference along a continuum from more monocultural to intercultural mindsets.

The IDI and IDC can help educators understand the developmental process and where our students (and ourselves) are on the journey. We can then tailor our teaching, training, coaching, advising, or other feedback to better help learners (and ourselves) progress along the continuum—that is, to develop the complexity with which we experience cultural differences and similarities.

I want to emphasize, however, that while the IDI assessment provides information that can be very useful to educators seeking to facilitate intercultural development, it is not the only means for doing so.  

Balancing Challenge & Support

The key to teaching/training developmentally is to understand intercultural learning as a process of increasing the complexity of our meaning-making and meta-cognitive systems, and to facilitate such transformation. Another way to do this is by considering the degree of challenge learners may be experiencing around cultural differences and similarities in a given situation, and how we as educators can push them just beyond their comfort zone by providing additional challenge and/or support.

Sanford’s (1966) challenge/support hypothesis contends that educators need to balance the level of challenge that learners face with the amount of support they receive in order to keep them engaged in the learning process. To promote student development, Sanford says, educators must “present [students] with strong challenges, appraise accurately [their] ability to cope with these challenges, and offer support when they become overwhelming” (p. 46).

Janet Bennett (2009, 1993) is credited for first applying this idea to the intercultural learning space. She writes, “If the learner is overly supported, no learning takes place. If the learner is overly challenged, the learner flees the learning context” (J. M. Bennett, 1993, p. 122). She explains that the right balance of challenge and support will be different for each individual. What the challenge and support hypothesis highlights is that educators need to assess and be aware of the degree of challenge and anxiety that intercultural learning experiences (whether inside or outside the classroom) may produce for their students, and provide appropriate support and/or challenge to promote optimal learning.

Concluding Thoughts

To summarize, taking a constructivist-developmental approach to intercultural learning means that we as educators commit to the following:

  • deeply understanding and appreciating intercultural learning as a developmental process—that is, a process of developing more complex meaning-making systems and meta-cognitive capacity;
  • recognizing and appreciating—with curiosity and compassion, rather than judgment—the various mindsets learners (including ourselves) may hold throughout this process;
  • working to meet our learners where they are in their unique learning journey, providing challenge and support as needed to facilitate development;
  • engaging in our own ongoing intercultural development process.

Taking a developmental approach is particularly useful in higher education because of its inclusive nature. When we are able to meet learners where they are in the developmental journey without judgment, it can help avoid the following:

  • putting learners on the defensive (shame and guilt are horrible teachers); and
  • creating intercultural learning situations where we are simply “preaching to the choir” (which also seldom produce optimal learning/growth).

For example, Adams (2016) has pointed out that “The different perspectives presented in [social justice education] classes ask for a level of complexity that can be challenging for those accustomed to thinking in dichotomous and dualistic ways about issues they had considered clear-cut” (p. 28). This insight suggests that an individual’s intercultural development—their own meaning-making and the degree of complexity with which they experience cultural differences and similarities—affects how they might experience a diversity training, social justice discussion, or similar. Focusing on meeting students where they are and supporting their learning in developmental ways helps ensure all students can make the most of their opportunities to engage and learn across difference.


Adams, M. (2016). Pedagogical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams & L. A. Bell (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice (3rd ed., pp. 27–53). Routledge.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Stylus Publishing.

Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, M. B., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. Basic Books.

Bennett, J. M. (1993). Cultural marginality: Identity issues in intercultural training. In R. M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the intercultural experience (Vol. 2, pp. 109–135).

Bennett, J. M. (2009). Transformative training: Designing programs for culture learning. In M. A. Moodian (Ed.), Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Exploring the cross-cultural dynamics within organizations (pp. 95–110). Sage Publications.

Garvey Berger, J. (2011). Changing on the job: Developing leaders for a complex world. Stanford University Press.

Hammer, M. R. (2012). The Intercultural Development Inventory: A new frontier in assessment and development of intercultural competence. In M. Vande Berg, R. M. Paige, & K. H. Lou (Eds.), Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they’re not, and what we can do about it (pp. 115–136). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

IDI LLC:  The Intercultural Development Continuum

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R., & Laskow Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years. Holt, Winston & Rinehart.

Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society: Social change and individual development. Transaction Publishers.


Photo credit: Kyle Glenn, Unsplash

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