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Cultural Competence: Important Skill for 21st Century

Cultural Competence in Education

What is Cultural Competence in education?

We teachers are constantly striving to improve the quality of the instruction we deliver, whether it’s driven by state-mandated objectives, curriculum goals, or trendy buzzwords, the recipe for a quality education remains a moving target on a shifting landscape. However, one term we consistently see in the markers of excellence is cultural competence.

Cultural competence in education can take many forms; however, educators know it to be a student’s ability to manage situations and face challenges across cultural boundaries with grace, diplomacy, and empathy. Cultural competency in education grows in importance each year as our students gear up for the many global challenges ahead. Cultural competence education is both a goal and, in many ways, the product of why we practice virtual exchanges.

But what does cultural competence education look like in a student? An education of cultural competence comes chock full of 21st century skills that we constantly put into practice via virtual exchanges. Cultural competence means speaking other languages, with the understanding that multilingualism is not only important—it’s ubiquitous. Cultural competence also means empathizing with different cultures, religions, ways of thinking, and paradigms. Cultural competency signifies facing issues of equity and inclusion with grace and empathy. The culturally competent student approaches challenges with the discernment and judiciousness of one who has grown up in an era of misinformation. An education with cultural competence at its heart unites a plurality of disciplines to prepare students for just about anything.

Benefits of Cultural Competence

Of course, as educators, we sometimes struggle to justify these disciplines. Why continue to teach languages when English has become the world’s lingua franca? With information and data constantly aggregating at our fingertips, is there really any use for critical thinking and verifying our research? What is the point of a cultural competence education?

The benefits of cultural competence are many and extend well beyond simply preparing students for an ever-changing world. On a practical level, cultural competency in education has granted, and will continue to grant, our students with a roadmap to solving problems. In the context of virtual exchanges, solid cultural competence is useful when students puzzle out solutions to real world problems with discernment, navigating the treacherous waters of climate change, war, the effects of post-colonization, and rising energy needs. They know where to find information, filter the useful from the untrue, and apply their findings towards the betterment of society. And, most importantly, they know why solving the world’s problems is important: they’ll see different perspectives as a benefit, not a hindrance.

Moreover, as evident in student interactions when participating in virtual exchanges, cultural competency in education reaffirms their understanding of why it is important to globally connect and participate in the great human network of the 21st century. The gift of cultural competence through education not only shows our students that meeting people from different walks of life unites us and makes us all a part of the greater whole–it helps them be better humans. When students chat with each other across oceans, boundaries and time zones, they value differences and celebrate unity all at the same time.

Implement – Culturally Competent Teaching

Of course, experienced teachers know that cultural competence in education doesn’t just happen spontaneously: it’s the product and goal of culturally competent teaching. When we practice culturally competent teaching, we aspire to challenge our students enough to grow, but not enough to recoil in fear. Sometimes, while participating in a virtual exchange devoted to learning languages, students can share an intimidation or a dejection from the level of fluency and proficiency in their partners; but culturally competent teaching in that moment guides them towards humility, curiosity, and wonder. The culturally competent teacher knows that it’s sometimes a hard but important lesson for our pupils to learn in the safe environment we’ve created for them. Pull up that video, scroll to the challenging section, and play it back for them a dozen times if that’s what it takes: that’s the beauty of the digital tools we have at our fingertips!


About Dan Pieraccini

Dan Pieraccini was born in Northern Italy, but was moved to the United States at the age of 6. Dan’s B.A. in English and M.A. in Italian literature have opened the door to over a decade of teaching high school and college students a second (and in some cases a first) language. It is likely that having traveled through 82 countries, 48 U.S. states, and three disputed territories somehow factored into the decision to make Dan Delbarton School’s first Director of Global Programs. In his spare time, he manages events at his local Elks Lodge, helps feed the hungry at a handful of food pantries, writes and performs rock and roll songs with his band Forget the Whale, plays in a Dungeons and Dragons game, and occasionally goes out to brunch.