Learning Forward Podcast

School, Diversity and Multiculturalism: Monisha Dutta

Image: LifePage.IN
It is an accepted fact that India is an extremely diverse country with multiple languages, dialects which change every 500 km you travel, cuisines, faiths and beliefs. To add to this, the complexity of a deep-seated caste system of our social fabric. And if we factor in the issue of ‘class and its inequality’, we won’t find a more complex social diversity across this world in one country. Our policymakers have tried to address this issue through a plethora of government policies and rules related to caste and class like reservations of jobs and other such moves. In fact, the constitution enshrines the concept of Equality to all.

When we see the ground reality of our society, despite all our good intentions, we are driven by societal practices and behaviour which tend to only enhance biases and prejudices. While we claim through slogans like ‘Unity in Diversity’, however, discrimination based on all forms whether caste, class, region, religion, language continues to prevail. In fact, individual identity is defined by each of these in our society. There is no respect for diversity. We just tend to tolerate it and live with its practices in our day to day lives, without even being conscious of it.

As we all know, all this exists, but what is the solution to make our nation and society respect the diversity of our land and people.

This brings us to a very pertinent question. Where do we learn about social behaviour? Our responsibilities, our rights, our duties? Where is all this taught?
Schools! That’s where we learn this. Or do we?

There’s a subtle difference between schooling, Education and knowledge. While we know that knowledge is imparted in schools, however, the concept of schooling has a slightly different connotation.

A reference to Cristopher Winch a British philosopher of Education would be helpful. In his paper on the Aim of Education, he says that the “ fundamental perspective on education is that it needs to serve a purpose and that education cannot be purely for its own sake, in isolation to the societal needs and societal expectations from an individual”. 

And this is where schools come in. 

Schools teach and hence have a significant influence on the values and belief’s which are propagated in society. Children are taught how to adjust to society and become a contributing member to society as they reach adulthood. Schools teach children how to adjust to society and be a positive contributor. Time like what we are in today is a perfect example of the fact that even when the doors of the school are closed, the flow of knowledge does not stop. The only thing missing in such times is socially being involved with each other. As John Donne beautifully penned, “no man is an island entire to itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;”. We need to learn how to mutually exist and contribute to each other’s growth.

School is nothing but a reflection of its society, a miniature model. Why do we send our children to school if not to learn social skills and social behaviour?

That is what schools teach us. It contributes to the social and spiritual development of the child, what we call as holistic development. If we have to develop a society which not only respects diversity but celebrates it, then schools are where we need to start with. We need to focus on developing and practising multiculturalism in our schooling practices.

So what is Multiculturalism? 
While there are many interpretations and while the term has come to encompass a variety of prescriptive claims, it is fair to say that proponents of multiculturalism reject the ideal of the “melting pot” in which members of minority groups are expected to assimilate into the dominant culture in favour of a model in which members of minority groups can maintain their distinctive collective identities and practices.

We are fortunate to be such a diverse country, and I use the word ‘fortunate’ because we do not need to go any further than from our schools to see how diverse our country is. If we need to study a Multicultural environment, which better place than a classroom.

We do not need to have International students to make our classroom Multicultural, we will make it global but Multi-culturally they are already rich.

Our classes are the most diverse. Then why are we not able to handle diversities? If school is a perfect place to study the Multicultural environment, then where are we going wrong? Are we going wrong in teaching Multiculturism in our school? Or the more important question is, are we teaching Multi-culturalism in our school? Have we ever noticed that our classrooms are Multicultural?
Most probably, the answer would be in negative. The sad truth is that in schools, we teach only those things, which are in the curriculum. So, it is high time that we revisit our curriculum and pedagogies and add such studies to our curriculum.

If we want to have future citizens who are sensitive to each other’s needs and live peacefully with each other, we need to teach them these skills at school.

How to manage a Multicultural Classroom:
To manage a multicultural environment, we need to seriously look at how our curriculum is designed. We would need to introduce a subject known as Cultural Studies apart from Value Education and GK. For a teacher to teach such a vast subject as Multi-Culturalism, we need to ensure that the teacher is trained to be able to teach that. So, that entails that we include it in our BEd program. Only then can we have teachers specializing in teaching Cultural Diversity.

If we look at our country, we notice that Multiculturism is a new concept for India. Up until the medieval times, we were a very conservative and closed community. Most of our Gurukuls were caste-based, and hence, the need to understand or be sensitive to different cultures wasn’t there.
Now if we look at the classrooms of today, we would notice children from every possible religion, caste, class, beliefs and gender, to name a few. We cannot afford to be ignorant of the curious and inquisitive minds of our youngsters, who are exposed to every possible information on this Earth. If we do not sensitize our children to the varied diversities existing in their environment, we fail as teachers, as an institute and most of all, we fail as humans!

