The Importance of Cross-Cultural Competence in Today’s Classrooms

By David Lariviere

Jennifer Klafehn, a Research Scientist for ETS who studies cross-cultural competence assessment and development, always laughs when she sees training materials for other countries.

“I always find it interesting that there is never one about the U.S. And, in some ways, I think it’s because we as Americans often think ‘Well, we’re really complex,’ and (then I realize) that’s the problem right there,” Klafehn says.

Unfortunately, that complexity is a huge problem for administrators and teachers all over the nation today as cultural gaps widen between larger portions of the U.S. student population and the teaching profession. This ever-widening gap has created a larger need for what many call Cross-Cultural Competence, more commonly known as 3C.

Klafehn describes 3C as “a multifaceted construct comprising knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics that can be developed through training and experience that facilitates effective performance in cross-cultural contexts.”

It’s a fancy definition and isn’t the same one used by everyone, but the important part is how teachers can apply the often abstract concepts of 3C in their classes. “I don’t think that anybody disagrees it’s important. There’s a wide consensus that teachers need to be culturally responsive, but it’s the ‘how’ and even the ‘what’ that is the big question mark,” says Klafehn.

There are certain innate principles that are found in all cultures. A good example is the notion of respect. “All cultures share it, but who is given respect, the times when respect is given and the ways in which it is given are very different,” says Klafehn, who came to ETS in 2014 after working for the U.S. Army helping it develop a 3C assessment for soldiers. According to Klafehn, the Army has been studying cross-cultural competence for decades. However, it seems to be growing in other fields, such as education.

There is, however, some confusion as to what 3C actually means and its purpose. “The most important thing to understand about 3C is trying to disabuse the notion that you are the experts in individual cultures,” explains Klafehn. “3C is culturally agnostic — it means you have the skills, or are developing the skills, that you can perform in any context, regardless of time or region. It’s largely because culture itself is not a monolithic, static entity. It changes all the time.”

It applies to what some view as a disconnect of predominantly white females teaching increasingly large numbers of African-American and Hispanic students. “These are difficult conversations to have, but it’s important to talk about race,” Klafehn says. “And a lot of those conversations start with having self-awareness. (Teachers), for instance, may think they are being culturally responsive, but don’t realize their actions may not be equitable.”

Klafehn described a scenario in which a white teacher was being observed leading a discussion in a classroom of diverse students. Despite thinking she had interacted with all students equally, she was later informed that she had mostly called on white males. “It was an ‘Oh my gosh moment’ for the teacher,” Klafehn says. “And this isn’t to say that the teacher harbored any explicit ill will or intent towards the non-white students. But it does go to show that by the way that you act, you may be inadvertently biased. All students need an equal opportunity.”

Travis Rodgers, a Senior Adviser at ETS working on helping states diversify their teacher pipelines, says, “Implicit bias can be just someone who comports to the system. If you don’t do anything to unpack your internal bias and you project lower expectations (of certain students), that feeds into the cycle, feeds into the system, and it’s reflected in the results of students.”

Klafehn recently had what she called a “wonderful opportunity” to talk about the practical applications of 3C with 55 Teachers of the Year in Washington, D.C.  She called the perspectives of teachers “vital” because they are the ones who have to implement changes in the classroom. “The whole purpose (of going to Washington) was to create more of a dialogue, to see what challenges they’ve faced, what has worked for them in the past and what they would like to see done in the future. Those are the things ETS is trying to support,” she says.

“Teachers need to be good listeners, be open-minded and have good communication skills,” says Klafehn. “It’s a constant learning experience. ETS has to lead the charge by creating the tools and developing the skills that are so critical to make it widespread and standardized.”