Cultural Competence and the 'Pluriverse' of Learning

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Professor Carla Rinaldi on Cultural Competence

as ‘Educational-Relational Thinking’


Chris Thinnes


This post quotes extensively from Carla Rinaldi’s “Infant-Toddler Centers & Preschools as Places of Culture,” in Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners (Reggio Children & Project Zero, 2001).


It is necessary for us to learn this unity
in diversity, and this diversity in unity.

– Carla Rinaldi


Last fall, under the umbrella of my conference blogging for the NAIS People of Color Conference, I began to ask myself pressing questions about our obligations in schools to “Bridge Conversations about ‘Teaching & Learning’ and ‘Diversity & Inclusion’.”  I referred to an excellent presentation by Dr. Steven Jones at the fall CFEE conference, in which he forced the matter to a central question: We expect all students to demonstrate proficiency in math . . . Why not in cultural competence? (Watch the presentation here.)

I went on to describe the dilemma as I saw it at the time:

Somehow our collective conversations about diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice  – as teachers and leaders, as parents and children, as people of color and white folks — remain relegated to some ‘value added’ territory of affective, environmental, or ‘cultural’ conditions which are understood as secondary to the ‘real’ business of learning. Many of us continue to view ‘diversity’ as a matter having primarily to do with ‘cultural sensitivity’ (which implies that a normative, primarily white constituency, should be sympathetic to the ‘plight’ of people of color. Yuck.). What Dr. Jones urges us to do is to shift our collective conversation to one about cultural competency — a skill set that invites all of us to design intentional learning goals every bit as critical as those ‘twenty-first century skills’ we can all list off on 4, 5, or 6 fingers. . .

But are those of us engaged in the discourse on ‘twenty-first century learning’ or ‘schools of the future’ doing that? Or have we relegated ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ to another rung on the learning ladder, and left it off the table with some seemingly politer version of “that would be a lovely way to add some value to an excellent educational program. We’ll work on that too. Promise!”

Last week, I received from Debi Binkley (Assoc. Superintendent of Upper Arlington City School District) a copy of The Ohio Visible Learning Project, representing the extraordinary work of the leadership and staff at Wickliffe Progressive Community School to demonstrate “how documentation can be used by children and adults to further their learning.” Since then, I’ve been obsessively poring over a range of extraordinary background works from Reggio Children’s collaboration with Project Zero on ‘Making Learning Visible.’ One of the treasures I’ve found is a used copy of Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners, featuring extraordinary contributions by Howard Gardner, Carla Rinaldi, Steve Seidel, and more.

So what, then: was I living under a rock when this trove of remarkable work came to light? Did you all see the radical potential in these documentation practices to transform teaching and learning; perhaps to redefine ‘accountability’? More on all of that when I’ve had time to study more of their work. . .

For now, though: When I came upon Professor Carla Rinaldi’s essay in Making Learning Visible, I couldn’t help but think about my earlier concerns about bridging conversations about ‘teaching & learning’ with conversations about ‘diversity & inclusion,’ in order to foster more intentional culture and transformative action in, by, and for our learning communities. Rinaldi offers a brilliantly wrought reflection on the essential question she invites all of us to consider: “What kind of culture should we be working toward and build?” I am quoting substantial portions of it here, as I know it will help to form my future thoughts on the subject, and might elicit some helpful feedback from you as well.

First, Rinaldi explores some of the shifts in global culture that urge us to consider these questions in a more pressing light than ever:

Because we are now in a phase of increasing globalization, we are inundated with information and kept abreast of events across the entire planet in real time. We are spectators, more than authors, of an extraordinary technical-scientific revolution that is changing the quality of human relationships, the definition of personal identity, and the construction of cognitive processes. New issues will certainly emerge regarding the concepts of privacy, ethics, space, and time. . .

The media revolution will be just one of the possible futures, provided we are able to produce another ‘revolution’; that is, the new is and will be found where individuals are able to overturn every rigid barrier of culture, class, ethnic group, and wealth.

Rinaldi then recognizes that children are always and already adept at solving problems, and discovering the ‘new,’ in this mode:

We will find the new and the future in those places where new forms of human coexistence, participation, and co-participation are tried out, along with the hybridization of codes and emotions. . .

Today’s youth are already doing this. Young people are the great precursors and authors of these hybridizations: in music, in fashion, in design, creating new forms and new freedoms. Young people are extremely capable and sensitive in finding these common roots in different universes of thought.

It is necessary for us to learn this unity in diversity, and this diversity in unity. We need the involvement of each diversity in the ‘pluriverse’ of our planet: a cultural and linguistic pluriverse. . .

Our obligations as educators shift, then, toward the design and facilitation of communities and experiences that facilitate children’s learning in this manner:

More and more, the individual will express an intercultural, intersubjective identify. So the quantity and quality of his or her encounters and experiences will become increasingly important.

Intercultural education thus represents one of the essential guidelines for defining the quality of our future, to the extent that the interaction between cultures is not only a political issue, but above all a cultural and cognitive issue.

Cultural education is not a separate discipline, nor is it simply the illustration of the customs and religions of a country, though these are certainly important. It is more than this: it is primarily a style of educational-relational thinking. It is what we call ‘project-based thinking’ (pensiero progettuale), a way of thinking that is open to others, that is open to doubt and to the awareness and acceptance of error and uncertainty. It is the interweaving of multiple cultural codes, multiple language, ‘contagion,’ hybridization. It plays on boundaries, not as marginal zones (center versus boundary), but as places that generate the new that is born of contagion and interchange.

The new thus seems to lie in promoting an educational process based on the values of human dignity, participation, and freedom.

I see in Rinaldi’s reference to ‘cultural education’ as ‘educational-relational thinking’ or ‘project-based thinking’ a paradigm that could transform our stakeholders’ understanding of the centrality of cross-cultural competence to our students’ learning. Dr. Jones has long urged us to shift our conversations about diversity from ‘sensitivities’ to ‘skills.’ Let’s start giving language and action to that movement at the center, rather than the margins, of our educational programs.


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