Cultural Intelligence in Learning and Teaching

Providing a quality learning experience for an increasingly diverse student body can be a daunting challenge. As an academic in a contemporary higher education setting, you have probably made many adjustments to the ways in which you teach to accommodate diversity in your classroom, sometimes without even being aware that you have done so.

Image of students together

It's most likely that many of the ways in which you have adapted your teaching methods and activities can in fact be put down to good teaching practice. Characteristics of effective university teaching include respecting students as individuals, presenting information in a range of ways to accommodate different learning styles and preferences, acknowledging the prior learning and relevant life experiences of students, being clear about expectations, and seeking feedback to ensure that you have communicated effectively. Cultural intelligence includes all the qualities of effective teaching, with a particular emphasis on sensitivity to and awareness of the needs of students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse learning needs. It recognises the importance of such processes as adapting and innovating teaching practices, accommodating student diversity, and finely-honing communication exchange. No doubt you are already applying and developing these strategies in your own teaching.

What is cultural intelligence?

Cultural Intelligence has been defined as the capacity of individuals to adapt to different people from diverse cultures and the ability to manage this interconnectedness harmoniously and productively (Earley, Ang, & Tan, 2006).


It is a reciprocal process whereby students and staff from diverse social and cultural backgrounds exchange expertise, knowledge, and experiences to enhance their understandings and capacity to effectively live and work in changing local and international communities.

Richard Bucher (2008) suggests that building cultural intelligence (CQ) be viewed as a "never-ending process for continual improvement" (p. 8). The competencies that make up CQ are:

  • constant awareness;
  • cultural understanding; and
  • CQ skills.

Constant Awareness refers to the ability to be mindful of ourselves, others, and the context in which we are operating. This awareness allows us to attend to any biases we may have about situations or people we encounter. It also helps us to reflect on how such biases may have been shaped by our own cultural heritage, experiences, and upbringing.

Cultural Understanding reflects not only our exposure to information about cultural similarities and differences, but the degree to which we are able to comprehend the significance of such information.

CQ Skills are testimony to our ability to perform well in a multicultural environment as a result of professional development, experience, and practice. It refers not only to knowing what to do, but actually doing it well. It is reflected in the way we show patience and understanding when students need time to translate language and foreign concepts into terms they understand. Or when we break information into manageable but meaningful chunks, using both verbal and visual ways to get a message across. It is knowing that 'big smiles' often hide confusion and appreciating the students' need to "save face" so that the encounter does not leave them feeling uncomfortable.

These three competencies are interdependent, each one impacting upon the other. Our ability to teach well in culturally diverse settings is dependent on our awareness of our students and ourselves, and our understanding of the processes at work.

Developing cultural intelligence through curriculum and in classroom situations encourages mutual respect for students and staff, creating a climate of appreciative inquiry where all participants have the opportunity to explore a range of perspectives and develop skills for negotiating meaning.  In this way there is acknowledgement that everyone brings meaningful experience, valid concerns, and legitimate questions to the learning and teaching process.

The Griffith approach to internationalisation of the curriculum is underpinned by the concept of Cultural Intelligence. It has much in common with Gardner's notion of multiple intelligences, emphasising that such ability results from a combination of genetic heritage, environmental influences and learning over time, that is, nature and nurture. Cultural Intelligence results from the interaction of a range of factors, including learning and development, and it draws attention to the need for individuals to be flexible and to adapt to the dynamic, changing environment in which we live and learn.


Bucher, R. D. (2008). Building cultural intelligence (CQ). Columbus, OH: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Earley, P. C., Ang, S., & Tan, J.-S. (2006). Developing cultural intelligence at work. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Heyward, M. (2002). From international to intercultural:  Redefining the international school for a globalized world. Journal of Research in International Education, 1(1), 9-32.
Hirsch, E. D. (1984). Cultural literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute of Education

Dr Louise Horstmanshof

<< Back