Social Education
February 1998
Volume 62 Number 2

Brick Walls and Breakthroughs: Talking about Diversity with White Teacher Education Students

Rahima Wade
Each semester, as I prepare to introduce the topic of diversity to the preservice teachers—most of them white—in my education classes, I pause to question what issues, materials, and strategies are likely to be most effective. Of course, I face the common concern of social studies teachers at all levels—too much content, too little time—but there is a more troubling issue at the root of my ruminations: my students’ attitudes toward diversity. Comments that former students have made to me about teaching children of color surface as I try to decide how to approach the topic. “I don’t have any prejudices,” one asserts. “Well, I guess I have some prejudices,” admits another, “but I certainly wouldn’t let them influence how I teach.” Still another says, “I’m going to get a teaching job in my hometown in Iowa; I don’t need to know about multicultural education.”
I have come to label these and similar statements expressed to me by white teacher education students over the past few years as “brick walls” to their understanding and valuing of diversity. Without breaking down these walls, it matters little what types of cultural information or anti-racist teaching materials I share with my students. While students of color in my class must also examine their prejudices and attitudes toward others, I have become increasingly concerned about the lack of concern for multicultural education among white teacher education students. If preservice teachers see multicultural education as irrelevant or unimportant, they are unlikely to be motivated to learn about diversity in a social studies methods course.
For this reason, I decided to introduce diversity issues in my course last semester with a description of five “brick walls” I have encountered frequently. Following the presentation, I invited each student to write a personal reaction. During the next week’s class, we engaged in a follow up discussion.

Multicultural Teacher Education
The perspective I try to bring to my social studies methods students has been labeled “social reconstructionist” by various scholars.1 It focuses on action aimed at altering dominant social values and behavior. Boyle-Baise has asserted that the social reconstructionist approach is most aligned with the definition of civic competence promoted by the National Council for the Social Studies Curriculum Standards.2 Ladson-Billings has noted that the social reconstructionist tradition “attempts to promote in teachers a disposition toward opposing inequity, not just celebrating diversity.”3 Prospective teachers must be equipped, in Pai’s words, to “challenge established practices, institutions, and ways of thinking, and conceive of new and alternative possibilities.”4
Unfortunately, studies on multicultural teacher education are seldom aligned with a social reconstructionist perspective.5 This deficiency stands in stark contrast to the realities of growing minority populations and pervasive ethnocentrism and prejudice in U. S. society.6 While various approaches to reducing prejudice in school-age children have been promoted,7 less has been written about how to address the prejudices held by their future, mostly white, teachers.
Some studies, however, have found the effects of in-class and community experiences on preservice teachers’ attitudes about diversity encouraging. Aaronsohn, Carter, and Howell, in an action research project conducted in their teacher education courses, found that preservice teachers initially held mostly negative stereotypes about inner city schools, students, and families. While the professors/researchers noted positive effects on their students’ attitudes through the use of in-class activities, writing exercises, and field visits to multicultural community and school sites, they also asserted that “supporting university students through that shift in world view was a persistent challenge.”8
In an Introduction to Multicultural Education course, Tran, Young, and Di Lella found that in-class lectures, guest speakers, and writing assignments, as well as cultural plunge field experiences (for example, field research in half-way houses, cultural centers, and ethnic churches) had a significant effect on changing students’ stereotypes of African Americans, Europeans, and Mexican Americans. The authors asserted that “teaching prospective public school instructors differently may be the critical link to re-shaping young minds against racism.”9
Boyle-Baise has noted the difficulties and successes in encouraging white teacher education students to consider their values and attitudes through classroom strategies chosen to enhance a social reconstructionist perspective.10 Banks has asserted that for effective multicultural education in our nation’s schools, “teachers must be provided with training and opportunities that will enable them to examine their feelings, attitudes, and values.”11

Brick Walls to Appreciating Diversity
In an effort to assist my teacher education students in examining their feelings, attitudes, and values about teaching diverse populations, I introduced the following five statements that I have heard repeatedly from preservice teachers in our elementary education program. While the beliefs behind these statements may exist in conjunction with each other or separately, each “brick wal#148; functions as a barrier to understanding and appreciating diversity and the importance of multicultural education.

