Open for Debate

Addressing ethical dilemmas in teaching for intercultural citizenship: the role of IH and conviction

By Michael Byram  and    Manuela Wagner

In the last two blog entries we took a first look at the relationship between teaching for intercultural citizenship (applying the knowledge, skills and attitudes of intercultural competence to solve real world problems in the here and now), intellectual humility (owning the limitations of one’s knowledge), and understanding one’s own convictions. Our preliminary conclusion was that critical analysis and understanding of our convictions can help us take a step back and discuss issues with the help of explicit logical criteria rather than being offended, and consequently unable to suspend judgement, when we feel that our unexamined convictions, and with them part of our identity, are attacked.

In this blog we want to address the ethical issues faced by educators who teach for intercultural citizenship, and explore how the concepts of intellectual humility and conviction provide approaches to solving some of those issues.

In our second blog, we described a project in which students considered the problems faced by a hypothetical family immigrating to the USA. This stimulated their critical reflections on their own society and attitudes, and this is surely what good education should include. In other projects, however, teachers have gone a step further and encouraged their students to take their critical thinking out of the classroom and into their local or international community by engaging in actions of various kinds in the community. For example students in universities in Britain and Argentina critically examined the war which took place between these two countries over the Falklands/Malvinas islands and then taught children in local schools about the two perspectives on this event, or prepared leaflets which they used in the streets to engage passers-by in discussion of a new international perspective on what is normally seen from a national(ist) standpoint. In another example, students in lower secondary schools in Denmark and Argentina worked together – through the internet – on environmental questions and then took action in their local communities to persuade fellow citizens to think differently about recycling and how it could be improved.

We said that teachers ‘encouraged’ their students to take immediate action based on their classroom work. We, who were also involved in supporting these projects,  and the teachers themselves are aware that this raises ethical issues. For example,  should teachers working with children expect them to become socially or politically engaged? Do teachers of adult students – in universities – have different ethical issues than those who work with children? Should students be assessed on their activities? Does assessment lead to students taking up what they think are desired beliefs and attitudes? Will students believe that they need to act according to a certain political view, i.e. the view they believe is held by their teacher. In these and other questions, the inherent power differential between teacher and students is a crucial factor.

While a comprehensive discussion of these questions is beyond the scope of this blog, we believe that intellectual humility is a useful concept in this context.

The reason why we and the teachers encouraged students to act in the here and now, is that we have argued in our theoretical underpinning to such projects that education should enable students to address problems they face now rather than hoping that they will do so in the future. Our arguments have drawn on theory of citizenship education which makes this point and combined it with theory of intercultural competence to widen students’ perspectives and embrace international and intercultural dimensions of social issues. The projects have shown that students can put classroom learning into real world practice and enjoy and value what they do.

The actions students undertake are however not bland applications of uncontentious classroom knowledge, and the question has to be raised as to who decides what form and focus such actions should take. Our practice has been that teachers give students the tools to evaluate problems and gain information from different perspectives, make critical judgements and decide what actions they can and want to take towards solving the problem. The concept of Intellectual Humility (IH) reminds teachers that they are not always the (final) authority and holders of power. They need to cooperate and consult with students in decision-making. Intellectual humility also helps students understand what they know and what they still need to learn, and how they can draw on their teachers’ experience, without being unduly influenced by them. We have found that the explicit combination of IH with the intercultural competence needed to deal with social issues in transnational cooperation, especially the skills of decentering and critical cultural awareness, provides a basis for students to critically examine their blind convictions and make a judgement based on explicit and conscious criteria.

Furthermore, IH on part of the teacher is a prerequisite for understanding that all teaching involves moral responsibilities as we offer students a lens through which they can view the world. If we are aware of our role, we can critically examine what we do and provide students with the tools to make judgements based on their own critical reflection and information from multiple perspectives. IH helps us to continuously reflect on our teaching and the consequences thereof. This enables us to be open-minded and to intervene if we see that students feel pressured into accepting certain belief systems.

Finally, the age of the learners is an important factor. Provided teachers do not seek to control students using their position of power, adult learners can determine for themselves what actions they might want to undertake – or indeed none – and take responsibility for what they do. Teachers’ ethical responsibilities in the case of children – as defined in legal terms – are different and more substantial. Ethics and intellectual humility are linked to legal accountability.

However, if the projects we have been involved in so far have taught us anything, it is that it is easy to underestimate young learners’ wishes to make a change in the world and their ability to think critically and responsibly.  We need to be intellectually humble in this respect too.

Education that fosters interculturality,  curiosity and humility in the face of ambiguity, rather than knowledge and certainty, prepares both child and adult learners for the ‘wicked’ problems of the 21st century. The pursuit of our own and our students’ intellectual humility and intercultural citizenship is time and energy well spent.

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