Since its earliest
conceptualizations in the 1960s, multicultural education has evolved both in
theory and in practice. It is rare that any two classroom teachers or education
scholars will share the same definition for multicultural education. As with any
dialogue on education, individuals tend to mold concepts to fit their
particular contexts and disciplines.

Some discuss
multicultural education as a shift in curriculum, perhaps as simple as adding
new and diverse materials and perspectives to be more inclusive of
traditionally underrepresented groups. Others talk about classroom climate
issues or teaching styles. Still others focus on institutional and systemic
issues such as tracking, standardized testing, or funding discrepancies. Some
go farther still, insisting on education change as part of a larger societal
transformation in which we more closely explore and criticize the oppressive
foundations of the world around us and how education serves to maintain the
status quo — foundations such as white supremacy, global socioeconomic
conditions, and exploitation.

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As the United States becomes a more
culturally and ethnically diverse nation, public schools are becoming more
diverse, too. As
reported by Patricia G. Ramsey (2006), projections from the Census Bureau
demonstrate public school populations growing in socio-economic and racial
diversity. There is a clear need for an understanding of this diversity to
occur at every educational level. Teachers are in a crucial position to develop
the appropriate understanding, attitudes, and social action skills that will be
necessary to combat all forms of prejudice and discrimination. Students can
learn to think deeply about social justice concepts such as tolerance and
respect for all people through the implementation of multicultural education.
The acceptance and celebration of diversity can be instituted through the
inclusion of multicultural education in all classrooms, regardless of
geographical location or school population. In order to truly adopt multicultural
education as an integral part of a student’s academic growth, teachers must
carefully consider the meaning of “cultural competence”. The benefit of
beginning to teach social justice at the early childhood level is that students
can take these values with them through the rest of their academic careers. It
is in the first years of a student’s education that fundamental values in
regard to tolerance, as well as the celebration of diverse identities, can be
developed as the building blocks for future culturally competent human beings.

The Census Bureau projects that by the
year 2100, the U.S. minority population will become the majority with
non-Hispanic whites making up only 40% of the U.S. population. No doubt
students will need to learn how to interact in a diverse environment.  There is a richness that comes from students
working side by side with others who are not of the same cultural background. Multicultural
education is integral to improving the academic success of students of color
and preparing all youths for democratic citizenship in a pluralistic society.
Students need to understand how multicultural issues shape the social,
political, economic, and cultural fabric of the United States as well as how
such issues fundamentally influence their personal lives.

The process of
developing a positive cultural identity differs among children and adults from
the mainstream culture and those from a culture that has historically had
oppression and social biases directed toward it (Chen et al., 2009). A teacher’s
background and position in society can influence beliefs, biases, what one
chooses to ignore or act upon, family values, the raising of children, and
which behaviors are viewed as acceptable or unacceptable. “An essential first
step in constructing curriculum that helps all children to succeed is to
recognize that each child comes to school with a unique set of cultural and
experiential influences that shape how the child learns” (Bickart et al.,
1999). If teachers fail to recognize the cultural differences of students, then
teachers also risk the formation of incorrect assumptions on which invalid
assessment of academic performance is then based. “Expectations and cultural
biases, both positive and negative, are likely to determine whether and how we establish
a relationship with that person. First impressions can have a significant
impact on how teachers get to know and develop a relationship with each child”
(Bickart et al., 1999). It is essential that teachers go beyond this first
impression to ensure equal and fair instruction and assessment. “Only when we
acknowledge and accept differences and appreciate the ways they add richness to
the classroom, can we develop a positive and supportive relationship with each
child,” (Bickart et al., 1999). Case studies serve as examples to demonstrate
how easy it can be to form a misinterpretation of a situation when looking
solely through one’s own cultural lens.

A primary goal of
culturally responsive education is to help all students become respectful of
the multitudes of cultures and people that they’ll interact with once they exit
the educational setting. This can be a daunting task for the educator, given
that the world at large is infinitely more complex and diverse than the
microcosmic environment that the student inhabits. In typical educational and
social settings there is a marked tendency for students to exhibit classic
in-group/out-group behaviors.

