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The Importance of Incorporating Multiculturalism into the Classroom
By: Priscilla Taylor, Sandy Cruz,
Grete Walter, and Janice White
 

Multicultural Education: Definition and Overview
    “By the year 2040, a majority of U.S. school students – 51 percent – will be non-Caucasian” as compared to 33 percent in 1997 (Sternberg, 2002, p. 194).  What does this mean for teachers in the future?  It means that teachers must be prepared – to learn to understand and appreciate the different values, beliefs, cultural norms, expectations, and behaviors that each student brings to the classroom.
    To help students demonstrate tolerance and acceptance for one another and for each other’s individuality, a teacher must increase the students’ awareness of the diversity of human nature.  This awareness can be taught through the curriculum of multicultural education.  The American Educators’ Encyclopedia (1991, p.1) defines multicultural education as “curricula designed to recognize the integrity, contributions, strengths, and viability of different cultural, language, and social groups in a society.”
    The National Association for Multicultural Education (“About NAME,” 2002, p. 1) offers a six-point consensus regarding multicultural education that also serves as the association’s philosophy:

  1. To respect and appreciate cultural diversity.
  2. To promote the understanding of unique cultural and ethnic heritage.
  3. To promote the development of culturally responsible and responsive curricula.
  4. To facilitate acquisition of the attitudes, skills, and knowledge to function in various cultures.
  5. To eliminate racism and discrimination in society.
  6. To achieve social, political, economic, and educational equity.

    Sternberg states that the point of multicultural education is “to reach all students and to create a fair classroom environment for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, culture, or other group differences” (Sternberg, 2002, p. 221).
    Teaching with an understanding of the values of multicultural education means encouraging all students to have high aspirations for their futures and to set high goals for themselves, regardless of their race, ethnicity, economic background, or gender.  Multicultural education is an ongoing commitment to make education more inclusive, in all subject areas, for all students.

Positive Values of Multiculturalism in the Classroom
    Applying multiculturalism in the classroom can result in numerous benefits.  First, society is made up of diverse cultures that have to communicate and interact with each other.  If teachers incorporate a multicultural approach to learning early on, students will find adjustment much easier when interacting with diverse groups.
    Second, adding multicultural programs to education can “incorporate a variety of different viewpoints and perspectives in the curriculum” (Ransom, 2000b, p.2).  There are two sides to every story.  By strictly learning about the Western or American viewpoint on events that have occurred in society, we are pigeonholing ourselves and closing off opportunities to experience the perspectives of others on the same issue.  A more inclusive approach that encompasses how world events affect not just our society but others as well can broaden students’ horizons and increase their cultural awareness regarding global issues.

    Multiculturalism is more than just discussing different cultures.  Teachers can use “culturally-based learning styles in an attempt to determine which teaching styles to use with a particular group of students” (Ransom, 2000b, p.3).  Studies have shown that students of different cultural backgrounds do not always learn in the same way.  One study done by Shirley Heath “concluded that African American children may require a classroom environment promoting group instructional activities and active, verbally demonstrative activities” (Sternberg, 2002, p.220).  As one can see, it is extremely important that teachers aim to incorporate different learning styles to accommodate all students.  This major aspect of multiculturalism may not be as evident at first glance.
    Another significant goal of multiculturalism is “to have a broader impact of increasing cultural and racial tolerance and reducing bias” (Ransom, 2000b, p.3).  Exposure to different cultures can help promote awareness and understanding while reducing prejudices towards other ethnic groups.  In addition, it can teach children that every individual is different, and we should embrace, not reject, diversity.
    Another benefit of multiculturalism is that it helps “culturally or linguistically different students make a transition into the educational mainstream” (Ransom, 2000a, p.1).  The United States, the melting pot of the world, is made up of extremely diverse demographics.  Everyday people from other countries migrate to our country, and many of these families bring with them children that will attend our schools.  In addition, foreign exchange programs are becoming commonplace.  By ensuring that educational institutions are nurturing and conducive to diverse cultures, transition into the classroom is made easier.


Practical Applications and Integration of Multiculturalism in Classroom Culture
    In order to respect and acknowledge multiculturalism in their classrooms, teachers may find it most effective to build multicultural approaches into the daily culture of their classrooms, rather than simply presenting multicultural lessons or units.  The difference between these two approaches has been described as the difference in “teachers ranging in reflections on culture from those at a ‘surface curriculum’ level (which may have an ‘aborigines’ unit of study) to those at a level of ‘committed reflectors’” (Greenfield and Cocking, 1994, p. 129).  Due to the diversity in the United States today, teachers will encounter students who are first-generation immigrants or migrants to the U.S., as well as students who represent the variety of cultures present within the United States itself.  By giving ongoing recognition to the importance of multiculturalism, teachers can promote an atmosphere of openness, understanding, and acceptance between students from different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities.  Furthermore, teachers possess the ability to increase students’ curiosity and desire to learn about other cultures through the tone they set in the classroom and the behavior and language they model for the students.
    Multiculturalism can be integrated throughout the whole curriculum; almost any topic studied in elementary and middle school classrooms will lend itself to a multicultural approach.  Teachers who wish to heighten students’ appreciation of differences between cultures and groups can take opportunities to point to contributions of various groups – ethnic, religious, young and old, male and female – as the strength of our society (England, 2002, p.1).  Paul Gorski, writing on the Multicultural Pavilion website hosted by the University of Virginia, also cautions teachers to “reject the myth of color-blindness;” the goal of multiculturalism is not to hide our differences but to celebrate those differences (2002, p.1).
    There are many steps teachers can take to create an inclusive classroom that recognizes diversity of cultures.  For example, Australia has implemented a model policy addressing multicultural education.  Australia makes it a priority to integrate multiculturalism into its classrooms; the following statements come from multicultural awareness guidelines for Australian teachers but are applicable to teachers in the U.S. as well:

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The use of "Us" and "Them" should be avoided as much as possible.  Stereotyping, class distinctions, and generalizations…do not enhance cultural interaction…but only stifle it.

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Statements such as "Mel Gibson is the best actor in the world"…apply to English speaking countries and therefore leave much of the world out of the equation.

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Incorrect spelling and pronunciation devalue languages and originating cultures.  Respect students’ names and consult them regarding preferred name usage.

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Invite visitors to classroom who reflect diverse backgrounds.

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Comments such as "Captain Cook discovered Australia" as compared to "the Romans came to Britain" devalue our origins.  (Australia did not need to be discovered; the Aborigines were already here.  Perhaps words such as “settled” or “immigrated” would be more appropriate.)

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Recognize cultural differences with regard to learning and classroom behavior.  Some cultures value independence, while some promote group learning.  Likewise, cultures value different classroom environments; students from another country may have adjustments to make when encountered with noise levels or classroom management different from that to which they are accustomed.

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In all subjects, highlight facts representative of whole world approach rather than Western approach.  Display world map and timelines showing significant cross cultural events in human history.  Ensure that Anglo/Western culture is as open to examination and discussion as any other…it should not be considered the “norm” against which all other cultures are judged and found wanting (“Multiculturalism,” 2002, p.1).


    Additional tips for creating a respectful atmosphere come from the Hans Christian Andersen “Schools of Many Voices” in Minneapolis, Minnesota:

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Avoid “put-downs” and name calling, even in jest.

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Avoid careless generalizations like "Indians think this" or "Girls can't do that".

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Acknowledge, discuss, and wherever possible; allow for differences in interactional style that are truly cultural.

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Avoid labeling.

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Stress that everyone's point of view needs to be expressed and listened to (“Andersen Planning Council’s Goals and Objectives,” 2002, p. 16).

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Avoid use of symbols associated with stereotypes such as Indian headdresses and shamrocks (England, 2002, p. 1).

 

    Teachers who wish to encourage multiculturalism and tolerance of diversity within their classrooms have an abundance of resources available to them.  Respect of multiculturalism can happen on a broader level throughout the school year and in a more focused way with the implementation of specific lesson plans, units, and activities designed to increase students’ awareness of cultural diversity.


Conclusion
    Based on the diversity present in the United States and the reflection of that diversity in our schools, multicultural education fills a critical role in classrooms today.  Multicultural awareness, when implemented successfully and integrated into the daily culture of a school, helps children to be respectful of and to celebrate our differences.  While challenges do confront teachers in the arena of multicultural education, its benefits offer a strong incentive to mainstream it in our curricula and educational system.  Teaching children to respect and honor other cultures promises to go a long way in creating a more peaceful world.
 

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