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Strengthening cultural awareness in the classroom: A case in point

Saras Henderson
School of Nursing and Midwifery
Curtin University of Technology

In an era where education has permeated through all corners of the world, teaching and learning has taken on a new dimension. Teachers no longer just impart knowledge nor students just learn what is being imparted. The classroom has become a global village with students from different parts of the world. Teaches do not always view this context as an excellent opportunity for strengthening cultural awareness among students, beyond the superficial level of political correctness. Recently, whilst involved in a classroom discussion about community building, I found myself in a situation where racial tensions escalated among the students with indications of the situation becoming volatile. As the students were about to start their rural community practice, the teaching team decided that a tutorial topic such as "Rebuilding East Timor" would be appropriate. The discussion started off well enough with students identifying various concepts that encompassed community building. Suddenly, however, I noticed that a group of students began to express angrily their disapproval of Australia's involvement in going into East Timor. This created a counter reaction from another group of students and the situation became explosive with harsh phrases being flung across the classroom between the students. I sensed that cultural differences and values were underpinning the students' negative discourse. I became aware that what was occurring had the potential to turn into something far worse. I could have stopped the session and redirected the students to work on another topic. Instead, I chose to take the lead and guide the debate towards a positive outcome. I commenced a discussion based on the issues at hand that promoted cultural awareness. This settled the students. The aim of this paper is to use the above experience as a case in point to discuss how cultural awareness can be strengthened in the classroom.


Classrooms these days represent a global village where students of all cultures, ethnicity, race, and religion come together, supposedly to learn. For the majority of students the university may be the initial environment where they engage academically and socially with other students and staff from different cultural backgrounds to their own. It is a given that students and teachers alike bring into the classroom their own ethnocentric biases. At one level, the application of political correctness sees most of us through the classroom situation, and we often deal with cultural tensions using euphemism and diplomacy as a scaffolding. As teachers we may be excused for only addressing cultural tension in the classroom at a superficial level. We are after all engaged in the process of teaching and learning and outcomes. I state this with some authority as I see myself as one of these teachers. As a teacher, I consider myself to be well versed in the ideology of cultural diversity, having come from another country myself. As such, I make it my business to nip any signs of intolerance of cultural differences among students instantly and move on to the teaching and learning task at hand. It was not until recently when an incident happened in my classroom that I started to look at the multicultural classroom at another level. Using this incident as a case in point, this paper will describe the strategies that were used to turn a negative student discourse into a positive one and show how cultural awareness can be strengthened in the classroom.

The incident: A case in point

The case in point describes semester six (senior) nursing students who are taking a community health nursing practice unit. The unit is a core area of study and involves a practical component in rural Western Australia. The incident occurred midway through the semester. One afternoon in a classroom discussion about community building, I found myself in a situation where racial tensions escalated among the students with indications of the situation becoming volatile. There were about seventy students, mostly female, attending class that day from a cohort of 96 students taking the unit. Most were young around 20 to early twenties in age. The rest of the students were in their late twenties to middle thirties. There were a couple of males in the class. As the students were about to start their rural community practice, the teaching team decided that a topic such as 'Rebuilding East Timor' would be appropriate. We had used this topic in previous semesters and had experienced no problems with students. The discussion started off well enough with students identifying various concepts that encompass community building. Suddenly, however, I noticed a group of young students (about 6-8 in number) of non Anglo-Celtic background express angrily their disapproval of Australia's involvement in East Timor. This created a counter negative reaction from another group of young students (about 5-6) of mainly Anglo-Celtic background. Slowly, other students began to take sides and join in the argument that was developing. The rest of the students, especially the mature age students, became onlookers and said nothing. The situation became explosive with harsh phrases (with racially offensive undertones) being flung across the classroom between the students. I quickly sensed that cultural differences and values were underpinning the students' negative discourse. I became aware that what was occurring had the potential to turn into something far worse. I could have stopped the session and redirected the students to work on another topic. Instead, I chose to take the lead and guide the debate towards a positive outcome, that is, strengthen cultural awareness.

