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JUSTICE: the People's News
I. The Challenge of Defining "Multicultural Education"

by Paul C. Gorski

edited and updated on April 14, 2010

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.

Despite differing conceptualizations of multicultural education (some of which will be laid out more fully below), several shared ideals provide a basis for its understanding. While some focus on individual students or teachers, and others are much more "macro" in scope, these ideals are all, at their roots, about transformation:

  • Every student must have an equal opportunity to achieve to her or his full potential.
  • Every student must be prepared to competently participate in an increasingly intercultural society.
  • Teachers must be prepared to effectively facilitate learning for every individual student, no matter how culturally similar or different from her- or himself.
  • Schools must be active participants in ending oppression of all types, first by ending oppression within their own walls, then by producing socially and critically active and aware students.
  • Education must become more fully student-centered and inclusive of the voices and experiences of the students.
  • Educators, activists, and others must take a more active role in reexamining all educational practices and how they affect the learning of all students: assessment methods, pedagogies, school psychology and counseling practices, educational materials and textbooks, and so on.

While it is important to develop a deeper understanding of the various models of multicultural education and where these points fit into them, I feel it is equally important that I, as the site author, equip the user with my own working definition.

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II. A Working Definition of Multicultural Education

Multicultural education is a progressive approach for transforming education that holistically critiques and responds to discriminatory policies and practices in education. It is grounded in ideals of social justice, education equity, critical pedagogy, and a dedication to providing educational experiences in which all students reach their full potentials as learners and as socially aware and active beings, locally, nationally, and globally. Multicultural education acknowledges that schools are essential to laying the foundation for the transformation of society and the elimination of injustice.

The underlying goal of multicultural education is to affect social change. The pathway toward this goal incorporates three strands of transformation:

  1. the transformation of self;
  2. the transformation of schools and schooling; and
  3. the transformation of society.

1. The Transformation of Self

As an educator, I have a dual responsibility to engage in a critical and continual process to examine how my socializations and biases inform my teaching and thus affect the educational experiences of my students. I have a responsibility to myself to examine the lenses through which I understand the people and happenings around me. Only when I have a sense for how my own perceptions are developed in relation to my life experiences will I begin to understand the world and effectively navigate my relationships with the people around me. I also have a responsibility to my students to work toward eliminating my prejudices, examining who is (and is not) being reached by my teaching, and relearning how my identity affects their learning experiences. To be an effective multicultural educator I must be in a constant process of self-examination and transformation.

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2. The Transformation of Schools and Schooling

Multicultural education calls for a critical examination of all aspects of schooling. Aspects of multicultural school transformation include the following:

  1. Student-Centered Pedagogy
    • The experiences of students must be brought to the fore in the classroom, making learning active, interactive, relevant, and engaging.
    • Traditional teaching approaches and pedagogical models must be deconstructed to examine how they contribute to and support institutional systems of oppression.
    • Known oppressive practices like tracking (even if informal) must be exposed and critically examined.
    • All aspects of teaching and learning in schools must be refocused on, and rededicated to, the students themselves instead of standardized test scores and school rankings.
    • Emphasis should be placed on critical thinking, learning skills, and deep social awareness as well as facts and figures.
    • Pedagogy must provide all students with the opportunity to reach their potential as learners.

  2. Multicultural Curriculum
    • All curricula must be analyzed for accuracy and completeness.
    • All subjects must be presented from diverse perspectives -- this is related to accuracy and completeness.
    • "Inclusive curriculum" also means including the voices of the students in the classroom.
    • Concepts such as "the canon" and "classic literature" must be interrogated, again with the idea of accuracy and completeness, to debunk perceptions such as that the only "great literature" came from the U.S. and Great Britain.

  3. Inclusive Educational Media and Materials
    • Educational materials should be inclusive of diverse voices and perspectives.
    • Students must be encouraged to think critically about materials and media: Whose voices are they hearing? Whose voices are they not hearing? Why did that company produce that film? What is the bias this author may bring to her or his writing?

  4. Supportive School and Classroom Climate
    • Teachers must be better prepared to foster a positive classroom climate for all students.
    • Overall school cultures must be examined closely to determine how they might be cycling and supporting oppressive societal conditions.
    • Administrative hierarchies in schools must be examined to assess whether they produce positive teaching environments for all teachers.

  5. Continual Evaluation and Assessment
    • Educators and education researchers must continue to examine the emphasis on standardized test scores and develop more just alternatives for measuring student "achievement," "ability," or "potential."
    • Continuing evaluation must be in place to measure the success of new and existing programs meant to provide more opportunities to groups traditionally and presently underrepresented in colleges and universities.

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3. The Transformation of Society

Ultimately, the goal of multicultural education is to contribute to the transformation of society and to the application and maintenance of social justice and equity. This stands to reason, as the transformation of schools necessarily transforms a society that puts so much stock in educational attainment, degrees, and test scores. In fact, it is particularly this competitive, market-centric hegemony underlying the dominant mentality of the United States (and increasingly, with the "help" of the United States, the world) that multicultural education aims to challenge, shake, expose, and critique. This is precisely the reason that it is not enough to continue working within an ailing, oppressive, and outdated system to make changes, when the problems in education are themselves symptoms of a system that continues to be controlled by the economic elite. One does not need to study education too closely to recognize that schools consistently provide continuing privilege to the privileged and continuing struggle for the struggling with very little hope of upward mobility. "Informal" tracking, standardized testing, discrepancies in the quality of schools within and across regions, and other practices remain from the industrial-age model of schools. Only the terminology has changed -- and the practices are not quite as overt.

Educators, educational theorists, researchers, activists, and everyone else must continue to practice and apply multicultural teaching and learning principles both inside and out of the classroom. We must not allow the knowledge that the vast majority of schools are well-intentioned lead us to assume that our schools are immune to the oppression and inequity of society. We must ask the unaskable questions. We must explore and deconstruct structures of power and privilege that maintain the status quo.

In a sense, multicultural education uses the transformation of self and school as a metaphor and point of departure for the transformation of society. Ultimately, social justice and equity in schools can, and should, mean social justice and equity in society. Only then will the purpose of multicultural education be fully achieved.

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