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Don't let borders get in the way of learning

By Jennifer Skuza

Cultural education is an important part of preparing youth to thrive in a global world. Today’s youth live a world with greater opportunities for interactions with people from different cultural backgrounds and worldviews than ever before. These differences might serve as obstacles to effective interaction and learning if one is not equipped with the cultural abilities to bridge across these differences and reap the tremendous value rooted in intercultural interactions. The nonformal learning environments found in many youth programs are ideal places to nurture this cultural learning. Unbound by the rules and expectations faced by schools, they have the potential to be relaxed enough so that youth feel comfortable sharing personal experiences and challenging their own and others’ thinking.

Below is a summary of four commonly used cultural education approaches; each has a distinct purpose and role in fostering cultural education and puts forth a unique form of critical pedagogy. The application of each approach often results in an overlap or blend of purposes, which you will notice in the following examples. Consider which approach or combination of approaches suits your philosophy of youth development and way of designing youth programs.  

Multicultural education

The main goal of multicultural education is to reform schools, institutions, and organizations so that individuals from diverse backgrounds experience educational equity.  Examples of this approach include Canada’s multicultural education state policy,  the North Star STEM Alliance geared to broaden the participation of underrepresented student minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or a training designed to teach youth workers how to build inclusive youth programs.  Multicultural education addresses both equity and oppression and aims to create change on individual and institutional levels. To learn more about multicultural education start with some literature by James A. Banks

Social justice

The social justice approach aims to resolve injustice by identifying issues, removing social barriers, emancipating individuals and groups, and creating social change. Some examples include the Peace Jam movement designed to help young people become social change agents or a peace-building initiative led by youth in north Minneapolis.  Like multicultural education, the social justice approach addresses equity and oppression and seeks deep change of multiple levels. However, this approach places greater emphasis on the change that occurs within individuals and therefore can be a very personal experience.  If you are interested in learning more about the social justice approach explore some of Paolo Freire's work.

Intercultural education

Intercultural education is an approach that focuses on building and strengthening cultural interactions among people. For instance, it could be in the form of cultural immersion experiences, cultural simulation activities like the underground railroad and StarPower, or intercultural communication training or courses. It is highly experiential and focuses on what connects people – their communication and relationships. In this way, cultural understanding is possible through shared cultural experiences with others. 

International education

International education is an approach to learning that focuses on thinking skills that help learners do the frame shifting needed in intercultural contexts. It helps learners to examine assumptions and to understand how their thinking impacts their interactions with others.  Like intercultural education, it reinforces human relationships but is also interested in developing independent and critically thinking leaders that are able to see their and others’ worlds through a global lens. Some examples of this approach include a curriculum designed to show youth how to participate and lead in a global society that I co-authored with Jessica Russo and Ali Hurtado called WeConnect, the Global Youth Leaders Conference, or the International 4-H Exchange Program that provides opportunities for youth to implement action plans upon their return. For more information on international education read some of Joseph Mestenhauser’s work .

How have you incorporated cultural education into your youthwork practice, teaching or research?

 - Jennifer Skuza, assistant dean

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  1. I also like to learn about the barriers people experience to incorporating cultural education into their youth work practice. It seems almost everyone I talk to understands the value in it, but many don't take the time to make it a tangible part of the learning experiences of the youth in their programs. Is it simply a fear of miseducation? What resources, experiences, or education do youth workers need in order to feel more ready/willing to help young people gain a solid cultural understanding?

  2. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDFebruary 23, 2011 at 8:58 AM

    Hello Jessica –
    You raise important questions that point to some of the practice dilemmas found in cultural youth work and are worthy of greater study and discussion within the field.
    One angle on how to build cultural education into practice could begin with the “openness” of practitioners to view youth program learning environments as “cultural learning environments” and then attend to the design of the learning environment itself. The nonformal learning environment found in many youth programs offer ripe places to cultivate cultural learning through shared experiences, dialogue, content, critical thought and reflection, and by reinforcing the healthy development interpersonal and intercultural relationships.
    What are your thoughts on the question you raised about the fear of miseducation? I am interested in your point of view.

  3. Hello Jessica and Jennifer.
    My first response to Jessica’s statement regarding youth workers struggling to find time is to ask the question: Can we incorporate cultural education what youth workers are already doing? It seems the youth workers you speak of, Jessica, see it as one more item to add to a busy “to-do” list; this is an anxiety with which we can all empathize. How do we (or can we) weave it into daily practice?

