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Teaching Cultural Sensitivity to Students in the Helping Professions


Gitit Broid, MSW Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Executive Summary

The present position paper deals with the development of cultural sensitivity and cultural competence among students in the helping professions.


Currently, the most common term for describing the cultural sensitivity required from service providers in the helping professions is “cultural competence.” This term intersects with similar and parallel terms, such as cultural sensitivity, cultural empathy, cultural awareness, cultural humility, etc., which carry a similar world of content and significance (Whale & Davis, 2007).


The term “cultural competence” was defined by the American National Association of Social Workers (NASW) as a “process in which individuals and systems react respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, social classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status, and other elements of diversity, in a manner that recognizes, validates, and appreciates the value of individuals, families, and communities, and protects and maintains their dignity” (NASW, 2015, p. 13).


Cultural and ethnic boundaries are rapidly disappearing from the world, and this creates a need for life-long education for cultural sensitivity and functioning in a multicultural society (Alvarez et al., 2020; Mirsky, 2013). Health, welfare, and educational services, as well as the helping professions, all of which provide services to diverse groups, need to adapt employee training to facilitate an effective response to multicultural needs. There is a need to incorporate organized training and education for cultural sensitivity into the professional education of students in these fields in institutions of higher education. In such frameworks, students should gain the knowledge and skills to work in a multicultural environment, and awareness of the complex nature of this environment.


There are those who call upon all institutions of higher education, where broad multicultural encounters among students take place, to adapt themselves to the spirit of the times and add multicultural education and training in cultural and ethnic tolerance to their curriculum (Blunt, 2007; Deakins, 2009). This is all the more relevant for academic institutions training students in the helping professions: social work, psychology, and education and health professions (Blunt, 2007; Otten, 2003; Furlong & Wright, 2011; Kratzhe & Bertolo, 2013; Seeleman et al., 2009; Leask & Carroll, 2011).


A study conducted in schools for teacher training indicated that multicultural encounters in these institutions amongst students of education and teaching may contribute to the development of “intercultural capability,” meaning, a long-term change in the level of knowledge, attitudes, and behavior toward “others.” Such interactions should be reflected in personal and social experiences with individuals from other cultures and include critical and reflective learning about the relevant social reality (Otten, 2003).


Sample Course

As an example for teaching cultural sensitivity, we present the course “Cultural Sensitivity and Context-Aware Treatment in Social Work,” which was taught at Ben-Gurion University. This course collected video interviews with immigrants and integrates the concepts presented above. It demonstrates how it is possible to teach about immigrants' lives experientially by connecting theoretical knowledge and the students’ reflexive enquiry and self-awareness. A learning model of working with immigrants’ narratives is based on the understanding that the encounter with these life stories allows students to broaden their awareness of the immigration experience, transitions in life, and the contextual complexity of people’s lives (Mirsky, 2008, 2013). Listening to and analyzing these interviews helps students broaden their self-awareness regarding cultural issues in their own personal, familial and professional lives.

A detailed syllabus is available at:


Student Feedback

This course was offered as an elective in the MA program. Many of the students were practicing social workers and could contribute a rich selection of examples from their professional and personal experience.


Student feedback to the course was highly positive. Many said that although they were professionally experienced, the process of self-investigation, and the reflection surrounding the encounter with cultural diversity and the “other,” created significant learning and constituted an important contribution to their professional work. They also noted that the atmosphere of openness in the classroom allowed them to share their own cultural diversity, and that this in itself was educational.


For example, Shlomit described the learning process in the course as follows: “From a professional viewpoint, it was fascinating to meet the worlds of the other interviewees. I have been working in therapy for over twenty years and meet people from different ethnic backgrounds, origins, and communities, of different color and with different stories. But I have never dedicated so much attention to the individual’s cultural origin, never made it present in this way...I began to listen more attentively to these stories and their impact on the therapy...the way I listen [now] is different...”.


Most students noted the interview situation as a strong emotional experience that put them in touch with aspects of themselves, and sometimes with “blind spots,” from a multicultural perspective.


Shiran related to the interview she held with her father: “I remembered stories my father used to tell and how I was saying to myself that it was already tedious, tiring...and then I interviewed h him...I heard his voice, his crying out to be heard, that people recognize what he had gone through over the years, in a society that placed him in an inferior position, and the truth is, I was moved. I felt how much my father’s story was real, relevant, and present” .




From what arises from the literature and from experience accumulated in the course, there is no doubt regarding the importance of providing individuals in the helping professions with training in cultural competency, both as part of their academic education and as a requisite undertaking at later stages of professional life, as part of an ongoing, dynamic learning process. In order to instill in students and professionals practical tools in the field of multicultural education, they should engage in practical experience, which puts an emphasis on personal and group reflective processes. To achieve this, an open learning environment is required, one that allows for critical examination and the development of self-awareness, and of examining stereotypes, prejudices, and cultural blind spots. The course described above offers a unique teaching methodology, which employs the narrative interview as a tool for collecting and studying immigrants' life stories and cultural diversity. The narrative interview facilitates a direct and unmediated encounter between the student or professional and the interviewee’s personal story. This gives access to issues involved in the encounter with the “other,” and at the same time, enables the students to become familiar with the interviewees' inner cultural world.



Alvarez, M. d. l. C., & Domenech Rodríguez, M. M. (2020). Cultural competence shifts in multicultural psychology: Online versus face-to-face. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 6(2), 160–174. 

Blunt, K. (2007). Social Work education: Achieving transformative learning through a cultural competence model for transformative education. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 27(3/4), 93-114.

Deakins, E. (2009). Helping students value cultural diversity through research‐based teaching. Higher Education Research & Development, 28 (2), 209-226.

Furlong, M., & Wight, J. (2011). Promoting ‘‘critical awareness’’ and critiquing ‘‘cultural competence’’: Towards disrupting received professional knowledges. Australian Social Work, 64 (1), 38-54.

Kratzke, C., & Bertolo, M. (2013). Enhancing students' cultural competence using cross-cultural experiential. Journal of Cultural Diversity ,20 (3), 107-111.

Leask, B., & Carroll, J. (2011). Moving beyond 'wishing and hoping': Internationalisation and student experiences of inclusion and engagement. Higher Education Research & Development, 30(5), 647-659.

Mirsky, J. (2008). The use of narrative analysis and psychoanalytic exploration of group processes in multicultural training. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 5(1), 2-15.

Mirsky, J. (2013). Getting to Know the Piece of Fluff in Our Ears: Expanding Practitioners' Cultural Self- Awareness. Social work education, 32(5), 626-638.

NASW national committee on racial and ethnic diversity (2015). NASW standards for cultural competence in social work practice. Washington, D.C: NASW.


Otten, M. (2003). Intercultural learning and diversity in higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7(1), 12-26.


Seeleman, C., Suurmond, J., & Stronks, K. (2009). Cultural competence: a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Medical Education, 43, 229–237.

Whaley, A. L., & Davis, K. E. (2007). Cultural competence and evidence-based practice in mental health services: A complementary perspective. American Psychologist, 62(6), 563-574.

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