Competence is the new learning

Intercultural learning is an issue that is often discussed, debated and disagreed upon. Nonformality is one of the places where strong critique has been voiced about ICL and new paths have been called for.

And the confusion lingers...

And the confusion lingers…
Photo by doctabu on Flickr

A training kit on intercultural learning has been published, there have been many training courses and even long-term training courses, and last but not least an expert-seminar (report: pdf) tried to deconstruct and reconstruct intercultural learning, searching for ways forward.

Ironically, in none of the publications available you can actually find a definition of intercultural learning. And there are signs that the interest in intercultural learning is waning: not much has happened after the report of the expert seminar was published in 2009—two years after the seminar itself—and the T-Kit on Intercultural Learning, while it has been heavily criticised and could definitely use some updating, remains untouched in its tenth year of existence.

At the same time, a new term, yet not so new concept, seems to be entering the European youth field: intercultural competence.

And the confusion lingers...

And the confusion lingers…
Photo by pfaff on Flickr

Intercultural competence is an old star of international business. First definitions appeared around 1960, when the first steps of globalised economy were taken. A person who is interculturally competent, according to some researchers in this field, is rich in skills, knowledge and attitudes expressed by (among others): frustration tolerance, patience, communication skills, openness, tolerance of ambiguity, has self distance, speaks languages and so many many more characteristics that essentially describe an unachievable super-human perfectly equipped for any kind of social interaction, regardless where those that are interacted with are from. A problem of vagueness that in it’s core seems to be strangely familiar to the debates around intercultural learning, isn’t it?

One idea of putting intercultural competence at the focus of international youth work is that it is regarded to be the result of intercultural learning. Linguistically this seems to be quite logical. If learning leads to competence than evidently intercultural learning must lead to intercultural competence.

pretending progress & mounting confusion

Not to step on anybodies toes, but it is difficult to fight back the thought that both concepts, learning and competence, are so conveniently vague (and can be so nicely attributed with ‘intercultural’) that by putting competence at the focus of discussions now, one can pretend to have progress in the discussions, while the confusion continues.

What is both interesting and confounding about intercultural competence is that definitions change from field to field (just as definitions about intercultural learning differ).

And the confusion lingers...

And the confusion lingers…
Photo by marcoarment on Flickr

Economists refer to different sets of personal attributes than those active in developmental co-operation and probably those would again be different in the youth field. In fact, it is difficult to actually find definitions from the youth field. Is this simply owed to intercultural competence being a relatively new concept in the youth field, with many people not yet knowing what to do with it?

Simultaneously, the question arises whether intercultural competence is the purpose of international youth work. Since it is widely considered a key soft skill in the business field, this would make a lot of sense with regards to employability – admittedly a key motivation for the public support for international youth work.

And yet, scholars argue that intercultural competence is highly context-specific and context-sensitive and that using the term in a generalized manner only feeds the confusion already attached to the notion – among them Prof. Jürgen Straub in his German handbook on intercultural communication and competence.

Guo-Ming Chen and William J Starosta define intercultural competence as

“effective and appropriate interaction between people who identify with particular physical and symbolic environments” [source]

However, what is effective and what is appropriate does not only change from ‘culture’ to ‘culture’ but also depends on the specific context and the connected values, habits, implicit and explicit rules that are embedded implicitly and explicitly in these contexts.

And the confusion lingers...

And the confusion lingers…
Photo by kanpeki on Flickr

In a business context, effective may mean to seal a deal quickly and sustainably and employ appropriate means to achieve that goal. But what does effective really mean in international youth work? And what does appropriate mean in international youth work?

Can intercultural competence acquired in the youth field— inyouth exchanges, seminars or training courses—become operational in an international business setting? Could it, possibly, even be contra-productive for the current economic system to be interculturally competent in a youth work style?

It is, this much is clear, a tricky and brave undertaking to put a fuzzy concept from one field and apply it to another. Let’s start to question some of the fuzziness.





