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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue B ::: February 2003

Multicultural Education Connecting Theory to Practice

by Allison Cumming-McCann
Multicultural education is more than just teaching about "heroes and holidays" (Lee et al., 1998). It goes beyond teaching tolerance of differences, and it is much deeper than studying or celebrating Black History Month in February. So, what is multicultural education? To answer the question, we must first understand the goals, definitions, and a predominant model of multicultural education (Banks, 1998). Although I am not an adult basic educator, multicultural education as it is studied, conceptualized, and practiced in K-12 and higher education is applicable to adult basic education as well. In the next sections, I review the goals of multicultural education and provide a theoretical framework for implementing multicultural education into adult basic education programs. 

Defining Multicultural Education
If you were to ask educators to define what multicultural education is, you would be unlikely to receive the same answer twice. The responses would range from adding new and diverse materials and perspectives to existing curricula to discussions of teaching styles and pedagogical approaches that meet the needs of traditionally underrepresented groups. Others might talk about education as a part of a larger, oppressive system, and explain that multicultural education must work to deconstruct this system. While multicultural education can be conceptualized in many different ways, some of the leaders in the field (for example: Banks, 1997; Nieto, 1996, 1999; Sleeter, 1996; Sleeter & Grant, 1994), define the goals and ideals of multicultural education similarly. 

The primary goal of multicultural education is not merely to promote human relations, to help students feel good about themselves, or to preserve students' native languages and cultures. While these outcomes may be by-products, the primary goal of multicultural education is to promote the education and achievement of all students, particularly those who are traditionally dismissed and underserved in our education system (see box below). Sonia Nieto (1996) defines multicultural education as antiracist basic education for all students that permeates all areas of schooling, characterized by a commitment to social justice and critical approaches to learning. Furthermore, multicultural education challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in schools and society. It accepts and affirms differences in race, ethnicity, religion, language, economics, sexual orientation, gender, and other differences that students, communities, and teachers encompass. It should permeate the curriculum and instructional strategies used in schools, as well as interactions among teachers, students, and families in school and outside of it (Nieto, 1999). 

Multicultural Education

  • Analyzes ways in which schools and the education system as institutions in our society work to maintain and perpetuate racism (Banks, 1997)
  • Examines the history and underlying causes of racism, sexism, and other forms of institutional oppression (Banks, 1997)
  • Encourages academic excellence (Nieto, 1999)
  • Is for all students, not just students of color (Nieto, 1996)
  • Requires the authentic examination of white privilege and the legacy of white dominance (McIntosh, 1989; Howard, 1999)
  • Teaches how racism hurts not only people of color but also whites, and how it keeps us from being allies (Howard, 1999)
  • Demonstrates how people have worked together in history to fight against all forms of oppression (Howard, 1999)
  • Teaches about the shared aspects of racism and other forms of oppression (Gorski, 2002)
  • Helps students, families, teachers, and administrators understand and relate to the histories, cultures, and languages of people different from themselves (Sleeter & Grant, 1994)
  • Provides opportunities to envision a better world: a just and fair society with equitable opportunities for all 
  • Inspires and empowers us to work to make those visions come true.

A Model for Curricular Infusion
The implementation of multicultural education varies greatly. James Banks (1997, 1998), a leader in the field of multicultural education, developed a model to explore and define different approaches to the integration of multicultural content into the curriculum. The model includes four approaches to content integration from easiest to implement and least likely to lead to the goals of multicultural education, to most challenging, and offering the most potential.

The Contributions Approach
Commonly referred to as the heroes and holidays approach, this first level of content integration is probably the most frequently utilized form of multicultural education. It is characterized by the addition of ethnic heroes into the existing curriculum by using criteria similar to those used to select mainstream heroes. The curriculum remains essentially unchanged in terms of its basic structure, goals, and main ideas. Ethnic content may be limited to special days, weeks, months, or events. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Black History Month, Women's History Month, and Cinco De Mayo are examples of events celebrated in schools that use this approach. Teachers might involve students in lessons or experiences related to the event, but little attention is given to the ethnic groups either before or after the event, nor is the cultural significance or history of the event explored in any depth.

The contributions approach gains its popularity from the fact that it is the easiest approach to use. It requires no alterations to the existing curriculum, and can give the illusion that diversity is being celebrated. The approach, however, has many limitations. Perhaps most significant is that it does not give students the opportunity to see the critical role of ethnic groups in US society. Rather, the individuals and celebrations are seen as an addition or appendage that is virtually unimportant to the core subject areas. Furthermore, teaching about heroes and holidays does not ensure any discussion of oppression, social inequity, and struggles with racism and poverty. In this approach, the heroes that are represented tend to reinforce the American bootstrap myth: "If you work hard enough you can make it." The implications are that if you don't "make it" you must not be trying hard enough. Individuals are taken out of a cultural context and viewed from a dominant perspective. This approach can potentially - yet inadvertently - lead to the reinforcement and perpetuation of stereotypes by presenting a superficial and trivial understanding of ethnic cultures. 

The Additive Approach
The second level of content integration is the additive approach, sometimes called the ethnic additive approach. Much like the heroes and holidays approach, this one allows the teacher to put content into the curriculum without restructuring it. It takes little time, effort, planning, or training. For example, when teaching a unit about "the Westward Movement," a teacher might decide to include a section on the Crow Indians. The unit remains from the dominant perspective because it is focusing on the movement of European Americans from the East to the West of the United States, rather than considering that the Crow Indians were already in the West, and they were not moving.

