Reflecting on intercultural experiences

When you reflect, you are able to put an experience into perspective. Reflective thinking turns experience into insight.”
John Maxwell, author and leadership expert.


Reflection means different things to different people. Most would agree though that it is a valued mode of thought. In higher education and in schools of social work in particular, reflection has been embraced as a valuable tool to get students into the habit of constructing meaning from their (intercultural) experiences. Especially during their practical placements, either at home or abroad, reflection helps students to process their role, actions and responsibilities thoughtfully, and critically assess and understand what they are seeing and doing (and linking that to theory). Reflection is introduced as a key tool in helping students learn from the myriads of contradictions in today’s world and the infinite complexities that they face in the social domain. With the ultimate goal of developing transferable skills which are lifelong and not context-specific, in order to operate more effectively in professionally demanding situations. Overall, reflective practice is thoroughly embedded within the social work profession, and increasingly so in other caring professions and teaching.

Most views of reflection in education stem from the work of John Dewey (1910), an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer who is often credited with being the originator of reflective practice. He stated: “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflection on experience.” Reflection is generally considered to include some, several or all of the following elements: making sense of an experience, going over a (critical) incident several times, standing back to gain a clearer perspective, in search of a better understanding, aiming for more honesty, considering or weighing the good and bad aspects and making balanced judgements.

From the profusion of definitions of reflective practice Finlay arrives at this concise summary: “In general, reflective practice is understood as the process of learning through and from experience towards gaining new insights of self and/or practice. This often involves examining assumptions of everyday practice. It also tends to involve the individual practitioner in being self-aware and critically evaluating their own responses to practice situations. The point is to recapture practice experiences and mull them over critically in order to gain new understandings and so improve future practice. This is understood as part of the process of life-long learning.”(Finlay, 2008)

Intercultural encounters and the perplexities that may result from them often provide opportunities for reflection. In today’s world you don’t need to leave your country to come across situations where your intercultural sensitivity is put to the test. More and more people are in frequent communication with people from different countries and as a result the importance of developing an aptitude to understand other cultures is felt in many sectors of society. Increasingly people are realising that cultural awareness and intercultural competences are a necessity in today’s global and interconnected world.

Developing intercultural competences cannot be done in a single course, however. It takes time and effort to develop those attitudes, knowledge and skills that comprise your ability to get along with, work and/or learn with people from diverse cultures. The application of arts-based and action-oriented methods is a useful and interesting step in this respect. These accessible methods encourage people to make contact, to experience and participate in a joint and structured activity with people with different backgrounds or from different parts of Europe or the world.  Performing playful, active tasks (such as dance) or creative activities (such as photography or music making) in small diverse groups enables people to interact with others in a non-threatening and inclusive way. Some of these types of methods have already been used in various settings to make people feel comfortable in a new group, a new context or team, as ways to break the ice. Likewise, they can be applied successfully in intercultural settings.

When designing such engaging activities for a diverse group a facilitator is bound to ask himself how each and everyone is likely to react: will participants feel comfortable and at ease, will they feel that the activity is appropriate and worthwhile, will they feel invited to join the activity, will the activity establish a level playing field (for example by standing in a circle) etc. ? Although designing such arts-based and action-oriented activities is important, reflecting on the experiences is perhaps even more crucial. Experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning; people learn from reflection on the experience: that is where the real value of the activity is shaped. In many cases doing a simple “check-out” or asking an open question such as: what is it that you will take away from this intercultural activity ? may already lead to valuable reflective insights from the individual participants (and challenge their original assumptions).


Besides, the collective sharing of these reflective thoughts in an intercultural group setting is potentially even more worthwhile, and may lead to profounder exchanges and deeper impact. As part of a larger programme, a series of these arts-based and action-oriented activities, consistently concluded with stimulating questions and reflective moments, can encourage and enable participants to adopt a more reflective mode of thought, and enhance reflection skills. In fact it may well pave the way for reflection on any future intercultural encounters (or collaboration), and in doing so nurture intercultural competences.


Dewey, J. (1910) How we think. E-book on Project Gutenberg.

Finlay, L. (2008) Reflecting on reflective practice. PBPL paper 52 ; A discussion paper prepared for PBPL CETL ( Retrieved January, 25, 2018 from here.

