Inclusive Intercultural Education in Multicultural Societies

Published online: 29 November 2021


Cultural diversity is a characteristic of plural societies, and the way that each society approaches that diversity determines whether or not the societies evolve or stagnate, whether cultural groups remain segregated or integrate, and whether social inequalities grow or if communities affirm the value of diversity and promote equality.

For this reason, it is important to analyze the cultural diversity management system that guides our interventions because the socioeducational methods and practices designed for any given plural context depends on them. Research refers to the assimilationist, multicultural, and intercultural cultural diversity management models, and the conclusion appears to be that the intercultural model is the framework that [best] accounts for an integrated and inclusive society.

Interculturalism requires the establishment of policies that champion equity, in order to achieve equality at the legal and social levels, and that promote genuine equality of opportunity. At the same time, it demands pedagogical practices based in civic education. An intercultural education should help us learn to live together and should educate people, to grow their knowledge, understanding, and respect for cultural diversity.

Intercultural education is a reflective, socioeducational practice focused on social and cultural transformation through equal rights, equity, and positive interaction between different cultures. Intercultural education is characterized by an acknowledgment of cultural diversity, a positive valuation of egalitarian relations, equal educational opportunities for all, and moving beyond racism and discrimination.

Fundamentally, intercultural education can be understood as an educational model that champions cultural diversity and the advantages it offers within an education context, such as the values of human rights and equality, and a rejection of cultural discrimination.


cultural diversity’ education ’ethnic minorities’ assimilation’ multiculturalism’ interculturalism’ social inclusion


  • Education, Change, and Development
  • Education, Cultures, and Ethnicities
  • Education and Society

Culture, Society, and Processes of Acculturation

The evolution of human beings over the course of centuries has been possible because humans are social beings. They live in societies, share a common habitat, solve problems together, fight together for survival and for their own wellbeing. They share cultures and a specific way of living and being in the world. For this reason, the concepts of culture and society must be analyzed together.

Tylor’s definition of culture comes from the last part of the 20th century and has remained in use owing to its simplicity, defining culture as “that complex whole made up of understandings, beliefs, art, morals, laws, customs, and any other abilities or habits acquired by man as a member of a society” (Tylor, 1977, p. 19). However, Rochel (1985) defined society as “all of the organizational relations generated by the individuals within a social system.” In other words, while society refers to forms of organization, culture is better defined as ways of doing, feeling, and thinking (Cisneros Britto, 2009).

All human groups have developed their own culture, which is, ultimately, everything that they have learned or invented to better adapt themselves to the needs of their time and ecosystem. Cultures are diffused throughout a society by individuals, they are shared from one individual to another, in a specific context, and within the society in which they develop. Depending on the society, we will find that cultural transmission is preserved and transmitted in an identical form from generation to generation, or that, through the process of transmission, cultures adapt to a changing reality. Everything depends on the level of openness of the society in question, whether it is a closed, static society, or if it is a society open to change and intercultural exchange.

It is important to note that, in reality, culture serves two functions: an ontological function that allows human beings to define themselves in relationship to others, and an instrumental function that facilitates adaptation to new environments by producing specific behaviors and attitudes, which is to say, a cultural reconstruction. In the most closed societies, much more importance is given to the ontological function of culture: that of belonging to a group and the preservation of cultural practices. However, in more modern societies, the instrumental or pragmatic function of culture is more developed than the ontological function in order to respond to the material needs of these societies: increased (intercultural) contact, rapid changes, and growing complexity.

