Since the publication of the Swann Report the importance of providing an education that harmonises with the principles of equality by not only being accessible to all pupils, but also by providing equal chances for all pupils to achieve their maximum potential, has continued to assume greater significance (DES, 1985). According to Rabbett, the role that Swann’s Education for All played in ‘raising public consciousness and giving affirmation to the wealth of work which had opened up the debate’ was barely the beginning for what has proven to be one of the most fundamental issues in education (Rabbett,1993). Recently the importance of paying attention to ensuring that the principles of equality and justice are upheld in education by providing equal opportunities for all pupils regardless of race, gender and sex has been emphasised. Falling standards, academic failure and a perceived continual rise in violence and decline in social order among young people have put pressure on schools to change in order to meet the wider needs of pupils (Law, 2007). For teachers, recognising the potential consequences of a failure on their part to gain and act upon knowledge of the cultures that affect their pupils has become critical. This not only includes race-specific cultures but also those affecting certain economic and social groups such as popular street cultures, cultures of crime and violence, cultures of alcohol or drug abuse and anti-social behaviour. It has been emphasised through the range of government initiatives and the media attention that not only does every young person matter, but every aspect of their lives matters also. This principle was highlighted by the scope of the Every Child Matters (ECM)document, which placed equal importance on being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being (DfES, 2003). It has been apparent since the publication of ECM that cultures in schools and among teachers need to change in order to be more holistic. To demonstrate that every young person’s culture matters and schools reflect this in both policy and practice includes a uniting of multicultural and anti-racist approaches as summarised by Fyfe. He suggested, some years ago, that a division existed between the two and that ‘if we are really to recast our education system to meet the realities of pluralism and inequality, we shall, as a minimum condition, require a united national movement’ (Fyfe, 1993).
An unresponsive curriculum
The principle of ensuring that the interests and cultures of students is recognised and included in their learning is not new or restricted merely to the field of multicultural or progressive or radical approaches to education. In fact, this principle has been argued to be one of the most fundamental in an effective approach to education generally. However, the criticism of many government initiatives aimed at making learning more culturally inclusive is that they have been tokenistic and slow to respond to and reflect societal changes. In relation to culture, Gilroy said:
“Culture, even culture which defines groups we know as races, is never fixed, finished or final. It is fluid…actively and continually made and remade.” (Gilroy, 1990)
The question then arises if, as evidence would suggest, culture is so varying and shifting in nature, how can a curriculum introduced so many years ago be relevant enough to be effective in modern society if it does not have the same shifting characteristics? Although there has never been more financial support and pressure for change than is currently being seen, it is suggested that more can be done in the areas where it would be most effective, namely in teacher education and crucially in pedagogy. The curriculum undeniably continues to be largely irrelevant as is evidenced by the lack of subjects directly relating to the lives of diverse groups of people in modern Britain. Learning about the Fire of London in Year 2, the Vikings in Year 3 or the Tudors in Year 4 is irrelevant to any young person today unless they can directly see how this relates to their lives in the present context. It is also suggestible that a failure to show children from ethnic minority groups how their history fits into the wider picture of British history, will continue to result in them being disengaged from what is being taught in the classrooms across the subjects. Where were their ancestors living when the Vikings invaded and settled in Britain? What was happening in the countries of origin at the same time? What are the links between Shakespearean works and modern language or music? These are only a few of the questions that are more flexible and inclusive curriculum could help to answer. However, they are also able to be explored and answered by teachers regardless of the limits placed on them by the National Curriculum. Fyfe, when considering in damning detail aspects of various curriculum subjects in relation to cultural diversity, suggests that it is possible for all subjects to be more culturally inclusive (Fyfe, 1993). Although the curriculum may prescribe what is taught and the desired outcomes for each year group, it does not specify exactly what learning activities and conversations must take place in the classroom. It is suggested therefore, that teachers hold the key to unlocking the door to more relevant and culturally inclusive learning experiences.
