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Topic 3

Examples of critical cultural differences and good practices in overcoming problems


“United in Diversity”


Firstly used in 2000, EU motto “United in Diversity” underlines Europeans’ ability to cooperate for peace and prosperity, while preserving a unique combination of many different cultures, traditions and languages. 

Unfortunately, examples of stigmatization or excluding practices remain widespread and for many people, cultural diversity and intercultural learning are inevitably associated with a potential for conflict. If an excess in diversity may lead to a loss of identity, extreme homogeneity may translate into loss of individuality. 

Since teachers and students are often not from the same ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds, these cultural differences can create serious challenges. Yet, seen through an intercultural lens, conflict can be interpreted as a chance for development, a neutral expression of disaccord between two or more people which can be transformed in a fruitful exchange of opinions, ideas, perspectives.


1 Sandu, O., & Lyamouri-Bajja, N. (2018, 03). T-KIT 4 Intercultural Learning. Retrieved from The Council of Europe and the European Union. COE:


Watch the video to learn more about Topic 3 contents.

Intercultural competences seem to be the real cure to conflicts.

Intercultural competences are the foundation of communication and represent an effective means to bring up active citizens: individuals able to listen, be questioned and eager to reach a common solution to a problem, building bridges across cultural differences. Thus, though some conflicts are somehow unavoidable, it is possible to map potential sources of disagreements and prevent them or find a common solution. To this aim, not only students, but also teachers should be appropriately trained in intercultural awareness and sensitivity. 

The “analysis of critical incidents”, of French anthropologist and social psychologist Margalit Cohen-Emerique, is proposed here as a good practice to help teachers develop their own intercultural competences and learn how to deal with cultural diversity in the classroom. Cohen-Emerique invites us to consider experiences of "culture shock" (or “critical incident”) as the starting point to explore cultural diversity. This methodology can be adapted to many different contexts and specific needs, thus enabling its upscaling. Indeed, though initially destined to social operators working with migrants, the methodology has been transferred to other fields and is suggested here as a useful approach for the school system.  

Based on these premises, Topic 3 provides teachers with different activities aimed to strengthen their students’ ability to embrace and respect cultural and linguistic diversity, educate them on the values of people with a different background, contribute to the creation of culturally sensitive programs. The activities should be implemented keeping in mind the three steps of the analysis of critical incidents (decentration, understanding the other, negotiation) to support the development of students’ intercultural competences. 

In order to test their level of knowledge and competences needed to overcome critical cultural differences, teachers are invited to complete the final test, clicking on “Check your knowledge!”.




Specific objectives


  • To stimulate students’ critical thinking 

  • To effectively manage critical cultural differences 

  • To create a safe and open space for democratic dialogue and active engagement 

  • To pay greater attention to sensitive issues, including gender, body, religion


  • To contribute to the creation of inclusive learning environments 

  • To eliminate widespread prejudices 

  • To respect other perspectives and learn how to overcome conflictual situations

Objectives / Outcome

Learning outcomes


  • Apply Cohen-Emerique’s methodology for the “analysis of critical incidents” 

  • Recognise potential sources of conflicts and possible obstacles to integration 

  • Use different approaches to regulate students’ interactions and overcome problems deriving from cultural differences


  • Recognise personal prejudices and other people’s perspectives  

  • Apply effective behaviours to collaborate and overcome critical cultural differences

  • Use appropriate terms when speaking about other cultures

Good practice


The French psychologist and sociologist Margalit Cohen-Emerique became famous for her innovative approach to cultural diversity: the analysis of “critical incidents”, or “culture shock”. The term, originally used by J.C. Flanagan, refers to a situation in which a misunderstanding, problem or conflict can emerge, due to an encounter with a different cultural background, of which we have scarce knowledge. This event provokes specific intellectual and emotional reactions, mainly linked to incomprehension, fear, surprise, to a feeling of loss. If not recognised, a culture shock may result in defensive behaviours, preventing the opportunity for intercultural encounters².  

On the contrary, culture shocks must be recognised, identified and processed, as important chances for learning, prompting you to analyse your emotional reaction and the real causes at its origin. Margalit Cohen-Emerique identified three main steps to help overcome a culture shock: 

  1. Decentration: during a first stage, it is important to identify your emotional reaction to a culture shock through self-analysis and remaining as much culturally neutral as possible. This process is essential to understand how your cultural reference frame influences your interactions and to identify your sensitive zones. 

  2. Understanding the other: it is time to focus on your interlocutor, investigating his/her values, avoiding simplifications, stereotypes and considering contextual factors. By analysing the other’s reference model, his/her behaviours can become comprehensible, but such efforts require an open mind and curiosity. It is by confrontation with your interlocutor, that you realise the influence of your cultural background in perceiving others. 

  3. Negotiation: in this final step, cultural differences are finally overcome through solutions that consider each participant’s identity. This is the true encounter between two frameworks, where both will try to find a compromise, preserving their individual identity but resisting the need for closure. 

Through this three-step process, Cohen-Emerique methodology aims to detect sensitive areas: potential elements of contrast in the interaction between different cultures.  When the sensitive zones are crossed, you may feel losing your own references, thus experiencing a culture shock. “Sensitive” areas include those elements with a primary role for cultures, e.g.: social rules, physical contacts, space and time, religion, body³.


2  Alessi, A.  et al. (2019). Radicalisation prevention programme. PRACTICE:

3  WELCOMM. (2019). Training Material. WELCOMM:

Good Practice



Cohen-Emerique’s methodology can be adapted to many different contexts. At school, when teachers are faced with cultural diversity, it is fundamental for them to focus on their own identity, feelings and values first, in order to understand what they perceive as different and somehow irritating.

How to implement the critical incidents methodology at school?

Before explaining the importance of cultural diversity to your students, we suggest you to analyse your own cultural background and reference framework⁴.


4 Adapted from DICE Training Manual:


Have a look at the following exercise for self-reflection:

Why don’t you keep a journal where to take notes of any happening making you feel irritated in a multicultural context?

Here are some hints for self-reflection:

1. Don’t be afraid of feeling surprised; rather, let your curiosity emerge!

2. Analyse culture within a wider perspective, considering all elements forming it.

3. Remember: cultures are not static, but constantly changing and exchanging.

4. People are the product of different cultures acquired and integrated throughout their life path.

5. Difference can only emerge from confrontation with others.

5  CESIE. BODI: Teacher’s Handbook. (2017, 06 30). CESIE:

The analysis of scenarios is quite common to apply Cohen-Emerique’s methodology in the educational dimension. Controversial issues may generate strong feelings and tensions in the classroom. Thus, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to explore different perspectives, not necessarily disclosing their personal information, and recognise feelings and emotions in order to be able to control them. Moreover, analysing these real-life scenarios can help you understand where to stand as teacher, learning how to mediate, stimulate students’ critical thinking and expression of their viewpoint. 

The following scenarios can be used to practice your intercultural competences. For each scenario, please reflect on how you would deal with similar situations. Some scenarios are taken from the media, other were created by TEACHmi partnership, other instead are inspired by the Erasmus+ project PRACTICE⁶. The analysis of these scenarios can stimulate discussion with other colleagues from the rest of Europe.


6 PRACTICE - Preventing Radicalism through Critical Thinking Competences: Radicalisation prevention programme (2019):

  • Scenario 1: National origins
    Maria is a Gambian native woman and asylum seeker in Portugal. She left her country seeking refuge because both, her and her husband's families had the intention to submit her children – two girls aged 2 and 4 at the time of departure - to genital mutilation. They managed to adapt well in the host country. Maria was studying at the University in her country and wishes to continue her academic career. From an early age, her daughters attended kindergarten. Communication is done in Portuguese and the girls quickly learned it, though their first language is English. A characteristic of this family is the dark skin. Already after 2 years, her children are perfectly adapted, with good relationships and feel attached to other children, educators and other people in their daily life. But Mary finds that whenever her little daughter interacts with a dark-skinned person, she communicates with that person in English. However, if her interlocutors have pale skin she communicates in Portuguese. Hints for reflection:why are the children communicating in different languages depending on the skin colour of their interlocutor? Comment: The children are interacting with people with different physical characteristics in different contexts (social, familiar, school) by using different idioms. The objective is to remove the direct link between skin colour and language. Suggested approach: Look for articles in the news dealing with the topic of migration, inclusion, language Analyse how terms are used in an inclusive / non-inclusive way Make a list of the most used terms and create your own glossary with your students.
  • Scenario 2: Linguistic-cultural identity
    A Human Resources Specialist in Training & Entrepreneurship Development reported this event: “I have a Brazilian colleague. She is intelligent and funny, she does a doctoral course and is responsible for Human Relations office in a financial institution, here, in Portugal. But do you know what she had to do to fit in and ascend to that position? She had to go and learn to speak Portuguese. Attention - She was already Portuguese speaking, obviously, but not with Portuguese native accent. Accent, that's what she went to learn, because her "Bom djia!" instead of "Bom dia!" prevented her from being considered for the job. She had classes and had to hire mentoring”. Hints for reflection: Is it right to impose the elimination of a characteristic that has to do with one’s linguistic-cultural identity in order to recognize his/her merit? Such an imposition means that in a "simple" matter of accent there is one Portuguese "superior" to another. What reason to discriminate in circumstances of social interaction, acceptance in work relationships, family? Comment: In Portugal, there are several examples of critical differentiation when it comes to someone from a community of Portuguese-speaking countries (Brazil, East Timor and Portuguese-speaking African countries: Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé and Príncipe). It is not the language or the accent, but the beliefs that awaken when you resist hiring someone, to rent a housing space, accept that a child falls in love with someone of another nationality. Similar happenings are linked to issues of citizenship. In Portugal, "Citizenship and Development" is a compulsory school subject. Yet, despite the ministerial guidelines and referential documents (Citizenship Education Guidelines), there is some margin of freedom left to schools and teachers to better manage the programme according to local needs, which makes the pedagogical orientation controversial. Suggested approach: If similar discriminatory events occur in your professional context, make yourself known as a contact person Discuss with your students the meaning of citizenship and its link with language Explain the concept of culture(s) and the need to avoid a distinction between dominant and somehow inferior ones
  • Scenario 3: Age and ethnicity
    This case was observed in a primary school (corresponding to the first 9 years of schooling) in Portugal: two young migrants were integrated in a class of 8th grade, where the average age of pupils is 13. These newcomers are 17 and 18 years old respectively. They were welcomed by the same hosting project by a local NGO. One has Syrian nationality and the other is South-Sudanese and they communicate in Arabic between them. They do not speak Portuguese, but have had contact with the English language in the refugee centres they have passed through. While interacting with colleagues and teachers they used English. They were each other's company. Among the teachers, someone noticed their interest and knack for football. Together with the host NGO, efforts were made to make contact with a prestigious club in the city. They took physical fitness tests, showed their talent and joined the Under-19 squad in the club's youth football training. Hints for reflection:How can sport stimulate inclusion? How can it contribute to increased motivation and feeling of acceptance within the host country? Comment:The two young migrants have gained a peer group, with shared interests and activities and, through sport, the opportunity to improve their self-esteem. They have gained greater popularity and recognition at school, among their peers, and greater motivation to study, since the rules of acceptance in sports training presuppose dedication and good school performance. Suggested approach: Be curious of your students’ personal interests, in order to offer them a chance for inclusion in a context in which they can feel at ease If a problem arises, look for pragmatic solutions, eventually involving other colleagues and being open to your students’ reasons
  • Scenario 4: Greetings
    Your school is organising an important ceremony, at the end of the year. A female teacher wants to congratulate with one of her students, who is Muslim, but he refuses to shake hands. Hints for refection:How would you deal with this situation? What role does religion play for him? How to interpret his reaction? Comment:Though the majority of Muslims use to shake hands, some others refuse a physical contact with a stranger of the opposite sex, as a sign of respect. Avoiding to shake hands, you are showing respect of the student’s “Individuality”. Indeed, pubertal identity processes may play a role in this case. Suggested approach: Avoid any distinction between our/their values/traditions Discuss with your students what is important of their way of greeting and be aware of different forms of greeting Show respect of your students’ concerns, bearing in mind that they are searching their identity
  • Scenario 5: Conflictual positions
    During a lesson, a political discussion emerges, creating oppositions and tensions between your students on the theme of conflicts and wars. Hints for refection: How would you react? Have you ever discussed politics with your students? How to deal with similar situations if the topic of war/conflict emerges in the classroom? Comment:discussions about international conflicts may create serious tensions in the classroom, due to different factors: personal/family involvement; a general sense of protest against injustice; compassion for the war victims; personal experiences. Political conflicts may be sensitive issues and controversial to discuss in school classes as students may represent different sides. Suggested approach: Select some events from the news and discuss them with your students, to make them show their feelings and thoughts Analyse the conflict: what is it about? What are the perspectives involved? Create a space for democratic dialogue about controversial issues in the classroom, where students can express their viewpoints, disagree and engage with their peers Discuss about justice and injustice Carefully monitor if any protest or criticism emerge With your students, try to identify different possibilities to deal with the conflict: e.g. forums, donations.

After reading the scenarios above, think about a situation in which you had to deal with critical cultural differences in the classroom or search in the news for articles focusing on language, migration and education. 

Thus, follow the 6-step process, retrieved from the Erasmus+ project PRACTICE⁷ (inspired by “The kids are alright”, 2018). 

  • Step 1: Do not blame culture or religion as the only cause behind all conflicts. 

  • Step 2: Examine the real reason behind the happening: does it depend on the student’s past experiences?

  • Step 3: Be open and interested in the concern and enable students to express their perspectives. 

  • Step 4: Just intervene if strictly necessary, e.g. when devaluing positions or absolute claims to truth arise. 

  • Step 5: Stimulate discussions, analysing the real wishes of your students on how they want to live. 

  • Step 6: Now check: What do you need to modify in your approach with cultural diversity?



7 PRACTICE - Preventing Radicalism through Critical Thinking Competences: Radicalisation prevention programme (2019):


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