Today we talk about intercultural competencies. These are the attitudes, skills, and knowledge that enable people to see from different perspectives, helping us get along together as humans. These competencies seem particularly relevant in our current political climate.
My guest is Darla Deardorff. She has spent the past decade thinking about intercultural competencies. What are? Can scholars agree on a common framework? And is it possible to measure them?
For Darla, intercultural competencies are as vital as math and science for education.
Darla Deardorff is the Executive Director of the Association of International Education Administrators at Duke University.
Her latest co-edited book, Intercultural Competence in Higher Education: International Approaches, assessment, application, was published by Routledge in June.
Citation: Deardorff, Darla, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 80, podcast audio, July 3, 2017. https://freshedpodcast.com/deardorff/
Will Brehm 1:54
Darla Deardorff, welcome to FreshEd.
Darla Deardorff 1:57
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:59
So, you’ve done quite a lot of work on intercultural competencies. What are intercultural competencies?
Darla Deardorff 2:07
Well, that can have a very long answer, but I will provide you with the short one for now. And basically, intercultural competence is about interacting successfully with those from different backgrounds, whether that’s ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and so on.
Will Brehm 2:26
And so, what would that actually entail? What sort of competencies are we talking about?
Darla Deardorff 2:31
I’ve actually spent about a decade doing research on intercultural competence and trying to understand basically what’s necessary for us to get along together as humans. So, for me, that’s really the big question and the driving question behind this research. The work that I’ve done so far has resulted in one of first research-based definitions and frameworks of intercultural competence. There’s been actually over 60 years’ worth of scholarly work done on this concept. But very little of that has been research-based. So basically, I was interested in seeing whether scholars could come to some consensus as to exactly what is intercultural competence. And so, the results came about then in the framework from the research I’ve done. In terms of what’s necessary for us get along together, we can look at it in terms of which attitudes, which skills, which knowledge areas are really essential to intercultural competence. And so, I’m happy to go into more detail around each of those areas if you’d like me to, but it really comes down to knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are absolutely essential for intercultural competence. And then that results in some, what I’ve termed “internal” and “external” outcomes. In the end, what we’re looking for – what we’re hoping for – is behavior and communication that is both effective and appropriate. And both of those words are really important because often, we might think about folks who’ve been really effective in what they do but quite inappropriate in how they go about doing it. And for intercultural competence, we need communication and behavior that’s both effective and appropriate to the individuals that we’re interacting with.
Will Brehm 4:33
So, could we go into some more of these specifics on the attitude and the skills and the knowledge just to get a better understanding of these competencies?
Darla Deardorff 4:44
In recent research I’ve done, there were three key attitudes that emerged as being absolutely essential to intercultural competence development. And those have to do with curiosity of really wanting to learn more about the other person; openness, open-mindedness, and respect – of truly valuing the other as a fellow human, especially when we don’t agree. And so those three attitudes are considered to be absolutely essential to intercultural competence. In terms of the knowledge areas, quite a bit focused around cultural self-awareness – being able to understand from others’ perspectives. And then, in terms of the skills, it has to do with listening, observing, relating, evaluating, knowing what to do with the information that we receive. And then together, those knowledge, skills, and attitudes brings us to this point of what happens inside an individual. This is termed the “internal outcomes” that will ideally help us become more flexible and more adaptable in how we relate to others. That in the end, we will have developed some empathy. And really being able to begin to see the world from others’ perspectives, even though that’s really actually quite tough to do. And then with the internal outcome comes the external, which I’ve already described in terms of the behavior and communication that’s both effective and appropriate in intercultural situations and situations when we’re interacting across difference. And that occurs every day because none of us are identical to each other. And so, we are interacting across difference every day. And so really thinking about what that means, what that looks like, and what’s necessary for us to be successful in those interactions.
Will Brehm 6:39
So, is there, in a sense, a universal definition of intercultural competencies that crosses cultures around the world?
