Intercultural education – better education for everyone?


Goals identified by the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century

The Commission identified four key objectives:

Learning to learn, learning to be, learning to do, and learning to live together.

Learning to live together, learning to live with others. This type of learning is probably one of the major issues in education today.


When we look at those goals that have been identified by the International Commission on Education for the Twenty first Century, many teachers might probably ask them selves if it is really their job to teach students to learn to live together. Isn’t it our job as teachers to teach our subjects, the socialisation job should be in the hands of the families or some other institutions?

Some educationalists argue that 21st century education should be more about learning new skills and competences rather than collecting information and remembering facts.

After discussing those questions with teachers from all over Europe in our courses, I am convinced that most teachers see their profession more in the light of educating their students in the broadest way. Their role is to prepare students for life, not just feed them with information which some of them may remember for a while but most of them will forget. The question that those teachers still ask in my training is: “but how do I do it? I will be busy delivering my syllabus and following the curriculum, I can’t take any time to train the student’s social competences or prepare them for life in this intercultural society”.

In this article I will examine this dilemma and try to give some answers and ideas, both from researches and from my own experience as teacher in different school levels.


In our schools we continue to find students for whom the traditional teaching approach doesn’t work and who need new teaching approaches in order to have an equal chance to learn. In this context we don’t necessarily mean students with any learning disabilities but students who have competences and skills in many different areas, they may have academic skills but still have difficulties with the traditional method where the teacher talks and they are supposed to sit still, listen and remember. The traditional way of teaching therefore only reaches a small part of our diverse, multicultural classrooms.

Our classrooms are multicultural, even where there are no students from minority ethnic backgrounds. Our students have different cultures. Their backgrounds differ in terms of parents education, religion, socio economic status, household and family form.  Additionally they differ in values and attitudes, lifestyles, abilities/disabilities, and ethnicity or nationality.  Ethnicity or nationality is therefore only one of the factors that make our classrooms diverse and thus influence our student’s culture. The settlement of immigrants has added new “minorities” to the community in Europe and accentuated the social and cultural pluralism which already existed.


The aims of Intercultural education are to deal with this diversity in a positive way and see the advantages of it instead of seeing it as a problem i.e. not only tolerate it but directly take advantage of all the possibilities and richness that a diverse classroom offers our students as learners and us as teachers.

When we talk about intercultural education we need to take at least three questions into consideration;

  1. First we need to consider the why question.  Why do we need intercultural education? What in our society has changed to call for different educational approaches? Why should a teacher think about those intercultural teaching approaches and why should they consider changing their teaching style? How has the ideology around intercultural education developed and changed? What are the aims of intercultural education?
  2. The second question is the how question. This is the question that I have heard most often in my work, giving lectures and training about intercultural education. How do we reach the aims of intercultural education in our classrooms? How can we organize our teaching in order to reach those aims? Are some methods more likely to work than others?

And than there is the what question. Which materials do we use in order to reach those aims? What do we need to consider when we develop intercultural teaching material? Do we need special materials or can we use our old textbooks and tasks?

I will try to look closer into those three questions in this article even though the scope of this article will not allow deep coverage of them all.


Why intercultural education?

This question is very important when we discuss intercultural education with student teachers as well as with in-service teachers. Why should teachers change their way of teaching if they do not see any obvious reason for changing it? We can probably introduce as many methods and materials as we want, but if a teacher does not see the advantage of diversity or has prejudice against certain groups of society – those methods will be useless in their hands. Therefore the attitude of the teachers toward the diversity in the classroom is vital in order for the methods and materials to work. The discussion about intercultural education first started in connection with migration in Europe but Antonio Perotti asks an interesting question in his book “The case for intercultural education” asking: “Was it really necessary to wait for the settlement of millions of immigrants from other continents in Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s to acknowledge the multicultural nature of society? Did people who were “different” not exist well before the recent arrival and settlement of immigrants?” With his question Perotti wants to emphasize the pluralism in our society, not only connected with migration. This pluralism is what we call multiculturalism.


