Four Principles for Intercultural Classrooms

Classrooms are ALWAYS intercultural spaces.

Make that fact explicit and make it a jumping off point for learning. Students–domestic as well as international--enter college classrooms with widely varying background knowledge, and sometimes with radically different understandings about how learning works: what the role of a teacher is, how knowledge is tested and verified, and how they as students are supposed to engage in the learning process.

What can we do?

  • Have students provide information about their background in your discipline: what interests them about the field, what knowledge they already have, as well as what their goals are for the course.
  • Take some time to let students reflect on what they are learning, so that they can have a chance to comprehensively take stock of what they’ve done to that point, and so that you can identify issues some students might either be particularly engaged with or struggling with.
  • Find opportunities for students to share their cultural knowledge and understanding in your discussions of crucial concepts.

Knowledge-making is culturally embedded.

Each discipline holds values about how knowledge is created, disseminated, and evaluated; make those values transparent. Each student brings their own set of educational experiences and ways of thinking about their world, and need a way to bring that knowledge to bear in their learning. Often instructors have been so enculturated to how education works in America, and how knowledge works in their disciplines, that these principles seem natural and obvious. It can be hard to remember what it was like coming to learn this material for the first time, the kinds of struggles our students face as they enter the classroom, whether they come from a different country or a neighborhood nearby. Furthermore, students need an opportunity to make connections between course material and their own experiences, interests and aspirations, since making these connections promotes transfer of learning and self-efficacy in their work.

What can we do?

  • Articulate learning goals for the course, and frame assignments so that they clearly state how students can meet those goals.
  • Provide opportunities for students to reflect on how concepts and ideas relate to their prior knowledge, what excites them, or what they expect for the future.
  • Scaffold major assignments in a way that allows students to iteratively practice crucial thinking skills they need to complete the project.
  • If your assignments depend on student’s knowledge or experience of American culture (as many 2367 courses do), give some flexibility to allow international students a way into talking about American culture from their position as newcomers to the U.S.
  • Recommend resources that make the foundational knowledge of the discipline more accessible to students. This will establish a baseline understanding of crucial concepts for all students.
  • Spend some time talking about your teaching philosophy, particularly about what your students can expect of you and what you expect of students (course policies, communication inside and outside the class, etc.)

What some perceive as mistakes in writing are not signs of a lack of comprehension or of language proficiency.

Focus more on meaning and content than on surface error. It is important to remember that the kind of specialized language instructors ask students to master is very unfamiliar to them--even if they are native English speaking students. Studies have found that as writers tackle unfamiliar ideas, they have a more difficult time managing language conventions. This is true even of expert writers who are exploring new fields unfamiliar to them. Writing that does not reflect the range of expected conventions for English in academic contexts may signal that students have a wide range experiences with reading and writing that they can bring to bear as they familiarize themselves to writing in new contexts. These experiences can lead to productive classroom dialogue about disciplinary expectations and practices. This can grant students greater familiarity with writing expectations in their discipline so that they have greater agency in their decision-making as writers. It takes writers time to adopt their writing to meet their field's expected conventions.

What can we do?

  • Provide students with models of effective writing in your discipline and work together to analyze how ideas are put together.
  • Take the time to talk individually with them about their ideas at multiple stages in the writing process.
  • Ask for clarification when necessary, and provide students with an opportunity to further explain themselves.
  • As you respond to student writing, rather than simply editing sentence-level language, identify patterns you see in students work, and tailor your feedback to the learning objectives of the assignment, addressing a few key areas for students to focus their improvement.
  • As you identify these areas for improvement, encourage your students to collaborate with a tutor in the Writing Center to learn how to address them in their writing.

Cross-cultural understanding requires commitment.

Intentionally cultivate space for intercultural communication to happen in the classroom. Provide students a range of opportunities to understand how their cultural experiences can serve as resources in the classroom and encourage students to incorporate these experiences to effectively meet assignment learning objectives. Teach all of your students strategies for listening and engaging constructively with those who have different experiences and perspectives from them.

What can we do?

  • Provide students with multiple opportunities and formats to participate, including written and spoken activities, one-on-one, small group, and large group discussions.
  • Model attentive listening to your classes by repeating back what you hear from your students and asking if you understood correctly. If a misunderstanding does occur, take a few seconds to identify the basis of confusion and to clarify what was meant.
  • Encourage students by acknowledging their ideas and the contribution they bring to discussion.
  • Encourage students to share their individual cultural experiences and perspectives; at the same time, avoid putting them in the position of being a spokesperson for their home culture by respecting what they’re comfortable sharing, and by framing their perspectives as valuable personal contributions rather than overarchingly representative ones.
  • Consider ways that you can build some flexibility into your syllabus and assignments to support students' different learning processes.
  • Work as closely as possible with students throughout the semester, helping them to set manageable goals and develop personal strategies for learning.