Multiculturalism is one of Australia’s greatest assets, whose value has often been underestimated. Indeed, for a secular, pluralistic, multicultural society such as Australia, multiculturalism provides untapped potential for individuals and society. Unfortunately, multiculturalism is often reduced to superficial experiences of a culture such as entertainment with food, music and fashion. While, these are no doubt some of the perks and enjoyments of living in a diverse society, one must not overlook the capacity of multiculturalism to be a self-reflective tool that positively challenges mental constraints one may face when trapped within their ethnocentric prison. No doubt, ethnocentric attitudes are not just a flaw one can attribute to the dominant white culture, but often exist within ethnic communities themselves. It is only through relinquishing the confinement of ethnocentrism or culturally confined prisons, that individuals can truly flourish- simply by exposing themselves to alternative ways of living, thinking and being.
It is also here that the potential to alleviate Australia’s increasing rate of mental illnesses lies. In 1992, Dr Deepak Chopra in his book, ‘Unconditional life: Discovering the power to fulfil your dream,’ proposed the ideas that our perceptions can create our reality for best or worst and that our outside world can be shaped by altering our consciousness within. However, these popular ideas also suggest significant capacity for personal reflection within multicultural societies due to the use of a ‘Multicultural Mirror’ that allows individuals to achieve true self-acceptance, self-realization and genuine happiness.
The Multicultural Mirror
It is accepted that individuals can learn much about themselves through others by reflecting upon their real values, flaws and aspirations. Cultural values which can be defined as ‘commonly held standards of what is acceptable or unacceptable, important or unimportant, right or wrong, workable or unworkable, etc., in a community or society’ (Businessdictionary.com) are not absolute, meaning that there is at least some room for individuals to negotiate them.
Assuming that an individual’s priority is to use the ‘multicultural mirror’ in order to achieve happiness, character growth and integrity, the multicultural mirror can be seen as a useful tool and resource to facilitate personal growth and happiness (of course, like all tools if the intention is evil, it can be misused too!). The main reason the multicultural mirror can be such an effective tool for helping individuals to achieve self-actualisation is due to the inherent hypocrisy of human nature and limitations of culture. Every culture, whether from the East or West suffers from some hypocritical standards, values and limited ways of comprehending situations. The real benefit of the multicultural mirror lies in giving individual’s endless opportunities to reflect on who and what they really are- assuming that they are game enough to alter their position or attitude on stressful life matters should they need to. Happiness can only occur if individuals have some freedom of choice to enable them to achieve contentment and satisfaction. Depression, in contrast arises when individuals feel powerless to change their existing situation. Australia’s multicultural communities may offer this opportunity for those struggling to solve life’s challenges or trying to at least attain self-acceptance. Sometimes of course, changing your perspective on a life matter involves simply a conscious choice- at other times the risk of change may be too daunting to even contemplate. The multicultural mirror though does have some drawbacks as replacing existing cultural values with new ones may be risky in some situations where one can accidentally alienate existing family members and friends. The choice in every situation ultimately returns to the individual, after all, they must also weigh the pros and cons when considering adopting new cultural beliefs or behaviours. Often, cultural shifts in perception are invisible to outside observers with the individual emotionally, psychologically and mentally reaping all of the benefits of their newfound wisdom.
But how can we successfully teach the concept of the ‘multicultural mirror’ in school settings?
One successful pilot program implemented in an inner Sydney secondary school may provide some insight. What commenced as a consequence of a limited school budget later developed into an inspirational case study. An Arabic background teacher was required to teach introductory Arabic to non-native Arabic speakers in a secondary public educational school setting in Sydney, despite her specialization being in a very different discipline. Regardless of the fact the teacher faced a zero budget to develop resources and some student resistance to learning the Arabic language, the course was successfully taught using ESL scaffolding and engaging content, allowing students to access the invaluable knowledge embedded in the Arabic culture which is often neglected in western educational settings for many reasons including poor access to adequate resources and methods.
