Embracing Diversity: Effective Teaching > Module 1> Reading: The Importance of Multicultural Education
The Importance of Multicultural Education
It’s not just an add-on or an afterthought. Curriculums infused with multicultural
education boost academic success and prepare students for roles as productive
Multiculturalism in U.S. schools and society is taking on new dimensions of
complexity and practicality as demographics, social conditions, and political
circumstances change. Domestic diversity and unprecedented immigration have
created a vibrant mixture of cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and experiential plurality.
Effectively managing such diversity in U.S. society and schools is at once a
very old and a very new challenge. Benjamin Barber (1992) eloquently makes the
America has always been a tale of peoples trying to be a People, a tale of
diversity and plurality in search of unity. Cleavages among [diverse groups] . . .
have irked and divided Americans from the start, making unity a civic imperative
as well as an elusive challenge. (p. 41)
Accomplishing this end is becoming increasingly important as the 21st century
unfolds. People coming from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe,
and Africa differ greatly from earlier generations of immigrants who came primarily
from western and northern Europe. These unfamiliar groups, cultures, traditions, and
languages can produce anxieties, hostilities, prejudices, and racist behaviors among
those who do not understand the newcomers or who perceive them as threats to
their safety and security. These issues have profound implications for developing
instructional programs and practices at all levels of education that respond positively
and constructively to diversity.
A hundred years ago, W. E. B. Du Bois (1994) proposed that the problem of
the 20th century was conflict and controversy among racial groups, particularly
between African and European Americans. He concluded that
Between these two worlds [black and white], despite much physical contact
and daily intermingling, there is almost no community of intellectual life or
point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one race can come
into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other.
Source: From ―The Importance of Multicultural Education,‖ by G. Gay, 2004, Educational Leadership, 61(4),
pp. 30–35. Copyright 2004 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission.
Embracing Diversity: Effective Teaching > Module 1> Reading: The Importance of Multicultural Education
Although much has changed since Du Bois’s declarations, too much has not
changed nearly enough. Of course, the color line has become more complex and
diverse, and legal barriers against racial intermingling have been dismantled. People
from different ethnic, racial, and cultural groups live in close physical proximity. But
coexistence does not mean that people create genuine communities in which they
know, relate to, and care deeply about one another. The lack of a genuine
community of diversity is particularly evident in school curriculums that still do not
regularly and systematically include important information and deep study about a
wide range of diverse ethnic groups. As disparities in educational opportunities and
outcomes among ethnic groups continue to grow, the resulting achievement gap has
reached crisis proportions.
Multicultural education is integral to improving the academic success of
students of color and preparing all youths for democratic citizenship in a pluralistic
society. Students need to understand how multicultural issues shape the social,
political, economic, and cultural fabric of the United States as well as how such
issues fundamentally influence their personal lives.
Conceptions of Multicultural Education
Even though some theorists (Banks & Banks, 2002) have argued that multicultural
education is a necessary ingredient of quality education, in actual practice,
educators most often perceive it either as an addendum prompted by some crisis or
as a luxury. Multicultural education has not yet become a central part of the
curriculum regularly offered to all students; instead, educators have relegated it
primarily to social studies, language arts, and the fine arts and have generally
targeted instruction for students of color.
These attitudes distort multicultural education and make it susceptible to
sporadic and superficial implementation, if any. Textbooks provide a compelling
illustration of such an attitude: The little multicultural content that they offer is often
presented in sidebars and special-events sections (Loewen, 1995).
Another obstacle to implementing multicultural education lies with teachers
themselves. Many are unconvinced of its worth or its value in developing academic
skills and building a unified national community. Even those teachers who are more
accepting of multicultural education are nevertheless skeptical about the feasibility of
its implementation. ―I would do it if I could,‖ they say, ―but I don’t know how.‖
―Preparing students to meet standards takes up all my time,‖ others point out.
