Never before have we had so many opportunities to connect and communicate with different cultures and languages, both inside and outside Australia. Our society has become increasingly multicultural, enriched by the aspirations of migrants, transnationals, displaced peoples, and technology.
Yet too often we are told that the world is foreign, different and dangerous. It’s the view promoted by ousted Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his party, and reflected by the media and community. Political rhetoric and the rise of nationalised sentiment poses a challenge to what it means to “belong”.
Citizenship and nationality debates have the potential to reflect dangerous monocultural and monolingual perspectives, paving the way for an insular, even paranoid, version of Australia.
Tensions arising from religious, cultural and linguistic difference are increasing, and movements such as “Reclaim Australia” thrive on the government’s treatment of asylum seekers, reduction in foreign aid, and the proposed Australian Citizenship Amendment Act of 2015.
For young people whose opinions and views are shaped by the community, social media and their peers, education offers a way of challenging the negative views increasingly evident in Australian society.
The role of schools
Australia’s education system provides access to many opportunities, and attracts students from around the world. Importantly, education and schools can reinforce dominant norms and the status quo – but they can also challenge.
They offer an effective and sustainable way of ensuring our young people understand diversity, rather than viewing difference as something to be feared.
Education can shape both the national and global identities of students, and teachers have a key role to play.
While broader social and political rhetoric may influence the way in which students understand themselves and others, the classroom offers a space for students to engage in critical and reflexive practice about what it means to understand and engage with difference.
As such, the interactions that take place in the classroom give students a unique opportunity to deepen their understandings of the local and the global, and – within this – develop a mindset that supports diversity and difference.
While the Australian Curriculum reflects an effort to acknowledge and support students in a changing world, it is a national, rather than international curriculum and not surprisingly, focuses upon the local histories and narratives of Australia.
This national focus was reinforced by the Review of the Australian National Curriculum, carried out by Kevin Donnelly and Kenneth Wiltshire.
They espoused a restricted Judeo Christian, Westernised view of knowledge and learning that privileges the local over the global, and showed the complexity of incorporating diverse perspectives into student learning experiences.
Supporting diversity, challenging nationalism
Education is influential in connecting individuals, cultures and communities across borders and plays a critical role in raising awareness of global issues that impact upon society.
Schools have great amounts of linguistic and cultural diversity, and it is in schools where students can develop connections to various parts of the world, as well as to other cultures, religions, genders and languages.
As more people living in Australia connect to others around the world through family, relationships or social media, schools must navigate the diversity of students against the demands of national interests.
However, it is encouraging to see that many schools are now actively attempting to accommodate such diversity with programs and curricula choices that target the development of global understanding.
Teachers can make a difference
Australian students and their teachers continue to bring rich cultural and linguistic heritage to the classroom and their experiences during school’s formative years have the potential for far-reaching impact.
Within the classroom, the diverse aspirations, voices and values of students are important for educators.
As Professor John Hattie points out in Visible Learning for Teachers (2009), teachers yield a high degree of influence over the understandings and experiences of students.
Moving forward, teachers face a great challenge in addressing nationalism and supporting diversity within their classrooms.
Deepening content knowledge, improving understanding and implementing effective methods that enrich educational policies and practices are some of the many issues facing teachers – particularly those working with increasingly diverse students.
But teachers must be prepared, and it is crucial for both trainee and experienced teachers to develop an understanding of student diversity, and demonstrate relevant skills and methods for working with students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
What teachers do within the classroom can change the experiences of learners, and encourage them to feel connected with each other.
Ultimately, if our students can develop and embrace difference, it will be much easier to challenge the paranoid nationalism evident in the current policies of the Australian Government and those who support its aversion to “difference”.
Banner image: Colouring Pencils. Photographer Phillip Taylor. Creative Commons.