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The Education field’s contribution to intercultural communication

Published on 31 August 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

Educators as diplomats

The act of teaching and learning is a form of intercultural communication. Teachers and students bridge generational, cultural, and linguistic differences daily in the classroom, and educators’ reflection on this ongoing interaction leads to learning for both teachers and students. When those practising Education Diplomacy take on the posture of listening, learning, and reflecting, the outcomes can be beneficial to all stakeholders in a given interaction, whether in the building of a coalition or at the negotiating table.

As a new diplomacy, Education Diplomacy brings together practices and skillsets from educators, diplomats, development professionals, and other sectors, enriching all fields while promoting greater co-operation and collaboration to solve education challenges. Intercultural communication is, therefore, a key skill for both traditional diplomacy and Education Diplomacy because it helps to bridge understanding across groups characterised by different cultures, including organisations, disciplines, sectors, communities, social and political systems, and nations.  

In addition, the field of education offers rich contributions to the field of intercultural communication in diplomacy by drawing on various ways of engaging with different cultures. In the education field, these include multicultural education, global citizenship education, and international exchange. The lessons learned from these fields can inform intercultural communication in Education Diplomacy and diplomacy more broadly.

Exchange between diplomats and educators

In 2004, I participated in a study tour to Cuba as part of my graduate degree in International Education. Half of the participants on our trip were students of the International Education programme through the School of Education, training to be educators. The other half were students of the International Relations programme through the School of International Affairs, training to be diplomats. As a group, we  all engaged in Education Diplomacy before the concept had emerged, and communicated interculturally, albeit in different ways.

As students and emerging leaders, we arrived in Cuba with different perspectives shaped by our respective lives, work, and cultural and education experiences. Due to the complexity of US-Cuba relations at the time, many of the diplomacy students saw Cuba through a diplomacy lens informed by historically adversarial US foreign policy. The trip was an opportunity to think about the USA’s relationship with Cuba and to take a critical look at the country. The education students saw the trip as a collaborative exchange and an opportunity to learn more about Cuba’s famous universal literacy endeavour, its quality education, and issues of equality and social justice.

Ultimately these different lenses shaped our experiences and our ability to bridge cultures. The diplomats engaged with the Cubans with a level of caution that I observed as a barrier to intercultural communication; the educators were open to listening to and learning from their Cuban counterparts, which opened the door to intercultural communication.

Surprisingly, one of my biggest takeaways from our trip was what the educators learned from the diplomats and vice versa. The diplomats reminded the educators that our preconceived understandings of a context might not be the complete reality. The educators reminded the diplomats that listening and learning beget intercultural communication and provide a foundation for diplomacy. The interchange between the educators and the diplomats from the same country was its own form of intercultural communication, as we worked through the different ways of knowing in our respective fields.

Intercultural communication to meet diverse learning needs

Multicultural education is most often practised in communities where children and their families hail from different ethnic backgrounds in the US context. It is a form of education that considers these various backgrounds and builds curricula to reflect them in ways that are relevant to teaching and learning. As the Glossary of Education Reform points out, multicultural education ‘assumes that the ways in which students learn and think are deeply influenced by their cultural identity and heritage, and that to teach culturally diverse students effectively requires educational approaches that value and recognize their cultural backgrounds’.

This posture, applied to intercultural communication in a diplomacy setting, involves understanding diverse cultural backgrounds as assets rather than as barriers to communication, and altering our methods of communication to value and recognise cultural backgrounds. In the classroom, teachers might ask students to share aspects of their cultures they value and integrate that sharing into curricular activities. In diplomatic encounters, this might include asking all participants to share aspects of their own culture that they value. Asking participants to share avoids a pitfall of multicultural education known as ‘tokenism’, in which the educator might make wrongful assumptions about the students’ backgrounds. In diplomacy, assumptions can lead to grave miscommunication.

From a global perspective, multicultural education is considered part of Global Citizenship Education (GCED). GCED is education that fosters global citizenship, and can involve teaching students how to engage with people outside of their own cultural backgrounds, building skills to help them succeed in an increasingly connected world, and contributing to global peace and sustainable development. Now a target of SDG4, GCED can be considered ‘education for diplomacy’, as it works towards global understanding and the ‘promotion of a culture of peace and nonviolence’. Although the implementation of GCED varies according to regional and cultural context, the field is ripe with global resources on intercultural communication and dialogue among groups of all ages. In 2017, UNESCO compiled a report of those resources and initiatives from which many lessons can be drawn for intercultural communication in diplomacy.

Educational exchanges and intercultural communication

Similarly, the field of international student exchange involves ongoing research into intercultural communication. Students globally engage in exchange programmes that expose them to new countries and cultures, either for a short term (like my visit to Cuba) or for a long term, like a semester or year in a university.  NAFSA, the US-based membership association for international educators, particularly those in the field of international exchange, maintains a list of courses and other online resources on intercultural communication for practitioners. Like GCED, these efforts point towards understanding and learning across languages and cultures, the backdrop for which much diplomacy can take place effectively.

Both educators and diplomats engage in work that requires effective intercultural communication. As Education Diplomacy brings these arenas together, cross-disciplinary approaches in the research and practice of intercultural communication will allow for the best and most promising tools to emerge and be put into practice. The education areas of multicultural education, GCED, and international exchange offer a wealth of knowledge that can be put into practice in the service of diplomacy.

Phoebe Farag Mikhail is co-instructor of Diplo’s course, Foundations in Education Diplomacy, and a consultant for the Center for Education Diplomacy. Here recent article Power Imbalances in Education Diplomacy was published in Childhood Education: Innovations. She received her MA in International Education at George Washington University in Washington, DC.


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1 reply
  1. Biljana
    Biljana says:

    The self-regarding trap
    Thank you for these very useful insights into Educational Diplomacy! I think you capture one of the key challenges of intercultural communication with your example of what the diplomats and educators learned from each other: “The diplomats reminded the educators that our preconceived understandings of a context might not be the complete reality. The educators reminded the diplomats that listening and learning beget intercultural communication and provide a foundation for diplomacy.” It seems anomalous that the diplomats, aware that other realities exist, should not be listening and looking out for them, and just as puzzling that the educators, committed to listening and learning, should not be questioning their preconceptions (or that they should need reminding). It seems to me that these blind spots are at the heart of intercultural misunderstanding: we are so sure of the validity of our own approach that we become “self-regarding.” Complacency, confirmation bias, the search for commonality and comfort zones is inherently human and should not be dismissed, but we definitely need to build up our awareness of the self-regarding trap, and your blog has convinced me that Education Diplomacy and GCED are an important step towards this goal.

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