From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, children around the world go to school, but their outcomes and experiences vary greatly. For some, the goal is a university education and professional degrees. For others, basic literacy is all children can hope to achieve, regardless of their abilities. Historically, the education of children has been a social responsibility, with our earliest teachers being our parents, relatives and elders who taught us the skills of survival. This quickly changed with the advancement of industrialism, globalization and advances in technology as the driving force for educational reform. The growth of industry, trade, international business and demands for an educated workforce are now heard around the world and particularly in Singapore as a hub for the whole of Asia.
When we think of globalization, we think about the integration of economic and financial sectors – the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank as well as jobs moving from one country to another. As parents of children who are living in a foreign country who are working in jobs in a foreign country you are only too aware of globalization. However, what is the essence of globalization? Simply put it is the shrinkage of the world. As the world shrinks, everything is becoming more intermeshed – economics, politics, culture, traditions and religion. Regional concerns become world issues. Thus, age-old perspectives and worldview no longer anchor us. For the first time in history, we humans are forging an awareness of our existence as a single entity – a multicultural entity!
Most large cities worldwide now have a wide cultural diversity. This is particularly true of Singapore and my school, One World International School (OWIS) itself, with students from 36 countries attending the school. This means with have at least 36 different cultures, including Singaporean to include into the culture of OWIS. With great diversity comes some problems particularly if one culture is allowed to dominate to create a monocultural clique and this can happen in many international schools.
Cultural diversity can be considered a school’s richest, most accessible resource, yet too often attention is paid only to the immediate visual aspects of culture, ignoring the most important ‘subsurface’ aspects that are fundamental to a real understanding of a culture. The iceberg analogy of Fennes and Hapgood (1997) graphically illustrates this, showing the complex, multifaceted nature of any culture, with at least two thirds of the cultural dimensions concealed ‘below the waterline’.As you can see from the diagram above we only have a few dimensions ‘above the waterline’, which are called the “4-Fs” of food, festivals, flags and fashions. These can be used by international school in an attempt to recognise and celebrate cultural diversity as we do at our UN Day Celebration.
However, these ‘4Fs’ are the tip of the iceberg when understanding a culture and truly becoming a multicultural society. Therefore, how does an international school become more multicultural? This must be through the work of the teachers who can build intercultural bridges and go beyond the superficial. They must go beyond simply teaching about or passively experiencing other cultures to develop a deeper understanding of culture at three different levels:
- Specific – understanding those cultures, indigenous, and immigrant that are represented within Singapore and by the students in their classes;
- International – understanding culture within the context of international education, specifically the expatriate culture which is regarded as a culture in its own right;
- Generic – understanding the fundamental concept of culture, its evolution and its effects.
Such understanding must be student-focused, leading to teachers showing greater sensitivity to the culture-related issues that can arise for individual students. These range from broad fundamental concerns of cultural identity to the concept of beauty within a particular culture.
These concerns must be listened to, understood and empathised by the teacher for them to be truly resolved. This is best done if the teacher has either lived in another culture or from another culture compared to the dominant culture of the school. OWIS being an IB school has a western culture dominated by the Northern hemisphere, however, with this understanding I have always tried to incorporate teachers with different cultures into the teaching staff. However, even when employing teachers from a western culture I have always looked to employ teachers who have experienced different cultures by living in other countries rather than just their own home country.
However, to be the most effective in dealing with these student needs an international teacher must also be prepared to immerse themselves in the culture of the local community and more importantly have understanding of the three levels described above. If they can achieve this, they are (i) informed generically about what culture is; (ii) knowledgeable especially about the main cultures of Singapore or the host country; and (iii) aware personally of the ‘third’ expatriate culture that they themselves belong to. With these skills our staff can not only be described as multicultural but as transcultural with an understanding and appreciation of culture that transcends any one individual culture.
Having events like our special assemblies (festivals) and the UN Day Celebration are a great start in becoming multicultural, however, it is only the beginning. How a school becomes truly multicultural, is usually down to the teaching staff. They need to understand the students with time devoted to learning about the different cultures in the class. More time is then needed to teach the class about the different cultures, while having the staff that can appreciate and deliver this teaching. The third, important aspect is that staff have a love of culture and even understand the culture of the expatriate, being one themselves in most cases. OWIS is truly blessed with having a diverse group of teachers who are always willing and able to teach the importance of multiculturism in this very multicultural country of Singapore.
Fennes, H. and Hapgood, K. 1997. Intercultural Learning in the Classroom: Crossing Borders. London: Cassell.