CEPA eprint 2933

Children's perceptions of other cultures

Gash H. & Murphy-Lejeune E. (2005) Children's perceptions of other cultures. In: Deegan J., Devine D. & Lodge A. (eds.) Primary voices: Equality diversity and childhood in irish primary schools. Institute of Public Administration, Dublin Ireland: 205–221. Available at http://cepa.info/2933
Table of Contents
1. Social representations and racial or ethnic differences
2. Cross-cultural communication and perceptions of other people: images, judgements, opinions, stereotypes
3. Data collection: from questionnaires to texts
4. Analysing children’s perceptions of other cultures: what do we learn?
4.1 Demographic analysis
4.2. Analysis of open texts
In this chapter, various research projects are presented dealing with children’s perceptions of other cultures, with the word “culture” referring primarily in this instance to other national or ethnic entities. The issue of perceptions of other cultures is linked with children’s constructions of their identity and may eventually determine their attitudes and behaviour to others. Children construct social images of the groups they belong to and of other groups at an early stage of their socialisation. These early representations are acquired without them being aware of the processes at work. This is why representations often resist modification. This issue is difficult to deal with in schools and the tendency is for teachers to keep away from it. Outlining the nature, characteristics and role of social perceptions and representations of otherness in cross-cultural communication is a first step towards a fuller understanding of this area. We agree, however, with Goldstone who warns that researchers who identify difference merely reify it. We suggest strategies in line with the constructivist philosophy of the Primary Curriculum to promote pluralism.
Key words: Children, identity, social representations, stereotypes, prejudice
Two major demographic and political changes are forcing the issue of intercultural communication and, as a consequence, that of social representations of otherness, in Ireland. The first one is the construction of Europe and the necessity couched in official texts since the treaty of Maastricht (1992) to develop a sense of European citizenship among schoolchildren. The European dimension in education implies being open to others who are outside one’s own national context. The second change is the present more diverse context prevailing in Irish society, and more particularly in Irish classrooms, as a result of immigration since 1993. The presence of different others within one’s own borders prompts more questioning than has been the case about cultural and ethnic diversity. Irish Government policy identifies the European dimension and both tolerance and respect for diversity as key issues in primary education (Ireland, 1999).
In this chapter, we will present various research projects dealing with children’s perceptions of other cultures, the word “culture” referring primarily in this instance to other national or ethnic entities. The issue of perceptions of other cultures is important in that it is linked with children’s constructions of their identity and may eventually determine their attitudes and behaviour to many others. Children construct social images of the groups they belong to and of other groups at an early stage of their socialisation (Lambert and Klineberg, 1967; Tajfel, Jahoda, Nemeth, Campbell and Johnson, 1970; Aboud, 1988). These early representations are acquired without them being aware of the processes at work. This is why representations often resist modification. This issue is difficult to deal with in schools and the tendency is for teachers to keep away from it. Outlining the nature, characteristics and role of social perceptions and representations of otherness in cross-cultural communication is a first step towards a fuller understanding of this area. We agree, however, with Goldstone (2000) who warns that researchers who identify difference merely reify it. We suggest strategies in line with the constructivist philosophy of the Primary Curriculum (Ireland, 1999) to promote pluralism (MacLachlan and O’Connell, 2000).
