What are the realistic expectations for intercultural learning to occur in schools?
What are the realistic expectations for intercultural learning to occur in schools?
What are the realistic expectations for intercultural learning to occur in schools?
By Martha Ross, Vienna International School, Vienna, Austria

The CIS Symposium on Intercultural Learning provided the forum for interested educators like myself to reflect on the importance of intercultural competencies within the field of international education. We shared examples of good practice, current research and discussions about student experience, which contributed to interesting debate and raised the consciousness of us all. For two days, we lived in the ideology of intercultural learning. We heard from impressive student key note speakers from The International School of Amsterdam, who reinforced the effects that intercultural learning has had, and will have, on their lives.

After attending the first Symposium last year, I had the opportunity to attend this year as a presenter and share my hopes and aspirations for students to have their cultural backgrounds reflected in their learning whilst contributing to their sense of personal identity. I indulged with the strand participants in a topic that has driven my practice and my studies for a decade now and this was very rewarding on a professional level.

Back in the reality of our schools, however, intercultural learning is like many new developments in education that sits somewhere on that spectrum of pragmatic task to ideological theory. Without training, explicit content in international curricula, or identified skills in recruitment, we are faced with a challenge of integrating intercultural awareness into student’s learning experience.

A changing role

Changes to the role of international teachers are starting be recognized. A recent paper published by the International Baccalaureate on international mindedness (IM) provides some of the best examples of effective practices in schools that I have come across. It also highlights the differences to the role of an educator. The authors cite, Bastable, (2014), ‘IM is emphasised in the [IB Learner Profile] by attributes such as open mindedness, empathy and respect for one’s own culture and those of others. This embracing model for learners demands considerably more from teachers and schools than straightforward curriculum delivery and pedagogy.’ Pragmatic skills for teaching and leading are adapted in the international school context and yet there is no guide to develop from one context to another. This raises questions about change processes required for an ideology like intercultural learning:

  • As we recruit teachers and leaders qualified to teach in a national context, are these educators aware of expectations to adapt their skills to an international and intercultural context?
  • Are we trusting that educators have the cultural interest and awareness to connect appropriately with the students?
  • Are we expecting educators to develop their skills and pedagogy out of consideration to the learners, embracing culturally diverse knowledge, values and practices?
Image from: Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential (Updated ed.). London: Little, Brown Book Group. Hoobyar, T. (2013).

The growth mindset

We can look to Dweck’s Growth Mindset model to understand how educators approach ideological shifts in education. A mindset that is motivated to adapt to developments in learning and connection with students could be identified as showing growth (right side of this model). A mindset that is not motivated to understand intercultural learning and who might be fearful of unknown places or unfamiliar behaviours might be more fixed and unaware of the need to develop (left side of this model). The fixed mindset prioritizes pragmatic approaches to learning over ideology and is reflected in educators who prefer to stay with the skills they were trained in.

If an awareness of a growth mindset for intercultural learning is not in place, there is the risk that intercultural awareness for learning might not occur. Students might not have the opportunity to experience or share cultural experiences, they might not have access to information from diverse cultural backgrounds. In this situation, students are at risk of feeling misunderstood at school. Certainly, cultural identities and experiences would not be perceived as valued in the learning context.

Pearce (2011), in his work on Composite Identities, recognizes the role that international schools, and thus educators within them, can have in supporting students with intercultural experiences and backgrounds. Awareness of these skills is timely to ensure that our students experience open minded interactions and exemplars of intercultural learning.

‘Students in international schools are characterized by life-trajectories that take them through a sequence of locations and cultural situations. Even if national identities were robust constructs, these children would not have the opportunity to develop them. It becomes vital to examine the processes in the student to see what is retained as they grow.' (160:2011 Pearce)

Identifying mindsets for learning in international schools is important in order to identify the opportunity to be a role model for students’ experience. If educators inquire into the life stories and international experiences of their students and help them learn about one another’s lives, the students are more likely to do this themselves. Embracing the unknown and digging into deeper understanding about the cultures around us can build our understanding so that with each student interaction and each class that we teach, we have the confidence to want to know more, to connect with students with greater interest, ask more informed questions, enable the students to recognize their existing knowledge and interests. With a growth mindset, we can model to our students our abilities to want to know, rather than a fear of finding out something that we don’t know how to relate to.

The messages our students receive from us as educators add to the complexity of their culturally pluralistic lives. My hope is that international educators recognize the skills involved in balancing the expectations of living in more than one culture; these are skills for life.

Further research

There is also hope in research as intercultural skills become defined. Pearce (2013) writes about a type of cultural differentiation: 'in the future it, (cultural differentiation), may be the most acceptable basis on which international education can apply culturally appropriate pedagogy, provided that cultural plurality is permitted.'

Here the ideology of intercultural learning can in my opinion be bridged with the pragmatic application of pedagogy. Inspired by the work of Pearce and others in the field, I have focused my EdD thesis on Intercultural Competencies in International Schools. My personal belief and hypothesis is that, ‘Intercultural competencies are evident for all educators on a developmental scale from intercultural connection to the use of pedagogical skills for intercultural learning and understanding.’

As a part of this research I surveyed international educators and asked them about the intercultural competencies that they use. 84% of respondents indicated they would be willing to learn cultural differentiation as a teaching skill. However, only 57% of respondents indicated that they seek to connect to students’ intercultural knowledge. Given that the ideology of intercultural learning is new in the field, the data that I am collating and the conversations that I continue to have, encourage me that our students will experience more awareness of themselves as learners over time.

The students from The International School of Amsterdam who opened the CIS Symposium shared how their future lives will be more informed and resilient due to the awareness that they have gained about one another’s lives in their international education. As evidence for the importance of growth mindset in intercultural learning, I have hope for students that their intercultural lives, experiences, languages, cultural knowledge, habits, values and skills contribute to authentic learning and therefore their learning successes.

Martha Ross is a third culture kid, born in New Zealand to an English Mother and American Father who continued to travel and live in these cultures as she grew up. As an adult her career as an International Educator took her from England to Italy, Hong Kong and now Austria. This summer she completes her role as Deputy Principal at Vienna International School and embarks on a new role as Head of Primary at Amadeus International School, Vienna. Martha is completing her EdD with The University of Bath where she has studied the International School Industry over the past 8 years and more specifically the role of international educators within these schools. Her research focuses on the student’s experiences of learning in school and out of school, surrounded as international school students are by cultural experiences and information. It is the how students mediate their culturally pluralistic lives, be that from the host nation to the international school culture or from a life lived in several places, that motivates Martha to pursue her work in this field.

References and Further Reading:
  • Barrat Hacking, E, Blackmore, C, Bullock, K, Bunnell, T, Donnelly, M & Martin, S. (2017). The International Mindedness Journey: School Practices for Developing and Assessing International Mindedness Across the IB Continuum scoured on 23rd April 2017 at http://www.ibo.org/globalassets/publications/ib-research/continuum/international-mindedness-final-report-2017-en.pdf
  • Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.
  • Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: A synthesis of meta-analyses in education J Hattie. London: Routledge
  • Pearce, R. (2013) Student diversity: the core challenges to international schools in International Education and Schools: Moving beyond the First 40 Years. Bloomsbury. Pg 75.
  • Pearce, R. (2011) When borders overlap: Composite Identities in children in international schools. Journal of Research in International Education. Pg 160. SAGE.
What are the realistic expectations for intercultural learning to occur in schools?
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What are the realistic expectations for intercultural learning to occur in schools?