James Cook University

School of Education



Education and cultural diversity:

Culture and identity in educational contexts:

Critique and reflection

The material on these pages has been prepared to supplement lectures, tutorials and readings for students enrolled at James Cook University in ED1451: Education and cultural diversity.

Note: following are lecture notes, designed to be delivered orally. They are put on the web to assist you but please remember they are not academic papers designed to be published and so do not provide you with a model for academic writing.


Culture and identity in educational contexts: Critique and reflection


In module 3, we will look at why children from some cultural groups do not benefit from the education that our schools offer -what barriers exist for children who come to school from a range of cultural backgrounds previously under-represented in school curriculum and practices. To understand these barriers we need to understand and make use of concepts of culture, identity and racism.

Purpose of lectures in week 7:

Note: While teachers often work uncritically to reproduce disadvantage, we also need to acknowledge that teachers are also among the main actors in working to make schools more equitable. So while these lectures are critical of some of the practices of teachers, it is important to acknowledge that teachers have also worked to improve educational outcomes for students from non-English speaking background and Indigenous students.

There is ample evidence to show that some cultural groups are disadvantaged in Australian schools. This disadvantage can be:

The big question that we are concerned with is:

HOW COME STUDENTS FROM SOME CULTURAL GROUPS END UP BEING EDUCATIONALLY DISADVANTAGED IN OUR SCHOOLS - but as we start exploring this question we might need to change focus - in light with critical theory, we can't answer that question without also considering what's going on in the wider structures of society.

Now we have to start looking at classrooms and think of how it is that kids from some cultural minorities end up disadvantaged within the education system. What actually happens that ends up turning cultural diversity into educational disadvantage. Here we need to look both in classrooms and also in the relationship between schools and the wider society.

When we look into classrooms, we need to remember that we will be looking through specific ideological frameworks. If we walk into a classroom and we see that the there is a group of children coming from one particular cultural group who are performing at a level below the rest of the class, we could observe what was happening to these children through a series of ideological frameworks, such as genetic determinism or individualism, and come up with a variety of different explanations for why the children weren't achieving academically. These ideological frameworks are expressed through different explanatory discourses.

I'm going to look at four explanatory discourses:

and then challenge them so you need to keep with me to the end in terms of the argument I'm making. I also want to emphasise that while the order in which I'm talking about these as they reflect changing policy, old explanations don't go away. People, including teachers, hold contradictory ideologies including discourses of coping in classrooms and so old stories are still circulating.

When I am talking about these barriers, discourses, and responses, you will find that we need to talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education somewhat separately from education for kids from other non English speaking backgrounds. This reflects educational history because what we find is that the two areas have come to different government areas. During the period of assimilation, education was almost exclusively a state issue, However, it was mission and state departments of Aboriginal affairs who controlled education in Indigenous communities. Some change started in the 60s with the referendum in 1967 which gave the Federal government permission to legislate on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and in the 70s with the Federal government taking a greater role in education than previously, but initiatives in education for non-English speaking Australians came through immigration departments and for Indigenous people from DAA. - separate bureaucracies, separate treatment although they were working in similar explanatory discourses.


According to the policy of assimilation, children from minority groups were expected to be the same as Anglo-Australian students. As everybody received the same education, there was no problem to explain. Differences in educational achievement where seen as a result of differences in individual abilities.

Policy Response to discourses of assimilation

If everyone got the same education, then if children from non English speaking background failed, it showed the superiority of English speakers. Therefore, what people needed to do was forget their own cultural background and become exactly like English-speaking Australians. However, we also need to remember that when assimilation was official policy, Australia needed unskilled labour. Students didn't do well at school could be absorbed into unskilled jobs and so educational disadvantage was not recognised as a major problem for the wider society.


People started to argue that there was a problem if children from some groups failed more than children from others. While the idea of assimilation was that children would be treated "all the same", there was evidence that they weren't. For example, Qld schools in Aboriginal communities only went up to grade 4 . Aboriginal children could be excluded from schools in towns if other parents requested it. Teachers also recognised that children who came from non English speaking background could not gain access to the same education as other students until their language needs were met.

Despite challenge, there are still some in the community who believe that schools should not do anything "special" to assist students from non English speaking or Indigenous backgrounds. However the vast majority of teachers recognise the value of programs that will help them meet the various needs of the children they teach.


