Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Are our continent boxes tokenistic?

Last September 2011, I started a course on Diversity and Equality in childcare practices. The core of the course is based on Louise Derman-Sparks’s Anti-bias Approach. The Anti Bias Approach is focused on what educators and carers can do to work against discrimination. In effect the Anti Bias Approach is saying that by teaching from a social justice perspective that respects and includes all cultures, children’s learning will be more meaningful. For those who might not have heard of Anti Bias Approaches, a short history follows.

The Anti Bias Curriculum (1989) began in the United States from a group of activist educators who were “dissatisfied with current curriculum for helping children learn about diversity” (Derman-Sparks,1989).

Louise Derman-Sparks

So, the curriculum occurred in a political and historical context influenced by the USA civil rights movement and the feminist movements in the 1960’s. In other parts of the world similar work also emerged because children’s services staff recognised the importance of dealing with issues of multiculturalism and antidiscrimination in their daily work. This international work grew out of policy changes, human rights movements and activists who were determined to make a difference in the lives of children and families.

The main principles of this way of working with children include:
• construct a knowledgeable, confident self identity (for children to be confident about who they are)
• develop comfortable, empathetic and just interaction with diversity (for children to be accepting of difference)
• develop critical thinking (for children to be critical about injustice)
• and the skills for standing up for oneself and others in the face of injustice (for children to act upon injustice)

Some of you might talk about multiculturalism instead of Anti-bias Approach. It is important to distinguish between both approaches because both ideas play different roles in children’s services and society, but both are equally important. In some ways, Multiculturalism is seen by many as a way of ‘including all cultures’ or ‘celebrating culture’ which gives the impression that all cultures are equally valued in society, but of course they are not. Unfortunately, it is often shaped around Government policy that has the power to allocate resources to institutions. An Anti Bias Approach, on the other hand, has been created specifically in the context of children’s services. This is an approach that is embedded in each service and can be adapted to each method of education, each philosophy, whether you are using A Montessori, Steiner or High Scope way of teaching. This  AB approach sets out to recognise the existing bias, discrimination and injustice that many people experience on a daily basis.

One of the great risks to meaningful work around multiculturalism and anti bias work is ‘The Tourist Approach’. Louise Derman-Sparks (1989) discusses the dangers of visiting a culture “for the day” in order to learn about difference, instead of meaningfully sharing cultural experiences, stories and ideas. Vajda in The Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood (2001, 31) shows the problems of a ‘Tourist Approach’:

A ‘tourist’ approach to an anti-bias, multicultural curriculum is better than denying the ethnic and racial multicultural nature of (…) society, but it can itself be limiting and even in some cases destructive. It forgets that culture, race, ethnicity and family influence children every day of their lives, not just on one special day of the year. A tourist approach is more likely to encourage stereotypes than to dispel them.
(emphasis added)

So, the challenge for children’s services staff is to seek ways to avoid tokenism and the ‘tourist approach’ and instead share meaningful experiences. In a Montessori environment, a Directress would present the children with the Common Needs of People (sometimes referred to as the Fundamental Needs of Humans). This series of lessons is meant to show students that throughout history, humans have demonstrated the same common needs:food, shelter, clothing, surviving, communication, etc… Maria Montessori believed it was important to study what humans have in common to instill in the child a greater sense of belonging to the universe. In a Montessori classroom, through the curriculum, children learn about similaritites and differences of different people around the world, building a connection and creating a great sense of belonging.   The Montessori curriculum strives to create a connection between home and school environment. And shows the children that it is okay to be different, along with the need to respect the differences of others.
The first thing I usually do at the beginning of the year is to get to know the families I welcome in my setting. I asked parents to fill in a few forms asking for the child’s birthplace, the family members and names, the languages spoken at home, their religion and special customs or traditions, the traditional cultural items/food they could share with the other kids etc…
I thought about displaying the information I will gather next year using a large world map in our Montessori classroom as a wonderful visual reminder to the plreschool community that we are all a celebration of cultural differences and similarities. This would be a great way too to involve families even more throughout the year as you study the different cultures around the world.
We also have our Montessori geography curriculum which goes on throughout the year. And one thing I started doing last year, shortly after creating my blog, was to put together “Continental Boxes”. Many of my blogger friends around the world (homeschoolers or preschool teachers) led the way and inspired me to do the same. You can study each continent for a week or a month, depending on how many materials you have and how in-depth you want to take the study. You can check a few of the boxes I have made by linking to my categories on the right hand side of the blog.