When a series of continuous (direct or indirect), contacts occurs between groups and individuals from different cultures, the result is a process of acculturation. During this acculturation process, depending on whether we maintain our culture or if we want to engage with other cultural realities, Berry (1990) established four strategies of acculturation that have inspired the management models for cultural diversity (assimilationist, multiculturalist, and interculturalist). Along these lines, the acculturation strategies Berry proposed are:

1. Assimilation: The individuals of the dominant group reject the cultural diversity of the ethnic minorities and only engage with them if they adopt the dominant cultural model. Assimilationist Management Model for Cultural Diversity.
2. Separation: The cultural groups want to maintain their original culture, but they do not seek positive relationships. Multicultural Management Model for Cultural Diversity.
3. Integration: The cultural groups seek to maintain their culture and also to engage with and learn about the new culture. Intercultural Management Model for Cultural Diversity.
4. Marginalization: The individuals from the dominant culture don’t respect the culture of the minority groups and don’t want to engage with them.

The three models developed from these acculturation strategies are models that are being developed today in specific countries, and that determine the integration policies targeting the ethnic minorities that live in these countries.

By their very nature, democratic societies must commit to following the intercultural model of integration because it is the only model that affirms the right to be, to think, to express oneself, and to act differently, and because it combines that right with the right to not be treated as a minority. That is to say, within an intercultural model, everyone should have the same rights as the majority. When a group of the population, such as ethnic minorities, isn’t afforded the same moral, political, and legal opportunities as the majority, a robust and active defense of integration becomes necessary.

Management Models for Cultural Diversity: Assimilationist, Multiculturalist, and Interculturalist

The word multicultural refers to a situation within a society, group, or social entity, wherein several groups or individuals from different cultural backgrounds live together, whatever their chosen lifestyle. In general terms, we can say that a multicultural society is one in which groups can make distinctions between one another on the basis of criteria with significant and divisive social force, such as an ethnoracial, ethnonational, religious, and/or linguistic background: all criteria of belonging. Now, in every society, there is usually a dominant group that controls a majority of political and economic power.

Depending on the acculturation strategies the dominant group develops, from a cultural perspective, we can encounter societies that view cultural diversity in negative terms and enact strategies to eliminate or reduce cultural differences. In contrast, there are societies that consider cultural diversity in positive terms and enact strategies to protect cultural groups.

Based on these two positions, as seen in Table 1, we can establish three management models for cultural diversity: the Assimilationist model, the Multiculturalist model, and the Interculturalist model.

Table 1. Management Models for Cultural Diversity

Cultural Diversity Is Negative Assimilationist model or assimilation
Cultural Diversity Is Positive Multicultural model or multiculturalism
Intercultural model or interculturalism

Next, we present the three management models of cultural diversity currently being developed in democratic societies.

Assimilationist Model or Assimilation

We can define assimilation as a model based on the belief that there is a cultural code that sustains the dominant and/or majority group, which is socially superior to the rest: in other words, the belief that there is a way of doing things and organizing life that is the most correct, appropriate, and convenient for all of society.

The assimilationist model tries to absorb diverse ethnic groups into a society that is supposed to be relatively homogenous, imposing the culture of the dominant group onto others. Advocates of this model believe that advanced societies trend more toward universalism rather than particularism, and they conceive of ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity as a problem that threatens social integrity and cohesion. This model encourages cultural uniformity: it suggests and assumes that groups and minorities will adopt the language, values, norms, and identity markers of the dominant culture, and likewise, that they will abandon their own culture in the process. This process takes place between a majority with power (the host society or dominant culture) and a minority without power (foreigners and or ethnic minorities). The latter are expected to adopt the culture and customs of the host society and to change their own identity in order to be fully integrated into the dominant culture. This is a process that demands adaptations and transformations on the part of ethnic minorities, but not on the part of the supposed cultural majority.

This model has been strongly criticized because of its negative view of cultural diversity and its efforts to eliminate it. Additionally, it is a model that wrongly assumes that societies are culturally homogeneous in origin and does not account for cultural diversity within groups. It has also been criticized for unilateralism in its approach to change because it only works to change the cultural minorities.

The Multiculturalist Model or Multiculturalism-Interculturalist Model or Interculturalism

Interculturalism is a model that, according to Schmelkes (2001), works to go beyond multiculturalism and that affirms that a multicultural society cannot be truly democratic if it does not transition from multiculturalism to interculturalism by approaching cultural exchange as a mutual enrichment of cultures in relationship with one another.

It is a model grounded in the idea that cultures are not static, but rather, are dynamic entities that are enriched and energized as a result of intercultural exchange, this interculturality.

The term intercultural is a sociopolitical concept that emerged in response to multiculturalism’s failure to reflect social dynamics. Its first iteration came as part of an action plan in the field of education, where pluralism, understood as the coexistence of all cultures, was an insufficient framework to account for the intensity of the relationships between different peoples. The term intercultural emerged in response to the need for education curricula that were not monocultural, that did not silo individual groups, that did not present cultures as monolithic, that capitalized on the potential for different cultural knowledge and experiences to enrich the educational field, and, ultimately, to provide an education-focused intervention that prioritizes intercultural coexistence within societies. Interculturality is not a concept, it is a practice. It is not a theoretical framework; it is an ethical project. More than an idea, it is an attitude, a way of living and being in the world (Tubino, 2004).

The intercultural project is focused on exchange and reciprocal influence. It promotes a positive attitude towards interaction between people from different cultures. Because we know that cultures are dynamic, not static entities, they are enriched and energized as a result of cultural exchange and thus, interculturality. Interculturalism conceptualizes cultural identity as something that each person actively constructs throughout their life. In this way, the instrumental function of culture is prioritized, facilitating a constructivist approach to cultural identity.

In fact, interculturalism suggests that it is not cultures that come into contact with one another, but rather individuals with their own cultural knowledge and understanding who engage with one another. As noted, interculturalism adopts a constructivist approach to cultural identity, wherein no one belongs to any one single culture, but rather, culture belongs to people who use, manipulate, and transform it throughout their lives. Therefore there is no reference culture used to measure others, and there is no established hierarchy between cultures.

As we have indicated, interculturalism focuses on individuals with their cultural knowledge and understandings as open to one another and capable of mixing and producing new cultural syntheses. However, there is one major problem: intercultural interaction almost always takes place in a context of inequality, unequal power relations, and ethno-racial hierarchies.

To develop interculturalism, it is necessary to establish two kinds of strategies: political strategies and pedagogical strategies. This is referred to as “the pedagogical-political approach to interculturalism” (Figure 1), which posits that, to develop interculturalism, it is necessary to establish a politics of equity, to achieve legal and social equality for all people. It is also necessary to establish intercultural pedagogical practices and intercultural education, and through education, to learn to live together and to foster knowledge, understanding, and respect for cultural diversity.


Figure 1. The pedagogical-political approach to interculturalism.

Figure 1. The pedagogical-political approach to interculturalism.

For interculturality to become a reality, there must be legal and social equality between people from all cultures. An intercultural education is also necessary to educate citizens in knowledge, understanding, and respect for the different cultures present in their society. Intercultural education imagines cultural exchange on equal terms as well as the establishment of a dynamic cultural reality in constant transformation, where diversity is viewed by all as a source of enrichment.

As Essomba (2008) reminded us, interculturalism works towards a stable society, with a common understanding of culture shared by all, which means that each citizen should be interested in understanding the other and communicating with them. Interculturality is grounded in the need for participation, coexistence, and mutual exchange between people on equal terms, as well as the potential for each cultural group to contribute something to the rest of society.

It’s about “finding a shared project” rather than creating a uniform society, a model for social relations, aimed at overcoming racism, that focuses its efforts on influencing how people are socialized from an ethical perspective, with special attention to reasoning and sensitivity towards the other.