Brick Wall # 1: “I don’t have any prejudices.”
I chose to begin with this statement because it is the one most frequently expressed and perhaps most difficult to break through. Many of my white teacher education students have been adamant that they hold no prejudices toward others who are different from them, and that they don’t need to explore their views on working with diverse populations. Because they have no prejudices, they maintain that they will treat all the children in their classrooms equally. An implied assumption is that this equal treatment will lead to their students’ treating each other with respect as well, resulting in a harmonious classroom community.

Brick Wall # 2: “My attitudes won’t affect my students.”
Some teacher education students recognize that they do have prejudicial attitudes toward different cultural groups. Even so, they maintain that they will not let these attitudes interfere with their teaching. They truly believe that they can somehow separate their negative attitudes from their day-to-day work in the classroom with children. They are not yet aware how words, body language, choice of curricular materials, and so many other aspects of their teaching are a direct reflection of their beliefs, values, and attitudes. They also do not yet understand the power that teachers have to affect the self-esteem and learning potential of their students.

Brick Wall # 3: “I’m not going to teach ‘those’ students.”
Many of the preservice teachers with whom I work state that they plan to teach in suburban or rural Iowa, in their hometown or a nearby location, or even in the very elementary school they attended. Other teacher education professors have noted that white teacher education students generally want to teach in a school setting similar to that in which they grew up.12 While teacher education students rarely come right out and say they do not want to teach children of color, their choice of teaching location often means they will be working with populations that are almost exclusively white. Furthermore, they do not understand or value the importance of multicultural education for students from all types of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Brick Wall #4 : “All I have to do is teach about countries and cultures.”
Preservice teachers’ experiences of multicultural education in public education settings are often limited to lessons or units on China, Native Americans, Africa, and the like. Seldom have the students in my courses observed lessons on prejudice, discrimination, social action, or any other type of social reconstructionist multicultural education. Without any knowledge of either the prevalence of prejudice among elementary age children or effective strategies for influencing children’s attitudes toward others, preservice teachers often believe that a “countries and cultures” approach to multicultural education is all that is needed in their classrooms to foster acceptance and affirmation.
Perhaps so many classroom teachers adopt this approach because it is easier to talk about diversity in cultures “long ago” or “far away” than it is to talk about how we treat each other in the school or how different groups in the community relate to each other. Various multicultural educators have asserted that we must go beyond oversimplified units on food, music, and holidays to consider the difficult issues of prejudice, power, and racism as well.

Brick Wall # 5: “Life is fine. We don’t need to change anything.”
Many white teacher education students grew up in supportive rural or suburban communities with good schools. They look back on their early schooling experience as positive and thus have chosen teaching as a profession. Unless preservice teachers have had experiences in diverse settings where social and environmental issues affect the quality of people’s daily lives, they may be unaware of the importance of working for social change and a just world. While this statement has been made the least often of the five, it is especially alarming to me as a social studies educator. Even teachers in white middle or upper class communities should encourage their students to care about others and to work for “the common good” in society.

Breaking through the Walls
With no small amount of trepidation, I listed these statements on the blackboard and talked about the myths and lack of understanding supporting them. Would my students be insulted? Would they all insist that, of course, none of these statements applied to them? I asked each student to write a response to the presentation, exploring any thoughts or feelings the “walls” statements brought up for them. The room was stone silent as each preservice teacher wrote an anonymous personal reaction. I anxiously read their responses in my office later that afternoon.
The vast majority of the students (who numbered about 60—30 in each of two sections of the course) expressed their appreciation for the presentation. “The way these issues were presented was very helpful in ‘clearing the way,’ ” wrote one student. “It is nice to not always hear sugar-coated lectures,” said another. A third student admitted, “I’m really glad you brought up these topics because I didn’t really think about them.”
While I had wondered how many students these “walls” actually applied to, the students confirmed my views that the beliefs are pervasive among their peers. Comments such as “the resistances you brought up were on target,” “there is a lot of truth in what was said,” and “I can actually picture people saying or believing one or any of these statements” pervaded their reactions.
What surprised me most, though, was the number of students who were willing to admit to their own prejudices and adherences to the “wal#148; statements. The following are just four examples from more than twenty reaction papers that acknowledged prejudice or limiting beliefs about diversity:

As you wrote on the board all these walls about diversity, I found myself stuck up against one of those walls. For example, I know I have said something to the effect that I’m not going to have to worry about teaching other cultures because where I want to teach has very little diversity. I saw my own attitudes in some of those walls, so your discussion and comments were very relevant to me (and I’m sure to others also).