Humans are a repository of humanity. We try and do the correct thing but are eventually governed by our thoughts and lived realities. From there, we create an image, an image based on the prejudices and our past experiences. In all this, we form an image, not of the person but his religion, his background, the gender, the caste, the beliefs and without giving any opportunity to the other person we say or do things which aren’t acceptable. Eg. A view that all Jains would be wearing a mask and ridiculing someone who isn’t wearing one or not inviting a Jain friend to a sundowner because you think that all people following Jainism eat before Sundown is not the correct approach. Similarly, assuming that all Punjabis are loud is an image leading to bias. Thinking females are weak, or boys cannot cry, these are preconceived notions which have no base what-so-ever.

We, as a school and teachers, should ensure that we openly and unbiasedly address the shortcomings, failings and discriminating behaviour of our society as well as our immediate environment.

Have you ever noticed that the role of a prince or princess goes to the fairest or the most good-looking of the lot whereas negative role is given to the person who is dark, fat or not a popular child? Why is that the case? Are we not scarring the child by making the child conscious of the physical attributes which he/she is not responsible for? Is that not a bias? Aren’t all our fairy tales biased? Our society has changed, and we see a lot of people remarrying and children having a step-parent, but the image created by our fairy tales limits the way a child is seeing his new parent! Can we as a school not look at all this and work towards including all or at least as many?

Though the most significant challenge comes, when we are talking about religions beliefs and the wrongs done by one community to the other.

The only way we can manage our Multicultural classes is by redesigning our curriculum, pedagogy, our content and our resources.

The best way to approach bias is by having a group discussion. But before initiating children into group discussions ensure they are aware of specific skills. Make them understand the difference between group discussion and argument.
Teach them to be tolerant and develop the ability to listen
Sensitize the children and get them to understand the various customs, behaviours, beliefs etc. of each religion.

Encourage the students to do their own research and draw unbiased conclusions.
Have multiple group discussion on sensitive topics and moderate them.
Another essential skill that they need to develop is ‘Agree to Disagree’. Teach them how to accept the other viewpoint and when to leave a discussion.

To be able to handle this better, there are certain things that a teacher needs to keep in mind:
Be aware: Always be sensitive to the fact that you keep everyone at par and never make any statement knowingly or unknowingly which can be offensive to a particular community. Maintain a roster for roles and let it be my turn and ability.

Design the resource material: The classroom can be an active and dynamic resource centre. Teachers can keep all types of reading material in the class. Keeping in mind the diverse environment, encourage children to work in groups and do their research. The advantage of maintaining all types of material allows the teacher to be sure about the material the children are exposed to depending on their emotional level and ensuring that nothing controversial is available for reading. The level of material can vary as they progress in their handling of diverse information. The teacher can encourage children to get books from their homes, which tell more about their culture, custom or any other things.

Remember : Experience + Reflection = Learning
Ensure children are learning through feeling, experiencing, questioning and reflecting.

Equity, not Equality while planning teaching technique/pedagogy: If your class has children from varied backgrounds where the access to language or means is limited, ensure that learning outcomes are achieved for all. Teaching and testing should be based on exposure and understanding level. Follow the concept of equity, not Equality. If you are aware that a certain group of children or a certain child does not have access to a computer for their research work or homework, ensure that you open your computer lab for some extra time and allow anyone to access it during that time. Do not single out that child or children who do have the access but keep it open to all.

Integrate content: When you are picking up content and material, keep in mind to include as many different write-ups, paper, articles and reads to make-up for your course material. Be careful not to read out passages or articles which would be in favour of one and not the other.
AURA: Teach the children AURA and ask them to follow it. AURA stands for Awareness, Understanding, Reflection and Action.
Have Fundraising Events for the different communities: Encourage children to hold various fundraising events to support a cause of each community present in the class, then school and the world outside. That way, they built a positive attitude towards different races, cultures, beliefs etc. and learn to give selflessly. Empathy towards each community is essential for children to learn, and it helps build an everlasting bond.

In comparison to a day school at a residential school, you will realize that there is a lot more emphasis on building tolerance and respect for different cultures and communities and they do this by celebrating all possible festivals and including as many such events in their calendar as possible. There is a conscious effort and thought. But even then they miss out on caste and class diversity, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Remember what we do with our children today is what they would do with the society. They give what they get. Teaching them to respect each other with all the diversities ensures we have created two or more happy souls.

Nothing is achieved by learning about different cultures if we do not learn to build relationships and form bonds.

Being cultural sensitive is impossible without being human sensitive. So, be human sensitive as the children are looking at you and following you. Chances are they not listening to you. They are watching you and will do as you do! Remember AURA!

The article has been put together by Ms Monisha Dutta, Principal of the Doon Girls' School with due research and cross-reference to online materials and books. Please connect with her for the list of references.

Monisha Datta <sarthika100@yahoo.com>

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