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Embedding cultural competency: A pivotal factor in student success and in delivering our mission

Dr Erin Robinson, Former Principal of Middle School and Deputy Head of East Campus
16 June 2017

The relationship between teacher cultural competency and student engagement in a UWC context.
Dr Erin Robinson examined the relationship between teacher cultural competency and student engagement in her doctoral dissertation. Here she shares some of her research as well as how it connects with a UWC education.

We live in a time of both incredible opportunities and significant global issues. For the first time in human history, our world is a shared space. Globalisation is now entrenched in our reality, delivering promises of increased collaboration. Yet, we are faced with the inherent challenges of bringing people together in ways they’ve never experienced before. Today’s social fabric is interwoven with a rich diversity of cultures. We live, work and socialise with an increasing number of people who are different from ourselves, and in a multitude of contexts (Banks, 2011).

Cultural competency models seek to explain complex social dynamics. Over recent decades, these models have evolved at a dizzying speed in order to keep up with significant shifts in migration, workplace dynamics, and an increasingly interconnected world. Advances in technology, communications, transportation, and business models along with concerns around sustainable development have accelerated worldwide partnerships and also sparked culturally based conflicts. Given the UWC mission and our commitment to diversity and inclusion, there are strong implications for culturally competent practices to be embedded in the College as ‘how we do things around here’.

To begin to understand what cultural competency encompasses, we must start by deciphering culture. A static view of culture is unrealistic in our highly interdependent world. Instead, there has been a renewed view of culture that takes into account the desire to develop globally minded citizens (Banks, 2011). This contemporary perspective highlights the adaptability and fluidity of culture. In many regards, culture is now viewed as malleable and dynamic. It is constantly in flux and influenced by a variety of social and environmental factors (Boutin-Foster et al., 2008).

Adding to cultural complexity on a global scale, interconnectedness is growing exponentially and it may be seen as leading to a kind of global ecumene1 (Featherstone, 1990). We’re seeing that previously isolated pockets of relatively homogeneous cultures are experiencing a type of cultural disorder because interacting with culturally different people is unavoidable. While there’s an opportunity to grow out of an ethnocentric perspective towards a more ethnorelative view of the world, the media is wrought with examples of culturally destructive behaviour. In a time when we’re experiencing significant shifts in demographics, the world has also begun to face challenges associated with a renewed sense of nationalism, which can be linked in part to a fear of cultural dissolution. The image ‘others’ includes dehumanising fear-based factors and are awash with negative stereotypes. On the other hand, we see how our students at UWCSEA challenge ethnocentric perspectives through a myriad of actions that include reciprocal partnerships in service, social entrepreneurship, and how they express their viewpoints through the arts. Students across the UWC movement are also a part of a growing transnational culture, which can be understood as genuine third or cross cultures that are oriented beyond national boundaries.

Central to both the increase in cultural integration and cultural destructiveness, is a personal redefinition of cultural identity. As Featherstone (1990) points out, cultural norms may fluctuate but they also profoundly influence the way an individual perceives culturally different people. This requires a new understanding of culture and strategies to manage cultural difference.

Scholars have generated models to explain the negotiation of cultural differences for as long as diverse people have lived and worked together. Early cross cultural adaptation models were founded on a range of social imperatives and theoretical backgrounds. International school educators, humanitarians, and international business professionals drove many of these models because they worked with people from profoundly different cultures. Cross cultural adaptation then evolved into several comprehensive cross cultural frameworks. Terms such as ‘cross cultural awareness’, ‘cultural literacy’, ‘cultural intelligence’ and ‘intercultural communication’ emerged in the literature as a way to describe how people grapple with cultural difference.

Pioneers in this work were drawn to the field because they felt an ethical obligation to address equity issues and viewed multicultural training as a noble cause (Moule, 2012). This more principled approach soon took a turn towards a pragmatic path because working effectively with cultural difference requires a set of knowledge, skills, and understanding. Today, a more holistic view of cultural competency embraces both a sense of moral responsibility and a practical need to function effectively in a globalised society. Since people work, study and socialise in increasingly diverse settings, cultural competency is necessary to function successfully with peers, clients, and neighbours (Banks, 2004).

