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The Future of Cultural Pedagogy: Why reframing our understanding of culture is urgent

Jyoti Gupta – June 18, 2024

As a social justice educator, I’ve been teaching children for years about inclusion and belonging. I went on to incorporate what they — and I — surmised  from these workshops into my critically acclaimed children’s book “Different Differenter: An Activity Book About Skin Color.” Now, I’m working on the follow-up, “Yesterday, Nexterday: An Activity Book About Culture.” 

The reasons why children need a book unpacking skin color are apparent — we live in an increasingly multiethnic society and children want to understand why they look different from others — sometimes even others in their family. This book took a show and tell approach about, among other things, science of skin color at an age-appropriate level, paired with art activities to help them absorb the concepts that were new to them. 

There are far more resources in early childhood education on culture than there are on skin color for children, as cultural pedagogy has been part of curricula for decades now. So why turn my focus to culture, and why is this subject urgent?

Rethinking our cultural pedagogy

The problem with the current state of cultural pedagogy is that it cannot accommodate the needs of our multicultural world. The framework it operates under is predicated upon an inadequate understanding of culture. That is to say, a flawed understanding of what culture is has led to the flawed way we teach it to children. 

The leading current model is called the ‘single-group studies approach’ by proponents, and ‘the tourist approach’ by detractors. It teaches about culture by showing the food, clothing, customs, and holidays of one people at a time. Culture, therefore, is the culmination of these items, as if the spectacle-like elements are all there is to culture.

This approach is not only incorrect and reductionist — it teaches children to understand culture as a collection of stereotypes that “other people” from faraway countries have, and not something that everyone has. Prejudice is created, not eliminated, as children begin to affiliate culture with “the other,” instead of seeing that they are a part of culture too.

The following incident has happened to me more than once during a workshop: While discussing culture with a predominantly White classroom, students indicated that they ‘did not have culture.’ This sort of thinking is the direct byproduct of outdated modes of multicultural education, and is the reason why we need to reframe how we understand culture.

With “Yesterday, Nexterday”, I aim not only to provide a toolkit to help children and the adults in their lives understand culture — I aim to redefine culture for our times by reframing several outdated conceptions:

  • Culture is cumulative, not constant: Culture is not static; it represents the culmination of a society’s evolution.
  • Culture is counterintuitive, not complex: The motives of other cultures are not complex; they are just counterintuitive to us because we have been conditioned to see things otherwise 
  • Culture is courageous, not constricting: We can adapt our traditional culture to suit our lives instead of letting it define us.
  • Culture is courteous, not a commodity: You can participate in culture by courteously sharing it with others; it cannot be purchased.
  • Culture is collective, not competitive: Certain cultures are not better than others — we all have one, and they’re all different. 

This framework teaches that we’re all a part of culture and shows children how to define it for themselves and understand their relationship to it. By reframing how we understand culture, we can use it as a unifying force instead of a divisive one, and we can work towards greater connections between cultures — fostering a more inclusive environment and promoting belonging for all.

https://www.instagram.com/thecolourismproject/

Jyoti is a DEIB consultant, children’s book author, and founder-creative director of The Colo(u)rism Project. Her Indiegogo fundraising campaign for the creation of “Yesterday, Nexterday: An Activity Book About Culture” is now live. You can support it at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/not-just-any-children-s-book–2#/, and participate in the conversation about reframing culture and creating culturally sustaining educational resources on insta @thecolourismproject