Bridging cultural gaps: a tool universities can use

The year 2022 marks the end of the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures, which implies that international security and social inclusion cannot be attained sustainably without a commitment to such principles as human dignity, conviviality and solidarity, the cornerstones of human coexistence in all faiths and secular ideologies.

Against the current global challenges of violent extremism, divisive political populism, mounting migration and displacement, and the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the imperative to reach out, understand and promote dialogue among people with different cultural backgrounds and beliefs has intensified. This is all the more crucial when wars rage, including most recently in Ukraine.

Role of higher education

Higher education institutions have an important role to play in this regard through their research, teaching and learning and their community engagement as well as through ensuring their own institutional cultures promote open-mindedness, respect and understanding of cultural diversity.

On 8 March, UNESCO made an announcement at the Global Forum of the World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence, attended by researchers and education practitioners from all over the world, about their plan to create a global community of practice for practitioners of UNESCO Story Circles.

Story Circles are an intercultural methodology that helps participants develop and practise the key intercultural competences needed to engage in dialogue and bridge divides.

The methodology follows the UNESCO Conceptual and Operational Framework on Intercultural Competence which provides a comprehensive overview of the importance of developing the capacities to manage growing cultural diversity.

Story Circles can be a powerful tool for building intercultural competence and understanding in higher education contexts, among others. For example, Story Circles are used in formal learning such as in classrooms where they are written into the curriculum itself and in building a sense of community among students through virtual learning.

In informal learning in higher education, Story Circles have been used in student orientations, in staff workshops and in residential halls.

Other ways in which Story Circles can be used in higher education to develop intercultural competency include helping diverse research teams to work together more easily. Story Circles can also be used among staff and students who participate in community engagement programmes, and among staff from different backgrounds who need to understand each other in order to work together more collaboratively.

Storytelling traditions

Story Circles involve the sharing of personal experiences within gatherings of four or more people. They are inspired by the ancient tradition of storytelling found in many cultures, across the globe and through the ages.

The innovative adaptation of Story Circles draws on this tried and tested method in a deliberate, purposeful and structured way for the specific goal of developing intercultural competencies which include respect for others, listening for understanding, curiosity, self and other awareness, reflection, sharing, empathy and relationship-building.

More information and support materials to run Story Circles can be found in the open access Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies, which is available in more than five languages.

Story Circles only work where the goals to enhance intercultural competencies are clear to participants who are willing to respect others, be curious, respectful and empathetic, trust, be vulnerable and commit to confidentiality.

At the end of a successful Story Circle, participants will be able to immediately use some of the skills they practised in Story Circles in their daily lives – for example, by committing to listening for understanding in their conversations and interactions with others (instead of more typically listening for response or judgement); being more open-minded when connecting to others; being more aware of their own stereotypes and biases; being more curious about different perspectives; and being slower to make snap judgements.

Participants learn that everyone they encounter every day has a story to share and that we share similarities in spite of the differences that divide us. At their best, Story Circles can be completely transformative for the individuals involved, as participants recognise the shared humanity of all.

Story Circles would not, however, be an appropriate tool in situations where participants are unwilling, where there is not a common language that can be understood by all participants, where there is perceived inequality among participants, where participants are not open and willing to hear perspectives different from their own or where an organiser is wanting to convince others of a particular viewpoint or position.

There has to be an open and willing intention to learn from each other.

Towards a more peaceful world

UNESCO has successfully piloted UNESCO Story Circles around the world and this intercultural methodology is now used in a wide variety of settings, including within communities, schools, universities and civil society organisations. Used both in-person as well as virtually, this methodology is scalable to large groups of several hundred and has been used to train United Nations staff, educators and community citizens around the world.

The recent inaugural Global Forum on Intercultural and Global Competence, at which UNESCO presented, was organised by the World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence, a global non-profit non-governmental organisation dedicated to connecting researchers and practitioners across disciplines, sectors, languages and countries to advance the knowledge, research and praxis of intercultural competence globally in the pursuit of a more peaceful world.

The World Council promotes concrete methodologies for developing intercultural and global competence, including Story Circles. Its worldwide members are interested in researching various aspects of intercultural and global competence and translating such research into real-world application through grant-funded projects, toolkits and other resources.

The World Council is open to all who have an interest in promoting intercultural competencies and collaborates with other organisations around the world with complementary missions to help bridge divides and build a more peaceful world.

Darla K Deardorff is executive director of the Association of International Education Administrators, the founding president of the World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence and the author of the UNESCO Manual for Developing Intercultural Competencies, along with 10 other books and 60+ book chapters. Orla Quinlan is an executive of the International Education Association of South Africa and was its president from 2019-20. She is a member of the World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence, is trained in Story Circles and is the director of internationalisation at Rhodes University, South Africa.