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Effective Teaching for the Multicultural Classroom

Lee Knefelkamp, Professor of Higher and Adult Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

One of the challenges facing faculty committed to creating a transformative curriculum is how to design a learning community that is reflective of both our multicultural society and individual differences among citizens. To teach students to participate effectively in a democratic and pluralistic society, one needs to respond to the needs of various groups within our classes as well as to individual students. Thus, the pedagogical challenge of individualism and diversity within the classroom mirrors that same challenge within the larger American society.

Every classroom is a cultural community reflective of the disciplines and perspectives studied, the authors, the students, and the professor. One can argue that successful learning requires an intercultural approach where students are responsible for listening (and reading and experiencing) to understand--both the perspectives of others (peers, authors, faculty) and for understanding their own perspectives and how they acquired them. Students can come to understand that learning is about the generation, mutual reflection, and critiquing and expanding of ideas and concepts, and that this is most effectively done in a collaborative and non-competitive environment.

One effective approach to this challenge is to attend to the variety of learning styles in any college classroom. Understanding multiple learning styles allows one to focus on individual students' own learning styles; sub-groups within a classroom community; and the class as a learning community.

Even in the most transformed classes, however, faculty are often unaware of the variety of pedagogies that can produce enhanced learning for students and faculty and that can facilitate growth in intellectual complexity and capacity. One useful resource is the analysis of learning styles by David Kolb. He suggests a four-step model of learning--a movement through four phases: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. To this model, I would add parallel concepts drawn from the work of Patricia Hill Collins. Collins suggests a pattern of learning from one's own daily concrete experience and then moving to an expanded consciousness of multiple perspectives, and finally to effective social action that makes use of knowledge in collaborative efforts to create a more equitable society.

Each of these phases in the learning cycle is associated with particular "ways of knowing" and of constructing judgments. It is important to remember, however, that Kolb theorized four distinct, but interrelated, learning strategies. He suggests that learning is not complete unless students, in effect, "go around the learning phases" and see the connections among experience, reflection, theory, and practical applications. It is crucial that they see ultimately how they might put knowledge into action. The same point applies to my Hill Collins adaptation of the Kolb model.

Teachers can make students explicitly aware of how they and others learn; they can discuss strengths and weaknesses in various learning methods. Teachers can help students develop capacities in all four learning styles regardless of individual preferences for some styles over others. How can an understanding of learning styles contribute to effective teaching in the multicultural classroom in particular?

Students can take a "Learning Styles Inventory" and study their own individual results as well as a class summary that indicates where all members of the learning community are located in this model. Using this device, students can reflect on such concepts as "the dominant culture" and its influence; on the existence of "minority cultures" within a larger culture; on similarities and clashes between and among cultures; and on the necessity to use multiple learning methods to achieve a more complete understanding of complex problems.

Student can also learn that there are patterns of values, speech, preferences, and behaviors associated with different cultures, and they can learn that there are as many differences within cultural groups as there are across different cultures. This helps students break down cultural stereotypes in the society as a whole.

Using these methods, students learn that they each may have a unique learning pattern and this realization of their own "multiple subjectivities" can help them understand the multiple and interlocking identities in the people and groups around them. The classroom then becomes a living laboratory for negotiating individual and group differences as well as for negotiating ideas about the content and concepts of the class. Not all negotiations are easy, but the work to listen and to learn across both similarities and differences can only produce better and more effective learning for all students in a multicultural world.


Resources on Diversity and Learning Styles

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hutchings, Patricia and Andrew Wurtzell, eds. Knowing and Doing: Learning Through Experience. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 35. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988.

Kolb, David A. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Kolb, David A. "Disciplinary Inquiry Norms and Student Learning Styles: Diverse Pathways for Growth." in Arnold Chickering, ed. The Modern American College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1983.

The Learning Style Inventory (Self-Scoring Inventory and Interpretation Booklet) and The Learning Styles Inventory Users Guide are both available through Hay/McBer, 116 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass. 02116; 617/437-7080.


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