Education Opinion

How Student Travel Can Enhance Intercultural Development

By Kenneth Cushner — August 22, 2018 8 min read
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Editor’s Intro: How can we ensure that students are having authentic travel experiences that build their intercultural development, rather than traveling as tourists? Here, Kenneth Cushner, emeritus professor of international and intercultural teacher education at Kent State University, uses his personal experiences of more than 40 years traveling with students and teachers on all seven continents as a vehicle to address cross-cultural communication, intercultural development, and student travel. His most recent book, “Teacher as Traveler: Enhancing the Intercultural Development of Teachers and Students” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), delves more deeply into this issue.

An increasing number of students at all levels are traveling internationally or having domestic intercultural encounters in an effort to enhance their global understanding. Educational travel can open up worlds for students that they may not readily discover themselves. If done well, it can lead to intellectual growth, spiritual awakening, and a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself and one’s immediate surroundings—be that nature, other people, or both.

Professionals working in the field of study abroad, however, know that it is far too easy for students to have an international experience that focuses on surface or objective-level aspects of culture (e.g., food, festivals, and fashion; or monuments, mansions, and museums) and ignore the potential for deep intercultural impact. Just being somewhere different does not necessarily result in significant cultural learning, as participants often spend far more time with their own peer groups than in having new cultural experiences and intellectual engagement with host nationals.

As professional educators, we should focus our efforts to assure that effective and comprehensive intercultural learning occurs during these experiences. We must, however, be careful that we do not simply assume that more learning is occurring than is actually taking place. It is the quality of students’ experiences in study abroad that becomes critical.

I have been traveling with students of all ages and writing about these experiences for more than 40 years—long before it was common or relatively easy to do. Below, I share four ideas teachers should consider in helping their students begin down the path of enhancing their intercultural sensitivity, and ultimately, intercultural competence.

1. Set “intercultural” apart from other terms often used in global education.
Many terms are often used interchangeably in international or global education to imply culture learning. The term “intercultural,” and thus “intercultural competence,” refers to an exchange between individuals of different groups at the interpersonal level. The goal here is to develop the sensitivity and capacity to build the trust, understanding, and interpersonal relationships that are required for people to collaborate effectively across cultural boundaries to address common problems and concerns.

Developing intercultural competence is a process that evolves over a significant period of time as a result of firsthand, guided interpersonal interactions that are reflected upon and analyzed. While traditional schooling may be good at imparting a significant amount of knowledge, there is a weak correlation between the simple acquisition of cognitive knowledge and subsequent gains in intercultural sensitivity and competence. Culture learning simply requires a long-term, experiential approach—the very thing that travel provides—coupled with the knowledge or cognitive inputs that the classroom can offer. It is this blend of experience and knowledge that is critical.

2. Understand how ‘culture’ operates in people.
Culture operates on two levels—a visible objective level and an invisible subjective level. Objective culture, sometimes referred to as ‘big C’ culture, refers to the tangible elements of a culture—the artifacts people make, the clothing worn, the foods eaten, and sometimes the names given to things. Objective culture is easy to see and touch, with people generally agreeing upon what it is that they observe.

But the more profound and meaningful levels of culture operate at the subjective level, sometimes referred to as ‘little c’ culture. These intangible aspects include people’s attitudes, the roles they adopt, and the values they may hold and defend. These aspects of culture are much more difficult to see, yet they are present in all interactions.

The iceberg is often used as an analogy to explain the distinction between objective and subjective culture. Typically showing about ten percent of its mass above the surface of the water, this portion of the iceberg can be likened to objective culture. Ninety percent of the iceberg, however, is invisible to the naked eye, lying beneath the surface of the water. This is the portion that is of most concern to the ship’s captain and can do the most damage to the ship. So, too, it is with subjective culture. These deeper elements, such as the assumptions people make and the attitudes they hold, are not readily visible to the casual observer but are operating at all times. Understanding this is fundamental to the success of any intercultural interaction.