In general, most
students are comfortable interacting with people, behaviors, and ideas that
they are familiar with but react with fear and apprehension when faced with the
unfamiliar. Among its other goals, culturally responsive instruction aims to
teach students that differences in viewpoint and culture are to be cherished
and appreciated rather than judged and feared.

Students who attend schools with a diverse population can develop an
understanding of the perspectives of children from different backgrounds and
learn to function in a multicultural, multiethnic environment. Yet, as public
schools become more diverse, demands increase to find the most effective ways
to help all students succeed academically as well as learn to get along with
each other. Teachers are faced with the challenge of making instruction
“culturally responsive” for all students while not favoring one group over
another. A 2007 study by
Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality found
that 76% of new teachers say they were trained to teach an ethnically diverse
student body but fewer than 4 in 10 say their training helps them deal with the
challenges they face.

A persistent concern of curriculum
development in all subjects is helping students understand the realities of the
social condition and how they came to be as well as adequately representing
those realities. Historically, curriculum designers have been more exclusive
than inclusive of the wide range of ethnic and cultural diversity that exists
within society. In the haste to promote harmony and avoid controversy and
conflict, they gloss over social problems and the realities of ethnic and
racial identities, romanticize racial relations, and ignore the challenges of
poverty and urban living in favor of middle-class and suburban experiences. The
reality is distorted and the representations incomplete. 

An inescapable reality is that diverse
ethnic, racial, and cultural groups and individuals have made contributions to
every area of human endeavor and to all aspects of U.S. history, life, and
culture. When students study food resources in the United States, for example,
they often learn about production and distribution by large-scale agribusiness
and processing corporations. The curriculum virtually overlooks the
contributions of the many ethnically diverse people involved in planting and
harvesting vegetables and fruits (with the Mexican and Mexican American farm
labor unionization movement a possible exception). School curriculums that
incorporate comprehensive multicultural education do not perpetuate these
exclusions. Instead, they teach students the reality—how large corporations and
the food industry are directly connected to the migrant workers who harvest
vegetables and pick fruits. If we are going to tell the true story of the
United States, multicultural education must be a central feature of telling
it. 

A teacher’s awareness and recognition
of culture is affected by the steps he or she takes to learn about diversity in
the school environment. One idea for the beginning of the year is to take a
walk around the school’s surrounding neighborhood with other teachers or a
parent who can point out areas of interest and introduce members of the
community. Teachers should gather information about each child in his or her
class directly from families, so that a clear team effort is established right
from the start. To continue to learn about the interests and skills of each
student, one can speak to former classroom teachers. Observation is also a key
element in getting to know a diverse class. Informal one-on-one conversations
can take place during arrival, snack time, and reading or writing conferences.
Questions about what students like to do after school and on the weekend, who
students enjoy playing with, and which activities they like to do for fun can
shed light on a how a student will function in the classroom setting.
Throughout the 14 school day, anecdotal records can be taken while a teacher
observes a student at work and at play, paying particular attention to
behaviors, interactions, and communication skills. These observations, when
combined with active listening, can be an invaluable source of knowledge about
each individual student.

Multicultural education can be
defined, in the broadest sense, as encompassing all of the aspects of
individuality encountered by young children on a regular basis that can
potentially create stereotypes. Multicultural education is frequently mistaken
for the “tokenism” that is merely the brief study of culture from an outsider’s
perspective in the form of holidays or potentially stereotypical “traditions”.
Cultures are sometimes studied only in respect to holidays 16 or only for a
fixed period of time (Williams & Cooney, 2006). The term “tokenism” can be
used to describe the practice of having children dress up as other people. For
example, many teachers still incorporate stereotypical depictions of Native
Americans in units of study surrounding the American Thanksgiving tradition.
Instead of facilitating a culture study that only focuses on feather headbands,
teachers and students can discuss the meaningful contributions of Native
Americans, as well as the marginalization of Native American culture. Tokenism
can perpetuate stereotypes by reducing a culture to a narrow lens through which
it is viewed by the dominant culture in a society. In this way, culture can
seem isolated and artificial in the classroom setting, rather than an
integrated, all-encompassing part of daily learning. Learning about cultural
differences does not just involve knowing small aspects of culture such as
Cinco de Mayo in the Mexican American community. There is no way a teacher can
learn everything about a culture because culture itself is a dynamic,
ever-changing, multifaceted worldview. “A more promising approach is to be
prepared to reflect on how cultural differences may affect student learning and
to be open to changing one’s curriculum and pedagogy accordingly” (Nieto,
2004).