The first question which we need to answer in this context is “how do we define intercultural education to day and how has it developed?” The term has been defined by educationalists in various ways since the 70s. The development described hereafter refers especially to the countries in Northern and Western Europe.

In the years between the 1970s and the 1990s different ideas of educational approaches were developed in different European countries. The different educational approaches introduced here did not necessary replace each other but overlapped in many ways. The most commonly used terms to describe the different approaches are “immigrant education” (Ausländerpedagogig in German), “multicultural education” and “intercultural education”.

The origin of the thought given to pluralism in school and in education, in the early 1970s, was the immigration which took place in Europe from the late 1960s onwards. The emphasis in this first phase, immigrant education, was kind of a deficit orientation, i.e. the migrant students had some deficit that needed to be improved. The emphasis was on assimilation, striping the children of their cultural identity completely and typical of this approach was its focus on language learning.  Official measures in many countries were varieties of special education classes where the pupils would spend a lot of time with other migrant children, learning the new language but often falling behind in the academic subjects. Immigrant education was therefore a kind of a special education with the aim of assimilation but was organised outside of the majority group. It was soon obvious that this educational approach did not work very well. First of all the fact that the focus was on separation i.e. separating migrant students from other students did not do much to improve their academic, language- or intercultural skills nor did the students belonging to the majority groups have any chance of improving their intercultural competences through interaction.

Parallel to immigrant education, a new approach, multi cultural education developed in many European countries. This approach I define as the first steps towards intercultural education. In the 80s and 90s the discussion was still very much on special education for migrant children but focusing less on assimilation than integration, however still not mutual integration.  Culture was still defined in the narrow way of national culture but now the emphasis in many schools was on “celebrating diversity” by offering superficial cultural events to their students on special theme days. This was characterised by an exclusive focus on folkloristic cultural features a project based approach where national stereotypes were enforced and students from minority ethnicity groups pigeonholed into a national culture which often had nothing to do with their actual individual cultural identity.  The focus was in many cases on “different cultures” and “tolerance”, emphasizing different national cultures which often led to even more separation than inclusion. Culture was seen as something static, only having to do with ethnicity or nationality and multicultural education aimed at teaching students about other cultures.  This, in my view resulted in teachers disseminating national groups as “other” through the reinforcement of national stereotypes.


During the 1990s the main aims of intercultural education were still developing and changing with a range of definitions emerging  As stated in Sven Sierens book “us-them-ours” (2000) “A positive outcome of these developments has been the acceptance that intercultural education should be of advantage to all pupils of both the majority and of minority groups. The acceptance that intercultural education applies to all pupils resulted in dissociation from the immigrant issue. This mainstreaming also implied that – at least theoretically-intercultural education was turned into objective for all schools and teachers, irrespective of the composition of the classroom and school population.”

The main differences between intercultural education and other approaches can be summarized in two main points; that intercultural education is aimed at all children, not only children with migrant background and that  “Culture” is defined in a broad way, that is, all classes are multi – cultural. This new approach eventually led to the conclusion that a child born of foreign parents was no different from a local child from the same social background.


After studying many different definitions and theories of intercultural education, from Europe as well as from the USA I have come to the conclusion that there are two common main aims that most educationalists, specialising in this field seem to focus on in a broad way:

That all pupils become intercultural competent

That they learn to deal with the diversity in general, also ethnic diversity and see the advantage of it;

That they become competent to live and work in diverse, intercultural modern society.

That all pupils have equal opportunities to learn and conditions are such that all pupils have equal access to the learning process.


Ensuring that all students become intercultural competent is a very broad aim and we need to discuss further what it actually means. Which competences are important in our very diverse and multicultural societies? Which competences do we need to train and equip our students with in order to prepare them for life in a multicultural society?  Sven Sierens introduces the following definition “to equip young people with the cognitive characteristics attitudes and skills they will need in a multicultural, multi national and internationalising world. This set of cognitive characteristics, attitudes and skills can be brought together under the term: intercultural competence.”

