Please Mind the Culture Gap: Intercultural Development during a Teacher Education Study Abroad Program

Article excerpt

"Please mind the gap," a recording prompts travelers each time they get on or off the Underground in London, England. This reminder became a fortuitous and helpful metaphor during fieldwork for this case study of a preservice teacher's experiences during a teacher education study abroad program in London. This study was predicated on a belief that teachers must learn to mind the gap--the culture gap--that may exist between their students and them. Becoming mindful of the ways culture and cultural differences influence our intercultural relationships is at the heart of what Bennett (1993) has described as an ethnorelative worldview that is a prerequisite for culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000).

Teacher education study abroad programs, with immersion experiences in foreign schools, are offered as an innovative way to influence preservice teachers' intercultural development and prepare them for teaching culturally diverse student populations (Cushner & Brennan, 2007; Heyl & McCarthy, 2003). Romano and Cushner (2007) argue these experiences "can be the catalyst that starts teachers on a path of learning from others as well as forging relationships based on deep and meaningful understandings of peoples' similarities and differences" (p. 224). Seeking to deepen our understanding of the ways international experiences might be part of our efforts to prepare culturally responsive teachers, the authors of this study chose to explore a preservice teacher's intercultural development over the course of a semester-long teacher education study abroad program in London, England. The following research questions provided the overarching focus of this study: (a) In what ways does a preservice teacher's intercultural development evolve during a semester-long teacher education study abroad program in London, England? and (b) What aspects of the study abroad experience and program challenged and/or supported her intercultural development?

Review of Literature

Culturally Responsive Teaching

The United States is a multicultural nation, and the cultural diversity of the nation is most evident in the schools; the 27 largest metropolitan areas now have a "majority minority" child population (Frey, 2006). There is ample evidence, however, that the educational system is not meeting the needs of many of these students (Lee, 2002). Among other factors, the "culture gap" that exists between White, middleclass teachers and diverse student populations, resulting in students' experiencing culturally incongruent educational experiences, is a key factor in the persistence of the achievement gap (Janerette & Fifield, 2005). The vast majority of teachers in U.S. schools are European American, middleclass, and monolingual in English and, thus, culturally different from many of the students they teach. These teachers often hold ethnocentric beliefs that negatively influence the educational experiences of diverse students (Gay, 2000; Irvine, 2003; Sleeter, 2001). It is imperative that we address this culture gap if we are to meet the educational needs of all students. Teacher educators must challenge preservice teachers' ethnocentric worldviews and prepare them to teach culturally diverse student populations.

Theorists have identified culturally responsive teacher beliefs, knowledge, and skills that provide culturally congruent educational experiences for diverse students. Gay (2000) explains that culturally responsive teaching makes use of

   the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and
   performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning
   encounters more relevant to and effective for them. It teaches to
   and through the strengths of these students. It is culturally
   validating and affirming. (p. 29, italics in original)

The foundation of such teaching is an "understanding that school performance takes place within a complex sociocultural ecology and is filtered through cultural screens both students and teachers bring to the classroom" (Gay, 2000, p. …