People are afraid of what is new and different to them. So they take the easy way out. These “walls” are excuses so that they don’t have to look at or deal with the hard stuff. The sad thing is, for myself, I am not free of some of these “walls.”

I find myself fitting into the statements presented with the walls. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who has ever said or thought such things. It also made me realize that I am only kidding myself about not teaching ‘those students if I stay in Iowa, because diversity is something we all need to know and learn about.

I believe I am at the first wall. I don’t think of myself as a prejudiced person, but I realize that that is impossible. I am interested in ways to overcome these prejudices to be a fair teacher. I hope you will give us suggestions. I do agree that these walls do exist. I hope to break through my own.

The walls presentation also led students to share their questions and concerns about working with diverse student populations or teaching about diversity issues. Many students asked what they could do about their own prejudices. One student inquired, “How does the classroom teacher process her ongoing confrontations with her own prejudices? What processes can be set up to help her reflect on these conflicts regularly, because they come up regularly?” Another student wrote,

My biggest concern is how to break these walls in my own life and my own classroom. . . How can I change, so that I’m not one of ‘those’ teachers who is narrow-minded?. . . I would like to be able to recognize my own prejudices and overcome them, so I develop into a better teacher and human being!

The open-ended nature of the written response assignment allowed students to explore other related issues as well. Some shared concerns about parents, administrators, and fellow teachers’ views on diversity. Others focused on ways they were different from others in the class and the reactions they had experienced. For example, one of the few students of color in the class wrote that in talking with his white peers, he learned that “it isn’t uncommon for me to be one of the first minorities they’ve collaborated with.” Two students wrote about their experiences as parents of “multi-racia#148; children, while another explored her thoughts about the discrimination she observed while living in Latvia. All of the thoughts and feelings expressed in the personal reactions generated ideas to pursue in further discussions and assignments, as well as in the students’ own thinking.

Next Steps
The realizations that the “walls” generated in my students led to greater interest in learning from other multicultural aspects of the course. Many of the students earnestly inquired, “Where do we go from here?”
Indeed, there are many potential directions social studies teacher educators can pursue in incorporating a social reconstructionist perspective in their teacher preparation programs. The following are just a few of the many activities that could help preservice teachers reflect on and revise their views on diversity:

> Examining textbooks for cultural biases
> Writing a reflective cultural biography
> Learning about the culture and history of ethnic groups and issues of racism and basic human interaction
> Discussing how socio-cultural factors influence teaching behaviors and student learning styles
> Learning about strategies proven effective in reducing prejudice in school children (e.g. empathic role playing, cooperative learning, cognitive complexity training, and counterstereotyping)13
> Looking at different types of curriculum materials for multicultural education
> Discussing case studies of teaching children of color
> Developing lesson plans and teaching lessons focused on social justice issues
> Participating in workshops on unlearning bias
> Completing field experiences with diverse populations
> Conducting service learning or social action projects in school or community settings
> Participating in cultural immersion student teaching experiences (e.g., Native American reservation schools or inner city schools)
> Conducting action research projects focused on social justice issues and the reduction of prejudice and discrimination

While all of these strategies may hold some promise for transforming preservice teachers’ attitudes toward diversity, research provides some guidelines about how to increase the effectiveness of these activities. Sleeter has noted that programs that include field experiences with diverse populations are generally more effective than those that don’t. Not surprisingly, a limited exercise in multicultural training, such as a single workshop, is likely to have little impact on preservice teachers as compared with a more comprehensive approach.14
A critical component of any activity aimed at developing a social reconstructionist perspective is reflection. Without critical reflection, preservice teachers may reinforce rather than question their stereotypical thinking. Indeed, in a study of 23 white female preservice teachers, Haberman and Post found that participation in a remedial summer session for low income children of color led to little more than students’ selective perception and reinforcement of their initial negative stereotypes.15 Reflection on multicultural education activities should be situated within the larger framework of reflective practice in the social studies. The complexities of prejudice and the societal issues that affect the school lives of children of color require that preservice teachers continue to examine their beliefs and attitudes beyond the beginning “walls” presented in this article.