Interested in learning more about the role of reflection and experiential learning ? Click here . A helpful resource in guiding your thoughts, supporting reflection is Gibbs’ reflective cycle (1988) which can be accessed on Pinterest here . Looking for a diversity of reflection tools ? Go here or here.

Community theatre with imprisoned people

The game from behind the bars
Recordings from work on #weave performance
on the themes of a drama
by Ivan Vyrypaiev Oxygen and personal histories of the inmates
in Warsaw Służewiec Investigative Detention Center

February-May 2017

February 2017 Meeting and Understanding
The first three attempts are the hardest. I do not know who and with what motivation, openness, and potential will be waiting for me in the prison room. I always try to avoid uncertainty and accept unpredictability - this is the basic feature of an instructor with intercultural competence.
34 imprisoned people applied to participate in the show, and the services chose 16.
I introduce myself, I always talk about myself enough to dare to express myself. I have little time - rehearsals in the first phase of the project last only two hours and if we deduct the time for the discharge and bringing the prisoners, real work is always just over an hour.
I invite them to speak - stories about themselves. So it will be easier to work. Strangely enough, they all open up, telling the story of their mistake that caused them to be right behind the bars.
Many of them have life imprisonment, some ruined family relationships, and we have an honest and open talk. Then they write on my pages their dreams and describe one day that would be their best day in their lives. First meetings I consider to be successful, we are on the right track, I trust them and I believe that they will open so much that further work will allow them to have a dialogue with each other, will make a real change, will prompt reflection.

March April
Workshops - methods - games

In my work on the shows with the inmates I use a lot of methods, motives, games, but the closest is to me the concept of Community Theatre - Theatre of the Community - one of the trends of the Theatre Committed Socially.
The idea of this method is primarily to stimulate the community to create an original and unique theater that arises from their story. When working on this spectacle, the main theme was the title of a tangle, understood as a combination of events, unexpected solutions, erroneous decisions, the inability to master emotions.
The combination of life situations that led my actors behind the bars removed from them freedom, dignity, joy, normality. I make a test record, try to make micro images, scenes, symbolic characters. I try to use the language of my actors, and their style of communication is very subtle in the language of the theater.
Inspired by the concept of the Theatre of the Community, I try to use dramatic and theatrical plays in the first phase to inspire creativity and inspire them to become emotionally engaged in the process of creating the play. In addition to the Community Theatre idea, I use pure drama in workshop work as one of the most effective methods of working with a group. Unfortunately, it is difficult to carry it out on the potential of the detainees, they have problems with improvisation, initially difficult to enter the other roles. So I try to manipulate the world of fiction in the drama a little - I choose it to refer to the world of real participants in the workshop. Drama primarily has a key influence on building relationships within the group. This is a difficult process because the laws of prison casts are governed here, the divisions are flattering and uncritical. For me, this is a very interesting experience. When one of the exercises was to build a child's world of games and play, one of the inmates (reflexive) refused to take part in "playing the paw" because he would have to collide with the hands of the unspoken ones. Of course I accepted his decision. Dramatic exercises are extremely important to me, because they allow my actors to see emotions, problems, and solutions.
In the concept of the Theatre of the Community space is important, the place where the stories are played, and it should also create a narration. We play our spectacle in the space of arrest - but not raw, not everyday, not ordinary one. We will arrange the prison corridor to the theater room, build the stage, and make it a professional stage light. For if in the Theatre of the Community - the space of play is both for the viewers and actors very important, filling in personal stories, so for my actors prison is an unwanted space. That is why we are theatrical, creating the illusion of unreality, "another world."
The idea of the Theatre Committed Socially is the possibility of change that creates this kind of theater. In my opinion, theatrical activities with people who are isolated and excluded from not only the cultural world, help to find ways to meet individual needs, to experience difficult transitional periods, to appreciate, to play a different role. They improve social functioning, allow you to renew authentic dialogue with yourself, activate, stimulate thinking.