When I ask my students or participants on my European training courses to name all competences that they see as most important for their students to acquire in order to live and thrive in a multicultural society, I normally get more or less the same list of competences, no matter if my participants are Icelandic teachers or student teachers or international groups of in-service teachers from all over Europe. The list that they make of important competences looks something like this:

communication skills

cooperation skills / team work / being able to work with a divers group

open mindness / anti prejudice

be able to see things from different aspects

creative thinking


critical thinking / selection of information

language skills

conflict management


If the competences are necessary to live and work in a multi cultural society – they must then be intercultural competences. Now we are approaching the next question: “how do we train these skills and competences with our students and thereby increase their intercultural competences?  If we think again about the first question of this article, about education in the 21st century being more about teaching competences, skills and learning to live together rather than focusing on facts, the above list comes close to reaching those aims.

The second main aim of intercultural education is to lay foundations that ensure equal access to the learning process for every student. This aim can be seen in a broad, political way where we question the school system in general and insist upon inclusive rather than selective school systems. Some school systems are well known for being very selective.  For example the German system where the relationship between social background and competence acquisition is unusually taut.  The Icelandic school system is known for being inclusive with only 0, 5% of all students in some kind of special schools.  A single teacher cannot change the system, but they can change attitudes towards diversity in the classroom, teaching style, structure of the classroom by being open to learning and practising new and inclusive teaching methods. This leads us to the next part in this article, the how question.

How do we teach in order to reach the aims of intercultural education?

Some educationalists hold the opinion that we should actually not tell teachers how to reach the aims of intercultural education. Gloria Ladson-Billings in the book “White teachers / diverse classrooms” proposes the following: “..Even if we could tell you how to do it, I would not want us to tell you how to do it. “….”The reason I would not tell you what to do, is that you would probably do it. … In other words, you would probably do exactly what I told you to do without any deep thought or critical analysis. You would do what I said regardless of the students in the class room, their ages, their abilities and their need for whatever it is I proposed.” In the article she stresses that the attitude of the teacher is much more important than using special teaching methods or materials. I agree partly with her; the attitude of the teacher is essential because a teacher who is narrow minded or who sees the diversity of their classroom only as a problem will probably not use inclusive teaching methods and their attitudes will perhaps have more influence than methods used.  BUT… for the teachers who really do want to reach the aims of intercultural education, who really want to give every student the same opportunity to learn and who really values the diversity, have seen the benefits of  training in using intercultural/inclusive teaching methods.  As I have discovered through both teaching student teachers and in-service teachers, many of them have not had any training in using different teaching methods and have not had time or opportunity to discover them on their own. For those teachers the practical training in intercultural teaching methods is essential.

If we come back to the main aims of intercultural education and think how traditional teaching methods (frontal teaching where the teacher speaks and the pupils listen) reach the aims of intercultural education and if they give every student opportunity to learn. Do we in any way increase our student’s communication, cooperation or conflict solving skills by sitting and listening to us? Do they learn creative- or critical thinking when they are just reading, listening and remember the facts that we will test them on? Will they be able to discover the advantage of diversity when the only competence that is valued is the competence of reading, writing and memorizing? Why should it be good to have other competences, skills, experiences or out of school knowledge when these skills are often seen more of a problem than positive diversity? And how do we give every student access to the learning process when we only give those students who are good at listening, reading, memorizing and behaving according to our school culture a chance in our classrooms? The culture that dictates: sit still and face the front of the room, listen to me or read quietly, don’t discuss with other students, don’t help each other, don’t bring in your own ideas or experiences – don’t interact !

