Helping Modern Learners Become Intercultural Learners

by Pilar Teran & Gabriela Weglowska

Introduction

The fields of intercultural communication studies and intercultural education are not new, but have grown in recent decades in response to new challenges as the world has become more globalised: advances in new technologies, migration, global trade and peace.

People live, study and work in environments that are more culturally diverse than ever before meaning that intercultural interactions in their own societies and across countries are becoming part of their lives. This challenge requires knowledge and teaching/training strategies to equip people with new skills to be competent participants in diverse environments. Ongoing research in the fields of study mentioned above indicates that in order to live in harmony people must engage in intercultural learning and develop intercultural competence (Byram, 2008).

Beside, learning has been revolutionised by new advances in technology and by the demands of an increasing fast pace of living. As a result, a phenomenon called Digital Transformation of Learning (DTL) and the so called ‘modern leaner’ are changing dynamics in today’s workplace.

In this article, we will look at what research is telling us about the profile of the so called ‘modern learner’ and how it relates to that of the intercultural learner, highlighting any areas that may be problematic.

Intercultural Learning and Intercultural Competence

Among other things, intercultural learning is about:

  • Accepting and valuing diversity, and finding ways to deal with it.
  • Understanding the role that culture plays in our interactions.
  • Learning not only about ourselves and our culture but also about others and their cultures.

Here are a few reasons why we should be embracing intercultural learning:

  • It allows us to bridge cultural gaps and understand the reasons behind the different practices of people from cultural environments different to our own.
  • It cultivates attitudes such as empathy, open mindedness, respect and inclusivity.
  • It empowers people to cope with ambiguity, complexity and change.

A key aspect of intercultural learning is developing intercultural competence.

Intercultural competence has been defined in a number of ways by researchers and practitioners. Michael Byram defines it as: “the capacity to engage with people of a cultural group and identity to which we do not belong, to understand them and to act together with them; it is not a matter of changing identity but rather of crossing group boundaries to see their culture from within, and to see our own culture from the other perspective” (Byram, 2008).

Hopefully, before not too long, intercultural competence will be embedded in the curricula in primary, secondary and higher education and it will become an intrinsic part of each individual’s lifelong learning. In fact, the Council of Europe believes that the development of intercultural competence is the key element of mainstream education.

In the meantime, many educators around the world are trying their best to incorporate intercultural learning in their teaching because there is evidence that intercultural competence can be promoted by educational institutions. Equally, there is some recognition by certain employers in the corporate world of how crucial cultural due diligence is for their businesses, but it is still far from being part of the learning and development (L&D) strategy of many corporations.

 Transformation of Learning

Globalisation, technology and migration mentioned before have revolutionised learning in the educational and corporate sectors. Learning environments, learning tools, pedagogy and learners are not the same.

Rapid advances in technology have transformed people’s mobility, communication and access to information in a scale and pace never seen before. People move around the world or connect in situ with those on the other side of the globe, including those from diverse cultural backgrounds, and have access to instant and vast amount of information that was inconceivable not that long ago. As a result, learning and working environments are very diverse, there is a wide range of new digital tools available for searching information and learning as well as a move from a monocultural pedagogy to pedagogical approaches that encourage and promote intercultural dialogue.

These changes are hugely impacting on the profile of the learner these days and posing new challenges for both the educational and corporate sectors. Learners must be equipped with appropriate skills to interact effectively face to face or virtually with people from many different cultures and also use technology and information in culturally appropriate ways. Moreover, they need to be also well aware of the demands of the modern workplace.

The modern workplace learning is all about learning in-the-flow of work, using technology. This approach is “founded on connectivism and constructivism, in which organisational control and conformity decreases, and learner connection and creativity are maximised” (Lancaster, 2020). Towards Maturity’s ‘Learner Voice’ reports 2014-16 reveal corporate learners’ expectations and habits:

  • 82% want to learn at their own pace and know what learning they need
  • 68% know where to find learning
  • 48% are using personal mobiles to access work-related learning apps
  • 61% are motivated by using technologies that allow them to network
  • 70% use Google and web searches for learning
  • 48% choose to learn at evening and weekends
  • 28% learn while travelling to and from work

A new profile has been gradually emerging that of the ‘modern learner’ researched and described by Josh Bersin (2014) in his famous infographic ‘Meet the Modern Learner’ illustrated below.

Bersin highlighted that due to the challenges, the modern learner wants flexible, on demand access to learning ATAWAD (anytime, anywhere, any device). As summarised in one of Learnlight Insights articles, “the modern learner lives in the narrow gap where technology, curiosity and a hunger for information are fighting a monochromatic culture intent on squeezing learning into a tiny box.”

