5 ways to create a truly intercultural classroom

International schools need to encourage sharing and understanding between cultures in the classroom - here are some ways to do just that

Orla Carlin

Four ways to weave local culture into your international school life

We hear the term multicultural a lot in schools now, as diverse groups of students and staff work and study alongside one another.

However, an educator friend told me recently she was studying a thesis on “intercultural” interaction.

I had not heard the term but as I discussed it more, it made me realise it was something that perhaps should become more well known and perhaps even replace the ideal of multiculturalism.

After all, I have sometimes found in multicultural environments that what happens, in reality, is students gravitate towards peers who speak their language or are from the same country; opportunities for true cross-cultural learning are limited.

Here are six ways to boost intercultural interaction in the classroom both on- and off-line: 

1. Group students randomly

As noted, it can sometimes be that students naturally gravitate towards those who are similar to them.

However, I have found that using new strategies to organise students can help strengthen the bonds between different groups and help true intercultural learning take place.

For example, I sometimes ask students to find someone in the class whose name starts with the same letter as yours and work in a group of three.

Or I will say “find students who have the same birthday month as you and work together”. Online, you can organise private group chats and group students together in similar ways.

2. Discuss identities

Student identities are not always fixed and being aware of this is something that can help some feel more comfortable.

When talking about social surveys and asking the class if they see individuals from the UK as British or European, we had an interesting debate which sparked further discussion. Being from the North of Ireland, most students would classify me as European (rather than British or Irish) and it was interesting to see their different viewpoints.

This led to students stating that they have grown up their whole life in a country that was not their home country and therefore how they identified themselves was different from how other people viewed them.

The lesson finished with the question “Am I me through geography?” I think it is important for teachers to accept how students define themselves and to listen to their views.

3. Take digital holiday field trips

Taking a virtual field trip to different students’ home countries when they are celebrating a holiday unique to them can be beneficial and linked to whatever topic is being studied across any subject.

For example, when teaching moral education, the learning objective was to investigate the advantages of museums globally.

Students had the chance to introduce an artefact from their home countries to actively share their culture with one another, helping spread a true intercultural exchange.

4. Consider parental involvement

Take into consideration that parents may not always be able to help students with their homework at times for various reasons, therefore, if possible, teaching content should be developed to incorporate aspects of students’ cultural experiences and home countries.

This gives each student an opportunity to become more involved and increases the likelihood that they will engage.

This then leads to a deeper understanding and increases their ability to study independently at home.

For example, when teaching the different social structures in sociology, we looked at the ancient Egyptian society and it was structured like a pyramid for a starter activity.

This sparked a lot of interest from learners and more conversation between different cultures about hierarchies within societies and their similarities across the world.

5. Use mentors

Finally, by using mentors – in the form of pupils from older years of various cultures – to work with young pupils, we can create environments where diversity is seen as advantageous

This, in turn, will reduce the risk of feelings of marginalisation that could occur in multicultural classrooms where groups are prone to become segregated.

Mentors can support inclusion of all pupils, and build the self-esteem of all learners, in a relaxed way as well as improving group dynamics. And what’s more, in the future, those young learners can become the next generation of mentors for future cohorts.

Orla Carlin is an English teacher working in the United Arab Emirates. She has taught internationally for seven years

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