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.

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Jaakko Rantala & Pekka Kinnunen

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