Modern learners rely heavily on technology for continuous self-training, immediate information and instant problem-solving. They value collaborative learning from their peers and managers, and they develop skills such as flexibility, adaptability, mental agility and openness to deal with change and unpredictability.

However, they also face many challenges. Challenge number one is time. According to Bersin, only 1% of the working week is available to an average employee for training and development. That’s just 24 minutes in a 40-hour working week to develop, for example, intercultural skills. Other challenges include being constantly distracted, overwhelmed and impatient.

A question that keeps coming to our minds, is: Can intercultural learning support rather than impose more pressures on the modern learner?

Can we envisage ‘the modern intercultural learner’?

Many researchers from different disciplines have contributed to define, model and assess intercultural competence. There are discrepancies, but also a widely held recognition that intercultural competence relates to four main dimensions: knowledge, attitudes, skills and behaviour. We have summarised the work that Koester & Olebe (1989), Byram (1997) and Risager (2007) have done in this area to list some of the main competences of the intercultural learner:

  • Accepting, appreciating and understanding cultural diversity, and the ability to deal with otherness in a respectful manner.
  • Tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to handle misunderstandings and conflict in a constructive way.
  • Developing the attitudes of curiosity and openness, and an awareness that values are influenced by culture.
  • The ability to react in a non-judgemental way.
  • The ability to adapt behaviour to different intercultural situations.
  • Empathy to understand and respond to other people’s feelings, thoughts and behaviours in intercultural encounters.
  • Acquiring knowledge about how social interactions work in one’s culture and in other cultures.
  • The ability to interpret documents or events from another culture, explain and relate them to one’s culture.
  • The ability to discover new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices, and the ability to interact effectively in that culture under the constraints of real time.
  • Critical cultural awareness or the ability to critically evaluate perspectives, products and practices in one’s culture as well as in other cultures.

Looking at both, the intercultural and the modern learner’s profiles, we can see some parallels, but also some contradictions that in our view must be addressed if the modern learner is to become interculturally competent.

Curiosity and openness

These are two attitudes that apparently unite the intercultural and modern learner. They both seem curious and open about discovering the world around and beyond them. It is worth stressing though that the intercultural learner learns to develop these attitudes by looking not only outward but also inward enabling a process of self-awareness. A process that entails self-discovery and deep understanding of ones ‘own identity and one’s culture which is a requirement to reach out, to appreciate others and understand their world. It is therefore crucial that the modern learner sees the significance of that self-awareness process if he/she is to develop intercultural competence and, ultimately pursue a global mindset.

Flexibility and adaptability

Flexibility and adaptability are key skills that both learners develop to deal with new, different, contradictory, ambiguous, and changeable information on an ongoing bases. Those skills though must be accompanied by tolerance and empathy to other people’s feelings, thoughts and behaviours and, furthermore, an ability to deal with potential misunderstandings and conflict. Developing empathy and tolerance are critical to support the modern learner minimise the negative effects of being impatient and overwhelmed.

Fast versus slow learning

Intercultural learning is a continuous, but also a slow-growing process, a lifelong process. It involves reflection and an awareness of oneself and of one’s and of other’s cultures. It is about understanding that culture is learned, dynamic, subject to gradual change (Spencer-Oatey, 2012) which means that cultural awareness needs to be constantly reviewed. The modern learner has in his/her favour the mental agility to face constant change, but that will need to be supported by an ability to know what to look for when it comes to cultural awareness. Being intercultural competent will assist him/her in delivering a better job.

Complexity and ambiguity

Intercultural learning deals with complex and open questions, and ambiguity. It addresses that there are many different approaches to knowing, to understanding reality and to providing answers to common problems in social interactions. It handles misunderstandings and conflicts when they arise. Intercultural learning also engages with the fact that our identity, or better still, our identities are multiple, fluid, dynamic and changeable which causes tensions and contradictions. The modern learner, on the other hand, is under pressure to provide quick answers and simplify complexity. One way forward for the modern learner must involve not only awareness of the above aspects, but tools and strategies to develop a new mindset that feels natural and helps reduce some of the pressures.