In a culturally responsive classroom,
differences are not merely tolerated but rather, welcomed and celebrated, thus
establishing an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance for all cultural
identities. Culturally responsive teaching employs a pedagogy that integrates
multicultural education into all practices and disciplines. In order to demonstrate
cultural competence, teachers must stress respect for diversity in order to
engage the motivation of all learners (Purnell et al., 2007). The learning
environment of an early childhood classroom should be safe and inclusive so as
to encourage self-expression and affirmation of diversity. Culturally
responsive environments are important for students from the dominant cultural
grouping because they should feel security, not superiority, in relation to
others. For nondominant group members, 17 the goal is to be able to participate
fully in both their home culture and society. With a confident identity,
children of the nondominant culture can negotiate issues that may arise from
the differences between their home culture and the dominant culture and learn to
stand up for themselves in the face of injustice.

Many ethnically diverse students do not find schooling exciting or
inviting; they often feel unwelcome, insignificant, and alienated. Too much of
what is taught has no immediate value to these students. It does not reflect
who they are. Yet most educators will agree that learning is more interesting
and easier to accomplish when it has personal meaning for students. Students
from different ethnic groups are more likely to be interested and engaged in learning
situations that occur in familiar and friendly frameworks than in those
occurring in strange and hostile ones. A key factor in establishing educational
relevance for these students is cultural similarity and responsiveness (see
Bruner, 1996; Hollins, 1996; Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995). For example,
immigrant Vietnamese, Jamaican, and Mexican students who were members of
majority populations in their home countries initially may have difficulty
understanding what it means to be members of minority groups in the United
States. Students who come from education environments that encourage active
participatory learning will not be intellectually stimulated by passive
instruction that involves lecturing and completing worksheets. Many students of
color are bombarded with irrelevant learning experiences, which dampen their
academic interest, engagement, and achievement. Multicultural education
mediates these situations by teaching content about the cultures and
contributions of many ethnic groups and by using a variety of teaching
techniques that are culturally responsive to different ethnic learning styles.

There are a wide range of classroom activities that can help students
recognize the essential humanity and value of different types of people. For
instance, providing students with an opportunity to share stories of their home
life, such as family holiday practices, provides fellow students with a window
into their peer’s cultural traditions.

Using a variety of strategies may seem a tall order in a classroom that
includes students from many different ethnic groups. Teachers need to
understand the distinguishing characteristics of different learning styles and
use the instructional techniques best suited to each style. In this scenario,
teachers would provide alternative teaching techniques for clusters of students
instead of for individual students. In any given lesson, the teacher might
offer three or four ways for students to learn, helping to equalize learning
advantages and disadvantages among the different ethnic groups in the
classroom.    Showing students everyday photographs of
people of different ethnicities, shapes, sizes, and garb gives students the
opportunity to see people that look very different from themselves and their
family engaging in the same types of activities that they and their family
participate in; this activity can help humanize types of people that a student
has never had an opportunity to interact with personally. Welcoming guest
speakers into the class that hail from differing backgrounds and have all made
a positive contribution to important fields can also help dispel any
preconceived notions that students might possess about the relative competence
and value of people from different cultures.