1. Social representations and racial or ethnic differences
As research reminds us (Zarate, 1993; Cain and Briane, 1994; UNESCO, 1986), social representations play a crucial role in our encounters with different others. However, this role is often little discussed in education programmes. The sociologist Durkheim was one of the first to study social categorisation, a process acknowledged as the “first step in the treatment of the perception of a given person” (Moscovici, 1994, p. 182). Later on, in his study of prejudice, Allport (1954) analysed what he called “preferential thinking” in the formation of in-groups and referred to “the normality of prejudgment”. He maintains that individuals have “a propensity to prejudice”, which lies in their “normal and natural tendency to form generalisations, concepts, categories, whose content represents an oversimplification of (their) world of experience” (Allport, 1954, p.26). As a result, categories and the personal values they convey frequently conflict with evidence. Indeed, there is often little correlation between the qualities alleged to mark a group as a whole and the complex realities of people’s lives. Group differences are mostly ascribed and tell more about the originators than about their targets: “the features that are taken into account are not the sum of ’objective’ differences, but only those which the actors themselves regard as significant” (Barth, 1969, p. 299). In brief, the process of social categorisation is aptly described as a highly subjective constructivist process. At a more general level, Aboud (1988, p.4) defined racial prejudice as “an organized pre-disposition to respond in an unfavourable manner toward people from an ethnic group because of their ethnic affiliation”. While prejudice involves cognitive and affective components, stereotyping is often studied as a cognitive phenomenon and is defined as a generalized attribution of personal characteristics to a group.
Stereotypic racial and ethnic differences are studied because they represent “the core for the categorisation of ideas about human differences” (Allport, 1954, p. 106). Simmel, in his seminal essay on the stranger, was the first to draw attention to the social position of strangers as natural group members, highlighting their ambivalent position as elements “whose membership within the group involves both being outside it and confronting it” (Simmel, 1971, p. 143-144). In spite of their being in the group, there is a tendency on the part of other members to evaluate strangers on the basis of the categories to which they are assigned (Wood, 1934). Thus, at first, strangers are not perceived as individuals, but typified as representative of their group. In this case, group traits predominate, while individual traits become invisible and the perceiver tends to apply similar traits to all group members. This process of initial over-generalisation followed by differentiation through experience is a general one in developmental psychology and serves as a model to understand how children’s stereotypes change. It is important to remember, however, that stereotypes can be difficult to change once they form part of the child’s identity (Gash, 1992; Gash, 1993a). This, therefore, is a crucial time for Irish society: will we be able to avoid the move from old-fashioned to systematic racism? (MacLachlan and O’Connell, 2000, p.7).
Children learn racial stereotypes by the beginning of primary school (Bigler and Liben, 1993; Aboud, 1988). In their major study of children’s views of foreign people, Lambert and Klineberg (1967) began with children’s self perceptions, and their conceptions of their own national group. The dimensions of foreign children they investigated included similarity-dissimilarity and desirability-undesirability. They argued that stereotypes emerge as children construct their own identity as contrasted with different others and further that the affective components of these early constructions tend to be maintained throughout life. While stereotyping appears early and we would argue serves to provide children with ways of understanding difference, it also clearly filters experience by focussing on what is expected (Bigler and Liben, 1993). During the primary school age range, children’s knowledge of other countries increases (Barrett (http://www.surrey.ac.uk/Psychology/staff/papers/mb-litrev.html). Their views of others differentiate (Doyle, Beaudet and Aboud, 1988) and become somewhat less stereotyped.
2. Cross-cultural communication and perceptions of other people: images, judgements, opinions, stereotypes
Cross-cultural communication implies that individuals from different cultures are interacting either directly, in face-to-face interactions, or indirectly, through mediated forms of communication, e.g., media (television, radio and newpapers), art, and literature. Since direct interactions between strangers occur less frequently, there is usually a tendency to “imagine” others or form a mental picture of them on the basis of partial information, prior to any personal contact. In other words, socially-constructed representations constitute a prism through which intercultural communication is effected. In this context, the tension between distance and proximity is particularly forceful. In a relation of spatial proximity, such as a live intercultural encounter, mutual representations are constantly put to the test and reinvented. Personal and social identities are necessarily strained in this interplay between reality, perceptions and individuals. So how do people think when they think of other cultures?
We could sum up the process saying that four types of images coexist at two levels. The first level consists of self-images: as I see myself and as the other sees her/himself. The second level consists of hetero-images or images of others: as the other sees me and as I see the other. If group identities are involved, pronouns can be interchanged for we/us and they/them. It can be assumed that the link or prism between self-perceptions and perceptions of others colours or distorts all perceptions. As Robert Burns (1786) wrote, “oh, would some power the gift give us to see ourselves as others see us”.
