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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Pupils' Educational Exchanges as a Tool for Promoting Global Citizenship

Roberto Ruffino, Italy

Roberto Ruffino is the Secretary General of Intercultura, the Italian national agency for international student exchanges at the secondary school level. He is also the Chairman of EFIL, the European Federation for Intercultural Learning. In 2007 he founded the Intercultura Foundation that promotes research and experimentation in educational exchanges. He has an honorary doctor degree in education science from the University of Padua. E-mail:


Four areas of learning
The European Quality Charter for Mobility
Pedagogical issues to consider
Citizenship education


Educational exchanges among pupils of different countries/cultures are a pedagogical tool of unsurpassed value to stimulate knowledge, self-awareness and skills to live in a multi-cultural society. The learning process that occurs to an individual pupil on an intercultural exchange leads to deep cultural assessment of self in the context of others. Any “otherness” becomes an identity mirror that generates a reflection on personal beliefs and behaviours and it stimulates an individual to become more aware of his/her own cultural boundaries (which are often unconscious).

Such a process is intellectual as well as emotional, and it accelerates when an individual is fully immersed in a different way of living, as it happens when in another country. Abroad emotions are frequently impacted and individuals feel uneasy as they realise that their sets of values and behaviours do not help them in the new situation: their culture “hurts” in the new context. When this happens, it becomes “normal” to look at oneself, analyse and assess the new situation and try to regain a sense of comfort: in doing so one compares old and new approaches and acquires a greater awareness about his/her “worldview” and its relativity.

One does not learn how to swim by reading a manual. In the same way one cannot appreciate his/her culture if one has never seen it from the outside and experienced its relativity. The removal of people from their familiar environment and their placement in a new environment puts them at the core of an intercultural experience; they find themselves in a “minority situation” or “marginal situation” (minority or marginal in comparison with the culture of the host country), in a situation where emotions and intelligence are equally challenged, as they try to behave in an acceptable fashion in the new environment.

Although many educators refrain from this radical approach and look at intercultural education as to a new “subject matter” to be included in the curriculum, an extended intercultural experience in another country is likely to lead to a new vision of the world, a new way of being: what the ancient Greeks called a "metanoia" - a conversion of the mind.

In addition the learning opportunity of an intercultural experience does not only result in a greater awareness one’s own culture, the cultures of others and the links that may exist between the two. It encourages learners to develop larger loyalties beyond their home and nation and to acquire a sense of belonging to larger communities, such as Europe or the world.

This enlargement of horizons must be an objective of all intercultural exchange projects, that should always include elements of civil and political education. In a larger perspective, the development of an intercultural mindset can be the first chapter of a new syllabus that deals with human rights education, development education, peace education or ecological education, with the purpose of creating European and global citizens who are conscious of their roots, but have overcome any narrow local or national perspective.

Four areas of learning

The skills that pupils may acquire through an intercultural experience can be grouped under four areas of growth and change (Grove 1984) 1:

  • personal values and skills
  • interpersonal relationship-building
  • intercultural knowledge and sensitivity
  • and global issues-awareness.

1. Personal values and skills

While abroad on an exchange programme, pupils must make judgments and embark on actions in the absence of familiar clues. In such unusual circumstances, participants are confronted repeatedly with crises of varying dimensions If participants are well prepared in advance and are assured of support and guidance, they are able to turn these crises into opportunities for reassessing their values, stretching their capacities, and practicing new skills. They gain awareness of previously hidden aspects of their personalities and may attain the following learning objectives:

  1. To think creatively
  2. To think critically
  3. To accept more responsibility for themselves
  4. To de-emphasize the importance of material things
  5. To be more fully aware of themselves

2. Interpersonal relationship-building

If a participant in an intercultural project becomes fully involved in daily living and working arrangements with a variety of people in the new environment, he or she must develop and maintain relationships with others from diverse backgrounds. The interpersonal skills developed in this intercultural context are transferable to many other settings during the participant’s lifetime.

  1. To deepen a concern for and a sensitivity to others
  2. To increase an adaptability to changing social circumstances
  3. To value human diversity
  4. To enjoy oneself in the company of others

3. Intercultural knowledge and sensitivity

During the course of their immersion in another culture, participants are obviously exposed to many dimensions of that culture. These dimensions range from the simple acquisition of the language and of the necessities of daily life to the complex and subtle distinctions made by their hosts among alternative values, social norms, and patterns of thought. The experience of being involved in so many dimensions of life has the effect of deepening participants’ insights into their home culture as well as their knowledge of their host culture. Most people attain these learning objectives:

  1. To communicate with others using their ways of expression
  2. To increase knowledge of the host country and culture
  3. To increase sensitivity to subtle features of their home culture
  4. To understand the nature of cultural differences
  5. To broaden one’s skills and concepts in intercultural communication

4. Global issues awareness

Living in another environment helps people to recognize that the world is one large community, a global island, in which certain problems are shared by everyone everywhere. They become able to empathize with their hosts’ perspective on some of these problems and to appreciate that workable solutions must be culturally sensitive and not merely technologically feasible. Such awareness prepares them to understand the crises facing humankind. Most people on an intercultural exchange attain the following learning objectives:

  1. To deepen interest in and concern about world affairs
  2. To be aware of worldwide linkages
  3. To gain in commitment to the search for solutions to worldwide problems

In the course of many years of experience, codes of good practices have been developed by practitioners in the field of intercultural exchanges of pupils and they are summarised in the document of the European Union, known as the “The European Quality Charter for Mobility” 2.

The European Quality Charter for Mobility

This Charter was adopted by the European Parliament on December 18th 2006 and it constitutes a quality reference document for education and training stays abroad. It complements, from the quality point of view, a 2001 Recommendation on mobility for students, persons undergoing training, volunteers, teachers and trainers and has the same scope.

The Charter is addressed to the Member States, particularly their organisations responsible for stays abroad, and provides guidance on mobility arrangements for learning or other purposes, such as professional betterment, to both young and adult participants.

This guidance consists of ten principles implemented on a voluntary and flexible basis, being adaptable to the nature and peculiarities of each stay. These principles are:

  • information and guidance: every candidate should have access to clear and reliable sources of information and guidance on mobility and the conditions in which it can be taken up, including details of the Charter itself and the roles of sending and hosting organizations;
  • learning plan: a plan is drawn up and signed by the sending and hosting organisations and participants before every stay for education or training purposes. It must describe the objectives and expected outcomes, the means of achieving them, and evaluation, and must also take account of reintegration issues;
  • personalization: mobility must fit in with personal learning pathways, skills and motivation of participants, and should develop or supplement them;
  • general preparation: before departure, participants should receive general preparation tailored to their specific needs and covering linguistic, pedagogical, legal, cultural or financial aspects;
  • linguistic aspects: language skills make for more effective learning, intercultural communication and a better understanding of the host country's culture. Arrangements should therefore include a pre-departure assessment of language skills, the possibility of attending courses in the language of the host country and/or language learning and linguistic support and advice in the host country;
  • logistical support: this could include providing participants with information and assistance concerning travel arrangements, insurance, the portability of government grants and loans, residence or work permits, social security and any other practical aspects;
  • mentoring: the hosting organization should provide mentoring to advise and help participants throughout their stay, also to ensure their integration;
  • recognition: if periods of study or training abroad are an integral part of a formal study or training programme, the learning plan must mention this, and participants should be provided with assistance regarding recognition and certification.
  • reintegration and evaluation: on returning to their country of origin, participants should receive guidance on how to make use of the competences acquired during their stay and, following a long stay, any necessary help with reintegration. Evaluation of the experience acquired should make it possible to assess whether the aims of the learning plan have been achieved;
  • commitments and responsibilities: the responsibilities arising from these quality criteria must be agreed and, in particular, confirmed in writing by all sides (sending and hosting organizations and participants).

Pedagogical issues to consider

An intercultural experience abroad should start from the acknowledgement that intercultural learning does not mean just learning about other cultures, but rather learning about self in the context of other cultures. It is a process that impacts the identity of a pupil and generates a reflection on beliefs and behaviours, while it stimulates an individual to become aware of his/her own cultural boundaries (which are often unconscious).

Therefore, in developing a learning plan for an intercultural exchange, schools should consider.

  • A balance of intellectual end emotional components
  • An introduction to the study of values and behaviours
  • The perception of time in different cultures

A. A balance of intellectual end emotional stimuli

An intercultural experience in another country is a life experience, that involves all aspects of human behaviour: intelligence, passion, friendliness, boredom, nostalgia, fatigue, etc. Therefore ensuring the effectiveness of an intercultural exchange is a complex process that involves elements of cultural anthropology, psychology, education and communication science. Gender, age, social class and the perception of self and of the world: all heavily influence the way one approaches people of different cultures. The readiness to open oneself up emotionally and intellectually and to “accept ambiguity” are instrumental to a successful interaction.

Schools are used to deal with the academic and intellectual aspects of learning, less with the emotional implications and even less with the out-of-school activities of their pupils. And yet a learning experience is deeper, when it impacts on the emotions of the learner. An international experience does not lead to a greater understanding of self and others, unless certain emotional conditions are met: an exchange may even lead to the reinforcement of prejudice and the rejection of differences.

