Written by: Violeta Dimitrova Karastateva, Senior Lecturer in English
Department of Foreign Languages, Technical University – Varna
Intercultural Education and Intercultural Learning Materials – Background
In recent years the priorities in ELT and FLT in Bulgaria have changed a lot towards satisfying learners’ needs, addressing mainly the quality of language education and culture-specific aspects. The number of language teaching professionals who do not dare doubt any more the importance of Cultural and Intercultural Studies as a component of language instruction or the necessity of quality insurance when teaching or evaluating students’ performance has drmatically increased.
The importance of Intercultural Education and Intercultural Communication is rooted in the demand for skills that enable persons to take part in constructive communication. For more than three decades now the different aspects of the above issues have been evolving and the concept of intercultural education is no longer limited to ethnicity or nationality but includes issues that deal with age, gender, social disadvantage, religious beliefs, regional specifics, etc.At the same time learning materials should face modern reality and address both the goals of intercultural education and the students’ and teachers’ needs.
At present quality and standards in language education are applied mainly to the testing and evaluation procedures and there are different projects, which have led to the establishing of relevant criteria in Bulgaria in accordance with the requirements of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages; learning, teaching, assessment. The Bulgarian Association for Quality Language Services (OPTIMA), being a member of the European Association of Quality Language Services (EAQUALS), has proved to be the driving force in introducing The European Language Portfolio and sustaining the unified European standards in the Foreign Language Training in Bulgaria.
Although teaching culture is in the focus of educationalists’ interest all over Europe the question if it can/could be subject to standardization has not been answered yet. Near-native proficiency for integrative purposes is no longer sought for its sake but English is viewed as a tool for cross-cultural communication. Working towards students’ communicative competence incorporates the following sub-competences: grammatical, sociological, discourse, strategic and, last but not least, intercultural competence. The latter is an important concept in psychology and communication studies and inevitably necessitates the presence of the so-called cultural component in teaching materials. Textbooks should reflect a range of cultural contexts and include intercultural elements. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Some textbook evaluation checklists do not mention culture. In others it is implicitly present or questioned by drawing attention to separate aspects such as values, stereotypes, cultural setting, etc.
To this end the criteria for intercultural learning materials have emerged. It should be noted that those criteria are not set in stone but are constantly refined, tested and evaluated. Every teacher, who is aware of the problems of intercultural education, might have asked themselves the following questions:

  • Do culture-specific educational standards exist?
  • Why do some textbooks and teaching-and-learning materials give priority to the target culture /Culture 2 (C2)/, while others concentrate on the home culture /(C1)/?
  • How do we qualify the “interculturally sound” learning materials?
  • What are the criteria they should comply with? Who sets those criteria?

Helpdesk for Intercultural Learning Materials
To answer the above listed hot issues in intercultural education a Helpdesk for Intercultural Learning Materials was set up on 17 January 2003 in Bulgaria as an NGO, supported by The British Council. It appeared in the context of the Comenius DIMPLE project aimed at the implementation of Helpdesks for intercultural learning materials in European countries. Nine partner countries participated in the DIMPLE project: Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden thus ensuring the large European context in which the Bulgarian Helpdesk for Intercultural Learning Materials is placed.
There are several  key factors which emphasise the need for setting up such a Helpdesk. Often teaching materials do not reflect the actual state of affairs
concerning cultural and social diversity, meaning that certain groups in
society are not represented at all. Because of this students might easily obtain a biased view on complex issues like ethnicity, gender, class, etc. Learning materials at once represent and re-create existing conflicts and prejudices – interethnic, religious, generational, societal, xenophobia, etc. The Helpdesk is thought to provide guidance to authors and publishers in the process of developing learning materials that take into account a multicultural and diversified society, as well as to inform and guide the teachers who use them. The Helpdesk activities are aimed at raising awareness of discrimination and marginalisation issues that could sometimes lead to racist messages in teaching aids. Examples exist that unintentionally lead to discrimination or prejudice against members of an ethnic group on account of origin, language, customs, appearance, etc. Instead of emphasizing cultural traditions (folklore), which over the years has proved to be a rather old-fashioned approach, attention should be focused on the dynamics within and interactions among cultures, social and gender groups, generations, etc.
Moreover, there is a growing interest toward cultural diversity and
intercultural education which aims at preparing students for living in a
diverse environment. The idea about a new Europe, which brought about European educational projects, as well as the changes in Bulgaria, which made it possible for more and different voices to be heard, are important factors that enhance the development of intercultural concepts and practices in the country, successfully exemplified by the activities of the National Helpdesk..
More information about the Helpdesk mission statement, evaluators’ team, current activities, publications, etc. could be found at the following address:
One of the tasks of the evaluators’ team within the Bulgarian Helpdesk project was to devise criteria and ideology statements for evaluating the existing teaching materials. The evaluators coming from different teaching backgrounds – secondary and tertiary level – took the decision to evaluate the textbooks for the 9th grade of the language schools. Consisting of specialists in biology, psychology, history, English language, geography, etc. the evaluators’ team, possessing multiple expertise, was subdivided into groups who had about five months to work on the respective textbook reviews. Different stages were passed in the process of selecting, formulating, reformulating, ranking, grouping and regrouping the criteria, as well as eliciting the existing terminological overlaps and discrepancies in the literature.
As a member of the so-called English team, which worked on the “Moving On” textbook for the English Language medium schools, the author is going to focus in more detail on the way the cultural component in textbooks was understood and specified by listing the respective criteria. After reading various publications concerning the specifics of intercultural communicative competence and how it should be reflected by textbooks the English team came up with the following suggestions.
Teaching materials should provide opportunities for developing learners’ intercultural communicative competence including:

