Questioning multicultural education

The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 12/30/2006 2:20 PM  |  Opinion

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta

Multicultural education has been a hot topic lately among Indonesian educators. It has been hailed as the most relevant kind of schooling in this multicultural and pluralistic society prone to conflicts along the lines of race, gender, ethnicity, class and religion.

Since this kind of education emphasizes cultural knowledge and the understanding of differences, it values equity in all walks of life. Students are made aware that, though they are from the same nation, they do not live in a monocultural society, but in one that combines many cultures. In essence, the goal is social change via education.

More important, students learn that no single culture is superior to others and that the dichotomy between dominant and subjugated cultures no longer prevails. They are encouraged to be sensitive and tolerant toward other cultures that might conflict with theirs. Cultural differences are seen as enriching, rather than threatening, society.

We can eradicate social ills only by nurturing sensitivity and minimizing prejudice. Yet, confusion still abounds as to how to adopt multicultural education and integrate it into the curriculum. There are difficulties here. On one hand, teaching multicultural education as a separate subject is not desirable because it would overload the curriculum. On the other hand, integrating it into other subjects requires a great deal of preparation on the part of teachers, textbook authors, and curriculum designers. This could eventually require a national curriculum overhaul, which is also not desirable.

Furthermore, it is no easy matter to determine the scope of multicultural education to be included in the curriculum. Multicultural education is a broad and elusive concept that allows room for multiple interpretations. What notion of culture is one supposed to teach? Is it culture in the sense of a set of collective norms, beliefs or practices shared within a certain community, or is it culture in the sense of the individual’s right to express his or her traditions in the way he or she chooses? Which of these interpretations will the curriculum be designed around?

There are also problems at the practical level. Teachers must be willing to diminish their own cultural pride to effectively teach multiculturally. They need to be inclusive by accommodating their students’ cultural differences. In certain communities, diminishing one’s cultural pride is easier said than done.

Similarly, teachers may also confront the problem of how to extend respect, empathy, and tolerance to other cultures if the students hail from a community where homogeneity is highly valued and ethnocentricity is deeply rooted. Instilling the idea of cultural inclusiveness is also likely to face a stumbling block if the students do not experience the impact of diversity in their daily lives.

Multiculturalism is a complex concept, requiring extensive cross-cultural research about the multiple perspectives of society in order to avoid misunderstandings. At the conceptual level, to help better understand the notion of multiculturalism, the following caveats are worth considering.

First, teaching multiculturally by no means promotes other cultures over the students’ own cultures. Students need not be asked to assimilate themselves into other cultures. Thus, by learning about and respecting other cultures students do not have to lose their identity.

Second, students’ pride in their own cultural heritage should not be seen as an impediment to learning about other cultural heritages. Instead, this pride should be highly valued.

Third, learning multiple perspectives from other cultures does not necessarily mean overemphasizing differences and underemphasizing similarities among cultures.

Attempts to incorporate multicultural education in school subjects are noble, but without a better understanding of its meaning, scope and goals, it is possible that teachers will only leave their students culturally disoriented.

The writer is lecturer at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta. He can be reached at

Bettering how teachers teach

Teuku Zulfikar Akarim ,  Melbourne   |  Sat, 01/10/2009 10:19 AM  |  Opinion

Adequate facilities including textbooks, laboratories, libraries and other learning equipment are important in efforts to produce intelligent students, but the most important factor here is the presence of qualified teachers.

To be able to teach effectively, teachers are expected to be both knowledgeable in content and skillful in their teaching methodology or pedagogical knowledge.

Skillful teachers are indeed important, as a failure to apply appropriate teaching methods renders the instructional process ineffective.

Having understood the importance of pedagogy, teachers should be empowered through effective teaching techniques.

Scholars in the field of teacher education, including Thomas L. Good of Arizona University and Jere E. Brophy of Michigan State University, have developed a number of techniques that can be used to empower teachers.

Two teaching methods that are considered effective in improving teachers’ knowledge of pedagogy are appreciation and power sharing.

Appreciation refers to teachers’ ability to appreciate student work, while power sharing means teachers’ willingness to reduce their domination of the classroom.

Appreciation has various manifestations depending on the education level, with different levels of education requiring different approaches. For example, elementary school teachers may prefer to use simple rewards such as issuing certificates or prizes for students who excel.

University professors may express their appreciation in different ways, for example by providing personal supervision in particular subject areas.

While appreciation may seem like a small reward for students’ success, it can boost their self-confidence and self-esteem which can in turn improve their academic performance.

Teachers are also expected to be able to create a healthy and supportive environment necessary for student learning. Power sharing means teachers do not dominate the classroom.

Teachers must not infuse their students with ideas before recognizing and acknowledging their students’ own perceptions. Teachers will never be able to fathom their students’ understanding if they do not provide them with time and space to express themselves.

In power sharing, the idea of “the truth” is not centered in teachers, but is shared among students. Power sharing enables students to have “their say” — to be heard and understood — which in turn helps teachers understand students better. The ability to understand students’ personal feelings and capacities helps teachers develop more effective teaching approaches.

The third technique worth considering is the process of self-development. This technique can be practiced through reflective teaching.

The notion of self-development has gained popularity in teacher education for its effectiveness in boosting teachers’ abilities. Several methods of reflection are available including self-video recording, peer conferences or journal keeping. Teachers using video, for example, can record themselves teaching, allowing for later observation and critique.