Understanding how culture influences pupils
Kyriacou identifies five influences that he suggests account for the fact that pupils from middle class backgrounds achieve ‘higher educational attainment” than their middle class peers namely parental encouragement, high aspirations, high income, good housing and valuing education (Kyriacou, 2001). Each of these influences has their own associated and interrelated set of cultures. Recent developments in education have attempted to address some of these cultures and their effects on pupil outcomes by offsetting circumstantial disadvantage through extended schools initiatives. The issue for individual teachers is how they can use their role in the classroom to support this further. They must ask and seek to answer the question ‘What can I provide for pupils to offset any disadvantages they face and achieve better outcomes?’
Given the complexities of concepts of culture, the challenge for educators to understand the culture of individual pupils or groups of pupils can be overwhelming. An example of this is the various aspects of culture that affect pupils for whom English is not their first language. Not only are there aspects of their culture that relate directly to their countries of origin such as religion, family practices and values, there are also those linked to their wider, extended families and the communities in which they live. Added to the challenges of meeting needs arising from these factors are those arising from attempting to develop a working knowledge of an additional language. The intricacy of this one issue demonstrates the enormity of the challenge that schools face when considering the cultural needs of pupils. The traditional approach to anti-racist or inclusive education that has been seen in Britain in the past would not suffice to address many of the concerns that schools face in relation to cultural inclusion, since in many circumstances there is no one specific racial group affected. There are a plethora of unique issues affecting Polish, African and Caribbean pupils, asylum seekers, white working class boys, girls and a whole host of other groups. It is also no longer possible to pigeon-hole pupils as may have been done previously. Many are also dual heritage and hence affected by more than one set of values and cultures. Again, since these are not always children from black Caribbean/white British backgrounds, the response to meeting their needs cannot be to simply categorise and treat them in the same manner as black children. It is necessary for teachers to assume the responsibility of investigating and understanding the unique cultures of pupils as they present themselves, before being able to suitably meet their cultural needs.
Culturally responsive pedagogy
As well as understanding pupils’ needs, teachers must also be able to adopt flexible approaches to how those needs are met. In a recent article published in the Guardian newspaper the president of the NASUWT was reported to have acknowledged that teachers were under pressure to follow the National Curriculum in a rigid manner that doesn’t allow them to react to what pupils are learning. He also ‘described parts of the National Curriculum as not being “relevant” to the least academic pupils. …..” and suggested:
“One solution … might lie in allowing greater freedom for teachers to make professional decisions as to what and how, and even when, they teach, within much less restrictive guidelines. That would include the freedom to be more reactive to individuals’ needs – something that good teachers do, by instinct, on a daily basis.” (Shepherd, 2009)
The issue of relevance that Chapman alluded to has been explored within education and other fields including neuro-science. In their work on effective teaching and learning in the primary classroom, Shaw and Hawes suggest that for learning to be effective teachers must be able to engage students by making learning relevant to them. They must ‘connect into their values’ and consider what is necessary to capture their attention and what they consider to be important. Additionally teachers must recognise that ‘individual beliefs and values are an important aspect of learning which is not always accorded the significance it deserves’ (Shaw and Hawes, 1998). It was also notable that whilst acknowledging the restrictions the curriculum places on teachers, Chapman highlighted the part that their ability to be a good, instinctive teacher has to play in the matter. This suggests that despite the prescriptive nature of the National Curriculum and the demands they face, the responsibility to determine the nature and quality of the instruction and learning that takes place within classrooms is given to teachers.
