Well-meaning multicultural education alone is not enough to dismantle inequalities

A recently completed doctoral thesis on multicultural education posits that immigrants and Finns are seen as opposites.

Ida Hummelstedt, MA (Education), focuses in her study on Finnish multicultural education in the written and oral discourses in teacher education as well as in school practices.

“Previous international and Finnish studies on multicultural education demonstrate that good intentions to promote diversity and attempts to integrate culturally different Others do not always end up promoting social justice. Instead, they reinforce unequal power relations,” Hummelstedt says.

According to Hummelstedt, multicultural education in the Finnish context has often focused on pupils considered immigrants, yet reports and studies show that pupils racialised as non-whites or pupils perceived as immigrants and non-Finns are still often in education marginalised or made victims of racism.

Hummelstedt suggests that, even though there are critical discourses pertaining to multicultural education, most are conservative or liberal, reproducing the opposite positioning of immigrants and Finns. Here, Finnishness is unattainable for those often categorised, predominantly because of race, as Others. This is also evidenced in the way pupils classify themselves and one another in school so that only some of them fall under Finnishness.

According to Hummelstedt, acknowledging diversity is not enough to disrupt these structures and practices that produce inequality. 

“Critical multicultural education is needed to make it possible to discuss the realisation of social justice with pupils and make everyone active parties working to promote it.”

The study encompasses several levels of multicultural education from politics to school practices

Hummelstedt’s research comprises three publications, each of which encompasses one level of Finnish multicultural education and a related research dataset: teacher education policy documents, interviews with teacher trainers and video observations of teaching by a teacher specialised in multicultural education.

In the sub-study on the policy documents associated with teacher education, the dominant discourses on multiculturalism conformed to a conservative framework, constructing the immigrant Other as a problem and as someone to be integrated into Finnish society. 

The problems constructed through different discourses had different educational consequences: while conservative discourses focused on educating the Other, liberal discourses concentrated on appreciating diversity and critical discourses focused on educating and acting against inequalities.

In the sub-study on teacher education, the dominant discourses promoted a liberal multicultural education acknowledging and appreciating diversity. Underlying these was also a conservative discourse in which the immigrant Other was constructed as a problem or threat. 

In the sub-study on video observations of teaching by the teacher specialised in multicultural education, categorisation based on race, nationality and gender occurred frequently among the pupils. Hummelstedt demonstrated that the way in which the pupils applied these categories to their classmates did not grant all pupils the same agency and belonging, thus sustaining the dichotomy of Finns and immigrants also at this level. The categories were mostly responded to by other pupils, while the teacher focused more on the pedagogical dimension.

Multicultural education must be explicitly antiracist

Hummelstedt suggests that Finnish multicultural education must be explicitly antiracist. She claims it is necessary to critically analyse the problems constructed in the discourses on multicultural education at different levels of education, and to focus on the lack of social justice as the problem most in need of solutions. 

“Teachers need training in critical reflection on norms, power and privilege to be able to discuss these issues with their pupils,” Hummelstedt notes. 

To make this possible, teacher trainers too must critically reflect on their complicity in reproducing inequality and consciously act to disrupt it. Moreover, multicultural education should be developed to benefit all pupils and students, including equal opportunities to take part in the discussion on problems and content. In this process, all parties involved in schools and education should be positioned as agents of social justice.

Ida Hummelstedt, MA (Education), will defend her doctoral thesis entitled ‘Acknowledging diversity but reproducing the Other: A critical analysis of Finnish multicultural education’ on 6 May at 14.00 at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki.

The public examination will be held at Siltavuorenpenger 3 (the Athena building, room 107).

You can also follow the public examination on Zoom.

Contact details of the doctoral candidate

Ida Hummelstedt, +358 40 701 9185, ida.hummelstedt@helsinki.fi