Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Intercultural Competencies as Part of Teachers’ Moral Professionalism

  • Inkeri RissanenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_187-1


The steady increase in migration worldwide is increasing the ethnic and cultural heterogenization of classrooms. Cultural diversity can be utilized as an enrichment of the learning environment, but it also creates challenges for educators. It is widely acknowledged that teachers need to develop competencies to teach students from diverse cultural backgrounds and promote educational equity. Teachers are expected to teach morally and be committed to the ethical principles of their profession; in many countries and at many educational levels, they are also expected to teach morality and support their students’ holistic development, including emotional and moral concerns, rather than merely the cognitive domain. However, increasing cultural diversity adds complexity to both these aspects of the moral profession of teaching.

All teachers transmit values in the classroom, whether intentionally or not. In a culturally diverse context, legitimation of these values as well as their compatibility with the values of students’ families has to be continuously reflected upon in order to support the moral integrity of students and avoid violating their or their families’ cultural human rights. Sometimes teachers’ ways of making sense of the social reality in the classroom may be influenced by common prejudices or stereotypes regarding particular cultural groups in particular contexts. Teachers may have lower expectations of the learning of students from particular groups due to deficit thinking that pathologizes these groups and is maintained by the lack of attention to the oppressive conditions and sociopolitical realities that explain the existing achievement gaps. Teachers continuously make quick and intuitive moral judgements based on their culturally bound intuitions and belief systems. They may find it more difficult to develop a warm and caring relationship with students who have been socialized to cultural, moral, and behavioral codes different from their own, which influences these students’ educational attainment. In addition, making teaching culturally relevant and supporting students’ identities in a heterogeneous classroom demands skills and self-reflexivity on the part of teachers: drawing solely on the cultural heritage and cultural funds of knowledge of majority groups gives rise to experiences of exclusion and hampers minority groups’ learning.

Thus it requires a lot of skill and self-reflective capacity to maintain the high standards of teachers’ professional morality in culturally diverse contexts. It is important to note that the occurrence of problems in any of these areas seldom indicates teachers’ ill will toward different minorities or lack of interest in the promotion of equality: teachers who try their best in challenging environments but are accused, for instance, of racism and discrimination often feel hurt and frustrated. In order to be able to maintain the high ethical standards of their profession and promote equality and social justice in and through education, in school contexts that are becoming ever more diverse and in a world that is becoming ever more divided into winners and losers of globalization, teachers need intercultural competencies. The competencies needed for working in culturally heterogeneous classrooms are not innate and do not reflect the moral character of a teacher, but should be seen as a necessary part of the skill set of a professionally competent teacher. The development of intercultural competencies should begin in teacher education and continue throughout the teacher’s career. This chapter will elaborate the core aspects of teachers’ intercultural competencies and map the current discussions related to them in different fields of educational research and under different concepts. The chapter will moreover present existing knowledge and new openings concerning the development of intercultural competencies in teacher education.

Teachers’ Intercultural Competencies

The concept “intercultural competence” is extensively applied in many research fields and is also widespread in educational research and in teacher education. It has been defined in various ways, but is generally considered to include domains of attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, skills, and behaviors. The definition of intercultural competence as the “ability to effectively and appropriately interact in an intercultural situation or context” (Perry and Southwell 2011, p. 453) is widely accepted. This chapter uses the plural form “intercultural competencies”: this is to emphasize the contextual nature of intercultural competencies and their development as a never-ending process. To cultivate intercultural competencies is to develop attitudes, knowledge, and skills for encountering individuals and groups with different identity markers in particular contexts.

Teachers’ competencies to work in culturally diverse contexts are discussed under many different concepts and pedagogical approaches and not always defined as “intercultural competencies”. However, there is an extensive common understanding concerning the aspects that are essential for teachers’ ability to develop inclusive educational environments across the scholarly field of intercultural competencies and approaches such as intercultural education, multicultural education (e.g., Banks and Banks 2016), and culturally responsive education (e.g., Gay 2010). Generally speaking, attitudes and beliefs (i.e., the affective domain of intercultural competencies) are seen as the core aspect of teachers’ competencies in culturally diverse settings. There are many known mechanisms through which teachers’ attitudes and beliefs affect minority students’ learning as well as the development of social distance between different student groups. For instance, teachers’ expectations based on stereotypical views of pupils can become self-fulfilling prophecies and affect student outcomes. The measures of the central attitudes and beliefs associated with intercultural competencies are manifold, but what they all share as an ideal is a certain openness to diversity.

Intercultural sensitivity, an individual’s “ability to discriminate and experience relevant cultural differences” (Hammer et al. 2003, p. 422), has been seen as the very foundation of intercultural competencies. Moving from ethnocentric to ethnorelative orientation is a vital step in its acquisition. Ethnocentric orientation refers to attitudes of seeing cultural differences as a threat or simply disregarding or minimizing cultural differences. The tendency to minimize cultural difference and focus only on commonality is based on an understanding of a shared humanity; however, what is often considered to be central aspects of this shared humanity is contingent upon culturally bound views. In an ethnorelativistic orientation, awareness of the profound impact of different cultural backgrounds on one’s own and others’ ways of making sense of the world starts to develop together with respect and willingness to adapt one’s own thinking and behavior according to the cultural context.

