Multicultural education involves more than reading a book about a historical character of color or celebrating a holiday surrounding a diverse hero. It includes policies, practices, and pedagogical approaches that affirm students’ differences and intersectionality.
“It’s about appreciating the uniqueness of every single student in your classroom, what they can bring to your classroom, and how they can make that classroom more of a robust, vibrant community,” said Dr. Leanne Howell, a faculty member with the EdD online in Learning and Organizational Change program from Baylor University’s School of Education. “Every single student is essential to the community of that classroom.”
Educators can work to take steps that make their curricula and classrooms safe spaces and incorporate teaching styles to support all students, regardless of their backgrounds.
What Is Multicultural Education?
Multicultural education helps all students see themselves in the curriculum and the classroom. It is a field of study that embraces techniques to advance and advocate educational equity for all students of every age, Howell explained. It focuses on, but is not limited to, ethnic, racial, language, and gender issues that potentially marginalize groups or subgroups of people.
“It helps all students acquire the knowledge, skills, attributes, and attitudes needed to function in a democratic society while feeling valued and heard,” Howell said.
“You cannot have multicultural education that speaks about celebrating diversity but doesn’t address, for example, anti-Black racism or doesn’t address issues of homophobia,” Lopez said. “It’s so important that critical multicultural education disrupt power, forms of oppression, and really work with educators to begin to think about, how do they engage in this world? What does that look like and what is the impact?”
Although imparting multicultural education is often seen as a responsibility that resides with certain teachers, the task of approaching education through a multicultural lens belongs to every educator.
“Even if you do not have diverse students in front of you and you’re teaching where all of the students are homogenic, that knowledge is also for them,” Lopez said.
How to Incorporate Multicultural Education in the Classroom
Incorporating multicultural education strategies begins with self-reflection. Teachers should question their expectations for students of different identities and reflect on how those expectations affect how they engage in the pedagogy.
“Ask, ‘Am I meeting the needs of all of the learners in my space?’ It starts by asking questions around, ‘What biases do I have? What stereotypes might I be bringing to the table?’” Lopez said. “Teachers have to see themselves as learners.”
Howell suggested teachers set aside time before, during, and after the school year to journal or think critically about their biases.
“Take a really hard look inside your soul,” Howell said. “It doesn’t have to be a written reflection. It can be while you’re on a three-hour drive; it can be on a night with your head on the pillow and you can’t fall asleep. But really engaging in that reflective thinking of, ‘What are my biases?’ and really examining those, and being honest with yourself to say, ‘We all have biases. What are mine?’”
Lopez believes teachers should view the process of learning and unlearning as a journey.
“None of us were born with this knowledge,” she said. “It is knowledge that has to be gained, so we have to create that space where teachers — whether they’re in K-12 or higher ed — can find space to learn.”
14 Tips for Incorporating Multicultural Education Strategies in the Classroom
BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITHYOUR STUDENTS. “Students really don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Howell said. To nurture relationships with students, she said teachers should strive to have conversations with students outside of the classroom and curriculum. That might include taking time at the beginning of class for students to share their celebrations with the group.
APPROACH STUDENTS WITH CURIOSITY. Consider how students’ backgrounds may affect their performance. For example, Lopez did not understand why some students were so sleepy during her classes until she found out they were fasting for religious holidays. “If I had taken an approach of punishment and not learning, those students might have had a different experience,” she said.
FOSTER A GROWTH MINDSET IN YOUR CLASSROOM. “A growth mindset is helping kids understand that the abilities they have can be improved with dedication and hard work, that they are just going through a stage of developing and improving,” Howell said. Setting small incremental goals can help students succeed and see progress as they learn.
HELP STUDENTS BUILD CONFIDENCE. Recognizing small victories can help students build confidence in themselves and in their skills. “This comes with relationship building,” Howell said. “It comes with celebrating small victories. I think that growth mindset really plays into that because it’s helping them understand that through hard work and dedication, they can achieve bigger tasks in small increments and small steps.”
FOSTER INCLUSION. Inclusion applies to students of different races, ethnicities, classes, genders, and other groups. “It’s definitely making everyone feel like they have a seat at the table every single day,” Howell said.
REMEMBER NO TWO STUDENTS ARE ALIKE. Howell said it can be difficult to differentiate between students of the same age or grade level. Teachers can use pre-assessments to determine where students are academically, design instructional experiences to meet their needs, and offer mid-point assessments to evaluate whether students are mastering a concept.
