A major skill required by virtually all employers in the US and globally is intercultural competence. Intercultural competence, also referred to as cross-cultural competence, is basically the ability or capacity to effectively communicate with people of diverse cultures. This ability is gained by formal training, although some individuals may have inborn skills, which, however, need formal nurturing. Intercultural competence is not only critical to job opportunities, but is also recognized as of significant importance in the social domain. In the US, for instance, a society made up of people from diverse cultures, the continued development of various multicultural programs and courses in the higher education system has attracted significant attention from scholars and non-scholars alike, with their effects on intercultural experiences and attitudes to students becoming a debatable topic. This paper analysis these effects and also looks at the importance of intercultural competence.
A brief History of Multicultural Education
Multicultural training programs, also known as diversity training programs, were introduced to the education system during the Civil Rights Movement’s era. Although not directly introduced to the curriculum, it was the African-American scholars and educators, working in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, who pioneered multicultural education. The original purpose of the scholars was to address social struggles, such as racism in education, but the field was later redefined by white educators to mean the celebration of ethnic foods and festivals. Since the late 1950s when Cubans fleeing Castro’s revolution advanced bilingual education, which was, however, to a privileged minority; Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans have advanced bilingual education legislation, theory and practice. It was during this period that ethnic studies and women’s studies departments were established on some university campuses, a move which provided a basis for contemporary debates about multiculturalism in higher education. The efforts of multiculturalism were frustrated by scholars, however, who dismissed the idea by claiming that it was a political responsibility. Educational reform reports, such as the National Commission of Excellence in Education: A nation at risk, which was formulated in 1983, had a significant influence to the re-introduction of multicultural education. In the reports, students of color, were defined as “at risk” of failure, together with those from poverty areas. These reform reports, combined with demographic data reports, which informed educators and the general public that people of color would become the majority during the 21st century are what rejuvenated workshops on multicultural education. The re-introduction was not easy, however, especially in higher education institutions, where lively debates about the canon were met by more conservative challenges against “political correctness”. The failure of institutions to embrace the move resulted to conflicting views, and instead of further protesting to have multicultural education recognized, communities of color such as Native-American, African American, and Puerto Ricans established their own institutions, such as the Native-American tribal schools and Afro centric schools, and programs. Multicultural education was reinstated much later to universities and colleges’ curricula, after the global economy demanded intercultural competence skills with in typically all fields. (Rethinking School Online, 1995)
Effects of cultural diversity and multiculturalism educational experiences in higher education to student world view
Multicultural education, ethnic studies and cultural diversity are terms commonly used to refer to multiculturalism. A major affect a multicultural curriculum has to students is that it unifies the students involved. This is a concept which has raised controversy, however, with some critics proposing otherwise. The critics, conservative social commentators, claim that multicultural education has a divisive force to the nation, acclaim which has been objected by scholars, who instead say that multicultural education would divide the nation if it was united. They further say that since the nation has numerous divisive forces, such as social, cultural, racial, economic and political forces, multicultural education is an effective means of solving the problem. (AASA, 1999)
The narrowing of the gap between “us” and “them” is an important effect to students’ attitudes and experiences, especially since many of university and college students have many attitudes about people from other cultures. Unifying such students by introducing them to various cultures can assist them immensely both in their relationships in their various institutions and outside.
Another significant effect multiculturalism educational experiences have to students is that when such systems are included in the education system, many students, from diverse cultures are able to involuntarily participate in the learning process, and their participation can effectively enrich the nation state. This is beneficial to both the nation and its citizens and as Renato Rosado; the Stanford anthropologist calls it, “cultural citizenship.” The step the government is required is to take so as to make the community more inclusive and reflective of the diversity that enriches the nation, is by bringing people and groups that are now on the margins of society into the centre since it is in schools that one learns her or his behavior and attitudes towards certain issues affecting the society. Higher learning institutions should be the first tools to be used in demonstrating the democratic society needed by the nation. In such institutions, for instance, the curriculum reflects the cultures of the diverse groups within society, the language and dialects that students speak are respected and valued, co-operation rather than competition is fostered among students and students from diverse racial, ethnic and social class groups are given equal status in school. (AASA, 1999)
Many researchers have done extensive research on the effects of multicultural education to students of higher learning. The research findings, which have been used by scholars to recommend inclusion of cultural diversity programs to college and university curricula, indicate that students come to school with many stereotypes, misconceptions and negative attitudes towards outside racial and ethnic groups, a finding which can be attributed to family belief of diverse cultural backgrounds. Students from African American background, for instance, may be having negative racial attitudes towards certain groups of people, due to the numerous racial injustices experienced in the early and mid 20th century. Into this issue research indicates that the use of multicultural textbooks, other teaching materials and cooperative teaching strategies has a significant effect to students’ attitudes, and the strategies can help students to develop more positive racial attitudes and perceptions. This research indicates that the materials and teaching strategies can result in students choosing more friends from outside racial, ethnic and cultural groups. (AASA, 1999)
Other researchers have come up with more results that indicate that the academic achievements of African American and Mexican American students has increased due to the inclusion of multicultural education, an effect, actualized especially by the use of cooperative teaching activities and strategies, rather than competitive ones, when used in instruction (UOW, 2008)
Implementation of Multiculturalism
A common assumption of multicultural education is the realization that teaching is a cross-cultural encounter, an assumption which clearly suggests the need of good training to teachers of multicultural education. It is important to realize the students and teachers alike have their own cultural backgrounds, values customs, perceptions and prejudices, which play an important role in teaching and learning situations and can have substantial effects on our learning and behavior (Salili F and Hoosain R, 2001)
It is extremely important that multicultural educators, especially teachers in higher learning institutions, are trained on effective implementation of multicultural education. Many students have told unsatisfactory comments about institutions displaying monocultural practices, despite an initial display of multiculturalism and cultural diversity in the recruitment process.
