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Multicultural education

Description: Multicultural education
File name: Multicultural education

School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-The Scope of Multicultural Education

by Mary Stone Hanley

Multicultural Education is an idea which has reached its time. Carrying the legacy of the 1960's and 1970's, a period of profound social change when the people of the United States were forced to reexamine their cultural heritage, multicultural education has emerged in the 1990's to address the educational needs of a society that continues to struggle with the realization that it is not monocultural, but is an amalgamation of many cultures. Much of the overt and covert national conflict about race, ethnicity, social class, and gender in the U. S. has been based in the mythology of a superior culture into which all others must be assimilated. The imbalance of power between the dominant culture and subjugated cultures has created centuries of aggression, antagonism, and resistance. Fortunately, the concept that cultural differences enrich, rather than diminish, our society is increasingly acknowledged. It is the suppression of cultures that weakens the society. The ongoing discourse and practice of multicultural education is an effort to mine the possibilities of plurality through education.

Ethnic minorities and women of the 1970's confronted the racism and sexism of society reflected in monocultural education. Ethnic studies and women's studies were developed to add their traditionally silenced voices to the analysis and development of the culture of the United States. Multicultural education of the 1990's continues that tradition on the K-12 level and takes five, sometimes interconnected, directions. Sleeter (1996) delineates five approaches to multicultural education:

-Advocates of the Teaching the Culturally Different approach attempt to raise the academic achievement of students of color through culturally relevant instruction.
-In the Human Relations approach students are taught about commonalties of all people through understanding their social and cultural differences but not their differences in institutional and economic power.
-The Single Group Studies approach is about the histories and contemporary issues of oppression of people of color, women, low socioeconomic groups, and gays and lesbians.
-The Multicultural Education approach promotes the transformation of the educational process to reflect the ideals of democracy in a pluralistic society.
-Students are taught content using instructional methods that value cultural knowledge and differences.
-Educators who use the Social Reconstructionist approach to multicultural education go a step further to teach students about oppression and discrimination. Students learn about their roles as social change agents so that they may participate in the generation of a more equitable society.

These categories overlap, and educators may use more than one approach simultaneously.

Multicultural Education also is a response to the changing demographics of the United States. By the year 2020 46% of the students in public schools will be children of color and 20.1% of all children will live in poverty (Banks, 1997a). The need to address the various learning needs of such a diverse student population and the subsequent pluralistic society for which those children will be responsible is an urgent task faced by American public schools. However, the monocultural approach to education which emphasizes middle class Eurocentric content, instruction, and values adds the additional learning task of acculturation to the work of schooling, which complicates learning the academic knowledge needed to be successful in school. Culture is what we learn and create to make sense of the world. The discontinuity between the cultures of poor and ethnic minority students and the culture of schooling affects academic underachievement and failure (Nielson, 1991; Nieto, 1997). Moreover, caught in the ambivalence of success and failure in schools that transmit a culture of domination the learning of children of color and poor children is further hindered by the factors of invisibility, alienation, and resistance. In view of an increasingly multicultural society and student population, multicultural educators reflect the need to address the systemic, curricular, and pedagogical impediments to the learning of traditionally marginalized students. Multicultural educators also recognize that a increasingly multicultural nation and a shrinking and contentious planet at the edge of the twenty-first century demands a people who are critical thinkers and able to deal with the complexities of multicultural differences.

The practice of multicultural education in the schools is often criticized for trivializing the goal of multicultural education, which is the transformation of schooling to include the needs and perspectives of many cultures in shaping the ways in which children are educated and thus, the transformation of society. The inclusion of an occasional hero or holiday in a curriculum which leaves the European American story as the master narrative in the description of the United States cannot begin to create the understanding necessary for a multicultural society, nor can it produce the kind of education needed to successfully educate a multicultural populace. Students who understand that the perspectives of the Native Americans as they encountered the Europeans is as necessary to the story of U. S. development as that of the colonial settlers or the pioneers are more likely to understand that the challenges of society are complex and cannot be approached from only one direction. If they can learn that women have had a particular view of and impact upon society, varied not only by their gender but by their race and social class perhaps they can bring more balance to the ways in which they approach problem solving. If they can understand that the resistance of many European Americans to slavery, long hours and low pay, discrimination, and the destruction of the environment has advanced the society for everyone, perhaps students can challenge the limitations of ethnocentricity and create a more equitable society. Thus, multicultural education is more than holidays and food, it requires critical thinking with attention paid to complexity. It requires research and learning about the multiple perspectives involved in any historical or contemporary experience in order to understand the rich meaning therein.

Multicultural education is often given narrow parameters. Many think of it as education only for students of color. Certainly there is a substantial need for the education of ethnic minorities. Racism in the U.S. has created an educational system which continues to ignore the culture of students of color in learning and tracks many of them into continued subordinate positions in society. A restructuring of schools to meet their needs is essential. However, children of color do not live in a vacuum. In a democratic, multicultural society all children must be educated about the multiple strands of the past that have created the webs of the present. For example, African American students must learn about Asian Americans and Latino Americans, all of whom need to understand the journey of Native Americans, and vice versa. European Americans should study the past and present relationships of European Americans to people of color, the history of privilege and resistance in the dominant culture, and all students should understand the dynamics of social class.

Multicultural education also provides a perspective for math and science. Ethno-mathematics (Nelson-Barber & Estrin, 1995; Tate, 1995) presents a view of mathematical thinking that incorporates the ways in which culture and mathematics are intertwined. Math is an aspect of all cultures. In the sciences there is the opportunity to study environments from the perspectives of the diversity of cultural knowledge, to approach nonwestern science as legitimate knowledge construction, or to include social justice as an aspect of science (Sleeter, 1996; Harding, 1998).

It is the breadth of multicultural education which makes it such a profound change in the ways we think about education. Banks (1997b) describes the dimensions of multicultural education in five overlapping areas in which researchers and practitioners are involved. Content integration is the inclusion of materials, concepts, and values from a variety of cultures in teaching. Knowledge construction is the recognition that all knowledge is socially constructed, created in the minds of human beings to explain their experience and thus, can be challenged. Ideas that shape society do change. As such, knowledge construction is a primary aspect of multicultural education because before teachers can effectively teach multiculturally they must reconstruct their world views. Equity pedagogy is involved when teachers alter their teaching methods to accommodate the various cultural differences of diverse students to stimulate academic achievement. Prejudice reduction concerns changing the students' attitudes towards differences of race and ethnicity. Prejudice reduction can also include teaching tolerance about religion, physical and mental abilities, and sexual preference. An empowering school culture is the dimension of multicultural education that enables the other four dimensions. Educators must examine the structures of education that impede learning and empower students and families from "diverse racial, ethnic, and gender groups" (p.24). The aim is to create schools that encourage the full development of all students. The references and papers in this multicultural floor of New Horizons for Learning will be organized according to these five dimensions. The papers and references will include materials about the dimensions as well as the various approaches to multicultural education to demonstrate the breadth of multicultural research and practice.

Essentially, multicultural education is about social change through education. It requires deep and critical thinking, imagination, and commitment to another tomorrow, inclusive of the wealth of all of our stories and peoples. It is another aspect of the continuous human journey toward justice and pushes us toward the fulfillment of the promises of democracy. It gives us new questions to ask and directions to follow to uncover human possibilities in the new millennium. As stated by Greene (1995), "People trying to be more fully human must not only engage in critical thinking but must be able to imagine something coming of their hopes; their silence must be overcome by their search" (p. 25). Multicultural education harbors a place for a multitude of voices in a multicultural society and a place for many dreams.


Banks, J. A. (1997a). Teaching strategies for ethnic studies. (6th edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Banks, J. A. (1997b). Multicultural education: Characteristics and goals. In J. A. Banks and C. A. M. Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (3rd ed., pp. 385-407). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Greene, M. (1996). Releasing the imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harding, S. (1998). Is science multicultural? Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nelson-Barber, S. & Estrin, E. (1995). Bringing Native American perspectives to mathematics and science teaching. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 174-185.

Nielson, L. (1991). Adolescence: A contemporary view. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Nieto, S. (1997). School reform and student Achievement: A multicultural perspective. In J. A. Banks &C. A. M. Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (3rd ed., pp. 385-407). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Sleeter, C. E. (1996). Multicultural education as social activism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Tate, W. (1995). Returning to the root: A culturally relevant approach to mathematics pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 166-173.

About the Author

Mary Stone Hanley is a core faculty member at Antioch University, Seattle, where she teaches Multicultural Education, Curriculum and Instruction, and Social Studies methods to pre-service teachers in the Teacher Certification Program. She also teaches Drama as Pedagogy, Arts, Culture and Learning, and Diversity and Equity courses to experienced educators both at Antioch and elsewhere.

Mary received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on Multicultural Education and drama as an educational method. Her research has focused on using drama to motivate and empower adolescents, particularly those whose culture is marginalized in the schools. She has an M.Ed. in Educational Comunications and Technology and a B.A. in Children's Drama.

Mary integrates her passion for the arts, empowering education, and African American history and culture bu working with the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center in Seattle, WA, where she also works as a playwright with youth, staff, and theatre professionals to create learning experiences that value African American culture for middle and high school students.

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