Why Even the Best Intercultural Curriculum Is Insufficient

Jun 07, 2023

“What intercultural activities do you recommend for fill-in-the-blank [this orientation, course, study abroad program, faculty training, etc.]?”

I’m asked some form of this question on a regular basis. It seems that when educators and universities become interested in developing students’ intercultural competence, they often go looking for a packaged curriculum, set of activities, or tool that will do it for them (for example, see Misconception #1 in this blog post).

Although I have written about some of my favorite resources for intercultural activities, I find it important to underscore that this is the wrong place to start.

Many people seem to believe that the right curriculum, activities, or tool are all that’s needed to foster intercultural development. I’ve encountered this belief regularly for years, but have found through my own research and experience that it’s not only untrue, but can potentially be detrimental. It would be nice if developing intercultural competence were that easy, but the reality is it’s not. For transformative intercultural learning to consistently occur, skilled facilitation is required.

When it comes to facilitating intercultural development—helping people build their capacity to engage effectively and appropriately across cultural differences—what educators do is not nearly as important as how they do it. Two different people could facilitate the same activity, yet the outcomes could be vastly different—entrenching stereotypes in one case, or increasing self-awareness and empathy in another.

In this post, I’m sharing more about the experiences that have led me to this conclusion. Note that some of these insights are based on research, whereas others are anecdotal observations.

Maximizing Study Abroad

While pursuing my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I was involved with an innovative online course based on the Maximizing Study Abroad (MAXSA) project. The course—which originally carried the same name as the research study it was based on and later changed to Global Identity—was designed to facilitate students’ learning while participating in University of Minnesota study abroad programs. There was a set curriculum that students completed—including readings and assignments—over the course of their semester-long study abroad program. Each student submitted a series of written reflections to their assigned Teaching Assistant (TA) via email.

I was one of the TAs, part of an instructional team made up of graduate students and professionals in international education. One of the things that we observed was that our responses to students’ reflections (all sent in the form of email correspondence) played an important role in their learning and development. We sought to apply important intercultural pedagogical practices, such as by trying to provide an appropriate balance of challenge and support for each student.

In a chapter that Drs. R. Michael Paige, Katherine McCleary, and I wrote about that course and its evolution, we concluded, “One of the major lessons learned from the MAXSA project is [that] a rigorous intercultural curriculum is a necessary but insufficient condition for fostering student learning and development during study abroad. Skilled facilitation is the key” (Paige, Harvey & McCleary, 2012, p. 309).

Dissertation Research

Another experience that emphasized for me the importance of skilled facilitation was the research I conducted for my dissertation (coincidentally, this month mark’s the 10-year anniversary of its completion). The title of my dissertation—which you can read in full (or skim… or read in snippets) here—is called Facilitating Intercultural Development during Study Abroad: A Case Study of CIEE’s Seminar on Living and Learning Abroad. Through a mixed-methods case study, I examined how participating in a study abroad “intervention” (a course meant to support students’ intercultural development while they participated in a study abroad experience) impacted students’ intercultural competence, and also explored the process involved in facilitating students’ intercultural development through such a course.

In conducting my research, I visited two different study abroad locations where the same intercultural curriculum was being taught, by different instructors to different groups of students. I observed several sessions of the course in both locations; interviewed the students, instructors, and the individuals who designed the curriculum; and compared qualitative findings with the quantitative data provided by pre- and post-program Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) scores. While the number of locations and instructors was limited and therefore these findings cannot be generalized, one of my key observations was that the instructors’ ability to follow intercultural pedagogical practices seemed to play a role in students’ intercultural development.

