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Issue 92. What is education trying to do? February 27, 2010

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.

I recently started a new job in higher education, and along with my ongoing research on culture and educational goals, I’m finding new questions about how we learn and the role that culture plays in educational systems and in assessing learning. Education in the US currently is focused on accountability and evidence that learning is taking place. But there are many ways to interpret evidence and there are many types of learning. The more interesting questions may relate to what education is trying to do.

A week ago I was struck by Stan Katz’s blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education. There seems to be wide agreement that “international education” is crucial, but there seems little consensus on exactly what this means. Katz complains about the language he frequently sees that talks about international education in terms of US competitiveness in a global economy. Those who follow Intercultural Eyes may recognize some of the familiar themes that I have advocated based on my long career of working with intercultural learning through high school exchange programs. For me, international education involves flexibility and communication skills to build relationships across cultures. It demands perceptual skills and self-awareness to recognize subtle variations and nuances of life in a different place. And it requires an attitude that views the self in an international context with humility and respect for all humanity. I am still struggling to find the rubrics to assess these “educational outcomes” than relate more to character development than content. But I also need to clarify my theory about the development of respect, for instance. Or how flexibility is developed: My hypothesis is that flexibility is related to comfort and confidence while rigidity is related to fear and discomfort. But I don’t know this for certain. Courage without fear is only foolishness.

Language and communication skills can be tested, and the IDI is related to perception and awareness as well as attitudes. Anxiety can me assessed, but low anxiety is not equal to bravery. As we seek to assess education, it is important to understand our goals in their cultural context, and to continue to study other cultures to explore new approaches, new theories, new learning objectives. My hope is that we do not simplify our teaching efforts to meet only those goals that are simple to define and measure.



1. gina difino - March 4, 2010

Hi Betina,

Thank you for your always insightful blog. I have been thinking about this for some time. And there really is this sense in US education that if you can’t prove something with hard data, it doesn’t belong in the learning day. We US Americans do have a sense of control over everything – including student learning.

So it is with trepidation that I do seek to understand how children learn intercultural skills and attitudes and even starting from assessment and objectives betrays my US American bias. However, the exploration might help show others who always function from this point of view, that intercultural skills are vital and can be taught to children.

I look forward to future discussions surrounding this issue.

2. Bettina Hansel - March 4, 2010

Dear Gina,
Please let me know what you discover in your research efforts. Thanks for posting. It’s always nice to know who is reading the blog posts.

Warm regards,

3. Lisa Minor - May 11, 2010

Hi Bettina,
Thank you for sharing your information. I am currently a school nursing supervisor and I really connected with you when you discussed the topics on language and communications skills. Right now, in this diverse population, it can be difficult at times to communicate a medical need or concern about a student with the parent when they don’t speak English. I try to be most compassionate and understanding but sometimes the parent still does not understand and I become frustrated. Even though I am a nurse in a school setting, I am ultimately teaching parents and students about medical problems. How do you handle this when you are in this situation where you have a point to get across and it just isn’t happening?

Lisa Minor - May 16, 2010

Thank you for responding to my post. You are exactly right. It goes much deeper than just the language barrier doesn’t it? Once we had a student who had a very infected area on his hand. We tried and tried to explain to the parents that the child needed to see the doctor but instead of doing so, they took an onion, heated it on the stove, and placed it on the infected area. The father shared that in their culture this was done and an acceptable way of dealing with infection. We shared that we did not think that would work in this case and the child eventually was taken to the doctor to get antibiotics. He is fine now but we were scared for a while. I had to step back and realize that these parents were not neglecting their son, they just believed differently than I did in the healing process.

Bettina Hansel - May 17, 2010

A great story, Lisa. There is no doubt some chemical in the onion, and a great deal to be said for belief. Science has shown that a placebo is very powerful. And I’ve lived long enough to see many truths discarded and replaced by others. So it pays not to be too arrogant with the current truth.

