Initiating and Facilitating Intercultural Learning in Youth Exchanges and Workcamps

Intercultural Learning - Balloons

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What experiences during intercultural encounters can be used as opportunities for intercultural learning?

What is special about them? What turns them into key-experiences?

How can such opportunities be perceived and used to learn with and from one another?

Facilitating intercultural learning raises up the question how organizers, co-ordinators, youth leaders or facilitators initiate and organise processes of intercultural learning in intercultural youth projects. This question seems easily answered, if someone takes into account the numerous games and exercises for intercultural learning. Introducing those methods is only one way to facilitate intercultural learning, but they very often lack the necessity of reflecting the experience made in an intercultural encounter. Furthermore a lot of methods suggest a very narrow understanding of culture. From a wide range of theoretical reflections and practical experience, some ‘mosaic pieces’ are brought together and presented here.

 

1. Myths about intercultural learning

World peace and world citizenship can be achieved by international co-operation, by international understanding based on intercultural learning, by intercultural competence and especially by international encounters.
Thomas 1994:227

Similar reasoning is often met in the field of international youth exchanges. „The fundamental concept is simple: When people from different cultures and nations meet, they learn to understand each other better, they discover similarities, they intensify interpersonal contacts and: nothing stands in the way of peace! When success fails to come, this can only be because of the quality of the programme.“ (Thomas 1994:227)

These concepts of intercultural exchanges contain two myths about intercultural learning: the contact myth and the programme myth.

The contact myth, or: contact is everything!

Contact between people of different cultural backgrounds alone is sufficient for triggering off intercultural learning processes, breaking down prejudices, reaching a better understanding between people, nations, etc.
This reasoning can be confronted with the notion that intercultural learning should certainly not be left to a pure chance. Processes of intercultural learning develop automatically and ‘something’ is always learned along the line. Such learning processes certainly don’t have just positive effects. There’s no automatic decrease of prejudices through intercultural contact. Prejudices may as well be reinforced or aroused.

Thus, ‘contact is not enough’ for initiating constructive intercultural learning. Such learning processes should be organised with a clear aim. That’s the call for pedagogy.

The programme myth, or: pedagogy is everything!

Meeting people of different cultural backgrounds takes place within the framework of a pedagogically structured programme. Within the context of this programme (e.g. special thematic evenings, use of games and exercises on intercultural learning), intercultural learning is initiated and organised. If the aimed learning-result is not achieved, this can only be caused by the insufficient quality of the programme.

This myth can be confronted with the notion that intercultural experiences are also gained (to some extent even especially gained) outside the official programme: most of the key-experiences of intercultural meetings take place during spare time activities.

An alternative approach to intercultural learning

Ideally, a successful intercultural learning process can be described as a mutual process of learning about and with one another.
Rademacher 1991:31

The process of intercultural learning consists of phases of coming closer and keeping distance. Matters of personal experience should be the central point of reference for communication within intercultural groups. Any personal experiences, which involve either pleasant or unpleasant feelings/emotions, play an important role in the process of intercultural learning. „This can be put into practice, wherever cultural differences appear significant in situations of everyday life, where people are personally involved, and where they discuss subjects that relate to their personal life.“ (Rademacher 1991:31)

Therefore, it is very important how people reflect on culture and intercultural learning.

 

2. What is culture? What is intercultural learning?

To understand intercultural learning it is essential to clarify the concept of ‘culture’:

A definition of ‘Culture’

Bernd Krewer (1994:139-149) is defining ‘culture’ in the following way:

Culture is made by people, shared and handed down historically through a certain number of people. The essence of culture is its dynamism, which means that culture is not static, but changeable.

Culture is a system of rules and meanings. As a system of rules, culture exists to provide orientation and to help people organise a way of life. As a system of meanings, culture provides a collection of shared concepts of reality.

