Five Suggestions for an Effective Multicultural Curriculum

A multicultural curriculum is not simply one that includes the celebration of special days or lectures on certain topics. It requires a multifaceted and comprehensive approach involving all of the school’s resources and practices; the school must continuously and vigorously pursue the a multicultural curriculum by involving its people (faculty, staff and students) and its physical resources (building, location, funds, etc.) in order to provide an equitable opportunity for its student body to achieve the ideals of meaningful learning and full participation in society.

Banks (2006) presents twenty-three different suggestions that schools should pay attention to and implement when striving for a multicultural curriculum. In my role of Chair (Campus Dean) of the College of Humanities and Sciences at the University, I am able to observe first-hand the effects of some of these suggestions as they are implemented and are integral parts of the university’s structure and approach to teaching and learning. Among the many points of contact between what the university practices and what Banks suggests, five items are of particular relevance to my work: diverse staff, staff development, conflict, perspectives, and experimental learning.

Diverse Staff

Banks (2006) suggests that a multicultural curriculum should be implemented by a school with a diverse staff that mirrors the student population in its diversity. Students should be able to see instructors who are a reflection of what and who they are, and who can serve as inspiration for them to achieve their full potential. If a student population is comprised mainly of minority students, and most instructors are of the majority, students are subconsciously (or overtly) being taught that the majority holds positions of authority and the minority follows the majority.

The University practices the concept of having a diverse staff by hiring and training instructors that are a good fit with its instructor methodology, which is focused on facilitation rather than lecture-style of learning. The hiring process does not focus on specific racial or cultural groups, but rather on content expertise, professional experience and teaching style. If an instructor is a content expert and has professional experience in the academic field, he or she simply needs to have facilitation skills that are compatible with what the university’s students need and expect. Because of the ethnic and cultural qualities of the student body, only instructors who are able to communicate and interact well with this mix of students are finally hired and approved to teach at the university.

This process has resulted in a faculty that is very similar to the student body in terms of ethnicity and culture. Every two years, the university publishes a self-study containing data gathered from all of its locations nationwide, including detailed information on faculty and staff, in addition to information about the students, campuses and curriculum. The most recent study indicates that the university’s faculty ethnic and cultural make-up is a reflection of its student body (“2011 Self-Study,” 2012).

Staff Development

Hiring instructors from multiple ethnic and cultural backgrounds is not enough to implement an effective multicultural curriculum. According to Banks (2006), schools should also “have systematic, comprehensive, mandatory, and continuing staff development programs” (p. 318). The whole institution must be focused on many different aspects of multicultural education, and this focus includes constant training that reminds and instructs faculty about best practices in the field.

The University provides this type of training for its instructors in the form of one-hour workshops offered twice every month. Known as First Friday and Second Saturday, these workshops focus on specific topics that always include diversity, classroom assessment techniques and other themes that are directly related to the type of facilitation skills that students expect and want from the university.

While valuable, these workshops are not enough to guarantee a multicultural approach to instruction (Fields, 2010). A true multicultural curriculum requires the institution as a whole to be committed to this approach, especially instructors who are deeply committed. This commitment involves constant reminders and encouragement, self-questioning and self-development that go beyond monthly one-hour meetings.

Conflict

Hiring faculty from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and constantly training them, can be of value when applying Banks’ (2006) suggestion to “help students to identify and understand the ever-present conflict ideals and realities in human societies” (p. 322). Diverse classrooms will have a diversity of backgrounds and values that sooner or later will enter into conflict. A multicultural curriculum strives to provide crucial assistance for students to deal with this conflict of values and ideals, and can even expose students to conflict as a means to achieve and enhance the learning experience (Jehangir, 2012).

A class on United States history is one of my favorite courses to teach at the University. In that class, we focus on the American experience since the close of World War II, glancing over the anticommunism and the Cold War, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the seemingly eternal conflict between liberals and conservatives, and other subjects such as immigration, globalization, terrorism, etc. I find that by looking at history through the conflict of values prism, students are able to see how some conflicts were resolved while others remain unresolved; they are encouraged to find solutions and apply critical thinking skills in their search for a way to either avoid conflict, deal with it, or solve it.