May 2017
Actors - premiere - emotions

Last phase of rehearsals - general rehearsals, changes, hurried learning of the text, mutual improvement.
Always at such moments emerges a leader, sometimes two. In this work I have two leaders. Zbyszek - he takes the natural function of the assistant director and Pridoni, who in the final phase of the test is the main role. He is an actor - a character around us - our world.
This is a very interesting phenomenon, because Zbyszek, though he told me his whole life, is the only one who does not speak to me by name and does not trust me.
Pridoni is a great discovery of this performance. He is Georgian, he speaks Polish very well but he is very shy. He has enormous potential but is extremely hidden. This is his first performance in life, his first role. In the final phase loses 3 kilos of weight, comes to rehearsals with the text perfectly memorized. Like a professional actor from rehearsal - creates a character, although he plays himself, loses the man with great dreams.
Huge emotion always accompanies costumes - always when I bring my actors, jackets, shirts, trousers - it is like a ritual for them. They choose, they choose, the "best" for themselves. They wash the things and iron.

During the final phase of preparation for the premiere, the most visible change is in them. The body's moves change primarily. They are more active, move faster, their movements are dynamic, energetic.
They begin to perceive themselves. They see how much they care about them. How important it is to stand here, go out or get down on an arranged musical accent, pick up a prop.
The final phase of the rehearsals is always the grinding of collective scenes. I always try to have in the spectacle two - three of such scenes. Group action based on rhythms, sounds, common choreography. It teaches group activities, partnership, responsibility.
Me, as an instructor, at this stage I primarily learn patience, social and creative flexibility. Premiere in a professional theater is always an effect, action for a quick result. Working with inmates is a goal we all share in learning the community, the sensitivity to others, acceptance and tolerance for failure, clumsiness, difference.
I deeply believe that theater is a change tool that implies development, and its impact is needed to build bridges between isolated, disadvantaged, excluded groups.
on the motifs of Ivan Vyrypayev's drama Oxygen and personal histories of prisoners detained in Warsaw Służewiec Investigative Detention Centre.
premiere 13.05.2017

dir. Iwona Mirosław - Dolecka

Intercultural learning educational activities for successful integration of minorities in community

It is very important to find a way for empowering young adults through intercultural learning educational activities for successful integration of minorities in community.

Intercultural competencies are those knowledge, skills and attitudes that comprise a person's ability to get along with, work and learn with people from diverse cultures.

The generation of young Europeanadults has been hit hard by the economic crisis. The transition from education into the labor market has become more difficult. About one out of five young jobseekers under 25 cannot find work. And many young people believe that their concerns are not taken up by politicians. More than half of them feel that in their country young people have been marginalized and excluded from economic and social life. Facing this challenge, with social tensions rising and a clear need to tackle radicalization and alienation, what can Europe offer?

The community has to support young people to help ensure they acquire the skills they need for today’s – and tomorrow’s – labor market, to make sure they are equipped with social, civic and interculturalcompetences as well as a strong capacity for critical thinking. In these efforts to ensure that, particular attention is paid to the needs of disadvantaged youth.

Young people need the opportunity to develop the skills and competences which help them to find their place in the labor market and in society as a whole.

The Erasmus+ program supports activities for young people and youth workers and provides opportunities for dialogue and joint projects on citizenship, youth projects which illustrate the rich variety of non-formal learning opportunities supported by Erasmus+ for young people across Europe.

Collaborative learning is very important in achieving critical thinking. According to Gokhale (1995), individuals are able to achieve higher levels of learning and retain more information when they work in a group rather than individually, this applies to both the facilitators of knowledge, the instructors, and the receivers of knowledge, the learners.

Cultural and intercultural competency are vitally important to effectiveness in a variety of areas including healthcare, education, public services, law enforcement, libraries, customer service, and other business functions. In fact, being sensitive to cultural influences on others may even improve your relationships at home and in the community.

Successful intercultural interactions are at the heart of what international education is all about. So whatdoes it mean to interact successfully with those from different cultures? This is the key question underlying theconcept of intercultural competence, the focus of my research which led to the development of an interculturalcompetence framework, or model. Through my research, I worked with leading intercultural scholars in reachingconsensus on a definition and elements comprising intercultural competence, resulting in the first groundedresearch-based framework, or model, of intercultural competence. The framework is comprised of the following:

Attitudes: Based on my study, several essential attitudes emerged, those of respect, openness, curiosity anddiscovery. Openness and curiosity imply willingness to risk and to move beyond one’s comfort zone. Incommunicating respect to others, it is important to demonstrate that others are valued. These attitudes arefoundational to the further development of knowledge and skills needed for intercultural competence.

