Achieving deep awareness
For Felicity Gunn, enhanced intercultural mindedness, when practiced by the whole community, can take any school or business to new heights.
There can be no doubt education is becoming an increasingly multicultural experience. As a result, successful schools, new and established, national and international, state and independent, are embracing intercultural mindedness, while still remaining true to themselves.
The serious questions posed by the Black Lives Matter movement have only made deep reflection all the more necessary. Successful schools have not tried to avoid the issues that their changing communities require. They have asked themselves difficult questions explicitly and have become better versions of themselves as a result.
Cultural understanding is important to our work at Paths to Learning as we assist families from around the world find the right schools for their children, mainly in the UK. We make intercultural mistakes at our peril, and to the possible detriment of the happiness of a child. Offering the right advice, supported by necessary intercultural thinking is a significant responsibility.
Over the years we have also played a role assisting schools in the UK develop this area of expertise, and in 2020 held our first international summit – Know Culture for Better Education. At the Summit, intercultural expert Michael Gates emphasised the importance of intercultural understanding at all levels of a school – for school leaders, academic, pastoral and support staff alike.
Other speakers described successful induction programmes for staff and children as being multifaceted. New students need to understand the culture and expectations of their new school, while the best school orientation prepare empathetic peer partners (adults and students alike) who are able to support newcomers while developing their own intercultural-mindedness.
Being aware of one’s own heritage as an adult as well as a child, while, recognising that others have been raised in a different culture is of course something to be celebrated, not to be feared. Cultural identity, however, is not like a coat that anyone can take off when he or she leaves their home base. Nor can the new culture be learned in an instant, like putting on a new coat.
Intercultural mindedness involves being intentionally and purposefully aware of differences of expression of identity relating to communication, religion and mores, food and dress, arts, music and dance so that cross-cultural relationships can work with understanding and respect. We have found that becoming interculturally minded is perhaps easier for those who are younger. For teenagers and for adults. It needs to be purposefully addressed. Being confident in and proud of one’s own cultural identity, while developing empathy when interacting with others is just so important.
Developing intercultural competence
This is no easy goal, and over the last few years, we have found that the Richard Lewis Cross-Cultural Communications Model has been particularly useful in heightening our own intercultural awareness. It has now become an essential tool enabling us to communicate with respect and understanding with families from all over the world. Initially designed for business, we think that it has a wider application for schools and in education. It is simple to use and has a proven methodology for developing successful and lasting relationships, serving as a bridge to promote understanding and co-operation between ourselves and our clients – both schools and the families we serve.
Essentially, the Lewis Model, describes three main cultural categories:
- Re-Active (associated with East Asian cultures),
- Multi-Active (associated with Hispanic cultures) and
- Linear-Active (associated with North American and North European cultures).
Other cultural groups combine elements of these three.
It is a marvellous tool, not to be used slavishly, but as a guide. It must be said that no one wants to be stereotyped and everyone must be treated as unique individuals. Nevertheless, it has helped me to develop positive intercultural relationships when in the past I would have failed. My old self would not have developed a productive relationship with an education consultant from mainland China who has now become a close associate. He is stereotypically ‘Re-Active’: careful, enigmatic, deliberate, needing to develop trust. I am stereotypically Linear-Active: business-focused, direct, keen to close the deal. (Like me, his clients are the parents, rather than schools). He came to England and we met on five occasions before he ever introduced me to a parent. Before learning about the Lewis Model, I could have been irritated, by his approach. Instead, we have developed a great trust, and have worked together really productively.
Developing awareness further
Simply put, the system facilitates communication, by raising awareness of your own cultural heritage, and the heritage of others. Avoiding cultural offence, faux pas and blind allies is essential for international business, and, we think, schools. Making cultural errors in schools ultimately can result in deep unhappiness, and we have found that training staff in this methodology enables them not only to avoid mistakes, but to build intercultural bridges effectively.
Lawyer, teacher, philosopher, Felicity Gunn is the founder of Paths to Learning, a UK based educational consultancy, helping families from around the world find the right school for their children in the UK.
Further Reading: Learning Through Different Cultural Lens