Guest post written by PenPal Schools Global Ambassador Gary Kolenbrander from USA
I was delighted when PenPal Schools asked if I’d be interested in writing a guest blog post about what I had conveniently termed a “Growth Cultural Mindset,” a lexical mash-up of scholar Carol Dweck’s popular and influential learning theory with the idea of openness to other cultures. While this is a term that occurred to me in a moment of inspiration while preparing a lesson on cross-cultural exchange via Penpal Schools’ online cultural exchange and learning platform, it’s hardly one that I can claim as my own, as it is a fairly obvious association with antecedents in sociological work on cultural competency, as well as existing academic frameworks that already flesh out the relationships between the two concepts. That said, I am honored to have the opportunity to delve into this intersection of ideas that I am both passionate about and believe is sorely needed in today’s world.
The association between Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, which has deservedly attained near-universality in educational parlance, and cultural competency, which has to do with an individual’s awareness of and openness to those of different cultural backgrounds, is a fertile one. A refresher: Dweck and others distinguish between a “fixed” and a “growth” mindset in learners. A fixed mindset is one in which a learner believes their intelligence or ability to be of a fixed amount or quality that they are unable to learn “beyond” or change. They may believe, for example, that “I’m just not a math person,” and in this way not afford themselves the opportunity to learn what they may indeed be capable of grasping with a little more effort or attention. In this way, a fixed mindset stifles growth, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A growth mindset, on the other hand, allows a learner to see challenges in learning as opportunities to grow beyond their limitations and their mind as a vessel of unlimited potential, an attitude fostering resilience and flexibility of thinking.
In respect to cultural competency, then, a growth mindset connotes both an openness to experiences of cultures outside our own, as well as a willingness to receive and empathize with perspectives other than our own. While easily described, however, this complex socio-emotional ability is one that people around the globe struggle with daily, in negotiating cross-cultural relationships, resolving conflicts, and forging deep and authentic ties with those around us.
To me, the most important aspect in cultural competency and forging friendships across cultural lines is to learn the essential value of common humanity, by which I mean the hopes, fears and need for love we all share as people. To this end, I often engage myself and my students in a thought experiment: how would you think, speak, and believe if you had been born in another culture, to parents native to that culture? Even young students can appreciate, with illustration, that you would think, speak, act and believe in accordance with the norms of the surrounding culture. We all view the world through our experiences, and the perspectives we are taught by those around us. To learn a growth cultural mindset, then, is to understand the ways in which our social conditioning tends to limit our perspective on the world to only that which we have directly experienced or learned from those around us. To the extent that our identity has been formed exclusively by the social roles and realities of our native culture, these “social lenses” can be very powerful indeed. One only needs to consider contentious issues in our contemporary world to see the profound implications.
The convenient computer model of cognition is useful in examining identity. I believe that in large part, our sense of identity is made up of a set of characteristics that are not entirely fixed, yet have “default” settings that are determined by our surroundings and social conditioning. Beneath these, however, is the basic human “operating system” of biological and emotional needs that we share with people everywhere. Experiences with different cultural “settings,” especially early in life before social conditioning causes our default cultural settings to become more fixed, can expose us to these commonalities that underlie human experience, and build the flexibility of perspective that is characteristic of a growth cultural mindset. This is not to say, of course, that we cannot develop this mindset at any time in life, only that the natural curiosity and openness of childhood makes this an ideal time to be properly exposed, in an unbiased, non-objectifying way, to different cultural practices and perspectives. Such learning and experiences can have the effect of softening cultural barriers to viewing life through multiple perspectives.
"Experiences with different cultural “settings,” especially early in life before social conditioning causes our default cultural settings to become more fixed, can expose us to these commonalities that underlie human experience, and build the flexibility of perspective that is characteristic of a growth cultural mindset."
For teachers of young learners, this consists in giving students a broad appreciation for the wide variety of cultures in the world, showing the commonality of experience and emotions that unite us despite our different ethnic backgrounds, customs and traditions. Teachers of more mature learners can, in addition to these concepts, begin to delve into more complex questions of geographic and historical factors that inform world cultures, and have given rise to a diversity of languages, religions and identities that form the underpinnings of cultural variety and difference. Issues surrounding gender identities and race, while contentious, are also aspects of identity with cultural components that deserve to be unpacked and discussed in appropriate educational contexts. Cultural exchange, like that offered between classrooms around the world in the collaborative projects at PenPal Schools, is a great way to connect students to different perspectives and cultures through guided inquiry focused on specific topics and questions.
I believe it is important that we as educators avoid a standpoint of cultural relativism, which would be to assert that all cultural beliefs and practices are equally valid and beyond reproach, even those that are repressive or intolerant of others. This points to the inescapable fact that teaching and learning cultural competency is seldom a “walk in the park,” to the extent that we intend to fully address all the factors involved. The default settings of culture and identity are often tied deeply into our language, received culture, and sense of self. These powerful forces are constantly reinforced by our experiences and the social conditioning of our cultural surroundings despite our best intentions. Educator Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee, in her article, “What’s Missing from the Conversation: The Growth Mindset in Cultural Competency,” outlines three inter-related myths around cultural competency that she contends comprise a fixed cultural mindset, as well as a set of descriptors that identify those attitudes characteristic of a fixed vs. a growth mindset.
With a growth cultural mindset, we recognize that cultural competence is always a journey, never a destination, and that we need to always maintain a mindful attitude toward issues of cultural identity. We can bring this openness to cultural learning into our classrooms by encouraging an open attitude and a growth mindset, emphasizing the commonalities underlying cultural difference rather than objectifying or portraying cultures other than our own as exotic or strange. We can also encourage our students to have an attitude of “seek first to understand” in matters of culture and identity, and cultivate respect for values and perspectives outside of our own, whether or not we fully embrace or espouse them. This, as educators, is the greatest service that we can do to the cause of common humanity, to promote a multicultural future of peace and understanding among all people.
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