Map for school diversity

Scott Coomber

Greg Noble, Megan Watkins and Christina Ho

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.

Policy puts down racism in schools

The core aspects of the Department's Anti-Racism Policy were identified as the best action against racism in schools at the Centre for Professional Learning conference.

Professor Greg Noble, from Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society, pointed to the three dimensions of the policy as effective anti-racism education strategies that schools needed to comprehensively address.

They are summarised as:

  • promoting acceptance of and respect for Australia’s cultural, linguistic and religious diversity
  • challenging prejudiced attitudes
  • ensuring that sanctions are applied against racist and discriminatory behaviours.

He said that teaching programs and practice need to include strategies that promote intercultural understanding and develop respect.

Professor Noble’s suggested all teachers should model respectful behaviour and inclusive practices, as well as carefully managing classroom discussions and student behaviour, and explicitly teach about racism and how to deal with it through teaching and learning activities.

His research discovered there is a misconception that schools are “safe places” and didn’t reflect the racist aspects found across Australian society and said some teachers even believed there was no racism at their school.

“In fact, research suggests that there are a lot of incidents in schools, and that these aren’t always seen by teachers,” he told the K-12 Multicultural Education and Social Inclusion Conference in July. “Some teachers and parents even saw their schools as free of racism. Many others recognised it but saw it as a problem of occasional minor incidents.”

A survey sample of 5182 NSW teachers has shown that just over half believe racism is a problem in schools, while 15.6 per cent said it was not, while “a large portion” (29.9 per cent) were neutral on the issue.

Professor Noble, a co-author of the Rethinking Multiculturalism/Reassessing Multicultural Education report using that survey, said the research also showed that teachers were much more likely to have read the Department’s Anti-Racism Policy than the Multicultural Education Policy.

Almost 40 per cent of non-teaching executive respondents to the survey had not implemented or did not know whether the 2005 Multicultural Education Policy had been implemented in their school, the survey found.

“One of the challenges of multicultural education is that the way we try to talk about cultural difference in schools – and the ways we identify and address educational ‘problems’ — could end up reproducing the same kinds of generalising and essentialising categories that are often identified with racism,” he said. “Teachers’ professional learning needs to incorporate reflexive, intellectual skills needed to think about the world."

Useful websites

NSW Teachers Federation website

Racism. No way! promotes anti-racism education programs, strategies and resources appropriate for use in Australian schools.

Rethinking Multiculturalism /Reassessing Multicultural Education (RMRME) is a three-year Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage project conducted jointly by the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS) at the University of Western Sydney, the NSW Department of Education, and the NSW Institute of Teachers.

Project Report Number 1

Surveying New South Wales. Public School Teachers.

Project Report Number 2

Perspectives on Multicultural Education

Project Report Number 3

Knowledge Translation and Action Research

NSW Department of Education