This innovative Arabic course allowed a valuable, rare, complementary educational experience as it:
-Helped compensate for the lack of syllabus content on the diverse Arab world in the Australian Curriculum (Oubani and Oubani 2014), improving social harmony and justice
-Allowed students to reflect on how to use their new cultural knowledge as a problem solving tool, making it relevant and meaningful to their daily lives
-Educated students about body image in Arab society, allowing female students to feel more positive about their diverse body shapes and develop their self-esteem through considering broader concepts of beauty
-Used the eloquent poetic rhythm of the Arabic language to help students practice self-affirmation
While the benefits of second language learning include increased cognitive flexibility, creativity and intercultural awareness, there is a need for a new understanding of why languages are important for all learners that make cultural, intellectual and generally humanistic reasons central, with the practical application of language proficiency an extra benefit. Language teaching thus should be motivated by educational, cultural and intellectual aims, rather than narrow links to the labour market (Lo Bianco et al 2009). Part of this education should be in building resiliency in our youth to confidently face complex, future challenges; a goal which can be achieved through diverse school curriculums such as in the Languages, English and History curriculums.
Intercultural education in English speaking countries could also be much better than it is, especially due to Ethnocentrism which privileges one particular cultural view over others and convinces students to believe that they have little to learn from other cultures. Ethnocentrism is reproduced and largely unchallenged due to being repeatedly reinforced by cross-cultural psychology- knowledge used by educational institutions and their members (Marginson et al 2011). Ethnocentrism creates barriers for students to access new meaningful and empowering knowledge from other cultures that can be used for personal development. Despite, the ACARA draft paper (Macgibbon 2011) stating that learning another language strengthens students’ intellectual and cognitive capabilities, such as creative and critical thinking, language education has been in serious decline for many reasons, presenting a significant issue for the Australian community and one of national strategic importance. Furthermore, there is an increasing awareness among educators and researchers of the need for greater educational emphasis on teaching abstract thinking skills which enhance both problem solving and creativity (Nickerson et al 1985) making courses which teach students on how to use cultural knowledge as a problem solving tool necessary. Slaughter’s (2009) argument for the fundamental importance of supporting a broad range of languages in Australian schools combined with the extensive community language capabilities of the population which act as a reservoir of untapped bilingualism (Lo Bianco et al 2009) provide many untapped opportunities for Australian society.
Dialogue and authentic learning experiences formed the basis of the ACTAC (Arabic Complementing The Australian Curriculum) course. The cultivation of dialogue should be a key priority in classrooms, because dialogue drives each individual to seek meaning in the context of seeing her/himself as one among others. In addition, perceiving the role of the classroom community as an environment of inquiry serves both to cultivate disciplined inquiry and facilitate authentic personal development (Splitter 2009). For example, the ACTAC course included classroom discussions on cultures which promote a healthy body image for women such as Indigenous and Arab cultures, encouraging female students to view their bodies from a more positive and liberating perspective.
The ACTAC course also encouraged non-native Arabic learners to engage in authentic and meaningful interactions with the Arabic culture by not just appreciating its music, food and art but how their new knowledge can transform their present and future lives. Newmann et al (1996a, b) who stresses authenticity in education, emphasized the idea that students should utilize their prior knowledge to engage with ‘real’ problems, tasks and challenges- that is those which connect to the world beyond the classroom. Authenticity is reflected in the content, pedagogy and assessment components of the ACTAC course. The concept of authenticity recognizes that students are active participants in the learning process, rather than passive recipients of knowledge that has been accumulated by others and transmitted to them. The incorporation of authentic content also helped non-native Arabic speakers to engage with a course and language that they would otherwise find alien and irrelevant to their daily lives.
As language can be used as a starting point for interaction to generate ideas, interpretations and responses, another key focus of the ACTAC introductory course was communication. Interaction and communication have an important place in education as they allow active engagement with ideas and interpretation. Communication is also a social process of meaning-making and interpreting making it purposeful and meaningful for participants. Currently, task-based language teaching has shifted the focus of language learning from knowledge of language to the use of language for communicative purposes (Scarino 2009). Furthermore, as higher order thinking skills can be taught through problem-solving, performing, creating, designing, composing (Clark et al 1994), students where educated how to use their knowledge of the Arabic culture as a problem solving tool to solve some dilemmas of living in Sydney. For example, the mini topic ‘versatile living spaces’ involved students creating their own Arabic decorated dioramas to reflect both their understanding of flexible Arabic interior design and maximizing use of living spaces using versatile furniture in a city where living spaces are precious.