This is the contents from The African continent box - Counting Coconuts Blog
Back to my course… I will spare you my whole frustration with this course. My assistant Rachel and I have been studying together and we find the teacher quite narrow-minded and her teaching excessively repetitive. Anyway! When she asked some of us what we have set up in our classroom that would complement the goals of the Anti-bias approach, I mentioned my work on the continent boxes. I explain what they were for, how we use them etc.. Her reaction left me speechless. Apparently, these continent boxes are just what she calls “tokenism”. I looked up on the internet to make sure I got the correct meaning of the word:
1. The policy of making only a perfunctory effort or symbolic gesture toward the accomplishment of a goal, such as racial integration.
2. The practice of hiring or appointing a token number of people from underrepresented groups in order to deflect criticism or comply with affirmative action rules: "Tokenism does not change stereotypes of social systems but works to preserve them, since it dulls the revolutionary impulse" (Mary Daly).

OK. Not what our continent boxes are at all. I have obviously given her the wrong picture and I am definitely going to bring one or two of them with me to the next class to make sure she understands how efficient these boxes can be when trying to open up horizons. I know some clogs from Holland or beret from France might look very tokenistic and might present information about each group much like a tourist would experience it when visiting another country. These could be seen as stereotypes such : “all Latinos dance and eat tacos, all African Americans are athletic and eat collard greens, and all Native
Americans wear headdresses and do war dances, etc”. But the continent boxes are so much more. Continent boxes traditionally contain information, photographs, and objects related to the study of a particular continent. In a complete study of the world, you’ll end up with seven continent boxes. You can have pictures and/or postcards of the flags (though my teacher reckons flags are also very tokenistic!!!), people, places, animals, plants, and culture of each continent. There could be specific categories in each box such as the food, artwork, or musical instruments of a particular continent. We all add objects we find to represent the continent such as plastic animals and plants, real money and stamps, souvenirs, miniature dolls in costume, etc… Is this tokenism? What do you think? Is she right? Am I wrong? Am I the one who is narrow-minded? Am I kidding myself?


  1. No I definitely think you're right. I have read about the Anti Bias approach and when I had to rewrite our school's curriculum last year, I tried to include lots of ideas from it.

    I think it is so important to expose children - especially young children - to the idea that they are not the only children in the world and that all children (and all people) are in many ways, just like they are. They feel pain and love and live in a home with families etc. I think the Anti-Bias curriculum is about children being open to learning, meeting, and understanding how people other than those they know well, live - where they live, with whom, in what kind of home, with what kinds of religious beliefs etc.

    And continent boxes may contain tokens, but if they do (and honestly, I object to this word as it seems to demean the objects and what they represent), it would be because we as teachers feel they are a good way to introduce the idea of other cultures to our young students. Introduce! Truly I feel your teacher should keep in mind we are not expecting our 3 - 5 year olds to write an essay comparing religions of cultures. Rather, a "token" of Notre Dame may seem to only show a famous church in France, but in reality is introducing a beautiful and very important landmark - important to many around the world as well as the people of France. And it is also important historically and in literature! Hardly a token!

    Pardon my rant here, but I so agree with you - and I think your continent boxes are fabulous! Your students are lucky and blessed to have you as a teacher - and all your fabulous materials!

    Tokens? I think not.

