Curriculum for inclusion: Case of immigrant students

Author: Dr. Max Anthony-Newman, Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University

Social justice in education requires redistribution[1] of material resources, recognition of cultural differences, and political representation in decision-making  for all students and their families. Curriculum plays a crucial role here, because a socially just curriculum can provide (“redistribute”) rich knowledge to all students, ensure that the culture of all students is recognized, and all educational actors (students, teachers, parents) are represented in decisions about the curriculum. Socially just and inclusive curriculum should work for all students without erasing their differences.

Increased mobility in the context of “superdiversity” makes the inclusion of immigrant and refugee students in schools not only a matter of practical importance, but also a crucial social justice issue. So, how can a socially just and inclusive curriculum work for immigrant students? Bajaj and Bartlett (2017) offer a critical transnational curriculum for immigrant and refugee students. The first tenet of such a curriculum is diversity as a learning opportunity, where students can learn from each others’ cultures and history. Secondly, a critical transnational curriculum encourages ‘translanguaging’, i.e. a dynamic and integrated use of multiple languages represented in a particular classroom. Thirdly, civic engagement as curriculum, allows students not only to learn about monarchs, presidents, and battles, but also get involved in civic issues that matter for their communities. Finally, this type of curriculum fosters multidirectional aspirations to prepare students for multiple possible futures, including work and post-secondary studies in different countries.

Including students’ home languages and representing diverse ethnocultural groups in the social studies curriculum is important in its own right, but we need to go further and ensure that inclusion starts at the level of nature and goals of education. A key concept that can help us in achieving this goal is curriculum orientations[2], understood as a set of relatively stable beliefs about the nature, goals, and content of curriculum.

First introduced by Elliot Eisner and Elizabeth Vallance in 1974, four curriculum orientations are commonly established.  Academic rationalism focuses on the transmission of disciplinary knowledge as the main goal of education, social efficiency shifts main focus to equipping future citizens with socially desired skills and knowledge, humanist orientation pays the utmost attention to the personal fulfilment and development of individual learners, while social reconstructionism views education as the main tool to change and improve society.

Why do curriculum orientations matter for the inclusion of immigrant students? As far as children spend 80 percent of their time at home and 20 percent at school, the role of parents and guardians cannot be underestimated. Immigrant parents have been socialised and educated in their home countries before moving abroad. They bring in a distinctive set of beliefs and expectations about education, which might not always correspond to those of teachers in the host nations. When curriculum orientations of immigrant parents and non-immigrant teachers are misaligned, family-school communication can be negatively affected, which in turn lowers parental satisfaction with schooling, and diminishes the benefits of parental engagement.

Here, I would like to provide an empirical example. In my study of parental engagement among Eastern-European immigrant parents in Canada, I found that interviewed parents were evenly split between the supporters of academic rationalism and those who favoured social efficiency with elements of humanism. As far as elementary school teachers in Canada predominantly follow social efficiency and humanist orientations, immigrant parents who also believe that main goals of education are to develop children’s interests, acquire applied knowledge and skills necessary for the world of work, were satisfied with their children’s education. Subsequently, such parents adopted normative engagement expected by teachers and took part in activities that mostly benefited the school (e.g. volunteering in the classroom, attending school events, fundraising). Outside the school, parents arranged sports extracurricular activities for their children.

On the contrary, parents who believe that the main role of the school is to provide access to academic knowledge and “classical” culture, were not satisfied with their children’s education in Canada. They were critical of the curricular content and pedagogy, found family-school communication inadequate, and tried to compensate for this perceived lack by a range of activities at home. Such parents purchased additional textbooks and arranged tutoring for their children. Misalignment between the curriculum orientations of teachers and parents in this case negatively affected family-school communication and made it more difficult for parents to advocate on their children’s behalf.

How can such tensions be resolved? One possible solution is to increase awareness among teachers of the role curriculum orientations play both in their own work and in parental engagement. This can lead to better understanding of engagement practices among immigrant parents and ensure a more inclusive classroom experience for all students. A more ambitious solution could be to follow an inclusive curricular approach from the very outset. Young and Muller (2010) developed a 3 Futures curriculum model, where Future 1 is a vision of conservative education based on the transmission of dominant knowledge through the teacher-led instruction without taking into account the social context of education. If it shares some, but not all, elements of academic rationalism, then Future 2 is the combination of social efficiency and humanism: education is learner-centred, knowledge claims are relative, pedagogy is facilitative, and students are expected to acquire generic skills and competencies. The preferred curricular model here is Future 3, which combines rich academic knowledge with learner engagement. Bringing together elements of academic rationalism (disciplinary knowledge), social efficiency (attention to the social context), and humanism (active role of learners), Future 3 model has the genuine potential to offer a truly inclusive curriculum for all, where immigrant students will feel at home.

[1] Fraser, N. (2008). Reframing justice in a globalizing world. In K. Olson (Ed.), Adding insult to injury: Nancy Fraser debates her critics (pp. 273–291). Verso.

[2] Eisner, E. W., & Vallance, E. (Eds.). (1974). Conflicting conceptions of curriculum. McCutchan.

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