Terry Haywood, AIE Trustee
Headmaster, International School of Milan, Italy
Concluding Comments and Conference Summary– AIE Conference Mumbai
Having accepted the invitation to provide a conference overview has turned out to be both a privilege and a misfortune: a privilege because it’s given me the opportunity to join sessions in every strand and to get a feeling for the range of insights, research and ideas that have been shared in these three days, but a misfortune because I have genuinely missed engaging in the extended team discussions that can only come about from the dynamics of working with the same group of people in the same strand from beginning to end.
My role this morning has been described by others as “the summariser” or “the synthesiser”, titles that sound more suited to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or one of the characters from Breaking Bad. After giving some thought to my role I have actually decided that I don’t want to either summarise or synthesise, two things that you are probably already doing for yourselves on the basis of the Gallery Walk and the Strand Reports that have just been delivered by the strand leaders. Let me just say how stimulating the Gallery Walk was, by the way, and what a wonderful way it was to share ideas that have been generated over our time together and to provoke ongoing debate and discussion. I was not the only one to be profoundly impressed by the intensity of your collaborative ventures in preparing visual materials for the Gallery. One of the students involved as a strand helper told me this was one of the highlights of her conference – “watching a bunch of Heads and teachers getting all excited about designing posters and charts” is the way she expressed it, humorously!
So instead of being a sort of Boswell to over a hundred Doctor Johnsons and recounting the many opinions and voices I have heard in the past two days, I am going to share with you a personal narrative of my learning from the conference. It’s a narrative enriched by feedback from the strand leaders, by contributions from Ken Cushner and Ann Puntis (our two keynote speakers), by exchanges with my colleagues on the AIE Board of Trustees, and by many conversations with you, the conference participants. Yet I take full responsibility for what I am going to say and I would not be at all surprised if your own personal narrative were to be different from mine – I think that phenomenon would just be a good example of what we call multiple perspectives.
My narrative will revolve around four things that I am going to take away with me from our time in Mumbai.
- One of them is new discovery or insight, something that I was not aware of until this weekend and that represents new knowledge for me
- Another is something that I did know previously but that has taken on a new significance after seeing it deconstructed and put together again in a new light. This represents a case of new understanding about previous knowledge.
- One of them is a question that I am going to ponder about a lot more when I get home – it needs further investigation with friends and colleagues before I decide whether it is profound or trivial. It is still a concept that needs to be explored.
- And the final one is a challenge, something I choose to take away with me because it will ensure that the value of my conference experience will endure over time.
My four “learnings”, for wont of a better term, are related to the four terms you can find in our conference title:
And to keep things simple I am going to associate one word with each of these terms so that if you ask me in a year’s time what I got out of this conference, I ought to be able to recall them quite efficiently as a simple set of verbal equivalences.
Let's begin with Intercultural Understanding, and the word I have associated with it is “Poetry” (or Kavita in Hindi). The core topic of our conference is a fundamental component of the kind of learning that our schools set out to promote, but like so many expressions that we use in our profession we have enormous difficulty in pinning down exactly what it means. In our classrooms do we really know how to differentiate between intercultural understanding, international mindedness, global citizenship and the cosmopolitan mindset that are all claimed, in different moments and contexts, to be the goals of international learning? And does it really matter if we sometimes confuse the terms? Ann Puntis even suggested in her keynote session yesterday that we sometimes engage our students in activities without being entirely sure whether intercultural learning is taking place at all, but we can usually be sure when it is not. Ann’s comments initiated my own reflection on the business of terms and definitions, and this led to my first revelation.
Many educators today would argue that precision in defining ours terms is essential if we want to plan for them to be structured learning outcomes for our students, and even more so if we want to evaluate how well they are being learned. The question of assessment is central in this perspective. There is an approach to education in the modern world (which may be characteristic of the Western world, or perhaps of the the scientific or business worlds) which requires us to define objectives and then establish measurable outcomes to see how good we are at reaching them. We are all familiar with this approach. It is one that I have heard referred to as quantiphilia, and not in a complimentary way.
Yet the concept of culture is a tantalizingly problematic one, as several of the strands discovered in their discussions, and there is nothing simple about finding a common understanding, let alone a universally applicable definition. I am also perplexed about the way we move from an understanding of culture to the skills we are identify as intercultural competences. This is not because I don’t recognise the importance of the these competences and I have no doubt that the progressive scale devised by Milton Bennett is an immensely effective tool for helping us to articulate our awareness, understanding and response to cultural interactions. But I find myself asking whether, taken alone, any set of intercultural competences will not end up being a relativistic toolkit that makes little reference to the personal values we hold dear and that cultural interactions inevitably challenge. Any interaction with a new culture is likely to be an encounter with a new value system, and values are also central to the kind of learning that we promote in our schools.
