Intercultural Learning in Everything

Most grant application forms feature a question interrogating the (young) project co-ordinator as to how exactly intercultural learning will be fostered and encouraged in their youth activity.

I have never tried this, but I think an answer to the question “What is the intercultural dimension of your project?” that goes in the direction of

“you know, our youth exchange focuses on the environment as well as sustainable development and, frankly, we don’t have the time to deal with issues of culture to the extent necessary to really develop a meaningful intercultural learning dynamic. Of course we will facilitate the development of the group, which is made up of a diverse and multicultural mix of individuals so that they can learn from each other and everyone’s valuable experiences. But we don’t want to half-heartedly pretend we will do intercultural learning when we don’t even have the time to cover our own topic. I’d rather not pretend that the international evening will give us an intercultural learning result.”

might not be very pleasing to those deciding who gets funding.

Or would it? Why not?

the only unique
selling point?!

So many topics are relevant to non-formal education with young people in (and beyond) Europe. Human rights, violence, participation, citizenship, gender equality, sustainable development, to name but a few, are incredibly important and each one deserves time, focus and competence. None of these topics, however, are mandatory to be included in publicly funded projects at the European level. No one asks you to cover sustainable development when your primary topic is gender equality.

Why is the story so different with intercultural learning?

The complexity…
…of learning:
simplified to phrases?

Anyone who takes intercultural learning seriously will hopefully agree that digging deep into the topic of culture and the twisted side-paths of identity, politics and policy, communication and social interaction — that all this demands time, focus and a specific decision to do so. Real intercultural learning, like any profound learning experience, has to be planned and implemented in full knowledge of its complexity and the conditions of work these demand.

It is never as simple as “we do an international evening, therefore we have intercultural learning”. There is a profound—and often confused—difference between intercultural learning within a project and the intercultural dimension of a project.

≠ or =

Almost any group of people that comes together has some degree of diversity. Depending on how strict you are with your definition of ‘culture’ you will find an intercultural dimension in almost any group. The likelihood, however, that a group of people, where almost every person comes from a different geographical location, grew up in a different socio-political environment, with a different family structure and a different educational pathway, will require specific facilitation to overcome differences or obstacles to working effectively together as a result of their diversity is quite high.

Photo by Maistora on Flickr |

There is always diversity in a group | Photo by Maistora

In other words:

An international group has in almost all cases a significant intercultural dimension that can be used as an educational vehicle.

Embracing the richness of diverse groups and using it for the purposes of learning—what-ever that may be constituted by—can offer great opportunities to participants to develop their communication skills, tolerance of ambiguity, empathy and to interpret situations from different angles and perspectives other than their own.

But could that already be considered real intercultural learning?

In my opinion (and experience) intercultural learning is not only and exclusively reflected in intercultural interaction, even though this should always be a part of it. It is, as mentioned above, linked to political education, knowledge about culture and the capacity for successful social interaction.

Maybe one of the problems of Intercultural Learning is it’s label or name, which is unclear and fuzzy as it describes a process: learning that is characterised by the adjective intercultural. I would, therefore, like to suggest to just leave Intercultural Learning aside for a while and call it Diversity Education. Take a look at it from a different angle.

Practitioners of Human Rights Education refer sometimes to their field of activity as educating for, about and through human rights. This differentiation can be helpful also when thinking about Diversity Education. In this light education about diversity could include topics such as culture, power relations, minority issues, communication, (social) inclusion policies, cultural rhetoric, conflict transformation and many more.

A confused…
…and overused…

Education for diversity would have a clear political aim or fostering a culture of human rights and helping people in understanding the complexities of modern realities as well as supporting their desire to work for open societies and mutual respect among diverse people.

Education through diversity would use contexts with many layers of diversity as an educational vehicle for reflecting participants’ own innate diversity. It would use co-operation and joint projects as challenging and catalysing stimulators for reflection and learning. If Intercultural Learning could encompass what I just described as Diversity Education, it could develop into a crucial and dynamic, complex but tangible field of educational praxis in Europe and anywhere else.

So, to conclude, and humble as this author’s opinion may be, it is fine for institutions to ask how the intercultural dimension of the group will be handled. But this should not be confused with intercultural learning. There is only so much ground to cover in one week and youth workers should be honest with that in application forms, and funding institutions should be realistic as to how much they can expect. Particularly when the youth exchange, the seminar or the training course is not specifically on intercultural learning!

Strange as it may seem, giving intercultural learning the recognition that it deserves might mean it should no longer be mandatory.

might be

If researchers, policy makers and educational practitioners can agree that intercultural learning is a field of educational activity that stands on the same line such as human rights or citizenship education; and if the tool-box approach to pressing 1.5 hours of intercultural learning into any gathering of young people is discouraged; and if we clearly distinguish between a responsible and sustainable management of a group’s intercultural dimension and intercultural learning…

then we might actually promote the understanding of complexity,
rather than the promotion of simplifications.





4 responses to “Intercultural Learning in Everything”

  1. Marcello Avatar

    Hello, Damien. I know to be late, but i just found this weblog (really interesting and inspiring), and came into your article.
    Really hard to deal seriously with complexity…and eight days of seminar are really short to have an experience with complexity. Speaking about it is not enough. In our local communities we have conflicts, power, smiles and tears. Millions of them. These are really our schools.
    What we need is to learn from the others’ experience, to look at the other schools and try to have common ideas. How we can change and be active against the cultural fall we have in front of us?

    Probbaly i will copy and paste your paragraph on the form for the next deadline…

  2. Marcello Avatar

    …ups, Bastian, sorry! I wrote a monster’s name…

  3. Bastian Avatar

    Dear Marcello,
    thanks first of all for your comment on this article. Can you tell me more about what you mean with ‘cultural fall’ that you mention?
    And yes, I agree with you – complexity is a tricky thing to deal with if you have little time on your hand (it’s in fact also tricky with a lot of time on your hands). I think it’s particularly difficult if Intercultural Learning is supposed to happen ‘along the way’ when dealing with a different topics. The thing is that culture is always expressed through something as well so in order to deal with culture, you need to deal with something else that is an expression of it.
    The more I think about it, the more confusing it becomes, but I still think – learning from each other and each others experiences is good, but not necessarily intercultural learning. To me it requires actually talking about culturalisation of minorities, racism, discrimination, integration, human rights.

  4. Marcello Avatar


    thanks for the reaction. “Cultural Fall”, from my point of view is exactly the weakness of human rights, participation to local communities policy making. The upraising of racism and intolerance (altough tolarance is the wrong path).

    I completely agree with you when you say that is not that serious to describe “intercultural learning” as something given by objective discourses and parojects’ agenda…
    What we can do is to give citizens new approaches to deal with relavant issues, and let them acquire their own way to exchange experiences, to strenghten the impact of civil society.