Military Connections to ETS Cross-Cultural Competency Research

By David Lariviere

The perception the general public has of the U.S. military is sometimes not accurate. Media and movie portrayals of soldiers always engaged in fierce combat tend to pervade the consciousness and can skew reality.

Much has changed over the years in the type of training servicemen and servicewomen receive before they go overseas. However, what’s not different is the image the average American has of what our forces do in the field.

Jennifer Klafehn, a research scientist at Educational Testing Service (ETS), knows this from firsthand experience. Klafehn worked for the U.S. Army Research Institute for three years collaborating with ETS on the development of a framework and assessment of cross-cultural competence, commonly known as 3C. In short, 3C is a construct consisting of knowledge, skills and abilities used to facilitate effective intercultural communication.

“When I mentioned to people that this kind of research goes on, they would often respond with ‘really, I had no idea that the military cares about this kind of stuff,’” Klafehn recalls.

In her current role, Klafehn studies how 3C can be used efficiently in today’s diverse classrooms to bridge gaps in communication and understanding between teachers and students of different backgrounds. She said the timing of her move from the Army to ETS in 2014 was perfect because “interest in cultural awareness really began to pick up in education” at that time.

There are actually quite a few similarities between soldiers and teachers in terms of the value they place on intercultural communication.

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Like teachers, soldiers want to establish a deep connection with the people on the ground with them. “Our soldiers are extremely motivated to win the hearts and minds of the host nationals in the areas in which they are engaged and to incorporate that into their mission strategy,” explains Klafehn. “They have so much compassion and empathy for the people and the things they do to build rapport are genuine.”

One example Klafehn describes was an effort by a captain to get sewing machines into an Afghan village to assist women who made clothing. Unfortunately, after putting through all the paperwork required, the machines were stolen and never made it to the village. “The notion that ‘it’s the thought that counts’ doesn’t really matter in those cases to the host people,” says Klafehn. “But it doesn’t diminish how much soldiers care about the welfare of other people.”

In turn, teachers care deeply about the lives of their students. “There are actually quite a few similarities between soldiers and teachers in terms of the value they place on intercultural communication,” Klafehn says.

The Army is heavily concerned with providing 3C training to its soldiers, according to Klafehn, “because of the frequency with which they interact” with local people. Because of increasingly fast changing world events, the Army realized it couldn’t always predict where forces were going to be deployed to next. “They realize the importance of a culture-fluid approach that’s adaptive and flexible so they can be quick on their feet,” she explains.

The ability to adapt quickly is an important aspect of 3C. Sometimes problems can arise when one unit replaces another. “One team may do a really great job of building rapport in a village and then they leave after nine months and the next team may have a completely new agenda on how it wants to run things,” Klafehn says.

Jonathan Kochert, currently a senior researcher at the Army Research Institute, says the Army is trying to fix that now. “The deployments should overlap and the teams should go on some joint missions and get to know each other so one unit can kind of morph into the other,” he says.

The potential downside of not being fully prepared can be catastrophic, Klafehn says. “With the delicate and sensitive nature of relationships that need to be built in an already-challenging, war-torn environment, not being in tune with important cultural differences can have dire consequences.”

Although the missions of soldiers and teachers are vastly different, the types of challenges faced and the skills needed are comparable, according to Klafehn. For example, both must have strong listening and communication skills in order to find ways to effectively interact with people from different cultures. As cultural gaps between students and teachers widen, there are increasing calls for teachers to develop and improve their 3C skills.