―School curriculums are already overburdened. What do I take out to make room for
A fallacy underlies these conceptions and the instructional behaviors that they
generate: the perception of multicultural education as separate content that
educators must append to existing curriculums as separate lessons, units, or
courses. Quite the contrary is true. Multicultural education is more than content; it
includes policy, learning climate, instructional delivery, leadership, and evaluation
(see Banks, 1994; Bennett, 2003; Grant & Gomez, 2000). In its comprehensive form,
Embracing Diversity: Effective Teaching > Module 1> Reading: The Importance of Multicultural Education
it must be an integral part of everything that happens in the education enterprise,
whether it is assessing the academic competencies of students or teaching math,
reading, writing, science, social studies, or computer science. Making explicit
connections between multicultural education and subject- and skill-based curriculum
and instruction is imperative.
It is not pragmatic for K–12 educators to think of multicultural education as a
discrete entity, separated from the commonly accepted components of teaching and
learning. These conceptions may be fine for higher education, where specialization
is the rule. But in K–12 schools, where the education process focuses on teaching
eclectic bodies of knowledge and skills, teachers need to use multicultural education
to promote such highly valued outcomes as human development, education equality,
academic excellence, and democratic citizenship (see Banks & Banks, 2001; Nieto,
To translate these theoretical conceptions into practice, educators must
systematically weave multicultural education into the central core of curriculum,
instruction, school leadership, policymaking, counseling, classroom climate, and
performance assessment. Teachers should use multicultural content, perspectives,
and experiences to teach reading, math, science, and social studies.
For example, teachers could demonstrate mathematical concepts, such as
less than/greater than, percentages, ratios, and probabilities using ethnic
demographics. Younger children could consider the ethnic and racial distributions in
their own classrooms, discussing which group’s representation is greater than, less
than, or equal to another’s. Older students could collect statistics about ethnic
distributions on a larger scale and use them to make more sophisticated
calculations, such as converting numbers to percentages and displaying ethnic
demographics on graphs.
Students need to apply such major academic skills as data analysis, problem
solving, comprehension, inquiry, and effective communication as they study
multicultural issues and events. For instance, students should not simply memorize
facts about major events involving ethnic groups, such as civil rights movements,
social justice efforts, and cultural accomplishments. Instead, educators should teach
students how to think critically and analytically about these events, propose
alternative solutions to social problems, and demonstrate understanding through
such forms of communication as poetry, personal correspondence, debate,
editorials, and photo essays.
Irvine and Armento (2001) provide specific examples for incorporating
multicultural education into planning language arts, math, science, and social studies
lessons for elementary and middle school students and connecting these lessons to
general curriculum standards. One set of lessons demonstrates how to use Navajo
rugs to explain the geometric concepts of perimeter and area and to teach students
how to calculate the areas of squares, rectangles, triangles, and parallelograms.
These suggestions indicate that teachers need to use systematic decision-
making approaches to accomplish multicultural curriculum integration. In practice,
this means developing intentional and orderly processes for including multicultural
content. The decision-making process might involve the following steps:
Creating learning goals and objectives that incorporate multicultural aspects,
such as ―Developing students’ ability to write persuasively about social justice
Using a frequency matrix to ensure that the teacher includes a wide variety of
ethnic groups in a wide variety of ways in curriculum materials and instructional
Introducing different ethnic groups and their contributions on a rotating basis.
Including several examples from different ethnic experiences to explain subject
matter concepts, facts, and skills.
Showing how multicultural content, goals, and activities intersect with subject-
specific curricular standards.
Virtually all aspects of multicultural education are interdisciplinary. As such, they
cannot be adequately understood through a single discipline. For example, teaching
students about the causes, expressions, and consequences of racism and how to
combat racism requires the application of information and techniques from such
disciplines as history, economics, sociology, psychology, mathematics, literature,
science, art, politics, music, and health care. Theoretical scholarship already affirms
this interdisciplinary need; now, teachers need to model good curricular and
instructional practice in elementary and secondary classrooms. Putting this principle
into practice will elevate multicultural education from impulse, disciplinary isolation,
and simplistic and haphazard guesswork to a level of significance, complexity, and
connectedness across disciplines.
Multiculturalism and Curriculum Development
How can teachers establish linkages between multicultural education and the
disciplines and subject matter content taught in schools? One approach is to filter
multicultural education through two categories of curriculum development:
reality/representation and relevance.
