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Intercultural Terms & What Matters More

intercultural learning Aug 18, 2020


I’ve recently received a number of questions from people about why I use the intercultural terms I use as opposed to others. These questions and the ensuing conversations suggest to me that there is often more focus in higher education on the intercultural terms used than on what it is we’re actually wanting to achieve and what it entails.

For example, a participant in one of my programs recently mentioned that their school chose to focus on ‘cultural humility’ rather than ‘intercultural competence’ because the latter seemed more limiting. Elsewhere, someone mentioned they prefer the term ‘global citizenship’ over ‘intercultural competence’ because they felt the former expressed a mindset, the latter a skillset.

Both of these comments somewhat surprised me, but also didn’t. They surprised me because they run so counter to my understanding of and approach to intercultural competence development.

In my mind, intercultural competence requires but extends beyond the limits of cultural humility. You can have cultural humility, but not necessarily be able to communicate effectively or appropriately across cultural differences. And intercultural competence is absolutely both a mindset and a skillset. But it’s also more than that—it’s a practice. An ongoing, life-long, there-is-no-finish-line practice.

But these comments also didn’t surprise me because I see various intercultural terms being thrown around a lot by people who don’t necessarily fully understand them. Not just what these terms mean, but what developing them entails. Terms like cultural humility, cultural intelligence, etc. go in and out of vogue, and it can be hard to follow and know which is the “right” one to focus on, especially for folks in higher education who have a full-time job that does not center on intercultural learning.

Usually, participants in my signature train-the-trainer program, Facilitating Intercultural Learning, begin the program with various levels of understanding and perspectives on what intercultural learning is and what it entails. They typically come wanting to learn how to teach others the knowledge, skills, and understanding they feel they have, for the most part, developed themselves. At the end of our twelve weeks together, I ask them to reflect on their biggest take-aways from the program. Inevitably, there is resounding agreement that intercultural competence is much more than they ever imagined, and that they’ve come to see the importance of approaching it as a personal practice—both for themselves and their students.

One thing I tell educators I work with is that the terms we use matter, but they are not what matters most. What’s most important is what we’re aiming to achieve—the transformation and growth we’re looking to foster—not exactly what we label it.

Personally, I tend to prefer terms that reflect an ongoing process. ‘Intercultural learning’ and ‘intercultural development’ are the terms I use most. Because what I’m trying to achieve is to help people learn how to learn through their own intercultural experiences (at home and abroad). I aim to guide learners on their own personal developmental journey, not just transfer knowledge, teach skills, or even cultivate certain mindsets. I often emphasize that what we’re doing is developing a personal ‘intercultural practice.’ 

What is most important, in my opinion, is that we move beyond the terms to get really clear about the ways in which we want students (and ourselves) to learn and grow interculturally, and how we can go about achieving that.

I rely heavily on a four-phase framework that was first conceptualized by a mentor of mine, Dr. Michael (Mick) Vande Berg. He and I have since further developed and are in the process of writing a book centered around this framework, along with Dr. Terrence Harewood.

The framework identifies four areas in which all of us—educators as well as students—must focus on developing in order to experience cultural differences and similarities in increasingly complex ways, and ultimately communicate and act more effectively and appropriately across all types of cultural differences.

Here’s the framework:

Four-Phase Developmental Framework for Intercultural Learning

  1. Increasing understanding and awareness of our own characteristic ways of making meaning and acting in familiar and unfamiliar contexts;
  2. Increasing understanding and awareness of others’ ways of making meaning and acting in familiar and unfamiliar contexts;
  3. Responding mindfully in contexts that disorient and challenge us;
  4. Learning to bridge meaning-making gaps in those challenging contexts: Shifting our perspective, attuning our emotions and adapting out behavior in effective and appropriate ways.

All of the intercultural programs I run—whether with students or educators—center around helping participants develop in these four areas. It seems relatively simple—just four phases—but that does not mean it’s easy. And it does not mean we progress in a linear way, checking off competencies until we cross a finish line.

Developing through these four phases should reflect a spiral curriculum:  we may progress somewhat in one phase, but then return and deepen our growth in that area later. As I said earlier, intercultural learning is an ongoing process, a life-long practice.

Most educators struggle to fully understand what this means because they haven’t truly engaged in such learning themselves. How can one know what intercultural learning looks and feels like if they’ve never actively participated in it? I’m not talking about having an intercultural experience, but actively being guided through a process of growth and development in the four phases mentioned above.

So what is my point with all this? First of all, don't get overly hung up on the terms you use. And don’t think you’re done once you choose a term!

Instead, use that energy to get into the weeds of doing the work. Start with developing and implementing your own intercultural practice. Once you better understand what it’s like to deeply engage in your own intercultural learning, you’re better prepared to learn how to guide students on their personal intercultural learning journeys. If you do this, you’ll likely come to see that the words you choose matter, but the work you’re doing is much bigger than any term can possibly capture.

References & Related Resources

Interested in developing your own intercultural practice and helping others do the same? Check out my signature twelve-week train-the-trainer program for educators, Facilitating Intercultural Learning

Mick Vande Berg’s workshop, “From the inside out: Transformative learning and teaching,” presented at the WISE Conference, 3 February 2016, where he introduced an early version of the four-phase framework

A free training and self-assessment exercise related to the Four-Phase Developmental Framework for Intercultural Learning  

Making Global Learning Universal Podcast, Episode 4: “Tara Harvey on the Relationship Between Intercultural Learning and Global Learning”

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