How can we change this... but still teach our subjects? The answer isn’t easy because there is no one single teaching method so good that it suits all students all the time. The answer lies in diversity, diverse teaching methods and approaches.  Teaching methods where the student is active, where there is interaction and communication taking place and where there is structure that increases the possibility for every student to have access to the learning process, are best suited to reaching the aims of intercultural education. Cooperative learning methods, using activities and games, using controversial problems in the classroom are all approaches that have shown to be useful to reach those aims. Cooperative learning is the most widely accepted solution for the instructional challenges of heterogeneous classrooms. It is true that the use of small cooperative groups increases friendliness and trust among students from diverse ethnic, linguistic, and racial backgrounds.  Group work and co operative learning are sometimes confused. To ensure cooperation in a group, it must be very structured and certain principles must be followed. Group work alone does not ensure cooperation or prevent exclusion. If poorly managed and structured it can even be worse than individual work. I will not go deeper into explanation of cooperative learning here but instead introduce one method of cooperative learning; Complex Instruction (C.I.).

Many European educationalists and teachers had been looking for some time for suitable teaching methods that would meet the aims and principles of intercultural education. It was soon clear that cooperative learning was useful in order to increase student’s intercultural competences in general, also in order to break down stereotypes about certain minority groups (and often their schoolmates) and thereby also work against prejudices. Cooperative learning also gives students the opportunity to discover that most things can be looked at from different perspective and that conflict and disagreement can be solved in a peaceful way.

Elizabeth Cohen, a sociologist at Stanford University California started her researches about 25 years ago and her purpose was to research which social aspects could be lying behind the fact that some students were not doing as well as others, even though they had good academic skills and did not suffer from any learning disabilities. Her theory was that students status within a group could have considerable affect on the students access to the learning process. She, as many educationalists, had discovered that the more active a student is, the more cooperation between students takes place and the more active participation, the deeper and more high levelled the students understanding would be. Cohen argues, based on her researches that the more opportunity a student has to talk about the task, the more they will learn. In the beginning of her researches the focus was on students who had English as a second language or had different ethnic background. After observing classrooms interactions and group work interaction for several years, she came to the conclusion that even during group work certain students did not have access to the task and were often kept away from the tasks by other students in the group. Those students talked less than other students and if they talked, other students in the group often ignored them. It was obvious that other students did not have any expectations for their competence so in the end they would give up even trying to be active learners. Sometimes they would become silent and seem unmotivated or they would try to disturb the cooperation to which they didn’t have access to anyway. Cohen calls those students, low status students.  The main concepts of Cohen’s theories are about how we can create conditions in our classrooms where all students in a multicultural classroom have equal access to the learning process.  Her idea; Complex Instruction (CI) has three major components:

  1.  Multiple ability curricula are designed to foster the development of higher-order thinking skills through group work activities organized around a central concept or big idea. The tasks are open-ended, requiring students to work interdependently to solve problems. Most importantly, the tasks require a wide array of intellectual abilities so that students from diverse backgrounds and different levels of academic proficiency can make meaningful contributions to the group task.
  2. Using special instructional strategies, the teacher trains the students to use cooperative norms and specific roles to manage their own groups. The teacher is free to observe groups carefully, to provide specific feedback, and to treat status problems which cause unequal participation among group members.
  3. To ensure equal access to learning, teachers learn to recognize and treat status problems. Sociological research demonstrates that in CI, the more that students talk and work together, the more they learn. However, students who are social isolates or students who are seen as lacking academic skills often fail to participate and thus learn less than they would if they were more active in the groups. In CI, teachers use status treatments to broaden students' perceptions of what it means to be smart, and to convince students that they each have important intellectual contributions to make to the multiple-ability task.


The Dutch educationalist, Peter Batelaan from the Pedagogsche Hogeschool of Utrect along with a team of teachers and educationalists from different European countries was the first to “import” Cohens ideas to Europe and connect them with European discussion about intercultural education.

CLIM (Cooperative learning in multicultural groups) is a Flemish version of C.I. and is adapted to the European educational situation. The Steunpunt Diversiteit & Leren, centre for intercultural education in Gent, Belgium, has developed a series of learning material based on the CLIM idea and in Belgium CLIM is already a well known method which has been implemented in many schools over several years now.

The CLIM materials (units) are based on the CI ideology. The pupils work together in heterogeneous groups dealing with diversity through interaction on very rich and challenging tasks. The intention is to have the pupils acquire and understand a certain concept in each unit. Extensive information on this subject is provided by means of resource cards which the students read or look at and which stimulates their ideas and knowledge.