Don’t ask me to list or rank those values – I certainly don’t want them to be simply the values of either our own or some other dominant or biased cultural perspective – but I would be surprised if international educators do not hope that their students will learn to view the world through lenses such as respect, equality and justice, for example. The ability to approach another culture with an open mind, to empathise with and assimilate into it, are all competences we would like our teachers and students to have, but is it possible to apply them without reference to the values that we hold to be the key to human dignity? This is dangerous terrain, open to the pitfalls of cultural bias and superiority, so perhaps what I am advocating is the need for a set of value competences to underpin the intercultural toolkit. And these value competences must be founded on a principle of reciprocity, so that those with a high degree of intercultural competence must apply their skills to understanding and critiquing their own cultural contexts as well as those of others.
There is also something else that the table of competences doesn’t describe too well, and that is the sense of wonder that I hope we experience as we come to recognise and celebrate the astonishing diversity of ways that human beings have devised for living together and negotiating their time on this planet, giving it meaning and purpose. In one of the strands this weekend we heard about the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore, the most dynamic driving force of vision and action in international understanding one hundred years ago. He founded international schools and universities and influenced philosophers and politicians, including the League of Nations. Yet in answer to a question about how he defined international learning, Bob Sylvester suggested that he didn’t even try to define it as we might expect today, but rather he let his poems do it for him. This may not suit a Western, business or scientific desire for definitions, categories, levels and assessment criteria, but it leads me to pose the question of whether, to be a genuine international thinker, our students need not just a toolkit of competences but also the values and insights that are better expressed through poetry like that of Tagore. Perhaps you knew this all along. After all, just look at the Gallery Walk and the way that you have described intercultural learning in the visual and verbal representations you have devised. I don’t see a single definition but there is a myriad of wonderful metaphors and symbols. Perhaps we really do need to bring back poetry into our understanding of intercultural learning.
Let’s move on to the next term in our title: Reflection. My considerations so far might sound like a reflection on intercultural understanding but I have a more analytical term to link with the reflective process and that is “Continuum”. Ken Cushner made it clear that the profound educational value of Bennett’s model of intercultural sensitivity is that it identifies a progression through six stages of development. Since we know quite a lot about how learners evolve through these stages and how they do not, we can use the scale to guide them towards the next level of competence. We know that intercultural sensitivity is a learned skill, not one that we are born with or without, and we know, unlike Tagore and the early exponents of schools like the United World Colleges, that simply bringing people from different cultures together, or exposing them to cultural exchange experiences, does not in itself enhance understanding, assimilation or integration.
Deep learning often needs to be provoked by some form of dissonance or self-questioning. In yesterday’s Student Plenary session the students themselves told us that we need to go outside our comfort zones to make a crucial breakthrough in changing our own mindsets, yet we know this does not happen automatically. Indeed, the opposite outcome can frequently occur and some intercultural experiences actually lead us to go backwards on the Bennett scale if we are not accompanied by a mentor who helps us to reflect on and ultimately to internalise our experiences in a constructive and constructivist climate.
When I say that we know a lot about how to accompany learners along the developmental continuum, who am I talking about when I say “we”. Do I mean those of us who have attended the conference this weekend? Do I mean the leaders and educators who populate our schools? Do I imply that our schools are staffed by teachers who are trained in mentoring to support intercultural sensitivity in our students? Do our colleagues know how to deal with dissonant situations that emerge in classrooms, on school trips, in reading literature or studying history? The answer is probably “no”, at least not most of them, even if some act intuitively with the right intentions and we often see (or think we see) the desired outcomes. This is surely an anomaly and an omission. In any school with internationalist learning objectives the teachers should have an appreciation of the complexity and subtlety of the processes involved, but we have a long way to go before this will be the norm. This is an appeal, then, to universities and teacher trainers to serve this need, and it is also an appeal to school Heads and Directors to bring professional development into their schools.
It is also an appeal to teachers, first of all to seek training opportunities for themselves, and secondly to think carefully about how they perceive and judge student behaviours. I confess to hearing too many judgmental perceptions from adults who are not qualified to make them. We can’t possibly expect students in High School to demonstrate the highest levels of assimilation, especially if they are going through the healthy phase of adolescence in which they contest the teachings and expectations of their elders. Even if they do seem to be particularly skilled, perhaps assisted by having grown up in bilingual and bicultural contexts, they will have to repeat the experience over and over again as they encounter new cultural exposures later in life. Students at school leaving age are still moving on the intercultural continuum. Many of their emotional processes, including attitudes and perspectives, continue to develop into adulthood, and sometimes their school experience plants seeds which only bear fruit later in life. They don’t have to reach the integration phase by 18 years of age – it’s more than likely that the teacher in the next room to you and the Head in the next school haven’t reached this stage, either. We are all somewhere on the continuum and we all have something still to learn.