All this means that a learning plan for an individual exchange must be less concerned with the homogeneity of curricula between the sending and the hosting schools; but more on the human acceptance of the foreign pupil by his host family, school mates and teachers.

B. An introduction to the study of values and behaviours

An intercultural exchanges is not an exchanges between nation-states and it should deal more with differences in deep beliefs, values and lifestyles that go beyond national stereotypes. Ethnic and religious factors, family structures and kin relationships, the concepts of time and space are some of the variables that pupils should confront when they are abroad.

The study of values and behaviours should be encouraged during the preparation phase of an exchange. During and after the exchange, in a de-briefing phase, teachers should invite pupils to discuss topics such as: do common values really exist in the world? if they do, which are they? which values may become common denominators for humankind tomorrow? is absolute loyalty to one’s nation compatible with international cooperation? is peace compatible with cultural diversity?

C. The perception of time in different cultures - “free time” and the length of a programme

The differences in the perception of time must be understood when planning an intercultural experience: the perception and use of time, especially of "free" time, differs from one culture to another. Experience shows that pupils on an exchange have more difficulties to deal with unstructured time, than with school or work activities.

Also the length of an exchange project must be considered. The effectiveness of an intercultural exchange cannot be measured in weeks and months, but the question is whether the project is long enough to lead participants through a "value crisis" and help them to overcome it. Only if a pupil lives through situations that force him/her to question "why he/she is what he/she is", while others are different without being negative, does the transfer of a person from one country to another becomes also a lesson in intercultural education. responsibility of the whole project.

Citizenship education

Intercultural exchanges are a way “to step out of the cage” of one’s culture and to “see the world with different eyeglasses”. It enables pupils and teachers to approach global issues without the bias of one’s own culture. An intercultural experience is a healthy pre-requisite for global education: the topics of citizenship and human rights, of peace and development, of ecology and demography may be better understood if they are filtered through an intercultural approach, which looks beyond mere cultural identities and differences. The “metanoia” that comes through intercultural education helps to pave the way to:

  • global citizenship
  • the practice of solidarity
  • the ability to resolve conflicts
  • intercultural ethics

1. Working for global citizenship

In the monotheistic tradition of Europe the story of the tower of Babel expresses the regret and the desire for a unity of humankind that was lost. The 20th century has brought both new technologies, which give the physical possibility and the illusion of being in one world, and strong and divisive local identities, a nostalgia for small homelands, a fear of being un-rooted. The tension grows between local and global, between loyalties to hometown and hopes for the planet, between “being a citizen of the world and remaining a Polish farmer” (Suchodolski 1978). A state, where all human beings enjoy all human rights just for the fact of being human, has been the unfulfilled dream of many generations: “how to obtain unity in diversity and how to preserve diversity in unity” (Bauman 2004). Intercultural exchanges stimulate awareness about these issues.

2. Teaching the practice of solidarity

Any effective well-planned and well-managed intercultural encounter builds new solidarities. Solidarity may involve schools and teachers with more experience and others with less; it means cooperation between different social and ethnic groups of the same country; it means international solidarity especially with countries in the developing world, because the art of living together successfully on this planet cannot be a privilege for the rich and the powerful. Schools can give a great contribution to build solidarity feelings through intercultural exchanges.

3. Increasing the ability to resolve conflicts

Conflict is an inherent challenge to intercultural exchanges, as people with different heritage, language, values, behaviours meet and learn how to share their lives for a period of time. When an exchange is short, participants tend to hide their differences and to create an artificial environment of friendship. But differences cannot be hidden for long and longer exchanges force pupils, teachers and host families to go beyond the lowest common denominators between cultures, which hide conflicts without resolving them. The challenge of conflict resolution and of being concrete promoters of understanding, harmony and peace in everyday life becomes a commitment and a learning exercise for anyone involved in an exchange.

4. Developing international ethics

Working on conflict resolution, solidarity and dialogue, it is one way of giving a new meaning and a new vigour to democracy and of preparing a more human order and justice for the generations to come. Respect for cultural diversities should never fade into an indefinite relativism without hope and vision, but it should acknowledge that there must be a common ethical basis that allows all people to live together as decent citizens of their country and of the world. This common ethical basis has been worded by the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe in their charters and in many documents, which are the ultimate framework for any intercultural exchange project.

1 Cornelius Grove, Bettina Hansel - "Learning by Doing: What a High School Student Can Learn from a Homestay Abroad" - STUDY ABROAD AND FOREIGN STUDENTS - 107 (Spring 1985): 26-31.

2 Recommendation of the European Parliament and the Council pf 18 December 2006 on transnational mobility within the Community for education and training purposes: European Quality Charter for Mobility (2006/961/EC).


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