8 responses to “Competence is the new learning”

  1. Andreas Avatar

    Let me ask the most obvious question—to my mind, anyway—rightaway: how do we bring some clarity to all this fuzzy mess?

  2. Bastian Avatar

    You know what? I have no idea. But maybe a good start would be to question the purpose of the work we do, what do we aim to achieve in the long run, what is the utopia that we want to equip young and old people with the necessary competences for and what are those competences? Who knows, maybe this can bring some new questions and new answers that possibly make the fuzzyness more sharp?

  3. Andreas Avatar

    What is the utopia that we want to equip young and old people with the necessary competences for and what are those competences?

    For me, this is were the dilemma begins. I find the utopia of living together peacefully—an old idea institutionalised in Europe after WWII through the Council of Europe and, later, the European Union—quite worthwhile. And for such an utopia, processes and competences such as intercultural learning, intercultural competence, empathy, tolerance of ambiguity are crucial, aren’t they?

    Feels like a chicken-egg problem. And now?

  4. Yael Ohana Avatar

    For me the following sad but very accurate description of the attitudes of too many and worse still an ever growing number of Europeans remains one of the most important reasons for doing intercultural educational work.

    The Seven Rules of Nationalism
    Formulated by David C.Pugh Norwegian Refugee Council
    1. If an areawas ours for 500 years and yours for 50 years, it should belong to Us, you are merely occupiers.
    2.If an area was yours for 500 years and ours for 50 years, it should belong to Us. Borders must be respected.
    3. If an area belonged to us 500 years ago but never since then it should belong to Us, it is the Cradle of our Nation.
    4.If a majority of our people live there, it must belong to Us. They must enjoy the right of self-determination.
    5. If a minoriqy of our people live there, it must belong to Us. They must be protected against your oppression.
    6. All the above rules apply to Us but not to you!
    7 . Our dream of greatness is Historical Necessity, yours is Fascism.

    But, there was a time, not soooo long ago, that intercultural learning was perceived as a primary tool of political education. Sadly, in my opinion, no longer. The fuzzinness is certainly a problem but a bigger one is the de-politicisation of intercultural education. This is where I get all nostalgic for the good old days of the first “all different – all equal” campaign of 1993-1995.

    Can someone please tell me what intercultrual learning as most commonly practiced today can do to address situations such as the huge vote for Jobbik in Hungary and for other proto-Fascist parties all over Europe?

    1. csucsok Avatar

      I permitted me to reply.I am Hungarian (as my origines), worked on a project of a school-classes without agressivities, I can tell it worked.
      With a developpement of the capacity of everyone.
      Since 1990 I’m living in Belgium, without the validity possible of my diplomas.
      (I have some, the problem is not there.)
      I keeping up with talking together people, but it is very difficult how to “know”
      the Internet. Here it’s only 1 school in my region giving courses for teens.
      It is the BEGINNING.
      I learnt the comp. in 1975 about, I was at that time very afraid about it.
      Can people all around the world be used to to so many changingin in a so little time?
      Keepin’ calm, serenity, my country is/was very pacific, there are still so many nice people, children,old, ill people… I am sure, that they need understanding to how to do.
      I just studied about the consumption world: they consuming just to feeling themselves”alive”.
      Hoping there are alternatives to help.
      With all my love:

  5. Yael Ohana Avatar

    Here is something that might answer some of those questions ….
    Gorski, P.C, 2008, “Good intentions are not enough: a decolonising intercultural education”, in Intercultural Education 19:6, 515-525. Also check out his website:
    Finally, intercultural education with teeth!

  6. csacsa Avatar

    “intrcultural education”
    In English only?

  7. Yael Ohana Avatar

    Yes, well, unfortunately many journals do not have resources for more language versions … and not all interculturalists come from the multilingual tradition … there is not a lot that can be done about that other than raising awareness about the role of language in intercultural communication in the community of practice working with intercultural educational approaches. Another work in progress, I am afraid.