Tips from an expert: Cosmopolitanism and intercultural competence in the classroom

Prof. Dr Dieter Spanhel about intercultural competence


Which traits characterise people with a high degree of intercultural competence?

People with a high degree of intercultural competence are familiar with foreign languages, cultures and lifestyles. They understand the effects of prejudice and are aware of how others are ostracised. They are adept at self-presentation, tolerate contradictions and are compassionate. They are not easily frustrated. Intercultural competence requires a well-established cultural identity, which is acquired through discovering, understanding, appreciating and actively shaping one’s own culture. This identity provides confidence and enables people to approach foreign cultures openly. The problem of cultural diversity is not the foreignness of other people. It is their ‘othering’ by those who experience them as foreign – their ostracism and exclusion as a protective mechanism to ensure the security of the own in-group.

How can schools promote cosmopolitanism and intercultural competence?

Schools must become open spaces in which life, experiences and encounters take place. At their centre should be a culture of communication that enables non-violent interaction, non-judgemental understanding and successful agreement. Besides care and awareness of one’s own culture, diverse encounters with foreign cultures are crucial for the open spaces of everyday school life. Such encounters yield opportunities for dialogue-based learning; students get to experience themselves as a ‘community of mutual learners’. They are challenged to change their perspective and recognise that cultures have a symbolic structure which can change depending on the perspective. This open school culture can only flourish if all parties involved agree to observe fundamental standards and rules for shaping their everyday lives at school.

How can students address cultural diversity in the classroom?

Cultural diversity is reflected in the stories and narratives of the students as they express the various cultural experiences, customs, traditions and world views prevalent in their families. Schools must promote this form of exchange to ensure children acquire intercultural competence. A focus on language, literature, history, art, music, media and theatre provides excellent opportunities. In order for students to participate actively in shaping these communicative processes, they can document, present and discuss the results of their lessons, work and projects themselves.  Other opportunities for engaging with cultural diversity arise from the cultivation of a lively school community that involves every single student by way of democratic involvement, trustful cooperation, festivals and school events. Being able to contribute to the local cultural heritage in the context of projects involving artists, musicians, museums, theatres, libraries and other social institutions is a great motivator for children. After all, the expansion of histories and narratives to Europe and the rest of the world – e.g. in the media, while learning foreign languages or when exchanging stories about time spent abroad – is an effective medium for developing intercultural competence in children.




‘Vielfalt unterstützen – Vielfalt leben: kulturelle Identitätsförderung in inklusiven Klassen’ by Ursula Bertels, Tania Krüsmann, Katharina Norrie

‘Interkulturelle Bildung und Erziehung in der Schule’, Kultusminister Konferenz

‘Der Aufbau interkultureller Kompetenz’ by Dieter Spanhel



Prof. Dr Dieter Spanhel,

Professor for General Pedagogy at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg until 2005. To see his publications on conduct as a teacher, evaluation research, media pedagogy and media literacy visit:

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