LEADING LIGHTS     Issue 1 | 2019

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Leading and Enabling an Effective Intercultural Strategy in New Zealand Schools

Article by   Andrew King

New Zealand primary schools need to be critically thinking about how to implement programmes of learning to build intercultural capabilities, skills and dialogue. Multicultural programmes where children are learning about aspects of other cultures do not do enough to promote inter-cultural connectedness, empathy, acceptance and understanding. An intercultural strategy and opportunities for dialogue allow us to go further than learning about multicultural facts passively (Besley & Peters, 2012), which can enable unintended biases. Programmes for students need to include opportunities for learning and understanding about other ethnic groups, minority cultures and races different to their own, through a non- biased, mutual perspective. A school that effectively implements such a programme would need to consider how this looks for each age group. Older students would have greater levels of sophisticated knowledge and content learning in their programme, whereas the younger students would be focused on suggestions as outlined by Derman-Sparks & Edwards (2010) to do with anti-bias education for example.


Interculturalism is fundamentally about enabling cross-cultural interaction and communication to understand each other’s perspective better. We need this so the children we are educating are open to alternative perspectives and showing respect (Besley & Peters, 2012). The aim is to move beyond acceptance of living in a multicultural society where differences between cultures are highlighted, to a place where these differences are recognised and tolerated. The critics of multiculturalism argue that this has failed to include different cultures within society, and has instead divided groups, highlighting differences negatively and reinforcing segregated communities (Besley & Peters, 2012).

The following statements in the New Zealand Curriculum highlight the need to have an intercultural component to our school’s curriculum:

  • “The curriculum reflects New Zealand’s cultural diversity and values the histories and traditions of all its people”
  • “Students will be encouraged to value diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages, and heritages”
  • Students will have the ability to “explore, with empathy, the values of others” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 9-11).

We must be mindful when implementing an intercultural element into the school curriculum that we do not go down the track of our dialogue putting cultures in ‘boxes of understanding’ (Jandt, 2001). In other words, we could be making generalisations that are not necessarily reflective of all individuals that identify with the culture we are talking about.

An intercultural strategy needs to ensure that it is informed by true representation of cultures, not just media or political portrayals. Nationalism assumes commonalities between everyone, which can be noticed in the media or through political figures. As educators, we need to understand that notions of nationalism and culture portrayed in these ways are often imagined (Anderson, 2009), (YouTube, 2015). An imagined community is one that is not based on everyday face-to-face interactions between the group members.

Miscevic (2005) outlines that as we make sense of other cultures, we can get trapped into looking for similarities that bind us together to create a sense of nationalism. By looking for similarities we could be ignoring important points of difference. Looking for these differences enables the necessary disposition of not having assumptions (Jandt, 2001).

Analysis of cultures through an intercultural strategy in a school setting must aim to gain understandings of other cultures without being bound by western ideologies. We must be mindful of analysing cultures from a variety of perspectives. Said (YouTube, 2015) states that the ultimate goal should be to coexist and live together accepting the differences we have.

The White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue was written by the Council of Europe
in 2008, which had the intentions of being a model for addressing cultural diversity. The paper affirms the following points that I would say gives a clear need for an intercultural programme in schools:

  • Providing capacity for reflection
  • Language learning as a tool to avoid stereotyping, develop curiosity
    and openness
  • Through dialogue learners can debate based on multi-perceptivity
  • An intercultural dimension encompasses all subjects. An intercultural context allows the gaining of knowledge about all world religions and beliefs without prejudice (Council of Europe, 2015).

A range of other tools are also in place for schools to consider, which are very helpful; the OECD Global Competence Framework, AFS Cultural Diversity Curriculum Principles, and the Ministry of Education Intercultural Capabilities.

The ability for a school to effectively enable an intercultural perspective is ultimately about who the school leaders and teachers are as people. This is further expanded as six paradoxical tensions to build into a teaching and learning space; the classroom being a space that is bounded and open, hospitable and charged, that enables the voice of the individual and of the group, that honours the little and big stories, that supports solitude and resources of community, and being a space that welcomes silence and speech (Palmer, 1998, p. 74). Teachers need to be able to understand their own learned stereotypes, discomforts and bias.