Darla Deardorff 6:48
That’s a really good question, and that was actually one of the questions I had coming into some of the research I’ve done. The short answer is “no,” but the research I have done, like I said, is the first consensus-based definition and framework around intercultural competence, and that framework has certainly found resonance in quite a few different cultural contexts. For example, that framework is being used in in places like China and Mexico and Brazil, and in lots of different places around the world. But that being said, certainly, the elements I described can be contextualized for specific situations and interactions. But interestingly enough, there was only one element within intercultural competence that I described that all the experts agreed on 100% as being absolutely essential to intercultural competence. And that was being able to see from others’ perspectives. And so that has led me to my own burning question over the last several years in terms of, “What are other perspectives on intercultural competence?”, and that has led me to do research in China, in South Africa, in Japan, and other places to try to really understand, “What does this look like in other areas around the world?” Because so much of the literature around intercultural competence has really come out of the global North, predominantly from the United States and from Europe. And so, trying to understand what are other perspectives, and not surprisingly, those can be quite different.
Will Brehm 8:34
Darla Deardorff 8:37
Well, for example, in the global North, the focus is predominantly on the individual. And as I was describing this initially, I talked about the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of an individual. And when we start to look at other perspectives and definitions of intercultural competence, there’s a shift in some cases, even with how one views the individual. So, for example, in South Africa, the concept of “Ubuntu” comes into the conversation. And for those who may not be familiar with Ubuntu, it talks about how “I am because we are. We are because I am.” That it’s impossible to separate the individual from the group because what I do impacts others and vice versa. So even the individual identity can shift, depending on the context. In other cultures and other regions around the world, there’s much more of a focus on relationship and the relational aspects of intercultural competence. So, the focus again is not so much driven on a single individual and the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of that individual. Interestingly enough, UNESCO of the United Nations tried to do a project looking at regional perspectives on intercultural competence. They weren’t trying to necessarily come up with a universal definition, but a few years ago, I was involved with this project, trying to look at what are various regional perspectives around the world. And it resulted in a publication that actually can be downloaded from UNESCO, simply copying their cultural competencies. But nonetheless, there wasn’t a universal definition even then that that was developed. Again, because of these different variances when we really start to delve into the different perspectives around this construct.
Will Brehm 10:29
It would seem to me that language would play a very large role in being able to understand “the other,” to be respectful, and see from other perspectives. So, what is the role of language and foreign-language in intercultural competence?
Darla Deardorff 10:46
Another excellent question, and one that I also had, particularly because I was coming from this more from a language teaching perspective. I have a background in teaching English as a second language, so I personally feel that language is quite important. Interestingly enough, in the research I did, the experts involved in my study could not reach consensus on the role of language in intercultural competence. Which really surprised me. And I had a colleague who did a similar study with a different group of experts, and he had the same finding: They could not reach consensus on the role of language.
Will Brehm 11:24
Darla Deardorff 11:25
So, when I went to try to follow up on this to say, “Why?”, it just seemed like that would be a really important role. The experts I worked with most often cited the case of knowing “fluent fools,” of those who might know the grammar and vocabulary of a language but be interculturally incompetent in navigating the cultural parameters. And so, they were saying it was insufficient in terms of achieving intercultural competence. And so, therefore, they could not necessarily reach consensus on the role of language.
Will Brehm 12:10
And what about the other side? What were the people that disagreed with these experts who were saying that they were fluent fools? What about the other side?
Darla Deardorff 12:21
That seemed to be what really came up the most: that it was necessary, but not sufficient, for intercultural competence. That in the end, it was much more about the attitudes, about how one approaches others initially, out of respect and openness and really wanting to learn about the other. That’s what really mattered more.
Will Brehm 12:47
It’s strange because to really understand someone else, it seems like you would have to be able to actually communicate.
Darla Deardorff 12:53
It does seem like it, and that was certainly part of that external outcome finding in my own research. But interestingly enough, of course, communication involves more than words. Words are just a small part of all of how we communicate.
Will Brehm 13:11
So, let’s shift gears now to look at the role of education systems. So, now that we have an understanding of intercultural competencies and general understanding, what is the role of schools and education in the process of cultivating these intercultural competencies?