4. Bettina Hansel - May 12, 2010

Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I wish you good luck in your efforts to communicate. It certainly can be frustrating when you know the other person isn’t understanding the point you are trying to make. My experience indicates that this is often related not just to the language involved but to the entire way of framing and thinking about the question. My best advice is to try to get the other person to talk about the issue and try to hear how they organize their thoughts. Then see if you can connect to that underlying thought process. This isn’t easy, of course, and it takes time to develop your own mental flexibility. I can’t always do it, and I struggle with this also.

5. Joanne Martinez - May 14, 2010

Hi Bettina:

Very interesting post and additional comments. I do so agree with your comment on the “rubrics to assess ‘educational outcomes'”. How can we as instructors assess a student overcoming the fear of thinking outside the box? Dealing with international adult students that come complete with cultural biases and those underlying “fears” is definitely a challenge especially when English is not their first language. I do not believe in the old adage that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. “Old dogs” just need to have a reason to learn those new tricks. Any ideas?

Bettina Hansel - May 17, 2010

Hello, Joanne,
Thank you for bringing up the point about motivation. This always seems to be important in education, doesn’t it? And maybe it’s not always about “fear” of the unknown, but rather more about complacency, and a lack of understanding of why it might be useful to learn something challenging, such as a foreign language.

I wonder if we have ways to spark curiosity more about other cultures, languages, and ways of life. There’s a complacency in thinking that “our” way of life is the only normal one. There’s also a complacency in thinking that all other cultures are pretty broadly the same, but with minor variations. Both ideas tend to stop curiosity and exploration.

With my new work and a rush to pull together my research to present at a NAFSA poster session next month, I’ve had little time to put into writing about these themes. But I will pick up again in June with “Eyes on NAFSA” reporting from the conference in Kansas City and future blogs on these themes.

6. Kim Brown - May 29, 2010

I currently work for a global company where diversity has become a priority. We are continuously looking for ways to reach individuals regardless of their cultural backgrounds. In addition, there are many cases where training topics must be shared with all employees regardless of their country of orgin. Needless to say, this can often be difficult. I agree with your statement that flexibility and communication skill are important in such situations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Kim Brown

7. Bettina Hansel - May 29, 2010

Thank you for commenting, Kim. I hope the blog is helpful in dealing with some of the issues you face at the corporate level.

8. Lisa Minor - June 3, 2010

Hi Kim,

I read your post with interest. I do not work in the corporate world but I am a nursing supervisor for a school division. We are constantly dealing with issues related to diversity whether it is dealing with a parent who does not speak our language or a parent who believes something completely different about the healing process. I find it difficult just as you do. How do you deal with situations where individuals do not agree with what you are telling them and choose to do the exact opposite?

Bettina Hansel - June 3, 2010

Thanks, Lisa. I guess here it’s interesting to think about what you do when someone is trying to give you advice that you disagree with. Do you pretend to agree and do what you want? Do you state your disagreement and hope to come to a consensus with the person trying to give you advice?

Then: under what circumstances do you decide to trust the person giving you the advice and discard your own perceptions and beliefs and judgments to follow that advice? If you can recall times when this has happened to you, you may be able to think of some of the factors that could influence others to listen to you.

For me, this has happened with someone I respect: a person I believe to be intelligent and who has my interest at heart. I can be convinced to try someone else’s approach if I remember that I have not always been correct, and if I believe that the risk of trying this new approach is at least no worse than following my own instincts.

9. B. Goode - May 11, 2012

I concur with the position that international education requisites a bridging of cultural gaps in order to adequately facilitate learning across cultures. An insistence on indisputable facts is not necessarily a negative maxim to operate by, particularly in certain spheres of academia. However, that insistence should not serve to be an impassable obstruction to learning, especially as it pertains to attaching the disconnected linkages of different cultures of which attributes such as language or cultural theory can be a subsequent part.

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