I concluded:

“This study found that, contrary to what the creators of the Seminar on Living and Learning Abroad assumed from the outset, the success of this project depended on much more than a strong curriculum. What they found was that a good curriculum is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. Just providing this curriculum to on-site staff and expecting them to impart it and for it to positively impact students’ intercultural development was not enough. Much more important was the need to provide instructors with extensive training—in this case primarily in the form of ongoing, individual coaching—so that they would have the theoretical and pedagogical understanding necessary to teach such a course.” (Harvey, 2013, p. 268)

Helping Others Facilitate Intercultural Learning

I was later hired by CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange)—first as a contractor and later as Academic Director of Intercultural Learning—and was responsible for further developing the intercultural curriculum offered on CIEE’s study abroad programs (that I’d studied through my dissertation research) and providing coaching and training to the resident staff responsible for facilitating that curriculum. In that role, I observed that there were two key things that impacted how effective instructors were at facilitating students’ intercultural learning: (1) their own intercultural development, and (2) their facilitation skills (specifically, their ability to facilitate learning in a developmental, holistic, and experiential way, balancing challenge and support).

I noticed that educators who were doing their own intercultural development work had an easier time facilitating others’ intercultural learning, likely because they better understood the process. In addition, instructors often found it challenging to facilitate the development of students who scored in the same intercultural mindset—or further along the Intercultural Development Continuum—as them (according to the IDI). That is, instructors were limited in their abilities to help students develop intercultural capacities they themselves had not yet developed.

Experience through True North Intercultural

These experiences led me to start True North Intercultural in 2016, to provide training to more higher education faculty, staff, and institutions, to help them develop both their own intercultural competence and their capacity to design and facilitate intercultural learning (I often refer to these two things together as “intercultural capacity”). I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of institutions; faculty in departments as diverse as pharmacology, graphic design, business, law, and theology; and administrators in offices such as international education, career services, library services, human resources, and more. And I’ve seen that what I learned in those previous experiences doesn’t just apply to study abroad, but to everything we do in higher education. Intercultural learning can and should be integrated into a wide variety of learning experiences, inside and outside the classroom. The ability to do so effectively and appropriately depends on the intercultural capacity of the educators involved.

Furthermore, the educators I’ve supported to develop that capacity find incredibly creative, innovative ways to integrate intercultural learning into their disciplines or areas of work—appropriate for their particular learners—in ways that go far beyond what a packaged curriculum or activity designed by someone else could ever do. Take, for example, the career services professional who now helps students explore the role culture plays in expectations around networking, job searches, and interviewing. There’s the graphic design professor who helps students become more aware of the cultural lenses they bring to their work and develop their ability to see their designs from other perspectives. And the real estate professor who redesigned her group projects to better help students learn to work in diverse teams.

Conclusion & Next Steps

I hope that by sharing more about these experiences, this post has shed some light on why I advocate for developing educators’ intercultural capacity. In my opinion, if we want educators to be able to foster intercultural learning among students, we have to help them develop (1) their own intercultural competence, and (2) their ability to design and facilitate intercultural learning.

If you’re wondering how to develop yourself or educators at your institution in this way, I encourage you to check out the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program, which I created specifically for this purpose.

References & Related Resources

Harvey, T.A. (2013). Facilitating intercultural development during study abroad: A case study of CIEE’s Seminar on Living and Learning Abroad. Unpublished dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

Paige, R.M., Harvey, T.A., & McCleary, K.S. (2012). The Maximizing Study Abroad Project: Toward a pedagogy for culture and language learning. 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. 308-334). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Harvey, T.A. (2017). Design and pedagogy for transformative intercultural learning. In B. Kappler Mikk & I. Steglitz (Eds.), Learning across cultures: Locally and globally (3rd ed., pp. 109-138). Washington, D.C.: NAFSA: Association of International Educators/Stylus.

Vande Berg, M., Quinn, M., & Menyhart, C. (2012). An experiment in developmental teaching and learning: The Council on International Educational Exchange's Seminar on Living and Learning Abroad. 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. 383-407). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Free training:  Interculturally Competent U: The What, Why & How of Building Intercultural Competence in Higher Education

Professional development program that helps educators develop their intercultural capacity:  Facilitating Intercultural Learning

Photo credit: Gabriel Soto, Unsplash

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