Describing what happened

In hindsight, I can appreciate why the incident happened in the manner it did. As teachers we are busy facilitating learning that sometimes we tend to forget, even if momentarily, that our students are subject to adverse occurrences around them. Some students may, therefore, offload their frustrations and negative perceptions of what is happening globally on to their fellow students. In the incident, the students who expressed anger were obviously defending their religious beliefs and culture. One can appreciate the cultural and religious tensions that may have occurred among people when Timor was experiencing problems. These students, in an emotive tone, were expressing anger at "other people interfering with their people in East Timor" (students' perception). "After all what do the rest of the students know about their beliefs and culture anyway" (student statement). The defending students were arguing that somebody had to help the East Timories people keep their country. Amidst this, the students debated the issue of live sheep being sent off to the Middle East. This was considered by the Anglo-Celtic students to be inhumane. It was clear to me that each group of students were reacting to stereotypes and not reality, leading to an unfortunate misunderstanding. Little (2003) refers to misunderstandings such as this as 'mutual demonisation' where injurious statements about others are made. I sensed that I had to go into damage control and do something fast to dissipate the students' rising anger and escalating negative discourse.

Strategies to strengthen cultural awareness

Teachers do not always have the experience or pedagogical skills to work well within a diverse multi-cultural classroom (Chesler, 2003). Most teachers are confident in how to facilitate learning in students of different cultural backgrounds to their own. At Curtin University for instance, regular workshops and seminars are held to assist faculty to effectively communicate and promote learning outcomes. However, like myself, some teachers may find it difficult to deal with cultural tension amongst students in a classroom situation. This is congruent with Adams (1992) who highlights various concerns that teachers may have when dealing with race, ethnicity, racism, and ethnic discrimination in the classroom. Some of these issues include knowing how to respond to one group of students who are discriminating against another group openly, as was happening in my classroom incident, fear of offending some students in the process of supporting others, and handling intense emotive outbursts from students (Adams, 1992). So what did I do?

Using critical incidents as a platform for discourse

As the teacher I equated what was happening in my class as a critical incident that can be used to collective advantage. According to Cushner and Brislin (1996) a critical incident encompasses a situation about cross-cultural misunderstanding. Clearly what was happening was miscommunication among the students. I called for order in the class in the first instance. Then I invited the two groups of students to formally debate the issues that were raised earlier. Only this time I put down some ground rules that only one person from each group can speak at any one time but that everyone will have their turn. I decided to take the export of the sheep first as a debate topic knowing full well that it will be less volatile than the Timor issue. I asked each group to examine factors, such as, political, economical, ethical, social, religious and any other factors that may be involved with the sheep export. I encouraged everyone to voice their opinions. The groups were each given 30 minutes to talk among themselves before formally presenting to the class. Another rule was that any statements the students made must be substantiated with evidence. I was going to be the chair. The class quietened down and set to work. What transpired after 30 minutes was interesting. When the students had to conduct a microanalysis of the issue of sheep export, they discovered that most did not have or understand all the information and implications of the export. For example, the blame of who was responsible for the misfortunes of the sheep was blurred. Was the farmer responsible? Was the Government responsible with respect to not financially supporting the farmers? How do we know for sure that the sheep suffer an inhumane end at the hands of the importers? When students started to review these questions, it became apparent to them that most issues are complex and without full knowledge it is very hard to judge and be confident with one's own opinion.


Through the use of this critical incident, I was able to encourage reflection and greater understanding of cultural awareness among the students. The outcome was that, although the students did not learn much about community building that day, they surely learned that everyone has a point of view that they are entitled to voice freely. As teachers, we can best assist our students by explaining that some points of view may be controversial but that does not mean that they cannot be discussed openly.

From my own reflection, I came to realise that political correctness evolved to prevent coarse cultural discrimination; it was never meant to prevent people from voicing their own opinions. As teachers, it is therefore important to encourage differences of opinions among our students. However, we need to coach our students in the method of expressing their opinion. Sometimes, from my own teaching experience, I have avoided saying something of a controversial nature in class because I perceived it to be inappropriate. The incident was beneficial in that it brought home to me that it is worth taking a risk and pursuing controversial issues in class so that students may gain a global perspective and in the process intrinsically learn about cultural differences. This insight was supported when a small group of mature age students, who were onlookers during the incident, came to me after class and said how well I had dealt with the problem. In their words, " we were afraid the whole thing could have got out of hand and turned into something nasty but it didn't ... you handled it well and everyone seem ok". Teachers can use critical incidents as platforms for consciousness raising in students about complex world issues that impact on every fabric of our lives. Baldano and Holm (1997) write that even though discussing culturally sensitive issues in the classroom may predispose to heated arguments, implementing a reasoned form of discourse is helpful to promote cultural awareness.

