Developing Intercultural Competence

Diversity, Equity, Teaching

Developing Intercultural Competence

A shift in thinking

What is intercultural competence and why is it important? (111.89 kB / pdf)

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What is intercultural competence and why is it important? Intercultural competence is the ability to communicative effectively and appropriately with students who are linguistically and culturally different from ourselves. It’s an important skill for teachers who want to more deeply support and affirm the diverse students in their classes.

“Two of my students from Somalia are about to be expelled from school for chronic absences, in keeping with our school’s policy. But I believe we need to talk with the families who may be most responsible, not the students themselves. How do I convince the principal that ‘some school’ is better than ‘no school’ for these kids? How do I find out what is really going on in their lives? What can I do to better understand their behaviour and in turn find a more viable solution?”1

The concern above is not uncommon. Indeed, as a long-time instructor and designer of Teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) courses for Ontario K-12 teachers, I have become all too familiar with many such cases. The thing is, they most often involve a lack of communication among teachers, diverse students and their families. Professional challenges commonly relate to our misconceptions, misunderstandings, and culturally ingrained assumptions about teaching, learning and classroom management that are based on our own cultural backgrounds, education, and socialization. This article addresses the fact that to effectively and more deeply support and affirm diverse students and engage in culturally responsive teaching, educators need to develop intercultural competence, that is, the ability to communicative effectively and appropriately with students who are linguistically and culturally different from ourselves. We need to ask ourselves the questions: Do I meet students where they are at, or do I have other expectations of their behaviour based on feelings I have about my own culture? How adaptable am I? How culturally appropriate have I been with my students when I interact with them? What can I do to shift my thinking?

Affirming different cultural orientations through culturally responsive teaching is not just about “show and tell,” the so-called food, festival, folklore and fashion mantra. Teachers take into consideration a variety of school protocols, such as how and what students are learning, styles of communication, assessment practices, and activities related to inclusiveness.2 However, I argue that infusing appropriate cultural material into curriculum and policy is only one component; most importantly, as educators in diverse classrooms, we need to develop effective intercultural competence, which requires the following attributes:

  • respect for and appreciation of other cultures, worldviews and communication styles
  • an understanding of other people’s behaviours, cultural customs and ways of thinking regardless of how unusual or strange they may appear
  • the ability and willingness to acknowledge and accept different behaviours and ideas in a nonjudgmental way, especially opinions and perspectives with which we do not necessarily agree
  • awareness of our own biases and behaviours in order to respond in a culturally appropriate manner
  • curiosity, flexibility and the willingness to adapt and be open to different ways of thinking and behaving.

Understanding different cultural behaviours begins with knowledge – an awareness of what motivates people to think the way they think and do what they do. We need to recognize that the expectations we have as classroom teachers and those of our diverse students may not always align because our respective beliefs about and attitudes toward family, social life, work and education are shaped by our respective backgrounds. For example, the education system in Canada has primarily been based on a Eurocentric, Western model which affirms individualism. As a guideline, individualistic cultures tend to focus on independence, personal achievement and assertiveness, as opposed to collectivist cultures, which focus on loyalty to the group and allegiance to family.3 Differences in values, such as obedience to authority figures, which in a collectivist culture is often exhibited in teacher-centered forms of instruction, can significantly affect students’ ways of thinking and behaviour. As a result, students from cultures with a predominant collectivist orientation, such as Japan, may find self-guided, discovery-oriented activities more challenging than ones that are more teacher-directed and predictable. They may also seem restrained on the emotional level, avoid eye contact with teachers and be reluctant to volunteer answers in class.

Research has also shown that with regard to seeking social support, let’s say, help from a school counsellor, students from individualistic cultures may be more willing because they share the cultural assumption that people should be proactive and talk openly about stressful events. Conversely, students coming from more collectivistic cultures may be relatively more cautious about getting help and disclosing personal problems because they share the cultural assumption that individuals should not burden others, even close family, with their issues. They feel they might disrupt group harmony and receive criticism from others.4 Considering we have students in our schools who have experienced post-traumatic stress, bullying and acculturation challenges, it important to be aware of the latter attitude toward counselling. They may be reluctant to tell their story.

It is also important to recognize that factors such as context and personality can influence cultural dynamics like individualism/collectivism, so even individuals within a particular culture can exhibit different cultural behaviours. Indeed, as we learn about our students’ cultures, it is best not to make assumptions based on experiences we have had with other students from similar backgrounds. Culturally responsive teaching requires teachers to keep an open, non-judgmental mindset.

In many respects, one of the biggest challenges for teachers in any grade is communicating with parents, some of whom may have minimal ability to communicate in English. Like their children, they too are learning to understand an unfamiliar social and school context, which includes their role in relation to teachers and school administrators. Taking the everyday example of a parent-teacher conference, teachers can use a number of strategies to aid parents’ comprehension.5 Before the conference, a list of educational terms and definitions (e.g. learning centres, hands-on activities, critical thinking, task-based learning, goal setting) can be provided. When answering parents’ questions, paraphrasing and then articulating points in succession helps parents understand what is coming. So in reply to the question, “How is my daughter doing compared to other students in the class?” the teacher can say: “You asked about how your daughter compares to other children in the class. First, I am going to talk about her progress, and then I will talk about how she compares with her classmates.” Teachers can also politely ask parents to summarize important components to make sure they are clear, especially if they need to take action such as scheduling time for homework or nightly reading.

