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Transformative Learning Through Cross-Cultural Exchange

By John Lyons
Transformative Learning Through Cross-Cultural Exchange

It is Friday after school and a dozen secondary students find their way to a circle of empty seats at the center of my classroom, arranged to encourage horizontal, direct, inclusive communication. Physical postures and demeanor are a bit threadbare with the expected weariness of another week’s end. Yet, good-natured, youthful small talk and chiding quickly take shape, and a feeling of expectancy, even excitement, grows in the room. Students are here to participate in the school’s first Student Diversity Project (SDP), a weekly intercultural communication activity created at Kyiv International School (KIS) to help promote student cross-cultural learning, understanding, and activism on campus and beyond. This is meeting number six in a twelve-week “cycle” of 90-minute, multicultural student exchanges. As SDPs first generation, these students are its seminal trailblazers. Together, they bring a rich and varied tapestry of cultures, national identities, and international life experience to bear on discussions. The group’s intentions are ambitious yet straightforward: to make honest, generous, democratic efforts toward building cross-cultural bridges of respect and appreciation, and to work together to dispel clouds of cultural intolerance and misunderstanding. I have facilitated other cross-cultural communication groups for students at international schools in Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as at a community college in California. Such activities, especially in diverse school settings, are flushed with opportunities for student growth and maturation. Even the more stressful and perplexing aspects of cross-cultural exchange can spark transformative learning in young hearts and minds. A cornucopia of benefits Once seated in the Friday communication circle, students typically start with a brief personal check-in, or “weather report” describing how their week has gone. Sometimes issues of cultural difference and diversity immediately emerge; other times not. The floor is then opened for free discussion of anything culture-related that may feel especially important on this day at this time. Discussion options are offered and choices are made. A shifting blend of abstract analysis, personal reflection and narrative, and peer challenge and support flavor discussions. Quixotic attempts are made to excavate the tip of the gigantic iceberg that conceals the innumerable ways culture shapes and informs us. Group exchanges are typically provocative and complex, often unpredictable and humorous. Student cross-cultural communication groups in diverse international school settings provide a cornucopia of benefits. Foremost, they support and encourage youth’s natural internal compass toward fairness and inclusion of others, and an insatiable fascination with novelty and difference. As cultural diversity is explored, respect and tolerance for difference are fostered, and smarter, more capable, more caring young people are engendered. Students come to know the depth and richness of other cultures, and, when this happens, they are also able to suspend judgement while learning about their cultural others. Most significant, coming to terms with how we all are, more-or-less, “culturally constructed” provides a priceless invitation to a broader conversation about how our own personal, yet culture-bound ways of seeing and interacting with the world are not necessarily the only or even the best ways to approach things. The benefits to the world of the resulting cultural humility and empathy are beyond estimation. Most noteworthy, student cross-cultural exchange opportunities of the sort presently underway at Kyiv International School help to grow students with many of the essential sensibilities and skills needed to mediate and resolve cross-cultural tensions and conflicts everywhere—capacities that are nothing short of redemptive for a planet beset with spiraling, destructive intergroup discord. I like to believe that abilities sewn and cultivated in student cross-cultural exchange groups help to mold young people capable of speaking up for fairness, justice, and inclusion in situations marred by intercultural scapegoating, violence, and oppression. Formidable walls and rattling encounters: the stuff of cross-cultural learning Yet, make no mistake, the walls and obstacles working against open, honest, well-intended cross-cultural communication are as potentially numerous and formidable as the graces and benefits are alluring. Stiff differences in language, early childhood experience, social and political values, religious beliefs, and just one’s basic (culturally acquired) sense of what is “normal and reasonable” provide trap doors of misunderstanding, poised to spring open at any moment and compromise intercultural progress. These very challenges, as much as anything, also represent valuable ingredients in the stuff of cross-cultural learning. Indeed, much of the personal growth associated with learning about self and others across cultures (multi-perspectivism, suspended judgements, tolerance for ambiguity, compassion and empathy, and interpersonal responsiveness, for example) are often the products of the hard, lengthy emotional and cognitive work needed to make sense of difficult, tense, confounding, cross-cultural situations. The rattling emotional and cognitive impact of experiencing other cultural ways of being and acting in the world is commonly