If the term “images” was favoured in a study of young people’s representations of other Europeans, it is because foreign places and their inhabitants are usually perceived as distant images before any real-life contact takes place (Murphy-Lejeune, 1995a). In any case, physical proximity does not guarantee that the outcome of the contact will be positive (Amir, 1969). Use of the term “images” emphasises the mental distance between perceiver and object of perception, as well as the cognitive deficit at play. Schoolchildren are notoriously misinformed about other cultures and confusions abound in their descriptions of others. In the 12 year-olds’ texts, Ireland is confused with Iceland, Holland or Scotland, “somewhere in the North of England” with “haunted castles” or alternatively as a place about which many “don’t know anything”. The term “images” also captures the affective component present in these descriptions. Some children indicate their wish to become more knowledgeable about neighbouring countries and their desire to visit them. Others state that they cannot write about a country they have not visited. More rarely, a few display either a natural antagonism or closeness towards the unknown. The perception process is indeed multifaceted. Cognitive, affective, behavioural and symbolic elements are inter-connected. As a result, merely correcting misinformation is not in itself sufficient to alter attitudes to different others.
The terms “representation” and “perception”, which are quasi interchangeable, are neutral generic terms. They designate the product and the process of mediation between reality and an individual’s ideas. The terms “judgement”, “opinion” and “prejudice” emphasise the subjective nature of these perceptive products. Judgements and opinions indicate a given intellectual or affective orientation which, once formed, affects subsequent perceptions. Other terms impart the often irrational and unreflective character of some perceptions. In prejudices, the attitude, positive or negative, precedes and predetermines contact with reality. The term “stereotype” highlights the simplistic character of the response. Stereotypes are economical, standardised and rigid reactions sparing the perceiver the effort of having to cope with evidence. They are perceptive shortcuts humans avail of naturally. Indeed, one of the main results of research in the area is that the stereotyping tendency is pretty universal and inevitable. In this light, the issue is not so much how to prevent stereotyping, but how to deconstruct it and show it for what it is, an incomplete representation revealing the perceiver’s impoverished knowledge and myopic attitude towards others.
Social representations, of national, ethnic or other groups, fulfil a powerful function. They express a certain worldview, assigning group members their “right” place while providing their owners with the sense of security coming from keeping everyone “in their place”. Perceptions of foreign cultures, maybe because they enter the realm of various curriculum subjects, constitute a rather hazy area in compulsory education. Yet, paradoxically, they represent a major stake in the construction of a more diverse and open Europe, not to mention in our understanding of global issues. Discourses about other cultures are more often orchestrated by the media, with a tendency to comfort easy stereotyping, than by teachers. The role of the latter in this context would be to offer alternatives to this kind of public discourse allowing children first to express their views or to gather predominant views and secondly to analyse them so as to become aware of their main characteristics and content.
3. Data collection: from questionnaires to texts
Various research designs have been used over the years to investigate children’s perceptions of otherness. Among the methods used, one could draw a line from documents with a predominantly quantitative approach, such as questionnaires or attitude scales, to those with a qualitative approach, e.g., open texts or interviews. The choice of technique will have an impact on the questions asked, more or less open or closed, on the quality of the answer, from a “yes/no” choice to a page-long text, on the number of participants involved, small to large population, and on the subsequent analysis of the data, statistical or content-based.
Quantitative research methods ask questions which focus strictly on the research area. Answers must be sufficiently brief to allow for statistical treatment of a large sample. The earliest studies typically used checklists of adjectives attributed to diverse ethnic or national groups (Katz and Braly, 1933). Frenkel-Brunswick’s (1948) questionnaire on ethnocentrism represents a historical example of this type of approach. Its aim is to assess the degree of suspicion towards foreigners and people outside the child’s in-group. The results are presented in the form of a prejudice scale and each child is assigned an ethnocentric score. The researcher usually then tries to correlate the results with variables such as age, socio-economic or personality groups or to bring to light dominant stereotypes among those suggested.