Cushner and Brislin (1996) also state that for critical incidents to work, students should have some knowledge about the various cultures. This can facilitate students serving as cultural informants to other students in the learning environment. Moreover, the above authors state that using critical incidents may serve as ice-breakers in addressing such issues as culture shock, acculturation, differences and similarities between students; and own culture and the culture of others, hence promoting cultural sensitivity.

Treating the classroom as a community

The classroom is a microcosm of the outside world. It represents an aggregate community. Everyone in the classroom shares a common goal, that is, to learn, they are confined to a specific area, and encounter similar learning problems. In using the analogy of a community one can expect the classroom environment to be safe and non-threatening. As in the community where our students work and live, the classroom should be a place where students can voice their opinions freely. As teachers, our role is to support this occurrence but at the same time ensure that students understand that discussions, which involve exchanges of different opinions, are meant to foster learning. Students have different attitudes about voicing free opinion. For example, students may state that only those who have actual experience about certain issues should express an opinion pertaining to that issue. Others may state that they have a right to express any opinion they like. This was the case in the incident in my class. It is recommended that teachers mediate between these two views and find a neutral point or middle ground. Students may be encouraged to qualify their statements in order to prevent injurious statements about other student groups. It has been indicated in literature that the main concern of students is that teachers, whilst conversed with the ideology of cultural diversity, often fail to mitigate injurious statements between students (http://ctl.unc.edu/tfi2.html).

Taking cultural awareness beyond the rhetoric in the syllabus

Most teachers are cognisant of the need to promote cultural awareness in the classroom. Whilst, specific units that pertain to multi-cultural issues are taught in universities, teachers can do well to saturate this concept in every class they take. For example, teachers can encourage diverse perspectives about every issue being addressed in class even though this may be time consuming. Teachers can call upon different cultural groups within the class to discuss a given topic and let the rest of the class know that they have selected this group to speak, not because of their ethnicity but because of their knowledge in the topic. This will indicate to students that knowledge is universal and not culture specific. As teachers, we need to be pro-active in using every opportunity to enhance cultural awareness in our students. It has been suggested that teachers should place cultural diversity as a topic at the beginning of each unit, if possible, to indicate its importance and to set the stage for all other topics to follow. This may prevent the issue of cultural diversity being marginalised in the classroom (http://ctl.unc.edu/tfi2.html).


Any teaching and learning environment can be complex and fraught with difficulties. However, when the classroom is multi-cultural the difficulties can be more problematic. In this paper a case in point was used to discuss strategies that teachers may find helpful in addressing cultural tensions and strengthen cultural awareness. It is only through debate and discourse that students gain knowledge about other cultures and learn to embrace other cultures rather than be fearful of them. The incident that happened in my classroom made me and the students feel uncomfortable but it had a positive outcome. I was pleasantly surprised to see the full compliment of students turn up for class the following week and this number of attendance remained throughout the semester. To conclude, here is a quote from T. S. Elliot:
The country which receives culture from abroad without having anything to give in return, and the country which aims to impose its culture on another, without accepting anything in return, will both suffer from this lack of reciprocity (T.S.Elliot in F. Kermode, 1975, p.303).


Adams, M. (1992). Promoting diversity in college classrooms: Innovative responses for the curriculum, faculty, and institutions (Vol 52, pp. 21-38). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Baldonado, A.A, & Holm, et al. (1997). Cultural/ ethnicity issues in the classroom. Hoitotiede, 9(5), 231-6.

Centre for Teaching and Learning. Chapter 2: Strategies for inclusive teaching. [viewed 10 Oct 2003, verified 12 Jun 2004] http://ctl.unc.edu/tfi2.html

Chesler, M. (2003). Teaching well in the diverse/multicultural classroom. Michigan: American Association for Higher Education.

Cushner, K., & Brislin, R. (1996). Intercultural interactions: A practical guide. London: Sage.

Elliot, T. S. (1975). Notes towards the definition of culture. In F. Kermode (Ed), Selected prose of T. S. Elliot. Faber and Faber, London, p. 303.

Little, D. (2003). Culture and conflict. In American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945. [viewed 10 Oct 2003, verified 12 Jun 2004] http://www.clarku.edu/alumni/clarknews/spring03/culture.shtml

Author: Dr Saras Henderson, School of Nursing and Midwifery
Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth 6845 Western Australia
Tel: 8 9266 2070 Fax: 8 9266 2959 Email: s.Henderson@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: (2004). Strengthening cultural awareness in the classroom: A case in point. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/henderson.html

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