Parents may have culturally rooted perceptions about discipline, standardized testing, and other educational practices as well as their role in their child’s schooling. They may have had little, if any, involvement with their children’s school in their home country. Parents may also view teachers as experts and so may not feel comfortable questioning their authority or offering suggestions. When we send notes or emails home with information, we expect (or at least hope) that parents read all the information and will respond to requests, such as providing permission for their child to attend a field trip. We may also make the assumption that if parents do not understand a note from school, they will contact the teacher and ask for clarification. However, misunderstandings can occur and teachers may never be aware of them because the parents haven’t communicated with the school directly. The signal may be that the child is absent from school, which is an indirect way (albeit possibly culturally acceptable from their perspective) of them showing their disapproval or confusion about an activity or event. Or they might write the school an email or send a note with the child expressing their concerns, as opposed to showing up in person. The concept of saving face comes to play in this regard.6 As a social construct related to preserving dignity and self-respect, saving face plays an important role in many cultures. Threats to face are likely to arise, possibly for both parties, when problems related to school protocols are pointed out too directly. Consequently, it is often a good idea to minimize these threats when confronting parents about the fact that they (and their children) have not understood, for example, homework instructions or, as in the scenario above, informing the school of absences and reasons for them.

Parents often have great respect for teachers; however, it is important to establish trust with the family by, for example, meeting with family members in a place they feel safe, such as home or a local community center. Parents should have the opportunity to ask questions they may have about school culture, and expectations for their involvement. They can also share preferred ways to communicate with teachers. For example, if they are more comfortable writing notes and email messages (and using translators or online translation software), as opposed to meeting in person, then their choices should be acknowledged and utilized. Indeed, and especially for parents of ELLs, affirming their home languages and cultures, and showing respect for what they know and what they can offer, are critical factors in helping them become more involved in their children’s education. What’s more, looking at and valuing different cultural orientations may help to identify ways to foster the kinds of relationships between school personnel and parents that will improve student outcomes.

Developing intercultural competence involves systematically observing and critically reflecting on our own, our students’ (and their parents’) behaviours. Although there are several models of intercultural competence, fundamental components comprise three basic elements: attitudes, knowledge and skills. Based on Deardorff’s (2006) Model of Intercultural Competence,7 we can ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Attitudes: Do I pre-judge my students? Am I curious, open and eager to learn from them? How do I react when I don’t understand what my students are doing or saying?
  • Knowledge: Am I aware of my own cultural behaviour and why I think and act the way I do? Am I aware of how my students wish to be treated? Which rules, customs and values influence my own and my students’ thinking, actions and communication?
  • Skills: How much do I really listen to my students? Do I respond in a culturally appropriate manner? How can I change my mindset to describe behaviours before evaluating them?

The Mindful Reflection Protocol is helpful in providing educators with a method to foster effective intercultural communication.8Teachers are encouraged to distinguish objective descriptions of behaviour from those which are subjective and emotionally laden reactions. The protocol is as follows:

  • Describe: What is the student doing or saying?
  • Interpret or Analyze: Why is this happening?
  • Evaluate: How do I feel about it?

It is grounded in the notion that we often respond to unfamiliar people or situations with subjective evaluations, projecting our judgments onto what we think we see (or hear or feel or perceive). So we reverse the usual order of response by first making observations and withholding our reactions with words such as “weird” or “unacceptable” – and in the process become more aware of how easily and unconsciously we immediately judge a situation according to our own cultural mindset.

Learning about different cultural orientations, along with on-going self-reflection, allows us to develop intercultural competence and effective culturally responsive teaching. Shunnarah, a kindergarten teacher in a culturally and linguistically diverse school, explains that “developing cultural competence is a process of inner growth. In order for me to be as effective as possible with the students I work with, I must continuously engage in a process of self-reflection. To be able to know others, especially diverse others, one must know the self. So, the growth of a culturally competent educator starts there. We must look within for a deeper understanding of who we are before we can adequately address the needs of our students.”9

Developing intercultural competence involves a transformation in thinking; it is an ongoing, highly rewarding process. Indeed, honest and open communication is key and highly relevant to teaching diverse students who need and deserve to be welcomed, supported and heard.


Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, September 2019



1 Johanne Myles, Beyond Methodology: English Language Learners K-12. (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2015), vii.

2 Calvin Meyer and Elizabeth Kelley Rhoades, “Multiculturalism: Beyond food, festival, folklore and fashion,” Kappa Delta Pi Record 42, no. 2 (2006): 82-87.

3 Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the mind. (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2010).

4 Heejung Kim, David Sherman and Shelley Taylor, “Culture and Social Support,” American Psychologist 63, no. 6 (2008): 516-526.

5 Gregory Cheatham and Ellie Yeonsun, “A Linguistic Perspective on Communication with Parents who Speak English as a Second Language: Phonology, morphology and syntax,” Early Child Development and Care 181, no. 9 (2011): 1247-1260.

6 Stella Ting-Toomey, Communicating Across Cultures (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 1999), 38, 120.

7 Darla Deardorff, “Intercultural Competence: A Definition, Model and Implications for Education Abroad,” in Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation, ed. Victor Savicki (Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2008), 32-52.

8 Barbara Dray and Debora Wisneski, “Mindful Reflection as a Process for Developing Culturally Responsive Practices,” Teaching Exceptional Children 44, no. 1 (2011): 28-36.

9 Christina Shunnarah, “The Cross-cultural Classroom,” New York Times (September 25, 2008).

Meet the Expert(s)


Johanne Mednick Myles

Writing Consultant, Queen's University

Johanne Mednick Myles, PhD, has over 35 years of professional teaching and teacher education experience in ESL and communication skills. She has been involved in research focusing on curriculum design...

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