DEI & Intercultural Learning in Higher Ed: An Inclusive, Holistic Approach

Jul 14, 2021

This is the third post in a series exploring the relationship between diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and intercultural learning in higher education. In May, I discussed the bifurcated approach higher education tends to take toward international and domestic diversity. Last month’s post focused on why a more inclusive, holistic approach is needed.

This month, I discuss what a more inclusive, holistic approach might look like. More specifically, I’m sharing the approach I take in my own intercultural teaching and training, and teach other educators to use in True North Intercultural’s workshops and professional development programs.

The way I approach intercultural learning (and teach others to do so) is fundamentally constructivist, developmental, and experiential. In this post, I’ll explore each of these pedagogies in turn. However, in reality they are not discrete, but highly interrelated.

A Constructivist Approach

The way people think about culture—and therefore intercultural learning—has evolved over time, from positivist (culture is an observable thing) to relativist (there are many different, equally valid views of “reality”) to constructivist (individuals construct their knowledge of the world based on their experience).

According to Jennifer Garvey-Berger (2011), “Constructivists believe that the world isn't out there to be discovered, but that we create our world by our discovery of it. Humans make meaning of their surroundings, and that meaning is the surrounding” (p. 181). In other words, the world and our experiences of it are socially- and culturally-constructed.

A constructivist approach to intercultural learning involves helping learners uncover how they make meaning of and interact with the world, and how this is impacted by their own background and experiences. In addition, learners come to see and appreciate that others may have equally complex, rich, and yet highly different experiences and ways of making meaning.

Interculturalist Milton Bennett (2012) summarizes the relationship between constructivism and intercultural learning as follows:

“The most general practical goal of intercultural learning is to overcome ethnocentrism and to enable successful communication in a multicultural environment. The constructivist paradigm allows us to see that ethnocentrism is simply the inability to experience reality differently than we were originally taught. This paradigm enables us to conceive different realities, to imagine how experience is different in those realities, and to enact to some degree that alien experience. This is the crux of communication—the ability to transcend our own limited experience and embody the world as another is experiencing it” (p. 102).

This is just as relevant in domestic settings as in international ones. Social justice educator Maurianne Adams (2016) explains, “Socialization refers to the lifelong process by which we inherit and replicate the dominant norms and frameworks of our society and learn to accept them as ‘common sense’” (p. 105). A constructivist approach to intercultural education involves learning to “see” how we’ve been socialized. Because, as Lee Anne Bell (2016) writes, “Social constructions presented as natural and inevitable are difficult to question and challenge. Once their provenance comes into question, however, imagining alternative scenarios becomes possible” (p. 8).

Thus, taking a constructivist approach means we are careful not to reify culture by presenting intercultural concepts as static facts, which risks reinforcing stereotypes. Instead, constructivist educators help learners become more aware of and examine the perhaps taken-for-granted lenses through which they see and experience the world, appreciate others’ unique and equally-complex experiences and ways of making meaning, and develop the capacity to shift perspectives.

A Developmental Approach

Maurianne Adams (2016) explains that what all developmental models 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” (p. 34).

A developmental approach to intercultural learning involves increasing the cognitive complexity with which we experience cultural differences and similarities. That is, we move from a dualistic experience of culture as us/them and good/bad to a more nuanced, complex experience of self and others as cultural beings. It is virtually impossible for someone to fully understand, recognize, and successfully address complicated issues such as intersectionality, privilege, or systemic oppression from a dualistic mindset.

Educators who take a developmental approach to intercultural learning focus on meeting learners where they are and offering a balance of challenge and support to help them increase their cognitive complexity. They understand that their job is to act as a guide, facilitating others’ intercultural learning journeys, and that each individual’s journey is unique.

As regular readers of this blog may know, I often use the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) in my work. This is one of my go-to tools precisely because it is developmental; it assesses where we are on that cognitive complexity journey and identifies—based on that—what to focus on to develop.

At the heart of the developmental approach is a recognition that everyone is at a different place in their intercultural learning journey and that is okay. Educators can help learners increase the complexity with which they experience cultural differences and similarities by meeting them where they are and providing a developmentally-appropriate balance of challenge and support.