References websites:





Thoughts of Romanian project partner
Orizont Cultural T


Rodica Miala,
Roxana Timplaru,
Georgiana Floricel .


Fun for intercultural learning in prison

Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It’s usually seen as business tool but can be also used to engage people in social context, to create positive impact. Gamification of course is not a cure for everything, but, as a tool used correctly can help to motivate people or engage them in new activities.

Gerere Fun For Good, a cooperative expert partner of Dom Kultury Kadr in their activities held in the framework of the Spaces of Intercultural Learning program, started their work with gamification in 2012 and so far have gamified over 40 000 people (that could fill up mayor football stadium).

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One of the most difficult challenges faced by the Gerere team was so far a gamification intercultural project for people with Asperger’s syndrome. It was aimed to encourage the foundation’s mid-twenties in care to use all amenities that libraries have to offer. The challenge to face was how to break the daily routine of such demanding participants? Can we build their engagement based on gamification? What intercultural problems will be faced? In order to thoroughly understand the needs and expectations of participants, the team participated regularly in sessions organised for people with Asperger’s syndrome, actively engaging in classes and testing board games with them.

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They were searching for an easy-to-use, low-cost paper solution that would allow quick testing. Consequently, a gamification was created based on board game movement powered by carrying out specific tasks in the library. The game was also equipped with co-operation between the participants, an intriguing story, and a high degree of unpredictability. And it worked! Participants completed over 75% of tasks and marked 4.5/5 gamification quality and real impact on their lives.

Based on this and more projects by Gerere Fun For Good, as well as on a 4 year-long cooperation between two neighbouring institutions: Dom Kultury Kadr and the Penitentiary of Warszawa-Służewiec, an intercultural gamification project “Weź na klatę!” was created. It was originally meant to encourage prisoners to manage their time more efficiently and to spend it on learning new things, such as improving their knowledge and skills in the field of intercultural communication. A prototype gameplay was organised between April 4th and 27th with a pilot group of 15 prisoners. Majority of the participants have been serving long time, which means we suspected their motivation to learn new things to remain at a very low level.

The prototype gamification set included a game board, 4 DVD movies, 4 answer sheets and 4 reward stickers, which put together on a game board formed a well-muscled biceps, a symbol of player’s mental power to be developed while taking part in a game. Each player’s job was to watch 4 movies, of which the first one was strictly a motivational one whereas the other three - A beautiful mind by Ron Howard, The Intouchables by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano and Lost in translation by Sofia Coppola – raised different issues of intercultural communication. Every DVD movie came with an answer sheet: each player was asked to complete tasks connected to the movies’ plots but referring also to his personal experience.

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Working team agreed on that we should not leave such statements without any feedback more elaborate than finding a new sticker in a player’s game folder. Giving back their answer sheet to the tutor and checking if the previous one was awarded with a sticker, each prisoner were also handed an anonymous, but at the same time very individual response (written by a psychologist collaborating with Dom Kultury Kadr), pointing the strong sides of one’s personality.

11 players completed all the tasks, whereas the other 4 left only one out of every 4 answer sheets uncompleted. We met with our players to find out which parts of the game they would find the most fun, inspiring, motivating or even touching. Their guidelines were also necessary for us to learn how to act while working on a full-size game: with a board of 4 limbs to be muscled, meant to represent 4 fields of learning: health, culture, knowledge and professional skills.

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In the course of a meeting dedicated to evaluation activities it turned up that prisoners had troubles with full trust to our team because of introducing a camera from a very first moment of our initial meeting. Also, they admitted to have felt sort of guinea pigs as they had have knowledge of the gamification being a part of an international research project.

That’s why we took our time to present ourselves to the group as well as to explain our expectations, assumptions, needs and, last but not least, what were our personal experiences of reading the answers like. Also, what we found a milestone of getting the two groups comfortable with each other was a statement made by Zbigniew Darda, Director of Dom Kultury Kadr during the meeting: “We didn’t choose you to be our pilot group because of the fact that you’re imprisoned. We did choose you because you’re our neighbours”. Indeed, as the intercultural project team assumed while discussing this Polish experience during a monthly online philosophy workshop, we should perceive our mission as building an open, friendly and safe neighbourhood rather than to “integrate” ethnic and social minorities.

