Multiculturalism in our Schools

- a plea for a level playing field

by Penelope Waite [1]


Multicultural education - indeed, multiculturalism generally - means different things to different people.  The term multicultural is frequently confused with, or used indiscriminately to mean, intercultural, cross-cultural. global, and multi-ethnic.  So let me start by giving my definition - or, at least, the meaning that I will be giving to the term in this article.

In the field of education multiculturalism does not mean reducing all students to a common denominator regardless of their ethnic, racial or cultural backgrounds.  It means giving each of them an equal opportunity to learn while acknowledging and respecting their differences and the different traditions from which they come, and incorporating all appropriate* differences into the classroom as a positive aid to education. 

Multicultural education should not strive for homogeneity but co-equality and consistency of opportunity.  Assumptions about homogeneity often underpin much of what happens in the classroom, but the importance of diversity needs to be acknowledged, regardless of any political pressures put on educators to regard diversity as a "dirty word".

The immigration explosion of recent years in most of the Western World countries has focused the attention of both politicians and educators on this issue to an extent hitherto unknown.  It has been brought into sharper focus by the nature of the expanding immigrant groups, many of whom are deficient in the language of the country to which they are emigrating and have strong religious, racial and nationalistic ties to which they frequently cling ferociously.  This is aggravated by the militant nature of some of these groups and their determination to resist - sometimes violently - any efforts to make them assimilate.  If I may be permitted to misquote Dickens, when politicians face the threat of militant action it can concentrate their minds tremendously.

This "explosion" of diverse cultures, however, is simply an extension of a situation that has always existed, but not often recognised or treated.  Multiculturalism has always existed in the classroom in one form or another.  Schoolchildren have always come from a multiplicity of family backgrounds: the educational level of their parents; the economic circumstances of their home lives; their religions; their nationalities.  What has brought the multicultural concern into such stark focus is little more, at base, than the greater ethnic visibility of the current cultural diversity in the schoolroom, and the differences in social conformity that the different backgrounds demand.

I would like to propound certain requirements for an inclusive multicultural syllabus.

1.  The syllabus should incorporate cultural differences.  It should not attempt to find an acceptable "common ground", but should acknowledge and seek to explain opposing ideas.

2.  The treatment of all subjects should attempt to benefit from the diversity of experience and knowledge brought to the classroom by its disparate cultural elements.

3.  Multicultural education is for all students, and all students should have equality of opportunity to achieve their full potential.

4.  All students should be encouraged to participate constructively in an increasingly intercultural society.

5.  Every student must be made aware of cultural differences as a heritage from a different time, a different place.  They must be made to recognise that there is much to learn from the positive aspects of such differences while refraining from being scornful of those aspects which run counter to the values of their own culture.

6.  Classrooms should become more student-centred with greater participation by the students.  Not only the other students, but also the teachers, are able to learn from the experiences of students, if they are encouraged to give voice to them.

7.  Multicultural education will not, of itself, cure the social problems arising from the efforts to integrate minority ethnic cultures into the majority culture, but the curriculum must address the reasons why these problems arise and persist.

8.  There must be greater interaction between educators and parents and - acknowledging the vast difficulties that exist in this area - every effort made for parents to understand what is being attempted in a multicultural classroom, and to appreciate that no attempt is being made to undermine family values.  This is most important with very young children.

9.  The social conventions of minority ethnic groups have to be understood by the teachers and explained to the students.  A good example is the case with the rules of conversation.  In some cultures it is considered unacceptable for a young person to question his or her elders.  In the classroom this may translate itself into a refusal to interact with a teacher and a consequent failure to understand something that is being taught.  This may be an opportunity for the teacher to involve classmates in their independent interaction and for students to explain to each other the types of convention that applies in their group.

The problems facing multicultural education will not go away.  They resemble the poor and taxes.  Indeed, they may be expected to increase.  The time to address the issues raised is now, and it is important that all areas affected be involved in decisions: this means the politicians, the educators, the students and - above all - the parents and the authority figures of their own culture.  The over-riding need is to prepare children to participate effectively in a formal educational environment while demonstrating respect for cultural differences.

This should be the same for all.


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Penelope Waite retired from full-time teaching some years ago.  She now divides her time between her homes in Brittany, France and south-west England.  She continues to be interested in developments in education, particularly in special needs, and does some EFL tutoring in France.  Her interest in psychotherapy is academic rather than professional.


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* This may seem to beg the question.  What I mean by "appropriate" are those aspects of a culture that are positive and not negative; that celebrate their own perspectives while not denigrating those of others; from which all can learn to live in harmony rather than discord.