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.