Culture, Schooling, and Education in a Democracy  Multiculturalism in Early Childhood Programs
Victoria R. Fu
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia


The population of the United States is composed of people of many cultural backgrounds with a diversity of traditions. At the threshold of the twenty-first century, the demographic portrait of this nation is continuing a trend of rapid change, for example, the aging of the population, and changes in family structure and in ethnic minority population. In the foreseeable future, demographers expect that current minorities will make up the new majority in this country. Thus, there is more than ever a need for an inclusive definition of multiculturalism that is representative of the diverse groups in our society and based on an organizing conceptual framework. This definition will inform our practice and our design of research and policies. An inclusive concept of multiculturalism has the potential for contributing to a framework that will guide us in our efforts to provide culturally relevant programs and services, including education, to all people in this country, regardless of their cultural background.

Rogoff and Morelli (1989) recognized that most of us are blind to our own cultural heritage. We are most likely to notice the role of culture when we compare to one another the practices of groups other than our own, and particularly the practices of minority groups. The tendency is to consider the practices of dominant cultural groups as "standard" and those of other groups as "variations." For example, I have often heard people, especially those of European heritage, say that they do not know much about their cultural heritage and that they do not see how their heritage can have an effect on their behavior, beliefs, and practices. This unawareness of one's heritage may be a historical effect of collective assimilation and accommodation over time.

We become aware of our heritage when we encounter contrasting practices (Rogoff and Morelli, 1989). Because we are desensitized and sensitized to an awareness of culture in these ways, it is imperative that we use culture as a resource through which our assumptions regarding human development and our practices are examined.

Each of us is a member of multiple cultures, defined, for example, by race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, occupational status, socioeconomic status, and family background. Thus, to a large extent our participation in society, and in different segments of society, is influenced by diverse, culturally prescribed or expected beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors. Since "no one is an island," we can assume that one's behavior, skills, and interactions are closely tied to the structure of the ecology of human development, that is, the sociocultural context in which development occurs. Therefore, we would like to propose that a sociocultural perspective be used in examining issues underlying the concepts of multiculturalism in general, and multicultural education in particular, in a democratic society.

We hope that collective examination and exploration of development and practices in sociocultural contexts, coupled with self-examination based on individual experiences, will lead us to interactions that promote cultural pluralism. That is, that we will value differences as well as similarities among people from diverse cultures, while at the same time, we will advocate for the maintenance of unity in the context of American democracy (Pai, 1990). From a pluralistic perspective, we will recognize and respect our diversity of traditions, value the strengths of an individual's heritage, and try not to impose our cultural view on others. The pluralistic perspective we propose is similar to the one proposed by James Garbarino (1982), which challenges individuals to be more tolerant and creative in their practice and research, and challenges those in dominant groups to share some of their power in making policy decisions.

We would like to suggest that the concept of multiculturalism in education in a democracy should be an inherent component of the current debate on educational reform and teacher training. Schools have traditionally been seen as a vehicle of social change. Many educators are dismayed that while other countries are struggling for democracy, we, as a nation, seem to demand less of democracy when it provides the guiding principles for our own education system (Giroux, 1991).

Multiculturalism and Multicultural Education Defined

Multiculturalism is a principle, an approach, or a set of rules of conduct that guides the interactions and influences the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. It encompasses a myriad of human differences, including race, ethnicity, culture, religion, national origin, occupation, socioeconomic status, age, gender, sexual orientation, and functional status. Multiculturalism is relevant to all people, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. It is an approach that provides a framework which one can use to examine one's values, beliefs, and perceptions about cultural diversity, human rights, and privileges in a democratic society. In the process of embracing multiculturalism, we examine and critique our interactions with individuals and families in diverse contexts, for example, the contexts of teaching children in schools and other early childhood programs; teaching college students who will teach or participate in other ways in society; and providing services to individuals and families.

Underlying multiculturalism are the values and beliefs inherent to a democracy: the promotion of human rights and privileges, the sharing of power, and equal participation in all social contexts. In a democratic, pluralistic society we have the right to evaluate, decide, and compare competing cultural ideologies in terms of what is in the best interests of human development (Garbarino, 1982).