  4. Jennifer,
    What a great blog topic! In the midst of all the craziness of our work, it's good to get reminders that make you stop and think, what lens are you wearing when you are working with youth and families? Thanks for that! Given the demographic shifts, the cross-cultural relationships/marriages, trans-national family experiences, and economic globalization, to mention just some of the major trends our country is experiencing, it's a bit scary that we still have to advocate for cross-cultural mindedness in our work. If you talk to HR folks during this recession, they tell you that those who are having success in this job market are those who can speak multiple languages, have international/intercultural experiences, and are able to relate to people with different values and experiences. And these skills aren't just for jobs with major international companies...these are for jobs in the service, agricultural , as well as manufacturing industries! We will put our youth at a great disadvantage if we don't promote multicultural mindset as a core youth development competency. Our country (the world) is changing whether our youth have these competencies or not. The question we need to ask ourselves is, ."how are we setting our kids up to succeed now and in the future in a global society?" Thanks for the opportunity to comment!

  5. Hi, Jennifer. Fear of miseducation--to me this is a fear from adults about who is attempting to delve into these topics with young people--there is a perception (that I'm not entirely defying, by the way) that you have to have specific training in order to teach cultural understanding, and if you don't have this training, you can "miseducate" young people. The term miseducation was used by John Dewey back in the 20's and 30's to describe education that has negative consequences for learners. In this case, the negative consequence would be, say, a fueling of, rather than a stemming of prejudicial thinking. I think that many people don't consider themselves qualified to "go there" with kids (i.e., talk about diversity and cultural clash). I can understand that, but then who really is fully qualified? In my mind (and the reason I would say that I relate most to the international education approach you describes in your blog), it is our understanding of our own thinking that gives us the qualifications to help youth explore their own relationship with others in the world. I have biases, but do I understand where they come from? Can I intercept my thinking to alter my actions when necessary? Am I capable of suspending judgment when I enter into a new experience or meet people who are different from me? Am I able to listen to others in order to understand their point of view? To do this requires humility and the understanding that we all have much to learn from one another. So, while none of us can ever really be an "expert" on the topic of cultural competence, we also can't let this, or a fear of miseducation stop us from trying to come as close as we can. The title of this blog challenges us not to let borders get in the way of learning. How about not letting fear get in the way of helping others to learn along with us?

  6. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDFebruary 24, 2011 at 3:03 AM

    Mary –
    Thanks for adding to the conversation and for emphasizing the need (and demand) for cultural skills, knowledge and ways of being among young people.
    I also appreciate your focus on families. An approach to cultural youth work can be strengthened by family inclusion. Cultural work is interdisciplinary and requires multifaceted approach. If you have some resources on cultural family approaches, please share them.

  7. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDFebruary 24, 2011 at 3:33 AM

    Hi Joanna –
    Thanks for your post.
    In response to your question – “How do we (or can we) weave it [cultural education] into daily practice? “
    I think cultural education/cultural youth work can be woven into daily practice. Here are some ideas to consider:
    • Cultural education/ and cultural youth work needs to be valued by the youth-serving organization and demonstrated through its mission, vision, and everyday work
    • Reinforce it through position descriptions, hiring, recruitment, performance evaluation systems, staff development, and other relevant organizational systems
    • Incorporate cultural education into higher education programs related to youth work
    • Incorporate it into professional development trainings for youth workers
    • Weave it into organizational, programmatic, teaching, and scholarly goals, outcomes, and strategies
    • And more
    What are your thoughts on your question? Do you have ideas to add to the list or items you would change?

  8. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDFebruary 24, 2011 at 5:38 AM

    Hi Jessica –
    Like you, I resonate with the international education approach because of its focus on “thinking” and the “global lens” it puts forth, while at the same time, it reflects the spirit of the other approaches.
    Your point about fear of miseducation is a well-taken.
    I want to take the liberty here to highlight an expert from your post:
    To do this requires humility and the understanding that we all have much to learn from one another. So, while none of us can ever really be an "expert" on the topic of cultural competence, we also can't let this, or a fear of miseducation stop us from trying to come as close as we can.
    Thanks for your thoughtful words.
    Here are some additional readings on international education if you are interested.
    Josef Mestenhauser. International Education on the Verge: In Search of a new Paradigm. (May 1998) International Educator, Vol. VII Golden Anniversary Issue NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Washington DC.
    Josef Mestenhauser, Lena Yershova and Joan DeJaeghere Thinking not as Usual: Adding the intercultural perspective. New York: Association for Studies in International Education: Journal of Studies in International Education, Vol. IV, No. 1, Spring 2000.

