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How Cross-Cultural Dialogue Builds Critical Thinking and Empathy

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Screen grab from Generation Global

The world and the people who work and live in it have become ever more connected as the internet becomes more accessible. Yet despite the ability to connect and learn about happenings on the other side of the globe, many communities have become more polarized and entrenched in a particular worldview. As these trends emerge, teachers are looking for ways to foster productive dialogue skills in today’s students -- the generation that will have to deal with complex, increasingly global problems.

Activities that connect students to peers in other countries have become more common in classrooms because it’s now possible. Decades ago students might have had an international penpal, now they can easily have digital penpals or video conference with students all over the world. Teachers are using this new ability to connect to offer students of all ages authentic audiences to practice writing and language skills, but often the focus has been on younger children. A program called Generation Global, which is part of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, offers a similar program focused around the skills of dialogue for adolescents ages 12-17.

“What I noticed and appreciated is the students really start reflecting on themselves and their perspectives on the world,” said high school teacher Cory Davis in an edWeb webinar. Davis teaches AP English and AP Psychology in Spokane, Washington. He said parents and students have been grateful for the opportunity to learn about other parts of the world.

Often adolescents hold strong opinions, but they don’t always know where and how they came to those beliefs. When a teacher pushes them to think critically about why they feel the way they do, it's easy for students to ignore them. But, when video conferencing with a teenager from another country who genuinely wants to know the answer, students often respond more thoughtfully.



A teacher interested in using Generation Global must register the school with the program first. Then he or she can access free lesson plans to introduce the basics of dialogue. Davis said one of his favorite elements of the product is its flexibility. Teachers can modify the lesson plans easily while still maintaining the spirit of the lesson.

“They trust that you know your students best,” Davis said. “The lessons are designed so you can get at the heart of the meaning of the lesson without following the lesson prescriptively.”

Students practice dialogue skills like active listening and speaking from the “I” perspective with one another in class. Thus, not only do students have the ability to dialogue about the personal experiences, values and beliefs of peers across the world, but in the lead-up they do the same with students who they’ve sat next to for years, but still might not know very well.

After students have been introduced to the skills involved in productive dialogue, the teacher can set up various types of interactions with classes in one of the 20 countries where schools have signed up for Generation Global. This can be done through the site and is painless, according to Davis. Teachers can choose a one-to-one dialogue with another class or they can choose to participate in a multipoint dialogue, where up to four classes are participating. All the dialogues are moderated by a trained facilitator who keeps the conversation moving, helps move past the awkward beginning and makes sure that everyone feel safe within the dialogue. The dialogues are all in English.

Additionally, Generation Global has a secure online dialogue feature that allows two classes to commit to a longer dialogue on a series of questions. The site groups students for a more intimate experience and they respond to one another in writing. Teachers and facilitators can see all these interactions, and the technology offers teachers a dashboard on their students’ participation, too.

“The great thing about dialogue is it enables you to get inside someone else’s perspective,” said Ian Jamison, head of education for Generation Global. “So you explore not knowledge, but experiences, values and beliefs.”

He stresses that the dialogue topics are usually not about specific curriculum because, while there is some overlap in the curricula of different countries, it can also vary widely. Instead, the program staff at Generation Global are interested in how students can build empathy for one another by learning about personal experiences of culture and the world.

The goal is to make the exotic familiar. “One of the side effects of familiarity is it makes it very hard to hang on to prejudice,” Jamison said. He described one video conference he facilitated between a class in Pakistan and a class in the U.K. In the course of the conversation one of the students in Pakistan said that Islam was illegal in the U.K. He was surprised to hear from a U.K. student of Pakistani descent that actually he was himself a Muslim and attended a mosque in Birmingham.

“That’s the kind of misinformed comment that doesn't help people get on with one another,” Jamison said. But when the students could look one another in the eye and hear a different narrative about a place they’d never been, it started to change their views about the world.

“One of the things we often take for granted is we often think of ourselves as ordinary and the other as exotic,” Jamison said. But every person can be exotic to someone living in a different culture, and these global dialogues can have a huge impact on the many biases and stereotypes that get passed around almost unconsciously.


Generation Global takes safety and security seriously both because its staff know that students must feel emotionally safe to open up about personal experiences, but also because they know parents worry about student safety online. The schools that participate have been vetted by Generation Global and the video conferences and online chats take place in a secure environment that is never shared.

In many ways this program asks students to do something that many adults aren’t modeling well -- how to be respectful of someone with a different lived experience and opinion. The dialogue skills are particularly important when people disagree strongly.

“As a teacher it was so refreshing to have a facilitator make sure that safe space for dialogue and conversation was kept,” Davis said. Conversations can still get heated, but if a student gets worked up the facilitator will stop the conversation, ask participants to take a moment, and then work to re-establish safety before continuing the conversation.

Jamison sees the online dialogue as an equally important element of helping adolescents to develop positive habits around interactions online, something that again many adults do not model well for students.


“What we want to end up with are young people who are able to take part confidently in dialogue,” Jamison said.

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