Multiculturalism in most American Schools

Written by: Phoebe Constantinou

The most pervasive conceptual framework for multicultural education in American schools is Banks’ (2004) four-level approach.

The first level - the Contributions approach - focuses on ethnic heroes or ethnic holidays, and is typically taught in White environments in isolation from those of other ethnicities and social classes. The second level - the Additive approach - adds the study of ethnic content to the curriculum, but studies ethnic content from the mainstream perspective. The third level - the Transformation approach - infuses various perspectives, frames of reference, and content from various groups in an attempt to extend students’ understanding of the nature, development, and complexity of U.S. society. The fourth level adds Social Action to the Transformation approach. Students learn to take political action within their schools and communities to address social problems resulting from racism and oppression.

Other approaches that are comparable to Banks’ (2004) Contributions approach are a) the Tourist approach (Wessinger, 1994), which focuses only on the outward manifestations of a culture, thereby leading to and reinforcing stereotypes; and b) the Tokenism approach, which also leads to distortions, trivialization, marginalization, and prejudice (Cornelius, 1999; Banks, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 2004; Wills et al., 2004). As often seen in many schools, the basic practice of all of these approaches is to add ethnic content to the curriculum, for example, to add a single unit on Chinese games or a religious celebration, or to have a dance or food day.

As the student population in the United States becomes more diverse (Banks et al., 2001) however, moving beyond the Contributions, Tourist, and Tokenism approaches, which focus only on the surface of a culture, has become even more necessary. We need to teach about cultures using a more holistic approach that takes into consideration that all cultures have their own language, oral traditions, land ethic, worldview, health system, artistic expression, government, family values, family systems, technology, education, science, economy, housing, history, and contemporary cultural continuity (Cornelius, 1999). While most educators acknowledge the importance of more culturally responsive pedagogy in all disciplines, including physical education, developing the skills needed to apply multicultural understanding in the classroom can be a challenging task.

In this article, I will discuss the idea of promoting cultural awareness by using a multidisciplinary approach. This approach is based on multicultural education principles and on Piaget’s (1970) theory of empathy. Multicultural education recommends fostering cultural pluralism and respect for diversity in classrooms (Banks et al., 2001; Campbell, 1996). As educators, we should act as “agents of change” and teach about social justice and eliminating oppression, and against prejudice and discrimination. Moreover, we should create a bias-free learning environment for all students (Sparks & Verner, 1995).

Piaget’s (1970) theory of empathy suggests that the ability to deeply understand something different from what is already known and accepted, yet not be prejudiced by its unfamiliarity, is a process. The approach is designed to involve other disciplines in order to be fully effective. Thus, a multidisciplinary team of classroom teachers in subjects such as history, geography, social studies, mathematics, music, and others (as needed) should be established.

Approach Focus: With the above theoretical framework in mind, the main focus of this interactive teaching and learning approach is to intensify socialization opportunities among students and the community, and to promote cross-cultural relationships, thereby enhancing awareness and understanding of other cultures so that empathy and acceptance will occur. Through self-reflection, exploration, and analysis, this approach is designed to develop cultural sensitivity among students and enhance their own learning and ability to communicate cross-culturally. Assessment, feedback methods, and sharing time are employed to ensure students stay focused on the objectives of the approach, and that all students are aware of each other’s progress and discoveries. This approach has two preliminary steps:

  1. Step 1: The primary focus of this step is to get students to understand, discover, identify, and appreciate their own culture, whether this culture has a well-known name (such as Italian, Russian, etc.) or not. For individuals who have been influenced primarily by a single culture, self-identifying with that culture is an effortless process - for most. For individuals who have been exposed to a number of cultures, cultural identity is a bleary concept and, many times, a sensitive issue that is preferably not discussed and preferably avoided overall. Individuals, however, are more likely to comprehend the impact of cultural constructs and accept cultural differences if they themselves acknowledge their cultural values and cultural identities (Banks et al., 2001).
  2. Step 2: In this step, students are instructed to identify a traditional game or competitive sport from a culture other than their own, and pair up with someone who had selected a different culture to study. Together they should be involved in an elaborated project that requires exploring variables such as the demographics of the culture; its language and religion; the gender roles defined within it; the socioeconomic status of its members; its major historical events, such as wars, colonialism, oppression, etc.; the geographical area in which it exists; and the area’s climate.

    Other values, such as competitiveness and cooperation, which might be embedded in the nature of games or sports popular within a culture, should also be examined. Students should be encouraged to think critically and even hypothesize as to why certain cultural traditions exist. Students should also be guided to probe below the surface of customs and use historical events, religious beliefs, or gender rules to refute or support their hypotheses as to why such customs were developed and maintained.

Strategies and Activities

Bafa Bafa: Starting off with a cross-cultural simulation activity such as Bafa Bafa (Shirts, 1970) could demonstrate to students how easily negative judgments and attitudes toward people from unfamiliar cultures develop. In the Bafa Bafa activity, students are divided into two groups. Each group is separately introduced to an imaginary culture. Once both groups have had a chance to familiarize themselves with the values and language of their new culture, a few students (called “tourists”) from each culture visit each other’s rooms (called “countries”). When the “tourists” return to their own “countries,” they report on their experiences with the other culture, and what they had observed during the visit.

