The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

Preparing young people for a multicultural world

Where do you come from? Dr Karamat Iqbal explores what it means to live in a multicultural world and suggests resources to support teaching and further reflection.

I have lived in the Midlands for 51 years, having been born in Kashmir. But I am used to being asked: ‘Where do you come from?'

Visible minorities such as me are frequently confronted with this question, especially from members of a majority white society. Although it can be a sign of othering, I don’t mind it, especially when the questioner is equally willing to be asked the same question. 

This is because I believe that ‘we all came here from somewhere’. This is in fact the title of a teaching resource on diversity, identities and citizenship which was supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Quality Improvement Agency and published by the Learning and Skills Network (2006). I have frequently made use of this resource in my teaching on identity, belonging, citizenship and multicultural Britain.

Another resource that I have used is a Commission for Racial Equality publication (1996): the Roots of the Future: Ethnic Diversity in the Making of Britain. Its author, Mayerlene Frow, asserts that:

Ethnic diversity is nothing new in Britain. People with different histories, cultures, beliefs and languages have been coming here ever since the beginning of recorded time. Logically, therefore, everyone who lives in Britain is either an immigrant or a descendant of an immigrant. Most of us can probably trace the immigrants in our own personal histories if we go back far enough.

Resources such as these have shaped my understanding and approach to our multicultural society. They have guided my ‘where do you come from?’ conversations which, in turn, have helped me to become self-aware.

‘We all came here from somewhere’

Through this process I have learned about white people also coming from somewhere. I have talked with Jewish, Irish, Welsh and Scottish people, Cypriots and those who have recently come from Poland, France and Sweden.

In such a multicultural world, it is more essential now than ever for our young people to have the relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Organisations increasingly see different ages, skills, disciplines, and working and thinking styles in a work team as a driver of innovation

If they have not encountered people with different cultures and beliefs in their nursery, primary or secondary school, or sixth form college, they will do at university. If they fall ill, which most of us do at some point, they will experience a multicultural health service.

Then there is the world of work.

The benefits of a multicultural workplace

Employers have begun to recognise the benefits of diversity and expect their employees, not just those who have to operate in diverse geographical environments, to be ‘literate’ about diversity.

Organisations increasingly see different ages, skills, disciplines, and working and thinking styles in a work team as a driver of innovation. Consequently, phrases such as ‘global fitness for work’, ‘intercultural skills’ and ‘competing across borders’ are increasingly heard in the workplace (GlobalPeople, 2018).

A report by The Institute for the Future has identified ‘cultural competence’ as the fourth skill (after sense-making, social intelligence and novel and adaptive thinking) for workers of the future. This is because:

In a truly globally connected world, a worker's skill set could see them posted in any number of locations – they need to be able to operate in whatever environment they find themselves. This demands specific content, such as linguistic skills, but also adaptability to changing circumstances and an ability to sense and respond to new contexts.

Such competence enables us to communicate and interact effectively with people across cultures through positive behaviours and attitudes.

According to the Indeed career guide, ‘learning how to respect, communicate and collaborate with an increasingly diverse work culture is crucial to optimizing a company’s efficiency and productivity’.

More specifically, the benefits of a culturally competent workplace can include:

  • more appreciation for other perspectives
  • more and better ideas
  • increased creativity
  • better listening
  • increased empathy and adaptability. (Indeed, 2021)

Learning about multiculturalism in school

So, what is the role of education for preparing children for such a future?

It is essential that they are enabled to acquire multicultural literacy and not just tolerate or survive difference but also thrive with it.

Many years ago, I visited a white family, whose little boy took one look at my hands and said they were dirty. I explained that they were their normal colour. I have every reason to believe that his parents and the education system between them would have enlightened him about such matters.

I was reminded of that incident recently when I came across a children’s book about a similar (but fictional) incident. Eraser Boy by Rubina Din and Carsum Din is about Jamal, whose bubble is burst when he is called ‘dirty’ on a camping trip, so he uses an eraser to rub off his brown skin.

Books such as these are now more easily available than before so can easily be used to discuss multiculturalism with young pupils.

Improving self-awareness

In recent years, teacher preparation and training for multicultural education has been deprioritised. One starting point is to ask how multicultural you are in terms of your own cultures, on the following scale:

  • Monocultural: High level of knowledge of one culture.
  • Slightly multicultural: High level of knowledge about one culture and moderate knowledge about another culture.
  • Moderately multicultural: High level of knowledge of more than one culture.
  • Highly multicultural: High level of knowledge of more than two cultures. (Harvard Business Review, 2019)

If you want to improve your expertise in multicultural knowledge, a good place to start is the BAMEed network, which provides resources for children and teachers.

Whatever the current government education perspectives and priorities it is worth remembering what is meant by ‘good education’. The best answer is still that provided by the Rampton Report 1981 (later Swann Report 1985). For them:

A 'good' education should enable a child to understand his own society, and to know enough about other societies to enhance that understanding. A 'good' education cannot be based on one culture only, and in Britain where ethnic minorities form a permanent and integral part of the population, we do not believe that education should seek to iron out the differences between cultures, nor attempt to draw everyone into the dominant culture. On the contrary, it will draw upon the experiences of the many cultures that make up our society and thus broaden the cultural horizons of every child. That is what we mean by 'multicultural' education.

If there are any doubts about the multicultural nature of our society then we just need to refer to the four-word Twitter profile of tennis star Emma Raducanu: “london/toronto/shenyang/bucharest”.

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