It is at the level of subjective culture that good intercultural education and culture learning must focus. During impactful and meaningful travel experiences that involve interaction with others, subjective levels of culture are often encountered and can be analyzed.

3. Understand how people develop interculturally.
Until relatively recently, little was understood about the development of intercultural sensitivity and few benchmarks existed to guide our understanding of how people can become more interculturally competent. We now know that the acquisition of intercultural competence is developmental and comprehensive. That is, it requires a combination of cognitive, affective, and behavioral interventions and experiences.

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), proposed by Milton Bennett more than two decades ago, identifies six stages along an intercultural continuum—three on an ethnocentric side and three on an ethnorelative side. People with an intercultural mindset, for instance, move from avoidance or a tolerance of difference to a respect and appreciation of difference. As educators, if we know where an individual lies on the continuum, we can be mindful of the particular strategies and experiences that can be utilized to move people from one stage to another.

Understanding that intercultural development is an evolutionary and not a revolutionary process should greatly influence the manner in which we educate both our students, as well as ourselves. Intercultural competence is not achieved in one course or one single experience. Rather, it comes about after recognizing where one is on the developmental continuum, and then while providing both support and challenge, engaging students in systematic, oftentimes repetitious and well-planned exposure to intercultural interactions that nudge one to increasingly complex levels.

Moving too quickly along the continuum is akin to the scuba diver plunging immediately to a depth of 100 feet without taking the requisite time to equalize pressure and accommodate to the new environment—the shock can just be too great for the body to accept. Alternatively, gradual movement or immersion enables the diver to adjust to the changing circumstances and thus to function more effectively in the new environment. So, too, should it be with intercultural development. Understanding and integrating what we know about intercultural development and sensitivity into the education of our students will result in a more interculturally effective and competent citizenry.

4. Use pedagogical strategies that facilitate intercultural growth.
Acquiring intercultural competence is developmental, holistic, and more evolutionary than it is revolutionary, and as such, cannot be achieved quickly or with a cognitive-only approach. Such is the crux of experiential learning—it is characterized by experiences that are holistic, affective, and personal in nature—all critical to intercultural learning. Although we have numerous books, films, knowledgeable speakers, and increasingly technology that makes it possible for people to be in almost instantaneous communication with one another, research continually points out the critical role that firsthand, person-to-person immersion experience plays in advancing people along the intercultural continuum.

But distinct from a simple cross-cultural encounter or international experience, good intercultural experiential learning is planned and reflected upon. Experiential learning involves both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, holistically linking encounter with cognition. And the international travel experience can play a major role in the success of this effort. Good teachers make it a priority to take the time to reflect upon what their students are encountering, to discuss with them their reactions, and to help them to find new meaning in the experiences.

Moving Beyond Tourism

Traveling as a tourist—be it individually, in small groups, or even in the large groups by which schools often travel—is qualitatively different from the kinds of experiences that are possible in carefully guided, culturally focused travel. Those traveling in groups often travel in a world unto their own, surrounded by, but not necessarily integrated within, the host society. This casual tourist experience is typically understood through the eyes of tour guides, tourist brochures, commercial guidebooks, and programmed performances that often sanitize and generalize the local culture with the tourist as a spectator, visually consuming the destination rather than fully engaging with it. Meaning is generally made and communicated by others; not the self.

Humans, as social beings, learn best in situations when the complexity of social reality is encountered, examined, and understood. Interculturally focused travel sets the stage for people to engage in meaningful relationships, opening up opportunities that may otherwise not occur. Through interpersonal dialogue and personal encounters, people have the opportunity to learn to see others, as well as themselves, through new eyes. The lived experience becomes the critical element in gaining a meaningful understanding of other cultures as well as one’s own place in an interconnected world.


Quote image created on Pablo.

Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity diagram used with permission of Milton Bennett.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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