What is cultural competency? What does cultural competency mean in education?


JDP-385

Here’s one definition adapted from what others have said:

Culturally competent means possessing the knowledge, skills, and values required to achieve a better understanding of, and enhance relationships with learners of different cultures.

I wanted to share this for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s more topical than ever. Another is that it’s potentially confusing.

Mainly though, I wanted to compile my notes for myself and put them somewhere where I could remember where they were.

This is also to remind myself how I arrived at some definitions in the process of trying to get some clarity on the issue.

My context is education. So, for better or worse, I started with NZQA. I went looking to see what others had already said and done. This led me to Unit Standard 26953 which has a health focus.

In the explanatory notes, it says under note 7:

  • Culturally competent means possessing the knowledge, skills, and values required to achieve a better understanding of, and enhance relationships with, members of different cultures.

If you swap out “patients” or “health care clients” from the health context and substitute in “learners” you get something like my definition at the top of the page.

I like the fact that the definition references knowledge, skills and values.

These three components make up almost any kind of professional standards framework. This includes the new Foundation Learning Professional Standards Framework that I have been working on for the TEC. It’s laid out slightly differently, but it’s the same three things:

  • Ō tātou uara – What we value.
  • Ō tātou mohiotanga – What we understand.
  • Ā tātou mahi – What we do.

This means that cultural competency should permeate every part of who we are and what we know and do as educators. It’s not something you can separate out and put in a box.

There’s more. The same NZQA document also states that:

  • Māori cultural competencies refer to the practical steps for providing services and relating to Māori in a manner that recognises and respects Māori values and beliefs, as outlined in the Nationwide Health and Disability Advocacy Service publication referenced in explanatory note 4 above.

The notes reference an expert that many of us in education are already familiar with – Professor Mason Durie. He describes cultural competence as about:

…the acquisition of skills to achieve a better understanding of members of other cultures.

Some further digging – this time on the ACC website – led me to this explanation, also by Professor Durie. He reinforces what he says above and adds another element. This is that the goal of culturally competent care in Health with Māori clients is to do two things:

  • Improve understanding and relationships, and thereby;
  • Achieve better clinical results.

I think clinical results transposes to education as outcomes, broadly defined. And assuming that this is workable and makes sense, I think that you can do several things from here.

One is that you can link the definition to specific cultural or indigenous groups. Another is that you could assume that what works well for one underserved, priority group possibly serves the mainstream as well. And the other is that you could link it to a set of outcomes, whether broad or specific.

I’m gonna leave off specific outcomes for now, but here’s what it might look like if you specify two groups identified by the TEC as priorities using some of the wording discussed above.

  • Māori cultural competencies refer to the practical steps for providing education and relating to Māori and other learners in a manner that recognises and respects Māori values and beliefs in order to achieve better teaching and learning outcomes.
  • Pasifika cultural competencies refer to the practical steps for providing education and relating to Pasifika and other learners in a manner that recognises and respects Pasifika values and beliefs in order to achieve better teaching and learning outcomes.

Would some version of this approach work for ESOL learners? What about for a “united nations” group of mixed ethnicities? What about Deaf learners?

I say yes to all.

So… a couple of other questions… What if you wanted to bring a high-level, big government focus to this? Or what if you wanted to bring a more personalised regional, even iwi-specific focus to this?

Then you could add some wording like “… as defined by XYZ” or “as outlined in ABC” and reference where these outcomes have already been articulated. Fill in the blank yourself. No big literature review required.

I’m sure that government agencies, specific iwi-facing organisations working in education and others can tell you what the outcomes need to look like for the learners they are concerned about.

What’s the point of this exercise…?

Well, it could be just semantics. However, because of the mixture of serious interest plus confusion about what cultural competency means, I think the following truism applies:

A problem well stated is a problem half-solved. (Charles Kettering)

I’m not proposing any answers here. I think these will vary depending on context.

However, if I’m serious and want to move forward with this in an educational setting, I need specific answers to at least these questions:

  • Who are the learners that I’m concerned about?
  • What are their values and beliefs?
  • What are the teaching and learning outcomes that I want to achieve?
  • What are the knowledge, skills, and values I need in order to achieve a better understanding of and enhance relationships with, these specific learners?
  • How does my improved understanding of my learners, values, beliefs and outcomes translate into practical steps for teaching and learning?
  • How do these factors influence or possibly transform the manner in which I teach or otherwise support their learning?