The additive approach is often the first phase of curriculum restructuring yet, in itself, it poses many of the same problems as the contributions approach. Material is studied from the perspective of mainstream historians and the events, concepts, ideas, and issues are presented from a dominant perspective. Like the first level, this approach seems to defy many of the basic tenets of multicultural education. Individuals or groups of people from marginalized groups in society are included in the curriculum, yet racial and cultural inequities or oppression are not necessarily addressed.

The additive approach fails to help students understand how the dominant and ethnic cultures are interconnected and interrelated. Neither of the first two levels of content integration attempts to examine and deconstruct structures in our society that maintain racial inequity. Because these approaches are the easiest and require the least amount of change on the part of educators, they are the most commonly seen in the field of education. 

The Transformative Approach
The transformative approach differs fundamentally from the first two. It enables students to see concepts from several cultural and ethnic perspectives. It requires the infusion of perspectives, frames of reference, and ideas that will expand students' understanding of an idea. In the transformative approach, a teacher might introduce a unit on emigration by studying the "Eastward Movement" of Asian Americans, the "Westward Movement" of the European Americans, the "Southern Encroachment" of European Americans, and the impact these movement patterns had on those people already living on the land (Native Americans). Specifically, a student might examine the impact of the creation of reservations, Indian schools, missionary work and other genocidal policies from the perspective of both the people of the Crow tribe (or other native tribes across the United States), and from the dominant, European- American perspective. They might explore how such policies contributed to the loss of thousands of lives, the obliteration of entire tribes, and the eradication of language, religion and culture for the Native American people who lived on this land. 

The challenge of this approach is that it requires a complete transformation of the curriculum and, in some cases, a conscious effort on the part of the teacher to deconstruct what they have been taught to think, believe, and teach. For example, growing up in the United States or Canada, most of us, regardless of our race or ethnicity, have learned that white, European men made the history, and, on occasion, others helped out. When taught about people of color, more often than not, it has been from a dominant perspective.

To embrace the transformative approach, teachers must be willing to deconstruct their own existing knowledge, explore alternative perspectives critically, research and include voices and ideas other than those traditionally presented to us, and address their own roles in perpetuating racism and oppression.

The Decision Making and Social Action Approach
The fourth and final approach to the integration of content into the curriculum includes all of the elements of the transformative approach but adds components that require students to make decisions and to take action related to the concept, issue, or problem they have studied. This approach requires that students not only explore and understand the dynamics of oppression, but also commit to making decisions and changing the system through social action. For example, in a decision making and social action approach curriculum, students develop and implement strategies to eradicate racism, sexism, or any other form of oppression in their schools, work environments, and personal lives. Students working at this level of infusion might explore how racism, stereotypes, and detrimental policies are still manifested in our society and in their environments by using self-reports, interviews, and other data to provide multiple perspectives on the topic. Then they could analyze their own values and beliefs, apply their new knowledge, identify alternative courses of action and decide what, if any, actions they will take to address these issues in their school, workplace, or community. The major goal of this approach is to teach students thinking and decision making skills, to empower them, and help them acquire a sense of political awareness and efficacy.

While the decision making and social action approach is perhaps the most challenging approach to curricular infusion, it is the most commonly ascribed to by the leaders in the field (e.g., Nieto, 1996; Sleeter, 1996). If the primary goal of multicultural education is transformation, it will happen only when students are given the opportunity to participate in an equitable education, when they are informed about existing inequities, and when they are empowered to make decisions to change our society. Finally, it is unrealistic to expect teachers to move directly from a dominant perspective curriculum to one that focuses on decision making and social action. Rather, it is more reasonable to see teachers blending their approaches and using the contributions approach as a starting place from which to move gradually to the more challenging approaches. 

Implementing multicultural education effectively can take time, energy, and a great deal of work. But imagine, for a moment, the potential: Learners seeing themselves in the curriculum, their voices being heard and valued in the classroom. Students feeling a part of the educational process, learning and obtaining the high expectations that are set for them, and beginning to believe that they belong. Imagine students feeling informed, competent, and able to make decisions that have an impact on their lives, their children, and generations to come. Multicultural education holds the power to transform, it provides hope at a time when the future is unclear, and, perhaps most importantly, it provides an opportunity for us to imagine the world as a fair, equitable, and just place in which to live and work. 

Banks, J. A. (1998). "Approaches to multicultural curricular reform." In Lee, E., Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (eds.). Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Antiracist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, DC: Network of Educators on the Americas. 

Banks, J. A. (1997). Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gorski, P. (2002)

Howard, G. (1999). We Can't Teach What We Don't Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lee, E. Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (1998). Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Antiracist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, DC: Network of Educators on the Americas.

McIntosh, P. (1989). "White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack." Peace and Freedom, 1(1), 10-12.

Nieto, S. (1999). The Light in their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities. New York: Teachers College Press.

Nieto, S. (1996). Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (2nd ed.). White Plains, New York: Longman.

Sleeter, C. (1996). Multicultural Education as Social Activism. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Sleeter, C.E., & Grant, C. (1994). Making Choices for Multicultural Education: Five Approaches to Race, Class and Gender. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

About the Author
Allison Cumming-McCann is currently an assistant professor in the Rehabilitation and Disability Studies Department at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. For many years, she has worked across the country as a training consultant with various school districts, colleges, and continuing education programs in the area of diversity and multicultural education.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL