Source: European Journal of Teacher Education, 44:2, 217-233
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This article reports on a study which aimed to establish the extent to which French preservice primary school teachers’ attitudes to the cultural diversity found in their classrooms suggests that they are able and enabled to actively promote pro-diversity teaching.
Even though, over the last 10 years the official French position has evolved and the idea of a pluralistic society is now advocated in policy documents, this change is relatively recent.
Most people currently enrolled in initial teacher education in France were not themselves educated within this framework.
This study addresses the following research question: to what extent do pre-service primary school teachers working within the French national education system feel able and enabled to actively promote pro-diversity teaching in their classrooms.
The participants in this study are all in the second year of a two-year teacher education programme at master’s level.
They are already partially qualified, having passed a national examination implemented at regional level.
Successful completion of the master’s programme will see them fully qualified to teach in French primary schools.
Throughout their second year, from September to June, each student-teacher shares responsibility for a single class with another student-teacher, both alternating one week in school with one week in the teacher education institute.
The placements are all in Gironde, Nouvelle Aquitaine, South West France.
Data collection and analysis
Initially, forty-five student-teachers were questioned by means of an online questionnaire.
Fifteen of them knew that they had children in their classes for whom French was not the home language and eight of these student-teachers took part in interviews in February 2018.
Findings and discussion
For Gay (2002) the term content knowledge implies both knowledge of subject matter and knowledge about student populations. ‘Culturally responsive teaching . . . argues that explicit knowledge about cultural diversity is imperative to meeting the educational needs of ethnically diverse students’ (107).
The participants in this study do not demonstrate explicit knowledge about the cultural diversity present in their classrooms.
Expressions such as ‘2 or 3ʹ and ‘ a bit of everything’, or the grouping together of children as ‘Asians’ and ‘Africans’ shows a lack of understanding of the individually defining nature of each child’s story.
The use of the expression ‘becoming integrated’ to describe an allophone child’s changing relationship to the other pupils, and the lack of inquiry into the linguistic and cultural make up of their classes by some participants are clear reflections of the traditional French view in which uniformity in society and schools is valued and questions of ethnicity belong to the private sphere.
The student-teachers’ attitudes reveal a lack of critical questioning of their own beliefs and cultural conditioning.
They don’t see the importance of having more precise information about their students; yet such information is only a very first step in developing extensive knowledge about the lives of the students in their classrooms.
The student-teachers attitudes towards their pupils cannot be described as negative.
When asked how the pupils responded to being in a culturally-diverse learning environment, their comments were generally positive; the situation was seen as a source of enrichment, beneficial to the pupils.
However, the participants also demonstrated a certain level of neutrality when it came to acquiring specific knowledge about their pupils as culturally defined individuals; and showed a lack of reflection concerning the possible impacts of this.
Their behaviour can be interpreted as culturally-conditioned.
Several of the participants in the study expressed doubts about the learning opportunities they were providing for some of their pupils – particularly those with a low level of linguistic competence in French.
At several points E noted that the allophone child in her class seemed to be happy to draw all day long.
She was clearly uncomfortable with this, and felt the need to challenge this pupil to grow in some way.
However, she didn’t know how to go about it.
Looking to the students themselves for knowledge about what and how to teach them is an interesting solution, but it relies on learning about the students.
This study highlights some of the challenges of adopting culturally responsive pedagogies within the French context.
Having knowledge about student lives is a precursor for enabling them towards academic success, by affirming their diversity, and stretching them by building on their existing knowledge in the creation of relevant and thus meaningful learning.
However, the results show that despite being outdated in official discourse, the assimilationist tradition of French schools, which places value on the homogeneity of the school population, and places discussion of pupils’ cultural specificities in the private sphere still has an influence.
Although the student-teachers who took part in this study understand the interest and value of the diverse school population on an intellectual level, they do not see the diversity of their pupils as a resource and thus understand neither its implications nor its possibilities.
When the student-teachers in the study express positive attitudes to the diversity of their classrooms, this seems to stem from a lack of understanding of the culturally-institutionalised discrimination inherent in the system.
Rather than being armed to meet the challenges; any confidence they have comes from being unaware of them.
Their cultural conditioning comes to the fore as they perceive of issues of race and ethnicity from a social perspective.
They judge the situation to be complicated but explain this in terms of the need for differentiation or because of gaps in mastery of the French language by some pupils.
However, really viewing cultural diversity in the classroom as a resource, and acting from this perspective in the preparation and delivery of instructional sequences, requires teachers to go beyond this vision.
They need to address more fundamental issues related to their own role in systemic power relations, their pupils’ culturally-embedded thinking and learning styles, and the likely effects of these on student outcomes.
Student-teachers therefore need to be enabled during their period of initial teacher education, through critical examination of their beliefs about teaching, of their social and cultural role as a teacher, and of current teaching practices and materials.
They need to be continually and consistently invited to collectively explore new pedagogies and ways to transform and improve classroom practice (Borko 2004, 7).
Furthermore, they need praxeological help in how to guide their pupils in the development of their own co-operative and critical thinking abilities.
In order for this to happen there needs to be a rethink of priorities in teacher education in France.
Key transversal competences such as critical reflection and analysis, exploring the links between language, culture and power, understanding language acquisition processes, mediation, cross-cultural communication, deep-cultural analysis, reciprocity in learning processes, and inclusive education, need to be integrated across teacher education programmes.
Furthermore, as pointed out in Kosnik and Beck (2009, 10), in order to be effective, teaching in teacher education institutes needs to embody the vision of teaching being advocated.
In France many teacher educators move into the domain without completing any specific training for their new role.
However, effective teaching in culturally diverse contexts requires new pedagogies, and research demonstrates that their success is often dependent on the availability of extensive continual professional development (Portes et al. 2018).
Therefore, teacher educators themselves will need to engage in further training, learning to critically question their own beliefs, identities and practices.
Borko, H. 2004. “Professional Development and Teacher Learning: Mapping the Terrain.” Educational Researcher 33 (8): 3–15.
Gay, G. 2002. “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching.” Journal of Teacher Education 53 (2): 106–116.
Kosnik, C., and C. Beck. 2009. Priorities in Teacher Education: The 7 Key Elements of Pre-service Preparation. London and New York: Routledge.
Portes, P., M. Gonzalez Canché, D. Boada, and M. Whatley. 2018. “Early Evaluation Findings from the Instructional Conversation Study: Culturally Responsive Teaching Outcomes for Diverse Learners in Elementary School.” American Educational Research Journal 55 (3): 488–531.