Cultural deficit discourses developed in the 1960s as a direct response to the growing civil rights movement in the United States. They recognised that there was a problem if children from some cultural groups continually failed to achieve at schools and sought ways to overcome this. They focused mainly on non-immigrant minorities, such as Indigenous groups and African Americans. Rather than say that there was something wrong with the child, these discourses saw the problem as coming from the children's home cultures which were seen as being "intellectually impoverished", because they had few books, used non standard Englishes and lacked expensive toys. For example, in the United States, Bereiter and Engelmann (1966) argued that minority children, while having sufficient language development for maintaining social relationships and meeting social and material needs, did not learn to use language for obtaining and transmitting information, monitoring their own behaviour, or verbal reasoning. They further argued that these purported deficiencies meant that these children failed to master the cognitive uses of language. The claims made by Bereiter and Engelmann formed the base of work undertaken with Aboriginal children in the late 1960s by Nurcombe and Moffit (1970) and Teasdale and Katz (1968). In Queensland, the Department of Education undertook a research study comparing the language competencies of Aboriginal children in two Aboriginal communities, Palm Island and Cherbourg, with middle class white children in Brisbane. This study concluded that

the Aboriginal child by the age of five years acquired a restricted code of English which, although fulfilling his requirements in his own environment, is not regarded as acceptable in the white community. Moreover, this restricted code is often at variance with the elaborated code which forms the basis of instruction and the medium of secondary (written) language. (Department of Education, Queensland, Bernard Van Leer Project 1970, p.5)

Response to cultural deficit discourses

The educational response to cultural deficit discourses was to try and get the children early and "compensate" for their poor home conditions. This is most dramatically seen in the reasoning behind the continuation of the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. However, possibly the most significant educational development based on cultural deficit was the "Kindergarten Headstart" movement in the United States (and Sesame Street) and its influence on policy in Australia. During the 1960s, early education centres were introduced in a range of Aboriginal communities and inner city areas. Remedial teachers, ESL teachers speech therapists were employed in schools. At this time, a particular emphasis was on bringing parents into the school so they could be "trained" to be more like middle class white parents, on teaching standard English using a skills based approach and on parent and community involvement.

Challenges to cultural deficit discourses

Challenges to theories of cultural deficit were based on a recognition of the racism and ethnocentrism inherent in them. Families refused to accept the denigration of their languages and cultures and asserted "cultural pride"

Here some educational researchers played an important roles in supporting minority groups by providing research evidence of the competence of children in other contexts and in establishing the validity of non standard forms of language. Increased research in language acquisition also confirmed the value of being bilingual. Another interesting factor in challenging discourses of cultural deficit came from the involvement of parents and community members in the programs. This involvement often provided people with the information and confidence they needed to challenge the cultural racism implicit in these programs.

Now while cultural deficit theories have been rejected at an official level, it still a very seductive discourse for teachers to draw on because it puts the blame on the children's family rather than the school, what is frequently referred to as "blaming the victim". The problem is seen as in the culture of the child rather than the practices of the school..

In some of the research I have been doing, teachers will frequently "slip" into a discourse of cultural deficit when talking about students. One frequent example is when teachers will "blame" the poor literacy standards of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students on the belief that the students come from an "oral culture" rather than on inappropriate and inadequate literacy teaching. (see Malin).

Discourses of cultural deficit started to fade officially in the 1970s to be replaced by a less ethnocentric notion, that of cultural difference.


Discourses of cultural deficit were officially replaced by discourses of cultural difference in the 1970s as policies of multiculturalism were supported by government. The theory of cultural difference recognised the validity of the children's home cultures and languages but argued that the educational difficulties experienced by minority groups could be explained in terms of a mismatch between the cultural background of the children and the cultural expectations of the school.

Let's take the issue of language differences for Indigenous Australians as an example. Some researchers and educators have worked to explore the specific nature of differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and dialects and Standard Australian English. Shnukal (1984) lists phonological, morphological, and syntactic forms of Torres Strait Creole that might be interpreted as non standard forms of Standard Australia English. Others have focused on sociolinguistic differences. Malcolm (1982), using discourse analysis in classrooms, argued that the significant language differences between Aboriginal children and their teachers were "not at the dialect level but at the level of terms and conditions for speech use". Malcolm's work specifically exposed differing expectations about the role and purpose of questioning in the classroom. Eades describes differences in ways of speaking between middle class white Australians and Aboriginal people in South East Queensland involving information exchange.

