Multicultural education

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Multicultural education is a set of strategies and materials in U.S. education that were developed to assist teachers to respond to the many issues created by rapidly changing demographics of their students. It provides students with knowledge about the histories, cultures, and contributions of diverse groups, and it assumes that the future of U.S. society is pluralistic. Therefore, multicultural classrooms promote decision-making and critical thinking while moving toward cultural pluralism.

Multicultural education developed from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Initially, schools hastily made classes where students would be able to learn about different ethnic groups, a majority of the information learned in these classes was about holidays and other celebrations. These classes were considered to be electives and were typically only taken by students of the ethnic groups the classes were focused on. (Banks and Banks p. 4)

The efforts and classes grew to eventually include “… diverse courses, programs, and practices that education institutions decided to respond to the demands, needs, and aspirations of the various groups.” (Banks and Banks p. 5) It also grew to not only include classes and information on different races, ethnicities and minority groups, but flourished to include information on the different sexes as well as information and support for LGBT groups. More or less multicultural education grew into equality and acceptance for everyone.

Multicultural education concentrates on the need of including notions of race, class, and diversity while teaching. “Multicultural education incorporates the idea that all students – regardless of their gender; sexual orientation; social class; and ethnic, racial, or cultural characteristics – should have an equal opportunity to learn in school” (Banks and Banks, 3). If done correctly, students will develop a positive perception of themselves by demonstrating knowledge about the culture, history, and contributions of diverse groups. This way, multiculturalism is a tool for instilling students with pride and confidence in their unique and special backgrounds.

This theory concentrates on the need of including notions of race, class, and diversity while teaching. Multicultural educators seek to substantially reform schools to give diverse students an equal chance in school, in the job market, and in contributing to building healthy communities.[1] Multiculturalism supports the idea that students and their backgrounds and experiences should be the center of their education and that learning should occur in a familiar context that attends to multiple ways of thinking.


Multicultural education is a field of study based on the idea that students from diverse backgrounds should have equal opportunities to education. It draws on insights from a number of different fields, including ethnic studies and women studies, but also reinterprets content from related academic disciplines.[2]

Multicultural education, also viewed as a way of teaching, promotes principles such as inclusion, diversity, democracy, skill acquisition, inquiry, critical thought, value of perspectives, and self-reflection.[3] It encourages students to bring aspects of their home lives into the classroom and thus, allows teachers to support the child’s intellectual and social/emotional growth.[3]

Multicultural education is also attributed to the reform movement behind the transformation of schools. Transformation in this context requires all variables of the school to be changed, including policies, teachers' attitudes, instructional materials, assessment methods, counseling, and teaching styles.[4] Multicultural education is also concerned with the contribution of students towards effective social action. It therefore necessitates students from all backgrounds to acquire “democratic skills and knowledge”[5] in order to become effective citizens in a democratic society. In this process, the experience of oppressed groups is valued and a commitment to mutual respect and tolerance is developed.[6]


Initial steps towards multicultural education can be traced as far back as 1896 with the United States Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson. During this controversial case the decision was made to uphold the constitutionality of racial segregation in all public establishments under the policy of “separate but equal.” Even after the adopting the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, where slavery was officially abolished, there was still great racial tension in the United States. To help support the ideals within the Thirteenth Amendment Congress soon after adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, which for all citizens provided the privileges and immunities clause, as well as the equal protection clause.

It was the equal protection clause within the Fourteenth Amendment that stirred the debate of racial equality in 1954. The unanimous 9-0 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that separate schools for black and white students was, in fact unequal, thus overturning the 60 year old Plessy v. Ferguson decision. It was this victory that widened the path towards multicultural education and laid the course for nationwide integration, as well as a tremendous boost for the civil rights movement. Multicultural education considers an equal opportunity for learning beyond the simple trappings of race and gender. It includes students from varying social classes, ethnic groups, sexual identities, and additional cultural characteristics [4] .

10 years later the Civil Rights Act of 1964, known as “the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction” was enacted. It outlawed discrimination in public spaces and establishments, made it illegal for any workplace and employment discrimination, and it made integration possible for schools and other public spaces possible.[7] Students of exception are also a group that civil rights advocates have been fighting for in the implementation of quality multicultural education. With the continued support from civil rights groups coming out of their struggle, many of these students found support on a scale much larger due to the major push in education to provide equity to all students.

