Confronting ethnic stereotypes and the challenges of teaching in a multicultural society were key concerns put to educators at a Centre for Professional Learning conference in Sydney in July.
More than 250 teachers and educational leaders attended the K-12 Multicultural Education and Social Inclusion Conference where presenters outlined projects and ideas that have been successfully applied in primary and secondary school settings.
Speakers explored the themes of cultural diversity in schools, anti-racism, social and cultural insights for teachers, English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D) pedagogy and curriculum.
A survey of NSW teachers, conducted for a Western Sydney University report Rethinking Multiculturalism/Reassessing Multicultural Education, revealed that less than half of the 5182 respondents (47.5 per cent) had received pre-service training in multicultural education.
Professor Megan Watkins, associate professor in education at Western Sydney University and a co-author of the report, told the conference how one school — a high language background other than English (LBOTE), middle SES primary school — had reshaped its approach to multicultural education through critical literacy units.
One teacher at the school, for example, set a unit where students planned a mock media interview with a refugee and had to choose a positive or negative persuasive stance.
She quoted the teacher as saying: “I think the critical literacy meant people were speaking honestly and it wasn’t superficial. It wasn’t, ‘Let’s all hold hands and be friendly’.”
One outcome is worth noting. At the time the teacher was giving the “interview” lessons, the race riots happened in Hyde Park. On the Monday after the riots, she was approached by a group of mothers and thought, "Oh no, here we go”. But the reality turned out to be quite different. One mother relayed the story of her daughter, a student in the teacher’s class, who, in a dinner table discussion on the riots, pulled up her father for saying, “They should all go back to where they came from”.
The girl asked him where he thought “they” came from, “they” could have been born here and pointed out that he, himself, was a refugee!
Professor Watkins said the school had developed a “critical capacity” to think through some difficult issues.
“It wasn’t just a bland notion of respect, it was kind of agnostic respect,” Professor Watkins said. “That they were thinking through these issues and grappling with some difficult questions.”
Dr Christina Ho, a researcher in diversity and inequality in Australian education at the University of Technology Sydney, tested a common perception by opening her keynote presentation with the “cheeky” title, “Asians always do well: Getting behind the stereotypes of ‘ethnic success’ in NSW schools”. Pointing to a newspaper article that reported on the HSC success of James Ruse High School, and featured a picture of an Asian student, Dr Ho said the article hid an inconvenient truth.
“Next time you see a story like this about a successful Asian selective school student topping the state in maths or whatever, let’s just remember that for every one of these students there are hundreds of other LBOTE students who are attending a disadvantaged, underperforming school in a poor neighbourhood,” she said.
“Ultimately, the face of educational advantage in NSW is more likely to be white, it’s more likely to be in a wealthy suburb and wearing a private school uniform. This is the kind of polarisation we’ve had in our education system, which we all agree is bad for kids’ education and unhealthy for our society.”
Her address highlighted the heavy lifting public schools were doing in the area and the importance of the original Gonski reforms, funding the Federal Government cut by $846 million in NSW.