Six Paradigm Shifts for Intercultural Learning in Higher Education

Feb 13, 2024

Last week, I delivered the Opening Plenary at the WISE Conference, hosted by Wake Forest University (WISE stands for Workshop on Intercultural Skills Enhancement). During my talk, I shared how my personal and professional experiences have shaped the ways I conceptualize and approach intercultural learning, and also discussed how I’ve seen the field of intercultural learning in higher education evolve over the past two decades.

I identified several paradigm shifts happening in the field that I’d like to encourage further. I shared one shift related to the who, what, where, when, why, and how of intercultural learning. While I can’t include the entire speech here, I’d like to at least share a summary of these six paradigm shifts.

WHAT:  Increasing Participation in Study Abroad >>> 
Developing Intercultural Competence

The first paradigm shift has to do with what: What is intercultural learning? How is it defined and conceptualized?

Terms like “intercultural learning” or “intercultural competence” were rarely used when I started my career in higher education more than 20 years ago. Instead, the focus was on sending students abroad with the implicit assumption that an international experience would help them engage better with people from different countries and cultures, two words that were often used interchangeably.

In the past decade or so, we started using terms like “intercultural learning” more. It gives a name to the outcomes we hope to achieve from study abroad. However, one of the problems is that international education and intercultural learning were—and often still are—assumed to be synonymous, despite a growing body of research indicating contact with and even immersion in another culture do not consistently lead to intercultural development. So although we may use terms like “intercultural learning” and “intercultural competence,” we’re often still focused on inputs—getting more students to go abroad—as the main means to achieve that objective.

I suggest we instead focus more intentionally on developing intercultural competence. That is, focus on the outcomes we want to achieve, instead of on the inputs that we assume will produce those outcomes. Especially now that we know that connection is tenuous.

I define intercultural competence as the capacity to engage effectively, appropriately, and authentically across cultural differences, both locally and globally. Culture isn’t limited to nationality, but also includes things like socio-economic status, religion or spirituality, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, even vocation—any group we’re a part of that impacts the way we experience or make meaning of the world.

Intercultural competence is not something we simply have or don’t have—as the word “competence” might imply for some. Instead, it needs to be framed and approached as an ongoing, developmental process. Developing intercultural competence involves increasing the complexity with which we experience and can navigate cultural differences and similarities.

WHY:  Improving International Relations 
>>> Meeting the Needs of Our VUCA World

The next paradigm shift is related to the why of intercultural learning. Why engage in this work? Once upon a time we were sending students abroad assuming this would positively impact international relations. Students and members of the host community would come to better understand one another, and this would improve relations between nations. We assumed intercultural contact and immersion led to better interactions.

However, we now know that contact and immersion don’t consistently result in students developing the capacity to bridge cultural differences. Our why needs to be broader, and just as relevant at home as abroad.

The term VUCA—which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—was coined by the U.S. Army War College in the 1980s, and has since gained much wider usage and popularity because of how accurately it describes the current state of the world. Developing our intercultural competence can obviously help us navigate diversity better. But it can also help us thrive—as individuals and collectively—in this VUCA world. Why? Because, as mentioned earlier, developing intercultural competence involves developing a more complex mindset around cultural differences and similarities. We’re learning to handle more complexity—to not see things in such binary, polarized, either/or ways, but to think more creatively and come up with both/and solutions. These kinds of skills can not only help graduates navigate different perspectives, but harness those differences to come up with more innovative solutions and address problems that we can’t even anticipate yet. Today’s students need to know how to work together across their differences, using diverse perspectives and experiences to produce solutions no one could imagine on their own. (For further discussion of this topic, see “Preparing Interculturally-Competent Students for a VUCA World.”

Our why needs to focus on building all students’ capacity to work collaboratively to meet the needs of our complex, pluralistic world. As Daryl Smith writes in her 2020 book Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education, “Higher education must play a critical role if we are to achieve the promise of our democracy: developing a pluralistic society that works. Although few of us have lived or worked in such a setting, this is one of the foremost challenges of our day” (p. vii).

WHO:  Students (especially study abroad participants) 
>>> Start with Faculty & Staff to Impact ALL Students

Achieving this goal will require another paradigm shift, this one around the who. Traditionally, higher education institutions have focused on developing the intercultural competence of students—primarily those from our home country who select to go abroad (less so those students studying abroad on our campuses, at least in the U.S.).

