This winter, I taught a course on Communications and Cultural Intelligence to a group of master’s students at Montreal’s HEC. None of them was of Canadian origin. One was from China, 2 from the United States, 1 from Italy, and another was newly established in France. I provided the course in hybrid mode, with 3 students at the university and the others in their respective homes in Rome and Paris. The kind of teaching challenge that lights me up! Today, diversity is ubiquitous in classrooms as well as in corporate training sessions. Even more so in virtual and hybrid environments, which often gather participants from around the world. Never before have educators and trainers had to navigate so much diversity.
The advantages of multicultural classrooms
Gathering students or colleagues from different cultures in one learning group comprises multiple benefits. Chief among these is the enriching exchange of perspectives that participants of different ethnicities, genders or ages contribute – since diversity encompasses various cultural groups. Several studies also show that diversity of perspective leads to greater creativity and innovation. A good example: the movie Late Night, where the career of a talk show host, brilliantly played by Emma Thompson, is wavering. Things change when she hires a woman 20 years her junior of Indian origin, the hilarious Mindy Kaling, to join her all-white Harvard male writing staff. The female input, combined with the perspective of another generation and culture, is a welcome change in scriptwriting. As a result, the host is reenergized, and her career takes on a whole new dimension.
Diversity challenges in the classroom
For educators in schools or the workplace, diversity carries its own set of challenges. Let’s take the teaching language, for instance, when it is not the first language of some participants. If you teach in Canadian English and the group includes francophones, allophones or even British English participants, you can expect a slower pace of understanding. You must watch your flow and anticipate misunderstandings, especially if you use local expressions or professional jargon.Another common issue when gathering colleagues from different countries for virtual training, for example, is to consider only the local schedule. Yet, even if aware of time differences, leaders at the head office often forget to alternate meeting times to accommodate overseas colleagues.During a training session with a group in China, I suggested a session at 10 AM Beijing time. This meant 8 PM for this trainer in Montreal. The first comment I received from the participants was a warm thank you for finally allowing them to enjoy a training session at work rather than at home in the evening. This earned me their full attention for the 3 hours of the virtual training session. A great success!
Avoiding discomfort and unintentional offences
Considering diversity in teaching also means paying attention to specific practices or forms of communication. One might think of lightening the mood of a more complex topic by using humour, for example. However, in a culturally diverse context, humour may cause discomfort for some or even insult others. If humour is your go-to strategy, it is best to stick to neutral themes. Avoid jokes that divide genders or stereotype certain cultures. This seems obvious, but it is not so easy to do. In general, each person is well imprinted with their own culture, which sometimes makes it difficult to put oneself in the other’s shoes. You have to anticipate uncomfortable situations and know how to handle them.
Knowing how to adapt
Educators can equip themselves with several tools to adapt their teaching practices. For example, knowing that a group will include participants from India, one can already do some research to explore aspects of Indian culture that may influence learning style or understanding. Developing one’s knowledge is one of the 4 competencies of cultural intelligence (CQ). Developing cultural intelligence allows the person to act, work and communicate better in a multicultural context, regardless of the cultural group. In a learning context where a growing number of educators are dealing with multicultural groups, cultural intelligence is more than an asset. It is a set of skills that is essential to ensure an effective and inclusive learning environment.
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