National culture is only one aspect of culture. When people of different cultural backgrounds meet, differences in age, sex or social background may eclipse the different aspects of national culture. For example, a group of 15-year-olds from one country may meet a group of 25-year-olds from another country. In this case it is likely that possible tensions or conflicts will arise due to the age difference, and not the different national cultural backgrounds. On the other hand, shared viewpoints or comparable personal situations can eclipse aspects of national culture and different ages, if, for example, both groups consist of unemployed young people.

Problem areas of intercultural contacts

Based on this definition of culture, Krewer (1994:139-149) names three dimensions of problems in intercultural encounters, people have to deal with:

  • the problem of understanding or misunderstanding each other’s way of life (different world views – meanings);
  • the problem of explaining why one acts the way one acts (different ways to put a world view into practice – rules);
  • the problem of the cultural identification of the self and the cultural identification of others (different ways to define ‘identity’ – danger of inadequate concepts of ‘identity’).

Contents of intercultural learning

Based on the above concept of culture and the three problem areas, one can identify the main issues of intercultural learning:

  • Reflecting on personal and cultural identities, as well as history,
  • Relativizing one’s own point of view,
  • Sensitising to understanding other cultures,
  • Sensitising to prejudices, ethnocentrism, racism and their mechanisms.

(see: transfer e.V. w.j.)

This list makes it clear, that intercultural learning is not a method, but aims at developing a certain attitude.

Competence as a co-ordinator

There are certain qualities, abilities and skills which are helpful for co-ordinators to facilitate intercultural learning:

  • Knowledge about main values of different cultures, e.g. the meaning of honour, age, traditions, gender roles, time, meaning of life, shame, power, taboos, understanding of democracy, ecology, pedagogy,
  • Language and communication competence skills, e.g. dealing with language difficulties,
  • Empathy and ability to change perspectives (relativistic view),
  • Dealing with unpleasant and unexplainable situations (tolerance towards ambiguous situations),
  • Working together in international teams and groups,
  • Perceiving and analysing intercultural situations,
  • Perceiving and working on (culturally defined) conflicts, e.g. methods of conflict resolution and intercultural mediation.

(see: transfer e.V. w.j.)

 

3. Organising processes of intercultural learning – Methods & Content

For a co-ordinator or youth leader of intercultural youth projects, it is important to know what kind of experiences in international encounters can normally be used to organise processes of intercultural learning. A co-ordinator/youth leader, therefore, needs to understand something about the perception of such experiences and how such experiences can be turned into an opportunity to learn from one another.

 

How can a facilitator

initiate and facilitate intercultural learning?


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Giving incentives

‘Giving incentives’ means talking about methods of intercultural learning within the framework of certain thematic aspects of intercultural encounters. Many of these methods and exercises are activities that simulate particular situations where people make contact with each other. They can be used in the context of a mono-cultural seminar, but they are also quite effective for the work with intercultural groups.

The following methods are suggested:

  • activities to demonstrate phenomena of perception;
  • exercises to illustrate possible communication problems;
  • exercises to illustrate possible problems relating to the work part;
  • role plays about everyday conflicts;
  • role plays about conflicts;
  • simulations of intercultural encounters (e.g. Karo meet Delta, Albatross, Bafa Bafa).

Planning for the self-evident

It seems self-evident in international encounters that volunteers want to get to know one another, learn about other countries and cultures, make friends, and discover similarities and differences. Even though each volunteer can take it into his/her own hands to satisfy such interests, a co-ordinator should create a context to encourage natural interaction. Otherwise, the opportunities for intercultural learning and understanding, offered by living and working together in an intercultural group, might be taken only superficially.

It’s recommended to ask the volunteers to

  • cook national specialities and talk about culture related eating habits;
  • present traditional songs, games and dances;
  • draw a large world map and show where everyone comes from;
  • present their home country;
  • take part in role plays, e.g. a typical national welcome.

Additionally, volunteers should have the space to use their own language where possible and to create an internal language if needed.