Multicultural education refers to school policies and curriculum, and teaching practices that foster understanding and appreciation of diversity, and promote positive and constructive intercultural relations on all levels and in all systems. The values of participatory democracy and the sharing of power are reflected in interactions between teachers and children and between children themselves; interactions between teachers and school administrators, school governance bodies (school boards, school councils, etc.), and parents; and, from a more inclusive perspective, interactions with the social and political systems in which individuals and institutions function.

Inherent to multicultural education are the notions that there are diverse ways of constructing and acquiring knowledge and that one's cultural heritage, history, and experience are viable sources of knowledge. These sources of knowledge serve as a basis for critiquing the relevance of knowledge, curriculum content, and practices individuals are exposed to in the schools. Diverse cultural knowledge and relationships should influence decisions regarding curriculum and practice. A multicultural curriculum does not reject the relevance of cultural traditions but is used by teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers to examine the relevance of traditional curricula (Aronowitz and Giroux, 1991; Giroux, 1991).

Schooling and Education

In order to understand the role of multicultural education in schools, we must first examine the distinction between education and schooling. This is of special importance, for policymakers often fail to recognize the difference between these two concepts (Pai, 1991; Linney and Seidman, 1989). Hyman (1979) stated that:

Few in policymaking positions understand the difference between education and schooling. Education has to do with the processes of learning; schooling is the means by which social, political and economic factors shape the learning environment... (p. 1025).

In regard to multicultural education, Pai (1991) stated that:

...multicultural education has almost always been associated with schooling. This erroneous equating of schooling and education inclines us to minimize the enormous impact our families, churches, industry, mass media, and other institutions outside of the school have on the development of the young. Further ... if we attempt to change people's fundamental attitudes toward others and increase social justice by merely changing our schools, we are likely to disregard the larger sociopolitical and economic context of formal education (pp. 113-114).

The fact that the concepts of education and schooling are distinctive but interrelated helps us to understand how societal values and social policies influence decisions regarding what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach children. Congruent with our sociocultural perspective, the interaction between education and schooling reflects the reciprocal influences among various ecological systems. This interaction is congruent with the principle that curriculum is derived from many sources: knowledge of child development, characteristics of individual children, the knowledge base of various disciplines, the values of our cultures, and the society's notions of what it is important for children to know in order to function competently (Spodek, 1988). This systemic conceptualization of the curriculum is inherent in our proposed sociocultural, or socioecological, framework of multicultural education.

This conceptualization of multicultural education complements Giroux's (1991) suggested relationship between culture and schooling:

A more critical understanding of the relationship between culture and schooling would start with a definition of culture as a set of activities by which different groups produce collective memories, knowledge, social relationships, and values within historically controlled relations of power. Culture is about the production and legitimization of particular ways of life, and schools often transmit a culture that is specific to class, gender, and race (p.50).

Our proposed sociocultural framework of multicultural education takes into account the manner in which social and political values and policies define the school environment. For, as Giroux (1988, p.7) notes, "from its inception the American public school system was intended to be a vehicle of social change. Political, economic and social factors have impinged on the structure and curriculum of the school system throughout history. " To examine schooling, according to Roman and Apple (1990, p.41), is "to see schools as places that were and are formed out of cultural, political, and economic conflicts and compromises." Historically, mandated policies, such as school desegregation and mainstreaming, have changed the school's social environment. These policies have resulted in increasing diversity in schools. However, such policies have not been very effective in promoting multiculturalism. This is an issue of concern, for as stated earlier, crucial to education in a democracy is the incorporation of curriculum and teaching practices that acknowledge, respect, and support individual and cultural diversity and similarity. In this form of education, potential conflicts between parents, the community, and the school concerning values and priorities are recognized.

It has been suggested that the professional expertise of educators should have its place in decision-making regarding curriculum and practice (Katz, 1989). In our proposed framework, educators make decisions regarding curriculum and practice based on expert knowledge about what, when, and how to teach particular content and taking into account the cultural values and interests of parents and communities (NAEYC, 1991).