“I feel I was lied to and deceived before getting here because they tell you all this lovely stuff in the hand book and then they call your house and explain this and then when you get here its totally different.” A student attending Cedar University said. (Watson 2002; 53)
Various aspects of multicultural school transformation have been found needing critical examination. Such aspects include: student centered pedagogy, which provides equal potential to all students to reach their potential as learners and which should be flexible enough to allow for the diversity of learning styles present in every classroom. Secondly, multicultural curriculum needs scrutiny and all its subject must be taught from diverse perspectives. A third equally important aspect is “inclusive educational media and materials” where students must be encouraged to think critically about materials and media. Another significant aspect is the school and classroom climate, which should be effective and supportive for all students, irrespective of their cultural background. Last but not least, continued evaluation and assessment measures must be taken to gauge the success of new and existing programs, which is an important step to providing more opportunities to groups traditionally and presently underrepresented in institutions of higher learning. (EdChange, 2008)
Training programs aimed at increasing intercultural competence
The understanding of the importance of intercultural competence has led to the introduction of numerous intercultural training programs in institutions all over the world. These programs focus on a range of diversity issues, issues such as aboriginal affairs, anti racism, cultural diversity, human rights, official languages, women and multiculturalism in general. (Canadian Heritage, 2008) Such programs include MA Degree in school psychology, where multicultural content is infused throughout the curriculum. Examples of relevant and courses which have been developed are: cross-cultural relocation training, intercultural management training, cultural diversity training, cross cultural competence training and intercultural communication. (Kwintessential, 2008)
Importance of Intercultural Competence
Intercultural competence has numerous benefits. Such benefits include; job opportunities, job stability, communication abilities, and social benefits.
Cross-cultural adaptability is an extremely important skill for the success of any employee, from top managers to low-wage earners. To improve one’s chances of landing and keeping a job, especially internationally, one requires basic cultural diversity skills. With the increasing diversity in the population, cultural competence is increasingly becoming vital, and just like computer skills were highly marketable a decade ago, so is an understanding of how to work with people from different backgrounds in most jobs, especially within the US. (Sideroad.com, 2008)
Landing a job may not require intercultural competence, but keeping it certainly does. An invaluable benefit intercultural competence skills provide is turning differences into opportunities. Moreover, these skills are very important when solving problems creatively.
Communication and Social Benefits
Intercultural competence enables people to appreciate different cultures as well as taking advantage of opportunities that others are afraid of. Interculturally aware people are also interesting, and they think with an open mindset where others find only failure (Sideroad.com)
Case study: Green Mountain College
Green mountain college is a 4 year coeducational environmental liberal arts private college, accredited by the New England Association of Schools and colleges, Inc. (Collegesofdistinction.com, 2008)
Some of the main courses taught at the college are multiculturalism, diversity awareness, and social justice, counseling and psychotherapy, abnormal psychology, human development among others. Green Mountain College may increase intercultural competence among the student body in various ways, through its vibrant intercultural center. The college’s population, for instance, composed of Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, Asians, and many other diverse cultures is a factor with a significant impact in increasing intercultural competence. (Green Mountain College, 2008)
The center has an energetic staff of students, the student director of the intercultural center and the international student advisor. The centers effectiveness in increasing intercultural competence among the student body is well demonstrated through the intercultural governing board, whose president is from Nepal, Progatee Dhakal, and the student director, from Moldova, the secretary from Panama and the treasurer, Alfred Narh, from Ghana. In addition, the intercultural center offers numerous scholarships from countries other than the United States and Canada. For instance, the PEO international peace scholarship fund that is available to young women from countries other than the United States and Canada who meet the eligibility requirements. Another tool which has a great impact in increasing intercultural competence among the student body is the study aboard and travel programs which “bring students an international scale”. Moreover, the student exchange program maintained in the college are great opportunities to increase intercultural competence, including the Spanish and French language immersion programs in Argentina and France, offered at the college. (Green Mountain College, 2008)
Multicultural education’s importance cannot be underestimated. According to the evidence derived from Green Mountain College and other researchers as mentioned above it is the right time scholars included the education to school curricula in higher education institutions. Multicultural education has been found to have numerous effects in student bodies. In addition, the many invaluable benefits that intercultural competence skills have are enough proof of its effectiveness.
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EdChange: The Transformation of Schools and Schooling. Retrieved on Thursday, November 27, 2008 from: http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/initial.html
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