It is becoming more and more critical for young students to not only be cognizant of what culture is but to be exposed to different elements of diverse cultures. School is one environment where they can safely and appropriately interact and explore their own and other cultures. That said, teachers have the responsibility to expose their students to culturally rich activities and content in order to expand their multicultural perceptions. Doing so benefits not only the students but the teacher, too. Ultimately, this helps to create a diverse, tolerant, and comfortable learning environment for all in the classroom.
However, exposure to cultures is simply not enough to eliminate disrespect in the classroom. Having more information about other peoples’ culture, background, and traditions helps to add more context, which thereby helps students to understand things that they have never experienced.
It’s about how we think.
It is critical for people to comprehend and practice cultural sensitivity as it is integral in school curriculum and community. Schools are now becoming places where diversity is flourishing. As a result, students need tools and positive role models for approaching cultural diversity and sensitivity both in school and outside of school.
Before diving in further, it is first and foremost imperative to understand multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is defined broadly in many contexts throughout social, psychological, and educational research. In its simplest definition, multiculturalism refers to the understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures by recognizing and celebrating the cultures of ethnic minority groups (Verkuten, 2005). Multiculturalism is usually connoted positively since it emphasizes openness to cultural differences amongst groups.
This concept of multiculturalism is incredibly important to present-day American education because there are a very low number of culturally homogeneous classrooms. The idea that a student will only have to interact with students who are like themselves is outdated and unrealistic. More often than not, a student will come into contact with multiple members of minority groups AND majority groups every day. Some students may even be walking into the classroom carrying multiple cultural identities in their very own background. For these reasons, it is crucial that multiculturalism be understood both inside and outside the classroom environment.
Given the nature of different types of people coming together, conflict is almost imminent (Grobler, B. R., Moloi, K. C., Loock, C. F., Bisschoff, T. C., & Mestry, R. J., 2006). Here, the role of the teacher is to facilitate this coming together of different students. This role is not only to mediate conflict, but to be the catalyst for understanding. This can be done through specific strategies, instruction, and modeling. Many students simply do not possess the tools or skills to interact with something or someone that they do not fully understand or know. Educators can implement their own techniques for helping students interact within a culturally diverse and sensitive classroom community.
The teacher’s role as a major facilitator within the classroom is significant when it comes to multicultural understanding. In a sense, the teacher is a leader within the classroom setting. They plan lessons and present content to their students, while also modeling behavior and guiding activities. That said, it is also the responsibility of the teacher to lead students, particularly students in early education, through experiences in multiculturalism. The earlier that teachers can expose students to cultures that are different from their own, the more likely they are to prevent negative understandings or associations with that group. This is in the hopes of counteracting ideas of prejudice and discrimination from a young age.
To do so, though, means that teachers need to possess multicultural competence. A person with adequate multicultural competence has a certain proficiency in understanding and discussing aspects of cultures different than their own. Research in educational psychology has explored aspects of multicultural competence as it relates to training and teaching in many contexts, such as schools, clinics, and workplaces. In their article on cultural competency-building in psychology trainees, Jones, Sander, and Booker (2013) discuss three dimensions of multicultural competency:
(1) Beliefs and Attitudes: A teacher who has a strong awareness of their own beliefs and attitudes is more likely to be respectful and open to different (and even opposing) beliefs and attitudes.
(2) Knowledge: Refers to the desire and capacity to learn more information about new cultural groups.
(3) Skills. Refers to a person’s ability to put that new information into practice in a healthy and sensitive way.
Stereotypes are gross generalizations of particular populations. They exist because of a lack of information. For example, assuming that all women can cook is a stereotype that women need to be domestic and cook. In reality, the ability to cook is not related to gender at all. Stereotypes are incredibly dangerous because they rely on information that may not be correct or applicable in every situation. It might be true in one setting, but not for an entire population. It is easier to act differently towards people based on those assumptions. This is where hate and prejudice stem from. And this is where the need for knowledge is critical (2013). Without it, assumptions create falsehoods that are hard to distinguish from truths. Children have an even greater time distinguishing between the two and need adults who emulate and teach them positive multicultural practices.
Ingroups and Outgroups
When it comes to discussing different social groups, research in social psychology sometimes distinguishes between ingroups and outgroups. As mentioned previously, human beings have an innate ability to place people into categories based on certain traits or characteristics (like race, gender, occupation, ethnic background etc.). These are often times used in the creation of those stereotypes. It is all too easy for people to place themselves and others into these categories.
As the term implies, “ingroups” refers to groups that an individual feels they are a part of based on a certain characteristic. Oppositely, the term “outgroups” refers to groups that are different from one’s own, also based on some specific characteristic. Research has shown for decades that because it is important for people to see themselves positively, it is ultimately in their best interest to see their own ingroups as favorable (Noel, Wann, & Branscombe, 1995). When a person does not have enough understanding of groups different from their own, it is all too easy to see those outgroups as negatively different and therefore as deserving of different treatment.
Multiculturalism is Here to Stay
There are very few parts of the world that do not experience elements of diversity and multiculturalism. It is a concept that is important for all ages, genders, and ethnic groups to have experience with. For many young children, the school environment serves as the first and sometimes only place where they can effectively experience and learn about new cultures.
This means that the teacher plays a critical role in facilitating this between different groups of students.
It takes a very self-aware individual to teach students to not only be sensitive but to have a thirst to know more about different cultures. This can only benefit society as a whole because it can help fight stereotypes and battle biases that are created and categorized from even the youngest ages. Stereotypes exist because of gross overgeneralization or misinterpretation of information. But teachers can help young students to continue their categorization of new, old, and potentially incorrect information so that prejudice and assumptions do not create and perpetuate ingroups and outgroups both in school and outside of it.
Sadie K. & Shaelyn B.