In 1968, the implementation of the Bilingual Education Act was prompted by limited English-speaking minorities, especially Spanish-speaking citizens who denounced the idea of assimilation into the Western way of thinking in fear of losing their personal connectedness to one’s heritage and cultural ideals. It was in their hopes that “their lives and histories be included in the curriculum of schools, colleges, and universities…multicultural educators sought to transform the Euro-centric perspective and incorporate multiple perspectives into the curriculum”.[8] After 36 years, the Bilingual Education Act was dissolved and in 2002 the needs of English Language Learners were picked up by the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a way to eliminate discrimination in public accommodations, housing, employment, and education.[4] The movement pushed for minority teachers and administrators, community control and revision of textbooks to reflect the diversity of peoples in the United States. Multicultural education became a standard in university studies for new teachers, as Fullinwider states. One of the main focuses of this study was to have students identify their own culture as important, as well as, recognize the unique differences in other cultures. Multicultural education began to represent the significance in understanding and respecting diversity in various groups as much as finding the important meaning within one's own cultural identity. The success of the Civil Rights Movement sparked an interest in the women’s rights movement, along with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Currently, “practicing educators use the term multicultural education to describe a wide variety of programs and practices related to educational equity, women, ethnic groups, language minorities, low-income groups, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people, and people with disabilities”.[4] Additionally, learning styles within these groups can be different and recognizing this has supported changes educators are making to their approaches in the classroom. There is not a single standard for each sub group as it relates to learning styles. A general example is African-American students learn more productively in a group setting because their cultural components showcase a stronger attachment to the whole, as mentioned by Fullinwider. European-Americans, as an example, could be viewed to be more independent based on their cultural ties to learning styles.

During the 1980s, educators developed a new approach to the field of multicultural education, examining schools as social systems and promoting the idea of educational equality.[9] The 1982 Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court shed light on the advances in the field of multicultural education as it upheld the educational rights of illegal immigrant children. In the 1990s, educators expanded the study of multicultural education to consider “larger societal and global dimensions of power, privilege, and economics.”[9] The shifting student populations of the 20th century have given multicultural education a new perspective to see the classroom as a community of diversity amongst its learners and not one of assimilation to a dominant culture[10] The continued advancement of ideas to improve multicultural education is allowing students and teachers to strive for improving exposure to all cultural differences while never seeking an end to the progress. The numbers of minority students continue to increase in education that a multicultural approach is no longer looked at simply as educating the minority, as they will soon be the majority. Education has had to take a deeper look as educators recognize an increasingly multicultural nation and a shrinking planet demands people who are critical thinkers able to handle the complex realities of multicultural differences[11] At the turn of the century in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act, aimed primarily at helping disadvantaged students, required “all public schools receiving federal funding to administer a state-wide standardized test annually to all students.”[12] Also, with the Race to the Top initiative, “Many advocates of multicultural education quickly found attention to diversity and equity being replaced by attention to standards and student test scores”.[4]

As multicultural education moves rapidly into the mainstream of 21st century education, one must not forget the initial intensions of this model. When the civil rights movement and women's rights movement gained significant traction in support of their freedoms, multicultural education was beginning to recieve similar support. Initially, multicultural education had intentions to expose and educate on the institutionalized racism that existed in the education system. Schools were, and had for many years, approached education from a singular historical perspective, aimed to educate a narrow student population. What seems to have been lost with the introduction of multicultural education was the desired outcome. Many people at the time of these various freedom movements sought to expose the lack of diversity in curriculum by introducing more culturally diverse content. The field of multicultural education can be criticized for turning away from its initial critique of racism in education[13]and allowing the superficial exposure of cultures to become the standard in multicultural education. It should be remembered that inequality and oppression of families and communities was the initial objective set forth with this new idea of multicultural education. Colleges and public schools can make improvements to this field by revisiting the foundations of this freedom movement to be racism existing in education. Many minority groups are already recognizing an importance to be based strongly in one's own cultural identity before attempting to enter into a multicultural world continually dominated by systematic levels of oppression.[14]

