Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Conceptualising cross-cultural curriculum development

Lesley H Parker
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University of Technology

The Dilemma

Most Australian universities are grappling with the challenges contingent upon a student body which contains increasing numbers of international students and students of Non-English Speaking Background (NESB). These challenges are particularly great in the context of academic staff development. In attempting to meet the challenges, staff developers inevitably encounter staff who are coming from markedly different value positions. Lecturers in classroom situations encounter and need to deal with a similar range of value positions amongst their students. At Curtin, in association with our implementation of a Cross-Cultural Education Policy, we are attempting to develop means of clarifying these positions, so that staff can gain a better understanding of how to maximise the benefits of particular projects, for both local and overseas students. One tool or framework which may be useful in this process of clarification is based on various stages of development of cross-cultural awareness and depicts the classroom and curriculum-related behaviours typical of each stage. We are interested to refine our current framework and to discuss other ways of achieving the same ends. The question addressed is: how can we conceptualise cross-cultural curriculum development in ways which enhance the benefits, to all students, of projects in this area?


In 1990, the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) produced and distributed a discussion paper supporting the concept of "a fair chance for all" in higher education. Specifically, the document set out national equity objectives and targets for each of six groups identified as disadvantaged in gaining access to higher education. The six groups included one focused on NESB students. The document also identified the responsibilities of both the Commonwealth and individual universities in achieving the national equity objectives and suggested a range of strategies to assist institutions in their planning in this regard. The strategies in relation to NESB students included "multicultural curriculum development" and "cross-cultural awareness" (DEET, 1990, p. 38).

At about the same time, a small group of committed staff at Curtin had formed themselves into a "Cross-Cultural Education Network". This group was active in the development of a Cross-Cultural Education Policy, which was finally approved by University Council in 1992. Amongst other things, the Cross-Cultural Education Policy encourages staff and students to develop an understanding of both their own cultures and those of others. It also advocates professional development opportunities and incentives to assist staff to become more effective in cross-cultural teaching situations.

Subsequent to the approval, a Project Officer was appointed, with a brief to

In fulfilling this brief, the Project Officer, together with others in the area of staff development, has worked with academic staff to refine and operationalise the concept of a "cross-cultural curriculum". The need for such work is becoming increasingly urgent as the student body at Curtin becomes more international in character and the moral and ethical imperative for a cross-cultural curriculum becomes stronger. Fundamental to the operationalisation is a recognition of the ethnocentric nature of the current curriculum in higher education, in terms of both content and delivery, and of the need for the curriculum to become more "culturally inclusive", in ways that are beneficial to all cultural groups within the university context.

Thus, a genuinely "cross-cultural curriculum" is seen as one which incorporates, values and extends the prior experiences and learnings, the current interests, needs and concerns, and the preferred learning and assessment styles of students of all cultures represented in Curtin classrooms. In the essentially monocultural context of current university curricula and staff, the implementation of this kind of "cross-cultural curriculum" clearly posed a significant challenge. While some staff and students can accept the need for such a curriculum and can work in harmony to implement it, others deny the need and are resistant to the implementation.

Meeting the challenge - lessons from feminist educators

In the sense of inclusivity, the concept of a "cross-cultural curriculum" is parallel, in many ways, to the concept of a "gender-inclusive curriculum" which had been advocated and implemented for a number of years by committed feminist educators (see, for example, Hildebrand, 1990; Harding & Parker, 1995). Thus, it appears likely that conceptual tools which have been effective in relation to gender-inclusivity may be helpful to those engaging with cultural-inclusivity. One such set of tools is derived from what has become known as "stage theory" as proposed, for example, by Schuster and Van Dyne (1984).

Schuster and Van Dyne (1984) charted curriculum change processes in terms of six stages of incorporation of women in the curriculum. The stages moved from the first, essentially masculinist situation, in which the absence of women from the curriculum was not seen as a cause for concern, through a second stage, in which there was a "search for the missing women". Frequently, such a search resulted in the addition of some identifiable "exceptional" women to a still predominantly masculinist syllabus. It did not impinge at all upon the teaching or assessment strategies associated with the syllabus.