Gash, beginning in 1992, undertook a series of studies on children’s perceptions of different others using questionnaires that included checklists of adjectives. Initially the studies concerned perceptions of children with special needs (Gash, 1993b; 1996; Gash and Coffey, 1996). Later a series of studies were undertaken about children from different countries and cultures (Gash, 1995, 1999). Feerick (1993) developed the initial model questionnaire on Irish primary children. The questionnaires asked each child to imagine that another child was coming to his or her school and assessed attitudes and representations. The procedures used were similar in each study. In the studies described in this chapter, the participants were asked to imagine that a child from “another country” was going to come to their school. The questions measuring attitude gave respondents an opportunity to express how sociable they felt towards this child and how like oneself this child dressed or seemed. There were a number of questions also about inclusive schooling arrangements and the child’s experience of children from this country, whether in school or outside school. Sociability scores, for example, were created by summing answers to the questions concerned with smiling at the child from the other country (1), asking him/her to sit beside you (2), chatting to him/her (3), telling him/her secrets (4), making him/her your best friend (5), inviting him/her to your house to play (6) or for a birthday party (8), picking him/her on your team (9), asking personal questions (10) and teasing (11). Class teachers read these questions and children noted “yes” or “no” on an answer form.
Another part of the questionnaire measuring different representations provided 15 bipolar Likert-scale descriptors they might use to describe the child from another country. In each case the respondent was asked to circle one option: (The first one was) “fights - sometimes fights - does not fight”; (the second was) “shares - sometimes shares - greedy”; (and the third was) “strong - a bit of both - weak”. Additional dichotomies used to capture prejudice included: good-bad, poor-rich, hard life-easy life, clever-stupid, happy-sad, clean-dirty, healthy-unhealthy, works hard-lazy, tell truth-lies, not nice.
Studies based on suggested lexical items obtain data in an experimental setting. They provide relatively simple answers, which can be quantitatively interpreted. But pre-selected answers somewhat limit the subject’s freedom of expression. It could even be said that, in many instances, the stereotypical effect is built in the research instrument[Note 1] . This is why open-ended texts and/or interviews are sometimes preferred as a way of obtaining more personal data. The content of the questions does not necessarily differ between the two types of instruments, but the answers do. The techniques used to obtain textual data range from a list of key-words to a continuous text. In these cases, the outcome is a spontaneous answer eloquent about a child’s attitudes and mental images. Such techniques have been widely used in research on identity, on cognitive and affective development and on representations of self and others.
Key-words were used by Cain and Briane (1994) to bring to light the kind of erroneous information and representations which lead to the construction of stereotypes among schoolchildren learning a foreign language. The children were asked to write down within a two-minute period of time the words they associated with a country whose language they were learning. A similar technique, with open-ended answers, was used to obtain longer texts exploring the representations which schoolchildren have constructed either of a foreign country, in this case Germany and France (OFAJ, 1979, 1980), or of their own country, i.e., Ireland (Egan, 1977, Egan and Nugent, 1983). Murphy’s research (1985, 1988) combined auto-images and hetero-images by asking children first to write about their own country and secondly about a given foreign country, Ireland or France in most cases, but also the United-States. In all these instances, the brief given was: “What do you think of when you think of your/another country? Write anything that comes to mind as freely as possible”. The data-gathering instrument used is easy to manage, efficient and provides rich insights into individuals’ perceptions. The wealth of material allows for a diversity of classroom work based on the data collected.
The specific aims of these research projects, which use a similar data collection instrument, were quite close, but somewhat different in their perspective. The OFAJ research showed the richness of data collected with open texts where more or less accurate knowledge, images, stereotypes, attitudes to others and feelings derived from personal experience coexist in an idiosyncratic production. Egan’s objective was to study the development of the conception of nationhood among schoolchildren and, more particularly, their affective development. To this end, he paid attention to what children think feel and examined children’s affective development in the light of Bloom’s model and Dabrowski’s (1966) four stages of development of the concept of nationhood. In this context, the texts illustrate the theory rather than the theory emerging from the data.
