Unpacking culture, curriculum and context
During my interaction with educators, I am often asked, “how can a positive culture in school and classrooms be built? How can we create a culture of growth and learning?”
In the past ten years, I have worked with children from low income households to economically upper class families, from extremely traditional families to those who consider themselves modern families, from children who have never stepped out of their neighbourhoods to children who have travelled around the world. In my interactions with these young people and their educators, I am inspired to re-examine myself for my own responses to questions such as what’s the purpose of education? What should education do?
Education, and more specifically formalized schooling, should and does fulfill different needs for different pupils. But more often than not, it marginalizes those who are already on the margins and privileges those who are already privileged. Our institutions must engage with the fundamental questions of education, such as ‘What is being taught? Why are we teaching that? For whom? By whom? When, Where, and How?’ And when we ask these questions, we cannot avoid engaging with matters of culture.
“Culture” can be a loaded word. It can mean so many things to so many people. Some may see it as softer aspects of a school and hence not engage in any meaningful conversation around it. Others may talk about it but still remain on the periphery of the conversation, talking about the arts and music and dance, often reducing the conversation to tokenism.
Academically, it has been defined differently by different scholars over the time in history. For the purpose of this article, I refer to the following definitions1:
- Culture is a set of shared and enduring meaning, values, and beliefs that characterize national, ethnic, or other groups and orient their behaviour (Mulholland 1991).
- “Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another” (Hofstede, G. (1984). National cultures and corporate cultures. In L.A. Samovar & R.E. Porter (Eds.), Communication Between Cultures. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.)
These definitions inform my understanding that culture has its own multilayered understanding that not only defines one’s positioning within a culture but also one’s interactions with those from another culture.
Now one may ask, so what does the classroom and the school have to do with culture? Consider these questions – How can we create a culture that reflects the values we would like to live by? How does the teacher build a classroom culture that is respectful, collaborative, joyous, participative, and honest? How does the school environment nurture a sense of aesthetics and an appreciation of beauty in all its forms? Do these questions ring a bell? As educators, we have been asking these questions for a while. However, if we go back to the definitions, all these questions bring in their subjectivity of what respective or collaborative may mean, or what aesthetics or beauty may mean. Hence, in my mind, when we talk about culture and schools, we must ask another question – whose culture?
When we ask this question, the onion starts peeling off; the multilayered realities of cross-cultural interactions start opening. We don’t walk into school as empty vessels, as people without culture who will just be enculturated into a certain kind of culture that the institution may wish for us to adapt. We walk in as multi-cultural beings. And we are multi-cultural beings not only as adults, but also when we are the four-year-old walking into a kindergarten classroom. Emily J. Style, founding co-director of National SEED Project, writes, “Half the curriculum walks in the room with the students, in the textbooks of their lives.2” When students walk into school, they bring in their lives, their stories, their customs, traditions, beliefs, hopes and aspirations. If a school says that there’s only one way to grow, it will have a culture that defines that. Now one must ask, whose culture should a school assume then? In my view, it’s for those people in power to define whose cultural values and understanding of life will take precedence. But what if there’s more than one way? The culture that a girl from an economically rich Muslim family brings in is different from what a boy from an economically poor household brings. The way a homosexual or bisexual student looks at the world is different from how a heterosexual student sees it. The belief about life that a child who is differently abled brings in may be different from that of an able-bodied person.
The author is a co-founder of Khoj Community School, Mumbai. Khoj Community School is built on the core principles of concept-based curriculum, multicultural education and community development. He also works as community and social responsibility coordinator at American School of Bombay, Mumbai and is a consulting staff at National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) housed at Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, USA. As a SEED facilitator, he conducts workshops for educators on matters of diversity, equity and multicultural education. He can be reached at email@example.com.