In the third stage, women were conceptualised as a disadvantaged group, and questions involving reasons for the paucity of women leaders and the devaluation of women's roles were answered, typically, with the assistance of strategies which focused on changing women. Examples of such strategies are those focused on improving women's self-esteem and/or providing them with attributes such as assertiveness which were seen as critical to the definition of leadership. The fourth stage involved the study of women "on their own terms" (Schuster & Van Dyne, p. 419), and the acknowledgment of the validity of women's experiences and ways of knowing as a basis for the curriculum. The fifth stage was more challenging, characterised by questions regarding the validity of current definitions of knowledge and the search for alternative paradigms. The sixth, final stage envisaged a "balanced curriculum", in which women's and men's experience could be understood together, and the students could be empowered through an "inclusive vision of human experience based on difference, diversity, not sameness, generalization" (p. 419).

Schuster and Van Dyne's framework has been applied with some success by those working to implement gender-inclusive curricula in a number of disciplines. In history, for example, Tetreault (1985, 1987) presents "phases of thinking about women in history, ranging from "male-defined history", through "contribution history", "bifocal history" and "histories of women", to "histories of gender". Similarly, Kreinberg and Lewis (in press) have adapted the framework to chart progress towards a gender-inclusive curriculum in science and Willis (in press) has developed a similar typology in the context of mathematics education.

The Willis framework typifies in a number of ways the advances which have been made over the past decade in the application of stage theories to curriculum reform. As implied earlier in this discussion, early applications focused predominantly on curriculum content. In the more recent applications, however, there has been recognition that gender-inclusiveness extends well beyond merely the content of the curriculum and that there is a need to consider teaching processes and assessment strategies at the same time as curriculum content if the full potential of gender-inclusivity is to be realised. Indeed, Willis (in press) goes even further than "inclusivity", presenting a "socially critical" perspective, within which practitioners aim for students to understand the manner in which people (including themselves) are positioned by the curriculum and to use the curriculum as a vehicle for achieving social justice.

Operationally, tools such as those of Schuster and Van Dyne, Tetreault, Kreinberg and Lewis, and Willis are used to help clarify the perspectives of those engaging (sometimes unwillingly) in curriculum reform. As Willis (in press) writes of her experiences dealing with a wide variety of situations and groups in mathematics education:

In each of the situations I have described it became clear that there were widely disparate views about what, if any, relationship the mathematics curriculum has to gender justice and, consequently, about whether and how the mathematics curriculum should change. Whether at national consultative meetings, in the school staffroom or talking to publishers, dealing with differences in viewpoint was severely hampered because participants did not share a common framework or language and hence had difficulty recognising, let alone understanding, each others' points of view. Often the very same words meant quite different things to people with unfortunate consequences in loss of faith when an agreement of one meeting appeared to be broken by the next. Equally often, choices of words that caused offence masked an underlying commonality of viewpoint which would eventually become apparent although not without considerable stress.
With respect to such situations, the success of frameworks such as those discussed here appears to lie in their capacity to, in the words of Willis (in press) "provide a vehicle for the development of better understanding between participants". In many ways, the work of educators such as Tetreault, Kreinberg and Lewis and Willis in curriculum transformation has realised the vision of Schuster and Van Dyne (1984), demonstrating that using "gender as a category of analysis enriches and illuminates traditional subjects" (p. 426).

