The #1 Thing You Can Do to Help Students Navigate Cultural Differences

Jul 25, 2017

Have you ever wondered how you can better help your students navigate cultural differences (at home or abroad)? I’ve been asked this question by many educators, and my answer often surprises them.

Without hesitation, I would encourage you to first focus not on your students’ learning, but on your own intercultural development. Research and my own experience both strongly suggest that an educator’s degree of intercultural competence impacts how they help students learn through intercultural experiences.

The Intercultural Development Continuum

Before I explain why it’s so important to first focus on yourself, let’s explore what intercultural development entails. Intercultural competence can be defined as the ability to communicate and act appropriately and effectively across cultural differences. Effectively means we achieve what we set out to achieve. Appropriately means we do so in such a way that any other parties involved feel respected.

Intercultural development (which I use interchangeably with ‘intercultural learning’) involves developing one’s intercultural competence. The Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC) (Hammer, 2009, 2012; based on M. Bennett 1986, 1993) portrays this process as a developmental continuum, consisting of five worldviews. These worldviews represent increasingly complex ways of experiencing cultural difference.

In the monocultural worldviews of Denial and Polarization, people view the world primarily through their own cultural lens, typically without even realizing they have a cultural lens at all. People in Denial don’t experience much cultural difference, often due to lack of exposure. The Polarization worldview can take two forms—Defense or Reversal—both of which experience cultural differences in a dichotomous “us” and “them” way. People in Defense tend to take an uncritical view of their own cultural practices and an overly critical stance toward other cultural practices; they oftentimes find cultural differences threatening. Those in Reversal also view cultural differences in terms of “us” and “them,” but tend to be overly critical of their own culture(s) and uncritically accepting of other cultural practices.

Minimization is a transitionary worldview between the monocultural and intercultural worldviews. People in Minimization tend to focus on cultural commonalities and universal values and principles and don’t typically recognize or appreciate deeper cultural differences. They may experience and value some superficial cultural differences, but assume that “deep down” we are all the same.

At the intercultural end of the spectrum are the Acceptance and Adaptation worldviews. In Acceptance, people comprehend cultural differences at a deeper level. They recognize both cultural differences and similarities, and tend to be very curious about and seek out opportunities to experience other cultures. People in Adaptation not only recognize and appreciate such differences, but are able to adapt their behavior and shift their perspectives to other cultural contexts in appropriate and authentic ways.

[For more information about the IDC and corresponding IDI assessment tool (Hammer & Bennett, 1998; Hammer, 2009), click here.]

The Relationship between Educators’ Intercultural Competence and Student Learning

Educators who want to help students develop along this continuum should ideally be at or beyond the worldview they are hoping to help their learners get to. After all, how can anyone help others experience something in a more complex way than they themselves are experiencing it?

I’ve noticed there tends to be an assumption that educators (especially those with international experience) are sufficiently interculturally competent to help students successfully navigate and maximize the learning opportunities inherent in intercultural experiences. But just as the research now clearly demonstrates that international experience alone doesn’t lead to intercultural development for students (Vande Berg et al., 2012), the same is true for educators.

While research that looks specifically at the relationship between educators’ intercultural competence and their students’ learning is limited, there is evidence that we are often not as interculturally competent as we think we are, and that educators’ own intercultural competence impacts their capacity to facilitate students’ intercultural learning (Goode, 2007/08; Ziegler, 2006). Several studies using the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI)—which assesses intercultural competency along the IDC—have found that many educators involved with international education are in Minimization, a worldview that is “not optimal” for facilitating students’ intercultural learning (Goode, 2007/08; Ziegler, 2006). Ziegler explains how the approach educators in Minimization take compares to that of educators in Acceptance and Adaptation:


“(…) People who function in an acceptance/adaptation worldview spend their energy conceptualizing, assessing, and facilitating their students’ intercultural development needs. They focus on coordinating a rigorous academic program, blending culture learning with other content areas, and guiding students along in their intercultural learning experience.