Murphy was interested in exploring the relationship between self and other, in-group and out-group, in children’s descriptions of national groups. It was assumed that the native prism conditions perceptions of others and that the other culture functions as a mirror to the native culture. In this case, the aim was neither to assess the children’s degree of knowledge nor to examine the extent to which their perceptions are founded on evidence. The presiding logic was to collect data so as to engage participants in a reflective process about how perceptions of self and others are constructed and about the kind of language people use when they think about identity issues. The data collected are usually extremely rich. However, the focus being on national descriptions, the risk is to reinforce a binary vision of cultural contacts, predicated on the contrast between “us” and “them”. Another risk is that the texts attract the very kind of generalisations inherent to group descriptions ( Irish..). Finally, if the data collection instrument is close to that of the interview in that participants can freely express their thoughts, the activity is one way and the relationship to others exists only in the children’s imagination. Adopting a different brief, as Cain and Briane did (1994, p. 18), restores the interactive dimension because a foreign interlocutor is posited as the addressee: “If you had to present your country/a foreign country to someone of your own age who does not know it, what would you say?”
Children’s texts involve their authors in some form of introspection. The data collection phase sets the scene for a process of reflection, ideally leading to greater awareness of identity and diversity issues. This is why this first phase should be followed by a close analysis of the texts collected allowing for discussion of these issues.
4. Analysing children’s perceptions of other cultures: what do we learn?
According to the objectives one pursues, the data collected may lend themselves to different analyses or uses by the teacher or the researcher. Some will focus on demographic results, others more on content or language analysis.
4.1 Demographic analysis
Two types of results occur repeatedly in Gash’s questionnaire studies (Gash and Gash, 1999). One is that Irish boys and girls differ on some dimensions, with boys appearing to be more negative. Second, there are some differences between rural and urban children in which rural children appear more accepting. For example, Irish boys were significantly more racist about French children (greedy, bad, stupid, dirty, unhealthy, lazy, lies, not nice, don’t like them) and inclined to see them as different (sad, does not look like me, does not dress like me) than Irish girls. In a study on Greek children, Irish boys were more likely than Irish girls to think about Greeks in terms of a negative image “Slob” (doesn’t fight, rich and unhealthy). In a study on Third World children Irish boys were again more racist than Irish girls (bad, dirty, does not fight, greedy, lazy, tells lies, sad, and stupid). There was a greater tendency also for Irish boys than Irish girls to think about Third World Children with a “famine image” (poor, dirty, and hungry).
In some studies Irish rural children were friendlier and more accepting than Irish urban children. Girls were more sociable and socially concerned than boys in the study on Third World children. Older children who were in second class in this study were more sociable and more inclusive than first class children. Interestingly, more rural children than urban children knew children from the Third World, had contact with them in their schools and were less inclined to see Third-World children in terms of the unhealthy famine image.
The representations of urban children of Third World children emphasised difference more than did those of rural children (does not look like me, and does not dress like me), and saw them as having access to the idyllic life (rich, easy life, and happy). We suspect this was due to difference in access.
In a comparative Comenius study of French and Irish schools, boys were less sociable than girls, only in Ireland (Gash, 1999). Detailed analysis showed there was an interaction between gender and country due to a greater difference between girls and boys in Ireland than in France. This arose because the Irish girls were the most sociable group and the Irish boys were the least sociable group. Irish children used negative prejudiced words (see above) more than did the French children, and analysis of boys and girls in each country showed again that the Irish girls used these words least and the Irish boys used them a lot more, as did the French girls. In regard to perception of difference, while there was neither a difference between Irish and French pupils, nor between boys and girls, Irish girls were inclined to see French children as less different in comparison with Irish boys and French girls saw Irish children with a similar level of difference as Irish boys.