Aims & Objectives[edit]

The aims and objectives of multicultural education are something of great depth. A few areas influenced by a multicultural education may include preserving the minority group culture, fostering children’s development of autonomy by introducing them to new and different ideas, which also gets children to think critically of their lives, promoting toleration and open-mindedness, or to encourage social justice and equity.[15] Though, these aims and objectives are intended to be well-meaning, multicultural education may itself cause its own difficulties. For example, “Preserving a minority culture may require the implementation of an exclusive curriculum that teaches the beliefs of the minority group culture instead of the beliefs of other groups”.[16] It appears that there seems to be a fine line between what we as society hope to achieve in multicultural education and attitudes or reactions it may foster. However, it is important to understand that within the idea of multicultural education, “One of its important goals is to help all students to acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to function effectively in a pluralistic democratic society and to interact, negotiate, and communicate with peoples from diverse groups in order to create a civic and moral community that works for the common good".[17]

Beliefs on Multicultural Education[edit]

Multicultural Education and Politics

Advocates of democracy in schooling, led by John Dewey (1859–1952), argued that public education was needed to educate all children. Universal voting, along with universal education would make our society more democratic. An educated electorate would understand politics and the economy and make wise decisions. Later, by the 1960s, public education advocates argued that educating working people to a higher level (such as the G.I. Bill) would complete our transition to a deliberative or participatory democracy. This position is well developed by political philosopher Benjamin R. Barber in Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, first published in 1984 and published again in 2003. According to Barber, multicultural education in public schools would promote acceptance of diversity. Levinson (2009) argues that “multicultural education is saddled with so many different conceptions that it is inevitably self-contradictory both in theory and in practice, it cannot simultaneously achieve all of the goals it is called upon to serve” (p. 428) Multicultural education should reflect the student body, as well as promote understanding of diversity to the dominant culture and be inclusive, visible, celebrated and tangible. Multicultural education is appropriate for everyone. According to Banks (2013), “a major goal of multicultural education is to change teaching and learning approaches so that students of both genders and from diverse cultural, ethnic, and language groups will have equal opportunities to learn in educational institutions” (p. 10). Citizens need multicultural education in order to enter into the dialogue with fellow citizens and future citizens. Furthermore, multicultural education should include preparation for an active, participatory citizenship. Multicultural education is a way to promote the civic good. Levinson (2009) describes four ways to do so: From learning about other cultures comes tolerance, tolerance promotes respect, respect leads to open mindedness which results in civic reasonableness and equality (p. 431-432)

James Banks on Multicultural Education

James Banks, a lifetime leader in multicultural education and a former president of both the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Educational Research Association, describes the balancing forces in [8] (4th. Edition, 2008) “Citizenship education must be transformed in the 21st Century because of the deepening racial, ethnic, cultural, language and religious diversity in nation-states around the world. Citizens in a diverse democratic society should be able to maintain attachments to their cultural communities as well as participate effectively in the shared national culture. Unity without diversity results in cultural repression and hegemony. Diversity without unity leads to Balkanization and the fracturing of the nation-state. Diversity and unity should coexist in a delicate balance in democratic multicultural nation-states.” [9] Planning curriculum for schools in a multicultural democracy involves making some value choices. Schools are not neutral. The schools were established and funded to promote democracy and citizenship. A pro-democracy position is not neutral; teachers should help schools promote diversity. The myth of school neutrality comes from a poor understanding of the philosophy of positivism. Rather than neutrality, schools should plan and teach cooperation, mutual respect, the dignity of individuals and related democratic values. Schools, particularly integrated schools, provide a rich site where students can meet one another, learn to work together, and be deliberative about decision making. In addition to democratic values, deliberative strategies and teaching decision-making provide core procedures for multicultural education. From: Choosing Democracy; a p[10] ractical guide to multicultural education. 4th. ed. 2010. Used with permission. pp. 340–341.