As has been noted, an educational approach that subscribes to multiculturalism involves sharing of power. Parents can help build a connection between home and school, while teachers are empowered to be thinkers and decision makers. Ultimately, children's learning potential will be optimized, for teaching and learning will occur in contexts in which teachers assist and guide children's efforts to acquire knowledge, skills, dispositions, and feelings toward learning in a manner that is meaningful and relevant to the children (Katz, 1985; 1989).

We need to be cognizant of the historical, social, and political context of diversity in America. This knowledge will enhance multiculturalism in our interactions with diverse groups in many contexts.

Proposed Conceptual Framework

The sociocultural framework proposed in this paper for use in exploring multiculturalism and implementing multicultural education is based on theoretical assumptions underlying: (1) Bronfenbrenner's ecology of human development; (2) Vygotsky's sociocultural contexts of human development; and (3) the feminist perspective of valuing personal experience as a source of knowledge, and as a means of obtaining insight about the connection between the personal and the political systems. These three systemic theories complement each other. They promote a constructivist view of development by focusing on the contexts in which development occurs and the interactions between systems.

Bronfenbrenner's and Vygotsky's theories focus on the socioecological and sociocultural context of development. Bronfenbrenner's theory focuses on the mutual accommodation between the developing individual and the environment. Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development emphasizes that human development is inseparable from social and cultural activities. It is both a theory of education and a theory of cultural transmission. According to Bruner (1987, pp. 1-2), "education implies for Vygotsky not only the development of individual potential, but the historical expression and growth of human culture from which man springs." Vygotsky's theory provides concepts of socialization that have particular meaning to instruction, namely, his concepts of intersubjectivity and the zone of proximal development.

Because the feminist perspective values personal experience as a source of knowledge and insight about the connection between the personal and the political systems, it provides the practitioner with a language of critique to analyze the ways in which differences within and between social or cultural groups are constructed and sustained in various contexts. Both in terms of pedagogy and politics, the notion of democracy is central to such an analysis (Giroux, 1991; Welsh 1991).

Taken together, these three perspectives provide an integrative framework for organizing multicultural practice in pedagogy. The sociocultural perspective we are proposing can be used to critique the relevance of competing cultural ideologies on the developing individual. For example, it can be used to examine school curriculum, practice, and policies; interpret research findings, and social, political and historical events; and construct prevention and intervention strategies. In this perspective, the ideologies of American democracy would be used as a shared assumption (which is reflected in the macrosystem) about how multicultural education could be implemented.

Bronfenbrenner and the Ecology of Human Development

Bronfenbrenner's (1979, 1986) writings on the ecological approach to human development define the interaction between an individual and the social and physical environment. Bronfenbrenner focuses on the developing individual who actively interacts with the environment in a process of mutual accommodation. The environment, according to Bronfenbrenner, is composed of four interlocking structural contexts or settings. The ecological environment includes the most immediate settings (home, school, work) in which an individual functions daily, and the interaction between these immediate settings and larger social settings (formal and informal social institutions), including the values and ideologies of a particular culture or subculture. Bronfenbrenner also defines the four interlocking structural levels of the ecological environment. In brief, these are:

(1) The Microsystems. These are the most immediate contexts in which the developing individual interacts with people. The relationships between a child and family members in the home, and the relationships between a child and teachers or peers in the school, are examples of microsystems.

(2) The mesosystems. These are relationships between the various contexts in which development takes place. For example, the relationship between a child's home and school is a mesosystem.

(3) The exosystems. These are the contexts or situations that influence an individual's development, but in which the individual does not directly participate. The exosystem includes the parent's workplace and the formal and informal social and political institutions that make decisions that affect the child's life.

Decisions and interactions made in the exosystems may affect multicultural education in the schools. For example, school boards that mandate the implementation of particular curriculum or teaching practices regardless of their appropriateness are under-mining the teacher's role as thinker and decision maker. These decisions may lead to teaching practices that do not challenge children to think, explore, and question, and do not foster a child-centered, constructivist perspective on teaching and learning that takes into account individual and cultural differences and promotes multiculturalism in a democracy.

