As a student in the public school system in the late 1990s, I attended school in a small coastal town in NSW. From memory the vast majority of students were from Anglo-Saxon middle class background, and do not remember any form of cultural diversity or ‘difference’ being incorporated into classroom practices or the curriculum until I attended high school.
In high school there was also a small population of indigenous students and an even smaller population of Muslim students, who brought with them cultural and linguistic diversity. The school did it’s best to embrace cultural heritage. Diversity was somewhat incorporated into the curriculum, and the classroom as I remember, was a place of equal opportunity. I have always felt that my teachers encouraged their students equally amongst cultural or linguistic difference.
Personal expression amongst students was encouraged through dance, writing, arts and drama, placing emphasis on individualism, difference and diversity. Students were encouraged to work in groups and class discussions slowly became a regular moving towards progressive ideas and the acceptance of others regardless of racial and cultural difference.
Occasionally there were other individuals who also provided ‘racial’, cultural difference, though these were mainly students who were attending exchange programs from overseas for periods at a time. The school did it’s best to incorporate traditional cultural practices to help these students feel welcomed and for other students to understand where these students had come from, and what some of their cultural practices are.
Teaching diversity is often considered a difficult task among teachers because of the sensitivity of the topic. The main difficulty in teaching about differences, however, is the fear and anticipation behind the effort.
If I were a teacher in a classroom where there existed racial, cultural or linguistic ‘difference’ amongst the students, I would teach students to be forthcoming about their differences, developing a balanced educational experience for all students. I would incorporate enriched cultural content drawing on students’ diverse experience into the curriculum and pedagogy. This would show students there is no shame in being different. A teacher who is sensitive to cultural differences can bring tremendous value to the classroom. They are more likely to understand that every student does not have the same background and learning style. Bringing cultural diversity into the classroom enhances the learning opportunity of the entire class.
The teacher also must realise that some students have not been exposed to people who are from different backgrounds and cultures. They may not be sure how to respond to someone who speaks differently. There may be some assumptions about the student’s knowledge level because they cannot speak English clearly or perhaps have a different learning style to others. This offers a great teaching opportunity, providing material for class discussions on the dangers of stereotyping people, the role of the media as it relates to culture and understanding people on an individual basis. Additionally a culturally and ethnically diverse classroom better prepares students for a future globalised workforce.
What have immigration, racism and multiculturalism got to do with teaching?
Australia is a multicultural society, being one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. Multicultural education commenced in 1972 and from the 1980s formal ESL content was incorporated into the curriculum (Hill & Allen, 2004). Indigenous education has also enjoyed a renewed focus in relation to policy and practice (Education Council [Australia], 2015). Despite these changes, indigenous and ethnically diverse student populations continue to underachieve as opposed to their mainstream counterparts (Nieto & Bode, 2008). As a teacher this means I will not only face culturally, ethnically and racially diverse classrooms, but will need to contribute to creating “a richer and more productive school climate and a deeper awareness of the role of culture and language in learning” (Nieto & Bode, 2008, p. 43).
Multicultural education has multiple foci including: cross cultural understanding; culturally responsive teaching and learning; and an approach to multicultural education which enables “individual to participate competently in a multicultural society” (Ogbu, 1992, p. 6). According to the Department of Education’s NSW (2015) Multicultural Education Policy, key objectives for effective multicultural education must: incorporate programs and practices that support student wellbeing, counter racism and other forms of discrimination and facilitate school harmony; promote intercultural understanding and acceptance of linguistic and religious differences; provide differentiated curriculum and opportunities to enhance the English language and literacy skills; and establish strong community connections.
Similarly recognising students’ linguistic, religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds, demonstrates a unified commitment to building cultural competence and emphasising an approach to relevant learning. According to the Aboriginal Education Policy (Department of Education NSW, 2009), schooling in Australia is committed to; improving educational outcomes for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; increasing in the knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal Australia; and strengthening connections with Indigenous communities, making them part of decision making process.
Teaching diverse student groups requires appropriate pedagogy and curriculum to create a culturally rich and inclusive classroom environment. Providing opportunities for immigrant, refugee and Indigenous students to retain their culture of origin, and still be successful within an educational system that traditionally values western knowledge and ways of being.
Making connections to new school and broader comminutes is essential for the wellbeing of immigrant and refugee youth (Correa-Velez, Gifford & Barnett, 2010). A sense of belonging whilst maintaining a strong cultural and racial identity is critical for successful engagement in education (Sidhu & Taylor, 2007). To support the social and emotional wellbeing of all students including immigrant, refugee, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, teachers need to create an inclusive classroom culture that teaches understanding and knowledge of other cultures where diversity is embraced and empathic understanding of difference are highly valued (Nieto & Bode, 2008; Pearce, 2005). Acknowledging the cultural heritage, cultural backgrounds and practices of diverse students and responding to a variety of educational experiences, where some students have missed significant amounts of schooling, is a vital component for assisting these students towards more productive lives in Australia.
The connection between immigration, racism, multiculturalism and teaching is clear. Education and teaching play a crucial role in supporting health and wellbeing and educational outcomes of diverse student populations (Correa-Velez, Gifford & Barnett, 2010; Sidhu & Taylor, 2007). With the increasing student diversity in Australian classrooms, it is imperative to ensure successful educational outcomes for refugee, immigrant and Indigenous student populations. It is necessary that teachers themselves have access to professional development opportunities to become culturally competent, to counter racism and discrimination in schools and deliver culturally rich teaching experience for all students.
Correa-Velez, I., Gifford, S. M., Barnett, A. (2010). ‘Longing to belong’, Social inclusion and wellbeing among youth with refugee backgrounds in the first three years in Melbourne, Australia. Social Science and Medicine, (71(8), pp. 1399-1408).
Hill, B. & Allan, R. (2004)), ‘Multicultural education in Australia’, in J. Banks & C. A.
Mcgee Banks, Jossey-Bass, (eds.). Handbook of research on multicultural education, (2nd ed), (pp. 979-996). San Francisco, CA.
Nieto, Sonia, Bode, Patty. (2008), ‘Multicultural Education and School Reform’ In: Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education: Sonia Nieto,
Patty Bode. (5th ed), Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, (2008, (3), pp. 42-62)
NSW Department of Education and Communities, (2005). Multicultural education policy: Sydney, NSW. Retrieved from https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/policies/students
NSW Department of Education & Communities, (2005). Anti-racism policy. Sydney, NSW. Retrieved from: https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/policies/student_serv/equity/antiracism
NSW Department of Education & Communities, (2009). Aboriginal Education and Training Policy, Sydney, NSW. Retrieved from
Ogbu, J. (1992). Understanding Cultural Diversity and Learning. Educational Researcher, (21, (8), 5-24). Availability: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176697
Pearce, S. (2005). The Teacher as the Problem, In YOU wouldn’t understand: White teachers in multi-ethnic classrooms, Trentham Books, (2005, (2), pp. 29-51).
Sidhu, R. & Taylor, Sandra C. (2007) Educational provision for refugee youth in Australia:left to chance?. Journal of Sociology, (43(3) 283-300).