Last month, I participated in the annual Lilly Conference on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning, in Anaheim, CA. The theme of the conference was “Active and Engaged Learning.” I was invited to present on “Teaching Intercultural Communicative Competence and Social Engagement”—a subject I have been implementing in my courses and currently researching through the BLC Fellowship. The attendees of my workshop were primarily Foreign Language and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. The session was well attended and participants showed great interest in the subject—most of them had heard about Intercultural Competence and wanted to learn how to implement it in their courses.
Instead of referring to Intercultural Communicative Competence and Social Engagement throughout the session, I abbreviated both of them combined as “Intercultural Citizenship Education” (ICE), in the sense Michael Byram defines it: an education that uses foreign-language education to foster intercultural competence on the one hand, and stimulate critical thinking and social action on the other hand. Intercultural competence refers not only to knowledge of the socially appropriate use of language but, rather, to being able to engage meaningfully with speakers from other cultures and their ways of living and thinking. Going a step further, Intercultural citizenship is “an ability to evaluate, critically and on the basis of explicit criteria, perspectives, practices, and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries, with the ultimate goal of taking action to promote human rights and greater cross-cultural understanding”. (Byram, 1997)
My audience and I began by reflecting together on how we, as teachers of a foreign language, put great emphasis on the instrumental value of learning the language (i.e., to exchange information, to travel, get a job, etc.) and how these emphases are represented in the way we teach language mainly as content and as propositional knowledge (for example, learning about another culture). Instead, in our troubled global world and our diverse communities and classrooms, there is a dire need to focus on the educational value of language teaching and learning, by preparing our students to enter into dialogue with people with different views of the world and be ready to understand their point of view. As they interpret those points of view to themselves and to other groups and incorporate these lessons into their own lives, our students foster a greater sense of shared humanity with people from other cultural backgrounds.
The learning of intercultural citizenship is a crucial 21st Century competence that our students need as individuals, team workers, and citizens. We, as teachers within educational systems, have the opportunity and the responsibility not only to instruct our learners in language skills but also to educate them by assisting them in developing values, beliefs, and behaviors that support understanding in our diverse communities and global world.
Language teaching can become a more prominent part of the larger educational curriculum if we change the emphasis from teaching linguistic competence and factual retention to an emphasis on using the language to understand how to live and collaborate together. We need to help students recognize their agency in connecting with others, while at the same time realizing that their own perspective is not representative of everyone’s experience. In so doing, they may become more critically aware that their behavior and those of others are directly related to culture and networks.
Once my audience and I had brainstormed together about what intercultural citizenship is and why it is crucial that we teach it today, I invited these FL and ESL teachers to reflect on the learning objectives and assessment methods that they most often use in their courses, and to notice whether those learning objectives and assessment criteria were exclusively about developing linguistic competence and cultural competence, or whether they also included intercultural competence/citizenship. They jotted down their lists of objectives and assessment criteria in the respective columns on a page I designed for the presentation.
Then, I shared with them a few examples on how to implement Intercultural Citizenship activities at various levels of teaching and learning in FL and ESL, and I gave them a copy of the learning objectives, activities, evidence, and assessment that I am implementing in “Spanish 102C: Volunteering, Global Education and Good Writing”. In that course, my students volunteer locally with Oakland International High School and with East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, and research opportunities to volunteer in Latin America. This course is an example of Intercultural Service Learning (ISL), a pedagogy combining formal learning with community service—at local and international levels—and with reflection on intercultural encounters that happen while they are at the volunteering site or during interviews that they host with Latin American non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Service Learning is a methodology I have integrated into my courses for over a decade: it is service with learning objectives and learning with service objectives. Students participate in service learning by utilizing their Spanish-language skills in community-centered environments where individuals go to seek services or supports—such as nonprofit immigration law centers, and schools. After volunteering in these environments, students reflect on their experiences and use them to deepen their academic learning of the languages and cultures studied in our Department, as well as to develop their skills in fostering greater understanding. Currently, I am incorporating intercultural competency in my service-learning courses, so that in the future students will collaborate with international NGO’s on different community-based projects. Throughout all of my work, I have found that the combination of communication, intercultural learning, and civic action encourages students to engage with their education and the language learning process at a deeper level. They are stimulated and motivated to assist others in need—locally and internationally. In this way, Intercultural Service Learning (ISL) is very valuable for foreign-language teaching. Through experiential engagement and reflective learning activities, students develop a sense of shared global citizenship. ISL can be utilized as a meaningful process that inspires academic learning while simultaneously building bridges across cultures.
