On My Mind: Teaching Cultural Agility

Fall 2019

By Donna Orem

We live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. Forecasters predict that the expanding number of global interdependencies could become one of the most disruptive forces in the coming decade. In the book No Ordinary Disruptions: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends, the authors suggest that the degree to which the world is connected through trade and movements in capital, people, and information will become much more complex, moving from the linear connections of today to an intricate, sprawling web of dependencies. More people will cross borders than ever before, and technology will usher in a new phase of globalization. Do our students have the cultural agility needed to operate in this interdependent world?
One of our first deficits for this emerging global economy may be language. According to “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century,” a 2017 American Academy of Arts & Sciences study, “two-thirds of Europeans know a second language, [whereas] only 20% of the population in the United States has any familiarity with a second language, and levels of fluency are significantly lower in the United States than in areas of the world where English is not the first language.” The study also calls out other ways our approach to language education may put the United States at a disadvantage in this global economy:
  • Almost 40% of business executives reported that they failed to reach their international potential due to language barriers;
  • An estimated 300¬400 million Chinese students are now studying English, compared to about 200,000 U.S. students currently studying Chinese;
  • Only 15% of U.S. public elementary schools offer a program for languages other than English, compared with more than 50% of private elementary schools;
  • Across the nation, there has been a significant decline in the number of middle schools offering world languages, from 75% in 1997 to 58% in 2008;
  • At least 44 states report a shortage of qualified K–12 language or bilingual teachers (more than in any other subject) for the 2016–2017 school year.

The Importance of Cultural Agility

The good news for U.S. independent schools is that our emphasis on languages and social-emotional skills may be important differentiators for us in the future as parents seek to ensure their children can thrive in a global economy. If other types of schools do not follow suit, however, many children may be left behind, creating an even larger gap between the haves and have-nots.    
Hand in glove with language acquisition is development of the cultural competence needed to thrive in an interconnected world. Theorists generally define the interculturally competent individual as having these attributes:
  1. Self-awareness of attitudes and beliefs and how those attitudes contrast with people of a different cultural background.
  2. Being attuned to one’s environment and to cultural nuances.
  3. Adapting to cultural differences and ambiguities.
  4. Interacting in a way that’s relevant and important to others who are different.
  5. Acquiring knowledge about other cultures and seeking out new cultural experiences.
  6. Continually assessing development in each of these areas and looking for opportunities to grow.
Developing culturally agile students involves creating environments that give them the opportunity to interact with people from many different cultures on a daily basis. Although we have rich cultural diversity in the United States, many schools have expanded that diversity by welcoming international students. This has provided an important opportunity for U.S. students to develop relationships with students from around the globe and build that cultural agility muscle that will be so important in college and beyond. However, that once-explosive growth in international students that fueled the development of these rich cultural communities is slowing down, and some schools are struggling to maintain their international populations at current levels.

On the Decline

For higher education, the most recent data from the U.S. Department of State showed a 6.6% decline in new international student enrollments in 2018, spiraling down from a 3.3% decline the previous year. The 2017 “Globally Mobile Youth: Trends in International Secondary Students in the United States, 2013–2016,” a report from the Institute for International Education, noted that much of the growth in the high school market in the past decade was fueled by a strong interest in U.S. higher education, with parents wanting to give their children the time to acclimate to life in the United States before college. Thus, declines in higher education may begin to impact independent school enrollments. Competition among schools for international students also has intensified. In 2016, there were 2,800 K–12 schools in the United States vying for some portion of this market, with more than half of NAIS schools enrolling international students and many others looking to enter the market. Today, the number of schools hosting international students is beginning to outpace the growth in international students, driving even more intense competition.
At the same time, there has been huge growth in English-language schools around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, which may prove stiff competition for U.S. schools over time. According to ISC Research, 20 years ago there were about 1,000 English-language international schools; today, there are more than 8,000. ISC predicts that number will double again in the next 10 years. Another concern is that the growth of these schools may lure more American teachers overseas, further exacerbating workforce shortages in the United States.
Paula Caligiuri, professor of international business and strategy at Northeastern University, has written extensively about how this decline in international students could hurt the country’s future. In the online journal The Conversation, she writes, “As a researcher studying how individuals develop cross-cultural competencies, I’ve found that domestic and international student integration on American university campuses is essential for building cultural understanding and agility.” She reiterates that multinational firms say a lack of cultural agility is limiting their global effectiveness, and they are strongly seeking this skill in future hires.

Creating the Culturally Competent School

Beyond language programs and culturally diverse communities, what else should leaders do to prepare students for the changes ahead?
Researchers studying the foundations of cultural competency suggest that schools should take a comprehensive view, not just that of developing stand-alone programs, and understand that this work must be ongoing and iterative. There are a number of models that can help school leaders in creating an overall approach to cultural competency, such as the intercultural competence framework and process model by Darla K. Deardorff, executive director of the Association of International Education Administrators.
Leaders should also look inward and first come to grips with their own self-awareness in relation to cultural competency. Writing at Edutopia.org, Chris Lehmann, founder of the Science Leadership Academy, suggests that leaders ask themselves these questions:
  • Do I seek out and listen to a diverse group of voices when making decisions about our school?
  • Do I ask myself how policy or procedural changes will affect students and faculty who come from historically disenfranchised groups?
  • Do I seek to hire a staff that reflects the diversity of our school and its surrounding community?
  • Do I allow myself to be vulnerable with my school community? Does every member of the school community feel safe letting me know when I make a mistake—especially when it comes from a lack of cultural competence?
  • Do I work to ensure that there is not one standard of excellence at my school, but rather multiple pathways for students to have academic and social success?
Running an independent school is a complex business these days. Keeping the school stable amid shifting demographic and economic sands—while simultaneously staying ahead of what an interdependent world will demand from students—is no easy feat. Look for more resources from NAIS on these issues in the year ahead, including what you’ll find in this issue of the magazine.

What’s on My Radar

The growing political divide in our country is heavy on my mind. And as we begin another election season, I wonder how we can begin to bridge that divide and have more meaningful conversations that have the power to unite. To that end, I found a very interesting resource worth exploring.

Living Room Conversations is an open source project founded in 2010 “to create a structured, intimate conversation format that would empower everyday citizens to discuss important issues with friends of differing political affiliations and backgrounds. The theory was that if two friends with different points of view each invited two friends to join a conversation, with full disclosure about the intent and structure of the conversation, they could create a safe space for a respectful and meaningful exchange of ideas, develop new relationships, and perhaps find common ground.”

Living Room Conversations also has a targeted set of resources just for educators—All Sides for Schools—around news literacy, civil dialogue, and life skills. They will soon be launching a service called Mismatch that will enable video conversations between students with differing views. The founders hope that Mismatch will “help students learn how to talk to people they disagree with, rather than retreat into their own bubbles.”
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.