Darla Deardorff 13:28
Well, one important finding from my research is that intercultural competence development is a lifelong process for teachers and for students. And so, there’s no one point at which any of us becoming interculturally competent. And that has real implications then for schooling and for education to understand that students as well as teachers are in different places in the developmental process of intercultural competence. That a “one size fits all” doesn’t necessarily work for all students. That the preparation and training of teachers around intercultural competence is absolutely critical. And so, it’s important to recognize all those different pieces when we are talking about education systems implementing intercultural competence development. And so, as we look at what’s really important, first it starts with the curriculum. And not just the content, the knowledge that is taught, but actually also the delivery and the teaching methodologies. And I think, to what extent does the curriculum reflect different perspectives that is such a key piece of intercultural competence of being able to see the world and issues and so on from different perspectives? So, to what extent are those represented in the curriculum? And within the curriculum, it’s important to also ask, “Whose knowledge is being privileged, and whose voices are missing?” And so, these are some examples of key questions that really need to be explored further in terms of the curriculum itself and how it’s delivered. In terms of how to develop intercultural competence, research is showing the importance of experiential learning and of really, even moving beyond the classroom. Or if in the classroom, it’s looking at the teamwork that might take place, the actual interactions. At the undergraduate level of post-secondary education, there have been some studies that show the value of “service learning,” meaning getting the students into the local communities, having them interact with those who live there, and learning from each other mutually. And of course, study abroad has traditionally been a go-to way of developing intercultural competence, particularly at the undergraduate level. But just to add in a point here that just sending students abroad does not result in making them interculturally competent. That is a myth that we really need to address. There’s so much that goes into a quality experience, whether that’s a cross-border experience or even within our own local communities, in terms of how we are able to connect with others, and as to whether that actually results in enhancing intercultural competence development or not.
Will Brehm 16:34
And what about some of the politics here? I mean, it seems like talking about, “Does national curriculum reflect the voices of the different ethnicities or cultures inside of a nation-state?” That would seem to be not necessarily what the ruling powers-to-be would necessarily want, particularly in some conflict areas or places that have many ethnicities and cultures. How do politics figure into this notion of intercultural competencies?
Darla Deardorff 17:10
Well, quite a bit, particularly in regions of the world where there is a national curriculum. Of course, I’m based in United States, and there’s not necessarily a “national curriculum” here, per se. But certainly, in places where there is, that definitely enters into it. Quite heavily, actually. And so, it’s important to really consider the context, including the political, social, historical, economic, etc., that goes into really the whole contextual piece and understanding the best ways to try to address intercultural competence.
Will Brehm 17:49
And continuing on about the role of education in schools and teaching intercultural competencies, are these competencies being assessed anywhere?
Darla Deardorff 18:00
Yes, they actually are. I would say, particularly at the post-secondary level, there’s been a huge emphasis in recent years in how we assess intercultural competence. And this has been another area of my own research and work. In fact, I had a book come out two years ago on demystifying outcomes assessment for international educators, where we really delved into the logistics of what that looks like and trying to make it very manageable in assessing intercultural learning. But then it’s also taking place within the primary, secondary school as well. And in fact, next year, in 2018, the PISA program in the National Student Assessment will include global competence as part of that assessment, and I’ve been involved on the expert team in working on developing that.
Will Brehm 18:52
So, I mean, this brings up an interesting question. So, PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, is given in many countries all around the world, and it’s supposed to be some sort of a standardized test in math and science, but now perhaps intercultural competencies. But earlier, you said that one size doesn’t fit all or doesn’t work for all when it comes to teaching intercultural competencies. So how would a standard test actually work?