The reading by Malin also provides evidence of differences between home cultures of specific Aboriginal groups and school cultures. If you have completed the Language and education subject in this course, you will also remember Elsey, the Torres Strait Islander girl in the reading by Kale and Luke (1991)

These studies do have their critics, but they do provide evidence of the nature and the extent of differences between the culture of educational institutions and the families they serve, and so provide really important understandings for educators from dominant groups.

Responses to cultural difference discourses

We can set theories of cultural difference in the wider context. In Australia, a change of federal government in 1972 brought about an official change of policy in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs from assimilation/ integration to one of self determination (House of Representatives Select Committee on Aboriginal Education, 1985, pp. 27-28) and multiculturalism. Self determination which recognised the validity of Aboriginal and culture, was ideologically compatible with educational programs based on cultural and linguistic deficit as explanations for Aboriginal school failure. Similarly, multicultural policies were being advocated and developed. They too focused on the validity of "ethnic cultures" - ie cultures different from the assumed culture of dominant groups. At the same time, there was a dramatic increase in educational programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and in funding for multicultural education (and other) people funded by the Commonwealth. (Disadvantaged Schools Program.)

Discourses of cultural difference encouraged people working in programs based on cultural deficit to re-think the place of the children's home cultures in educational settings (as is evident in Sesame Street today). Respecting and using the home culture of the children was now seen as important and also complemented other child centred discourses that focused on "starting with the child". The inclusion of parents and community members in programs continued to be seen as important, but in discourses of cultural difference, the expertise of these people in their own cultures was valued as a resource that would benefit the work of educators. The employment of Community Education Counsellors in secondary schools is an example of this that many of you will be familiar with. Other policies have included the need for cultural awareness programs for educators, the incorporation of aspects of the students' culture in the school environment such as murals and posters on the walls, celebrations like NAIDOC week. In terms of curriculum, teachers were encouraged to include the cultures of their students in their curriculum and cater fro their diverse learning styles. In some areas bilingual programs were introduced

Challenges to cultural difference discourses.

While discourses of cultural difference remain dominant in education for cultural diversity, they have been challenged in several ways.

First, they fail to account for the comparative educational success of some minority groups from non-English speaking backgrounds. For example, based on Australian census statistics, Hugo (1987) isolated wide variations in the proportion of second generation minority ethnic group members with diplomas or more. Asians (14%) and Poles (13.3%) were above the 7.8% average of the second generation Australian born population while Maltese (2.3%) and Italians (5.3%) were below. Horvath (1986) analysed class placement in streamed schools in New South Wales and showed that the representation of some groups such as children of Greek background was better than average while others such as Aboriginal, Maltese, and Lebanese were significantly worse. Also there are differences in performances of "Asians" as a group - often above average in a group that came to Australia as migrants but below average if a refugee, reflecting people's circumstances of arrival and subsequent impact on identity.

Second, it does not explain why some minority groups perform poorly in one country and can be quite successful in another. For example, Finns in Sweden perform poorly academically whereas in Australia they are reported to be doing well in school (Skutnabb-Kangas & Toukomaa, 1976). Similarly Koreans in Japan perform poorly and the US they perform well.

The third challenge comes from those interested in poststructural, postmodern, post colonial, feminist and critical approaches to education (Walton, 1993). These critical theorists argue that discourses of cultural differences are embedded in an essentialist approach to culture as a set of practices "frozen, as if in a museum, and thus rendered outside of the forces of history, politics and power" (Nicholls, Crowley and Watt, 1996. p. 7). Similarly they warn of the reliance on unified cultural identities and the implications of a lack of recognition of class, race, and gender dimensions in groups described as "ethnic" or "Aboriginal". This essentialist approach to culture can work to perpetuate stereotypes of students and the nature of culture by presenting minority cultures in reductive and static ways. For example, studies of Aboriginal children based in Darwin are assumed useful for other teachers because of "cultural continuities between different groups of Aboriginal people" (Harris and Malin, 1994, p. v). In addition, this inadequate understanding of culture confines culture to something that "the other" has and so confines multicultural education and Indigenous education to those groups,