(4) The macrosystems. These consist of cultural or subcultural values, beliefs, and ideologies that influence the interactions within and between meso- and exosystems. Bronfenbrenner (1979) conceives of macrosystems as blueprints of the ecology of human development:

The macrosystem refers to consistencies, in the form and content of lower-order systems (the micro-, meso-, and exosystems) that exist, or could exist, at the level of subculture or the culture as a whole, along with any belief systems or ideology underlying such consistencies (p.26).

Hence, the macrosystem reflects a shared assumption, among people, of "how things could be done" (Garbarino, 1982, p-24). Pluralism is relevant in this respect, because culture is made up of a diversity of traditions.

Bronfenbrenner (1979) recognizes that these blueprints may be in error and need to be evaluated and criticized in terms of whether they promote or impede human development. Thus, the ecology of human development has a function in promoting and evaluating social policy. History repeatedly shows that the macrosystem can and will change. We propose that multicultural education and research can bring about changes in practices and policies in schools and other institutions.

Vygotsky's Sociocultural Context of Development

Vygotsky's sociocultural context of development complements Bronfenbrenner's ecology of human development. Vygotsky's theory has direct implications for multicultural education. We recognize that the constructivist perspectives of both Piaget and Vygotsky contribute to our knowledge of how children learn (education) and of how and what to teach (schooling) from a sociocultural perspective. Both theories emphasize that children construct their own knowledge, and that development is influenced by social interaction.

Central to Vygotsky's (1978) theory is the notion that human development is inseparable from social and cultural activities. According to Vygotsky, children's development of higher mental processes involves learning to use the inventions of society, that is, the tools of culture, such as language and mathematics, through the assistance and guidance of other people who are more skilled in the use of these tools (Rogoff and Morelli, 1989). Thus, Vygotsky suggests that while children actively construct an understanding of their own world, they also benefit from guided interactions with more skilled partners, be they adults or peers. In other words, children learn through scaffolding, Vygotsky's term for assisted interaction or guided participation (Rogoff, 1986, 1990). This interaction is a means by which children become enculturated in the use of the intellectual tools of their society, such as language. Social encounters in a variety of contexts lead to understanding and self-regulation (Stremmel, Fu, and Stone, I 99 1).

Vygotsky (1978) referred to the range between what children can do when they function on their own and what they can achieve with assistance, or scaffolding, as the "zone of proximal development." With the assistance of adults and more competent peers, children acquire knowledge and skills and learn ways to solve problems: first, with support and guidance, and later, independently. Rogoff and Gardner (1984) proposed that the learning of culturally defined goals is achieved through such a transfer of responsibility.

As pointed out by Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman (1990), "Current concepts of cognitive development--the 'zone of proximal development' (Vygotsky) and 'cognitive conflict' (Piaget)--imply that children whose knowledge or ability are similar but not identical stimulate each other's thinking and cognitive growth" (p. v.). This is a description of a process of learning and interacting embedded in the notion of intersubjectivity: the process of coordinating perspectives by sharing a purpose and making sensitive adjustments to each other during interpersonal activities (Trevarthan, 1980). In our opinion, this concept is essential to teaching in a culturally diverse society.

The Feminist Perspective on Multiculturalism

In the feminist perspective, personal experience and values are acknowledged, understood, learned, and made meaningful in the joint process of constructing individual cultural selves that exist in relation to one another. The feminist perspective incorporates the belief that valuing and encouraging flexibility and difference within the self will allow for more flexible interactions across individuals.


It is our hope that our conceptual framework can be used as a vehicle to generate interest in further exploration of multiculturalism and in the implementation of culturally relevant practices in schools and other social institutions. We also hope that the proposed framework and the mode of language implied by it will enable teachers, parents, researchers, policymakers, and others to examine in a critical manner the assumptions embedded in multiculturalism. Finally, we hope that with the collective knowledge gained from research and practice, our commitment to multiculturalism will make a difference in our interactions across systems.


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