  9. Jessica and Jennifer,
    An interesting thread re: who is "qualified" to teach this (cultural education) two cents worth is (a disclaimer: I do have Pollyanna tendencies) that you let the youth lead and teach this. They are living in a culturally dynamic world, much different than maybe our own experiences. We live in a suburb (Eagan) and my son's 5th grade class was 40% non-white. And the 40$ who were non-white were amazingly racially/culturally diverse. IHe's growing up very differently than I did. So if youth have everyday multi-cultural experiences (and sometimes expertise), then what you have to do is "positive youth development" which you have an expertise in... building a safe place for youth to discuss tough issue (e.g., cultural values), create a sense of belonging where diverse kids connect to each other, encourage openness and curiosity to explore and learn new things and new ways of being, etc...that's what you are good at! Borrowing from Jennifer's "Don't let borders get in the way...." I would also say, "Don't let our fear of the unknown (in this case, misteaching) get in the way of doing good youth development with a cultural twist!

  10. Jennifer-
    Although we all live in a more global community than ever before, it is essential for our youth to have the skills to navigate the global context as they become our future workforce and future leaders. Thanks for putting forth a dozen great resources we can tap into for enhancing the skills so essential to youth development. A resource rich website about 21st Century skills that we use as we discuss youth leadership and citizenship can be found at These skills include Diversity, Ethics, Social Responsibility among other important skills such as Teamwork and Collaboration and Critical Thinking. If we all expand some level of effort toward forwarding this skills in our youth programming, the benefits will be terrific. Check it out!

  11. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDFebruary 25, 2011 at 2:11 AM

    Hello Margo -
    I am glad you brought up how cultural education is a part of 21st Century learning skills. It is important that will view those skills with a fresh set of eyes so we don’t make the mistake of overlooking them as simply being a spruced up version of life skills and then possibly lose the richness and relevance of how they relate to learning in a global world.
    Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  12. Hi Mary –
    Good point. Your comment of involving youth is certainly in step with youth development principles.
    The “who” is qualified to teach cultural education question opens up all sorts of opinions and angles to view the question. As Jessica pointed out – the fear of miseducation is one issue on the part of the prospective youth workers/educators . Another issue could be that this fear of miseducation is really deep down an excuse to not change one’s practice or philosophy of youth development . There are also territory issues among adults who work in this area and issues of quality. The list goes on.
    In a phenomenological study I conducted a while back, I asked immigrant girls to describe the qualities of youth workers and educators that were the most helpful in supporting them. One youth shared this statement:
    “Not all of them. Yeah just the ones who know the, who understand the difference. The difference between coming here and living here. They are the only ones who understand the culture maybe, but, at least that there is a difference in cultures. They make all the difference in school for me. It helps so much, having them there.”
    That quotations points to a “way of being” rather than a skill set of qualifications.
    Other immigrant youth in the same study named these qualities:
    • Flexible
    • Open
    • Relaxed
    • Not tightly wound
    • More about process and less structure and rules
    • Relate as peers (without evaluation, judgment, superiority)
    So, some food for thought … in addition to your comment about involving youth in the teaching of cultural education.

  13. Wow, What a great discussion! I especially am drawn to the thread that Jessica started about who is qualified to teach cultural education. I come from an early childhood background, and that field very much embraces the idea that Mary offered of "that you let the youth lead and teach this." When you have a 4 year old asking you about skin color or why certain people are treated differently, you're forced to engage in an authentic dialogue and learn along with youth. As youth age, I'm not sure if we shut down those conversations or teach youth not to start them. Sometimes all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten!
    I'm wondering if you have seen other fields address this question in a positive way?

  14. Hello Sam –
    Education (early childhood, k-12, higher education, international), human resource development and training, and intercultural communication (part of the speech communication or communication field) have wrestled with that question. I imagine other fields too.
    A common unifying thread of agreement is to approach one’s work with a cultural lens and to weave it into everything that is done -- rather than reserving cultural work for only special projects.
    What do you think about that position? I am interested in your viewpoint.

  15. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDFebruary 25, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    Hello Sam –
    Education (early childhood, k-12, higher education, international), human resource development and training, and intercultural communication (part of the speech communication or communication field) have wrestled with that question. I imagine other fields too.
    A common unifying thread of agreement is to approach one’s work with a cultural lens and to weave it into everything that is done -- rather than reserving cultural work for only special projects.
    What do you think about that position? I am interested in your viewpoint.

  16. This has been a great discussion thread! Jennifer thanks for the thought provoking blog post. I personally resonate more with two of the approaches you mention: Multicultural and Intercultural education. The reason that they both resonate with me is because while I see and understand the value of the personal skills that one must acquire as we interact, communicate, work with, serve, etc. others from different cultures I also see the need for system change and educational equity for all youth in our communities. A system change is needed in order for youth to have access to equitable educational opportunities that will help them move upwardly in our society (financially, professionally, etc.).
    At the same time I am aware of one of the main barriers/challenges that exists when one wants to make systemic change: it takes time...a long time. That is why I believe that we should also be acquiring and improving our intercultural skills as we work and live with individuals from different cultural backgrounds (culture in a broad sense that goes beyond race and ethnicity and might include class, gender, sexual orientation etc).
    I've enjoyed reading all the comments on this post as well and I wanted to follow through on some of the comments made about teaching cultural diversity or making it part of what we do in our daily lives. I am firm believer that a multicultural/bicultural/intercultural lens to our work is not "something else on our to-do list" but instead it's part of how we chose to live and relate to others. I personally don't know that I can pick and choose when to apply my bicultural lens to my is part of who I am and how I view things. How can we provide positive opportunities for both youth and adults to experience multicultural environments in the non-formal sector and be able to learn new skills that will help them become global citizens within our state, country, and the world? When do we stop choosing when and where to engage and we make it part of what we do and how we do things all the time? The opportunities to interact with diverse individuals is all around us, no matter where we might look different in various regions but a broad sense of culture can help us find diversity where we least expect it.
    Just a few questions that came up for me. Looking forward to continuing this exciting discussion.

  17. Wow! What an insightful discussion.
    I would place myself in the International Education camp, but with roots in the Social Justice arena as well. That way, I believe that during discussions with youth I can provide a sense of history and context for cultural/racial issues, while allowing them to be the experts on the present and future. I think combining International and Social Justice frameworks also fits the "Think Globally, Act Locally" slogan that I like so much, and represents how each individual does have the capacity to create major social change.
    Great great comments!

  18. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDFebruary 28, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    Hello Josey –
    Thanks for your contribution to this discussion. You did such an eloquent job of describing how culture is a part of your “way of being” and is threaded through your life and all that you do. Like you indicated, viewing it as “one more thing on the to-do list” will likely not get educators or youth workers to the place of having a multicultural or intercultural lens. Rather, it needs to be a part of how we do things all the time.
    You emphasized that culture is all around us and that it is important to take time to interact with diverse individuals. This recognition and practice are reinforced with the intercultural education approach. You also pointed out your commitment to educational equity, which is a part of the multicultural education approach. Thanks for taking the time to describe your cultural lens and for sharing how it is connected to various approaches to cultural education.
    Your questions are thought-provoking and help push the thinking on how nonformal education can be effective in helping young people to become global citizens.
    - jennifer

  19. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDFebruary 28, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    Hello Jill –
    Thanks for giving even more meaning to the “Think Globally, Act Locally” slogan and for sharing part of your philosophy of youth development.
    The blending of International Education and Social Justice provides a compelling framework for social change. You also tapped into the importance of having a sense of history and context for culture and race while helping young people to be the experts of today and tomorrow (in whatever they are doing or will do).
    How have you introduced or threaded these concepts into your youth work?
    I have found that young people of all ages (elementary – high school) can work with these concepts; the methods and language just need to be adjusted for the audience. I am wondering about your experience.
    I appreciate learning from your ideas and experience.

  20. Jennifer,
    The Social Justice Approach is always in the forefront for me for developing programs and working with youth. I believe that we should not only engage youth and their passions in social advocacy programs, but throughout all education - formal and non. If we can engage youth at that point of passion, they can take control of their learning and self-direct their lives. Once youth are to the point of social advocacy, then they see their eductional and social needs and the needs of others.