  • knowledge and understanding of
    • diversity
    • social justice and equality
    • globalization
    • peace and conflict
  • skills
    • critical thinking
    • ability to challenge injustice and inequalities
    • ability to argue effectively
    • co-operation and conflict resolution skills
    • autonomous learning
    • ability to make informed choices
  • values and attitudes
    • sense of identity and self-esteem
    • tolerance
    • solidarity
    • empathy

To achieve the above aims teaching materials should meet the following criteria:

  • diversity
  • equality and non-discrimination
  • multiperspectivity
  • avoidance of stereotyping
  • suitability
  • language usage
  • cross-curriculum approach
  • layout

These criteria match to a great extent the criteria for interculturally sound learning materials (Sercu, L. (ed), 2002, pp.42-46) clarity regarding the nature of the learning text; clear distinction between primary sources and author’s comments; multiperspectivity; promotion of autonomous learning; avoidance of stereotypes. The above mentioned publication gives also recommendations for authors and publishers helping to translate the general educational principles into concrete suggestions for cultural sensitive teaching-and-learning materials: cultures and individuals; us and them; language usage; context and topic; integration; division of roles; power and racism; learn how to learn critically.
Different classifications and listings of criteria focusing on the cultural content could be referred to when talking about textbook evaluation. M.Byram (in Hinkel,1999, p. 203) mentions: social identity and social groups; social interaction; belief and behaviour; social and political institutions; socialization and the life cycle; national history; national geography; stereotypes and national identity. The latter is present in different ways (also as avoiding (relativizing) stereotypes by raising awareness) in the different sources touching upon the treatment of cultural content in textbooks. It is worth mentioning this terminological difference as the English team finally focused on exploring how awareness of existing stereotypes is raised and further overcome through the potential of the “Moving On” textbook. The Bulgarian version of the review is available in the working Portfolio of reviews published in May 2004 by the Helpdesk while the English version is still being revised. Both texts will be accessible on-line at the above-mentioned Internet address.
All the reviews included in the portfolio followed the Evaluation Model designed by the Helpdesk evaluators’ team with the help of the project consultant Richard Fay, School of Education, University of Manchester. The Model comprises two major parts (boxes) listing the Objectives of intercultural education in the Bulgarian social and educational context and the Zones of focus and resources to be evaluated. The Helpdesk is concerned with evaluating the potential of the teaching and learning experience for supporting the intercultural objectives of: reflecting and constructing the social diversity of societies; being inclusive of all social groups; enabling pupils to feel comfortable with their own complex and deeveloping situations and identities; encouraging pupils to empathise with the complex and developing identities and situations of others; providding multiple perspectives on the subject matter; challenging stereotyping; promoting the acceptance, in a spirit of equality, of the sicial diversity of societies; promoting respect for otherness; promoting non-discriminatory perspectives; and promoting active citizenship. Manifestations of each of these objectives are traced in the sub-zones of content, activities, language and visuals provided by the respective textbook. The different objectives and zones are inter- and intra-related therefore reviews reflect the highly complex nature of teaching materials, as well as the different levels at which they function.
For the short period of its existence the Bulgarian Helpdesk for Intercultural Learning Materials has tried to explore the present-day teaching-and learning situation in terms of  the ensurance of intercultarally sound  teaching materials for the Bulgarian learners. It has attempted to present the professional audience with a different view of a textbook review revealing the potential for intercultural communication in the existing teaching materials. Being a pioneer in the field of promoting intercultural education in Bulgaria it has raised a number of hot issues referring to the relevance and necessity of setting criteria and standards in intercultural education. The Helpdesk activities are also recognised and supported by The Bulgarian Ministry of Education, which is indicative of the positive impact that this organisation can have on intercultural learning processes in the country. We strongly believe that the Bulgarian Helpdesk for Intercultural Learning Materials will find more partners in the future and will continue to be an agent of change on the national educational scene.

  1. Byram, M., 1993 in Hinkel, E. (ed) 1999 Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Cambridge University Press
  2. Georgieva, I., Karastateva, V. Moving On: ot osaznavane na nasloeni stereotipni predstavi kam obosnovanoto im othvarliane  v:  Konsultativen centar za antidiskriminacionna ocenka na uchebnite materiali Portfolio (raboten variant), maj 2004,
  3. Grozdanova,L., Georgieva, M., Nedkova, 1988 M. Moving On In a world of English  (1& 2) Letera, Plovdiv
  4. Helpdesk, 2004 Evaluation Model,
  5. Homan, H.(ed.) DIMPLE, Dissemination and Implementation of Helpdesks for Intercultural Learning Materials, 2003, PAREL,Utrecht
  6. Konsultativen centar za antidiskriminacionna ocenka na uchebnite materiali Portfolio (raboten variant), maj 2004,
  7. Sercu, L. (ed), National Helpdesks for Intercultural Learning Materials A guideline, 2002, Utrecht:PAREL