Saturday, December 5, 2009

Do Our Students Possess Intercultural Competence?

by Ann Abbott

In a previous post I asked if our students can recognize culture when it doesn't display itself wrapped in a flag and carrying baskets of local handicrafts.

But in some ways, the more important question is: Can our students recognize their own cultural practices and viewpoints?

It's easy to think that what we do is just "natural." If other people do it another way, that's "weird." (If I had a dime for every time an American says "Ick!" when in another country they see fish served whole, I'd be rich. And that's just one particularly obvious example of "un-natural natural.")

Darla K. Deardorff states this very clearly: "Cultural self-awareness could arguably be considered the essence of cross-cultural knowledge in that it is crucial for individuals to be aware of the way in which they view the world. Often this self-awareness is difficult to gain without moving beyond one's own culture, whether through education abroad experiences or cultural immersion experiences within one's home country. However, cultural self-awareness is indeed key, since experiences of others are often measured against one's own cultural conditioning" (p. 37 "Intercultural Competence: A Definition, Model, and Implications for Education Abroad." Theories for Intercultural Growth and Transformation.)

Many of my students are already quite interculturally competent, but how can we help all our students become more interculturally competent?

Deardorff proposes the "OSEE Tool":
  • O -- Observe what is happening.
  • S -- State objectively what is happening. (It can be very hard to refrain from judgement statements, so this should be modeled.)
  • E -- Explore different explanations for what is happening. (Students must try to see from another person's perspective to be able to do this.)
  • E -- Evaluate which explanation is the most likely one. (You may need to collect more information "through conversations with others and through asking questions.")

In my next post I will provide a lesson plan based on Deardorff's article.

*Thank you, Valeri Werpetinski, for bringing this article to my attention through this semester's service-learning reading group.


  1. Intercultural competence is definitely hard to come by without traveling outside of one's own culture and taking in another. When I was abroad, however, I actually noticed peers that were increasingly "weirded-out" by customs, food, and other aspects of living in another culture and it seemed they were never going to achieve total acceptance and competence interculturally. It made me sad and made the person seem insincere and closed-minded when they'd say judgmental comments. Do you think it's possile for everyone to achieve this, or will some people just never be able to open their mind competely?

  2. I think that is a great question! It seems like from your experience you're thinking that it doesn't always happen. Maybe that's true. But I think it is *more likely* to happen if we teach it explicitly. Too many times we think it will just automatically happen when students study abroad. For many of us, it does! But as you saw, it doesn't work that way for everyone. We don't think that people will just "automatically" learn a foreign language, chemistry or engineering. So we shouldn't just assume that intercultural competence always comes automatically.
    What do you think?