Kenneth Cushner:  Developing Intercultural Competence One Educator at a Time

Thought Leader: Kenneth Cushner Develops Educators' Intercultural Competence

Many teacher educators agree that teachers need intercultural competency skills in order to be effective educators in a 21st century classroom. Individuals and organizations in the teacher preparation space, however, disagree on what that competence looks like in the classroom and how to measure it in educators. Kenneth Cushner speaks and researches extensively on this topic – helping teacher educators understand the importance of interculturally competent teachers and providing guidance on how to measure, nurture, and recognize these skills in educators at all levels.  He is a professor of Education at Kent State University.

Cushner notes that teaching for intercultural competence is a multi-faceted, complex process, with challenges unique to teacher preparation. It requires enhancing the intercultural knowledge of teacher educators so they can then transfer that knowledge to their pre-service teachers. Teacher educators must also teach future educators how to transfer intercultural competence skills to their students. He argues that most teachers and teacher educators lack the necessary perspectives to effectively teach in today’s diverse and globally connected world, and that teacher preparation programs are not effectively addressing this in their teacher education curricula.

Teacher educators have several tools available to measure intercultural and global competence, but Cushner advocates for the Development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) – a multi stage continuum that illustrates different levels of competence, and the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) – the tool used to measure an individual’s skills and dispositions relative to the continuum. Cushner completed a comprehensive training on administering and interpreting the IDI, and has investigated how the IDI – an assessment not originally designed for educators – can be adapted and used in teacher preparation programs. He notes that the IDI can be used as “a guide to enhance intercultural competence by thinking developmentally and intentionally about how to nudge our students toward greater intercultural competence.”

This is not an easy task. Intercultural sensitivity in general, Cushner agrees with IDI developer Milton Bennet, “is not natural. Contact between cultures has historically been characterized by oppression and bloodshed.” Changing this natural behavior requires exposure to other cultures, paired with training and education, in order to change natural behavior. Educators do not tend to get this exposure because they are a relatively homogeneous group who do not seek out global perspectives or people of different backgrounds – 85% are middle class, European Americans. Nearly 70% are women, and that number jumps to 90% at the elementary level. Cushner reports that education majors are “cross-culturally inexperienced,” and express little interest in international or cultural affairs. Three-fifths are monolingual, with fewer than 10% claiming fluency in another language. Nearly 70% of white teacher education students spend all or most of their free time with people from the same ethnic background. Most teachers live within 100 miles of where they were born, and express a desire to teach in a school similar to the one they attended. Teacher educators may come out of this pool of teachers, therefore, may also have similar demographics and dispositions. Considering the growing diversity of students in this country, this is highly problematic.

Cushner has devoted much of his career to addressing the challenges mentioned above by providing opportunities for teachers and teacher educators to develop intercultural competence, and advocating for intercultural competence development in teachers through their teacher preparation programs. He takes pre- and in-service educators abroad, teaching courses on how to facilitate effective study abroad and on how to develop intercultural competence in educators. He has been facilitating overseas student teaching experiences for students for over 25 years through the Consortium for Overseas Student Teaching (COST), twice acting as director of the organization. As a teacher educator, he assesses his students’ intercultural competence, then integrates global content in his courses to develop students’ competence in a developmentally appropriate manner. He offers myriad concrete strategies and resources for teacher educators, and has acted in an advisory capacity to GTE. Cushner has published extensively on topics such as student teaching abroad, diversity, intercultural development, and cross-cultural training. He has also spoken extensively on his work for organizations like NAFSA, AACTE, SIETAR, and the Alliance for International Education.

When addressing teacher educators who are interested in developing intercultural competence in future students, Cushner cautions it takes time and effort. Language learning alone is insufficient to develop intercultural competence, and the same for cultural knowledge and cross-cultural contact. Single, short-term, or solitary immersion experiences will not suffice; instead, global experiences should be woven throughout the teacher education curriculum. Cushner encourages teacher educators to take what they know about educating teachers and put that to work for teachers’ intercultural competence development. “In teacher education, most of us do not assume that we can take individuals and – in six weeks – make them good teachers. We slowly help them to develop the competence and the confidence to become professionals. We might consider doing the same for intercultural competence.”

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