A persistent concern of curriculum development in all subjects is helping students
understand the realities of the social condition and how they came to be as well as
adequately representing those realities. Historically, curriculum designers have been
more exclusive than inclusive of the wide range of ethnic and cultural diversity that
exists within society. In the haste to promote harmony and avoid controversy and
conflict, they gloss over social problems and the realities of ethnic and racial
identities, romanticize racial relations, and ignore the challenges of poverty and
urban living in favor of middle-class and suburban experiences. The reality is
distorted and the representations incomplete (Loewen, 1995).
An inescapable reality is that diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural groups and
individuals have made contributions to every area of human endeavor and to all
aspects of U.S. history, life, and culture. When students study food resources in the
United States, for example, they often learn about production and distribution by
large-scale agribusiness and processing corporations. The curriculum virtually
overlooks the contributions of the many ethnically diverse people involved in planting
and harvesting vegetables and fruits (with the Mexican and Mexican American farm
labor unionization movement a possible exception). School curriculums that
incorporate comprehensive multicultural education do not perpetuate these
exclusions. Instead, they teach students the reality—how large corporations and the
food industry are directly connected to the migrant workers who harvest vegetables
and pick fruits. If we are going to tell the true story of the United States, multicultural
education must be a central feature of telling it.
School curriculums need to reverse these trends by also including equitable
representations of diversity. For example, the study of American literature, art, and
music should include contributions of males and females from different ethnic groups
in all genres and in different expressive styles. Thus, the study of jazz will examine
various forms and techniques produced not just by African Americans but also by
Asian, European, and Latino Americans.
Moreover, educators should represent ethnically diverse individuals and
groups in all strata of human accomplishment instead of typecasting particular
groups as dependent and helpless victims who make limited contributions of
significance. Even under the most oppressive conditions, diverse groups in the
United States have been creative, activist, and productive on broad scales. The way
in which Japanese Americans handled their internment during World War II provides
an excellent example. Although schools must not overlook or minimize the atrocities
this group endured, students should also learn how interned Japanese Americans
led dignified lives under the most undignified circumstances and elevated their
humanity above the circumstances. The curriculum should include both issues.
Many ethnically diverse students do not find schooling exciting or inviting; they often
feel unwelcome, insignificant, and alienated. Too much of what is taught has no
immediate value to these students. It does not reflect who they are. Yet most
educators will agree that learning is more interesting and easier to accomplish when
it has personal meaning for students.
Students from different ethnic groups are more likely to be interested and
engaged in learning situations that occur in familiar and friendly frameworks than in
those occurring in strange and hostile ones. A key factor in establishing educational
relevance for these students is cultural similarity and responsiveness (see Bruner,
1996; Hollins, 1996; Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995). For example, immigrant
Vietnamese, Jamaican, and Mexican students who were members of majority
populations in their home countries initially may have difficulty understanding what it
means to be members of minority groups in the United States. Students who come
from education environments that encourage active participatory learning will not be
intellectually stimulated by passive instruction that involves lecturing and completing
worksheets. Many students of color are bombarded with irrelevant learning
experiences, which dampen their academic interest, engagement, and achievement.
Multicultural education mediates these situations by teaching content about the
cultures and contributions of many ethnic groups and by using a variety of teaching
techniques that are culturally responsive to different ethnic learning styles.
Using a variety of strategies may seem a tall order in a classroom that
includes students from many different ethnic groups. Research indicates, however,
that several ethnic groups share some learning style attributes (Shade, 1989).
Teachers need to understand the distinguishing characteristics of different learning
styles and use the instructional techniques best suited to each style. In this scenario,
teachers would provide alternative teaching techniques for clusters of students
instead of for individual students. In any given lesson, the teacher might offer three
or four ways for students to learn, helping to equalize learning advantages and
disadvantages among the different ethnic groups in the classroom.