Questions of ethnocentric vs. ethnorelativistic orientation to diversity are mirrored in the terms color-blind vs. multiculturalist strategies for dealing with diversity. Color blindness and multiculturalism both aim to fight against inequalities but with opposite strategies. Teachers relying on color blindness believe that focusing either on the uniqueness of every person or emphasizing similarities across groups of people, and disregarding group categories, is the best way to combat prejudices and stereotypes and promote inclusion. Conversely, advocates of the multicultural strategy promote the recognition and perpetuation of cultural identities and regard learning about and from diversities as the most efficient way of reducing prejudice. Multiculturalism can counter negative stereotypes through making visible the contributions of different groups: however, recognition of group identities needs to be balanced with an understanding of the intersectionality and complexity of identities at the individual level. The current mainstream scholarly approaches to improving equality in education have by and large abandoned color blindness as an ineffective strategy: an open and affirmative attitude to diversity is commonly understood as the core of teachers’ intercultural competencies. This has to do with the increasing (research-based) understanding of the negative effects of color blindness. Teachers’ color-blind ideals are associated with difficulties in recognizing bias, discrimination, and existing forms of marginalization in educational communities and in society. Color blindness upholds the ethnocentric orientation and tends to naturalize the identities, knowledge, and practices of dominant majority groups, which makes it an ineffective approach in combatting inequalities and narrowing achievement gaps. Teachers believing that group identities could and should be recognized have been found to implement more constructive pedagogical strategies, engage in less stereotyping, and maintain a higher motivation for teaching students from diverse backgrounds. However, color-blind beliefs have been found to be relatively common among teachers in many different countries.

Teachers’ open and affirmative attitude toward diversity paves the way toward the development of the cognitive and behavioral domains of their intercultural competencies – for instance, acquiring intercultural communication skills and developing intercultural literacy. Teachers need this literacy (i.e., a profound understanding of their own cultural assumptions, knowledge of the cultures their students participate in, and ability to analyze the interplay between these cultural frames of reference). This will improve their ability to integrate aspects from different cultures into their teaching, help students to understand how different cultural assumptions always shape knowledge construction, and steer students (from majority as well as from different minority groups) toward detecting their own biases and prejudices.

However, there are increasingly critical voices stating that these rather traditional aspects of intercultural competencies are not enough for developing equality in and through education and that they leave the structural level problems that maintain patterns of exclusion unresolved. In approaches such as social justice education, critical multicultural education, and culturally sustaining education, more is demanded of teachers. Scholars proposing these frameworks state that in order for teachers’ practice to become truly ethically sustainable, they should first understand that there are also institutional and structural barriers to success in society and second be invited to act as critical agents of change in their schools and in society. Thus in these frameworks inspired by critical pedagogy teachers’ intercultural competencies have been associated with the willingness to assume a transformative rather than a transmissive professional role and with having the courage to challenge the existing power-structures and institutional inequalities in order to promote educational equality. Facilitating intercultural learning and intercultural dialogue and developing cultural awareness are seemingly innocent educational aims, but often ignore the fact that students from the dominant majority and oppressed minorities are in a very uneven position in these types of educational activities. Thus willingness to acknowledge the sociopolitical context and courage to expose the forms of injustice instead of claiming neutrality have been regarded as decidedly necessary aspects of teachers’ intercultural competencies.

In order to summarize the above discussion on the content of teachers’ intercultural competencies and reflect it in the light of the broad definition by Perry and Southwell (2011), the following can be stated. The capability of interacting in intercultural contexts appropriately exemplifies teachers’ ability to work toward creating learning environments (and eventually a society) where no students need to feel excluded because of their diverse backgrounds. It indicates that different cultures are treated with respect and their contributions are recognized, utilized, and sustained in teaching. At the same time, the individuality of students’ identities is respected and supported. The capability of interacting in a given intercultural context effectively exemplifies teachers’ ability to interact effectively with students from different culture and language backgrounds, promote educational equality, and narrow the existing achievement gaps between students of the dominant majority and students from different vulnerable minority groups. Both of these aspects presuppose teachers’ ability to critically examine their own positions and cultural assumptions and understand the futility of attempts at neutrality in intercultural education. They contribute to the development of individual students’ identity, self-respect, agencyand intercultural competencies, and promote their learning and achievement. Thus they engender social mobility and good relations between different identity groups, contributing to the reorganization of power-structures in a multicultural society, thereby promoting social justice.

Developing Teachers’ Intercultural Competencies in Teacher Education

While it is generally acknowledged that teacher education programs should support the development of intercultural competencies and a variety of approaches to do this have been implemented and researched, no consensus has emerged on the best means of developing any of the components of intercultural competencies. However, agreement on certain basic principles has been achieved. Acquiring knowledge about cultures is generally acknowledged as insufficient for the development of intercultural competencies, and the development of critical cultural self-awareness is identified as essential factor. Many studies on preparing pre-service teachers for culturally diverse contexts have noted the importance of cross-cultural experiences and extensive field experiences. However, it has also been demonstrated that mere cultural contact may not lead to the development of beneficial mindsets among teachers; it may even reinforce the existing stereotypes and negative attitudes. Opportunities to reflect on and mediate experiences in encountering diversity together with a support group are of key importance, and cultural diversity among this support group (e.g., teacher education course) accelerates the development of cultural awareness.

