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Towards the Interculturally Proactive School

Anne Hickling Hudson
Dr Hickling Hudson is a lecturer in the Centre for Innovation in Education at Queensland University of Technology, and the President of the World Congress of Comparative Education, which will host its twelfth Congress in Havana, Cuba, between 25-29 October 2004.

Theoretical Context

Whatever the ethnic profile of a school, there is an official requirement in Australia that the curriculum should be multicultural, to prepare students for living in a multicultural society and a globalising world. The Australian Federal government has identified specific dimensions of multicultural policy, and education is expected to help students develop all of these. They include civic duty (the obligation to support the Australian constitution and democratic institutions), cultural respect, social equity and 'productive diversity', the maximising of the cultural and socio-economic benefits which arise from the diversity of the population (National Multicultural Advisory Council, 1999, pp. 9-10).

As a field, multicultural education can be improved when it becomes broadened by specific postcolonial perspectives. Multicultural pedagogies informed by postcolonialism can fashion intellectual and attitudinal tools to help redress the cultural inequities that deepen social injustices.

Postcolonial theory provides a framework which addresses questions of why so many curriculum practices appear still so far away from reaching or even recognising the goals of socio-cultural equity. While other perspectives also challenge oppressive traditions, postcolonial theory systematises the challenge in a framework that takes into account the strength of neo-colonial formations. It gives us a hybrid conceptual language, drawing on discourse theory as well as vocabularies of social justice, for analysing the ambiguities and ambivalence of change, recognising the epistemologies which underlie our practices. 'Postcolonialising' involves us in developing identities and strategies that help to leave constricting neo-colonial ideas and practices behind. Postcolonial teaching, therefore, should involve helping students to identify and critique the different 'regimes of truth' that characterise our social arrangements, and to build positive identities that move easily between the local and the global.

In most societies, schooling is very deeply influenced by contesting discourses of cultural diversity, which embody both neo-colonial and decolonising histories. We can consider these discourses as sites of interrogation in schooling in Australia, as an example of a society which is multicultural but predominantly 'white'. These discourses are inherent in school cultures, which can be examined in terms of their development along a continuum. At one end of the continuum is the culturally problematic school - one in which there is a predominance of unexamined practices of ethnocentrism and racism which cause problems in the school community. Schools, however, are continually absorbing changes in their cultural policies. Negotiating these changes within a postcolonial framework can move them further along the continuum towards culturally progressive academic and social practices, characterising what may be called the interculturally proactive school.

The Interculturally proactive school

An 'interculturally proactive' school is one in which most teachers are constantly active in designing and implementing programs and strategies to promote intercultural understanding and inter-relationships. It would be one in which teachers are assisted to develop their intercultural skills through professional development programs, which is very important since many teachers have received no suitable preparation in their degree programs.

Strategies of successful intercultural schools would include community liaison, critical socio-cultural study within the curriculum, and education in diverse home languages. In an example of community liaison developed by an ethnically diverse Catholic girl's school in Sydney, in which ninety percent of students were of non-English speaking backgrounds, language-specific meetings between parents and teachers, aided by translators, were held both in parental homes and at the school. These meetings proved to be a very valuable means of parent-teacher dialogue. What was outstanding about the initiative was its success in changing the process from one exhorting 'cultural sensitivity', which bids teachers to be 'aware' of ethnic minority needs, to one incorporating a more equitable, dialogic intercultural communication in which parents from a non-English speaking background have a voice (Noble and Poynting 1999:73-75, citing research carried out by Kalantzis et al 1990).

Critical socio-cultural study within the curriculum is illustrated by The Social Literacy Project, an inter-disciplinary curriculum developed as a way of challenging the inadequate approach of schools which incorrectly believe they are promoting multicultural education by having 'multicultural days' which celebrate exotic food, dance and costume. The Social Literacy Project, implemented in some schools in New South Wales, helped students to examine the structures and meanings of Western society. Further, 'in drawing on Western as well as non- Western societies, Social Literacy embraces a fuller sense of diversity than mere celebration of difference allows, because it embraces a critical understanding' (Noble and Poynting 1999, pp. 76-77).

Promoting learning through community language programs is the strategy emphasised in some schools. For example, the Tempe High School, a State high school in Sydney, hired teachers to teach in at least six of the languages of the students - Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Creek, Italian and French. Students studied their home languages, literature and history, and they also studied the Anglo-Australian curriculum, assisted by teachers who could explain it to them in their home languages. Before this experiment, most students had been failing State tests and examinations, but after a few years of the program, student performance met and in some cases exceeded the State average (Cockburn 1994).

