Why words are important when it comes to cultural education

Why words are important when it comes to cultural education

Intercultural education is now a mandatory part of both the Victorian and Australian Curriculum. But what do the basic concepts and terms actually mean?

Senior Monash lecturer Niranjan Casinader provides some clarity in the first of this three part series.

Cultural education in our curriculum

Cultural education is a relatively new part of school curriculum in Australia. It’s only been since 2010 that cultural education is a compulsory part of what children — from Prep to Year 10 — learn in Australian schools.

In the Australian Curriculum, it is called Intercultural Understanding ( one of the General Capabilties).

In the Victorian Curriculum, it is called Intercultural Capability.

Why do we need cultural education as a compulsory part of education?

Contrary to popular opinion, the land that we call Australia has always been culturally diverse. Learning to live in a multicultural society is therefore something that all Australians should know and understand.

  • Before 1788, 60,000 years of Indigenous existence had already seen the evolution of multiple Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures across the continent.
  • The Europeans who arrived in the 1800s did not all have exactly the same culture or attitudes to life: the English, Irish, Scottish, Germans and others all had their own layers of cultural identities
  • Chinese settlement in Australia dates back to the mid and late 19th century, following the Gold Rush.
  • It is over 60 years since migration from regions such as Southern Europe was encouraged to obtain labour to work on a number of post-World War Two national projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme.
  • It is forty years since the first Vietnamese refugees came to Australian shores following the end of the Indo-China War
  • Australia now has a population of 25 million, 25% of whom were born overseas, and  half of whom have a parent born overseas.

Each of these “waves” of migration brought people with their own unique perspectives and experiences of life: a pandora’s box of different cultures.

Making sure what words mean

Cultural education can be an awkward area to teach and learn. The subject matter is complex and if it’s over-simplified, we can fall back on stereotypes.

Adding to the difficulty, national and state-based curriculums have different approaches to how cultural education should be taught. And while they use similar terms, their words can mean different things.

On top of this, the very definition and ideas that sit under the word culture in these curriculums may not reflect the reality of how people live in our modern world.

The first step to dealing with this confusion  is make it clear what the words and definitions mean, and what impact these underlying ideas can have on educators and the way you teach.

Different definitions of cultural education

The way cultural education — and the need for it — is described is different depending on which curriculum you look at. It helps to break these approaches down a little.

In the Australian Curriculum, the educational response is couched in terms of knowledge that students need to acquire: intercultural understanding. It’s one of the general capabilities that need to be infused and taught through all learning areas. It’s not a subject in its own right.

In the Victorian Curriculum, it’s all about intercultural capability, a skill that needs to be acquired and specifically taught.

For Australian teachers, the difference between seeing cultural education as an understanding or capability is an important one.

  Australian Curriculum Victorian Curriculum
How is cultural understanding incorporated into the curriculum? Incorporated across all subjects Taught as a single subject
How well does the curriculum cover the intricacies of cultural education? Recognises complexity Overly simplified
How easy is it to incorporate cultural education into a lesson? Difficult Easy

Intercultural capability (Victorian Curriculum)

In the Victorian Curriculum, the term capability suggests a skill that can be learned in order to take action. What this means is that cultural education is not seen as general area of learning, but more of a specific skill with its own curriculum.

It is divided into two components to be taught and assessed: cultural practices and cultural diversity. With two clear elements, the planning and delivery of lessons is more straight-forward. Unfortunately, this can be seen as an over-simplification when it comes to notions of culture and cultural education.

Intercultural capability has the advantage of recognising that cultural education can be learned by anyone.  However, by using the word capability — like the term competence — the Victorian Curriculum suggests the students — and the teacher delivering the lesson — can acquire the skill by merely following a series of steps, much like obtaining a driver’s licence. It does not emphasise that effective cultural education must involve a shift in personal attitudes.

Intercultural understanding (Australian Curriculum)

The advantage of the Australian Curriculum definition of Intercultural Understanding is that it recognises the complexity of the issue. In the Australian Curriculum, intercultural understanding is expressed by nine elements of learning, divided into three categories (3 elements each).

  1. Recognising culture and developing respect
  2. Interacting and empathising with others
  3. Reflecting on intercultural experiences and taking responsibility

The paradox of the Australian Curriculum is that, while the term Intercultural Understanding recognises the intricacies surrounding culture and cultural education, its intricacy can make it more difficult to translate into educational practice.

Is the current definition of the word culture valid for the modern world

The word culture is defined in both the Victorian and Australian Curriculums in a traditional manner, in which it refers to the way of life common to a group of people.

Values and beliefs, attitudes and standards of religion and faith, and the customs that guide everyday behaviour all come under this definition,  which also includes the artefacts produced by people of that culture.

However, embedded in this definition is the more traditional assumption that a culture and the people who practise are usually geographically bound to a specific territory.

In the past, this definition could hold true. The great majority of people did not move from where they were born, and if they did, it was a permanent act of migration. Old cultural identities had to be re-configured into different ones in their new home. But things have changed.

Traditional Balinese dancers, and a young Indonesian woman using a mobile phone
Can culture be redefined in a more meaningful way for the 21st Century?

If culture is geographically centred, what happens when people move around?

In the modern world, the connections of cultural identity to a particular region can be still strong and relevant. For example, Indigenous Australians often express a deep connection to the Country of their community, whether or not they live there. It is a complex, spiritual link that goes beyond just living on that land.

But this is no longer the whole story for everyone. Many people are developing more complex cultural identities because, in today’s world, it is easier and often more affordable to people to move and live back and forth between places. Many develop cultural identities that are not connected to a particular place or set of places, but reflect their own hybrid view of the world.  This is especially so as people are now more likely to form relationships with people from a different culture.

So, maybe it is time to see culture in more than one way — perhaps as more of a mind-set or attitude to life, and not simply based on geography and/or visible differences between people

This more sophisticated definition would allow us to resist stereotyping, particularly important in the face of the recent global re-emergence of race-based politics.

If we redefine the definition of culture, what is the impact on teaching?

For teachers, the significance of this discussion about terminology is two-fold:

  1. It is important to see the debate about terminology as a reflection of the complexity of cultural issues. Educators must be careful not to oversimplify the field to the point that cultural education falls back on stereotypes of the past.
  2. Students need to be taught about the complexity of culture and cultural issues if they are to understand it or acquire an intercultural capability.

The way forward?

If culture can be redefined in a more meaningful way for the 21st Century, how does this impact the teaching of intercultural understanding or intercultural capability? There is a new approach that offers a solution: transculturalism.

It’s an approach that breaks down “us” and “them” mentalities, and may be a more appropriate way to teach students about cultural issues in Australian society, regardless of the terminology and framework used.

That will be the focus of the second part of our series.

Casinader, N. (2014). Culture, Transnational Education and Thinking: Case Studies in Global Schooling (Chap 1). Routledge: Milton Park, Abingdon

Casinader, N. (2016). A lost conduit for intercultural education: school geography and the potential for transformation in the  Australian Curriculum, Intercultural Education, 27(3), 257-273 DOI: 10.1080/14675986.2016.1150650

Casinader, N. (2016) Transnationalism in the Australian Curriculum: new horizons or destinations of the past?. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 37(3), 327-340, doi: 10.1080/01596306.2015.1023701