Relationships and cooperation  

Intercultural learning is about acknowledging that difference and diversity enrich us all when we are given the opportunities to get actively involved. Intercultural learning provides the space for dialogue, for building relationships, for cooperation and for the social good in diverse environments. Regrettably, many places in our society today including classrooms and workspaces are multicultural environments where integration, cooperation and strong relationships are not successfully achieved. The modern learner is likely to have been socialised in such spaces and, therefore he/she will need the support of the trainer or educator to embrace diversity in its all multifaceted ways and obtain the best of it. Having said that, it is most welcome to know that the modern learner wants to learn not only from the experts, but also from the managers and peers. (Bersin, 2014).

Use of technology

The modern learner consumes learning through technology. We strongly feel that it’s necessary to point out that technology should not be used for the sake of it but to support learning, including intercultural learning. Sometimes technology is not the answer. For example, a brand-new global team which wants to develop intercultural relationships, trust and adjust to each other’s communication and working styles may perhaps prefer to meet and learn face to face, if at all possible. A student or an employee who is moving for a set period of time to another country and need to build knowledge and skills for living/working effectively in that country, may prefer to use a virtual, intercultural coach and/or engage with digital learning. The value of technology in learning cannot be denied, nor can be the value of a human presence (such as a teacher/mentor) underestimated. The modern learner should be able to assess the desired outcomes of their learning and choose the learning mode purposefully.

Conclusion

Modern learners are experiencing diversity and technology in unprecedented ways. The challenges are rich and complex and so it is the process of developing intercultural competence and, ultimately a global mindset.

The modern learners’ traits and skills are a good foundation on which to develop more intercultural competences. They are skilled with technology and well equipped for learning-on-the-go, keen to take responsibility for their constant development and learn cooperatively from their peers and managers as well as from the experts, mentally agile, and flexible and adaptable to constant change.

There is though no ‘quick fix’ for modern learners to acquire intercultural competence. Also, one of the key principles in learning and development is that ‘one-size does not fit all.’ Intercultural learning is a personal, slow and long process.

A process which undoubtedly will help modern learners: to develop an understanding that expectations and behaviours have not the same meaning to all people and that negotiation of meaning from different perspectives is essential; to accept and value difference; to be committed to  the social good; to achieve a global mindset and be successful in today’s workplace.

The good news is that educators, practitioners, learning and development professionals and trainers can count on an expanding field of study to support such learners.

We hope that this article will inspire educators, organizations and modern learners not to overlook the significance of intercultural learning if we are aiming at building a global, harmonious and thriving 21st century world.

References:

  • Bersin, J. (2014) Leading in Learning. Deloitte. Available online.
  • Byram, M. (1997) ‘Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence’. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Byram, M. (2008) ‘From Foreign Language Education to Education for Intercultural Citizenship’ (Chapter 14). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Koester & Olebe (1988). The behavioural assessment scale for intercultural communication effectiveness. International Journal of Intercultural Relations cited in Lustig, M.W. & Koaster, J. (1996). Intercultural competence: intercultural communication across cultures (2nd ed). New York: Harper Collins College Publishers.
  • Lancester, A. (2020) ‘Driving Performance Through Learning’ (Chapter 1). London: Kogan Page Limited.
  • Spencer-Oatey, H. (2012). What is culture? A compilation of quotations. GlobalPAD Core Concepts. Available at GlobalPAD Open House.
  • Risager, K. (2007) ‘Language and Culture Pedagogy: From a National to a Transnational Paradigm’. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

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About the authors of this article:

Pilar Teran

Pilar is a qualified business coach and trainer specialising in inter-cultural engagement and communication with a broad-ranging expertise in teaching Spanish for business in companies such as Arthur Anderson, Barclays Bank, Chubb Insurance and Franklin and Andrews. She is a Fellow of Advance HE with 30 years’ experience in teaching Spanish as a foreign language and Intercultural Communication for the last 7 years to undergraduates and postgraduates at the University of Sussex and University of Brighton. She has also worked on internationalising the curriculum, contributing to a toolkit that is available on Advance HE website. Pilar is passionate about the transformative impact that intercultural training and learning has on both companies, by reducing conflict and maximising performance, and on students by enhancing their experience at university and beyond.

Gabriela Weglowska

Gabriela is Intercultural Skills Consultant & Instructional Designer at Learnlight, with over 13 years’ experience working in an international environment. In her current role, she focuses on the topics of cultural competence, soft skills and diversity & inclusion. She advises on and designs blended learning solutions and training content for global clients, that fit the needs of the modern learners. As a lifelong learner herself, Gabriela has an MA in Intercultural Business Communication and a CIPD Diploma in Learning & Development. She also teaches intercultural communication at the University of Surrey and serves as a Board Member & Communications Director at SIETAR UK.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in articles on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIETAR UK.“

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