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From international to intercultural: the role of private education in creating a more sustainable future

Complex forces of globalisation are driving socio-economic and political inequality, creating a contemporary society increasingly characterised by prejudice, discrimination and hate speech. In response, political parties advocating extremist ideas are gaining fresh momentum across Europe and the world.[1] Educational institutions have an important opportunity to respond to these threats through the development of intercultural understanding[2] - a key 21st Century skill that is increasingly viewed as an essential prerequisite for effective participation in a rapidly changing world.


Intercultural understanding is a concept that has been the focus of much attention in recent decades, driven by increasing international mobility, a rise in the number of students learning in schools outside their culture or nation of origin, and growth in the number of local schools offering international curricula. Intercultural understanding can be defined as the competencies, attitudes, language proficiencies, participation and identities necessary for effective cross-cultural engagement[3]. An indispensable component is the capacity to analyse global events and social phenomena from multiple perspectives[4], a characteristic increasingly sought after by global business leaders interacting with people and practices of different countries and unfamiliar cultures[5].


One way in which parents and schools can promote the development of intercultural understanding is by choosing an international curriculum. Intercultural understanding is central to the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme in its mission to create “a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”[6]. The Diploma Programme (DP) places a strong emphasis on encouraging students’ cultural sensitivity, open-mindedness, and the attitudes necessary to respect and evaluate a range of points of view. Research shows that students choosing the IBDP exhibit increased intercultural sensitivity over non-DP students, while schools which offer an IBDP curriculum have been shown to broaden students’ worldviews.[7]

National curricula with diverse international student and teacher populations also have an increasingly important role to play in the development of intercultural understanding. Some authors have suggested that exposure to international students within and outside of school is a more influential factor in the development of intercultural skills than the selection of an international curriculum alone.[8] For the many locally-oriented international schools that offer a national curriculum, and for which a diverse student body of local and international students make up the cohorts of these programmes, there is great potential to develop intercultural understanding in the student and teacher body.


However, immersion in an international culture alone is not sufficient to develop intercultural skills. Paradoxically, the path to intercultural literacy is not likely to be found in the international world of the expatriate community, but in the traditional, deeply-rooted cultures outside of it.[9] In order to develop effective approaches to intercultural literacy, international schools must examine their own structures, curricula, teaching approaches, and school-based culture in order to identify areas for development. Engaging with local host cultures, promoting collaborative activities involving international and local students, evaluating intercultural skills as part of student assessment, as well as integrating curricular approaches that encourage bilingualism, are all strategies that could help schools achieve these goals.


Intercultural understanding is fundamental for social and economic prosperity in a globalised world. Private schools, with their culturally diverse student and teacher populations and strong links to local communities, benefit from a unique opportunity to develop this as part of a wider school mission. In doing so, schools will not only help young people navigate and master the challenges of working in an increasingly global economic system, but they will, more importantly, contribute to the creation of more tolerant, prosperous and sustainable societies of the future.


Matthew Roberts

Teacher of Geography



[1] Barrett, M. D., Huber, J., & Reynolds, C. (2014). Developing intercultural competence through education. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

[2] UNESCO. (2006). UNESCO Guidelines on Intercultural Education. Retrieved from

[3] Heyward, M. (2002). From International to Intercultural: Redefining the International School for a Globalized World. Journal of Research in International Education, 1(1), 9–32.

[4] Dimitrov, N., & Haque, A. (2016). Intercultural teaching competence: a multi-disciplinary model for instructor reflection. Intercultural Education, 27(5), 437–456.

[5] Feng, J. B. (2016). Improving intercultural competence in the classroom: A reflective development model. Journal of teaching in international Business, 27(1), 4-22.

[6] IBO. (2017). IB DP Geography Guide, Retrieved February 19, 2018, from

[7] Belal, S. M. (2015). Identification of the Intended and Unintended Outcomes of Offering the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in an International School in Egypt (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota).

[8] James, K. (2005). International education: The concept, and its relationship to intercultural education. Journal of Research in International Education, 4(3), 313–332.

[9] Heyward, M. (2002). From International to Intercultural: Redefining the International School for a Globalized World. Journal of Research in International Education, 1(1), 9–32.