The Importance of Incorporating
Multiculturalism into the Classroom
By: Priscilla Taylor, Sandy Cruz,
Grete Walter, and Janice White
Multicultural Education: Definition and
“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:
- To respect and appreciate
- To promote the understanding of unique cultural and ethnic
- To promote the development of culturally responsible and
- To facilitate acquisition of the attitudes, skills, and
knowledge to function in various cultures.
- To eliminate racism and discrimination in society.
- To achieve social, political, economic, and educational
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
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:
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
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.
and pronunciation devalue languages and originating cultures. Respect
students’ names and consult them regarding preferred name usage.
Invite visitors to
classroom who reflect diverse backgrounds.
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.)
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
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,
and name calling, even in jest.
generalizations like "Indians think this" or "Girls can't do that".
discuss, and wherever possible; allow for differences in interactional style
that are truly cultural.
everyone's point of view needs to be expressed and listened to (“Andersen
Planning Council’s Goals and Objectives,” 2002, p. 16).
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
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.