In popular discourse, there is a tendency to refer to the many human skills that allow us to function as a society under the pejorative label of “soft skills,” while more technical skills are commonly referred to as “hard skills.” These “soft” and “hard” labels imply that interpersonal skills, the ability to work in teams, leadership skills, empathy and emotional intelligence, and similar abilities are just additional extras, easier to master and/or less valuable than “real” technical skills.
The diminishment of human skills is unfortunate and misaligned with contemporary and future needs. As technologies rapidly develop and as societies grow increasingly polarized, human skills are critically important. In Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Joseph E. Aoun argues that successful knowledge workers increasingly require human skills. He writes, “Even in the robot age — or perhaps, especially in the robot age —what matters is other people. Human literacy equips us for the social milieu, giving us the power to communicate, engage with others, and tap into our human capacity for grace and beauty.” I agree and expect the demand and need for human skills to grow in the years ahead.
In my last column, I discussed the need for faculty and universities to think about how we reimagine skill development in higher education in the context of rapid technological change. Today, I will expand on this to discuss the potential role of universities in fostering a particular human skill among our students: “intercultural skills.”
What are intercultural skills?
A particularly challenging human skill to develop is the ability to work successfully with individuals whose backgrounds are different than your own. This skill set includes, in the words of the Australian curriculum, the ability of individuals “to make connections between their own worlds and the worlds of others, to build on shared interests and commonalities, and to negotiate or mediate difference.” These skills are occasionally referred to as “intercultural understanding,” “intercultural competency,” “cultural agility,” and “global/intercultural fluency.” For simplicity’s sake, I refer to these abilities as intercultural skills.
Intercultural skills are necessary for knowledge workers across all sectors of the economy. Engineers, physicians, teachers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders all work in contexts of considerable diversity. Their co-workers, clients, patients, customers, students, employees, and stakeholders include people with different racial, gender, linguistic, and cultural identities than their own. Their work and lives involve engaging with people with differing levels of ability and disability, with people with both neurotypical and neurodiverse thinking, and with a range of generational and cultural experiences.
Successful knowledge workers are increasingly expected to be aware and respectful of differences and to appreciate how diversity can enrich and improve outcomes. Universities can help set students up for greater impact and success by thoughtfully building the development of intercultural skills into curricula.
How can instructors help students develop intercultural skills in their courses?
As instructors, we can help our students develop their intercultural skills in our courses and program. By using explicit instruction while doing so, we signal to students that this is a skill set that matters and that they can develop and improve over time. We can also let our students know that developing intercultural skills is a lifelong activity that instructors themselves must continue to advance.
As you think about how you might bring this into your own courses, start by identifying a particular intercultural skill that you would like to help students develop. Some examples to prompt your thinking include:
- Collect information on a “problem” from multiple cultural perspectives and use this information when defining the exact problem and its potential solutions.
- Assess how systemic inequities and biases impact an issue or topic.
- Compare generational or cultural experiences of an issue or topic and explain how differences and similarities can influence current attitudes or approaches.
- Analyze how disciplinary understanding of a problem, issue, or topic has been informed by sociodemographic diversity (or lack of diversity) in the discipline.
- Design a program, solution, or model that takes into consideration multiple cultural perspectives, ability levels, or socio-demographic user groups.
As with any skill development that you bring into your courses, I encourage you to select an intercultural skill that comes naturally to you, rather than one you are personally still working to master.
You can use both classroom time and course activities to help students develop their intercultural skills. Some ideas include:
- In a class or as part of an assignment, ask students to reflect on how their personal backgrounds impact their understanding of an issue, use of a technology or service, or approach to a problem.
- In a class or as part of an assignment, ask students to reflect on how people with different backgrounds or abilities may have different experiences of a circumstance or situation, or different needs regarding a technology or service.
- In the classroom, provide students opportunities to practice communicating in groups. Think-pair-share activities, small group discussions, and other active learning strategies can be appropriate for this. Prompt students to consider how their similarities and differences inform how they approach an issue or problem.
- Explicitly teach students how to adapt their communications for different audiences.
For their part, universities can assist faculty in building their confidence and competency in teaching intercultural skills. An excellent resource on this front is Western University’s information page on Intercultural Teaching Competence.
Universities may also wish to provide students, alumni, and the general public with professional development training or microcredential programming to develop intercultural skills (see, for example, UBC’s certificate in intercultural studies).
Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation
Do your own courses present opportunities for students to advance their intercultural understanding? If so, I would love to hear how you bring this into your own teaching in the comments below. I also welcome the opportunity to speak with your university about skills training. Please connect with me at email@example.com, subject line “The Skills Agenda.” And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.
I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.