Darla Deardorff 19:21
Yeah, that’s a really good question. And that’s something we’ve really been struggling with as we’ve been looking at this for PISA and for global competence because that is a standardized test. And based on the research and work I’ve done, if we’re really serious about assessing intercultural competence of global competence, in the end, it’s really important to use a multi-measure, multi-perspective approach to assessing this that generally, even though there are over 140-some different instruments existing that measure some elements of intercultural competence of this construct, that there’s no one best tool. There’s no one tool that can really assess and measure the complexities of this. And so, given this and all the work that’s been done around assessment, as we approach the PISA standardized test, we decided that there’s no way that that PISA can assess the whole of, and the complexity of, global competence. And so, we decided to prioritize and hone in on a few key areas that a test could perhaps measure within the parameters of PISA. And so, there will be a lot of caveats around the reporting of this. And really focusing much more on the cognitive levels associated with global competence because that’s a bit easier to assess through the PISA parameters.
Will Brehm 20:49
Is there anything that worries you about including intercultural competencies on PISA?
Darla Deardorff 20:56
Not necessarily worries me. I would say, in general, as we discussed and talked about this, it’s really positive that the OECD and the countries that are involved in this want to include this as part of the PISA assessment because it really helps to raise awareness of the absolute importance of global competence, particularly now more than ever given the political climate realities around the world. And that it allows for opportunities for discussion at the ministerial levels on down to the school level. And so, in general, we see this is a very positive development. We understand there’s not going to be any perfect test or measure of global competence, but it really is very good in terms of generating awareness and discussion, and hopefully, in the end, perhaps integrating it more into the various educational systems around the world. Because in many ways, there’s nothing more important to address through education and in society than global competence.
Will Brehm 22:02
So, I just recently read a UN report that said that in 2016, there are 65 million displaced people in the world. They say that’s a record since recording the data has begun. So, does that put new urgency on the need for intercultural competencies inside education?
Darla Deardorff 22:24
I would say that it does, and not just this huge number of displaced people, but also the backlash we’re currently seeing to globalization. The increase in hate incidents around the world. There’s just such a need for educational systems to address intercultural competence, both within the schools at the student level, but then also it comes back to teacher preparation, teacher education programs, and how universities are preparing and educating the teachers to help guide the students in their own global competence, intercultural competence development. This is just absolutely crucial. And in fact, I’m reminded of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., which I find incredibly relevant today than ever before. When he said, “We must learn to live together as brothers and family or perish together as fools.” This is not something that comes easily. We have to learn how to live together in order to survive as a human family sharing this planet. And so, I see that the educational systems around the world can play a really key role in this endeavor.
Will Brehm 23:51
And what would be some of the major in the sense roadblocks to achieving education systems, teaching intercultural competencies? Are there actually opponents to intercultural competency?
Darla Deardorff 24:06
I think there are, and particularly the roadblocks – you’ve already kind of alluded to this earlier – in terms of the various policies or structures that may be in place that would already prescribe a certain curriculum and certain ways of teaching and so on. So, I think, depending on the contexts of the educational systems around the world, some might prove more limiting than others in terms of what would be possible. And certainly, this can be seen as a threat in terms of opening it up to various perspectives, including indigenous perspectives or other perspectives of minority groups that might normally not be heard or represented in the curriculum or in the schooling. So, I know there are those who might be concerned about this. But in the end, it really is in the best interest of humans to understand what is necessary for us to learn to live together.
Will Brehm 25:12
And so, are you hopeful that humans will be able to actually embrace these ideas and introduce them into national education systems?
Darla Deardorff 25:22
I am hopeful. We’re encouraged by, for example, the developments of PISA and looking forward to what might result from the 2018 PISA test around global competence and seeing the ramifications of what that might have in terms of educational systems. And the continued conversations. I know at the post-secondary level, there’s been a huge increase in terms of the conversations around intercultural competence within undergraduate education in numerous countries around the world. There’s an increased interest in this and in terms of how do we best prepare our students to live in such diverse societies around the world, because regardless of where they live, there’s a good chance they’ll be working with people who are different from them. And so, it really is in the best interest to understand, “What are the best ways to prepare students to really function and navigate within the diversity that we find in today’s society?”
Will Brehm 26:33
Well, Darla Deardoff, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure to talk today.
Darla Deardorff 26:38
Thank you again so much, and I encourage all your listeners to continue working, as we all continue to work, toward making this world a better place. Thank you so much.
What are intercultural competencies?