Towards a theory of intercultural learning

By Jaakko Rantala and Sarah Stack

When learners represent different cultural backgrounds and take part in an exchange of learning among one another, learners have the opportunity for personal growth. Through this exchange, the intercultural learning can aim to
•  Deepen understanding of and respect for other cultures;
•  Enable people to learn more about their own culture, to deepen their cultural roots and to reaffirm their identity;
•  Raise awareness of the need for international cooperation to tackle today’s global problems.

The following models explore various aspects of intercultural learning and form the theoretical foundation for this guidebook.
1. Constituent elements of intercultural competences (Deardorff 2006)
2. Developmental model of intercultural sensitivity (DMIS) also known as the Bennett Scale (Bennett 1986, 19943.
3. Trialogical learning (Hakkarainen 2009)

1.       Constituent Elements of Intercultural Competence
As communities and societies become increasingly interconnected, so does the importance of intercultural abilities for dialogue and cooperation. The abilities of understanding, respect and dialogue outlined in the UNESCO definition as the foundation of intercultural learning directly correlate to the learning categories of knowledge, skills and attitudes also known as KSAs.

Table 1: Core objectives of Intercultural learning

UNESCO’s Aim of Intercultural Education Learning Categories (KSAs)
Understanding of different cultural groups Knowledge – declarative, procedural, strategic
Respect for different cultural groups Attitudes – based on feelings, beliefs, opinions
Dialogue between different cultural groups Skills – application of knowledge

 A leading theorist, Darla K. Deardorff, worked with international scholars in intercultural education to develop the following model on intercultural competence. In her model, Deardorff  explores the necessary KSAs to be able to communicate, cooperate and learn effectively together with people from different cultural backgrounds. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Constituent elements of intercultural competence (Adapted from Deardorff 2006)



Knowledge to develop understanding of different cultural groups
- Cultural self-awareness
- Culture specific knowledge,
- Socio-linguistic awareness
- Grasp of global issues and trends

To develop intercultural competence, the first step is to know oneself and understand one’s cultural identity; specifically cultural self-awareness is the ability to understand how one’s culture influences behaviour, identity and point of view. Being self-aware enables people to understand the world from other cultural perspectives or world views once they learn culture specific knowledge of other communities.  Culture specific knowledge is the deep understanding of ideas, customs, and social behaviours of other cultural groups. In particular, socio-linguistic awareness is important because knowing when certain vernacular or body language is appropriate enables people to communicate more effectively. For example, the Dutch are known for being direct in their communication style especially when compared to the British, and therefore messages are interpreted differently. See Table 2 for a study of phrases and translation between the two nationalities. Finally a grasp of global issues and trends can explain behaviours and customs as well.

Table 2: How the British and Dutch Communicate (Rottier et al, 2011)


Attitudes to develop respect for different cultural groups
Emotional resiliency is the ability to adapt in times of stress or crises. While navigating difference can be stressful, having an open minded attitude can help people adapt to new situations and step outside of comfort zones. To overcome the ‘fear of difference’, developing an attitude of curiosity, openness, respect, and discovery can become one’s attitude of emotional resilience. CORD is an acronym to help remember the individual “strands”. Deardorff’s framework provides deeper definitions of the different attitude “strands”.

Figure 2. The attitudes or CORD of emotional resilience


Curiosity:  be curious about difference and view it as an opportunity for learning

Openness: withhold judgement

Respect: value other cultures

Discovery: tolerate ambiguity and view it with a sense of discovery.

Adapted from Deardorff’s Intercultural Competence Framework (2006) and resilience theory

Skills for dialogue between different cultural groups
Dialogue is the process of deepening understanding of others through listening, sharing, and questioning. Dialogue is different from debate because the goal is to understand, not to win.  The skills needed for intercultural dialogue are the same skills needed for any relationship. An acronym that is helpful to remember the communication skills described in the Intercultural Competence Framework is LOVE:
- Listening
- Observing
- Viewing the world from others’ perspectives
- Evaluating

Deardorff suggests that each of these skills should be utilised with “patience and perseverance to identify and minimize ethnocentrism”, the habit of evaluating other customs, beliefs, and norms from one’s own culture. Instead, “seek out cultural clues and meaning” in order to question one’s thinking and assumptions and compare to another’s thinking. For sample ground rules to establish a respectful space for dialogue, see Table 3.

Table 3: Sample ground rules for creating a safe and respectful space for dialogue
Everyone gets a fair hearing
Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Share “air time”
If you are offended or uncomfortable, say so, and say why.
It’s OK to disagree, but don’t personalise it; stick to the issue. No name-calling or stereotyping.
Speak for yourself, not for others.
One person speaks at a time.
Personal stories stay in the group, unless we all agree that can share them.
We share responsibility for making the conversation productive.
Source: Everyday Democracy. (2008). A Guide for Training Public Dialogue Facilitators. (p. 43).

 Characteristics of intercultural competence
As people develop intercultural competence, their mindset moves from a monocultural mindset to an intercultural mindset. Internal outcomes of this process include the knowledge, skills and attitudes described above and lead to flexibility, adaptability, empathy and an enthorelative perspective. External outcomes that result are effective and appropriate communication and behaviour as viewed by other perspectives or cultural groups.  See Table 4 for a list of characteristics of an intercultural competence as described by the Intercultural Competence Assessment (INCA), funded by Leonardo da Vinci II.

Table 4: Intercultural Competence Assessment (INCA)
Six characteristics of intercultural competence Three strands of competence

Tolerance of ambiguity
Respect for otherness

Behavioural flexibility
Communicative awareness

Knowledge discovery


A.      Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity
According to the Developmental model of Intercultural Sensitivity, also known as the Bennett Scale after Dr. Milton Bennett, this transformation occurs over 6 stages. These 6 stages describe how a person can react to cultural differences. People who are in the first 3 stages take an ethnocentric perspective, which evaluates other cultures according to preconceptions that originate in the customs, norms and beliefs of one’s own culture. The final 3 stages represent an ethnorelative perspective, when a person is comfortable with many different norms and customs and is able to adapt their behaviour as a result.

Ethnocentric perspectives:
1. Denial of difference – oversimplified view of other cultures, may rely on stereotypes. In this situation, diverse
perspectives feel ignored.
2. Polarisation of difference – us versus them: own culture is viewed as better than others or the reverse. In this
situation, diverse perspectives feel uncomfortable.
3. Minimisation of difference – highlights commonalities. In this situation, diverse perspectives feel not heard.

Ethnorelative perspectives:
1. Acceptance of difference – appreciates differences and commonalities. In this situation, diversity feels
2. Adaptation of difference – expanded perspective enabling culturally appropriate behaviour. In this situation,
diversity feels valued.
3. Integration of difference – moves in and out of different cultural worldviews, with a strong sense of identity.
In this situation, diversity feels involved.

This model, although divided into stages, actually represents a continuum or lifelong process. However, through collaborative learning people are able to combine their intercultural abilities – knowledge, skills and attitudes – to participate effectively in dialogue that leads to social change and greater community and global cooperation. See Table 5 for a list of possible challenges experienced as part of intercultural cooperation.

Table 5: Challenges of Intercultural Learning
Lack of a common language
Differences in etiquette and manners
Understanding colloquialisms, various connotations and tone of voice
Recognising nonverbal communication clues including facial expressions and eye contact
Knowing when direct and indirect communication is appropriate
Impact of majority and minority cultural inequality, particularly as a result of colonialism

B.      Trialogical Learning, a Collaborative Learning Approach

The processes of learning: individual vs collaborative learning
The learning process can often be simplified to tracking an individual’s progress; however, in intercultural learning, the collaborative learning of the group is more important for creating concepts for social transformation: where one individual may lack knowledge or skills, another fills the gap and enables effective cooperation. Collaborative learning is a process in which two or more people try to learn something by capitalising on the abilities of one another.

Intercultural learning is an example of collaborative learning in which the participants represent different cultural backgrounds. By sharing and comparing knowledge, experience and ideas of participants from different cultural backgrounds, the group is more likely to engage in radical brain-storming and create new concepts which are more than the sum of the ideas of individual members.

Other examples of collaborative learning include the study circle in non-formal adult education, communities of practice (see chapter 3 for more details), crowdsourcing to form ideas to start a new project, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi’s theories on creating new knowledge, and Peter Senge’s vision of a learning organisation in which the employees are continually learning how to learn together. Another model of collaborative learning is the trialogical learning approach which explores how to create collaborative learning opportunities.

From monological to trialogical learning

Kai Hakkarainen, one of the developers of the trialogical learning approach, distinguishes between three different metaphors that describe various learning approaches. (Hakkarainen & Paavola 2009).

  1. Monological approach or knowledge acquisition metaphor. In this approach, knowledge is shared one way, from the facilitator to the learner, occurring within the mind of the learner. In intercultural learning, the knowledge acquired can be about the customs, beliefs and norms of different cultures. See figure 4.

  2. Dialogical approach or participation metaphor. This approach, knowledge-sharing is a two way process between the facilitator and the learner: both are learning from each other’s knowledge and skills. Building relationships and networks by participating in respectful dialogue within different cultural settings is an example of this approach. See figure 5.

  3. Trialogical approach or knowledge-creation metaphor. This approach is a combination of the above approaches with the addition of a third element. Learning occurs within the minds of the individual participants or agents (monological approach). Learning occurs between the participants as a learning or knowledge community as they share experiences and ideas (dialogical approach) in a safe space. Finally, as a result of the sharing, the participants collaborate together to create new concepts or new knowledge “objects” to tackle social and global challenges (the third element for the trialogical approach). A new theory is an example of a collaborative output or knowledge “object”. See figure 6.


Figure 4: Monological approach Figure 5: Dialogical approach
(knowledge-acquisition metaphor) (participation metaphor)


Figure 6: Trialogical approach (knowledge-acquisition metaphor)



The key aspect of trialogical learning is that the knowledge “object” must be new. Otherwise the learning is the dialogical learning approach. In terms of intercultural learning, the aim is to create transformational social change. Judith Lambert (2012) writes on the need for change:

 “The complex environmental, social and economic issues of the 21st century can no longer be resolved by repairing existing systems. There have been many inadequate responses to climate change, the obesity epidemic, toxic pollutants, shortage of fresh water and urban violence. […] Collaboration alone cannot resolve these complex problems. In resolving society-wide issues, transformational change based on collective action has become not optional but a necessity, not a matter of avoiding but of celebrating change.” (Lambert, 2012. Collective Learning for Transformational Change.

This need for change is the guiding principle in writing this guidebook. Continue reading to explore methods for enhancing intercultural learning.