Speaking of fun and motivation the gamification brought into the Penitentiary of Warsaw-Służewiec, we learned that the most important for our target group was the ability to meet the other human being, representing the world the don’t have access to very often. However, some of the participants also claimed to be most proud of gaining the sticker points and having their biceps board muscled. It should be also underlined that the level of completing the tasks was outstanding.

In conclusion, we believe that gamification is effective in increasing motivation, but it work best while combinining it with activities tailored to your target group. Tasks or challenges needs to feel are safe and attractive to your target audience. In this case, it was a mere need for contact. Prisoners need to be strengthen from “the outside people”, respected as human beings. Gamification in this case is wasn’t necessary but has enriched the process and helped to break the cultural barriers that occurred.

Michał Jeska, Gerere Fun For Good,

Kasia Kaczmarek, Dom Kultury Kadr (Kadr Culture Centre),

Conceptualizing intercultural competences through sites of memory

Study the past if you would define the future.

The study of intercultural competence has to take into consideration the (inter)cultural context in which the memory takes place. Memory can be defined as a major subject in contemporary life, a key to personal, social, and cultural identity and mentality (Kenny, 1999). Philosophers have long viewed continuousness of memory as an indispensable and vital quality of personhood. However, personal and collective identity are intimately connected.

Trigg (2012) emphases on the strange and incongruous ways in which body and cognition react to the environment to create and remember place, defined as “lived spatiality” and as an expression of “being-in-the-world”.

To comprehend the processes, practices, and outcomes of social sharing of memory, or collective remembering, one must take into consideration the characteristics of the community to which an important event occurred and in which memory for the event was subsequently formed, shared, spread, and transformed. In other words, one must examine and even explore the socialcultural- historical context where the remembering takes place (Bakhurst, 2005).

This socialcultural-historical context where memory takes place is strongly related to realms of memory (lieux de Mémoire) tangible or intangible.  

Defining Realms of Memory: a literature review

A lieu de mémoire (site of memory) is a concept popularized by the French historian Pierre Nora in his three-volume collection “Les Lieux de Mémoire” (published in part in English translation as Realms of Memory).

According to Nora, “a lieu de mémoire  is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community (in this case, the French community)”(1989: 7).

 It may characterize any place, object or concept vested with historical meaning in the popular collective memory, such as a monument, a museum, an event, a symbol like a flag or the French figure Marianne, even a colour vested with historical memory (the red flag of left politics, for instance). According to La Commission franco-québécoise sur les lieux de mémoire communs (French-Québécois Commission for Common Sites of Memory), a lieu de mémoire indicates the cultural landmarks, places, practices and expressions stemming from a shared past, whether material (monuments) or intangible (language and traditions).

Moreover, ancient monuments can be defined as sites of memory (Schnapp 1996: 13; Demoule 1998). Nowadays, as timemarks they transport the past into our everyday lives and become foci for our cultural memory and various phenomena of history culture.

Nevertheless, Nora argues that sites of memory are not common in all cultures and can be exclusively characterized as a modern phenomenon. Sites of memory substitute a “real” and “true” living memory, which was with us for millennia but now, has ceased to exist (cf. Maier, 1993). In Nora's interpretation, a constructed history replaces real memory. Sites of memory stay artificial, and deliberately fabricated. They aid us recall and reembrace the past – which is possibly essential in order to make living in the modern world significant (Marquard, 1986).

The aim of sites of memory is “to stop time, to block the oblivion”, and they all share "a determination, a will to remember" (Nora, 1989: 19). Nora claims that his definition of sites of memory excludes prehistoric and archaeological sites, since what makes them “important as sites is often precisely what ought to exclude them from being lieux de mémoire: the absolute absence of a will to remember and, by way of compensation, the crushing weight imposed on them by time, science, and the dreams of men” (1989: 20f.).

But this view is misled. Prehistoric monuments were been created as expressions of prospective memory, which is exactly “a will to remember”. Similarly, old monuments in the ancient world were already preserved as timemarks and became significant in different cultural memories, therefore constituting true sites of memory (Assmann, 2011: 60). There is ample evidence for memory crystallizing at ancient monuments not only in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, but also in later prehistoric Europe.

Sites of memory should, therefore, not be interpreted as current successors to living memory, but as significant components of most, if not all, societies in both past and present.

How culture can be defined through memory?

Culture can be defined as both a system (values, models, metaphors, scripts and artefacts) and a process (rituals and daily practices) of symbolic mediation. It functions on social institutions (e.g., the family, the nation) as well as on the actions, thoughts, emotions, and moral values of individuals, therefore guiding and forming both intrapersonal and interpersonal psychological functions (Wang & Brockmeier, 2002). The following characteristics of culture may be mainly significant for the study of collective memory.

First, culture is multidimensional rather than unidimensional. It includes and takes effect through different dimensions, levels, systems, and processes (Valsiner, 2000). Multiple cultural forces such as shared mnemonic traditions as well as practices of rituals, media coverage, and individual storytelling can thus support the development and preservation of a collective memory.

Additionally, culture may be expressed in varied ways across diverse fields of human experiences (for example, national tragedies, political scandals, family relations; e.g. Wang & Li, 2003). Consequently, the procedure and outcome of a collective memory may differ as a function of its cultural relevance in a particular life domain, being constrained by the cultural regularities of that domain.

Moreover, culture can be situated in the public (shared) time and space of the community, as well as internalized into the private time and space of the individual (D’Andrade, 1992).

Conversely, it may also produce tensions between cultural constructions and individual agency, where individuals actively negotiate, resist, or even escape the limits of a state (or community) imposed perception of the past (Kansteiner, 2002). Equally important, cultural heterogeneity occurs within any community, among the individual as well as subgroup members (e.g., gender groups; Cross & Madson, 1997).

To conclude, culture cannot be defined as a static but transitory process (Donald, 1991). It is located at a particular historical moment in time, reproducing and reaffirming the social transformation (including any kind of discoveries) experienced by a community and its members. Collective memory may consequently be influenced by the characteristics of the historical era, which can further result in generational and cohort differences.

Assmann, J. (2011). Communicative and cultural memory. In Cultural Memories (pp. 15-27). Springer Netherlands.
Bakhurst, D. (1996). Social memory in Soviet thought. An introduction to Vygotsky, 196-218.
Cross, S. E., & Madson, L. (1997). Models of the self: self-construals and gender. Psychological bulletin122(1), 5.
D’Andrade, R. G. (1992). Schemas and motivation. Human motives and cultural models23, 44.
Kansteiner, W. (2002). Finding meaning in memory: A methodological critique of collective memory studies. History and theory41(2), 179-197.
Kenny, M. G. (1999). A place for memory: The interface between individual and collective history. Comparative studies in society and history41(03), 420-437.
Maier, C. S. (1993). A surfeit of memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial. History and Memory5(2), 136-152.
Marquard, O. (1986). Über die Unvermeidlichkeit der Geisteswissenschaften. Apologie des Zufälligen, Stuttgart105.
Nora, P. (1989). Between memory and history: Les lieux de mémoire. Representations26, 7-24.
Osborne, B. S. (2001). Landscapes, memory, monuments, and commemoration: Putting identity in its place. Canadian Ethnic Studies33(3), 39.
Schnapp, A. (1996). The Discovery of the Past: The Origins of Archaeology, Lond-on. British Museum.
Trigg, D. (2012). The memory of place: A phenomenology of the uncanny. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Valsiner, J. (2000). Culture and human development. Sage.
Wang, Q., & Brockmeier, J. (2002). Autobiographical remembering as cultural practice: Understanding the interplay between memory, self and culture. Culture & Psychology8(1), 45-64.
Wang, Q., & Li, J. (2003). Chinese children's self‐concepts in the domains of learning and social relations. Psychology in the Schools40(1), 85-101.

Lieux de mémoire (May, 2017). Retrieved from:

Thoughts of Italian project partner “Istituto dei Sordi di Torino”: Carolina Carotta, Enrico Dolza, Sofia Mastrokoukou.

Writer of the blog text: Sofia Mastrokoukou, PhD Candidate at the University of Montpellier and Career Counselor at the University of Piraeus.

Motto of the writer: Primum non nocere (First, do not harm)

An international classroom experience for adult learners?

When thinking of spaces for intercultural learning, one space has attracted much attention in higher education in the last decade: the international classroom. This is a format adopted, especially in the Northern countries of Europe, to allow international students from all over Europe (and further afield) to study at a foreign university as an exchange student for one or two semesters.

By and large, it is regarded as a powerful space for intercultural learning, even though this is not its primary objective. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, some of the characteristics are: a group of students from diverse backgrounds (in culture, education, experience etc.) who study a (credits) course together, developing (learning) activities and projects together in purposeful interaction at a foreign location, as part of a bachelor or master programme at their home university. Their educational experiences are enhanced in the multicultural and multilingual learning environment by an informal curriculum, supported by staff from a diversity of backgrounds allowing plenty of room for intercultural dialogue and exploring multiple viewpoints.

The core ingredients of an international classroom

Could we possibly derive from this format any pointers towards arranging spaces for intercultural learning for another target group, namely adult learners? So, let's take a closer look at the concept and its core ingredients.

First of all, the contents of the course is often of an international or comparative nature and/or based on international literature or theories, whatever the theme of the course. Whenever possible, the input of the international students is welcomed, e.g. by inviting them to provide their countries' as well as their own know how and experiences on the issues dealt with. Their international backgrounds are often effectively used as a resource and considered as added value to enhance the learning process.

Secondly, the lecturers teaching the course often have mixed backgrounds, sometimes because their parents have mixed roots, sometimes because their parents were expats, sometimes because they themselves married a partner from a foreign country. Because of this background, they have no difficulties identifying with the international students as they went through similar experiences. They may also have taken part in international exchange programmes themselves, or any international project or training course. In fact, all of these experiences develop the capacity to see situations from multiple perspectives and welcome other viewpoints, an essential quality in an international setting.

Thirdly, the students: those who go abroad for an international classroom experience took a well-considered decision to participate, even though their motives may well differ. These are students who demonstrate a willingness to take up the challenge of study abroad, of meeting people in a new context, in an unfamiliar country. As all is new to them and as they are often there on their own, one of the first things they do is find support and friendship in their immediate surroundings which is the international group more often than not. Bonding starts early on as they are all in the same boat: away from home, away from friends and family. Many international courses explicitly address this by setting up getting to know each other and other teambuilding activities, as part of the informal curriculum.

Despite the fact that these students choose to go for an international and intercultural experience,  it doesn't mean that it is all plain sailing for them. Most of them experience ups and downs, as well as each other's (sometimes frustrating) working methods, other methodological approaches that they don't feel at ease with, other learning styles, other teacher-student relationships etc., plus all that in a language that is not their mother tongue.

In order to derive full benefit from this total immersion, most curricula make sure to build into the programme moments to reflect on experiences, either in debriefing sessions or in intervision-type of peer groups.

Creating spaces for intercultural learning for adult learners

To what extent can adult education centres or courses replicate such an international classroom experience? In fact, many of the core ingredients can be applied when creating spaces for intercultural learning for adult learners (as well as for adult learning staff in a professionalization track for that matter). Admittedly, there may be quite a difference between eager students on an international exchange and adult learners, as far as motivation is concerned. However, as any educator knows initial motivations to start out on a course may change after the first few sessions when they’ve met their fellow learners and their trainer. A stimulating and inspiring kick off built on a well-considered scenario can do wonders. Learners need to know from the start that they are in good, stable hands and that there’s something valuable for them to learn.

Listening, for one, is one of the most important necessities for trainers. People will always listen to you when you listen to them and to what is on their mind. Everybody wants to feel important and special. The act of recognizing another is a strong motivator in any learning process, as well as an important first step in any intercultural encounter. Especially where intercultural issues are concerned, spaces for learning and discussions about prejudice, stereotype and creating understanding of“the other” need to be safe environments.

Apart from this there could be another issue that could present some trouble in arranging, and that is diversity. What if there’s actually little diversity within the group of learners or within the teaching staff. How to solve that issue?

The Human Library – a tool for enabling meaningful conversations and dialogue

How are we to understand each other, if we do not have the opportunity to talk to each other?  It was this question asked by Danish Ronni Abergel that initiated a global movement called The Human Library. Its aim is to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotyping and prejudice through dialogue.

