Multicultural education describes a system of instruction that attempts to foster cultural pluralism and acknowledges the differences between races and cultures. It addresses the educational needs of a society that contains more than one set of traditions, that is a mixture of many cultures.
The goal of multicultural education is to help students understand and appreciate cultural differences and similarities and to recognize the accomplishments of diverse ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. It is a practice that hopes to transform the ways in which students are instructed by giving equal attention to the contributions of all the groups in a society. Special focus may be placed on minority groups that have been under-represented in the past. A multicultural curriculum strives to present more than one perspective of a cultural phenomenon or an historical event. The old American melting pot metaphor is challenged as no longer being valid. Adherents of multicultural educational theory believe that the idea that students should be Americanized, in reality, assumed they should conform to a white, Eurocentric cultural model. In its place, multiculturalists believe school curricula should embrace a whole host of voices that exist in multicultural U.S. society. Their belief is that this transformation in the methods of learning is a start in addressing inequities in U.S. society. They believe this is increasingly important because of the changing population mix in the United States. For example, demographers estimate that by the year 2020, 46 percent of all public school students will be children of color.
The roots of multicultural education lie in the civil rights movements of various groups, including African Americans and women. In addition, the rise in ethnic consciousness and a more critical analysis of textbooks and other materials played a role. Community leaders, activists, and parents began to demand curricula that were more supportive and consistent with the cultural and racial diversity in the United States. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the concepts of multicultural education begin to emerge, and by the 1980s, an entire body of scholarship addressing multiculturalism existed.
One of the pioneers of multicultural education was James Banks, who believed all aspects of education needed to be transformed in order to create a multicultural school environment. These aspects include teaching methods, instructional materials, teacher attitudes, as well as the way the performance of students is assessed. Banks described five areas of multicultural education in which teachers and researchers are involved:
- Content integration: Concepts, values, and materials from a variety of cultures are included in teaching.
- Knowledge construction: This belief asserts that all knowledge is created in the minds of human beings and can, therefore, be challenged. A critical part of multicultural education, the idea that knowledge is a human construct challenges teachers to alter their own perceptions of the world before they can teach multiculturally.
- Equity pedagogy: Teachers must modify their methods of instruction by allowing for students' cultural differences before they can encourage academic achievement.
- Prejudice reduction: Teachers must work to shift students' prejudices regarding race and ethnicity. Prejudice reduction may also encompass teaching the tolerance of various religions, sexual preferences, and disabilities.
- Empowering school culture: Schools must identify those aspects of education that hinder learning and then empower families and students from all backgrounds, so that the full development of students is achieved.
Types of multicultural education programs
As of the early 2000s, there is no universally agreed upon multicultural curriculum. Teachers tend, however, to take one of two approaches. Some use what has been called the multicultural festival approach, in which students are invited to celebrate ethnic diversity by being exposed to foods, holidays, and festivals of other cultures. Many critics say that this conveys the notion that diversity is only important during celebratory moments. Other teachers apply a transformative approach, weaving different perspectives on cultures throughout the curriculum. Multicultural education can also be roughly divided into three different categories:
- Content-focused: These are the most common types of multicultural educational programs. Their overall objective is to include subject matter in the curriculum about various cultural groups in order to cultivate students' knowledge about these groups. Content may include holiday celebrations, recognizing heroes from different racial and ethnic groups, and focusing on the achievements of women and minorities. It may also include single-group studies, for example, black, ethnic, or women's studies programs.
- Student-focused: Many programs go beyond changes in the curriculum and specifically address the academic needs of defined groups of students, usually minorities. In this type of approach, the curriculum may not be changed significantly. Instead, the focus may be on aiding students in making the transition into the mainstream of education. Student-focused programs can take many forms, including efforts to draw on culturally-based learning styles and bilingual programs.
- Socially focused: These programs seek to reduce bias and increase cultural and racial tolerance. Included here might be desegregation programs, programs designed to increase contact among different races and cultures. Also, having teachers who are themselves members of minorities would be encouraged.
In spite of the fact that there are a variety of approaches to multicultural education, supporters point to several shared ideals among those who practice this kind of education. Shared ideals include:
- Each student must have equal opportunities to achieve his or her full potential.
- Every student must be able to participate in an increasingly multicultural society.
- Teachers must be able to facilitate learning for every student, no matter how similar or different each student is from the teacher.
- Schools must actively work towards ending oppression of all types, by ending it within their own walls.
- Education must include the voices and experiences of all students.
There are many people who are either opposed to multicultural education or believe it has numerous problems. Some feel that the idea of multicultural education tends to divide cultures instead of building tolerance between them. They believe that American students should be taught to think of themselves as part of a whole rather than as people from different places who just happen to live in the same country.
Others believe multicultural education interferes with a child expressing his or her own individuality, by placing too much emphasis on ethnic or racial backgrounds. Even supporters recognize that someone's culture may be influenced as much by their sex or socioeconomic status as their race or ethnicity. Culture is itself complex and varies from community to community, family to family, or from person to person. The dynamic and variable nature of culture makes teaching about multiple cultural influences a daunting if not impossible task.
Critics also point out that educating students about the formation of U.S. democracy inevitably focuses on its European origins. If students are not informed that the dominant participants in the formation of the United States were white males, these critics say, students will not receive an accurate picture of U.S. history. In addition, there is the belief that if citizens are not willing to subordinate some parts of their heritage to the present set of dominant cultural values, then these citizens may find it even harder to integrate the mainstream.
Parents should feel free to speak up about any concerns they have with the curriculum in their child's classroom. Multicultural education came about in part because parents expressed a need for the unique cultures of their children to be acknowledged and honored in school.
Eurocentric —Centered or focused on Europe or European peoples, especially in relation to historical or cultural influence.
Multicultural education —A social or educational theory that encourages interest in many cultures within a society rather than in only a mainstream culture.
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Deanna M. Swartout-Corbeil, RN