Scholars are producing powerful descriptions of culturally relevant teaching
for multiethnic students and its effects on achievement. Lipka and Mohatt (1998)
describe how a group of teachers, working closely with Native Alaskan (Yup’ik)
elders, made school structure, climate, curriculum, and instruction more reflective of
and meaningful to students from the community. For 10 years, the teachers
translated, adapted, and embedded Yup’ik cultural knowledge in math, literacy, and
science curriculums. The elders served as resources and quality-control monitors of
traditional knowledge, and they provided the inspiration and moral strength for the
teachers to persist in their efforts to center the schooling of Yup’ik students around
the students’ own cultural orientations. In math, for instance, the teachers now
habitually make connections among the Yup’ik numeration system, body
measurements, simple and complex computations, geometry, pattern designs, and
Similar attributes apply to the work of such scholars as Moses and Cobb
(2001), Lee (1993), and Boykin and Bailey (2000), who are studying the effects of
culturally relevant curriculum and instruction on the school performance of African
Moses and his colleagues are making higher-order math knowledge
accessible to African American middle school students by teaching this material
through the students’ own cultural orientations and experiences. To teach algebra,
they emphasize the experiences and familiar environments of urban and rural low-
income students, many of whom are at high risk for academic failure. A key feature
of their approach is making students conscious of how algebraic principles and
formulas operate in their daily lives and getting students to understand how to
explain these connections in nonalgebraic language before converting this
knowledge into the technical notations and calculations of algebra. Students
previously considered by some teachers as incapable of learning algebra are
performing at high levels—better, in fact, than many of their advantaged peers.
Evidence increasingly indicates that multicultural education makes schooling
more relevant and effective for Latino American, Native American, Asian American,
and Native Hawaiian students as well (see McCarty, 2002; Moll, Amanti, Neff, &
Gonzalez, 1992; Park, Goodwin, & Lee, 2001; Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). Students
perform more successfully on all levels when there is greater congruence between
their cultural backgrounds and such school experiences as task interest, effort,
academic achievement, and feelings of personal efficacy or social accountability.
As the challenge to better educate underachieving students intensifies and
diversity among student populations expands, the need for multicultural education
grows exponentially. Multicultural education may be the solution to problems that
currently appear insolvable: closing the achievement gap; genuinely not leaving any
children behind academically; revitalizing faith and trust in the promises of
democracy, equality, and justice; building education systems that reflect the diverse
cultural, ethnic, racial, and social contributions that forge society; and providing
better opportunities for all students.
Multicultural education is crucial. Classroom teachers and educators must
answer its clarion call to provide students from all ethnic groups with the education
Banks, J. A. (1994). Multiethnic education: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). Boston:
Allyn and Bacon.
Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. (Eds.). (2001). Multicultural education: Issues and
perspectives (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of research on
multicultural education (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Barber, B. R. (1992). An aristocracy of everyone: The politics of education and the
future of America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bennett, C. I. (2003). Comprehensive multicultural education: Theory and practice.
Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Boykin, A. W., & Bailey, C. T. (2000). The role of cultural factors in school relevant
cognitive functioning: Synthesis of findings on cultural context, cultural
orientations, and individual differences. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 441 880)
Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1994). The souls of black folk. New York: Gramercy Books.
Grant, C. A., & Gomez, M. L. (2000). (Eds.). Making school multicultural: Campus
and classroom (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.
Hollins, E. R. (1996). Culture in school learning: Revealing the deep meaning.
Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Irvine, J. J., & Armento, B. J. (Eds.). (2001). Culturally responsive teaching: Lesson
planning for elementary and middle grades. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Lee, C. (1993). Signifying as a scaffold to literary interpretation: The pedagogical
implications of a form of African American discourse (NCTE Research Report
No. 26). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Lipka, J., & Mohatt, G. V. (1998). Transforming the culture of schools: Yup’ik eskimo
examples. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history
textbook got wrong. New York: New Press.
McCarty, T. L. (2002). A place to be Navajo: Rough Rock and the struggle for self-
determination in indigenous schooling. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for
teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms.
Theory into Practice, 31(1), 132–141.
Moses, R. P., & Cobb, C. E., Jr. (2001). Radical equations: Math literacy and civil
rights. Boston: Beacon Press.
Nieto, S. (2000). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural
education (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.
Park, C. C., Goodwin, A. L., & Lee, S. J. (Eds.). (2001). Research on the education
of Asian and Pacific Americans. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishers.
Shade, B. J. (Ed.). (1989). Culture, style, and the educative process. Springfield, IL:
Charles C. Thomas.
Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and
schooling in social context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wlodkowski, R. J., & Ginsberg, M. B. (1995). Diversity & motivation: Culturally
responsive teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Geneva Gay is a professor of education at the University of Washington, Seattle;
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