Inter-Cultural Intelligence and Education

Our societies have become increasingly multi-cultural with the influx of immigrants, refugees and expatriates from so many countries. This means that our classrooms are also becoming more and more multi-cultural.

It’s a welcome diversity, but it also brings its challenges to classroom dynamics and making sure that every student learns at his/her best abilities.

As educators, we do our best to understand our students (their learning styles, academic abilities, personality, etc), and we try our best to address these in our curriculum and delivery of the curriculum.

However, one of the missing elements that can boost a student’s performance is understanding his or her cultural traits. Culture has a strong influence on how we think, perceive, make decisions, communicate and behave. Many times, this influence is very much under the surface and hence overlooked.

How can Inter-Cultural Intelligence or ICI help us to improve learning in a culturally diverse classroom?

The first and foremost venue where ICI helps, is helping you understand yourself from a cultural perspective. What is your worldview, what are your cultural preferences? Through which lens do you perceive the world around you? When you understand yourself in a more explicit way, you can understand, relate to and interact with others in better ways.

The next step after self-awareness is increasing our other-awareness, learning to see where (and why) others are different, so we can adjust our behavior and communication to increase the effectiveness of our interactions with them.

This is where we realize that colleagues and students from a different culture are different and our standard approach doesn't always work well. Moving from sending the right message to triggering the right response in our communication and behavior is one of the most important take-aways from any communication training, and with ICI, you develop the skillset and competencies to accomplish this in intercultural situations.

Example - When the name of a student is called to come to the principal’s office over the school’s PA system, an American student would expect to be in trouble, whereas an Arab student would most likely expect an award. In the Arab world, correction and negative feedback are usually dealt with in private, not in public, as that would bring shame on the person and the group he/she belongs to. How do we change our protocols in the reality of a multi-cultural classroom and make them more interculturally intelligent?

Another step that is already happening in many places is to make our curriculum more "multi-cultural". My own kids are in 1st and 3rd grade and their books contain names and faces from all parts of the world. Common Core (yes, we live in the USA) is good at blending concepts from multiple subjects into the curriculum of a single subject so that each subject reinforces the learning objectives of other subjects too. It prepares the kids for diversity in the names, looks and holidays of other children, aka the differences in observable culture.

For many, this is where they stop because that's all they know or can do in the context of their job as an educator.

However, our kids’ kindergarten history curriculum started with the topic "All about me" and then "Me and my world", where the kids learned all about themselves and explored the world around them with “self” as a starting point.

This works great for a typical American kid in the USA where individualism and individual accountability are encouraged. However, how does this work for a family who just immigrated from let's say China or Syria where children are first of all seen as part of the group and are representing the group, and the individual and individualism takes a backseat? Does this affirm or contradict the values they grow up with at home? Does it help them develop a worldview that is inclusive of other cultures while also developing a strong sense of identity and belonging?

This is where building an interculturally intelligent curriculum truly starts. Seeing through the eyes of different worldviews and cultural preferences when writing and delivering a curriculum allows children to develop a worldview that is in harmony with the world they belong to (typically a mix of the worldview of their parents and the host culture) and a solid set of competencies that helps them relate to and interact with people with a different worldview in a positive and constructive way.

It makes a difference whether we talk about primary school, secondary school or higher education. Identity formation continues throughout one’s adolescence (and you could argue that identity formation is a never-ending journey), but most of it happens in the earlier part of one’s life. In high school, we may be able to talk explicitly about identity, values etc., but in the lower grades this formation process is more intense, yet more below the surface too. High school and college are also places where we can teach ICI in a more explicit way, build our students’ intercultural competencies and prep them for a successful launch in the global workspace.

The last step would be to bring it back to ourselves to complete the circle. We started with understanding ourselves as a person. The last step would be to understand ourselves as an organization. What are the worldview and cultural preferences of us as an organization, and who do we want to be? Are we as an organization truly interculturally intelligent and inclusive of people from other cultures? Do people from different cultures feel at home in our organization? Being an organization that is multicultural doesn’t mean that the organizational culture is a melting pot and changes continuously depending on the make-up of its staff. I believe that the more diverse the staff of a company is, the stronger the corporate culture and identity needs to be to give all the staff the opportunity to belong. However, this strong organizational culture needs to be infused with ICI and intentional in how it embraces the differences and leverages them to make the team stronger and higher performing.

If you want to learn more about Inter-Cultural Intelligence and how it intersects with your faith, work, organization and your vocation, n-Culture’s practitioners are available to help. Email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information. If you want to get immersed in ICI, join Olivet Nazarene University and n-Culture for our ICI certification workshop on March 6-9 near Chicago. Click this link for more info.

Published January 7th, 2017

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