How intercultural learning can boost inclusivity

Cultural diversity is a big topic but there are fun, engaging ways teachers can get children thinking about it from a young age

Sharon Tonner-Saunders

Sweets in different colours

How do we get young people to develop an understanding of cultural diversity and inclusivity? It is a big question, but one that needs to be considered carefully.

After all, children are growing up in a world where they will meet and interact with people from a vast array of backgrounds, many with different views of the world. Helping young people to navigate this, as well as embracing their own cultural identity, is vital to give them an appreciation of differences, similarities, cultures and beliefs in the world so they become engaged, global citizens.

Teachers have a crucial role to play in this and there are some simple ways to get this discussion started from a young age.

Sweet ideas

One effective stimulus that can open the door to a rich discussion about differences and similarities is through chocolate sweets that are coated in different colours on the outside.

First, give a group of children different coloured chocolate sweet. Then ask the children to reveal their chocolate to the class ask: what do you notice that is different about the sweet? 

Children should hopefully say the colours. Then ask the children to bite into the chocolate and let the rest of the class see what is inside. By asking the children, what do you notice about the sweets now, they should notice that they look the same inside.

Discussion of visual similarities and differences can then follow about what makes us the same inside and why outside appearances are not always a basis on which to judge someone and that it is important we engage with people on who they are inside, not on their outward appearance. 

For older children, an excellent stimulus for this lesson is the song This Is Me from the Greatest Showman. Again, this stimulus allows children to explore differences between people as well as learning to accept, who they are for themselves within a fun, engaging piece of content. 

Or you can initiate a discussion about accepting who someone is with the following quote from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “I am what I am, an’ I’m not ashamed. 'Never be ashamed,’ my ol’ dad used ter say, ‘there’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth botherin’ with”.

These ideas should help generate fruitful discussions without requiring additional resources, well perhaps a few sweets, to help get children actively thinking about cultural diversity, identity and building an understanding of the importance of inclusivity in the world we live in.

Intercultural learning

To develop an even deeper understanding of cultural inclusion and diversity ideally requires children to engage and interact with other young people from across the world. This is where intercultural learning can play an important role by helping young people engage with pupils from across the world on real-life projects that bring the world into their classrooms whilst also sharing their own classroom with the world.

This allows young people to develop an awareness of themselves and others, to understand what factors play a role in defining who they are and enables them to develop informed views of the world around them, and it can be a lot of fun too.

Of course, developing an international intercultural project can be a daunting task if you don’t know where to start, especially if a specific country or curricular focus is required to ensure that the partnership is relevant to pupils’ learning. 

To break down this barrier, and many more, the eTwinning initiative offers a platform for teachers to create collaborative intercultural projects with other schools in Europe that have learner impact at their core. The eTwinning project also provides free professional development to teachers to support them on their intercultural journey. 

It’s also a great way to take examples from projects that other teachers have been part of that embraced cultural awareness and identity, as pupils work with their global peers on a communal theme.

Examples range from a teacher who engaged her pupils with those from Spain, Turkey, Serbia and Greece on environmental issues, through to a teacher in Leicester who worked with schools in France and Lithuania to share arts works from local galleries and museums, and then made costumes to match the picture using accessories out of paper, bin bags and other objects they found.

Sing and sign

Over the past fifteen years, I've created many different types of intercultural projects to connect children with their global peers, such as culture boxes and a project called Voices Of The World, where simple songs are used to connect schools and allow children to use their own language. 

My recent project Hands Of The World (HOTW) has an additional element to enable children to preserve their linguistic identities and communicate in their own language through the use of Makaton - a language programme using signs and symbols designed to support spoken language and help people to communicate. The HOTW projects has helped to break down communication barriers with over 800 young people from the age of 4 to 18, from around the world. 

Each month I sent the schools involved a line of a song which they had to sing and sign in Makaton. The schools then submitted a recording of these lines which I made into a video that united all the schools together, you can see one of the videos below.

The project also included other activities to develop children’s appreciation of different languages and cultures alongside learning how to say specific words and phrases in a different language.  One of these activities was a weekly challenge where a word or phrase suggested by children would be released with a video of how to sign the words. Children would then say and sign the phrase in their own language and share with others. 

Watching how the project created an environment where all students could participate in learning and interact with their peers was a special experience to observe. It enabled students to communicate, collaborate and create with their peers around the world in a meaningful project by breaking down the barriers of language, age, ability, culture and location.

Fun, engaging and stimulating experiences like this enable children to develop an understanding of their own cultural identity while also engaging with others to see that there is much that unites them, helping develop an appreciation of cultural diversity and inclusivity that will serve them well throughout life. 

Sharon Tonner-Saunders is a lecturer in education at the University of Dundee and a former primary teacher

Through music and Makaton the Hands of the World eTwinning project has helped to break down communication barriers between pupils in over 40 countries. On 28 September 2019, Sharon Tonner-Saunders and a team of six other UK teachers were presented with a British Council eTwinning National Award for outstanding contribution to international school collaboration within the eTwinning pedagogical framework.

Sharon Tonner-Saunders

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