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Cultural Diversity in International Schools: Building Bridges of Understanding & Learning

By John L. Lyons
Cultural Diversity in International Schools:  Building Bridges of Understanding & Learning

Culture—the socially learned and mostly unconscious ways in which we perceive, feel, think, and behave in the world—exerts profound influence on how we interact and relate (or don’t) with others, especially those who are somehow “different.” As such, cultural differences offer potent opportunities for building walls of separation or bridges of understanding between people.

Logically, then, the more culturally diverse the environment, the higher the likelihood of walls, bridges, or both. International schools, places of learning that by definition contain high levels of cultural diversity, are hugely relevant to this discussion. It is my opinion that one of the primary missions of such schools is to build more, many more, cultural bridges of understanding than walls of separation among their highly diverse students and staff. If one accepts this opinion, all that remains is to figure out why cross-cultural bridges are better than walls in international schools, and then to commit to building more bridges and dismantling more walls.

Why cultural bridges are better in schools and classrooms

Schools are places of learning. International schools, either by design or by happenstance, are places where extended contact between people from a range of social and cultural backgrounds constantly takes place. Yet, intercultural learning, the act of building bridges of understanding among diverse populations, does not always take place in these schools. So, why should it?

Well, it should for several reasons. First, well-managed, intentional, honest, school-wide cross-cultural exchange in diverse school settings improves staff relations and morale, while helping to sharpen teacher skills in multicultural classrooms. It does this at the staff level by fostering a supportive and inclusive climate of professional cross-cultural exchange, by enriching what is often a rather limited monocultural (usually Western) way of approaching classroom instruction, and by enlisting cultural minority staff who might otherwise feel “left behind” in school discussions by assigning them the roles of peer cultural trainers and “explainers of difference” to receptive colleagues.

Secondly, as culture-based assumptions and biases of classroom teachers and administrators are explored and discussed, cultural differences among student learning styles and their modes of interaction are better understood. Culturally-aware teachers are just better educators in diverse classrooms. Culturally-responsive and diversity-inclusive lesson plans, instructional strategies, and even classroom management principles take shape and can positively impact the learning environment. As minority students feel better understood and “considered” in schools, they naturally become more excited about classroom learning, often serving as important cross-cultural ambassadors for their majority culture peers and teachers, helping others to better understand the frequently embedded cultural exclusions and unequal power relations that are reproduced by traditional models of education.

Building cultural bridges makes us better people

The positive personal effects that come of being part of a diversity-informed and diversity-driven international school learning community are notable for students, teachers, and administrators alike. Cultural exchange makes us smarter, more capable, better humans. The patience, humility, and suspensions of judgment required to learn from others who are different invariably promote tolerance for ambiguity and an appreciation of multi-perspectivism (the key traits of creative, intellectually astute individuals). All this helps to promote the cultivation of such direly needed yet scarce qualities in today’s world as interpersonal responsiveness, empathy, and emotional intelligence. Arguably, individuals who engage with and learn from their cultural "others" are also more socially adaptive and better communicators, with a keener ability to solve interpersonal tensions and conflicts.

Lastly, but certainly not least, the type of dialogue generated around some of the edgier issues of cultural diversity, such as unequal power and privilege, can also be effective entry points to wider, more vital discussions regarding possible solutions to the myriad social ills which continue to plague our planet. These angles of entry for expanded dialogue include discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, Islamophobia, immigrant bashing, the new alternative right and other forms of extremism, and global concentrations of wealth, to name the most obvious.

Dismantling walls of separation

In closing, it is important to remember that, despite the best passions and intentions, the diversity-conscious international school is never achieved as a final, once-and-for-all accomplishment. Rather, it requires a slow, focused, arduous, multifaceted process involving the active engagement of all major stakeholders, a school climate of open and honest dialogue, a willingness among administrators and board members to divert resources for needed training and activities, and a flexible framework of rules and policies that permits progressive change where needed.

Even these preconditions are not sufficient and will only hold through school-wide dialogue that normalizes the importance of cultural diversity, encourages critical self-reflection on the ways in which some cultures may be given privileged status within the school, and helps to muster the requisite courage to take decisive action toward cultural pluralism and inclusion in the school’s larger academic, professional, and social life worlds. In effect, a meticulous, caring, stubbornly democratic, broad consensus must be built regarding the need to dismantle walls of cultural exclusion and separation and replace them with inclusive, affirming bridges of understanding and learning in culturally diverse international schools.

John Lyons’ career as an international educator spans three decades and four continents. He presently teaches Cultural Studies at Kyiv International School, Ukraine.

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11/02/2018 - Cara
Excellent points, John! Love the idea of "meticulous, stubbornly democratic broad consensus" . So great to hear from you again via this forum.