The Classroom As Crucible

Imagining the multicultural classroom
as a microcosm of the global society

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 31
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

FOR THE PAST 12 YEARS I have labored in the vineyard of, firstly, Indian Education and then Multicultural (Multiethnic) Education, primarily in the public schools of British Columbia.

I have been a staunch advocate of the rights of all peoples and the cultures they carry to be fairly and adequately represented in the curricula of the schools. I was the Director of Indian Education in B.C. for 7 years (1976-83) and vigorously pursued a policy which sought both fair representation in the school program through locally developed curricula by and about native peoples, and considerations of appropriate instructional strategies sensitive to the learning styles of native children. Another goal was the building of a classroom environment concerned with the quality of teacher/child and child/child interaction in order to generate greater classroom participation by native children.

However, when a similar policy was pursued in the multicultural classroom (which most classrooms in North America tend to be), an increasingly difficult task was presented to the teacher and curriculum designer. How was it possible to develop what were, in effect, separate and distinct culturally appropriate programs for children of perhaps half a dozen, or even more, cultural backgrounds? More and more ethno-cultural organizations were demanding that the curriculum include language teaching, cultural history and folk elements of their cultures which reflected the interests of their adult world. These groups attempted to, in part, displace the representation of the mainstream culture in the curriculum. It was a win/lose proposition with each group trying to gain equal time.

The results of this were mixed. On the one hand the effort to come to grips with cultural diversity was a highly beneficial exercise and the multiculturalization of the curriculum was laudable – it went beyond assimilation to cultural pluralism.

On the other hand, with both the native peoples and the ethno-cultural groups, the culture they wished to project in the classroom was full of the myth of the golden past. In any event, it was a static view of culture and, at its worst, encouraged a myopic parochialism. There was little candor or critical view of either past or present (an observation that applies to the mainstream culture as well). Teachers became increasingly concerned that they were violating the cultures of the minority children by reflecting their own culture in the classroom. This led to paralysis on the part of some teachers and a kind of cultural drift and balkanization.

Yet where were the children in all this? Many felt alienated from the aspects of their cultures of origin that they were being taught in the schools – essentially folk elements. The younger ones were often disinterested; the older ones felt imposed upon by the adult world. They weren’t consulted here any more than in any other part of the curriculum. It certainly wasn’t their culture that was being communicated.

I became increasingly uneasy with this state of affairs, especially the gulf between the multicultural classroom and the imperative of our time to develop a global culture which strengthens the common core of all people and celebrates local diversity. Multiculturalism, as most often dealt with in the schools, expresses a static notion of culture and, with its "equal time" approach to each ethno-cultural group, reflects the divisive nature of nation states. It enshrines cultural nationalism in the classroom and therefore runs counter to the movement towards a global perspective and a unitive consciousness.

We need to move away from a static replication or cloning model of culture to one which is dynamic and transformational. We also need to see the multicultural classroom as a crucible of change, and we especially need to bring in the children as co-creators of culture and co- inventors of the future. In this view we learn from the children as they learn from us, and curriculum is a dynamic emergent entity based upon need and the real world.

The multicultural classroom can be seen as a microcosm of the global society. Out of its diverse strands we can create a new culture by building upon the common core of all cultures and, at the same time, encourage diversity. This is a both/and approach. This emergent culture does not replicate either the home environment or the community but looks outward to embrace the globe itself. It connotes the unity of the generations in seeding the future with vision and hope. It transcends parochialism and stereotyping – positive or negative. It encourages people – teachers and students – to meet and see each other as they are, without labels, and brings adults and youth together to negotiate a shared movement towards the future. The curriculum content would be constantly being invented as it responds to the real issues and imperatives of our time as seen by both adults (teachers) and children (students). The division between the two is entirely blurred when we are moving together this way into the unknown.