Furthermore, the co-ordinator should plan some events to present his/her own country and something characteristic about his/her culture.

Exploring cultures

In principle, a volunteer has to be curious to learn something about the host country or the countries of the other participants; otherwise the methods of ‘cultural exploration’ cannot be applied. The incentives a co-ordinator gives aim to sharpen the perception of the camp participants and help to reflect on their experiences within a methodically pre-structured framework. Different cultural perceptions may be contrasted and the perception of oneself and others may be contradictory.

For cultural explorations, a co-ordinator may

  • prepare a questionnaire for excursions;
  • organise a city tour with a certain theme;
  • let the volunteers compare associations about their own countries and the countries of the others;
  • let the volunteers collect and compare proverbs and discuss their cultural backgrounds;
  • help with developing a play on certain characteristic cultural situations;
  • use all kinds of creative methods, such as painting, drawing, pottery, sculpture (with stone or other material), collages, writing, performances, etc.

Promoting an exchange of experiences

Within the context of their, the volunteers are confronted with a lot of new experiences. To ensure that these are used as an opportunity for intercultural learning, a co-ordinator should help the group to find enough space to discuss their experiences. To advise and properly guide the processes of reflection, a co-ordinator should raise the following topics:

  • What have you learned about the country … and about … culture?
  • What do you think is typically …?
  • Do you know anything about alternative, non-governmental movements in …?
  • What are your impressions of our excursion, our afternoon at the museum, your own exploratory trips, etc.?

Furthermore, a co-ordinator should help to define cultural rules or meanings and clear any misunderstandings. Also, contents of the study part can be used as a forum for exchanging information about the home countries of the participants. („Is there an ecological movement in your country?“ „Is there any public discussion of racism in your country?“) A study part that is only a presentation of information cannot sufficiently trigger cultural learning processes.

Intervening and supporting

As a co-ordinator, you should have a feeling for group dynamics and dealing with conflicts in the group. As a precondition for being open towards any changes of atmosphere it is very helpful to find the means and space to be able to recharge one’s own batteries. One important step towards achieving this is to make sure that the participants take over some of the workload.

Support and intervention are definitely needed in order to

  • mediate conflict situations (practical and emotional conflicts);
  • create a pleasant and trustful atmosphere;
  • ensure regular evaluations;
  • plan some (leisure) events for the whole group;
  • provide space for open discussions of feelings and impressions.

 


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Sources

Forscher-Praktiker-Dialog SCI – Uni Tübingen (1991): Endbericht des Forscher-Praktiker-Projekts »SCI – Universität Tübingen, Untersuchung der Ausbildungsseminare des SCI für Gruppenleiter von Worcamps« (unver-öffentlichtes Manuskript)
Krewer, Bernd (1994): Interkulturelle Trainingsprogramme – Bestandsaufnahme und Perspektiven; in: Nouveaux cahiers d’allmand 12, S. 139-149
Rademacher, Helmold (1991): Spielend interkulturell lernen? Wirkungsanalyse von Spielen zum interkulturellen Lernen bei internationalen Jugendbegegnungen; Verl. für Wissenschaft und Bildung, Berlin
Rademacher, Helmold (1994): Vermeiden oder bearbeiten? und Rettungsanker Methoden?; in: Grahn, T., u.a. (1994): Interkulturelle Begegnungen. Dokumentation der Modellseminare; transfer e.V., Köln
Reisch, Bernhard (1994): Konzept eines »Trainings zur interkulturellen Kommunikation« für LeiterInnen von Workcamps; in: Grahn, T., u.a. (1994): Interkulturelle Begegnungen. Dokumentation der Modellseminare; transfer e.V., Köln
Thomas, Alexander (1994): Können interkulturelle Begegnungen Vorurteile verstärken?; in: Thomas, A. (Hrsg.): Psychologie und multikulturelle Gesellschaft; VAP, Göttingen

Michael Kimmig

trainer | coach | life-long learner

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