An Experiential Approach

Intercultural learning is also fundamentally experiential in nature. It is difficult to develop interculturally if we do not experience cultural difference. However, this does not require traveling to another country. In fact, many students bring significant experiences of cultural differences with them to our institutions, and educators need to recognize these as valuable opportunities for self-reflection, learning, and growth.

In addition, most of our campuses and communities offer opportunities to engage with people who are different from us. Indeed, there is a pressing need to learn and employ an intercultural mindset, heart set, and skillset in our daily lives. However, taking advantage of such opportunities and making them learning experiences often requires intentionality.

It’s critical to understand that experience does not equate to learning. We have to actually transform experience into learning. Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) provides a pedagogy for intentionally helping learners transform experiences into intercultural learning.

Angela Passarelli and David Kolb (2012) explain what this process entails:

“[T]he experiential learning cycle is actually a learning spiral. When a concrete experience is enriched by reflection, given meaning by thinking and transformed by action, the new experience created becomes richer, broader, and deeper. Further iterations of the cycle continue the exploration and transfer to experiences in other contexts. In this process learning is integrated with other knowledge and generalized to other contexts leading to higher levels of adult development” (p. 146).

That is, educators need to help learners reflect on and make meaning of their intercultural experiences—whether inside or outside the classroom, locally or globally—and figure out how to apply their learning in new contexts. Introducing students to concepts and frameworks that can help them make sense of those experiences is critical, but we must do so in a constructivist, developmental way, so as not to reify culture.

A Constructivist-Developmental-Experiential Approach to Intercultural Learning

To summarize, a constructivist-developmental-experiential approach to fostering intercultural learning is not about:

  • focusing simply on knowledge acquisition;
  • reifying culture through teaching intercultural concepts as static facts;
  • a learning experience that is the same for everyone;
  • learning that is only relevant in global contexts.

Instead, taking a constructivist-developmental-experiential approach to intercultural learning is about the following:

  • increasing the complexity with which we experience cultural differences and similarities;
  • valuing the unique life experiences of each individual as opportunities for learning;
  • meeting learners where they are in their learning journey and providing appropriate challenge and/or support to help them develop;
  • empowering learners with relevant concepts and frameworks, and the understanding and skills necessary to use those to transform their intercultural experiences into learning;
  • combining intercultural experiences with intentionally facilitated reflection, meaning-making, and application of new learning;
  • developing transferrable skills that are useful in a wide variety of situations locally and globally.

In the professional development programs I offer through True North Intercultural, I teach educators a four-phase framework for intercultural learning that is constructivist, developmental, and experiential. It’s focused on fostering intercultural learning by increasing awareness of our own meaning-making process, deepening our understanding and appreciation for how others may make meaning of and experience the world differently, responding in more mindful, intentional ways, and adapting authentically to bridge the differences we experience. This framework can help us develop our own intercultural competence, and also provides direction for fostering others’ intercultural learning.

My experience has been that in addition to being more inclusive and holistic than many other approaches to intercultural learning, a constructivist-developmental-experiential approach can be incredibly transformative. It can help students (and educators) from a wide variety of backgrounds grow in their own cultural identity development and learn to engage in more effective, appropriate, and authentic ways with people who are different from them, in their own communities as well as abroad.

Invitation: Let’s Discuss!

Have you enjoyed reading this blog series and reflecting on the relationship between diversity, equity, and inclusion and intercultural learning in higher education? If so, I’d like to invite you to discuss this topic with me and other interculturally-minded educators at the Intercultural Leadership Forum, a free event I’m hosting on July 29th. Click here for more information and to register.


Adams, M. (2016). Pedagogical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams & L.A. Bell (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice, 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.

Bell, L.A. (2016). Theoretical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams & L.A. Bell (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice, 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.

Bennett, M. (2012). Paradigmatic assumptions and a developmental approach to intercultural 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. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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

Passarelli, A. & Kolb, D.A. (2012). Using Experiential Learning Theory to promote student learning and development in programs of education 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. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Join the Conversation!

Enjoying the blog? You’re invited to join me and an amazing group of higher education professionals committed to fostering intercultural learning at the next Intercultural Leadership Forum! You'll have a chance to connect with others doing this work and gain new insights as you move toward your intercultural goals.