Applications to Cross-Cultural Curriculum Development

To some extent, the application of stage theories to cross-cultural curriculum development was foreshadowed by Schuster and Van Dyne (1984), when they hypothesised that the use of "gender, race and class as primary categories of analysis will transform our perspective on familiar data and concepts as well as reveal new material to be studied" (p. 426). Indeed, following the initial work on gender in this area, a small number of educators concerned with the interaction of culture and ethnicity within classrooms have proposed frameworks which reflect stage theory approaches. Although these frameworks are not necessarily connected explicitly to the work of Schuster and Van Dyne and were not always developed in the context of curriculum transformation, they nevertheless warrant discussion here. Banks (1987) for example, proposed a typology of ethnicity, identifying the stages which he considered an individual must pass through in order to become an effective, culturally sensitive educator. Within the United Stated context, Martin and Atwater (1992), have summarised the stages along the following lines: Although Martin and Atwater's approach has been found to be useful in the context of the development of ethnic identity by science teachers, it appear to have only limited application to cross-cultural curriculum development in the sense outlined in this paper. A more promising approach is found in the work of Bennett and Stillings (1993, as quoted by Timpson, 1995), which posits six stages of: While the Bennett and Stillings framework is helpful, it appears to lack the third important stage of Schuster and Van Dyne's typology, namely that in which the problem is seen to lie in the attributes of the "minority" group and the solution is seen to lie in changing this minority group to be more like the dominant group. It is possible that this stage is incorporated in that identified above as "defense". However, given that, historically, the stage has been of such significance in progress towards a gender-inclusive curriculum (see, for example Kreinberg and Lewis, in press), it would appear to be desirable for it to be more explicit in any framework to be used in relation to cultural inclusivity.

A further helpful framework has been developed by the REACH Center in the United States. Only limited details of this framework are available at present, but in summary form, it is presented as a five-by-three grid, in which three developmental stages of multicultural growth are set against five different kinds of behaviours. The latter involve self-awareness, emotional response to difference, mode of cultural interaction, approach to teaching and approach to management. In the context of curriculum development, the characterisation of approaches to teaching as "Eurocentric/ethnocentric" (Stage I), "learning about other cultures" (Stage II), and finally "learning from other cultures" (Stage III), is a simple but helpful and readily understood progression, which captures the essence of cross-cultural curriculum development as conceptualised at Curtin.

Clearly, however, there is a need for further exploration and development of frameworks proposed for use in cross-cultural education, in order to maximise their effectiveness as tools for use by staff developers and lecturers in universities.


Australia. Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET). (1990). A fair chance for all. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Banks, J.A. (1987). Teaching strategies for ethnic studies. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Harding, J. & Parker, L. H. (1995). Agents for change: Policy and practice towards a more gender-inclusive science education. International Journal of Science Education, 17(4), 537-553.

Hildebrand, G. M. (1989). Creating a gender-inclusive science education. Australian Science Teachers Journal, 35(3), 7-16.

Kreinberg, N. & Lewis, S. (in press). The politics and practice of equity: Experiences from both sides of the Pacific. In L. H. Parker, L. J. Rennie & B. J. Fraser (eds), Gender, science and mathematics: Shortening the shadow. Dortrecht: Kluwer Academic Press.

Martin, H. & Atwater, M. M. (1992). Implementing a multicultural science teacher education program. Paper presented at the Fifteenth Annual Conference of the Eastern Educational Research Association, South Carolina.

Schuster, M. & Van Dyne, S. (1984). Placing women in the liberal arts: Stages of curriculum transformation. Harvard Educational Review, 54(4), 413-428.

Tetreault, M. K. (1985). Feminist phase theory: An experience-derived evaluation model. The Journal of Higher Education, 56, 363-384.

Tetreault, M. K. (1987). Rethinking women, gender, and the social studies. Social Education, 51(3), 178.

Timpson, W. M. (1995). United Nations International Year of Tolerance: What can we do here? Tertiary Education News, 5(1), 1-3.

Willis, S. (in press). Gender justice and the mathematics curriculum. In L. H. Parker, L. J. Rennie & B. J. Fraser (eds), Gender, science and mathematics: Shortening the shadow. Dortrecht: Kluwer Academic Press.

Please cite as: Parker, L. H. (1996). Conceptualising cross-cultural curriculum development. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p119-123. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/parker.html

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