Essentially, the ideal stages students should move through in the Australian education system can be conveyed using the ‘Teaching Triangle’ shown below.
The triangle below shows 3 parts: Intolerance, tolerance and enlightenment. The meanings of the bottom two components are generally well known and do not need to be defined. Enlightenment, from an educational perspective is new education or awareness that brings personal growth or change. It can have religious connotations such as in Buddhism where it refers to a final blessed state marked by the absence of desire or suffering but here the suffering we are addressing is depression which results from a sense of powerlessness to create any positive change in one’s life.
It is essential that the stages of tolerance and acceptance are mastered so that the goal of ‘enlightenment’ can be achieved.
However, why would we care if enlightenment through education is achieved?
Cities such as Sydney will be in the future multicultural hubs where creative development and innovation thrive through both artistic and economic output, leading the world. We already have signs of this occurring in the economy- but as the world becomes an increasingly complicated place to live in, creative solutions on the individual level will also be essential, meaning that we cannot afford to be ethnocentric or entertain limited viewpoints/cultural perspectives. It is here, where difference and the more the better- will actually matter. Ironically, bicultural Australians or minority groups living under a dominant culture can find the multicultural mirror easier to use as they are already forced into ‘tolerating’ and ‘understanding’ another cultural set of values. Accepting others and being tolerant of them etc. actually thus benefits one more than the person that they are accepting or tolerating. It allows one to see the complexity of the world and not find themselves trapped in an ethnocentric prison. The world we live in demands incredibly creative and confident problem solvers- so the more different perspectives or hats one can wear, the better- to help them solve life’s complex dilemmas.
Another advantage of moving not just towards acceptance and tolerance but even beyond them is that it allows individuals to become more resilient towards depression. Again- there are great benefits for the person practicing acceptance and tolerance and not just the person receiving it. The organisation Beyond Blue in 2011 found that despite half of all mental health conditions merge by the age of 14; almost fifty percent of teachers feel that they do not have the time to dedicate to achieving positive mental health outcomes. Imagine, if educators incorporated multicultural perspectives or knowledge on different topics in the Australian curriculum to not just facilitate tolerance and acceptance of others- but greater multicultural knowledge to help one to perceive their problems in life from diverse angles so that they become more confident problem solvers? Such an outcome is very difficult to achieve if one is constrained by rigid non-negotiable ways of thinking.
Consider the following Bus analogy: Picture life being a moving bus- a journey with a beginning and end. Now, one finds themselves on the ‘bus of life’ along with the rest of humanity and is trapped on the left hand side near the window. They have no idea where they are going and feel very lost and frightened. What is their first reaction? They look to the window on their right or the window behind them- in fact any window to help them perceive where they currently are and where they may be going. Humanity is in this bus and every bus window represents a different cultural perspective or a different viewpoint, however they all give one some insight and even confidence regarding where one may be heading.
As educators, we can all empower our students to exploit their multicultural knowledge, especially considering that many young people will face significant mental health issues in their future. Once students appreciate diverse cultural values, they can use new ideas and perspectives from the culture they have studied to solve their real-life problems. Culture as a problem solving tool is an untapped resource or tool that educators need to embrace in our development and advancement, not just as individuals but as a multicultural, prosperous, cohesive nation as well.
To view examples of student work from the ACTAC course, please watch the video above!
Please note: There are many other areas of the Arab culture that can offer insight and inspiration to individuals such as the relatively high position of the elderly, status of parents and family values but were not covered in the course due to time constraints. However, the Arabic culture is a great example of how knowledge of an exotic, poorly understood and overlooked culture can positively contribute to an individuals’ mental health and wellbeing.
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