White teacher education students are likely to need varied and ongoing experiences both in and outside of schools to make significant changes in their attitudes. As one student wrote, “these things run deep in us.” Still, I would like to think that the “walls” presentation provided my students with a good start toward recognizing their prejudices. Additional multicultural activities in the course were met with greater interest as these future teachers became aware of all students’ needs for multicultural education. I agree with a student who ended her personal reaction with the following statement, “I’m not sure there will be a time when all five of these walls don’t exist, but maybe someday we could eliminate a few of them with a little hard work.”

1. See, for example, Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Multicultural Teacher Education: Research, Practice, and Policy,” in James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks, eds., Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (New York: MacMillan, 1995); 747-759; Y. Pai, Cultural Foundations of Education (Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing Co., 1990); Christine Sleeter and Carl A. Grant, “An Analysis of Multicultural Education in the U. S.,” Harvard Educational Review 57 (1987): 421-444; and Kenneth Zeichner, “Teacher Education for Social Responsibility: The Conception of Teaching Expertise Underlying Elementary Teacher Education at the University of Wisconsin,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago (April 1991).
2. Marilynne Boyle-Baise, “Multicultural Social Studies: Ideology and Practice,” The Social Studies 87 (1996): 81-87. See also National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D. C.: NCSS, 1994).
3. Ladson-Billings, 749.
4. Pai, 145.
5. Carl A. Grant and Walter G. Secada, “Preparing Teachers for Diversity” in W. Robert Houston, Martin Haberman, and John Sikula, eds., Handbook of Research on Teacher Education (New York: MacMillan, 1990), 403-422; Ladson-Billings.
6. MyLuong T. Tran, Russell L. Young, and Joseph D. Di Lella, “Multicultural Education Courses and the Student Teacher: Eliminating Stereotypical Attitudes in our Ethnically Diverse Classroom,” Journal of Teacher Education 45 (1994): 183-189.
7. James A. Banks, “Multicultural Education: Its Effects on Students’ Racial and Gender Role Attitudes,” in James P. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, (New York: MacMillan, 1991), 459-469; David S. Martin, “Ethnocentrism Revisited: Another Look at a Persistent Problem,” Social Education 50 (1985): 604-609; Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (New York: Longman, 1992); Glenn S. Pate, “Research on Reducing Prejudice,” Social Education 52 (1988): 287-289.
8. Elizabeth Aaronsohn, Carol J. Carter, and Maxine Howell. “Preparing Monocultural Teachers for a Multicultural World: Attitudes Toward Inner-City Schools,” Equity and Excellence in Education 28 (1995): 5.
9. Tran, Young and Di Lella, 184.
10. Boyle-Baise.
11. James A. Banks, “Multicultural Education: Historical Development, Dimensions, and Practice,” in James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks, eds., Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (New York: MacMillan, 1995), 467.
12. Ervin F. Sparapani, Frederick J. Abel, Stanley E. Easton, Peter Edwards, and Douglas L. Herbster, “Preservice Teacher Education Majors’ Understanding of Issues Related to Diversity and Exceptionality,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators (Detroit, February 1995).
13. Pate.
14. Christine Sleeter, “A Need for Research on Preservice Teacher Education for Mainstreaming and Multicultural Education,” Journal of Education Equity and Leadership 5 (1985), 205-215; and “Preservice Coursework and Field Experience in Multicultural Education: Impact on Teacher Behavior,” unpublished paper (1988).
15. Martin Haberman and L. Post, “Does Direct Experience Change Education Students’ Perceptions of Low-Income Minority Children?” Midwestern Educational Researcher 5 (1992): 29-31.

Rahima Wade is assistant professor of elementary social studies at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.