The most recent data set using these questionnaires was collected in two Dublin schools (Gash, 2004). One school was an all boys’ school in a middle class area and the other was a mixed (boys’ and girls’) school in West Dublin. The idea was to collect some contemporary pilot data since there has been a dramatic upsurge in refugees in Ireland since the early 1990s when the other data were collected. One additional feature was added to this study. The questionnaire was given to each child once with the target as a “child from Africa” and once as a “child from Ireland”, in order to examine differences in responses (switched answers) to the different target children.
Questions for which there were significant differences in switched answers were concerned with: inviting him/her to your house to play; and the questions about the ability of the child to do the same maths and reading as the other children, and whether the new child would have the same hobbies as the other children. A small number (5%) of the children who said they would invite the African child to their house said they would not extend this invitation to the Irish child; whereas a significantly (pSave Selection
There were some differences in sociability in these data. Girls were excluded from these comparisons as one school was boys’ only and as we have seen girls tend to be more sociable. Pupils in the more racially integrated school were more sociable towards the hypothetical African child, and 3rd class boys were more sociable than 5th class boys (pSave Selection
4.2. Analysis of open texts
Being open, the texts collected come in many forms. Some contain lists of words-images, rather similar to unconscious thoughts. Others present a mixture of facts and opinions, sometimes in the form of stereotypes or clichés. In most cases, the texts demonstrate that thinking about national identity, one’s own or others’, is an emotional, frequently non-rational process. Some texts reveal that their authors are aware of their own subjective standpoint and of the limits of their knowledge. A few, among the older ones, are capable of distanciating themselves from the collective discourse inherited from their early socialisation.
The texts can be analysed and used for pedagogical purposes in several different ways. To analyse here means to observe from various perspectives what has been written. The language used, by children or adults alike, reveals the way the participants categorise reality and organise their perception of the world, on the basis of their experience.
Lexical analysis represents a first approach focusing on the language used. It consists in dividing the texts into thematic units, e.g., key words or recurring themes, and grouping them into semantic categories such as “environment”, “people”, “politics/history”, “national economy”, and “traditions/culture”. Language analysis is another approach which focuses on specific linguistic elements in the texts, e.g., verbal tenses (the present tense indicating permanence, static immutability), articles and qualifiers (the all-embracing ’the’ or the more cautious ’some’), pronouns (I/we, they/them), modals (’may’ expresses some degree of circumspection about one’s discourse rather than certainty), generic / specific terms (e.g., ’eat’-’sleep’ or ’Eiffel Tower’-’baguette’). Close linguistic analysis of the texts brings forth the characteristics of discourse in relation to identity issues, i.e., perennial visions, generalisations, binary oppositions, and general lack of regard for complexity, change and objective knowledge.
A semantic content analysis would focus on the meanings or what is expressed, rather than on how it is expressed, and would address the following questions:
what kind of mental images or representations emerge from the descriptions?what are the predominant images about self and about others?any stereotypes?are these representations shared by most or are there marked individual differences or contradictions?how can the similarities and differences in views be accounted for?do they reflect the beholder’s personal perspective, a social point of view, a national vision?what is the value (positive, neutral, ambivalent, negative) attached to these images and perceptions? what do they reveal about attitudes towards the countries mentioned and about the students’ affective development?when comparing descriptions from individual to individual can correlations be observed between the two descriptions?what role does knowledge play? is lack of knowledge recognised or not? are the sources of information identified?what can we learn about group perceptions, their function, social transmission, limits, from these descriptions?
Lexical or thematic analysis involves identifying the choice of topics mentioned by the children and the frequency of these topics. The choice of topics may be construed as an indication of the dominant national self-image. For example, images in Irish self-descriptions are predominantly psychological (Murphy, 1985): the Irish saw themselves primarily as a people with specific character traits embodying a certain way of being. By contrast, pupils surveyed mainly express the predominant French self-image in terms of the economy (agriculture, food) and the political values the country seems to represent, i.e., freedom and democracy. In brief, the concept of the nation varies from country to country according to historical and geopolitical factors. The choice of topics also highlights an age factor. Conceptions of one’s country tend to evolve over time, younger pupils focusing on the physical environment rather than on more abstract aspects of their country. The tone of the descriptions reflects the affective development of the child according to Dabrowski (1966) from unquestioned attachment, ambivalence, moral evaluation to personal identification, as well as the individual’s affective maturity.