Meira Levinson on Multicultural Education

According to Levinson, three distinct groups present different conceptions of “multicultural education.” These groups are: political and educational philosophers, educational theorists, and educational practitioners. In the minds of the members of these groups, multicultural education has different, and sometimes conflicting, aims within schools. Philosophers see multicultural education as a method of response to minorities within a society who advocate for their own group’s rights or who advocate for special considerations for members of that group, as a means for developing a child’s sense of autonomy, and as a function of the civic good. Educational theorists differ from philosophers in that theorists seek to restructure schools and curriculum to enact “social justice and real equality” (Levinson, 2010, p. 433). By restructuring schools in this way, educational theorists hope that society will thus be restructured as students who received a multicultural education become contributing members of the political landscape. The third and final group, educational practitioners, holds the view that multicultural education increases the self-esteem of students from minority cultures and prepares them to become successful in the global marketplace. Though there are overlaps in these aims, Levinson notes that one goal, cited by of all three prominent groups within the field of education, is that of “righting the historical record” (p. 435).

Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg on Multicultural Education

Kincheloe and Steinberg in Changing Multiculturalism (1997) described confusion in the use of the terms "multiculturalism" and "multicultural education". In an effort to clarify the conversation about the topic, they developed a taxonomy of the diverse ways the term was used. The authors warn their readers that they overtly advocate a critical multicultural position and that readers should take this into account as they consider their taxonomy.[2] Within their taxonomy, Kincheloe and Steinberg break down multiculturalism into five categories: conservative multiculturalism, liberal multiculturalism, pluralist multiculturalism, left-essentialist multiculturalism, and critical multiculturalism. These categories are named based on beliefs held by the two largest schools of political thought (liberalism and conservatism) within American society, and they reflect the tenets of each strand of political thought. In terms of Levinson’s (2010) ideas, conservative multiculturalism, liberal multiculturalism, and pluralist multiculturalism view multicultural education as an additive to existing curriculum, while left-essentialist multiculturalism and critical multiculturalism see to restructure education, and thus, society.

Labaree on Multicultural Education Labaree's Democratic Equality ideology, which is defined in Labaree's article, Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals is a perfect example of different aspects of Multicultural Education. A teacher using Labaree's Democratic Equality, would have students who are able to feel like they belong in the classroom, which teaches students equal treatment, and gives support to multiculturalism, non-academic curriculum options, and cooperative learning (Labaree (1997), 45). Labaree use of Democratic Equality supports a multicultural education because “in the democratic political arena, we are all considered equal (according to the rule of one person, one vote), but this political equality can be undermined if the social inequality of citizens grows too great” (Labaree (1997), p. 42). By providing opportunities to engaged and enrich children with different cultures, abilities, and ethnicities we allow children to become more familiar with people that are different from them, hoping to allow a greater acceptance in society. Also by representing a variety of cultures reflected by the students in your classroom, children will feel like they have a voice or a place at school.

Other Proponents of Multicultural Education

A variety of even more educational philosophers and theorists have written about their views on multicultural education, and their beliefs are many and varied. Peter McLaren, Henry Giroux, Antonia Darder, Christine Sleeter, Ernest Morrell, Sonia Nieto, Rochelle Brock, Cherry A. McGee Banks, James A. Banks, Nelson Rodriguez, Leila Villaverde, and many other scholars have offered an emancipatory perspective on multicultural education.

Implementation of Multicultural Education in the Classroom[edit]

Multicultural education encompasses many important dimensions. Practicing educators can use the dimensions as a way to incorporate culture in their classrooms. The five dimensions listed below are: (Banks, 2013, p. 19.) 1. Content Integration: Content integration deals with the extent to which teachers use examples and content from a variety of cultures in their teaching. 2. Knowledge construction: Teachers need to help students understand, investigate, and determine how the implicit cultural assumptions, frames of reference, perspectives, and biases within a discipline influence the ways in which knowledge is constructed. 3. Prejudice Reduction: This dimension focuses on the characteristics of students’ racial attitudes and how they can be modified by teaching methods and materials. 4. Empowering School Culture: Grouping and labeling practices, sports participation, disproportionality in achievement, and the interaction of the staff and the students across ethnic and racial lines must be examined to create a school culture that empowers students from diverse racial, ethnic, and gender groups. 5. Equity Pedagogy: An equity pedagogy exists when teachers modify their teaching in ways that will facilitate the academic achievement of students from diverse racial, cultural, gender, and social-class groups.

