Attempting Cross-Cultural Tolerance in an Intolerant Community

I’ve been reading about Global Collaboration Projects and mulling over how to engage students in cross-cultural communication and projects such as the Flat Classroom projects. I am excited about Global Collaborative Projects with all of their possibility and promise for preparing our students for the 21st century.

I read statements from Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds (Lindsay, J. & Davis, V.A., 2013) like,

“It should be the goal that before a student goes to college, he or she should participate in projects with 3.0 characteristics [global collaboration producing both information exchange and artifact co-creation]” (p. 9)

My first reaction is: Great! Fantastic! What a great idea! And I hope they get practice with their peers and local community in person before participating globally.

I’m concerned that some students and districts are so isolated that they do not know how to interact effectively and respectfully with others outside of their own experience.  For instance, I was saddened to see this recent story from NPR’s race, culture, & ethnicity blog, Code Switch:, about a town meeting in Tennessee gone awry.

The public meeting in Manchester, Tenn., about 70 miles from Nashville, was supposed to address and tamp down discrimination toward Muslims there.

But instead it turned into a shouting match

Or as one commentator pointed out, a shouting match has two sides. This was speakers attempting to make a positive change, being heckled and shouted at.

This appeared to be a well-intentioned meeting, but it failed to meet its goals of better understanding.  Why? I can think of several possible reasons.

  • The two main perspectives were not in agreement over the goals of the meeting.
  • The two parties did not check with each other to find common goals before attempting the meeting.
  • The people bringing a new perspective may have felt the need to lecture the town majority, who in return did not like being lectured at.
  • The town majority already has a some prejudice against the town minority, in this case, Muslims.
  • Either one or both sides did not know how to conduct a respectful dialogue or were not motivated to do so.
  • Outside protestors may have derailed any impulse toward dialogue.

You can probably think of more.

My big question is: How can we think of collaborating with other students around the globe when we sometimes can’t even talk respectfully with our neighbors? This distresses me.

This also has implications for any global collaborations projects we may propose.

For starters, our students (and perhaps educators, and administrators) need to learn how to talk respectfully with people unlike themselves. Many of us learn this as we grow older and gain experience with people outside our childhood experiences, but here we are thinking about asking our younger students to undertake this task. We may be asking students to step out of their family’s or community’s usual way of working with the world.

The first thing that comes to mind, is: the students need to be explicitly taught how to talk and interact with other people and other cultures. Learning effective discourse management skills is the first step to talking and working with other people.

Another aspect that comes to mind is what writer and blogger Alice Bradley refers to as training the puppy-brain: take small goals, and reward with positive feedback, and treats. We may have to start very small and give lots of positive feedback and “treats.”

I was so impressed and pleased to hear of a fellow student’s 2nd grade classroom this Spring – and her many learning centers with discourse promoted, practiced, and encouraged! She did not shush the children and teach them to be quiet; she taught them to discuss their ideas effectively and respectfully. (She may have even won the teacher of the year in her district – I haven’t heard the results yet.) This does not address larger cultural differences that may be present, but it sets an expectation of how to have a conversation.

Some students many already be fully steeped in the multi-cultural expectations – I feel grateful to live in a community where multi-culturalism is generally seen as a good thing, and people at least attempt to improve their multi-cultural “climate” – but some other students may need much more support to approach cross-cultural collaboration.

I don’t have any easy answers, but I think discourse management is a start.