Inclusive Intercultural Education

School, as an entity whose function is the socialization of individuals to turn them into participatory citizens, doesn’t just communicate basic knowledge. It offers students comprehensive development with the goal of educating them to be informed citizens. Therefore, education today should encourage dialogue as well as equality in opportunities and exchange in order to promote a quality and equitable education for all, without excluding cultural minorities or foreigners. It should account for the heterogeneity of its student body and recognize its diversity in gender, ability, interests, tastes, rhythms and learning styles, functional diversity, languages, races, etc., and within all of this diversity, cultural diversity. School has never been homogeneous, but today it is essential that educators establish strategies for teaching in multicultural environments.

Strategies for approaching diversity within schools have gone through various phases until finally arriving at Inclusive Education. As indicated in Table 2, these strategies correspond to the different management models for cultural diversity.

Table 2. Approaching Diversity in Schools

Assimilation (Beginning in 1960/1970) Integration (From 1960/1970 to 1990) Inclusion (Since 1990)
Basic Assumptions Homogeneity in the student body. The goal is to balance out the deficiencies in the student body in order to eliminate diversity. Have to “integrate” by adapting the curricula, incorporating new resources, etc., but all without exchange, resulting in coexistence within the school. Have to transform the system in order to prioritize educating everyone.
Attitude Toward Diversity Diversity is negative, it is a deficiency that must be eliminated. Diversity is positive and must be respected. Diversity is positive, must be respected, and interaction is encouraged.
Management Models for Functional Diversity Assimilationist model Multiculturalist model Interculturalist model
Kind of School Compensatory education Multicultural education Intercultural education

Initially, the term inclusion was closely linked with the special education needs of some students, but more recently it has been applied to education as a whole, promoting the idea that education is for everyone, independent of individual characteristics or educational needs. Inclusive education affirms that all boys and girls can learn in a school environment in which diversity is understood to be an added value.

Inclusive education, “recovers the authentic meaning of integration as a process of mutual adaptation which allows the minority to incorporate itself into the host society on equal terms with native citizens, without losing their culture of origin” (García Medina et al., 2012, p. 21). In other words, and as indicated by the intercultural model, it is a process that impacts both the host society as well as the minority group.

Intercultural education is

a practice, a way of thinking and doing that understands education as cultural exchange and cultural creation. It promotes educational practices geared towards each and every member of society as a whole. It puts forth a model of analysis and implementation that impacts all dimensions of the educational process. The objectives of this education are equality in opportunities (.|.|.), overcoming racism, and the acquisition of intercultural skills.

Intercultural education recognizes the values and lifestyles of all peoples and promotes respect and tolerance for different cultural norms, as long as they do not violate the basic human rights of other people. It involves an education centered in difference, diversity, and cultural pluralities, as opposed to an education for those who are culturally different. But it does not stop with respect and tolerance, rather, in contrast to multicultural education, intercultural education seeks out exchange, interaction, and a shared project that everyone can contribute to.

In other words, intercultural education is grounded in a respect for other cultures, seeks out contact and exchange on equal terms, avoids ghettoization, segregation, and assimilation, and promotes a critical view of all cultures.

The goal of an intercultural education is to foster an open-mindedness toward the world, in a way that eradicates mechanisms of exclusion in all their dimensions and allows the subjects to establish themselves in relationship to others beyond fear of feeling one’s identity is threatened. According to Ander-Egg, “It is not enough to say, ‘I am tolerant,’ one must say ‘I respect’ and ‘I take pleasure,’ in difference and multiplicity, because they enrich me” (2001, p. 11).

However, intercultural education should not glorify cultural differences. Glorification overvalues cultural difference in a way that reifies human beings within cultural groups and runs the risk of falling into a misleading form of passive tolerance that can lead to exclusionary and culturally essentialist racism. Interculturalism values cultural pluralism, but its fundamental element is exchange and contact between people from different cultures, a reciprocal interaction and creative negotiation. Maalouf defined the process thus:

I would like to speak first to “some of you”: the more you immerse yourself in the culture of your host country, the more you will be able to imbue it with your own[. A]nd now to “the rest of you”: when an immigrant perceives that you respect their culture of origin, the more open they will be to the culture of their host country (.|.|.). It is, at its core, a moral contract, in which the parties involved gain more from learning about one another’s specific contexts: within the host country, what is the baseline level of knowledge and understanding that everyone must acquire, and what can legitimately be negotiated or even rejected. The same goes for the culture of origin of the immigrants: what cultural components deserve to be integrated into the adopted country as something of great value, and what components can be put away in the closet?