The next phase of the Bafa Bafa activity is to merge the two groups and let them try to interact while the teacher stays back and tries to observe the emotions and behaviors of the students. Frustration, discomfort, and uneasiness are a few of the emotions the students most commonly experience. Behaviors include avoiding interaction with members of the unfamiliar culture and staying close to one’s own group members. The Bafa Bafa activity can work as a springboard in analyzing students’ feelings, behaviors, and attitudes toward cultural differences.

Finding your roots: Students using self-reflective techniques acknowledge family traditions and cultural costumes. Students also interview family members (of both genders), such as parents, grandparents, and other relatives, in order to obtain multiple perspectives and views of cultural traditions involving religious practices, national celebrations, physical activities, games, dances, food, and attire. Getting students to examine below the surface of the culture and discover the why and how certain cultural traditions came about will help them develop a better understanding of and appreciation for their culture and the cultures of others (King, 2000).

The project: Once students self-identify with a culture, they then select another culture on which to base their project. Students should be paired up with someone who had selected a different culture. The objective is to provide students opportunities to interact, collaborate, socialize, and develop cross-cultural relationships. Students select a traditional game or competitive sport that originated in the culture of their interest. By analyzing simple elements of the game or sport (such as the name, type or amount of equipment, gender accessibility, etc.), students gain insight into how variables such as history, economics, politics, geography, and gender affect the development of a culture. Moreover, they should explore how these variables impact(ed) the development of their selected game or sport. This research component of the project should be implemented in disciplines such as history, geography, etc., through the collaboration between the physical educator and other members of the multidisciplinary team.

Some of the questions students should examine while analyzing their game or sport are listed in Table 1.

Analyzing the Game and Sport

• Does the name of the game/sport have any meaning?

• Does the game/sport require any equipment? If yes what kind and was/is the equipment easily accessible?  

• Does the game/sport promote cooperation, competition or aggression?

• Does the game/sport promote any other values that are not as direct?

• What motor skills, such as eye-hand, eye-foot coordination, agility, strength etc., were required?

• Is motor skill ability a critical element to successfully participate in this game/sport?

• Is the game/sport main goal to get individuals physically active or more for social interaction?

• Was/is the game/sport accessibility to both genders? (Boys and girls were/are allowed to play together?)

• Was/is this game/sport played in any other countries? Was/is it the same or similar? Does it have the same name/meaning?

Resources for students: Students should be provided with a list of resources, including Web sites, books, and articles to help them find information about the traditional games and sports of other cultures. It is essential that these resources be free of stereotypes and misconceptions. If possible, and only after getting the students’ consent, prepare a list of students within the school and a list of adults in the community who are willing to be interviewed and share factual information about their culture. This is a great way to start a dialog, not only within the school but also within the community. However, it is critical that students do not translate individual perspectives and personal experiences into generalizations. Such generalizations could reinforce or even create stereotypes instead of countering them. Therefore, students need to conceptualize that one individual’s perspective and experience cannot be generalized to represent a whole culture.

Celebrating each other’s differences: The project should end with an all-day event that brings all the components together in a festive, celebratory fashion. Students are encouraged to gather family recipes of traditional dishes (of their own culture) and make dishes to be shared. Traditional music and attire should be worn to make the celebration more festive, and students should be ready to teach their peers (and others) to play the researched games and sports (if possible). If a game or sport requires equipment, students can create it beforehand or borrow it from native players.

Creativity and improvisation are two necessary ingredients for this part of the project. An important element in this phase is to ensure that the culture of origin of each student is also embraced and celebrated along with the culture that the student is researching. Community members should be invited to this event, particularly individuals that contributed to the completion of the project. The primary purpose of this celebration is to help students develop a sense of community within and out of school (David & Capraro, 2001). Help them make connections that are relevant to the constructivist sense of the word “community” (Iran-Nejad & Gregg, 2001).

Although teaching culture holistically makes absolute sense, developing and delivering such a curriculum can be very daunting, yet very rewarding work. Crucial to the success of this approach is admitting that you don’t know every aspect of every culture. Confess to your own stereotypes, biases, racism, deficit thinking, and uneasiness on the matter. In addition, ensure that all multidisciplinary team members have the same goal in mind - to teach culture holistically. Learning about diversity should happen in an environment that allows all parties involved to feel safe, comfortable, respected, accepted, and valued. It should proceed in an atmosphere where teachers, students, and community members contribute equally to the understanding of diversity. It is quite vital, however, that all individuals have a good grasp of who they are before they attempt to comprehend others.


(pelinks4u home)



home | site sponsorships | naspe forum | submit idea or experience | pe store | calendar | e-mail

Copyright © of PELINKS4U  | All Rights Reserved