Understanding others makes possible a better knowledge of oneself: any form of identity is complex, for individuals are defined in relation to other people – both individually and collectively – and the various groups to which they show allegiance, in a constantly shifting pattern.
- UNESCO (1996) ‘Learning: The Treasure Within’
Culture is a term that is highly complex and often contested with academics recording about 160 variations in meaning1. Cultural Exchange NSW recognises this complexity and broadly defines it in the context of cultural exchange as:
The whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that categorize a society or social group2
Underpinning this definition is the recognition that culture encompasses more than a person’s ethnicity, language or religious background and that it is influenced by many factors, including but not limited to age, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, levels of education, place of birth and residence. For that reason, people from similar cultural backgrounds can view and interact with the world in very different ways. Furthermore, culture is seen to be dynamic, changing over time with migration, intermarriage and globalisation and resulting in many people today identifying with one or more cultures and many different groups.
Culture is a defining feature of a person’s identity, contributing to how they see themselves and the groups with which they identify. A person’s understanding of their own and other’s identities develops from birth and is shaped by the values and attitudes prevalent at home and in the surrounding community. These identities become more complex over time as people interact with different groups, adapting due to many factors including mass media, popular culture and increased opportunities for social interaction facilitated by new technologies.
For further information on the complexity of the term culture, see the short video presentation above: What is culture? by Associate Professor Greg Noble, University of Western Sydney, February 2009.
Cultural exchange programs provide the opportunity for students, teachers and other members of a school community to explore the complexity of their own and others’ cultures and multifaceted identities, and to interact and engage in dialogue with people from diverse backgrounds in a variety of contexts. Further, they provide situations in which empathy and respect for others may be cultivated.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) refers to this cultural knowledge and the ability to participate and negotiate with people in a variety of contexts as intercultural understanding. It identifies intercultural understanding as a general capability to be developed through key learning areas of the new Australian curriculum:
According to ACARA:
Students develop intercultural understanding as they learn to understand themselves in relation to others. This involves students valuing their own cultures and beliefs and those of others, and engaging with people of diverse cultures in ways that recognise commonalities and differences, create connections and cultivate respect between people. As they develop intercultural understanding students learn to:
- identify increasingly sophisticated characteristics of their own cultures and the cultures of others
- recognise that their own and others’ behaviours, attitudes and values are influenced by their languages and cultures
- consider what it might be like to ‘walk in another’s shoes’
- compare the experiences of others with their own, looking for commonalities and differences between their lives and seeking to understand these
- reflect on how intercultural encounters have affected their thoughts, feelings and actions
- accept that there are different ways of seeing the world and live with that diversity
- stand between cultures to facilitate understanding
- take responsibility for developing and improving relationships between people from different cultures in Australia and in the wider world
- contribute to and benefit from reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
For more information on intercultural understanding in the national curriculum see: The Australian Curriculum website.
1 Kroeber, A. L. and C. Kluckhohn, 1952. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.
2 UNESCO, 1982, Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies.
Further readings and references:
Developing Intercultural Understanding: An introduction for teachers, Asia Education Foundation, 2011.
The importance of culture, language and identity, Racism. No way! website, 2011.
How to Cook Rice: A Review of Ingredients for Teaching Anti-Prejudice, Pedersen, A., Walker, I. and Guerin, B., 2011
Teaching for Intercultural Understanding: Professional Learning Program, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2009.
Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue: Executive Summary, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2009.
United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigneous Issues: The issue of culture, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), 2009.
Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, 2008.