According to Filip Paelman, an experienced teacher’s trainer in Belgium and the author of several CLIM units, CLIM is a complex system on which everything is related to everything else. Two key features are central however; Interaction and status.  Having the pupils work in groups does not always result in more interaction since the status of the pupils within their groups play too important role. Group work that is meant to teach the pupils cooperation can lead to dominance and exclusion and therefore produces counterproductive effects. Like explained above, this has everything to do with status. The higher the status, the greater the students chance to participate in the interaction. CLIM (like CI) constantly works at the status of the so called low status students in the classroom through different methods which Cohen calls “status treatment”.

A CLIM unit consists of seven lessons. Five activity lessons take place between the introductory lesson and the synthesis lesson. The five different activities are simultaneously worked on by five groups in the class, each group focusing on different activity, enabling them to acquire part of the concept, from a different angle and each activity appeals to a different intelligence (according to Gardner’s theories of Multiplied intelligences). The groups remain unchanged during the entire unit and every one has a special role within the group. These roles rotate so that in the next session everyone has a different role and the group will be working on a different activity. They rotate five times, until each group has carried out all the activities.

The activity as such requires a lot of interaction and cooperation (the questions are open and call for interaction). To be able to finish it, different abilities are important so the students really need each other and each others abilities, experience and ideas to finish it (interdependence). They also need a lot of intercultural competences like communication skills, problem solving, creativity, critical thinking etc.

Its no new knowledge that the more active a student is in the learning process, the more chances they have to talk about the subject, the more time they get to explain to others, the deeper is their understanding of the subject.  The question is, how often teachers give their students the opportunity to learn this way. In too many classrooms all over Europe the structure is still to day the same as it was 100 year ago, even though the society outside of the classroom has changed enormously. The teacher talks and is sometimes the only active person in the room, the students are supposed to sit still and listen concentrated to his words and most important – remember it for the exam.

Coming back to the first question; I have experienced through my own teaching, that using well structured cooperative learning tasks, using the CLIM activities and other inclusive teaching methods, my students not only learn more but they also enjoy their learning much more than if they had to sit and listen to me. One can really feel the changed atmosphere after working this way for some weeks with a class, how they become willing to work with everyone, how they get to know each other better and therefore trust each other better.  And… for me, as well as for the students, its much more fun.

Guðrún Pétursdóttir, sociologist

January 2009



Margaret Sinclair 2004, p.16 -

Perotti 1994, p.23

Gogolin 2006, p. 69

Sierens 2000, p.12

Perotti, 1994, p.28

Sierens, 2000 p.15

Auernheimer, 2003, p.37

Gloria Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 39

Cohen, 1997, p.Viii —

CLIEC report 2005, p. 9-12




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Batelaan, Pieter (ed.) Towards an equitable classroom. Cooperative Learning in Intercultural Education in Europe. International Association for Intercultural Education. Hilversum 1998

Cohen, Elizabeth G., Lotan, Rachel A. (ed) Working for equity in heterogeneous classrooms. Sociological Theory in Practice. Teachers College Press . New York 1997.

Joos, Annelies (ed.) CLIEC, a report on the methodology of cooperative learning and its implementation in different European educational settings. Steunpunt Interculturel Onderwijs, Universiteit Gent 2005

Gogolin, I and Krüger-Portratz M. Einführung in die Interkulturelle Pädagogik. Verlag Barbara Budrich. 2006

Landsman . J. and W.Lewis, C (ed). White teachers / Diverse Classrooms. Stilus Publishing, LLC. Virgina 2006

Sinclair, Margaret Learning to live together: Building skills, Values and Attitudes for the twenty-first century. UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, Geneva, 2004

Perotti, Antonio. The case for intercultural education. Council of Europe press,1994.

Sierens, Sven (ed.) Us, Them, Ours. Points for attention in designing interculturallly sound learning materials. Centre for intercultural education. Ghent, Belgium 2000.