As Sáez (2006) suggested, we should encourage interaction between culturally diverse people and members of society, rather than fostering an exclusive and exclusionary, closed off cult of original cultural identity.

According to Medina et al. (2004), intercultural education is based on the following principles:

  • Recognition, acceptance, and appreciation of cultural diversity.
  • A refusal to label or define anyone according to their culture. Not segregating people into groups [according to their culture].
  • A defense of the values of equality, respect, tolerance, pluralism, cooperation, and shared social responsibility.
  • Fighting racism, discrimination, prejudices, and stereotypes by fostering positive values and attitudes towards cultural diversity.
  • Approaching conflict as a positive tool for coexistence and providing students with strategies to resolve conflicts in a constructive way.
  • Involving the entire educational community’s participation in the democratic management of the [educational] center.
  • Curricular revision to eliminate ethnocentrism through universal models of human knowledge and an appreciation for different languages and cultures.
  • Mandate that educational professionals be trained to work with diverse populations and to utilize cooperative teaching methods together with appropriate resources.
  • Specific attention should be paid to students still learning the language of their host country. Educators should focus on the communicative aspects of teaching in order to help them succeed.

These principles of intercultural education work to improve quality of life and to strengthen cultural identity through acknowledgement of and engagement with diversity. They promote a nuanced understanding of cultures, and therefore, train students to be cognizant of cultural pluralism.

Interculturality, according to Soriano (2011), was designed as a pedagogical strategy that works to improve the quality of life of all members of the educational community, and it does so by deepening the value of education, and by valuing education in and of itself. We should bear in mind that teaching and learning processes are multidirectional, and that the pedagogical practices within an intercultural school should affirm diversity and foster spaces for intercultural exchange. It is not a matter of bringing isolated cultural activities into a school, reading a story from another culture, or presenting classes in world music; rather, it is a process of demonstrating the importance of intercultural emotions, values, and skills (Escarbajal, 2015). As indicated in Table 3, sometimes schools carry out activities that they call intercultural, but they are actually isolated events.

Table 3. What Is and Isn’t Intercultural Education?

Not Intercultural Intercultural
Education for specific groups Compensatory education Education for anyone and everyone: for society as a whole
Folklore: an intercultural week, a world cuisine day, etc. Integrated into all facets of the educational process
Looking for discrete solutions to solve isolated problems A transformational process
Glorifying difference Valuing the richness of diversity
Avoiding conflict Learning to learn from conflict
Grouping specific people together Promoting relationships in between people
Promoting tolerance Developing intercultural skills

Source: Prepared by the authors.

To summarize, intercultural education is clearly tied to processes of exchange between diverse persons and groups. Intercultural education promotes intercultural communication and interconnection, and this is possible because the cultures are not so static that they can’t evolve, and the people that belong to them are capable of reinventing them and recreating them to adapt to new challenges and improve their lives. As we noted earlier, the instrumental function of culture makes this intercultural connection possible, together with the establishment and evolution of individual cultural identity.

As Sáez reminded us,

this enriching exchange is the product of a relationship between people with diverse cultural roots; me and the other or the others. Not just me. Not just the other. It is a relationship with the other, conceived of individually and collectively as diverse and not as a foreigner or enemy. This exchange and interaction between the I and the Other are the engine that drives intercultural education.