This inadequate understanding of culture is also evident in the failure of discourses of cultural difference to account for the school as part of kids' culture - as part of the problems they need to solve. For all children, the culture of the classroom will be different from their home cultures and all children will need to learn new rules. Homes are generally not characterised by 25 kids and one adult and so all children will need to learn new practices. Why do some differences make this more problematic than others. One way of considering this is that children from different cultural groups are faced with different problems as they deal with school - what we see at school is not so much a reflection of their home culture but a shared way of dealing with different problems. (See lecture notes on Schooling and resistance: responses to schooling)

Teaching practices based on cultural differences without concern for broader social contexts can also work to perpetuate educational disadvantage. Walton (1993, p. 116) notes that the idea of Aboriginal learning styles has been used to "justify some quite alarming pedagogical practices", including the continued use of repetitive, non-demanding busy work in both primary and secondary schools. Poynting and Noble (1995/1996) examined how beliefs about the learning styles of children from different cultural groups were combined with the concept of multiple intelligences in ways that ensured that some students did not gain access to the valued knowledges necessary for academic success.

Thus, explanatory discourses of cultural difference are inadequate explanations for the underachievement of students from some cultural groups because they fail to recognise the reality of disadvantage, in terms of different power relationships, experiences of racism and socioeconomic status.

These critiques of discourses of cultural difference lead to an altercative discourse based on structural disadvantage.


To explore how cultural and linguistic differences end up being disadvantages for specific minority groups, such differences need to be explored in their social, economic, political, and historical context. Cultural and linguistic differences without this context can be seen simply as cases of miscommunication. Instead, cultural and linguistic differences need to be observed as reflecting and reproducing structural relationships and patterns of inequality (Kalantzis, Cope, & Slade, 1989, p. 88) and explored in terms of the schools' continued role as sites for the reproduction of such relationships and inequities within western societies.

Rather we need to consider the question:

what role do schools play in reflecting and reproducing structural relationships and patterns of inequality.

Here we need to recognise some of the contradictions within our schooling system. While we are striving for equity we are also working to stratify people within an unequal society.

Let's consider this by starting with the notion of symbolic violence discussed by Jones and based on the work of Bourdieu. Symbolic violence is the term Bourdieu uses to describe how particular classes exert their power over other groups without the use of physical force. Symbolic violence is inflicted on subordinate groups when dominant groups make publicly valuable only their own cultural forms.

Now we need to see that in terms of a stratified society. .

Not only is our society stratified but the economy requires it to be:

  1. Some groups have greater access to material goods and power than others - particularly the power to control the production and distribution of services
  2. Our economy requires a stratified work force - this leads to stratified experiences.

Within a so called democratic egalitarian society such as Australia, how do we not only end up with a stratified society but how do we come to see that as OK Here schools play an important role in reproducing a stratified society, through processes of allocation, legitimation and stratification of knowledge.

Allocation - sorting people into classes by:

Legitimation - justifying sorting into classes.

An important part of this process is the "engineering of consent" in that people come to believe that schools are fair and equitable so that their sorting processes and their consequences are consented to. In the Jones reading, we can ask how did the Pacific Islander girls come to accept that they were the "problem" but more particularly how did the Pakeha girls see their success as justified. How do we come to accept that we deserve our positions in society based on our educational success or otherwise. It is sometimes difficult for people from dominant groups to recognise the problems that others face at school because school feels fair to them. this doesn't mean that these students did not work hard to achieve their school success but they may not see the barriers that prevented other people getting similar outcomes from the same amount of work.

Now most people don't enter the profession in order to stratify kids and there is a tension based on legitimacy. Schools might play a role in justifying this stratification but that stratification only retains its legitimacy if it is seen as fair. Finding evidence of inequities in schools challenges this legitimacy and so provides the space for change. Teachers are often at the forefront of recognising and working to increase equity in schools

But that still doesn't fully explain how the role that cultural differences play in this process of allocation and legitimation. Schools may play a role in stratifying our society, but how do they contribute to reproducing existing inequities. While this is a complex process, we can look at how schools distribute the sorts of knowledge and skills that lead to educational success and access to power.

Do schools distribute knowledge and skills to all children equitably?