DESIGN LEARNING EXPERIENCES AROUND THE CULTURAL CAPITAL OF YOUR STUDENTS. “You want students to leverage all of the skills that they come to you with through their cultural lens,” Howell said. Teachers should recognize that the diverse experiences every student brings to the classroom can add richness to learning, and challenges students face outside the classroom do not always equate to deficits.
INCLUDE MANY EXAMPLES OF DIVERSE LITERATURE. Assess whether your texts reflect your students’ experiences, and ensure resources included in your curriculum are diverse. “It’s imperative for teachers to give context and reference points to topics that allow students to build on the current schema they have,” Howell said.
REFRAIN FROM BEING THE “SAGE ON THE STAGE.” Howell said teachers should act as facilitators of learning. “Learning is not just a one-way street,” Howell said. “I need to teach you multiplication skills, but I also want it to become an open-ended conversation, a two-way conversation that my students share those experiences with me.”
EVALUATE HOW YOUR TEACHING STYLE AND PHYSICAL SPACE SUPPORT MULTICULTURAL EDUCATION OBJECTIVES. “Are kids sitting in just desks? Is the room set up in a way that students can have dialogue?” Lopez said. “Are you having cooperative learning activities that students can safely participate in? What does that look like, and how do you do that?”
DESIGN LEARNING CHALLENGES TO INCLUDE STUDENTS WORKING TOGETHER. Bring students together through problem-based learning to solve real world issues. Howell suggests not always letting students choose their own groups; pairing students with different partners can help create an inclusive environment and foster empathy between classmates.
INVOLVE YOUR SCHOOL’S COMMUNITY. Bring guest speakers into the classroom who represent your student population and their interests. Understanding what is happening in your school’s community and bringing real-world examples into the classroom can help students connect learning experiences to their communities.
REFLECT ON HOW LEADERSHIP PRACTICES SHAPE YOUR SCHOOL. For those in formal leadership positions, such as principals, assistant principals, and other administrators, notice if your leadership practices are inclusive or exclusive and whether your leadership challenges structures that restrict student success. Reflect on student discipline methods and assess hiring practices and diversity among faculty and staff.
CONSIDER THE WHOLE SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT. Multicultural support in one teacher’s classroom may differ from the rest of the school. “You might have an awesome teacher who looks out for their students, who is kind, caring, compassionate, empathetic,” Lopez said. “When that kid leaves that teacher’s classroom, they’re oppressed next door in the same school. So it’s a classroom approach and a school approach.”
Overcoming Challenges for Educators
Multicultural education requires time, resources, and professional development. Sometimes educators may feel like engaging in multicultural education is extra work.
“Many teachers feel as if they simply don’t have enough hours in the school day to personalize lessons from the ones that are already in existence,” Howell said.
Educators can rally teaching teams by grade level or content to rethink lesson plans together in a way that ensures equitable learning experiences for all students.
“It’s not onerous,” Lopez said. “It simply requires a different way of thinking about teaching and learning, a different way of thinking about how we ensure that all students can be successful.”
For districts that have limited resources, Howell suggests relying on collaboration with teachers who have proven strong multicultural education skills.
Exploring culturally sensitive topics can also be a challenge for teachers. Howell suggested using existing literature and media as gateways to explore sensitive topics. Children’s books, novels, films, and other media can all be useful references. And while she says there are many fabulous resources out there for teachers to use, she provided a few websites that teachers can bookmark to begin their journey:
However, no matter how much thought is put into the curriculum, there is always a possibility that an educator might offend a student while addressing culturally sensitive subjects.
“All of us have blind spots,” Lopez said. “All of us say things, but it’s never about intent. It’s always about impact.”
When a teacher offends a student, Lopez suggests coming back to the point of self-reflection.
“What do I know? What do I need to learn? And what do I need to unlearn?” she said. “Sometimes we don’t realize how our unconscious biases come out in what we say and things that we do.”
It is important to establish a classroom atmosphere where students feel safe, have space for dialogue, and know their concerns will be heard, rather than getting defensive, Lopez said. If students feel uncomfortable, they should be able to explain their discomfort.
“It’s about saying, ‘Help me understand how that created a discomfort for you so I can know not to do that again,’” Lopez said. “It’s about creating the environment for students to feel safe and feel that they’re able to speak up when they’re feeling uncomfortable or there is discomfort in whatever way.”
Educators at all levels should serve as models of empathy and respect for their students, Howell said.
“In the classroom modeling your care and respect for every student is so important,” Howell said. “It’s really just modeling what you want your students to in turn emulate for their students.”
Citation for this content: Baylor’s EdD online in Learning and Organizational Change.