Teaching students about multicultural role models also serves as an
effective method for demonstrating that people of all genders, ethnicities, and
appearances can have a positive influence on the world and deserve to be
respected and emulated. It’s important to avoid teaching students about the
same minority role models repeatedly; after all, if students never learn about
prominent African American citizens other than Martin Luther King, Jr. and
Malcolm X then it’s likely that some students will assume that few other
African Americans have made substantial contributions to American culture and
politics. If students are taught about the contributions that people of various
ethnicities, genders, and creeds have made to a variety of different artistic,
scientific, and political fields then they’re more likely to respect and value
diverse cultural backgrounds as a whole.

In addition to tailoring classroom
activities and lessons toward multicultural appreciation, it is critical that
the educator provide students with a culturally responsive learning
environment. Wall spaces can be used to display posters depicting cultural
groups in a non-stereotypical fashion, students can mark the countries from
which their ancestors immigrated from on a world map, and classroom signs can
be hung in several languages. Such touches will help promote an environment in
which students from diverse backgrounds feel more comfortable being themselves
and will help insulate students from the cultural and ethnic stereotypes that
pervade television and other mass media outlets.

Another important goal of culturally
responsive education is to teach students to respect and appreciate their own
culture and heritage. Minority students can sometimes feel pressured to dispose
of their cultural norms, behaviors, and traditions in order to fit in with the
prevalent social order. When this happens it can create a significant
disconnect between the culture of the student’s school and community lives and
can interfere with emotional growth and social development, frequently
resulting in poor performance in social and academic domains. Providing
opportunities for students to investigate unique facets of their community is
one effective way to help students gain a greater appreciation for their own
culture. Having students interview family members about cultural practices and
traditions or write about important learning experiences that the student has
experienced in his home community are just two of the many ways that students
can explore their heritage.

The federal No Child Left Behind law
has put pressure on schools to see that all students succeed, regardless of
their ethnic or language background. Schools are required to meet state
“adequate yearly progress” (AYP) goals for their total student populations and
for specified demographic subgroups, including major ethnic/racial groups,
economically disadvantaged students, limited English proficient (LEP) students,
and students with disabilities. If these schools fail to meet AYP goals for two
or more years, they are classified as schools “in need of improvement” Schools should
strive to create an environment where all children feel valued and all children
can learn. The principal should set the tone by having a policy of “no
excuses.” If there is a problem with a particular student, principals and
teachers should ask themselves, “What do we need to do to ensure that this
child is engaged in learning?” and “What more can we do?” This may mean
following up to see that the student has the proper place to study, healthy
meals and all the support he needs. and face consequences. A broad approach
works best to address achievement gaps.

Using a culturally-centered
instructional approach can help facilitate cultural pride among diverse
students. Given the current federal and state preoccupation with standardized
testing in core subjects, it is particularly crucial that educators
multiculturalize core curricula such as math, science, reading, and writing.
Providing diverse students with examples of diverse contributors to these
fields and using culture-specific subject matter when teaching core topics will
help them perform better in these highly scrutinized and important domains.
Placing ethnically diverse students in a situation that emphasizes the strong
points of their culture’s preferred means of learning may help provide them
with a greater sense of self-efficacy and achievement.

Consistent exposure to positive role
models is another excellent way to emphasize respect and admiration for the
diverse student’s own culture. All too often, students are exposed to ethnic
stereotypes on television and in movies. Providing diverse students with role
models who demonstrate exceptional leadership qualities and make social
contributions in a non-stereotypical way helps students recognize the limitless
ways in which they can have a positive impact on society.

Alongside the curriculum in a
school, the classroom community should provide students with opportunities to
engage in an ongoing thought process about moral behavior. Teachers can instill
two very important concepts that stem from social justice: respect for self and
for others, and a sense of responsibility for self, the community, and the
larger environment. Character education guides students to explore how and why
to be a moral person rather than simply forcing students to learn the “right”
answers for morality. Children can learn to recognize and accept differences
through working and playing with their peers. Students need to be in a
community – to interact, form relationships, work out problems, grow as a
group, and learn directly, from their first-hand experience, lessons about fair
play, cooperation, forgiveness, and respect for the worth and dignity of every
individual.