The Human Library is best described as a place where real people are “on loan to readers”, a place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered. This innovative approach enables non-confrontational and friendly conversations by engaging real people in meaningful conversations. How does it work? Individuals from typically marginalized groups volunteer as “human books” and openly share their life story with participants who want to “read” them. This provides an opportunity to meet people you might not otherwise meet and allows you to exchange inside information, feelings and insights into the type of diversity you are curious about.

“The Books” share very personal stories that promote dialogue about faith, gender identity, survival, privilege, handicaps, ethnicity and so on. In open and honest conversations “the readers” are asked to examine their assumptions and stereotypes around those issues. It’s these types of face to face, intercultural encounters that any adult education course provider can organise as a space for intercultural learning (and probably as part of a course for either adult learners or adult learning staff.)

A short video explains this inspiring and powerful concept of the human library on YouTube: The Human Library Promo. The Human Libary Organization's website gives you a good overview of the many types of diversity of “human books”, ranging from HIV to homeless, ADHD, autism, brain damaged, deafblind, muslim, sexually abused to refugees, naturists, bipolars, obese etc. As you can see in this map, these human libraries are organised nearly all over the globe. So in case an adult education course provider lacks a diverse staff or if a rich mix of backgrounds, heritages, experiences among the learners is missing, here’s a potential approach worth trying out.

In case you do, feel free to share your experiences with us.

Anja Stofberg

The writer is a senior lecturer as well as in charge of international affairs within the School of Social Work of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. Her motto is: think global, act local.

Intercultural learning is finding new tracks together

According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the base sense of the verb to learn is “to follow or find the track”. We can look at the question of learning and finding the track either on a personal or on a collective level.

On a personal level, learning means that we have to find the track by ourselves. However, we are not alone in this world. Our tracks are constantly overlapping with those of other people. In addition, there are many destinies that we simply can’t reach alone. It is necessary to combine our competences in order to find the new tracks.

Many viewpoints, better solutions

The essence of learning together is the variety of viewpoints which different people bring to the discussion. All of us have different approaches to problems or tasks. It might be that none of these approaches alone bring the answer to a problem. However, taking the effort of making a synthesis and combining diverse approaches might lead us forward – closer to the right solutions.
Consequently, one could argue that the more our points of view different from those of other, the more significant new ideas and innovations we can come up with. Very often we like to work together with people who think the same way we do. Often we are also afraid of telling our opinions if they differ from the common way of thinking in the group. This is very human.

The more our points of view different from those of other, the more significant new ideas and innovations we can come up with.

However, thinking about the big global challenges we are facing in today’s world, we should actually be passionately looking for approaches and points of view that differ from each other as much as possible – and then try to make a synthesis of them.

This is one of the core ideas in our interpretation of intercultural learning. People who represent different cultures – be it the ethnic background, gender, generation, religion, social status or something else – will most likely to have the possibility to make us open our eyes. This kind of intercultural learning can be the solution even to the most wicked problems; the problems that do not have easy answers.

Intercultural learning is not only an individual process

To be able to learn together and to solve problems with people who have backgrounds different from ours, is obviously not always easy. For example ignorance may lead to prejudices against unknown and different, and prevent fruitful dialogue. This is why we need intercultural competence. We must learn skills, knowledge and attitudes that help us behave and communicate in appropriate and effective ways in intercultural situations.

It is important to provide tools for educators, facilitators and instructors, so that they are able to teach intercultural competence.

It is necessary that intercultural learning takes place at an individual level. However, that is not enough. Solving common problems is possible only when intercultural skills extend from the individual to the group level and even to a larger context, society as a whole. This way, it is possible to be creative together and find new solutions to the challenges we face as a humanity. Intercultural learning will come into the lives of communities through encounters, active listening and empathy between the people.

Many scholars have argued that people do not become interculturally competent naturally – instead, it must be intentionally addressed. Therefore it is important to provide tools for educators, facilitators and instructors to teach these skills. It will be interesting to see what kind of new tracks we will find together in our project Spaces for Intercultural Learning.

Welcome to follow our blog and join the journey!

Jaakko Rantala & Pekka Kinnunen

The writers are passionate about lifelong learning and work in a Finnish adult education institution, Citizen’s Forum.