INTERCULTURAL KNOWLEDGE AND COMPETENCE

Note: This essay originated from the GLCA Rubrics for Liberal Arts Learning Workshop, March 17-18, 2017.

It was written by the following:

Michael Dixon, mdixon@albion.edu, Art; Art History, Albion College
Patrik Hultberg, Patrik.Hultberg@kzoo.edu, Economics, Kalamazoo College
Jeff Kurtz, kurtz@denison.edu, Communication; Director of Center for Learning and Teaching, Denison  University
Heather Moore, hmoore@allegheny.edu, Community and Justice Studies and Black Studies, Allegheny College
Jeremy Rapport, jrapport@wooster.edu, Religious Studies, The College of Wooster

Intercultural knowledge and competence is a learning outcome that transcends particular courses, majors, or even disciplines; it is a transferable (“soft”) skill that is applicable to a wide range of jobs and industries. As such it is an important skill that all GLCA member colleges aspire to help their students develop. Intercultural competence is also a very complicated and broad learning goal that cannot be achieved in a single course or even a set of courses; it must be infused throughout the curriculum. In fact, its attainment is a lifelong process, and there is no point at which a student finally and fully obtains intercultural knowledge and competency. Faculty members, as well as entire institutions, can only aspire to help students progress towards greater intercultural knowledge and competence.

To facilitate this process, the entire curriculum must intentionally address the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that allow students to interact successfully with others from different backgrounds, both within the United States and across the globe. This in turn requires faculty to understand the components of intercultural competence in order to address some, or all, of its attributes in their individual courses and thereby continuously help students develop the required knowledge, attitudes, and skills.

Components of Intercultural Knowledge 

We define intercultural knowledge and competence as the ability to interact effectively with others from various cultures. In order to be effective, interactions with culturally different others must be both appropriate and successful. To achieve this learning goal, students must possess knowledge, attitudes, and skills that adequately prepare them to understand and communicate with people who think and act differently from themselves, people whose values and norms differ.

While we recognize that intercultural competence is much more complex than can be adequately described in any rubric, we offer the following components:

Knowledge

Of self: “Cultural self-awareness”

  • Having the capacity to identify our own cultural patterns.
  • Having knowledge of our own values and norms.

Of others: “Culture-general and culture-specific knowledge”

  • Having the understanding that people from other cultures think and act differently because they value and believe different things and have been socialized to act differently.

Attitudes

Curiosity:

  • Having the desire to learn.
  • Having a desire to explore, understand, and analyze a new culture.

Open-mindedness:

  • Being receptive to new ideas.
  • Having the ability to be open and unprejudiced when meeting people from a different culture.

Empathy/compassion:

  • Having the capacity to identify with the feelings, thoughts and behaviors of people from a different culture.
  • Having the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.

Skills

Communicate

  • Having the ability transmit information, thoughts, or feelings (verbally and nonverbally) in ways that can be accurately received and understood.
  • Avoiding sending unintended messages through our use of words and body language.

Active listening

  • Having the ability to focus, show interest (verbally and nonverbally), and remain neutral and non-judgmental.
  • Having the ability to listen and respond to another person in ways that improve mutual understanding.

Interpretation

  • Having the ability to explain accurately the meaning of another’s verbal and nonverbal communication.

Perspective-taking

  • Having the ability to view a situation or understand a concept from a different point-of-view (a different worldview).
  • Having the ability to view the world from others’ perspectives.

The above components help us define intercultural knowledge and competence as a learning outcome, but it is the tasks and assignments that faculty members ask of their students that will actually instill the knowledge, attitudes, and skills among our students.  Before briefly highlighting the kinds of assignments we’ve used to help student refine and deepen their intercultural knowledge and competence, we want to provide an overview of the learning goals and assumptions that have informed those assignments.

Characteristics of Assignments Across Disciplines

Once we solidified a working definition of Intercultural Competency and Knowledge, we briefly discussed our respective courses.  At first, it was easy to describe our own courses and consider strategies for student assessment.  After our individual reflections on course assignments that portray Intercultural Knowledge and Competency, we questioned whether there were commonalities across disciplines.  At the onset, this process was somewhat tedious as we began to think across our own respective disciplines.  Specifically, we considered the following questions: What are the definitive characteristics of this Learning Goal? And more importantly, How do these characteristics exemplify Intercultural Knowledge and Competency? In essence, our conversation transitioned from localized (course) reflections to broader characteristics that would define most coursework in this learning goal.

As a group, we initially identified seven characteristics of assignments that would help students attain our learning goal.  After the consortium, we noticed that some of the items were repetitive and decided to shorten the list to five characteristics.  Collectively, they are both student centered and push students “outside their comfort zone.”  Thus assignments in Intercultural Knowledge and Competency:

