The possible uses of the SkillsAct4Vet platform in school environments: cultural awareness

Erasmus Plus SkillsAct4Vet 2019-1-ES01-KA202-065610

Introduction

The project team has just started the skills act 4 vet platform pilot test.  Around thirty teachers in every partner country are testing the platform’s activities that you can find at this link https://training.skillsact4vet.eu/ . The involved teachers quickly realized that the platform could be used in many different ways than the purpose for which it was originally conceived.

Some teachers used the proposed activities as “ice breaking activities” in Erasmus Plus projects, both to encourage cooperation within groups and to improve communication.

Other teachers, who work in multicultural contexts with a high number of foreign students, focused on cultural awareness activities. The platform also attracted a lot of interest during the EBSN network’s annual international conference.

In this article we will focus on the “cultural awareness” competency.

Short definition

Cultural awareness starts with recognition of both differences and similarities that exist between two or more cultures.  This leads to an individual’s ability to function and effectively manage behavior, attitudes, and communication in culturally diverse settings. In order to be cultural aware, a person should be sensitive to the needs and emotions of own culture and that of the others. This sensitivity will eventually allow for respecting and tolerating cultural diversity and effectively communicating with the members of diverse cultural and social backgrounds.  

Difficulties to which this skill responds

Living in a highly multicultural environment can be considered challenging, especially if students have to collaborate closely with members of another cultural and social group. A student living in a multicultural community will encounter different beliefs, values, rituals, customs, as well as ethnic and religious behaviors. Recognizing and therefore understanding the nuances of other cultures is challenging, as it leads to the recognition of the nuances of one’s own culture. In order to communicate effectively, the student has to embrace cultural diversity as an over-arching pattern, but also as manifested in everyday life and communication. That goes way beyond the language barrier, as it addresses cultural differences in race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, beliefs, behavior patterns among members of a different community or organisation. Cultivating cultural awareness is tackling major obstacles that can hinder communication and eventually mutual understanding and collaboration such as prejudices, bias (as a mental leaning for or against someone or a group of people), discrimination, or even bigotry or racism (attitudes of being intolerant).

Behavioral indicators

There are certain behavioral indicators in the sense of behavioral patterns, that can help mobility students to develop cultural awareness:

• Motivating the self to learn about the host culture and observing/studying cultural etiquette and nuances (e.g. what people do when meeting, how they call each other, which gestures are accepted and which not, commensality practices, body language etc.)

• Identifying cultural behaviors and practices of persons, which are valid for all the members of the host culture/society (seeking and identifying possible common cultural denominators)

• Not being afraid when acting in the culturally ‘wrong’ way, but drawing from this to better adapt and fine-tune own behavior vis-à-vis the new cultural setting (address your cultural ‘gaffes’ with humor in a constructive way)

• Trying to ‘mirror’ customs and gestures of the people (behave in a similar way and observe feedback from others)

• Recognizing and applying adjustments and adaptations needed in different social and professional situations (monitor your behavior by observing what ‘works’ and what not and then apply in everyday practice little by little)

• Avoiding generalizations by deconstructing them through learning more about the host culture (recognize and dismantle stereotypes as non-justified generalisations)

 

Why is this skill important for mobility students and which sub-skills are associated with it

Cultural awareness is extremely important for students in order to be able to communicate and collaborate on a healthy and culturally acceptable way and basis. Acquiring sensitivity to cultural differences can be translated to action that is culturally appropriate and cultivates cultural competence, that is, the ability to use experiential and interpersonal skills to favor understanding and appreciation of cultural patterns and differences. Cultural awareness is also important as a tool for self-reflection and self-critique, as well as a tool for fighting stereotypes. Cultural awareness is promoting cultural diversity through non-judgmental and empathetic attitudes.

A set of certain sub-skills are associated with cultural awareness:

Tolerance. Accepting diversity of people’s approaches, appearance, values and behaviors and striving to cohere to own convictions, while at the same time accepting that others adhere to theirs.

Adaptability. Willingness and ability to learn new skills and behaviors, especially o the face of new and evolving circumstances and situations

Openness. Ability to be open-minded, open to experience and willing to try new things.

Curiosity. The desire to know and learn about different aspects of life.

Empathy. Understanding what others are experiencing through awareness of their feelings and emotions.

An example of exercise to train cultural awareness: "A multicultural self"

Materials needed

Pen, print-out template (editable). The template can be either in the form of a simple word file that is editable online, or simply drawn on a piece of paper and directly filled out with a pen.

Estimated time needed

15 min. (guidelines and carrying out) + 15 min. discussion

Description and guidelines

Prepare a template and give out a copy of it to the student. The student should the following. She/he places themselves in the middle space and writes her/his name in the slot. Then ask the student to think of some characteristics, traits, that she/he feels are most important for them. These characteristics could be anything. Give out some examples for what they could be: Male or female, a nationality, a personality trait they think that is characteristic of them (e.g. clever, funny, introvert or extrovert, shy, talkative etc.) religious orientation, external characteristics (e.g. black, white, Asian etc.).

A student should choose those which they feel identify with at the highest extent. It is desired to prompt the student to include at least some of the cultural characteristics that many times are used as the basis for constructing stereotypes. That is, characteristics or cultural traits that refer to nationality, religion, values, attitudes and practices (like for example being vegetarian or being silent, talkative, speaking loud, expressing one self a lot through hands movement etc.)

The template for the students should look like this. You can as well easily prepare one yourself and add more satellite circles to host more characteristics, but it is advised to keep the number of them low, in order for the students to try to choose those which are most important for them:

Once the student is ready with filling out the template, ask her/him to think of two different instances as having occurred in her/his past experience:

  1. Think about a time, a period, or even a situation or an instance when they were especially proud to identify themselves with one of the characteristics (the descriptors) they used in their template. Ask them to keep some notes, describing this experience and how they and the others (if involved) felt about it.
  2. Think about a time, period, or even a situation or an instance when it was not pleasant, or even painful to be identified with one of the characteristics (the descriptors) they used in their template. Ask them again to keep some notes, describing this experience and how they and the others (if involved) felt about it.

Then, ask students to write down (to the best of their knowledge either through own experience, or what they have heard through friends, parents, mass media, books, movies etc.) some stereotypes (generalizations) associated with one of the characteristics with which they have chosen to identify themselves, but think is not really consistent with who they think they are in reality.

They should use the following sentence:

I am ____________, but I am NOT ______________.

Example:

I am Italian, but I am NOT speaking loud all the time, doing a lot of expressions by moving my hands when speaking with others. 

Assessment and discussion

Go through the characteristics the students have chosen. Discuss together about the notes they kept about the times they felt proud about them or unpleasant with them in the past. Ask them to share their thoughts about it in detail and the reasons for that.

The exercise helps the students to reflect on cultural differences, understand the way stereotypes and invalid generalisations are constructed, while at the same time, it helps them to acquire cultural empathy, awareness, tolerance for the Other, understanding of different habits and world-views. This eventually will help them to better adjust to different cultural settings, while bringing in their own cultural make-up not as one distancing them from the others, but one that could be deployed as well towards showing ways of doing things, that might be beneficial for the goals at hand.

A second exercise can be found at this link  https://training.skillsact4vet.eu/modules/training/units/exercise-2-4/