International and Intercultural Learning

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Going global requires learning leaders to grapple with thorny issues, such as the role of local context in content development, solutions to language barriers and finding the right balance between centralized and decentralized learning.

We live in an age in which international boundaries are blurred and multinational corporations abound. The global nature of business dealings and an increasingly multicultural workforce have raised the need to globalize learning. As a result, learning leaders are contending with the sizeable task of standardizing programs across the world, while preserving cultural nuances that advance learning.


“We’re in an era of globalization, and we do have to take into account that corporations and organizations are global [and] that learning and cultural styles differ,” said Charlene Solomon, executive vice president of RW3 LLC, an online cultural information resource.


“While you’re broadening the reach of the learning solutions, you also have to pay very careful attention to the way that people learn,” she said.


Building Cultural Competence

Given the fact that learning styles vary from one culture to another, the ability to leverage learning programs in culturally relevant contexts is key.


“The challenge is: How do you take a curriculum and ensure that it’s developed in a way that’s sensitive culturally to your audience? It’s another layer of issues that the instructor has to be aware of,” Solomon said. “Learning professionals [must] take into account cultural issues at the same time as they think about what type of learner they’re approaching: visual, oral or kinesthetic learners.”


Americans approach learning in a vastly different way than, say, people from Asia, Europe or Africa would. From kindergarten, Americans are taught to stand up in front of a group, make a presentation (a la show-and-tell) and field questions from their classmates. This learning approach is subsequently carried over into college forums and beyond, where lively discussions and questioning is the norm.


“One of the ways [Americans] stand out as good students in school is to raise [their] hand and question the teacher [to demonstrate their] understanding of the content,” Solomon said. “They’re very interactive learners.”


In contrast, learners from some Asian and African countries are comfortable with listening but rarely challenge the instructor out of fear of appearing disrespectful.


“[It’s important to] adapt the teaching methodologies to the local culture, so if an American is going to [teach] a group of Asian learners, at the very least he will know what to expect,” Solomon explained.


These incongruent learning styles point to a fundamental need for cultural competence to be embedded in the learning function. “Building global cultural competence is becoming a critical business skill,” Solomon said. “[In the same way] you need to understand salary scales [and] compliance [issues] in human resources, understanding culture is as critical [when] interacting with others in the organization.”


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