As someone who likes what is written into the Common Core, it is often assumed that I am a fan of canonical knowledge. The fact is, I am not theoretically. I am, however, a fan of critical thinking and multiple perspectives; I think that Common Core does a good job at supporting that. As an avid consumer of informational text,. I came across a book that is new to me, but may be old to many who are well versed in curriculum. Christine Sleeter’s book, Un-Standardizing Curriculum: Multicultural Teaching in the Standards-Based Classroom, while published in 2005, is particularly timely in light of the recent adoption of the Common Core Standards by forty-seven states. Sleeter’s text is primarily about how to effectively design a multicultural curriculum within the guidelines of canonical standards. She outlines the major tenets of multicultural curriculum design, the dangers of standardizing knowledge, and practical steps for reflection among educators. Organized into nine chapters, Sleeter’s text walks readers through the historical approaches to curriculum, teacher agency regarding curriculum materials and the tenets of Transformative Intellectual Knowledge.
The Corporate Banking Model
Outlining the historical shifts in education from Brown to current times, she focuses how many approaches to curriculum rely on the corporate banking model. No Child Left Behind is used as an example of this corporate model of production within schools situating student learning as a process where teachers pour knowledge into students. Using almost literary language, Sleeter draws on multiple analogies to fully establish the notion of corporate banking and curriculum models. Sleeter develops the counterargument that all students, regardless of age or background, enter school with diverse funds of knowledge. Teachers, she posits, need to understand and value the knowledge that students enter school with and use that to build up and develop additional skills through.
Who Owns Knowledge?
Reliance on the corporate banking model of school necessitates a consensus regarding whose knowledge matters. The concept of canonical knowledge raises the question of who owns knowledge? Sleeter suggests that it is impossible for schools or students to have the same learning. School, as she explains, should not prioritize content beyond the basics, but promote critical thinking and develop skills. Schools should not determine what knowledge is official or whose narrative is valid. This type of promotion devalues the rich diversity that students enter school with. Sleeter supports these assertions with examples from school textbooks. She details research that shows that textbooks are regularly viewed as narratives about whom students are and who they should be. Textbooks serve as a model for what knowledge is valued. This is evidenced not only with what is in the textbook, but with what is absent. Sleeter details multiple studies that reveal the limited inclusion of Asian Americans in virtually any textbook. Native Americans, traditionally, have been treated as though they were relics of history or savages. African Americans are often depicted in limited capacity and their narratives are rarely portrayed as much more than a sidebar to the “real” knowledge being represented in the text.
Sleeter describes this type of marginalization as a misguided attempt at multiculturalism. She explains that often minimal references to other ethnicities are mistakenly promoted as a substitute to genuine inclusion of diverse knowledge and perspectives. In fact, Sleeter spends a large portion of a chapter explaining the differences between approaching multiculturalism from a celebratory lens where teachers point out differences or good things about a group and a critical, anti-racism lens. The latter, she advances, is a principle of multicultural curriculum that few teachers have been trained to consider. In fact, she suggests that few teachers understand the difference between the broad stroke of mentioning other ethnicities to presenting a multicultural curriculum. Sleeter links the inclusion of multiple cultures as a correlate to high achievement and student learning. She explains that building a curriculum where teachers connect to students through cultural frames results in increased student achievement. Sleeter establishes this point through references to Gloria Ladson-Billings’ 1994 Dreamkeepers. Ladson-Billings reports that students academically improved at substantially higher levels, as measured by achievement tests, when the content was culturally relevant to their own experiences. She regularly links the benefits of multicultural curriculum to the benefits of culturally relevant pedagogy.
As Sleeter progresses through the text she goes back to these questions, probing and suggesting answers. She shares the experiences of students in her Multicultural Curriculum Design Class and contrasts their levels of knowledge and planning experiences as they attempt to navigate those questions and select curriculum materials. Sleeter comprehensively shares the narrative experiences of her students to show the varying degrees of knowledge and challenges that arise when considering these four questions. Teacher agency and reflection are explored at great length by Sleeter. She calls for teachers to be reflective and conscious of their own ideologies that they may bring into the classroom. She suggests that teachers study epistemology and focus on works that reflect multiple perspectives. She outlines an approach that calls for teacher engagement in reflective writing, challenging their own thinking and understanding of pedagogy, curriculum, and their students.
The teacher reflection portion is where teachers reach into an uncomfortable space where they examine their possible deficiencies in terms of awareness and knowledge of other ideologies and cultures. She shares a detailed narrative of a student who learned that the textbook account of the famous “Pilgrim Thanksgiving” was not entirely based in facts. At the graduate level of student she reported that many of her students, like this one, only had information that they had learned from textbooks alone. Throughout the text, Sleeter shares student experiences with knowledge and their often deficit level of multiple perspectives and in many cases acceptance of knowledge that was simply erroneous.
Sleeter teaches her students to determine whose perspectives are omitted from curriculum materials and bring in materials that support a mirror into both the students’ cultural background and encourages exploration of multiple viewpoints. Analyzing the text for paradigms and themes is a critical step for both teachers and students. A multicultural approach to curriculum is rooted in exploration of different ideas, meanings, and interpretations.
Ultimately, Sleeter leads her readers to the conclusion that standards based reform demands a consensus on what knowledge is legitimate. The assessments for this type of consensus curriculum are often criterion referenced and poorly evaluate what students can do. Sleeter supports this with references to other studies that explain that supporters of standardized tests and knowledge promote this type of curriculum as a bridge to close the achievement gap (Cochran-Smith, 1994). By contrast, Multicultural curriculum embraces Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, performance tasks, and a belief in Transformative Intellectual Knowledge.
Sleeter’s text ends with a hopeful note that suggests that curriculum can, in fact, be transformative. This connects to Giroux’s (1988) language of possibility centered on the notion that quality education revolves around the critical capacity to imagine an alternative reality for education. Sleeter’s text comes with a certain discourse of hope. Multicultural curriculum, as Sleeter outlines it in her text, has the potential to raise consciousness and offer students an opportunity to think critically.
Sleeter’s Un-Standardizing Curriculum: Multicultural Teaching in the Standards-Based Classroom challenges teachers to examine their own classroom practices and ideologies. While promoting multicultural design principles, Sleeter grounds her arguments and assertions in sound theory and historical relevance. Sleeter raises four specific questions that have significance to educational policy makers. As the Common Core Standards begins implementation during the 2012-2013 school year teachers have an honest opportunity to evaluate how they are taking the needs and diverse knowledge base of their students into consideration when they plan. This is particularly critical as the public school student body becomes increasingly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and culture. Conclusively, Sleeter offers a rich blend of narrative, theory, and actionable pedagogy in her book. The strong foundational elements help readers to understand the critical sociological underpinnings of curriculum, the sociological deficiencies of consensus knowledge, and the role that teachers can play in building a multicultural curriculum. This book has given me ALOT to think about. I think any teacher, curriculum leader, or policy make who cares about how we educate a diverse body of students at least needs to read this book. Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know.
What to know more? Find out more about this book author:
Christine E. Sleeter, PhD. (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1982) is Professor Emerita in the College of Professional Studies at California State University Monterey Bay, where she was a founding faculty member. You can find out more about her at her website: www.christinesleeter.org