  • Meet students where they are
    • Students are not blank slates. Rather, students bring their own perspectives into the classroom setting.  On the one hand, some students may not have any exposure to heterogeneous communities.  On the other hand, other students may have prior exposure to diverse cultures.  Faculty must construct assessments that will ask all students to both acknowledge and address the knowledges they bring into the classroom setting.   
  • Challenge student worldviews and consider new perspectives
    • This characteristic, in particular, is a necessity for students who have rested comfortably in historically homogenous spaces (both on and off campus).  For these students, courses in Intercultural Knowledge and Competency will show the significance of lifelong learning.
  • Connect and apply prior knowledges
    • When students enroll in Intercultural Knowledge and Competency courses, they will be asked to draw connections between their prior knowledge and the information gleaned from course materials.  These courses should show students the power of cultural literacy (or the ability to use and apply the language learned in these courses to everyday experiences and situations).
  • Engage in problem solving tasks
    • Throughout the semester, students will be asked to use these acquired theories and concepts to solve both micro and macro problems in today’s society.  For instance, an in-class student assignment may ask small groups to address widespread community concerns as part of a community organizing initiative.
  • Teach effective communication methods
    • While students learn new concepts and theories that can be applied to various cultures, students are not always taught how to communicate these knowledges effectively.  After enrolling in several Intercultural Knowledge and Competency courses, assignments should encourage cultural literacy.

A Framework of Sample Assignments

Developing intercultural knowledge and competence is an ongoing process that involves multiple disciplines; it is a process that occurs not only over the course of a student’s entire college career but, indeed, over an entire lifetime. Because what counts as intercultural knowledge and competence changes with the variety of cultural diversity encountered, the types of assignments that might be usefully employed to help students develop it are extremely diverse. Nevertheless, we feel that most assignments intended to help students learn the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that constitute the development of intercultural competence may be conceived under three broad categories:  role-playing, interviewing, and analysis/reflection. All three of these types of assignments are intended to reflect and help develop the principles and skills of curiosity, perspective-taking, empathy and compassion, and communication.  

Of course, certain types of classes, classroom work, and college activities will help develop intercultural competence under almost any circumstances. Foreign language classes are a clear example of a type of class that will help students develop a more complete and nuanced understanding of others and which frequently employ the types of assignments we advocate. Foreign language classes have the additional virtue of being available to any student. Other assignments and tasks may be equally helpful, but less available to all students. Site-visits by a class can be extremely fruitful, but can also be highly dependent on context and circumstances. Study abroad programs are also clearly great facilitators of intercultural knowledge, but are also limited to those with the flexibility in their schedules to travel abroad and who possess the financial resources to make such plans a reality. It is imperative that intercultural knowledge and competence not be primarily or exclusively limited to those with the time and resources to engage in curricular and extra-curricular activities not available to all students. Thus, the assignments we describe below are not dependent on access to extra resources or privileges.

Role-playing assignments might take the form of small-group discussion activities in which student groups are given scenarios and must use information from class and research work to talk through how a person or people of a given cultural identity might respond to the situation. Another possible assignment might assign student groups different sides of negotiation involving people from different cultures. Students might also be asked how individuals with certain cultural and/or religious identities might respond to a particular situation.

Interview assignments ask students to interact with people who have different cultural identities. Students inform themselves about the people they will be interviewing, develop interview questions based on that research, and then talk to people. Again, the specific forms involved in this type of assignment could vary depending on the setting and context of the institution, the type of class in which students are enrolled, and the availability of people for students to interview.

Analysis/reflection is a critical element in developing intercultural competence knowledge and skills. Students must be able to process and communicate their experiences, both to facilitate the development of the required skills and attitudes and to demonstrate to faculty that they are making progress. To a certain extent then, analysis and reflection can be understood as the last step in a process-driven task intended to synthesize the many different elements of an assignment and so could be understood as a part of all intercultural competence assignments. Analysis and reflection assignments might take many forms, including classroom discussions, reflective essays, blog entries, and artistic work and expression. The important point is to have students engage in synthesizing their experiences.

One of us makes especially good use of this commitment to analysis and reflection through a two-week anti-racism workshop as part of a beginning-level drawing curriculum. Students are given the name of a person who was either a victim of social injustice or an ally in the fight for social justice including white allies. The instructor (Michael) selects people from the beginning of American history up through our contemporary moment. The students are asked to research the assigned person’s narrative, draw a portrait of that person, and share their drawing/research with the whole class as a presentation at the end of the two-weeks. This assignment prompts students to learn about stories with which they may not be familiar and to spend time really closely looking at their person while drawing the portrait. The result of this exercise is often empathy for the person who has served as the subject of research.

Ascertaining Student Learning

Effective means for assessing students’ attainment of the learning outcome could be applied in several forms across academic disciplines. The use of a pretest and posttest, for example, would measure where the students start in the curriculum and where they finish. Collecting several semesters of data could be used in assessing how well the learning objective(s) are coming through in the class content. Decisions related to how and whether to alter class content would be informed by the results of this data collection. Another form of this assessment model could be done with an early writing sample compared to a later writing sample using a grading rubric to assess the student’s progress with the learning outcome(s). Rubrics would be an effective tool to use as a method of measuring student intercultural knowledge and competency as it relates to participation, attitude, student portfolios, public speaking, presentation skills, etc. The data collected over time would give a clearer picture of the learning happening within a particular class or across a program’s curriculum.

Question for Consideration

The authors of this essay write, “It is imperative that intercultural knowledge and competence not be primarily or exclusively limited to those with the time and resources to engage in curricular and extra-curricular activities not available to all students.” The team has offered several examples. What actions have you taken to instill greater intercultural competence in all students of your classes, regardless of background or economic circumstance?

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