Living together requires openness to the knowledge of other cultures and the decentralization of one’s own perspective. That is to say, it requires us to learn about other cultures and to think critically about our own cultural norms. It also requires us to understand that cultural diversity is a process of hybrid living, the active cultivation of respect and tolerance for the different ways that other people think and live. In other words, it requires us to develop the intercultural skills that Aguado Odina (1996) defined as a combination of specific and general skills that facilitate the formation of a citizenry, specifically:

  • Cultivating a positive attitude towards cultural diversity and expanding one’s understanding of the traditions and beliefs of others.
  • Fostering verbal and non-verbal communication skills that will facilitate effective communications in contexts where two or more cultures are in contact with one another, learning to recognize and negotiate the tensions that arise from ambiguous intercultural situations.
  • Developing the ability to understand one’s own culture through action and reflection, and to carry out a critical assessment of one’s own culture.

Regarding the work of interculturality in schools, according to the work of Astorgano (2000), we can establish four specific areas (see Figure 2): (a) Critical analysis of the inequalities in the world, understanding the causes of economic, social, and cultural inequalities, as well as the role we play in maintaining them; (b) The development of communication skills and intercultural dialogue focused on each and every student, and on the acceptance of cultural differences; (c) Basic values such as tolerance, respect, equity, and participation; (d) Constructive intercultural conflict resolution, working for a negotiated resolution through intercultural mediation.

Figure 2. Intercultural education. Areas of development.

Figure 2. Intercultural education. Areas of development.

Intercultural education involves the implementation of new educational guidelines and practices aimed at preparing students to live in diverse societies. It fosters cultural critique to highlight the ethnocentrism of current curricula, it emphasizes communication, exchange, appreciation for, and acceptance of other cultures, and it works to overcome prejudice and racism.

Furthermore, Essomba (2008) noted that this kind of education necessitates a curricular transformation, to make sure that the changes made in the classroom make their way out into the world. This curriculum should help students understand the cause and effects of migratory flows, social inequalities, specific prejudices and stereotypes, and should foster an understanding of the broader relationship between identify and place.

By way of example, we indicate some issues [that are always at play] within an intercultural education project:

  • Respect for and sensitivity to different ways of acting and understanding life: In intercultural relationships it is important to bear in mind that cultural norms such as the concept of time, physical contact, non-verbal communication, etc., are not always interpreted in the same way within different cultures.
  • Valuing people as individuals: It is important to appreciate everyone’s cultural attributes and language, as we are all cultural intermediaries, but we must avoid stereotypes and, ultimately, treat people like individuals and value their unique characteristics.
  • Assuming ignorance: To interact with the other, an attitude of sustained humility is necessary, of questioning oneself and one’s own motivations, as opposed to a confident arrogance or a belief that one already knows everything there is to know about the other.
  • An attitude of openness: To be open to the other and to others, and to be personally and culturally enriched, it is important to be able to listen, to have a large capacity for empathy, to be capable of putting yourself in another person’s shoes, and to know how to engage in dialogue.
  • Identifying and overcoming prejudices against people and groups of different ethnic backgrounds: This is a baseline skill within intercultural relationships and is an essential starting point because it both acknowledges and resolves anxieties about difference that can sometimes complicate the integration of people from minority groups.
  • Knowing how to be critical of your own culture in addition to others: We believe all cultures are equal, but we don’t believe that all cultural norms have the same value. For this reason it is necessary that we learn to be critical of cultural aspects that violate basic human rights. Radical relativism and an unconditional praise of difference can lead to ghettoization and the marginalization of certain groups.
  • Openness to self-acculturation: Within intercultural relationships, we are all simultaneously subject and object. In other words, we have to be open to experiencing personal change.

As Sáez noted (2006), the goal of intercultural education is not simply to learn about the culture of another person, as interesting and necessary as that may be, but rather, to learn through interaction with another human, as the individual and diverse subject that he/she/they is/are, keeping in mind, that they are above all a member of the human race. Intercultural education must be taught, and for this reason, we all must learn it.


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