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A PRACTICAL TOOL TO LEVERAGE STUDENTS’ CULTURAL DIVERSITY TOWARDS MORE EFFECTIVE TEACHING AND LEARNING


by Peter Welch, Head of School, International School of Helsinki, Finland

Introduction by Dave Stanfield, Head of Research & Development, Council of International Schools (CIS)

Earlier this year at the CIS Symposium on Intercultural Learning, Peter Welch, Head of School at the International School of Helsinki, introduced a bespoke tool that identifies students’ cultural dispositions as a means to individualise learning. The simple but powerful survey garnered significant interest from the diverse audience of international educators for its potential to improve teaching and learning through a more comprehensive understanding of the cultural composition of a school and its unique applicability to an international school context.

In line with CIS’ strongly held belief in the value of research- and data-driven education and our commitment to promoting effective intercultural learning, we are partnering with ISH to make their research-based survey available to CIS member schools. I believe this instrument has the potential to fundamentally change the way international educators understand and utilize students’ cultural dispositions in relation to how they learn.

Read on as Peter explains more about the development of the survey and the potential impact it could have on your school.

The Student Cultural Dispositions Survey will be available this fall to a limited number of CIS schools. Fill out this short form if you’d like additional information.

This year, a research group at the International School of Helsinki has been exploring how we can map cultural dispositions to learning and communication styles in our classrooms. Each new international student who enrolls arrives with distinct values, assumptions and approaches to learning. Yet generalizing teaching strategies to address culture based on points of origin is problematic. As we bridge from theory to the practical realities of our classrooms, we grapple with enormous complexity.

Our ambition at ISH is to develop practical tools that help teachers understand and leverage cultural diversity. This ambition is based on three insights shared by many educators in international schools:

  • First, many of our schools remain fundamentally ‘western’ in outlook, in our curriculum and the perspective of most of our educators. This paradigm needs to evolve in a constructive, practical manner.
  • Second, our schools are characterized by tremendous cultural diversity, yet rarely do we mine this richness of perspectives on what life is all about.
  • Third, if we are truly serving this generation of students, we must be intentional about nurturing cultural intelligence. Our global citizens will live and work across borders in our evermore-connected world. To thrive they will need the soft skills that help get the best out of people with very different cultural norms.

The research group started with a definitional challenge. In most cultural theory nationality is habitually used as shorthand to describe culture. This convention proves inadequate as we move from theory to practice, as national stereotypes do not fit the nuances of our experience. For many of the global nomads we teach nationality is a confusing concept. They are used to a very wide set of cultural norms which can never be covered by any national label. We defined culture as the core values and assumptions we acquire through our socialization. One’s culture is formed by the interaction of norms that exist in our family, community, schools and social environment. It can be altered in response to life experience.

Next, we wanted to find a way of measuring different cultural values and assumptions and how they manifest at ISH. We developed different dimensions that are relevant to learning and communication styles:


We then drafted sets of questions to measure these five dimensions. Over two months of discussion with students and colleagues we developed an online questionnaire, drawing on a wide range of cultural theory and adapting it to a school environment. We gave the questionnaire to all our Upper School students (Grade 6 to 12). Then we asked our Upper School teachers to answer it with the model answers that we would want at ISH. Then we compared the two data sets. The results were fascinating. There was a great deal of overlap, but it was instructive for colleagues to discuss where the student and teacher data was not aligned. For example, we want our students to be comfortable making mistakes in class, but the data shows that this is not always true. How does culture equate to comfort with the idea of making mistakes and taking risks in class?  

This all fits perfectly into ISH’s conversation about using data to individualize learning. The results give our teachers great insight into the learning and communication preferences of their students. We can measure the success we are having with the values in our vision and mission statements. At ISH we talk about empowering our students. The data shows that the longer students are at ISH the teacher-student relationship tips towards more empowerment. We can also show that our students are developing better cross-cultural communication skills over time. This is great data to share with Boards, especially in Finland where we have to define our value-added educational currency very clearly. Our next step is to create a similar questionnaire for our parents as a way of aligning educational values and expectations.

ISH is delighted to partner with CIS on the further development of this questionnaire model. It is excellent that CIS and a growing number of international schools are increasing their focus on intercultural learning. We believe that this questionnaire has tremendous potential to measure the soft skills that we value. The sophisticated questionnaire platform that is being developed will allow educators to splice the data quickly by gender, age and other factors as well as culture. We hope that this tool unlocks some great conversations in your school as it has in ours.

My thanks go to in particular to Robin Schneider for his partnership in this project, to Grade 5L, the High School Student Council, Gabrielle Welch and to my colleagues in the research group: Caitlin Bestard, Rachel Curle, Matthew Derrett, Linda Gerberich, Peter Goodman, Jyri-Pekka Komonen, Sue Laws, Chandra McGowan, Brent Pinkerton, Alwyn Roberts, Minna Tammivuori-Piraux and Carrie Turunen.

About the Author: Peter Welch is the Director at the International School of Helsinki. Prior to this, he was the Director at Istanbul International Community School and the American Pacific International School in Thailand. Originally from England, he has spent most of his career overseas, working in diverse schools in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.

Posted by CIS on Tuesday June, 7, 2016

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