Written by Manisha Dak – Academic Manager, Schools, English and Skills (North India)
Indian classrooms are among the most diverse in the world, with students from different cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds. While many teachers find this diversity challenging to deal with, others consider this an opportunity to enable learners to work collaboratively and develop understanding of the world outside their own sphere of existence. The world is a global village, more so since the advent of internet, and the key purpose of education necessarily needs to shift to preparing global citizens who can live in harmony with others.
This was the theme of the 4th International ELT@I conference organised by the Jaipur ELT@I chapter with support from the British Council: English in Multicultural Classrooms – Perspectives, Prospects, Possibilities. The theme immediately struck a chord with me and I’m sure with many other conference attendees as it was an excellent opportunity to explore the unexplored and listen to various perspectives around teaching English in multicultural classrooms.
The conference included plenary talks by eminent speakers and workshops and presentations by enthusiastic professionals. From the idea of teachers taking initiatives to organise themselves and creating opportunities to learn from each other shared by retired Professor Shreesh Chaudhary, to the need for promoting resilience among teachers and learners using mindfulness activities proposed by Dr Bradley Horn, the plenary talks truly reflected the need of the hour. ‘Any group of people that is thrown together will face conflict and difficulties at some point, so what is important is that group members are able to look at that conflict and come back from it to be able to cope with future stressors more effectively, ’ emphasised Dr Horn in his talk.
Another useful way to make the most of potentially conflicting cultures present in the classroom, as suggested by Amy Lightfoot, is by finding ways to ‘celebrate this diversity.’ Why not encourage teachers and learners to draw on the linguistic, socio-economic and cultural diversity and treat it as a resource in the process of English language teaching and learning? This would enable teachers to help deal with growing concerns around erosion of cultures and identities while also being one step forward in the direction of preparing learners to be global citizens.
‘Changing words, changing minds’ from Dr Rajni Badlani’s talk was another highlight of the day. Dr Badlani advocated using and encouraging learners to use more positive words, for example, saying I need to understand more about your culture instead of I don’t understand your culture or I think differently instead of I don’t agree with you can change the way your brain works and the way people respond to one another, leading to more positive outcomes. This was a useful tip not just for the classroom but for day-to-day life as well. After all, despite the old adage ‘sticks and stones…,’ the words we use can have a profound effect on people’s beliefs and attitudes about themselves and others.
The three roles of teachers that emerged from various presentations and workshops in this context were that of an educator, facilitator and learner. The teacher can not only become a source of information about different cultures – both national and international – but also facilitate multicultural interactions and show genuine interest in learning about learners’ cultural backgrounds.
The workshops and presentations left attendees with a greater understanding of the issues relating to multicultural classrooms and a plethora of ideas they could take back to use in their contexts. Careful and deliberate planning and the integration of simple activities can turn the challenge of diversity into a huge advantage and aid the teaching and learning of English, along with other subjects. It’s important for teachers to establish early on that ‘different’ does not equal ‘bad’.
Some of the practical tips to exploit and promote cultural diversity in classrooms include:
- personalising learning
- giving equal importance to all learners, regardless of their background
- adding storybooks from different cultures to the school/class library
- avoiding stories that include only male or female characters, or stereotypes
- organising multicultural interactions and sharing through group work and projects
- being aware of possible cultural conflicts among learners and monitoring them closely to avoid clashes
- choosing related topics for writing tasks and encouraging peer editing to spread cultural awareness
- publishing learners’ work as a class magazine, celebrating the diversity in the school
- conducting a culture quiz at the beginning of the year
- allowing learners to discuss a speaking task in their first language prior to doing it in English, to build confidence and remove anxiety related to deciding what to talk about.
Overall, the two days spent at the conference led to a lot of sharing and reflection. If the attending teachers can put to use their understanding and ideas gained from the conference effectively in their classrooms, and share these ideas with their colleagues, it is truly possible that classrooms can become ideal laboratories to help learners become global citizens.