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The Over and Underrepresentation in Special Education Programs (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Defining Culture

Culture is a complex concept that anthropologists and sociologists have defined in a variety of ways. Before the 1960s it was typically defined as a pattern of behavior and customs. Today it refers to the integrated patterns of human behavior that include communication styles, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions that give a group with a common heritage a sense of "peoplehood" (McIntyre, 1997).

"Most contemporary social scientists view culture as consisting primarily of the symbolic, ideational, and intangible aspects of human societies" (Banks & Banks, 1994, p. 83). Banks suggests six major elements of culture: (a) values and behavioral styles, (b) language and dialects, (c) nonverbal communication, (d) awareness (of one's cultural distinctiveness), (e) frames of reference (normative worldviews or perspectives), and (f) identification (feeling part of the cultural group).

The works of Edward T. Hall—Beyond Culture, The Silent Language, and The Hidden Dimension—are classics in the area of intercultural study and vividly describe how humans can be unknowingly influenced by their culture. People from different cultures may perceive the world differently, unaware that other perceptions are even possible. Hall (1976) argues that most of us hold unconscious assumptions about what is appropriate in terms of personal space, interpersonal relationships, time, and ways of seeking truth (for example, scientific inquiry, meditation).

Hall (1976) portrays a continuum of sociocultural tightness to distinguish among cultures. Specific cultures may be described according to where they lay on the continuum between high-context cultures at one end and low-context cultures at the other end. In low-context countries such as the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia, interpersonal communication can take the form of a verbal message, a memo, or a computer program. Meaning is gleaned from the message, and what is said is more important than who said it. High-context cultures, such as southern European, East Asian, Arab, Native American, and Mexican, and those found in portions of the rural United States, are generally the opposite. Meaning must be understood in the setting or context in which the communication occurs. For example, in the Chinese language, many words may be pronounced in several different ways, depending on the context within which they are used.

High- and low-context cultures differ along many dimensions. For example, reasoning among high-context cultures is knowledge gained through intuition, spiral logic, and contemplation. Feelings are important. In contrast, among low-context cultures, reasoning is linear and logical. Knowledge is gained through analytical reasoning (for example, the Socratic method). Words are important. Interpersonal relations also demonstrate a strong contrast. To high-context cultures, the group is paramount. Among low-context cultures, the individual is paramount (Bennett, 2003).

Cultural diversity means that significant differences exist in students' performance and interactions in broad areas such as verbal and nonverbal communication, and in orientation modes such as conceptions of time, social values, and cognitive tempo. Cultural differences in learning may be especially obvious in three areas: learning styles, communication styles, and language differences.

Minority groups are those groups that have unequal access to power. They are, for the most part, considered by the majority as inferior or less worthy of sharing power in some way (Mindel & Habenstein, 1984).

Too many widespread myths and misconceptions about multicultural education hinder the truth to be revealed, according to Banks and Banks (1994). One common misconception is that multicultural education is an entitlement program and a curriculum movement for blacks, Hispanics, poor, women, and other marginalized groups (D'Sousa, 1991; Glazer, 1997). Major researchers and theorists in multicultural education agree that is a reform movement designed to restructure educational institutions so that all students, including white, male, and middle-class students, will acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to function effectively in a diverse nation and world (Banks & Banks, 1994; Gay, 1995; Grant & Sleeter, 1997).

Winzer and Mazurek (1998) show other common misconceptions about multicultural education. Another misconception is that multicultural education is the study of cultures that are not American. The reality is that no matter when they arrive, all Americans develop and share many common values and experiences. The curriculum in multicultural education should reflect the culture of various groups as well as the shared national culture. Goals of multicultural education are erroneously thought to be implemented quickly and easily. Research, however, indicates that these goals cannot be achieved in a short time; the process is ongoing. Lastly, it is an error to believe that multicultural education is too difficult for younger children and should only be part of secondary programs. The truth is that multicultural education should begin in preschool.

Multicultural education consists of four interactive dimensions: (a) equity pedagogy, (b) curriculum reform, (c) multicultural competence, and (d) teaching toward social justice. Equity pedagogy seeks to achieve fair and equal educational opportunities for all of the nation's children, particularly minorities and the economically disadvantaged. Curriculum reform expands the curriculum from traditional course contents that are primarily mono ethnic (in the United States this means Anglo-European) to multiethnic and global perspectives. Multicultural competence is the process of becoming multicultural, whereby an individual develops competencies in multiple ways of perceiving, evaluating, believing, and doing. The focus is on understanding and learning to negotiate cultural diversity within a single nation and among nations. Teaching toward social justice involves clearing up myths and stereotypes associated with gender, different races, and ethnic groups, and stressing basic human similarities. It helps to put an end to prejudice and discrimination, and to solve basic problems of inequity (Burnette, 1998).

Today, more than 30 percent of this society's school-age children and youth are ethnic minorities. Every attempt must be made to reduce cultural conflict that may result from cultural bias. Research on the characteristics of effectively integrated schools shows that a policy consistent with integrated pluralism has the best potential for realizing good race relations, academic achievement, and personal development among students.

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