The emergence of a cultural competency framework is a departure from the diversity training model established in the latter decades of the 20th century. In more conventional multicultural and diversity training, professionals learned discrete cultural characteristics to further their academic knowledge. The purpose was to increase the effectiveness of multicultural interactions through the knowledge of cultural groups’ distinct characteristics. However, in many ways it served to reinforce the dominant culture. Advances in cultural competency training and intercultural learning now embrace an awareness of one’s own cultural identity, recognising how culture influences perceptions of the world, and understanding the cultural history and identity of people. A key component of this model involves learning how historical marginalisation and oppression still shapes the experiences of culturally different people in settings of all kinds.

There is a greater sense of urgency to foster cultural competency within a child’s educational experience and professional settings because the environment in which you grow up has a significant influence on lifelong deep cultural references. Those who grew up in culturally homogeneous environments must acquire the understanding and skills to successfully collaborate with culturally different people. This process can be challenging because our deepest references have a high emotional load. The willingness to examine the unconscious rules we have for concepts such as relationships, mental health, cleanliness, gender roles, time, and success requires an intentionally safe and secure environment. This is equally true for students and for the adults in a school community.

Both social science and business research suggest that personal and professional growth are necessary to increase cultural competency (Boutin-Foster et al., 2008). This involves introspection, self-awareness, and the ability to develop the requisite interpersonal and professional skills via a two-fold process. First, an individual establishes a tangible understanding of how their own culture influences their actions. Second, they develop skills that allow them to easily and respectfully move among and between diverse cultures (Banks et al., 2001; Betancourt, 2003; Burchum, 2002; Diller & Moule, 2005; Lindsey et al., 2003; Nuñez, 2000).

Cultural competency sits on a developmental continuum and is progressive in nature. This is because an individual’s intercultural sensitivity is fluid and likely to change over time (Hammer, Bennett & Wiseman, 2003). Therefore, the continuum describes an individual’s intercultural development from an ethnocentric to ethnorelative stage of cultural understanding (Bennett, 1993; Cross et al., 1989). More recent literature suggests that developing a culturally competent skill set is an antecedent to effective practice with a culturally diverse people. This is because it is not enough to simply possess the knowledge and skills. Once we have the skills in place, we must act upon them in a responsive manner. It’s an area of personal development that is in need of continuous attention and cultivation.

For educators, cultural competency is the ability to successfully teach in cross-cultural settings. Jean Moule (2012) describes cultural competence in schools as “[the development of] certain personal and interpersonal awarenesses and sensitivities, learning specific bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching.” The importance of incorporating cultural competencies into learning experiences is particularly significant in international schools (Heyward, 2004). Schools like UWCSEA seek to educate a diverse community of students who identify with a variety of cultures and subcultures. As UWCSEA community members, staff, students, parents, and alumni are exceedingly conscious of the need for culturally competent skills, knowledge, and attitudes.

The mission of the UWC movement makes cultural competency fundamental to all that we do. We see how aspects of cultural competency are embedded into the UWCSEA learning programme. In particular, students gain a greater awareness of themselves and how to effectively work with those that are culturally different through the personal and social education (PSE) curriculum. Students also learn culturally competent practices through learning in service, as they come to understand what a reciprocal partnership looks and feels like. Beyond the written curriculum, students also move towards ethnorelative practices through their social interactions. Simply being in the home of a family who is culturally different and learning how to value a different way to enjoy a meal together prepares our students for their lives beyond UWCSEA.

Though cultural competency is unquestionably a large and complex construct, it is central to successful interactions between culturally diverse people. We believe that it is a pivotal factor in our success with delivering our mission, and therefore in individual student success. At UWCSEA, from our admission policy to our teaching and learning practice, we take into account students’ varied cultural perspectives and incorporate that knowledge to develop rapport with and deepened understanding of and between our culturally different students (Zoller Booth & Nieto, 2010).

1  Ecumene is a term used by geographers to mean inhabited land. It generally refers to land where people have made their permanent home, and to all work areas that are considered occupied and used for agricultural or any other economic purpose.


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