Professional Development for teachers is a key initial consideration. Hassim & Peucker (2014) outline the beneficial effects of short-term study programmes for Australian teachers in Asian countries to develop educators “Asia-relevant capabilities” (p. 10). Their research identifies that intercultural understanding was increased considerably in this way because connections with people in Asia were made - this is something I have enabled in my own full primary school setting for many staff. Jandt (2001) outlines that for individuals, it is not until we are out of our own country or immersed in another culture vastly different from our own that we are forced to examine our own cultural beliefs, and what is important when learning to interact with other cultures (p. 24). It is in such a situation that I believe we are going to truly gain the best sort of intercultural understanding that we possibly can.

Hassim & Peucker (2013) outline the crucial role Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can have as a tool to enable intercultural curriculum initiatives and therefore the subsequent professional development required for teachers. They argue that greater connectivity and authentic dialogue can occur with the use of ICT because students are able to connect with Asian students in Asia. It allows students to organise their ideas meaningfully which is a core element to intercultural understanding. Language learning outcomes improve with the use of ICT tools as well. Specific ICT examples that they state are effective to achieve intercultural capability are:

  • Email for initial cross-cultural contact
  • Skype for weekly contact
  • Wikispaces and other collaborative web platforms to use for project presentations and peer feedback in relation to these
  • Survey Monkey to gather views and perspectives on situations or topics (p. 16)

Through my own experience, now that we have been using these ICT tools for a
while, we are currently setting up collaborative projects, such as virtual field trips, to take place between cultures . Through an inquiry learning approach, a group of children from one country could be investigating an area of research such as the issue of congestion on roads, then compare and contrast this same issue with a group of students in another country to provide depth and new and diverse perspectives. Such a research project would promote intercultural capability because potentially different perspectives would be considered and valued.

Language learning is a vital element for implementing an intercultural strategy. A context that embeds small-group and peer-sharing frameworks has been most effective in our context, so that the programme is using a task-based language learning approach (eg: problem-based learning projects, team-based learning in groups, cross-cultural pairing for interactive learning tasks, group-based assessment tasks). This allows children to be practising the language in a real context, out of the realms of the classroom norms, to therefore enable them to feel confident in situational learning. We have a New Zealand European teacher immersing the children in this approach for learning Mandarin, with a Mandarin Language Assistant (MLA) alongside her. The MLA is a native Mandarin speaker from China. This is providing a rich opportunity for the children to put into practice “global attributes” as termed by Marginson & Sawir (2011), such as interest in another culture because it is contextual. The task-based approach promotes inquisitiveness as it is contextual, and there is a native speaker working alongside them. Openness and critical thinking are the other two attributes in practice because the children are working through situations in their second language, Mandarin, in a familiar context such as shopping.

Mutual communication and interaction face-to-face with other cultures is an element of an effective school-wide approach which Jandt (2001) states is the best way to learn about elements of a culture different to your own (p. 9). This is what I am mindful of when considering how we implement an intercultural element to our school programme and strategy. It is about people connecting with people as much as possible. This has involved such things as Skype meetings between students from my school and students in China, and visiting groups working [and] shopping with our students.


A significant hurdle though in our current context is that our New Zealand Curriculum states “schools with students in Year 7-10 should be working towards offering students a second or subsequent language” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 1). If language learning is going to be a useful resource in an intercultural strategy, it at least needs greater commitment nationally, in my view, than is reflected in this statement because it is giving permission for this to be voluntary, and possibly explains the current and significant decline in the number of New Zealand school graduates having a second language.

The New Zealand Curriculum makes a significant mention of why students should be learning languages and studying the social sciences, and that part of this is linking people globally, understanding contexts globally, appreciating other cultures and systems, being challenged in their own thinking about cultural assumptions, to be able to evaluate alternative perspectives and learn about the diversity of other cultures (Ministry of Education, 2007). This creates a sense of permission and need for an intercultural strategy in New Zealand schools.


Interculturalism as a strategy in New Zealand schools has the potential to address cross-cultural relations positively. While it does not provide a complete answer to the many issues of race relations, it provides a platform to build better connections between cultures than the notions we have had in the past such as multiculturalism.

Educational institutions provide an ideal setting for an intercultural strategy to be implemented in because we have the potential resourcing and right type of venue for programmes that connect cultures. After all, schools are often a central hub of a community and can provide a microcosm of the bigger picture.

A school that effectively implements such a programme would need to consider how this looks for each age group.


The ability for a school to effectively enable an intercultural perspective is ultimately about who the school leaders and teachers are as people.

Interculturalism as a strategy in New Zealand schools has the potential to address cross-cultural relations positively.


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