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How Teens Understand the Nuances of Culture

The promises and pitfalls of intercultural digital exchange programs
photo of google earth on an ipad, surrounded by school supplies

In our interdependent yet divided world, how can we help learners to develop nuanced understandings about culture — and engage in thoughtful intercultural exchange?

Students who have participated in Out of Eden Learn, our online program that uses Paul Salopek’s worldwide journey to digitally connect young people from around the globe, have reported that they appreciate learning about different cultures, even though that was not an explicitly stated goal of the program. As researchers and program designers, we’ve been asking ourselves: How do young people think about culture — both the concept of culture and the cultures of different people? In what ways do online learning experiences with culturally diverse peers seem to promote or hinder the development of their understandings?

In fall 2016, Anastasia Aguiar, Susie Blair, and I surveyed students participating in Out of Eden Learn so we could better understand how the program helped shift the way they thought about culture. We focused on students in late middle school and beyond, because we expected them to be both inclined and capable of thinking about the concept of culture, as well as about their own identities and lives, in relatively complex ways. We also interviewed 26 students via Skype to further understand their perspectives and experiences.

The opportunity for students to (re)consider and (re)compare their own and other cultures can help them reflect on the ways in which they themselves are shaped by particular cultural influences or expectations.

What we discovered is that intercultural digital exchange programs like Out of Eden Learn can offer real possibilities for enhancing older students’ engagement with and understanding of culture — and they can also present some pitfalls.

Digital Exchange Programs for Intercultural Connection

Our research suggests that intercultural digital exchange programs offer students opportunities to:

Connect and Care. Such programs can foster respectful curiosity, a sense of connection to or solidarity with other young people, an appreciation for and knowledge of other cultures, and a desire to connect with peers across different cultural contexts. Young people say that they appreciate the opportunity to connect in authentic ways with diverse peers in a safe, social media-type environment. It appears that these programs can be powerful gateway experiences that leave students inspired to learn more about culture.

See Culture Everywhere. Being exposed to a range of firsthand stories and perspectives can expand young people’s view of what “culture” means: they can come to see it as a complex, fluid phenomenon of which they are a part; as something deeply individual and personal; and as something associated with particular geographies or communities. While foods, fashions, and local traditions, for example, are recurring and welcome topics of discussion on Out of Eden Learn, many students pick up on other, subtler aspects of culture, such as communication styles, prevailing cultural values and behavioral expectations, and relationship patterns across different generations. They also hear from students who experience cultural hybridity on a daily basis, and they come to see that there can be a range of cultural influences within any one community.

(Re)Consider and (Re)Compare. For some young people, these programs present an opportunity to actively consider the existence of different cultures for the first time and to compare their own life experiences to those of other people. For other students, it is more a case of re-considering what they thought they knew about different cultures and/or re-comparing their own culture to those of others — which may help overturn existing stereotypes or faulty assumptions (though may also lead to some of the pitfalls listed below). For all students, intercultural interactions can enhance their understanding of both commonality and diversity within and across cultures.

Become More Self Aware. Programs like ours can become vehicles for promoting students’ awareness of their own perspectives and why and how they might be similar or different to those of people living in other cultural contexts. The opportunity to (re)consider and (re)compare their own and other cultures can help students to situate their own lives, identities, and values relative to other students and to reflect on the ways in which they themselves are shaped, at least in part, by particular cultural influences or expectations.

There are also many gray areas, where it isn’t clear when excitement and enthusiasm about global cultural exchange crosses the line into exaggerated confidence about how much students think they know or can know about other people’s cultures.

The "Single Story" and Other Pitfalls 

But educators and students should be aware that digital cultural exchanges can bring potential pitfalls. We call these problem areas the “Three O’s”:

Over-Generalizations. Students can at times default to “single stories,” make sweeping or vague statements about their own or other people’s cultures, or gloss over similarities and/or differences among different cultures and individuals. At times, it can seem as if students have replaced a previous single story about a culture with a new one that is based on a single interaction with a peer on the Out of Eden Learn platform. Recognizing the complexity and diversity of cultures can be a useful antidote to this tendency.

Overconfidence. At times, students can lack appropriate humility about their own knowledge, over-assert themselves as representatives of other people, or assume their own experiences and/or perspectives as the default. Some students leave Out of Eden Learn overstating how much they now know about other cultures and how well they can take on the perspective of people from different cultural backgrounds. In our estimation, learning about culture is better viewed instead as a challenging, lifelong journey — albeit an exciting and enriching one.

Othering. Some students tend to romanticize or exotify other people’s lives or circumstances, or make them an object of pity in uncritical and even disrespectful ways (presumably unintentionally). We have found this to be particularly true when students from affluent contexts talk about people who have featured in Paul Salopek’s reporting, but it can also happen when they talk about peers on the Out of Eden Learn platform. Finding the balance between thoughtful compassion and inappropriate pity is not easy, but paying close attention to context can help.

There are also many gray areas in this process, where it isn’t clear, for example, when excitement and enthusiasm about global cultural exchange crosses the line into exaggerated confidence about how much students think they know or can know about other people’s cultures.

But despite the risks attached with programs such as Out of Eden Learn, I believe it is indefensible to do nothing to promote intercultural understanding and exchange, particularly at this moment in our human history. When we are aware of the pitfalls, we can steer students around them. 

A version of this post originally appeared on the Out of Eden Learn blog.

Promoting Thoughtful Cultural Awareness

  • Promote respectful curiosity and a sense of solidarity among diverse youth.
  • Develop broader and more nuanced understandings of culture.
  • Appreciate commonality and diversity within and across cultures, and overcome stereotypes and assumptions.
  • Situate students’ perspectives and help them recognize the influence of culture on their own lives.
  • Beware of over-generalizing, being over confident, and “othering” diverse peoples.

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