Between science and society: teaching intercultural competence

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Sarah Eligehausen works as an intercultural trainer at the Ethnology in Schools

Sarah Eligehausen works as an intercultural trainer at the Ethnology in Schools and Adult Education Association. © ESE

Since 1992 the Ethnology in Schools and Adult Education Association has been implementing knowledge transfer together with the University of Münster ’ a guest commentary by Ursula Bertels

Intercultural competence is increasingly being seen as an important fundamental requirement for people living together in a multicultural society. Almost all of the current coalition agreements in governments at both national and federal state levels in Germany, for example, include calls for measures for the teaching of intercultural competence. As a result, the social relevance of such competence is moving more and more into the focus of public institutions such as local government, charities and schools.

Many university departments - for example, Pedagogics, Psychology or Communication Science - are working on the issue of intercultural competence. At the University of Münster, in particular, Ethnology has also taken up a position on the issue. As far back as 1992, a group of dedicated women - ethnologists and pedagogues - set up the “Ethnology in Schools and Adult Education Association” (ESE) with the aim of teaching intercultural competence as a way of counteracting increasing levels of xenophobia in society. At a time when the term “intercultural competence” was not at all well-known, the founders of the association laid the foundation for the teaching of intercultural competence on an ethnological basis. A cooperation agreement signed with Münster University enables ESE to embed intercultural competence in research, in society and in teaching.

To enable intercultural competence to be taught, first of all the theoretical basis was worked out. In the process, the approach known as the Third Culture Perspective was developed, for which ESE received the Innovation Award of the German Institution for Adult Education in 2003.

During third-party funding projects which ESE carries out for the Institute of Ethnology, this theoretical basis is continually reviewed and revised on the basis of new research results, as well as in interdisciplinary exchanges. Proceeding from this theoretical basis, it is then possible to transfer knowledge to society.

ESE offers training for various target groups. These include educators, social workers and staff in local government authorities. Because of Germany’s Skilled Workers Immigration Act, there is currently an increase in the number of enquiries from the areas of healthcare and business. Training in the field of adult education aims primarily to draw up strategies for action which will ease course participants’ work in a multicultural context. In educational work in and outside schools, ESE holds individual project days as well as longer-term projects. Here, intercultural and global learning are combined with a view to helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The experience that ESE has made in teaching intercultural competence shows that not only do research results find their way into practice, but that experience and results from practical work repeatedly, and necessarily, lead to contents and methods being reviewed and revised. It is only such feedback that enables current social questions to be scientifically assessed and incorporated into the teaching of intercultural competence.

This feedback is also the basis for the seminars and exercises which ESE carries out at the Institute of Ethnology. In the field of applied ethnology, ESE undertakes teaching assignments in Modules 4 and 5 of the bachelor course in Cultural and Social Anthropology. In teaching sessions, students examine the issue of intercultural competence from an ethnological point of view and get to know teaching intercultural competence as a possible career choice. Here, it is important to make clear that research findings need to be taught in a way that is both easy to understand and appropriate for the target group. This is something which ethnologists in particular find difficult to do, as they are repeatedly encouraged during their studies to take different perspectives into account and to qualify their statements.

One further important component of the work done by ESE are seminars for students from other disciplines. For example, ESE offers seminars at Münster University not only for participants in the Senior Guest Programme, but also in collaboration with the International Office as part of the general courses of study on offer. ESE’s work since 1992 shows that as a result of a scientific examination of social issues, and also of constant feedback between research and practice, it is possible to raise awareness of a so-called “exotic” subject outside the University - and to present it in public as a socially relevant science.

The author, Dr. Ursula Bertels, is Chair of the Ethnology in Schools and Adult Education Association and a lecturer at the Institute of Ethnology at the University of Münster.

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