Intercultural Understanding

Intercultural Understanding

Students explore the significance of cultural identity and diversity as the ability to understand and appreciate multiple cultural perspectives leads to highly effective and empathetic people within personal and professional situations. From this introduction you will be able to move on to explore topics that explore curiosity, cultural sensitivity and navigating difficult conversations as well as pay explicit attention to pathways and life skills.

Intercultural Understanding in context

   Intercultural Understanding in 2020

    Let's try not to read about intercultural understanding - let's actively discuss it. The following exercises are an excellent way of 
    establishing Intercultural Understanding in context. This introduction follows three steps: What do I understand about myself and 
    my own culture? What do I understand about the global culture? What role can empathy play in creating intercultural     

What is culture? And what is intercultural understanding?

 Who am I and what is my culture?

The most meaningful way to introduce the concept of intercultural understanding in PPS is to start with what the students understand about themselves. The following presentation takes students through a series of questions with access to well known personality and emotional intelligence tests. They may choose to record their response in a visual form as part of their portfolio. Allowing students to work individually and then come together to compare their results will also start them on the road to understanding the role empathy plays.

Presentation - Who am I and what is my culture?

Teachers' notes: Helping students access culture

Do not be alarmed or surprised if students find it very hard to relate the idea of culture to themselves. Sometimes it might seem easier for students from an international school background to identify their cultural influences but this is not true - it involves close scrutiny and introducing students to the notion that what they perceive as 'normal' and insignificant, might be a key identifier of what makes up their life and culture. Going hand in hand with the other themes, intercultural understanding can have a powerful impact on how the student sees their place in the world; only through understanding of ourselves and our reactions, preconceptions and knowledge about others cultures, can we truly develop lasting intercultural understanding. This page addresses ways of perceiving the self as well as the world we live in; how do we link the local to the global, ergo - the individual to the world in which they live. More importantly, it suggests the development of empathy as the 'way in' to intercultural understanding and strategies to approach that.

Translating the global into the local: Imagine the world as a village of 100 people
'Before we change our world for the better, we need to understand what our world is like today'

What does this video tell us about our perception of the world? This is an excellent exercise for students and teachers alike for a fruitful discussion.

Before playing the video, ask your participants to consider the world as 100 people and the elements that make up their life: eg nationality, religion, gender, education, age, language... Who would be the main players and what percentages would they allocate?

Now play the video - Which parts surprised or did not surprise them? What did they anticipate or not anticipate as an influencing factor?

Teacher Notes: Extending discussion

You can extend this discussion immediately or you can revisit this exercise later in the term and ask students to pay closer attention to some of the more alarming statistics in this video. Playing the video again from 2 minutes in, you can divide up the class into Education, Healthcare and Technology and ask them to record the statistics that accompany these topics. Then ask students to explore further about how that statistic relates to their own life and where in the world they think that might be a reality. Further scrutiny into the contributing factors that make that a reality leads to a rich ethical debate but also an opportunity to develop research skills.

Developing the course with staff and students

What makes us who we are?

Establishing a definition of Culture

a) Having completed and discussed the results of the presentation in 'Intercultural Understanding in Context' above, respond to the following words in a visual way finding images to illustrate your subjective understanding. It helps to make initial notes by asking 'What is my ... personality?' or ' What is my ... culture?' and so on...

Personality         Culture          Environment        Values and Norms       Empathy    Commonalities      Cultural change

b) Share ideas with each other. Who has a different response to you? Where are the commonalities? In terms of culture, environment and values and norms, who might have a different perception to you?

c) Consider who might share your experience across the world.

d) Now use the following presentation and explore different dynamics of culture.

What is Culture?
Teacher's notes: consolidating understanding of culture

This is a good constructivist opportunity to establish ideas and then ask students to transfer their understanding to a different context. You may choose to ask students to research and present on key ideas that have emerged to explore the different aspects of culture and encourage students to make careful reflections along the way of their emerging understanding.

You might like to stagger the 'What is Culture?' presentation over a number of lessons as introductions and ask students to reflect upon how each point adds to their understanding of culture.


Lesson plan: Introducing Intercultural Understanding

Aim: Establish ways for students to understand intercultural understanding by developing their ability to show empathy
Step 1. Developing our understanding of Empathy

  What is Empathy? Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference;  that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position. Developing empathetic skills enables us to understand different cultures.

Establish a definition of empathy with Mark Ruffalo on Sesame Street and the exercise that follows.
What is Empathy?
How do we show empathy?

E - Eye gaze. Do we seek or avoid eye contact?
M - Muscles of facial expression. Are we conscious of the facial expressions we use or how we respond to the facial expressions we use or how we respond to the facial expressions we are faced with?
P - Posture. Notice the other person's posture - is it open or closed? How do you respond to that?
A - Affect - expressed emotion. Try labeling the other person's expressed emotions - are they upset, happy, sad...?
T - Tone of voice. Listen to their tone of voice... what does this tell you?
H - Hearing the whole person; understanding the context in which others live. Do not judge and take things at face value.
Y - Your response - what you express is likely to reciprocated. How can we express empathy by reflecting their E.M.P.A.T.H...? 

Reflect on a scenario where you showed empathy to someone or someone showed empathy to you. Go through the acronym above for E.M.P.A.T.H.Y and how each element was significant.
Further notes on exercise
You may want to carry out the above exercise as a group discussion or a role play where you consider different scenarios where the ability to show empathy would be beneficial. Students also might like to consider a situation which did not go well and they did not show the empathy needed for the situation.
Step 2. Empathy and international-mindedness

 'Conversations with People who hate me' is a podcast by Dylan Marron where he explores how by having real conversations with some of the people who leave hateful comments for him on social media because of his sexuality and liberalism, a commonality of experience and sense of empathy can be established; in short, conversations have the ability to humanize. His TedTalk below 'Empathy is not Endorsement' is an interesting reminder about the most powerful message of international mindedness; it is not about changing minds and opinions but accepting that interculturally we vary hugely and we can live alongside each other accepting those differences.

Watch the video below and then discuss the passage given from the talk.

What do you make of Dylan's approach? Have you had experience of this yourself? Could you do the same? What lessons are there to be learnt here?

'Now in every one of my calls, I always ask my guests to tell me about themselves. And it's their answer to this question that allows me to empathize with them. And empathy, it turns out, is a key ingredient in getting these conversations off the ground. So I established a helpful mantra for myself. Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply helf beliefs and endorse theirs. Empathizing with someone who, for example, believes that being gay is a sin doesn't mean that I'm suddenly going to drop everything, pack my bags and grab my one-way ticket to hell, right? It just means that I'm acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from me. I also want to be super clear about something. This is not a prescription for activism. I understand that some people don't feel safe talking to their detractors and others feel so marginalised that they justifiably don't feel that they have any empathy to give. I totally get that. This is just I feel well-suited to do'
  Reflection: Can you think of examples from the global community where empathy might be the right course of action? Can you explore what the outcome might be?

Extend this activity by presenting the scenario to your peers and include suggestions for how this situation might be developed through great application of empathy. You can include reference to the scenarios and strategies explored already with your class; be sure to reference them clearly. Alternatively, mindmap in your reflective journal your ideas about possible solutions to the global example you have found.

Approaching conversations about international-mindedness

You may choose to give students the excerpt from the Ted Talk before watching the full video. The key aspect here to explore is that 'empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply helf beliefs and endorse theirs'. This is the key to understanding the idea of International-mindedness.

Reflection: Can you think of examples from the global community where empathy might  be the right course of action? Can you explore what the outcome might be?
For example: explore this article about the implications of covid for regugees in 2020

Quick ideas: Plenaries and reflections

Plenaries and reflections can be utilised at any time through a lesson for all sorts of reasons from considering the work that has just been done, making plans for the future or even changing the dynamic of a class that has got rather heated from a debate. It is all part of letting PPS take you in directions that really inspire, challenge and motivate students. As ever, educators often find activities of this type can be anything from 5 minute distractions to a full series of lessons.
The following is an interesting way of consolidating discussion of individual culture, especially if you find it difficult to identify key identifiers of your own culture.

Consider working in professional scenarios and watch the video below. Can you imagine how it might apply to your career-related study? 

  Reflect, in your journal, on the attributes of the learner profile and how they apply to showing  intercultural understanding.

Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Approaches to learning

The lesson plans and activities on this page can be delivered to include explicit and implicit reference to a range of Approaches to Teaching and Learning. The IB's suggestions for ATL skills in the 5 key areas are not exhaustive and you are encouraged to contextualise and add to these as appropriate. The key to students being able to identify skills and use them in a range of situations is to teach the skill explicitly before incorporating it implicitly in a range of contexts. Here we focus on a key ATL skill, that can directly relate not only to the reflective project criteria but also to the following PPS learning outcome.

LO4: Demonstrate the skills and recognize the benefits of communicating effectively and working collaboratively

ATL Skills area
Communication skills

Specific ATL skills explored
Negotiate ideas and knowledge with peers and teachers[1]

Link to the reflective project
Criterion B: 'demonstrate awareness and understanding of the impact of the ethical dilemma on a local/global community and the cultural influences on, and perceptions of, the ethical dilemma'[2]
Making the links: Further teacher notes

Where next?

The particular focus here is on the ability to 'negotiate ideas and knowledge with peers and teachers' as part of Communication skills which directly relates to the students exploring and evaluating the implications of their ethical dilemma on different stakeholders in their reflective project. However this might be just a starting off point for you.

This particular set of exercises sets up the development of Research Skills and Thinking Skills well and this area in itself directly links to all the PPS themes, especially Thinking Processes and Effective Communication. Skills that might be explicitly drawn out include:

Research Skills
- being able to accumulate a range of perspectives from varied sources
- recognise and evaluate the role media representations play in our understanding

Thinking Skills

- be able to consider ideas from multiple perspectives
- be able to analyse complexity, break down into parts and then synthesise to create new understandings.

Again, remember to contextualise and be explicit about what skills students are developing here and why. You may find choosing one of the following directly complements the suggestions for research skills above.

Further links with the reflective project: a continuation of Criterion B - Knowledge and Understanding in Context
Criterion C: 'Demonstrate logical reasoning processes and the ability to interpret, analyse and evaluate material' as well as 'develop the ability to synthesie information, making connections and linking ideas and evidence' [2]

Top Tip: Remember that 'less is more' when making the links to ATL.

It can be a temptation to draw students' attention to the sheer number of ATL skills that they are accessing at any particular time. You know within PPS that a topic will be exploring any one of the five themes even if your introduction is through explicit focus on one; the same applies to ATL. Try isolating a specific skill and then:

Make explicit reference to it and establish prior learning and experience
Make it useful with ways to practice it so students can experience how it works
Make it transferrable by having moments to consider where they have used this skill before, how they are developing it and where it might be useful in the future.
Make it visible by have the students record and reflect upon the processes they have used.


  1. ^ Reference adapted from Approaches to Teaching and Learning 2015, accessed 6th October 2021
  2. a, b IBO, The Reflective Project Guide, for use from 2016, p28
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