The Postcolonial Turn

The Australian Government supports the goals of multicultural education with programs of financial assistance for the special needs of cultural minorities, and curriculum development advice. This is sound policy, but at the same time, we need to ask: is transformation into an intercultural school enough? From a postcolonial perspective I argue that even if an intercultural philosophy is embedded in the school culture, the school might still be operating in a constrained way that limits the intelligence and creativity of students with subject-divided timetables, rigid age grading, gender divisions and other hierarchies. A postcolonial view of the school as it currently exists would see it as an outdated European institution in many ways, including the way in which it promotes a curriculum steeped in the ethnocentric assumption that only Western knowledge counts. It would recognise that the postmodern era is making this traditional education system obsolete and old educational institutions dysfunctional, as Aviram (1996) argues.

New Curriculum Models

Flowing out of the postcolonial critique of schooling is the question: how can teachers move schools out of their Eurocentric mould and into a more equitable and challenging paradigm?

In Queensland, a new program of curriculum reform aims to restructure the curriculum around four new interdisciplinary areas of learning: life pathways and social futures; multiliteracies, numeracies and communications media; active citizenship; and environments and technologies (Luke 1999). It has three aspects: 'New Basics' (what is taught), 'Productive Pedagogies' (how it is taught) and 'Rich Tasks' (how kids show it) (see Education Queensland 2002). Teachers seeking to adopt this 'Productive Pedagogies' model can turn for practical guidance and ideas to the Classroom Reflection Manual developed by Education Queensland's Curriculum Implementation Unit (2002). However, the manual provides only five examples of specifically intercultural practice out of twenty-four examples in all. Since many teachers need a lot of help in developing intercultural knowledge, the manual could have taken a more proactive approach by discussing how all of the examples of good practice could be taught interculturally. Yet, elements of the New Basics model have the potential of taking the education system in a postcolonial direction which promotes global understanding and orientations. This is particularly true of those 'Rich Tasks' engaged in by students which would be likely to stimulate deep intercultural engagement and learning.

Australian Aboriginal epistemology provides important guidelines for educators as they struggle with the realisation of the unsuitability of Eurocentric education, and seek to reframe it. Educational knowledge can be unsettled and stretched by Indigenous ways of thinking which challenge not only the curriculum, but the very shape and nature of the school. An example of this is given by Michael Christie in an article entitled 'Galtha: the application of Aboriginal philosophy to school learning' (Christie 2000). In Christie's long years of work as an educator in the Northern Territory, he gradually came to understand the deep changes in teaching and learning that started to flow when Yolgnu educators applied Aboriginal philosophy to restructure schooling along the lines of the following principles:
Ganma. What happens in a 'both ways' learning situation (Aboriginal and Western) is to the elders akin to what they see happening in a 'Ganma', a lagoon within the mangroves where salt water coming in from the sea meets streams of fresh water coming down from the land. Each body of water has its own flows, and the lagoon is highly productive as a food source, just as each body of learning has its own logic, and their meeting is highly creative and different from the originals (Christie, 2000).
Garma. The school should be like 'Garma', a public ceremonial area for open ceremonies which everyone can participate in and enjoy. 'Educationally Garma means the open forum where people can talk and share their ideas, differences can be talked through, and everyone can work to reach agreement' (Christie, 2000, p.13).
Galtha. A place where people from different territories assemble to make important negotiations, agreements and plans, Galtha is also used as a word for the process of meeting and negotiating. So in education, Galtha is 'the nexus between plan and action, theory and practice' (Christie, 2000, p.14).


A postcolonial perspective in the educational curriculum would be both analytical and activist in challenging preconceived boundaries. It would help students to learn how to identify the prejudices, divisions and hierarchies of the colonialist /imperialist legacy and how these have come to be the foundations of the continuing and deepening inequalities in globalisation (Hickling Hudson 2002). It would encourage them to utilise and contribute to the positive trends as part of their education, for example, by becoming involved in transglobal movements or agencies that promote social justice (Hickling Hudson 1999). The examples given in this paper of community liaison, critical socio-cultural education, in-depth education in community languages and interdisciplinary 'rich tasks' represent the kinds of practices which move schools towards an interculturally proactive philosophy and action. This puts schooling on the postcolonial road. To travel further along this road, we would need to address two overarching questions. One is the question of how to reorganise the education system so that all teachers would as a matter of course incorporate these elements of high quality intercultural education in their practice. The second asks how educators could be supported to go even beyond intercultural practice to address far more difficult postcolonial challenges, such as changing the very form and nature of the traditional school.

This article is an abridged version of Multicultural Education and the Postcolonial Turn, which appeared in Policy Futures in Education, Volume 1, Number 2, 2003.


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Subject Headings

Aboriginal peoples
Education aims and objectives
Education and state
Education philosophy
Education policy
Multicultural education