I don’t mean to imply that developing students’ intercultural competence shouldn’t still be a goal. But in order to integrate intercultural learning into higher education, we need to start by focusing on the intercultural development of faculty and staff. We can’t assume that educators—even the most interculturally experienced among them—have the skills to do their work in globally inclusive ways and integrate intercultural learning into their work with students. If we are going to ask faculty and staff to help students develop intercultural competence, we need to help them build their capacity to do so. That should include developing their own intercultural competence and, in many instances, their ability to integrate intercultural learning into their work.

WHERE:  Abroad 
>>> Locally & Globally

The next paradigm shift is related to where intercultural learning takes place. As I’ve discussed, in higher education we often talk about intercultural learning as though it were synonymous with study abroad. It’s something we send students abroad to acquire.

Instead, we need to focus on developing intercultural competence globally and locally. Intercultural competence is a heartset, mindset, and skillset that’s not just needed abroad, but also at home—on our campuses, in our communities, and on the job in almost every field.

Furthermore, we don’t necessarily have to go abroad to develop interculturally. There are opportunities to engage with people who are different from us—and to reflect on and learn from those experiences—all around us. Higher education institutions just need to utilize and facilitate these as learning opportunities more intentionally.

WHEN:  During International Experiences 
>>> Throughout Studies & Beyond

Next, let’s consider when intercultural learning occurs. Traditionally, we tied intercultural learning to international education experiences—mostly experiences students from the home campus culture have in other countries.

But we can and should think about how to integrate intercultural learning into students’ studies more broadly, from their first year to their last year and beyond. Intercultural competence is an ongoing practice. Instead of approaching it as content one needs to know, we need to help students learn how to learn from intercultural experiences. That way they can continue to develop their skills even after graduation—on the job and in their personal relationships as well.

HOW:  Positivist or Relativist Approaches 
>>> Constructivist-Developmental Approach

So far, we’ve discussed one paradigm shift related to each of the five Ws. The question of how is a much bigger one. It’s essentially the focus of all True North Intercultural workshops and professional development programs, which typically range from a full day to months in length. So obviously we can’t discuss this in any kind of depth here. But I want to offer one paradigm shift related to the how of fostering intercultural learning in higher education to hopefully get you thinking about this.

Historically, approaches to intercultural learning and training—in higher education and elsewhere—have taken a Positivist and/or Relativist approach.

Early approaches to intercultural training were typically positivist. Positivism carries the assumption that there is an objective world that exists independently from our observation of it. Culture is viewed as something that can be observed, discovered, and classified. A positivist approach to intercultural learning views descriptive information about cultures as sufficient. Such an approach might help you learn about a culture, but it won’t help you learn how to act in culturally appropriate and effective ways.

A relativist approach understands that we all have a frame of reference, that there are many different views of “reality.” Therefore, cultures can only be understood in their own terms. This approach tends to imply we can or should permanently suspend judgment. We hear references to cultural differences such as, “It’s not bad or good, it’s just different.” However, not judging is not possible. It’s also not going to help us bridge cultural differences. Just understanding that there are many different views of reality doesn’t necessarily help us see from another perspective or communicate more effectively or appropriately with people from a different culture.

I suggest taking a Constructivist-Developmental approach to intercultural learning instead. Constructivism assumes experience is constructed. We’re each socialized in our own cultural groups at a young age and continue to participate in co-constructing culture throughout our lives. A constructivist approach does not reify culture, but sees it as an ongoing process in which we’re participating. So intercultural learning from a constructivist approach involves understanding this meaning-making process—how reality is socially constructed—and our role in that process.

Taking a Developmental-Constructivist approach involves becoming more aware of how we make meaning of and engage with the world, and increasing the complexity with which we experience and can navigate cultural differences and similarities. (For more on this topic, see the two-part series, “A Constructivist Approach to Intercultural Learning” and “A Developmental Approach to Intercultural Learning.”)

If you’d like to learn more about how to facilitate intercultural learning, check out True North Intercultural’s programs and services for higher education faculty, staff, and institutions.

Conclusion & Reflection

The chart below summarizes these six paradigm shifts I believe are beginning to take place in pockets of higher education and should be amplified. In many instances, educators understand the importance of these shifts, but may struggle with putting them into practice at their institutions.

I hope this article, along with my plenary speech, can serve as a catalyst for reflection and discussion. As such, I leave you with a question to consider:  What’s one paradigm shift you’d like to work on at your institution, department, or in your own work? What’s one thing you personally can do to start implementing such a shift?

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