People do not acquire intercultural competences simply based on their good intentions and by living together and sharing the same experiences.
This is why there is a growing need to have deep awareness of the distinctive features of ones’ own culture and critical capacity to engage in understanding of different cultures and value systems, for teachers and students. For this reason the United World College of the Adriatic has developed its own methods and techniques to foster intercultural understanding that add to the IB Programme. One of them is a subject called WORLD ARTS AND CULTURES – developed by Prof. Henry Thomas which has become a pilot subject within the whole IB Diploma system.
World Arts and Cultures is in essence an approach to questions of cultural identity and cultural interactions which starts from the students’ “encounter” with a cultural phenomenon.
Each of the steps in the lessons encourages the students to learn and think critically about the process of learning. Thinking about the process of learning in the classroom should lead the students to think about how they /we “learn” about cultural identities in the “real world” – about their/our own cultural identities, about how they/we perceive “alien” cultures, about “otherness”, about stereo- types and prejudices, and about what happens when different cultures come into contact.
The world arts and cultures methodology begins with observation - a direct engagement with a cultural phenomenon - and encourages students to ask questions about the making and meaning of an art object or cultural phenomenon and its connection with a particular social, economic and political context. An art object or cultural phenomenon is created by a specific culture; as such it embodies and reflects certain aspects of that culture.
The subject develops:
• a fascination with the richness of knowledge as a human endeavour
• an awareness of how knowledge is constructed, critically examined, evaluated and renewed, by communities and individuals
• an interest in the diversity of ways of thinking and ways of living.
For example, during their first lesson, students are shown a small bronze statute from Benin (Benin Royal Art c 1500) and asked questions like: what do you see? What do you think it is? Why do you think this? What material is it made of? When was it made? How was it made? Why was it made?
Often students with Western cultural background think this is a statue of a women with many necklaces. African students more easily understand that the statue represents a warrior, being the necklaces a symbol of strength and power. After this first speculative discussion, students quickly realize that in order to answer such questions they need information. The class generates then the categories of information required, deciding what they need to know in order to “understand” the cultural phenomena they have just viewed. Students are divided in small research groups, each finding out information about one of the categories listed during the first lesson. While learning about Benin, students acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and understand how it is easy to misunderstand a cultural phenomena if you lack understanding of the cultural background which has generated it.
Further on during the course, students study what happens when cultures meet and merge (birth of jazz in North America) or when one culture assimilates another (Conquests of Mexico, 1519 – 1521).
“I realize now that while art was the central element in our discussions, it really served as an instrument to talk about all that a community represents, such as its culture, history, people, traditions, anthropology, economics. ..When I think back I feel like we talked about everything, which gave me such an incredible view of the world's cultural diversity. .. The multiple opportunities to explore the art and cultures we would talk about in class by taking cultural trips, for example to Aquileia, Venice, Vienna and Rome, are definitely among the highlights of both my academic and personal life".
(C. Guillermo Alfonzo - UWC AD 1998-2000)
"Studying World Cultures lifted an invisible shroud that had previously been covering my eyes - it made me to look at art and the world in general, in a completely different light. I was taught about different cultures and people which might never have crossed my path had I not been lucky enough to study it at IB level. After 1 week of studying World Cultures, I had changed my career choice from thinking that I wanted to be a Physiotherapist to knowing that I wanted to become an Art Historian - and 10 years on, I can not imagine having become anything else".
(Stephanie Faoro - UWC AD 1998-2000)