Peer Reviewed ArticlesStory Circles

International Story Circles Supported by Visuals: tackling language barriers and encouraging reflective thinking

by Liesbeth Spanjers and Katrien Mertens

In the Postgraduate Programme International Educating Class (PIEC), a UNESCO associated programme at the University Colleges Leuven-Limburg (UCLL, Belgium), students follow a course titled ‘Making Cultural Diversity work’, that aims at honing intercultural competence by adopting requisite attitudes, increasing knowledge, and expanding their skills repertoire for communicating across cultures. Students deliver an individual portfolio, in which they narrate personal intercultural experiences (like experiencing Story Circles) and make sense of them with reference to theoretical concepts from course readings and lectures such as multiple identities, otherising, or small cultures. The experience-based and interaction-oriented approach in the course creates a conducive environment for the development of intercultural competence.

One way that we do this is through the practice of ‘Story Circles’. At the beginning of the academic year 30 international students of the course, Making Cultural Diversity Work, were asked to participate in Story Circle. The students were told that each of them would tell a story about themselves, but that they should also aim to listen deeply to each story of the other members in the group with an intention to understand.  In the Story Circles we facilitated, we began with the prompt : “Share what is one of the most positive interactions you have had with a person(s) who is different from you. What made this such a positive experience?“

Since our international students sometimes face difficulties expressing themselves in English, we added a non-verbal element to the Story Circle ‘flashback time’  in the form of images on postcards. A set of generic pictures of your choice will do. Students were asked to choose an image that corresponded with their idea of what they thought makes their first story so memorable. Afterwards, they move to the second story, and so on, until all of the ’flashbacks‘ have been shared for each story told. 

During the feedback round, our students reported  having experienced not only positive feelings of belonging, but also connections with each other. They also highly valued the idea of listening for understanding. 

One student described the experience as follows: “The Story Circles give us an opportunity to make a deep connection with someone, without needing to know them beforehand. We touch on what lies underneath the surface in a safe way. It was interesting to make the link between images and stories. It’s crazy how an image can express a thought!”

Since the experience of studying abroad focuses on and even celebrates diverse cultural interactions, Story Circles prove themselves to be an excellent way to stimulate mutual understanding and support students in building strong relationships, especially at the start of an academic period, when group cohesion can be important for a programme’s success. Additionally, the use of pictures not only seems to help students to overcome the fear of speaking in a language that is not their own, the activity also encourages reflective as well as ‘connective’ thinking.


Liesbeth Spanjers is a lecturer and practice-oriented researcher at Hogeschool UC Leuven-Limburg in Belgium.She can be contacted at liesbeth.spanjers@ucll.be

Katrien Mertens is the Associate Coordinator of the International Educating Class and a Researcher and lecturer on Inclusive Citizenship, intercultural learning & power skills at  Hogeschool UC Leuven-Limburg. She can be contacted at katrien.mertens@ucll.be.

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