  21. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDMarch 1, 2011 at 6:22 AM

    Hello Nicole –
    It is good to hear from you. Thanks for pointing out the big picture of education by highlighting the roles that formal and nonformal learning can play and by emphasizing the importance of youth being self-directed learners. I often think of education as something to be possessed and stress the importance of individuals to own their education – rather than viewing it as something that is done to them. Nonformal education and tapping passions are some ways to accomplish this form of personal ownership.
    How have you woven social justice into your youth work approach?

  22. Josef A. MestenhauserMarch 2, 2011 at 2:19 PM

    Culture matters, but in several more ways than we think of the concept in our daily lives. Most of us think of culture when we study about other people and their countries, but usually reduce culture to just one of many aspects that we study separately, such as political, social, economic, historical, and – cultural. Recent research suggests that culture is much more than one variable, but a super-ordinate concept from which all the others derive. Moreover, culture is deeply coded in our brains; in other words, the brains are essentially programmed by culture. This happens through long term socialization. If our brain is so programmed, then it works similarly to the operating system of the computer that processes information about ourselves and others. This means that it also screens out information that is not part of this operating system. In short, our culture determines what and how we study others, and their culture does the same to them. Each observes the other through this operating system. Unless we know and de-code their system, we fail to understand other people whose operating system is different from ours, and see them as we see ourselves. Thus we make many mistakes that affect interpersonal relations, business, politics, and, indeed, peace and war as we have seen recently.
    Josef A. Mestenhauser

  23. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDMarch 3, 2011 at 7:54 AM

    Hello Dr. Mestenhauser -
    Thank you so much for taking the time to contribute to our online conversation on cultural education. Your interdisciplinary lenses on culture, teaching, and scholarship on international education have significantly influenced the thinking of students, educators, scholars, and others worldwide. It is wonderful to have you here on this site.
    The research, that you referenced, on how culture influences brain development is fascinating along with its impact on interpersonal relationships, everyday life, business, politics, international relationships (and lack thereof) … This new research demonstrates how culture is more than simply another human variable but rather driver in what it means to be human affecting all variables in our lives and therefore deserving a different type of attention in research, practice, and policy.
    I am interested in reading more about his topic. Could you recommend a reading or source?
    - jennifer skuza

  24. Joannna A. TzenisMarch 3, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    Dr. Mestenhauser, you surface quite vividly how culture can be constricting and even render some pretty nasty conflicts. It is easy to take one’s old culture for granted. As you said, our brains are programmed and we are most often not aware that we are screening out information or negatively evaluating someone else's behavior as we view it through our own cultural lens. I find that to be the skill that I try to hone in my daily life—questioning all my cultural assumptions. What I am taking for granted?
    I am drawn to Josey’s comment on systemic change and what stubborn process it is. Dr. Mestenhauser, could you speak more about the process and struggles you endured and overcame in your efforts to internationalize higher education? I imagine we could learn from you experience as we move forward incorporating cultural education in youth development work.
    Thank you.

  25. Hello Tynisha -
    Thanks for reading the blog. Do you work in multicultural settings or with youth?

  26. Dr. Mestenhauser, thank you for bringing up the point that "international education is not a pressure group of its own, but an element in everything." For purposes of education, it's more about internationalizing thinking, isn't it? Not simply the curriculum or student population. It's about opening the windows of thought--airing out old ways to recognize that while we sit in our comfy mind-houses, there are others cozied up (or not-so-cozied up) in theirs. Internationalizing thinking is about having the gumption to go knock on other doors--get to know our neighbors, learn other ways of thinking and processing. I like the house metaphor because it illustrates the tendency towards complacency of human thought. It's so easy to hole up with what's comfortable. But so exciting and enriching to venture out!
    It also doesn't really have to be so hard to do so. I think we also get very caught up in the labels we attach to ourselves that we begin to make them more real than they really are. I don't mean cultural labels here, actually. I mean labels of personality or habit that would keep us from internationalizing our thinking--willfulness, egotism, timidity, fearfulness, impatience, intolerance. The negative aspects of our upbringing and experiences do not have to define who we are any more than our culture(s) does(do). Not to over-simplify a complex issue, but sometimes, as Sam pointed out earlier in a reference to what I think is a Robert Fulgham book, all we really need to know we learned in Kindergarten. As my husband said the other day, "I want to be more like my kids." That is, not so darned worried about everything, but joyful, infinitely honest, and open to learning from anyone. The minute one starts to talk about "international, global, cultural," many people turn themselves off as if it doesn't apply or relate to their experience. But not my 4 and 6 year old sons! They simply say, "tell me more, Mama!"


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