labeled “culture shock” (Oberg 1960). Relatedly, large and growing amounts of research support the social and psychological bene?ts found in the challenges and upsets of intense, prolonged, disconcerting cross-cultural contact associated with culture shock (Condon and Yousef 1983; Montuori and Fahim 2004; Rogers and Steinfatt 1999; Winkelman 1994). In short, the discomforts and destabilizations of new and novel cross-cultural situations, including those involved in communicating and exploring with one’s cultural others, are as necessary for increased self-awareness and self-understanding (two capstones of psychological health) as are the potentially profound comforts of being understood and accepted by one’s cultural others (Adler 1994). Student cross-cultural exchange as transformative learning As with all cross-cultural learning, the requisite conditions of tension, destabilization, and confusion apply equally to student communication groups. Logically, then, without some degree of discomfort or “shock” in these groups from time to time, the amount and quality of personal growth and learning are likely to be reduced, even muted. Mezirow’s (1997) work on “transformative learning” has much to say about the importance of tension and confusion that often characterize student cross-cultural communication groups. According to Mezirow, our deepest, most genuine learning experiences are often preceded by a “disorienting dilemma,” or a challenging situation or event for which our usual modes of understanding and response prove painfully inadequate. Through an active and arduous engagement and struggle with this dilemma, however, we can eventually achieve an inner shift or “perspective transformation” characterized by both “a conscious recognition of the difference” between old and new views, and a willful “decision to appropriate the newer perspective as being of more value.” In effect, learning is personally “transformative” when we modify or expand former assumptions and views to arrive at new, richer, more appropriate meanings and understandings. Needed behavioral changes naturally follow. Meizirow’s concept of transformative learning provides a simple yet eloquent sketch of the broad learning processes that take place over time in cross-cultural communication groups. Student learning invariably involves swings between periods of destabilization, clarification, and integration similar to the disorienting dilemma-perspective shift sequence outlined by Mezirow. Moreover, these swings seem to purposely, if irregularly, move toward higher levels of complexity and richness of cross-cultural understanding. As a result, students are able to better understand and integrate formerly incoherent information and experiences. When charted over time, such learning promotes personal growth, psychological health, and intercultural maturation. Transformative learning in the KIS student diversity project Current developments in KIS’s SDP prove no exception to the transformative processes of cross-cultural learning reviewed in this essay. To date, group members have shared, compared, and flared their views regarding standards of “beauty” across cultures, the negative impact of LGBTQ stereotypes, recognizing cultural appropriation, interpersonal differences in multicultural families, the difficulties of returning “home” after long lapses abroad, deciding acceptable levels of conflict between group members, and knowing which group communication processes increase learning. One entire meeting was devoted to each member, allowing every participant to explain what s/he liked “most” and “least” about their home culture. Open reflection regarding how well the group is functioning at any particular time and consideration of individual needs along the way are stock discussion items. Friday meetings conclude with a second weather report about how members are feeling, or any take-away items of value that may have resulted from the session’s discussion. With another six meetings left, I have no clear picture of where the group is heading from here. I like things that way. The one thing I do know, though, is that culture-based social and psychological learning, growth, and maturity are taking root in all SDP members as we move forward together. And, for the more engaged, passionate, reflective, flexible, and curious students, I expect those changes to be nothing less than transformative. John Lyons is an international educator, writer, and consultant with an incurable belief in the importance of diversity in international schools. References<?b> Adler, N. J. 1997. International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior. Cincinnati: South Western College. Condon, J., and F. Yousef. 1983. An Introduction to Intercultural Communication. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. Mezirow, J. 1997. Transformative learning in action: Insights from practice. In New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no 74, ed. P. Cranton, 5–12. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Montuori,A., and U. Fahim. 2004. Cross-cultural encounter as an opportunity for personal growth. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 44(2): 243–265. Oberg, K. 1960. Culture shock: Adjustments to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology 7: 175–182. Rogers, E. M., and T. M. Steinfatt. 1999. Intercultural Communication. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. Winkelman, M.1994. Culture shock and adaptation. Journal of Counseling & Development 73: 121–127.

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