A cursory look at the choice of topics and a lexical comparison between self- and other-descriptions from individual to individual validates the hypothesis of the perceptual link or filter: the two descriptions are usually a reflection of one another, a result which underlines their subjective nature. Further analysis of the descriptions corroborates that we usually perceive other cultures through the lenses of our own native glasses. In other words, when we describe other cultures and people, we do so from a culturally grounded perspective saying a lot about ourselves. For example, the Irish tend to see France as a large country where the weather is nice by comparison to their own. A Nigerian student described France as cold. Indeed, the contradictions observed throughout the descriptions of any given country highlight the non-rational and affective nature of representations. Their factual basis is slim, but their imaginary content is high.
Generally, attitudes towards the two cultures differ in cognitive terms. While knowledge about one’s own country is assumed to be extensive and well-grounded, the texts manifest more modesty concerning foreign countries. Ignorance is frequently mentioned as an obstacle to describing another place. This lack of knowledge about other cultures may sometimes act as an incentive to learn foreign languages. In Murphy’s research, few students showed that they were aware that national identity is usually an accident of birth. In other words, awareness of one’s own enculturation and socialization does not come naturally (Berry, 2000).
The results emerging from the analysis can be discussed usefully in class. To voice one’s own mental representations and to hear others voicing theirs, to confront one’s own images with other images, to listen to voices coming from different social, ethnic or national settings, to apprehend them in their own singular time and place, to distance oneself from the immediacy of social, and more narrowly national, enculturation, these are some of the aims of a pedagogy of otherness which remains to be invented (Murphy-Lejeune, 1995b). The notion of socio-cultural distance or proximity is central to the issue of our representations of others and of ourselves. What constitutes the distance between two individuals, between one culture and another, or between two individuals from the same culture and from different cultures? What is a stranger? When are we strangers? These are some of the questions to engage in when dealing with perceptions of other cultures.
The data that we have presented show that Irish children are often quite prejudiced about other children who are different from themselves, particularly when these others are not well known. It seems as though it is part of the human condition to be willing to project those parts of ourselves that we do not want to accept and with which we have not come to terms. In this case it is very important for teachers to be ready to prepare children for all newcomers to class who may elicit prejudice, and in particular to monitor their entry conditions so that newcomers to classrooms from different countries are not treated in exclusionary ways. This is a whole-school issue and needs to be part of any schools’ policy so that all teachers and workers in the school are aware of the policy and are proactive in preventing racist abuse of children who are different. The advantages of moving early and definitely are clear.
One strategy advocated is the use of a constructivist approach in classrooms to promote tolerance and inter-personal mutual respect (Gash and Gash, 1997, 1999). This strategy arises from ethical implications of the constructivist approach to learning, an emergent form of Piaget’s theory underlying the 1999 Curriculum (Gash, 1993c, 2000). Theoretical principals underlying this approach include the self-directed and developmental nature of learning (Ireland, 1999). A constructivist approach (1) invites learners to accept responsibility for their constructed knowledge and feelings because these arise as results of their own directed action: and in addition (2) to be sensitive to possible limitations in their constructions because learning is not only directed or focused but also developmental. Knowledge is often at the boundary of the unknown, at any moment conditions may change and what was certain may no longer be viable. This acceptance of limitations and responsibility for the processing of what is known, invites discussions of the origins of differences between people in their points of view. So each of us has our own view, but no one view is necessarily the only view. In this deep way, the constructivist model of knowing invites a pluralist multicultural approach. Teachers and educators may on the one hand be constructivists without knowing it, or alternatively they may need experiences to allow this approach to knowing to emerge.
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