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Leaning into our Learning Edge During Intercultural Experiences

Above: My kids, learning (in Spanish) the basics of how to scuba dive.


At the beginning of summer, my spouse and two kids and I typically spend several weeks in Spain, where my spouse’s whole family lives. During our recent trip, I was reminded of the importance of finding and embracing our “learning edge” during intercultural experiences. And also how different that can be for each one of us.

My kids are currently ten and twelve. Anyone who is a parent of—or close with—multiple children knows how different their ways of engaging the world can be.

Our trips to Spain are great opportunities for me to observe my kids’ personalities and strengths in action, and also to see where the new and different starts to make each of them (as well as myself) uncomfortable. That’s what I call the “learning edge.”

In most of my intercultural trainings and online programs, I talk with educators about the importance of helping learners find their learning zone. This is the place (not necessarily a physical space) where they start to feel uncomfortable, yet in a way that, if they engage with this discomfort, they will learn and grow in transformative ways. In order to maximize the learning and growth that can occur during intercultural experiences, it’s important for learners to move beyond their comfort zone. This requires a delicate balance of challenge and support—a balance that differs for each learner.

Both of my kids—who have grown up hearing Spanish from their father and attend a Spanish immersion school—understand Spanish very well, but have different attitudes about speaking Spanish. My twelve-year-old daughter—who completed two years of school in a regular English school before we moved and she tested into Spanish immersion—is quite comfortable speaking Spanish, even with people she doesn’t know, despite the fact some struggle to understand her accent and grammatical choices. In general, her comfort zone is much bigger than her brother’s and she is relatively self-aware. She tends to recognize when something is a little scary for her, and typically marches straight toward it.

Another example: on this last trip we had the opportunity to go scuba diving for the first time ever. We were all very excited, but a little nervous too. My daughter was the most nervous of all, and as the moment approached, her nerves became increasingly apparent. With tears in her eyes, she said, “I’m scared.” But she never said, “I don’t want to do this.” Because she understands that she can become anxious easily, and she chooses not to let it hold her back. So she got in the water, took things slowly, and eventually was comfortably exploring the reefs deep below the ocean’s surface. This is her learning edge: trying new things that excite her, even—perhaps especially—when they produce anxiety at the same time.

I’m very proud of her for this, and try to point out when she does this and applaud her bravery. When similar experiences present themselves, she recognizes her anxiety as a form of excitement, and pushes through.

When I talk with educators about the importance of helping students develop transferable skills through intercultural experiences, this is a great example of what I mean.

My ten-year-old son, on the other hand, has very little fear of physical activities (at the amusement park we went to on this trip, he and I waited in line for over two hours to go on a ride touted “the highest and fastest vertical accelerator in Europe” while my daughter and spouse chose tamer alternatives). However, he is very shy about speaking Spanish, even though he has better pronunciation skills than his sister (he’s been in Spanish immersion since kindergarten and has a natural ability for languages). He’ll ask for something in a store or restaurant, and when we suggest he ask the waiter or attendant, he kind of freaks out. This is his current learning edge: speaking the language with locals outside of our family.

Unlike my daughter, my son is not excited about the idea of running at and through his learning edge. He’d much rather run in the opposite direction. So we have to get a little more creative about providing the challenge and support he needs. One way we do this is to pair him up with his sister and give them the freedom to do things on their own (together) during our visits to Spain.

For example, we often send them to the nearby panadería to buy bread, and give them a little extra money to buy a few candies if they’d like. I have no doubt my son lets his sister do most of the speaking, but he’s likely more willing to help her out if she needs it (he loves showing off what he knows, especially if it’s something she doesn’t) than he would be if we were there.

I also know my son loves sports (especially soccer), being active, and playing with other kids. So we try to put him in situations where he can engage with other kids and physical activity is involved just as much as talking (but inevitably they have to talk, which is why my son knows Spanish expressions that I never learned, like “You’re it!”).

These are examples of my kids’ learning edges when in Spain, and how we try to provide the challenge and support each of them needs to move beyond their comfort zone. In my daughter’s case, just helping her recognize her own learning edge and be proud of overcoming her fears is usually sufficient. She does the rest. With my son, we need to get more involved in creatively providing both support and challenge.

I share these examples to encourage you to think about how you can help your students become more aware of and engage their own unique learning edge, and how you might challenge and support them appropriately as they do.

It’s also important that we think about and engage with our own learning edge. Do you know what yours is?

I was not-so-gently reminded of mine during our recent visit to Spain. Here’s my key learning edge during these trips: knowing when the best right action for me is no action at all. Sometimes I want to bridge across differences so badly and am so convinced it’s possible, I don’t recognize that there are some differences (and some people) that are perhaps best left alone. I need to accept that sometimes the most appropriate and effective course of action is for me to just let go.

Without going into too much detail, I’ll simply say that we have a few family members who approach life very differently than my spouse and I do. In our opinion, this has negative repercussions on their children, who we care about. These differences are perhaps partly cultural, but largely personal. I’m typically a person who feels a great sense of agency, but in this situation, I need to take a lesson from the often-quoted “Serenity Prayer”:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

In my case, I not only need to gain the wisdom to know the difference, but I also need to put that wisdom into practice. The only thing I have control over is myself and how I react. So I try to focus on my relationship with the kids in question, and recognize there’s not much I can or should do beyond that. In addition, I need to practice self-care to support myself in that process.

What’s your learning edge when you are engaging across cultures (in general, or in specific situations)? Where do you need to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and constantly remind yourself that this is a learning opportunity? How do you need to challenge yourself in those situations, and what kind of support do you need to make that possible?

For more information and resources on this topic, see my previous blog post, “Getting Beyond the Comfort Zone,” and sign up for the free online training by the same name, so you can help your learners identify and move beyond the comfort zone.

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