Intercultural Learning & Global Citizenship

Jan Stipek, Secondary Years Principal May 10, 2019
Intercultural Learning & Global Citizenship

Continuous professional development is important for any educator. Many of our GEMS teachers attend IB workshops and specialist conferences to stay up-to-date with the subject and programme changes or pursue advanced degrees in education. I've recently been accepted to an online training course to become an evaluator (school) for the Council of International Schools, one of the most prominent accreditation bodies on the international school circuit.

One of the articles I was asked to read was Challenging Assumptions: How well are international schools preparing students to succeed in an interconnected world? This thought-provoking article, published in the EARCOS Triannual Journal, made me reflect on the following:

What do international schools have in common in their approach to intercultural learning/global citizenship?

Most international schools use ‘immersion assumption’  as a base approach to global citizenship. They promote the diversity of the student population and actively encourage opportunities to interact. This is a great starting point which facilitates an immersive experience.

The next step would probably be facilitating students' intercultural development.  When I've started teaching 21 years ago, 'taught literacy' was becoming a prominent concept. The schools accepted the fact that the 'ability to read and understand written text' requires a number of essential skills. Teachers realised that these skills can be taught and designed various literacy programmes. International schools have gone a similar reformation through approaches to learning, or 21st-century skills, while, again, understanding that these soft skills can be taught and learned.

I believe the next step will be for schools to create an intercultural learning/global citizenship programme, equivalent to the literacy approach described above. Of course, such skills are often included in PSHE programmes or Homeroom programmes, and such contextualized learning may be the way forward. However, it is the explicitness of school’s definition of intercultural learning/global citizenship, and school’s breakdown into their own set of transferable, teachable skills which would contribute to school’s success in this area.

Our core values are at the foundation of everything we do here at GEMS (Singapore)

We are proud of our diverse and immersive environment and prepare our international students to embrace cultural diversity, so they can thrive in any environment. We encourage active participation in the community as a foundation for building social and networking skills early in life. As part of the Secondary Years and Homeroom programmes, the students are involved in deep conversations about interculturalism and global citizenship. The next steps will be to identify the transferable, teachable skills and deliver those as a set programme.

How do we raise intercultural awareness?

Many schools approach intercultural awareness as the 3 F's: food, flags and festivals. We have been moving away from that model for a number of years and have redefined our 'Uniting nations celebration' and 'Language & Culture week' in order to include activities which lead to a shared understanding of the concepts of 'friendship or self' within the classroom and the curriculum. We also actively steer our 'Week Without Walls' trips to focus on the bottom of the iceberg by providing homestays in the visited countries, and debriefing afterwards, reflecting on the student experiences.

The challenges of a Global Citizenship Programme

The first challenge is defining the starting point. When students join an international school, the school generally assumes that they already know who they are and have an understanding of their own culture. Again, I can make an analogy with literacy skills. Knowing how to read and write does not mean understanding specific literacy skills of researching, paraphrasing, summarizing, referencing, etc. Having grown up in a country does not mean a student has thought about the values, cultural beliefs or the relationship between language and, say, social hierarchy. 

A starting point may, therefore, have to be some type of an age-appropriate culture self-awareness assessment which would encourage the newly enrolled student to reflect on their own culture and country first, articulate a set of own values and norms and perceptions, again in an age-appropriate format.

Now, there is a flip side: the section above assumes students actually have one culture to reflect on and find that starting point. It is of course increasingly not so (my own children were born in two different countries and never lived our home country) so reflecting on oneself is almost impossible.

The topic of Intercultural understanding and global citizenship is very important. One of the goals of an international school is to allow students to immerse in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual learning environment. It will be fascinating to observe whether this area will continue to develop organically or whether multiculturalism will follow the path of literacy and approaches to learning skills, which are now deemed to be transferable and teachable, as opposed to simply ‘acquired’. With over 60 nationalities, strong concept-driven and contextualized curriculum, and a growth mindset, GEMS (Singapore) will continue to be actively involved in defining and delivering a strong interculturalism and global citizenship programme.


Jan Stipek
Secondary Years Principal



Hornbuckle, G.  Challenging Assumptions: How well are international schools preparing students to succeed in an interconnected world? The EARCOS Triannual JOURNAL. SPRING 2015.

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