There’s no question about it: Our world is getting smaller. In the media, in our communities, and even in our classrooms, we are hearing languages many of us have never heard before. We are participating in cultural traditions far different from our own. We are building friendships and relationships with people who may look, speak, or believe far differently than we do.
And that diversity and inclusivity is, indeed, a beautiful thing, expanding our horizons, broadening our view of the world and humanity, and making our hearts, souls, and minds bigger than ever before. But embracing diversity and inclusivity doesn’t always just happen. Educators play a special role in helping to foster cultural awareness in the classroom.
What Is Cultural Awareness and Why Does It Matter?
In an increasingly globalized world, even the smallest towns of America have been transformed into mosaics of different languages and cultures. But that does not mean that understanding and acceptance will happen naturally.
Indeed, without a concerted effort in fostering cultural awareness, young children may simply assume that their cultural beliefs and practices are the “right” or only way to do things. And this can not only lead to confusion for the child making such assumptions, but it can also cause pain and discomfort for the children whose native cultures may not align with others’ expectations.
Thus, fostering cultural awareness in the classroom is imperative in helping children develop sensitivity, empathy, and tolerance. Above all, it is instrumental in helping children build respectful, accepting, and understanding relationships, even across a cultural divide. And, in so doing, the child begins to move away from cultural chauvinism, learning that their own home culture is just one of many ways to live, see, and be in the world.
The Pragmatic Benefits of Cultural Awareness
Fostering cultural awareness isn’t just beneficial to young children in the moment, but it is also a vital first step in preparing children for our multicultural future. The growing dominance of digital technologies, for instance, means that geographical distances don’t have much relevance any longer. Now, more than ever, working, learning, and socializing involve connecting with people through technology, including those who may not speak our own language or even reside in the same hemisphere of the globe!
Indeed, we are increasingly “inhabiting” an array of digital communities, where diversity and inclusion are not just a luxury but a necessity. And if children are to thrive in an increasingly intercultural world, then building cultural awareness from an early age is a must.
Strategies for Building Cultural Awareness
As important as cultural awareness is, it’s also surprisingly simple to facilitate in the classroom. One of the first and most important steps is to cultivate an ethos of mindfulness in the classroom.
Though mindfulness is often thought of primarily as a strategy for reducing stress and anxiety and increasing one’s sense of peace and empowerment, mindfulness is also a profound tool for developing self-and-other awareness. And this is fundamental to facilitating cultural awareness as well.
For example, educators can integrate awareness-raising activities into their curricula in a myriad of ways. They may, for instance, ask students to draw comparisons between their native cultural practices and others they have learned about in class.
This can be particularly effective in a multicultural classroom because students can be invited to demonstrate their cultural traditions or to take the lead in the celebration of holidays, festivals, or other special events.
In addition to learning about cultural traditions, beliefs, and practices, educators can help children experience world cultures in a range of creative and inclusive ways. Food and music, for instance, are among the most distinctive aspects of a culture. And they provide an invaluable opportunity to integrate cultural education into the curriculum.
Teachers can, for instance, bring foods from different cultures for snack time or can invite the children to take turns providing snacks for the class. Similarly, during music class, teachers might provide recordings of music from different cultures and languages. They can even bring in instruments from around the world that students can experiment with. Best of all, this can be a terrific way to begin introducing students to world languages!
Cultural awareness is far more than a lofty ideal or a politically correct talking point. In an increasingly multicultural society, it’s a necessity for living well, happily, and productively. And that is why it is incumbent upon educators to foster cultural awareness in the classroom. And though tolerance and understanding do not happen automatically, supporting cultural awareness and inclusivity is not difficult with a bit of effort and strategy. This includes, above all, integrating lessons in the practices and traditions of world cultures into the curriculum. It also involves supporting children in understanding their own native cultures and how these compare to and relate with those of others. In this way, children can quickly find that learning about other cultures is fun. And when you make it fun, you’ve all but guaranteed that it’s a topic they will pursue for the rest of their lives!