Rethinking Multiculturalism/Reassessing Multicultural Education

Associate Professor Megan Watkins and Professor Greg Noble

(with Professor Kevin Dunn, the NSW Department of Education, and Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards) 

The nature of Australia's cultural diversity is changing dramatically. Intergenerational change, cultural adaptation and the widening cultural, linguistic and religious diversity of Australia's immigrants and their children has necessitated a reassessment of how best to understand and cater for this cultural complexity.

This is crucially important for schools that have to adapt their programs to meet these challenges and for education systems to ensure their teacher workforce is appropriately trained to effect this change.

These issues were addressed through the Australian Research Council Linkage Project, 'Rethinking Multiculturalism/Reassessing Multicultural Education (RMRME)', conducted by ICS researchers Associate Professor Megan Watkins and Professor Greg Noble together with Professor Kevin Dunn from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology, the NSW Department of Education (opens in a new window)[DOE], and Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards (opens in a new window)[BOSTES].

The project involved a large-scale survey of teachers, interviews with students, parent and school staff, and action research projects in 14 schools. In the first stage of the project, the researchers conducted the first-ever comprehensive survey of NSW DOE teachers' attitudes and understandings of cultural diversity and practices of multicultural education in schools.

Watkins and Noble also conducted the 42 focus groups with parents, teachers and students to garner more detailed data around issues arising from the survey.

The data revealed something of a mismatch between this complexity and teachers' experience and expertise in multicultural education, together with uneven implementation of the NSW DOE policy on multicultural education.

"Despite wide support and good intentions amongst teachers, our research has indicated that there is still a degree of confusion and varied understandings among teachers' around multiculturalism —
and even around the nature of cultural diversity — necessitating more intensive professional learning in schools," said Associate Professor Megan Watkins.

To address this issue, research teams of teachers across 14 different schools were trained as part of the RMRME project to undertake action research into areas of need around multicultural education in their schools.

This led to significant change in many of these schools where projects around parent and community engagement, academic literacy for English as an additional language and dialect students, critical literacy and inclusive curricula were devised.

Many of these schools have continued with implementation beyond the project, and have since been identified by the NSW DOE as exemplars in their field demonstrating the direct impact of RMRME on hundreds of teachers, parents and students in schools across NSW and beyond.

This engaged approach to research is a hallmark of Watkins and Noble's work, melding theory and practice to promote sustainable change in schools.

The findings of the RMRME project are detailed in three project reports which were widely disseminated to NSW DEC schools and various community organisations, as well as featured on the project website (opens in a new window). The project website has received over 236,300 visitors from audiences across the US, UK, Japan, Turkey, India, Thailand, Mexico, Germany and Indonesia — demonstrating the global reach of the project's findings.

The project's findings were also presented and discussed at a two-day conference held at Western Sydney University. The conference was attended by over 350 key academics, policy-makers, community members and practitioners in Australia, including Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner.

Professor Greg Noble and Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner, at the Rethinking Multicultural Education: Research, Policy, Practice ConferenceProfessor Greg Noble and Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner, at the Rethinking Multicultural Education: Research, Policy, Practice Conference.

RMRME has also proven to be influential in advancing policy around multicultural education, with the project's research reports being discussed in NSW parliament and drawn upon in the recent revision of the NSW DOE Multicultural Education Policy.

Finally, while the research has already produced a significant number of both professional and scholarly publications, the full effect of its impact in terms of academic recognition and policy responses is yet to be felt. A major monograph on the project as an international paperback release with Bloomsbury Press is due early 2017. Reviewers have described the forthcoming book as "a significant contribution to knowledge" and "a must-read for rethinking multiculturalism in schools".

Associate Professor Megan Watkins presenting at the Rethinking Multicultural Education: Research, Policy, Practice ConferenceAssociate Professor Megan Watkins presenting at the Rethinking Multicultural Education: Research, Policy, Practice Conference.

Research Team

Western Sydney University:

  • Associate Professor Megan Watkins (Institute for Culture and Society)
  • Professor Greg Noble (Institute for Culture and Society) 
  • Professor Kevin Dunn (School of Social Sciences and Psychology) 
  • Dr Garth Lean (Institute for Culture and Society and School of Social Sciences and Psychology)
  • Helen Barcham (Institute for Culture and Society) 
  • Neroli Colvin (Institute for Culture and Society) 

NSW Department of Education:

  • Nell Lynes
  • Eveline Mouglalis

Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards:

  • Robyn Mamouney