Robert K. Fullinwider (2003) describes how classrooms are conducted in a way congruent with the cognitive styles of the white Anglo-Saxon middle to upper class citizen. African American and Mexican American students tend to be considered field dependent learners. “If you are a field-dependent learner, you are responsive to social reinforcement and well attuned to the social environment, possessing highly developed social skills; but you are liable to take information as it comes pre-packaged and to be weak at analyzing it into its constituent parts” (Bennett, 1990, p. 144). Students that are field-dependent are group oriented so teachers can use cooperative learning strategies to better reach this group of students. Students who are field dependent prefer more personalized learning approaches. African American students prefer oral communication and kinesthetic activities. Native Americans tend to have excellent visual skills. Both of these styles go against the white Anglo-Saxon classroom. Teachers need to use these strategies at all levels, as “the longer these students of color remain in school, the more their achievement lags behind that of White mainstream students” (Banks, 2013, p. 3)

All students have different learning styles so by incorporating multicultural education techniques into the classroom, all students will be successful. “Multicultural education needs to enable students to succeed economically in a multicultural world by teaching them to be comfortable in a diverse workforce and skillful at integrating into a global economy” (Levinson, 2009, p. 435). Teacher’s should align the curriculum with the groups being taught, rather than about them. Every child can learn so it is the teacher’s responsibility to not “track” them, but rather to personalize the curriculum to reach every student. “Teachers need to assume that students are capable of learning complex material and performing at a high level of skill. Each student has a personal, unique learning style that teachers discover and build on when teaching” (Banks, 2013, p. 50).

Challenges to Multicultural Education[edit]

Many educators think that when holding cultural parties, listening to music related to a culture or sampling their traditional foods that they are doing their part to promote multiculturalism. Fullinwider points out that these sorts of trivial acts fail to address the deeper values and ideas behind cultural customs through which we truly get to understand these differing viewpoints. He also discusses, however, challenges that arise in multicultural education when delving into these deeper issues. When studying the roots of a particular culture, the “high culture” is often what is taught and can be somewhat of an idealized version of the “home culture” that students actually experience. In teaching about the high culture and somewhat ignoring the home culture that may not be as idyllic, what message is being sent to students? On the other hand, teaching the sometimes corrupted or vulgar cultural norms that students face at home instead of the “high culture” may create a negative cycle in which these behaviors are reproduced. This is a prime example of the struggles that may arise from the teaching of different “cultures” that have the same origins.

One can observe another tug of war in the instance of whether multicultural education should be inclusive versus exclusive. Levinson argues that a facet of multicultural education (i.e.-preserving the minority culture) would require teaching only the beliefs of this culture while excluding others. In this way, one can see how an exclusive curriculum would leave other cultures left out. Levinson also brings up, similar to Fullinwider, the conflict between minority group preservation and social justice and equity. Many cultures, for example, favor power in the hands of men instead of women and even mistreat women in what is a culturally appropriate manner for them. When educators help to preserve this type of culture, they can also be seen encouraging the preservation of gender and other inequalities.

Similar to the inclusive versus exclusive education debate, Levinson goes as far to suggest segregated schools to teach minority students in order to achieve a “culturally congruent”1 education. She argues that in a homogeneous class it is easier to change curriculum and practices to suit the culture of the students so that they can have equal educational opportunities and status in the culture and life of the school. Thus, when considering multicultural education to include teaching in a culturally congruent manner, Levinson supports segregated classrooms to aid in the success of this. Segregation, as she admits, blatantly goes against multiculturalism thus highlighting the inner conflicts that this ideology presents.

Another challenge to multicultural education is that the extent of multicultural content integration in a given school tend to be related to the ethnic composition of the student body. That is, as Agirdag and colleagues have shown,[18] teachers tend to incorporate more multicultural educational in schools with a higher share of ethnic minority students. However, there is no fundamental reason why only schools with ethnic minority pupils should focus on multicultural education. On the contrary, in particular there is a need for White students, who are largely separated from their ethnic minority peers in White-segregated schools, to become more familiar with ethnic diversity. While ethnic minority students learn in many contexts about the mainstream society in which they live, for White students the school context might be the only places where they can have meaningful encounters with ethnic and religious others.


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  12. ^ No Child Left Behind Act
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