I also shared with my audience two tools that I use in my volunteering course: “Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters” and a list of learning objectives for intercultural competence that Byram specifies for each of the five levels of Intercultural Citizenship he presents in his book From Foreign Language Education to Education in Intercultural Citizenship (2008). Those five levels are attitudes, knowledge, skills of interpreting and relating, skills of discovering and doing, and critical cultural awareness.
“Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters” is an activity based on a cycle of reflection that includes the description of what happened and the feelings that occurred during the intercultural encounter, as well as an evaluation of the experience, analysis of value judgments, conclusions, and personal action plans for future situations. In this reflection process, learners are guided in developing analytical and critical thinking skills that go beyond mere description. Byram (1997) emphasizes that a central aspect of intercultural competence is the ability to reflect, consciously and with an awareness of one’s own values and beliefs, on one’s own way of life and that of other people. When reflecting on the values and beliefs inherent in certain behaviors, we learn, by comparing and contrasting them, to better understand what they mean in the context of our own lives and the lives of others.
I gave my audience the task of reading the handout and picking two learning objectives (one from each of two of the five Byram’s categories) they thought they would like to implement in their courses. After reflecting a bit more about the objectives they were now choosing, the teachers turned the page I gave them and wrote in the respective columns the new Learning Objective and the Evidence and Assessment they could apply to implement those objectives in their courses. They discussed in pairs the type of activities and assessments that would best develop intercultural competence: how to not just learn about the culture but with/from people of that culture in real or virtual spaces. They brainstormed about how to develop this intercultural knowledge and embrace diversity in the classroom and be able to transfer it into real-life situations working with the community.
As a classroom of teachers, we took a moment of the workshop to explore our ideas about what we want our students to come away with from our courses, in their lifelong learning process. We concluded that it was most important, if nothing else, that they retain a positive disposition and openness to perspectives from other people and other cultures, and a will to create greater understanding and collaborate n common projects in our diverse communities. These learning goals can be achieved by strategically selecting the methodology, materials and activities we use in class, such as Intercultural Service Learning, reflection journals, and activities like “Autobiography of intercultural encounters” where students are moved to discover new knowledge about themselves and others and to embrace diversity.
Participants actively engaged in this 55-minute workshop and followed up with additional questions and inquiries in the corridors and at other events at the conference. I could see that there’s great interest in Intercultural Citizenship because teachers are realizing that this is a crucial 21st Century competency and that right now we’re failing our students by not preparing them for it. Participants were concerned that many are not yet seeing the possibilities of educating our students within our higher education systems while teaching them FL and ESL, and were excited about exploring implementing intercultural citizenship in their courses. They appreciated the educational value that Foreign-language learning can have in developing positive attitudes towards and understanding of other people who speak other languages or come from other cultural backgrounds.
Together, we concluded that language teaching can be an integral part of preparing our students to embrace diversity, without losing its instrumental purpose. Linguistic Competence and Intercultural Competence mutually enrich each other and can work together to improve the process of language learning. Intercultural Competence can begin to be taught in classroom projects which are doable without partnerships. Intercultural Citizenship can be the next step, as students take action and engage in common projects with people from other cultures through Intercultural Service Learning. Intercultural Competence starts in the classroom and continues as Intercultural Citizenship into the wider community.