I haven’t heard the word Responsibility used explicitly a great deal this weekend, but this concept was implicit in the discussions that I heard in several of the strand sessions yesterday when they each came up against the notion of “Identity”. Almost at the same point during the weekend, several strand groups hit on the idea that a students’ individual identity is central to the definition of his or her own culture – in fact, it probably is their culture. If this is true then the student’s own sense of place and allegiance has got to be to be the starting point for any intercultural dialogue and this has several consequences.
Identity is as difficult a concept to pin down as culture. In schools we need to be particularly careful to avoid stereotyping our students by expecting their culture to be deducible from their family’s culture or their national or religious culture, if such things even exist. Young people make conscious and unconscious choices about their identity and culture – but just as important, group cultures and identities change and evolve over time. A conversation in one of the strands looked into the way that generational differences reflect cultural evolution and suggested that the most significant differences may be most marked in the course of two generations. I decided to sample student perceptions about this and asked several of our student helpers about the way their families perceived their experiences in an “international” school rather than the more traditional national system. Interestingly, the two generation differential was recognised unanimously, as I was told that while parents tend to be happy and express clear expectations about the opportunities they have chosen to provide for their children, their grandparents are much most concerned about whether the new generation is “losing its (and their) roots”.
Another consequence of focusing on personal identity to promote intercultural understanding is that it forces us to make the starting point not at be the place we imagine the students to be located, but the place in which they sees themselves. That doesn’t mean their stated or perceived identities cannot be sensitively challenged – challenge is the door to reflection and the way to deeper understanding – but it recognises the individual as the cultural atom. Although we know it to be inappropriate, we still have a tendency to fall back on stereotypes, even when we are meeting in a country and living in a world where diversity, tradition and change are constantly interacting to produce something new. So our responsibility is to start from the student and do what the IB curriculum posters do, placing the learner’s individual identity at the core of intercultural interactions. The visual metaphor for intercultural dialogue is often pictured as a bridge spanning two different entities across a chasm, and the continuum of competences could be the steps across this bridge. But a better image might be a ring of concentric circles with progression moving outwards from the individual at the core.
This brings me to my fourth and final realisation – that the most authentic opportunities for Action, that is to say experiences which promote intercultural competences, are to be found in the Local environment, close to the school or to where the students live. However important it is (and it is) to learn about global issues and take a stance on them, the challenge of dissonance and its resolution in the student’s mindset can most easily be experienced in the complex tapestries that make up our local social context. From learning about different faiths or religious practices to facing the iniquities of social injustice or dealing with the impact of migration and urban sprawl, most of us may have to look no further than the streets immediately surrounding our own schools. I am not only talking of India, of course. As the fifth most populous city in the world in possibly the most richly varied cultural landscape of any country, this is certainly true of Mumbai. But it is true of any city in any country on the planet. It may even be evident inside our own schools. Michael Allen has described this in some of his writings on the constructive potential of dissonance. Think of the student who has just arrived from a different country, the student from a minority group or a family with a different socio-economic background to the majority, the student who has to learn the language of the school or the country in order to study and make friends, or the student who just feels like an outsider. All of these have the potential to experience real personal growth in intercultural learning within the walls of their own school. But it is unlikely to happen spontaneously without intervention and support.
Concepts like International Mindedness and Global Citizenship imply understandings and actions at world levels, and we have an obligation to expose our students to the intricacies of human inter-connectedness on this planet, but engaging in these issues can sometimes be an intellectual exercise rather than a personal engagement. Ken Cushner pointed out that some of us who work in stable multicultural communities feel quite comfortable in the third level (minimization) of the six stages of Bennett’s scale. At this level we are knowledgeable about other cultures and we imagine that we understand alternative worldviews, but we often do so from an intellectual perspective. This can indeed be a comfortable place for internationalists as they look for common approaches to solving the shared problems of our existence and our planet. But we are only half way along the scale. As someone pointed out to me the other day, perhaps the very term “intercultural understanding” actually describes the attitude of people who are at this level of engagement, before the more challenging stages of acceptance, adaptation and integration which all call for personal engagement beyond abstracted understanding. Since the most authentic challenges that push us to go beyond this level are to be found right in our own towns and cities, the strong recommendation I will take away from Mumbai is the need for me to look for local action to develop intercultural competences that support our global awareness. This is likely to have a more lasting impact in the long run.
And by the way, when we do act locally we should really try to involve our local national system schools on an equal footing. Let’s not keep international mindedness and intercultural competence as commodities for elite groups. Let’s try to engage those around us, in our own neighbourhoods, in developing these skills if we truly believe they are essential for the twenty-first century.
I leave you with the verbal matrix that describes my four learnings, and with the poem by Tagore that Bob Sylvester shared with his strand on Friday. I hope you enjoyed taking part in this conference as active participants and that you take away some valuable insights for your own contexts, even if they are likely to be different from the ones I have shared with you this morning. Thank you.
Stream of Life – Rabindranath Tagore
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.