“Those operating in a minimization framework tend to see themselves as interpreters, devoting significant energy to explaining cultural differences, and helping people to prevent or overcome culturally-based misunderstandings. They tend to focus on culture-specific learning and adaptation. They spend less time teaching and helping students to develop a culture-general conceptual framework from which to approach questions of cultural difference that may occur in any setting.” (p. 151)

In other words, educators in Minimization may be capable of teaching about culture and cultural differences, but they are not as effective at helping students develop their intercultural competence.

I have worked with educators all along the Intercultural Development Continuum and seen firsthand their tendency to approach intercultural learning as Ziegler explains above. I have also witnessed amazing personal and professional growth through intercultural coaching and training. As educators begin to experience cultural differences in a more complex way themselves, they also start to respond to students and support their learning in a more holistic and deeper way. They learn to empathize with students and colleagues in ways they hadn’t been able to before.

Focusing on developing our own intercultural competence not only helps us facilitate others’ intercultural learning, but it also helps us bridge the gap between ourselves and those we work with. People often ask me, “How do you convince students of the importance of intercultural learning?” The answer is that I focus on bridging, not convincing. That is, I try to employ the skills of Adaptation, striving to appreciate and see from the students’ perspectives and adapt my behavior to meet them where they are (in other words, practicing intercultural competence). By doing this, we model intercultural competence for our students.

Where to Start

At the organizational level, the first critical step is for institutions to recognize that fostering intercultural development requires more than including such words in a mission statement, sending more students abroad, bringing more international students in, or increasing the diversity of the student body. It begins with nurturing the intercultural development of the faculty and staff who are interacting with students both inside and outside the classroom.

The first important step for individual educators is to take the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) or another reliable intercultural assessment (the IDI is my preferred assessment when the goal is development) to become more aware of their own strengths and challenges when navigating cultural differences. In order to get your IDI results, you must participate in an individual debrief with a Qualified Administrator. The next step is to use that information to formulate a plan for developing your intercultural competence, and then to put it into practice, ideally with the support of ongoing intercultural coaching and/or training.

Until now, the best options (in my opinion) for educators interested in developing their intercultural competence were the following:

  • Participate in an intensive workshop that includes the IDI and debrief
  • Partner with an IDI Qualified Administrator for one-on-one intercultural coaching
  • Institutions may partner with a consultant/trainer who is an IDI Qualified Administrator (such as myself) to design a customized training and coaching program

However, now there is another option! In an effort to make this type of professional development more accessible, I created the innovative, ten-week online program, “Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching.” The program, which includes the IDI assessment and an individual debrief, is a facilitated online training that helps participants better understand and navigate cultural differences, facilitate others’ intercultural learning, and be more effective and inspired educators. (Update as of Jan 2020: This program has been updated and expanded, and is now called "Facilitating Intercultural Learning.") Click here to learn more.

I’d love to hear more about your intercultural learning journey, or what your institution is doing to support the intercultural development of faculty and staff! Please share in the comments section below.

References & Relevant Resources

Anderson, C.L., Lorenz, K., & White, M. (2016). Instructor influence on student intercultural gains and learning during instructor-led, short-term study abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, XXVIII, 1-23.

Bennett, M.J. (1986). Towards ethnorelativism: A developmental approach to training for intercultural sensitivity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 10(2), 179-196.

Bennett, M.J. (1993). Towards ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In R. M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the intercultural experience (pp. 21-71). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Goode, M. L. (2007-2008). The role of faculty study abroad directors: A case study. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, XV, 149-172.

Hammer, M. R. & Bennett, M. J. (1998). The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) manual. Portland, OR: Intercultural Communication Institute.

Hammer, M. R. (2009). The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI): An approach for assessing and building intercultural competence. In M. A. Moodian (Ed.), Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Understanding and utilizing cultural diversity to build successful organizations (pp. 245-261). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hammer, M. R. (2012). The Intercultural Development Inventory: A new frontier in assessment and development of intercultural competence. 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. 115-136). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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.

Vande Berg, M., Paige, R. M., & Lou, K. H. (Eds.). (2012). Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they're not, and what we can do about it. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Ziegler, N. J. (2006). Culture learning in study abroad from the perspective of on-site staff in France and Senegal. Unpublished dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

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