The cheapest method of observation, however, is through inviting other teachers to observe a colleague while teaching a class. Colleagues can provide feedback for the betterment of teaching approaches.

Teachers may also choose to reflect by keeping what is known as a reflective journal. This type of journal can help teachers to focus and determine their teaching goals. The other benefit of the reflective journal is that it permits teachers to review and evaluate their teaching experiences and revise and improve on them for the future.

The question is how can we familiarize Indonesian teachers with self criticism. At least for the time being, most teachers are probably reluctant to criticize themselves, but need to be encouraged to undertake this difficult task.

The writer is Ph.D. candidate at Monash University’s Faculty of Education.

Enlisting educators to uphold multiculturalism

Choirul Mahfud ,  Surabaya   |  Sat, 01/10/2009 10:19 AM  |  Opinion

The rampant ethnic and religious tension in Indonesia has frustrated the efforts of many social scientists, educators, scholars, Civil Society Organization (CSO) activists and community leaders for the past few years. There were indications of gains in the country’s struggle for democracy.

But the continuing ethnic and religious violence and unrest in some parts of the country show how prevailing and intransigent the problem of prejudice and discrimination has been. At a time when demographic changes and economic pressures are forcing people to come into contact with those from different backgrounds, feelings of distrust and alienation are rising.

While schools and educators cannot change economic growth and the constraints affecting factors of many of those human problems, they can make a difference in helping shape the students’ views of the world, respect for diversity and strengthening democracy.

During the last few decades, multicultural studies have enabled scholars and practitioners to see in all areas “the invisible paradigms” of the academic system and the larger cultural context that marginalize or trivialize the lives of women, ethnic minorities and those outside the dominant class or culture.

In Indonesia, the heavy pressure toward integration and national unity since its independence provided a different setting for the role of multiculturalism. The nation’s collective memory had been traumatized by the tension and violence resulting from various attempts at secession based on ideological, regional, cultural, as well as territorial differences and the efforts to terminate those attempts.

Yet, by the national motto of Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) in Pancasila, the emphasis on unity should not neglect diversity. Education that stressed only unity above all would produce narrow-mindedness and uproot individuals out of their indigenous heritage.

For the same periods, education in Indonesia had discussed a little about how we appreciate and respect the religious or belief diversity and variety of cultural wealth. There was a tendency of homogenization introduced systematically through the education under the national cultural protection, the hegemony of Javanese culture as a center and others as the edge and pauperization of culture by shortening the variety of cultural identity into a number of Indonesian provinces.

In 1999, Anita Lie said the process of homogenization and the cultural hegemony and pauperization was taught in civic education, such as education of Pancasila and citizenship, national history and struggle, training of P4 (guidance for internalization and externalization of Pancasila) — and even religious education.

The recent tension and violence in different parts of the country showed that the excessive drive for unity that had been enforced especially for the past 30 years was not an effective response to the risk and fear of disintegration. Now that the nation is at a crossroad as a reform movement has started, ethnic, religious, racial and class differences should be regarded as the nation’s rich heritage.

Within this perspective, multicultural education is needed to foster peace, understanding and respect among all members of society. As we know, the perspectives in multicultural education encompass many dimensions of human difference: race, ethnicity, occupation, socioeconomic status, age, gender, sexual orientation, various physical traits and needs, religion, and culture.

One of the multicultural education premises states that teaching learning is a cultural process in a social context. In order for teaching and learning to be accessible and fair for various background and origins of students, cultures need to be clearly understood. Such understanding can be achieved by analyzing education from various cultural perspectives by which it can avoid the hegemony of dominant cultural experience.

School is an epitome of society. In the norms of procedure, attitudinal code, structural order, power distribution, special feature and responsibility, school reflects society’s cultural values. Classroom teachers, school administrators and policy makers bring their own experience and cultural perspective and influence the policy and education actions.

In addition, the students who come from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds are unavoidable to bring them, too. The various different cultural systems meet in school and classroom and can cause a cultural conflict, which can only be mediated and reconciled by the effectiveness of the instructional process that enlightens and opens the awkward, diluted cultural boundaries.

In 1987, Ramsey said multicultural education was not a set curriculum but a perspective that was reflected in all decisions about every phase and aspect of teaching. It is a lens through which teachers can scrutinize their choices in order to clarify what social information they are conveying overtly and covertly to their students.

In other words, educators should be aware of and responsible for the underlying goals and values of the curriculum designs, materials and activities they deliver to the students. Education occurs in a sociocultural context and all curriculum materials and practices reflect certain social values.

Shortly, in light of the need to foster peace and development, educators should recognize the underlying goals and values of the curriculum designs, materials and activities they deliver to the students. All curriculum materials and practices reflect certain social values.

As the curriculum processes still depend mainly on textbooks, educators should therefore ensure that the books they use in their classrooms be culturally sensitive and respect students’ varied sociocultural backgrounds, which affect their learning.

In this context, teachers should be aware of the growing diversity in schools and the implication of using a certain set of curricular materials in their classrooms. Social scientists and commentators often point out the rich blend of cultural differences found in Indonesian society. While these observers have a point, it is equally true that diversity is difficult … especially in schools.

However, as Aristotle saw it, the challenge of ethnicity (or multiculturalism), is one of augmenting familial love, expanding the natural links to one’s own “kind,” so that these links also include others who are more distantly related, rather than doing away with the initial links and bonds as such.

The writer is the author of book of Multicultural Education (Pustaka Pelajar Jogja, 2008), and a lecturer at Muhammadiyah University in Surabaya.