Students have their own values that were acquired through their upbringing, experiences or beliefs. They bring these values to the classroom and interact with students who may hold similar values, but who more than likely hold values very different from their own. A multicultural curriculum will assist these students in dealing with the inevitable conflict of values in a rational and non-violent way, providing for dialogue and a peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic society.

Perspectives

Banks (2006) suggests that a “multicultural curriculum should help students to view and interpret events, situations, and conflict from diverse ethnic and cultural perspectives and points of view” (p. 331). When a school hires and constantly trains faculty that mirror the ethnic and cultural background of its students, and helps them to deal with conflicting values, it can continue to assist learners by providing multiple and relevant perspectives on the subject being studied (Jordan, 2010). Multiple perspectives are crucial for a fuller understanding of the event or fact under scrutiny in a way similar to that of the role of cameras during a sports event: multiple camera angles allow the observer to better experience and understand the game.

I have the privilege of teaching a religion course at University that deals with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While the conventional way to approach this subject is siloed—dealing with the three religions separately—I choose to incorporate elements of all three religions in each session, challenging students to draw on what they learned about each religion in the analysis of the main religion being studied. Students are frequently asked to play the role of devout followers of a specific religion interacting with a student who is an adherent of a different religion; during this process, students learn to interact with different beliefs and have a glimpse of different perspectives about the world and faith.

Experimental Learning

According to Banks (2006), when implementing a multicultural curriculum schools “should make maximum use of experimental learning, especially local community resources” (p. 335). In my role of Chair of the College of Humanities and Sciences, I oversee faculty that teach various courses that present good opportunities for field trips and other types of experimental learning. For instance, I encourage instructors of the Introduction to Sociology course to lead their students on a visit to various neighborhoods in Oklahoma City in order to better understand the cultural and ethnic diversity of different areas; this activity can assist students to better understand concepts presented in the textbook and discussed in class. Other courses are good candidates for this type of activity as well: Introduction to Geology students are encouraged to take pictures of various land features in Oklahoma City and surrounding areas; Introduction to Environmental Science students regularly visit the Waste Processing plant and have the opportunity to interact with communities that have different methods of managing waste. This type of experimental learning helps students to better understand the communities in which they live, and are beneficial to the communities they visit, as they are exposed to different points of view or management styles (Meyer & Crawford, 2011).

Nearly ten years ago I founded a graduate school of theology in Brazil. One of the highlights of that experience was to teach a course on contemporary religions that allowed me to bring guest speakers to the classroom. During that course, I sent my students to various religious groups in order to observe their practices and report back on their findings. This type of hands-on, experimental learning is beneficial not only to the student, but also to the local community through its involvement with an institution of learning.

Conclusion

The implementation of a multicultural curriculum is not an easy task. It requires the school’s commitment in various fronts, from hiring practices to learning activities. At the University, I have been privileged to witness how some of Banks’ (2006) suggestions are utilized in the attempt to keep students engaged and better serve them through a curriculum that is meaningful to them and useful in their professions. But there is room for improvement. The diversity of our staff should be coupled with constant training, and not only the short workshops that are offered every month. The facilitation method of teaching allows students to actively participate in their learning experience, fomenting discussions and the sharing of different values and beliefs. This experience gives students the tools to deal with conflict in a rational, peaceful way, as they are encouraged to seek understanding through different perspectives and approaches to the subject of study. Finally, students are encouraged to participate in activities that allow them to engage the senses and interact with what is being studied—and that is a huge step towards a true multicultural learning experience.

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References

2011 Self-Study. (2012). Phoenix, AZ: University of Phoenix.

Banks, J. (2006). Cultural diversity and education. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Fields, B. (2010, January 1). What is the impact of faculty development workshops in multicultural education for teachers? ProQuest LLC.

Jehangir, R. (2012). Conflict as a catalyst for learning. About Campus, 17(2), 2-8.

Jordan, W. (2010). Defining equity: Multiple perspectives to analyzing the performance of diverse learners. Review Of Research In Education, 34(1), 142-178.

Meyer, X., & Crawford, B. (2011). Teaching science as a cultural way of knowing: merging authentic inquiry, nature of science, and multicultural strategies. Cultural Studies Of Science Education, 6(3), 525-547. doi:10.1007/s11422-011-9318-6

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