Yet there is evidence that previous experiences and attitudes related to diversity function as a filter for learning, meaning that negative attitudes are very difficult to change through single teacher education courses. Overall, pre-service teachers’ beliefs and assumptions about other people have proved to be very difficult to change; at the individual level, some personal dispositions and character traits, such as openness, self-awareness/self-reflectiveness, and commitment to social justice, serve as indicators for responding positively to this kind of education. In teacher education courses where the vast majority of students are representatives of the white middle class, steering the students toward reflecting on their privileged identities is important but often met with resistance. Teacher education programs where teachers’ intercultural competences are developed throughout the program rather than during a single course have been more successful in influencing the students’ attitudinal frameworks.

New hope has come from attempts to develop the affective domain of intercultural competencies by challenging the implicit beliefs and meaning systems that sustain prejudiced and stereotyping thinking rather than trying to counter negative attitudes one at a time in a straightforward manner. Implicit beliefs of the malleability of human qualities as well as the malleability of cultural groups have been found to be such powerful constructs (Rattan and Georgeac 2017). They also influence teachers’ pedagogical thinking and practices. Strengthening the belief in the malleability of individuals and groups is known to improve intercultural encounters and increase motivation for intercultural contact. This approach is one new potential means for developing intercultural competencies and could also be utilized in teacher education. One critical point in the development of intercultural competencies in teacher education is leaning on cultural essentialism or identity essentialism, i.e., seeing cultures or identities as fixed and not understanding that they are fluid, continuously evolving social constructs. It is important that teachers are able to see how their own identities as well as the identities of their students are continuously shaped by a variety of cultural sources that intermingle: changing implicit beliefs concerning the malleability of individuals and cultures has potential to support open and interested attitudes toward diversity without falling into cultural essentialism.

Furthermore, generalist talk about “diversities” sometimes hides the particular questions of encountering different forms of diversity. For instance, how to develop teachers’ competencies to encounter the increasing religious diversity in educational contexts is an issue that would merit more attention in research and in teacher education than it currently receives. This lack of attention is probably due to the ideals in liberal democracies of restricting religions to the private realm. However, in these secularized societies, teachers having no personal connection to religious ways of life also often lack religious literacy, which hampers their ability to understand the pervasive role of religion in society and in the lives of some of their students. Even those teachers who express positive attitudes toward diversities in general sometimes find it difficult to empathize with religious students and their families or to understand their needs and wishes. Their orientation may be ethnorelativistic and multiculturalist with respect to other forms of cultural diversity but ethnocentric and color-blind when it comes to religion – they understand secular liberalistic ideals as a shared aspect of humanity and religious identities as a private matter that do not need to be recognized in public educational institutions.

Still, religion is a relevant identity marker for many students in these contexts. If teacher education programs fail to support student teachers’ sensitivity to religions, exclusionary educational practices readily arise. Since experiences of exclusion enforce the development of oppositional identities, religion-blind teachers may unknowingly contribute to the ongoing worldview polarization into fundamentalist religious and secular camps. However, by critically evaluating their own ways of thinking and questioning the neutrality of their own positions, pre-service teachers on teacher education courses have been able to develop their empathy toward differing worldview identities.

Religion was here discussed as an example, but is not the only form of diversity that merits more discussion in the field of intercultural competencies; in general, different challenges in encountering different forms of diversity need to be paid attention. These differences also have to do with the differing societal, political, and historical questions attached to different individual and group identities. To be able to understand and navigate these dynamics in their classrooms and promote educational equity, teachers need to be able to delve into deep philosophical, theoretical, political, and societal reflections. Cultivating these abilities through profound discussions in intercultural teacher education is essential. This cultivation of teachers’ sociopolitical reflexivity is sometimes overlooked in the more instrumental approaches to the development of intercultural competencies relying on neoliberal educational discourses and perceiving intercultural competencies more narrowly as a means to improve effectiveness of interaction and teaching in intercultural contexts. However, when intercultural competencies are regarded more widely as one core aspect of teachers’ moral professionalism enabling teachers to teach morally and morality in culturally diverse contexts, their cultivation is inseparable from the aim of developing teachers’ capability for critical societal thinking and action.



  1. Banks, J., & Banks, C. A. M. (2016). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (9th ed.). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  2. Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers’ College.Google Scholar
  3. Hammer, M. R., Bennett, M. J., & Wiseman, R. (2003). Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, 421–443.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Perry, L. B., & Southwell, L. (2011). Developing intercultural understanding and skills: Models and approaches. Intercultural Education, 22, 453–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Rattan, A., & Georgeac, O. A. M. (2017). Understanding intergroup relations through the lens of implicit theories (mindsets) of malleability. Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 11(4), e12305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Education and CultureTampere UniversityTampereFinland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kirsi Tirri
    • 1
  1. 1.University of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland