John, Cameron, Daisy and Susan are all names that children would be familiar with when listening to or reading stories at school. Kevin and Polly are name’s that children would be familiar with when reading word math problems at school. Contrary to belief, the Australian curriculum is heavily based around American and European culture, and stories are written from a Euro-centric or predominantly white perspective, which often lack the diversity we have across Australia. Children are taught at a young age to be mindful and respectful of the diversity we have in Australia. However, this has more likely turned into tolerance rather than respect. How are they meant to do this when they don’t understand the scope of diversity if most of what they hear and see at school are predominantly based off white culture? Not only that, how are children meant to respect themselves and assert confidence in their identity when there is little to no representation of their voices, faces and names in the content that they learn? How often do you remember reading about Harry the wizard going off to magic school, compared to hearing your teacher reading the story of Farah, a young girl going to school for the first time?

As a teacher, I believe that it is vital to educate children and bring them up to be compassionate global citizens who value the differences and similarities between communities. Intercultural competence is the ability to acknowledge, respect and understand the different world views and lifestyle needs of all cultural backgrounds. I imagine this concept being modelled and taught to children at a young age. It goes beyond that of tolerating different cultures and encapsulates the complex and multifaceted skills to deal with differences there are between cultures.

I hope you are reading this because you are interested in closing the gap of the under-representation of minority groups within school curriculums.  Achieving this is crucial for young people, especially those in their adolescence. Adolescence is the period where young people are developing attitudes towards certain groups of people, which is driven by the influence of their social context. Although social competence doesn’t mean that all behaviour should be explained with cultural factors as we do not want to create preconceptions and stereotypes to certain groups. Instead, it is teaching young people to start asking the right questions to facilitate their understanding rather than making assumptions. It is teaching them to suspend their judgements and consider alternative explanations.

 A recent study conducted by Phalet and Baysu (2020) highlights the benefits of using contextually meaningful word problems in maths to increase interest and scores of students doing math. The long-term study had teachers changing their content to include contextually relevant materials such as using real-world situations that students could relate with, understand, and apply their knowledge from home and family interactions. This method of teaching encourages children to make connections between what is being taught at school and their home life. It also creates a more positive and holistic approach to education, making learning more valuable and enjoyable for students. The study found that math scores and attendance rates increased when taught using culturally relevant materials. An interesting finding from the study implies that student’s math scores increased further when using culturally appropriate manipulatives in the classrooms. Exposing children to culturally diverse content that depicts all types of people in many contexts can make the minority communities visible in the mainstream in a positive light, and if they remain hidden and not represented as we see largely, they will remain feeling isolated.

As educators, we can strive to create an inclusive and safe environment which represents and respects the diverse culture of the school community. By adopting simple strategies such as grouping students with different classmates or creating sports teams where children will be introduced to others that they may not have had the chance to before. Working in groups will allow students to hear and learn from different perspectives. 

Here are some great tips on how to create a learning environment which fosters cultural competence: 

  1. Get to know your students! Learn their strengths and interests and allow it to guide your teaching. Encourage your students to call upon their personal experiences and share their unique perspectives. 
  2. Integrate relevant word problems and make your content relatable! An example of this could be to get your students to calculate the area of a Filipino Kamayan dinner and work out how many plates of food will fit into the designated area. Word problems which integrate cultural aspects will spark curiosity in students, allowing others to shine with their prior knowledge. 
  3. Bring in diverse guest speakers! Students become more engaged and motivated to do better when they see someone who looks like them as a respected person of the community. It also gives other students the chance to learn from someone of a different ethnicity. 
  4. Introduce books which highlight and star characters from different backgrounds! Young Asian, Arab and African boys and girls also deserve to see themselves in picture books as the centre of activity and not just in the background. It is also important to share stories that help children become more empathetic. By showing diversity in stories and books, we cultivate understanding and awareness in children by showing Asian, Arab and African boys and girls experiencing joy in their identities and dreaming about their futures. Here are some books which can be used in the classroom to promote cultural competence and inclusivity.

1. A story of a half-Muslim, half-Hindu 12-year-old young girl by the name of Nisha who is caught in the middle when India is partitioned into India (Hindu) and Pakistan (Muslim) in 1947. The people in government who are supposed to protect the citizens seem to be tearing everything apart and Nisha is not certain where she will land.

2. An empowering and humorous story about a 16-year-old girl standing up for herself and the ridicule of her peers as she decides to start wearing the hijab full time. 

3. The story of a Muslim teenager, who has completely withdrawn from her social life a year after the 9/11 event until she meets Ocean James in her biology class and is tempted to let her guard down. 

4. An adventurist story about Lu and Min, princess of an empire and their mission to reclaim their throne when their father betrays them. While the sisters are trying to reclaim what is theirs, Min discovers a dark power within her which can ultimately win her battle against her father. Yu crafts a tremendously stunning world with complex characters and a heart-pounding adventure.

5. The story about a girl named Susan who had just moved from Saudi Arabia. As she strives to meet her parent’s expectations of her, she struggles with her passion for arts. A charming story that many can relate with as it touches on the complexity of family, friendship and love.

6. Written by New York Times bestselling author Rita Williams Garcia, this book tells the story of three young sisters who travel across America to meet the mother who abandoned them. A funny and moving story with diverse characters was highly praised for being witty and original. 

7. The story of Jordan Banks, a seventh grader who loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enrol him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of colour in his entire grade. Jordan is torn between two worlds, and not really fitting into either one. A relatable story of a young boy who struggles to find his place in the world. 

8. Everyone on campus knows Remy Cameron. He’s the out-and-proud, super-likable guy who friends, faculty, and fellow students alike admire for his cheerful confidence. The only person who isn’t entirely sure about Remy Cameron is Remy himself. Under pressure to write an A+ essay defining who he is and who he wants to be, Remy embarks on an emotional journey toward reconciling the outward labels people attach to him with the real Remy Cameron within.

9. Part mystery, part romance, Mad, Bad and Dangerous is a sweeping, feminist novel about equality and identity. It is about a seventeen-year-old named Khayyam, who is obsessed with 19th century art world mystery. She is convinced that a woman in the poems of Aledandre Dumas and the paintings of Eugene Delacroix was based on a real person: Leila, a Muslim woman living under European colonialism. As she embarks on a journey to find the truth about Leila, Khayyam learns about the past, which has an incredible effect on her future. 

10. A remarkable story about the power of tolerance from one of the most important voices in contemporary Muslim literature, critically acclaimed author Randa Abdel-Fattah. Michael likes to hang out with his friends and play with the latest graphic design software. His parents drag him to rallies held by their anti-immigrant group, which rails against the tide of refugees flooding the country. And it all makes sense to Michael … until he meets a beautiful girl on the other side of the protest line.

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