  2. here is a comment that I accidentally deleted . It is from Fiona (Fiona, my apologies for this error!!). This is a very good comment and I wish I was as articulate and knowledgeable as Fiona and Karen. Here it goes:
    "Your teacher is definitely wrong for a couple of reasons. Karen's point above was my first reaction. These are 3-5 year olds. They are being introduced to new concepts and ideas (the very idea of other cultures, countries, people, geographic regions etc) from which discussion may be sparked. This is not a tokenistic effort! My second concern with her response is that it didn't come with an alternative. If you're doing it all wrong, then how would she do it? Push her on this one when you next meet. I would also be a bit fearful that the anti-bias approach - one which "sets out to recognise the existing bias, discrimination and injustice that many people experience on a daily basis" - would mean that children would perceive the group being studied as perpetual victims. It would fail to capture their successes, sources of pride and, as a feminist I have to add this in, agency. A failure to recognize a woman's agency, a black person's agency, a poor person's agency, because you are so focused on the injustice, means that you often fail to teach children about the ways in which marginalized people subvert authority, undermine their oppressors, and celebrate their cultures and histories in ways that the oppressor does not understand or even notice.That said, one of the most interesting things I have ever read about teaching children about inequality, whether race, class, gender etc - was in a book called Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman . It has a chapter on race called "Why White Parents don't talk about race" which talks about "diverse environment theory" - the theory many parents have that if they live in an ethnically diverse environment their kids will think everyone is the same and won't absorb societal racism. It turns out to be completely false. What helps children understand diversity and race is to TALK about it, explicitly, something white parents (me included!) find very difficult to do. I wonder if it might be helpful to add some of this kind of content (you really need to read the chapter to fully understand how it works) to your continent box teaching to help get across what I imagine might be some of the principles of the anti-bias education. Okay, rant over!Fiona". Thank you so much Fiona. I will definitelty check up the book you mentioned.

  3. The problem here is dichotomy between the concepts that cultures have things in common and that cultures have things that make them special. Ideologues like your instructor don't realize (or don't care) that there is a danger to this exclusively "equalizing" approach...it is easier to make everyone equal if no one is special.

    I realized right away when we started our "cultural work" in our home when I looked for materials that they fell into one of these two camps. "This is something neat and special about Ireland" versus "Look at how this Irish child is just like this boy in Kenya." I think it would be a crime to pick one or the other. As long as we realize that we need to teach both we will do the child a great service. He needs to know both that the boy in Ireland as a lot of the same wants, needs, and interests as the child in Kenya. He also needs to know that Ireland is DIFFERENT than Kenya.

    I think at the primary level the child is so egocentric. They don't realize that every place isn't the same as "their" place and it is this need to learn that other places are "different". Anyone who spends time observing young children knows this and I think the continent boxes have sprung from the recognition of this need. The beauty of the boxes is that they aren't a "for the day" item, but a permanent, changing and growing collection that exists for the child every day. I have made a conscious decision to start with "what makes the culture special" in primary and deal with both the "special" and the "equal" in Elementary.

    Think about what we know about the stages of development from Montessori. A three year old engaged in critical thinking about social justice? Really? Does that sync with what we know about how a 3 yo thinks?

    Also, I think the fact that we include a continent box for the child's OWN continent takes care of this whole stereotyping fear. It will be pretty clear to my North American children that they are not running around wearing Indian headdress, or war danced, or milked a cow, or seen a buffalo roadrunner or bobcat (the North American continent box should be full of ants, chipmunks in squirrels if we are going to base them on what we SEE everyday). They understand that the bald eagle or the roadrunner are animals that our continent has that are "special" on our continent. Creating an excitement to SEE and experience "different things" is a big step to being "comfortable with diversity."

    Question: Do you even care what this woman thinks? It is impossible to argue with an ideologue. It's a mental illness really. I find this prevalent ideology in which we must pretend we are all the same nauseating. This holds hands with the whole problem in public education in which the "exceptional" are being cut down in the interest of us becoming "equal." We were supposed to help bring up the middle and the bottom, not cut down the top.


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