What role does cultural difference play in this?

Let's look at some examples to show how schools can distribute knowledge and skills inequitably to racial and ethnic minorities at the system level, the school level and the classroom level.

Example 1

For much of the last 200 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were excluded from state schools.

Example 2

Despite the extensive immigration programs of the 1950s and 1960s, few migrant children had any access to special English-as-a-second-language programs until the 1970s (Cope and Poynting, 1989).

Example 3

Within state school systems, it is difficult to get experienced teachers to stay for extended periods in schools in isolated areas (such as Aboriginal schools) or schools in some urban areas where there are high concentrations of students from non English speaking backgrounds. One reason for this is because there are not many teachers who come from these areas. This means that students in those schools will not receive the same quality of teaching as others.

Example 4

The lower participation and retention rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in schools will limit their opportunities to gain access to appropriate school knowledge and skills.

Even in the same school and the classroom, children can have different access to important school knowledge and skills. The following examples come from specific research projects.

Example 5

A study was carried out on the classroom writing of children in the Northern Territory. It found that the texts produced by Aboriginal children were nearly all recounts. Recount writing is not a powerful genre in western schools and these Aboriginal children were not getting access to the important genres that they needed to master for future learning in schools (Walton, 1992).

Example 6

Inadequate opportunities for students from non-English speaking background to develop their skills in school English limits their access to school knowledge and skills (Henry & Edwards, 1986). Research consistently shows that strategies such as streaming and ability grouping lead to children from racial and ethnic minorities receiving less access to important knowledge and skills.

Example 7

Research has shown that children put into low-ability reading groups actually get less reading instruction and more behaviour control than their peers in high-ability reading groups who get less behaviour control and more reading instruction. Other evidence suggests minority group children over-represented in these groups

Example 8

Children from non-English speaking background are frequently streamed into selecting subjects which give then less access Students from non-English speaking Students from non-English Students from non English speaking backgrounds are often encouraged to do school subjects that give them less access to the knowledge and skills which will lead them into, for example, university study (Kalantzis, Cope, Noble, & Poynting, 1990). Often their parents will not have the confidence or language to question this selection of subjects.

Example 9

In the reading by Jones (1991), Pacific Islander girls in streamed classes received less of the sort of questions that they In the In the study by Jones the Pacific Islander girls In the study by Jones, In the Jones reading, Pacific Islander girls were not taught to question school knowledge in the ways in which they needed to develop the skills necessary to do well in important exams.

Example 10

Your reading by Poynting and Noble (1995-1996) shows how a new innovation in teaching lead to students from some cultural groups being denied opportunities to develop the sort of skills and knowledge that are going to give them access to higher eduction or jobs or some of the other sorts of knowledge that we need to cope in society today, such as making consumer choices.

Example 11

In some contexts, "poor literacy" can work as a code term for racism. If children's levels of literacy are below the expected level for the class, then the teachers tend to focus on lack of literacy in the kid's home environment particularly the language environment, rather than see the problem in terms of inadequate or inappropriate reading instruction. They also then provide the students with low level activities that confirm their expectations of the students. Part of the reason for this is that many taken-for-granted teaching strategies rely on literacy- but teachers need to develop strategies that teach kids the literacy skills they need and at the same time provide activities that do challenge the kids intellectually.

All these examples show ways in which some racial and ethnic minority groups fail to receive an equitable education because they are DENIED access to powerful school knowledge and skills. This means they do not get an education equitable to other groups As teachers we need to be vigilant in examining teaching practices to ensure that such limits are not operating in our classrooms and take steps to ensure that all students have appropriate access to equitable education.

Policy responses to discourses structural disadvantage:

Given the inequity within both schools and society, policies based on discourses of structural disadvantage focus on egalitarian social justice in terms of both allocation of resources and curriculum. An important aspect of a curriculum responding to issues of structural disadvantage is the principle that all students should developing a critical understanding of society, based on an inclusive curriculum. Cultural diversity remains an important pedagogical issue.


THESE RESPONSES WILL BE FOLLOWED UP IN THE NEXT MODULE when we look at good educational practice in a culturally diverse society.



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Education and cultural diversity
Helen McDonald
School of Education
James Cook University,
Townsville, Qld, Australia 4811
Telephone: 07 47814681 (international: 617 47814681