The work of progressive and humanist educational theorists such as Paulo Friere, Carl Rogers, Bell Hooks and Abraham Maslow also suggest aspects of a learner’s life and therefore, culture(s) will impact a great deal on their learning in a number of ways. This includes levels of motivation, relationships with teachers, behaviour and aspirations (Friere, 1996; Rogers, 1983). In her work, Hooks suggests, if teachers are unwilling to approach teaching from an angle that shows a proper awareness of culture, race, sex and class, this will inhibit growth in both students and in teachers themselves (Hooks, 1994). This is added to further by the principles of libertarian education that Friere promoted, whereby teachers make efforts to move away from an oppressive form of education. In this model, the teacher is placed as an all-knowing being in a classroom that is shut off from the surrounding environment, and filled with empty vessels that must be prepared and banked full of knowledge (Friere, 1996). Adopting such an approach could as Coard suggested, be described as culturally incompetent and would have catastrophic effects on teacher effectiveness and pupil outcomes (Coard, 1970). This picture is one that is painted in many classrooms in inner areas where the teachers and the students’ lives operate within different worlds. Most teachers are white, female and middle class, particularly in the primary phase. These teachers can have little understanding of the issues that affect the immediate neighbourhood in which the school is situated and how they impact on the pupils they are teaching. However, this is not always the case and as Cooper highlighted, there are examples of effective teachers that show it is possible for the challenge to be met (Cooper, 2003). The situation is not restricted to the primary classroom but can also be seen in secondary, tertiary and higher education where not only do teachers and lecturers often lack awareness of the specific cultures of students but there is also a failure on their part to try to understand and to adapt their practices to meet the needs of different cultures. This can be partly due to the fear of, as Hooks suggested, losing control of their classrooms as the power shifts (Hooks, 1994). One example of this is the culture surrounding gangs, guns and knives among pockets of people. In order for this situation to be improved, it is a certainty that teachers will need to be involved since so much of a young person’s life is spent in the classroom. However, the open and honest dialogue between students and teachers that would be necessary for them to first understand the issues may present a challenge for many teachers particularly when their lives may differ so much from those of students. This can and will prove too much for some teachers given the potentially volatile nature of the subject and the fact that teachers’ own backgrounds, experiences and prejudices inevitably affect their values and methods in relation to teaching. This situation whereby teachers and students must achieve while living, thinking and learning at cultural polar opposites has to be addressed in order for modern multicultural education to be effective. Unacceptable levels of disaffection, underachievement and poor behaviour in schools are arguably testament to this. When teachers acknowledge that despite constraints and pressures, their role is pivotal they will not look to government directives to make the education they offer to learners at all levels more relevant to their lives (Blair, 2003).
In summary, the key to any education at all is teacher education. If teachers are ill-equipped or misinformed about the students or about how to deliver the curriculum and effect change through their own practice, students will continue to be disengaged and at best be passive consumers of knowledge, trained to pass tests without any real understanding of what they are learning and the relevance to this in their lives (Cole, 2006). Examples of effective teaching demonstrate that it is possible to make the curriculum more culturally relevant at all levels. Although the education system around the world face many challenges, significant progress has been witnessed in areas such as multicultural education, that can be learned from. In the US, there has been a widespread adoption of an approach, which encompasses three areas. Firstly curriculum content; examples of practice that supports multicultural education are the celebration of cultural heroes and holidays, multicultural curriculum guides, workshops for teachers and administrators as well as books that incorporate more detailed multicultural content. The second area is achievement and practices including programs that match teaching styles with the learning styles of students, bilingual-bicultural education programs, language programs that incorporate the language and culture of black students and special maths and science programs for female students. The final area is inter-group education, which includes prejudice reduction projects, desegregated schools, classrooms and programs and cooperative learning strategies and techniques (Banks, 2005). Some of these have been and are currently being explored by teachers in Britain; however, there is much still to be done. It is the duty of teachers to develop themselves professionally and familiarise themselves with principles of and approaches to effective multicultural instruction. Burton and Bartlett state that:
“It is the role of educators to apply a healthy scepticism to the provenance of new approaches, questioning their theoretical and empirical basis with precision.” (Burton and Bartlett, 2006)
In the same way that theoretical ideas must be viewed critically and their validity proven in practice, so too must any government initiatives and prescriptive curriculum guidelines. Teachers are taught the need to be critical as part of their academic instruction and do well to apply this is their practice.
“Governments called for existing teaching approaches to be supported by practitioner’s own research into what works with learners.” (Burton and Bartlett, 2006:44)
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