THE ARC OF UNDERSTANDING
The ARC of Understanding is a model designed to help educators consider our personal levels of awareness regarding issues of ethnicity and racism with the goal of developing deeper understanding and more critical teaching for and about diversity in Canada.
Most educators have some understanding or appreciation of diversity, recognizing that Canada is a multicultural country. Many of us understand the value of cross-cultural awareness and are appalled by overt displays of racism. However, levels of awareness and the ways in which diversity is approached in classrooms can vary greatly. The ARC of Understanding offers a way for educators to consider not only personal knowledge of diversity, but also how we each teach for diversity in our classrooms.
ARC is divided into three levels of knowledge that move toward increasingly complex and critical knowledge about diversity:
AWARENESS → RECOGNITION/REALIZATION → CRITIQUE
The goal is to move teaching practices further along the ARC, from Awareness to Recognition/Realization, and from Recognition/Realization to Critique. However, movement on the ARC is not one way. Just as we can move up in our knowledge, we can also slip back when we encounter new situations that challenge our understanding and encourage shortcut thinking. We are all susceptible to stereotypes, assumptions and misinformation. The ARC also does not have an end point, as we should be continually critiquing our social and professional environments, our perceptions about diversity, and our teaching practices. Continually self-checking on the ARC allows educators to question each of these and, by extension, find alternatives to non-critical ways of thinking.
Here is more information about each level of the ARC, along with classroom examples.
The first step is awareness. People at this level are aware that diversity exists and is a central part of the Canadian society. They are often positive and curious about diversity, and often begin learning about different parts of culture that are similar to their own. This level is fairly comfortable because it stems from what is familiar, it is non-committal and does not challenge personal assumptions, and is often celebratory or fun. Many multicultural educators call this the food-and-festival approach: people are happy to try other foods or participate in cultural festivals and events. Unfortunately, many people stop at this level for the very same reasons. This level also encourages shortcut thinking — the idea that we know a culture just because we have tried their food or celebrated their festivals. Educators at this level may include various cultural holidays in their regular curriculum but stop there rather than delving into deeper issues.
In the classroom, Awareness-level education might take the form of mapping the ethnic diversity of the class, school, or community. Students may investigate the migratory patterns (or stability on the part of some Indigenous Peoples) of their families back several generations. Students may then contribute to a common class map and each student might keep his or her own personal map, filling in new information as it becomes available.
Similarly, students might design a survey to assess the ethnic background of students and teachers in the school (hopefully accounting for the diverse and complex identities). Alternately, teachers may use Statistics Canada information with their classes to research diversity by community or postal code, or consult the main census webpage for topics such as Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity, Aboriginal Peoples, and Language. Educators may also use the Census at School web site.
Another awareness-related activity is to have students conduct a survey of the Ethnocultural community groups that exist in their communities. This might begin with a visit to the local city or town hall, Multicultural Association, Francophone or Anglophone cultural centre, or different religious institutions (mosques, synagogues, churches, temples, meditation centres, etc.). Students can profile these organizations describing their purposes and services. Related to this, students can keep records of cultural events in their communities: cultural fairs, special religious celebrations, artistic shows and exhibitions, etc.
Recognition/Realization begins through learning about the histories of different groups. Understanding the histories of specific groups of people provides an understanding of why certain issues are important and why certain situations have arisen. This can deepen awareness to a more complete understanding of the relationships between different ethnic groups, including conflicts. When educators and students learn this information, they have the tools to fight stereotypes and misconceptions. For example, a prominent myth about diversity in Canada is that it is only about recent immigration, suggesting that diversity is both foreign and new. Neither of these assumptions is true but they are widely believed and deeply held (see Myths and Misconceptions). In order to counter this misconception, multiple exposures to different histories of Indigenous peoples and of various newcomers to Canada are needed so that students (and teachers) can begin to rethink these kinds of prior assumptions. Educators at this level would include different perspectives in their teaching. For example, they may ask students to challenge the concept of the two founding nations of Canada given that Aboriginal peoples were already living on this land prior to European arrival.
The key to classroom activities centering on Realization/Recognition is to engage students in historical study that includes multiple histories on issues related to diversity over time. For example, in teaching the history of voting rights, many lessons focus exclusively on the struggle of women, but there are also important histories to be learned about disenfranchised ethno-cultural groups who, like women, had to fight for their right to vote. For example, in 1907 the B.C. legislature unanimously approved a Bill stating in part, “No Chinese, Japanese or The East Indian shall have the name on the register of voters for any electoral district or be entitled to vote at any election” (Source: Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies, University of the Fraser Valley). In the case of Aboriginal Peoples, the government tried to use the franchise as a lure to get them to give up status under the Indian Act. A study of the struggle for voting rights would make it clear that diverse groups of people have been in Canada for hundreds of years and are part of the fabric of this country – they are neither foreign nor new arrivals.
Another Realization/Recognition activity is to survey historic monuments and sites in the community and analyze which individuals, groups, or events are commemorated. The class might conduct a cultural scan to see which community groups are included in commemorations and which are not. Students could propose new historical commemorations that might be more representative of long present ethno-cultural groups in the community.
In another example, students might interview or survey newcomers to Canada living in their community, such as immigrants, refugees, international students, or guest workers. Students could learn details like their status in Canada (e.g. permanent resident, refugee applicant, student or guest worker visa) and what that status implies for them. The interview or survey would also ask about both successes and challenges or difficulties faced in establishing a life in the community. A local Multicultural Association or ESL provider might help in finding volunteers to be interviewed or surveyed. An activity like this develops understanding of the different categories of newcomers to Canada as well as some features of the community that enhance or inhibit their integration into the community.
Critique is the deepest level of understanding and participation. At this level, participants question why certain situations and inequities exist and actively work to resolve them. A key here is for students to move beyond simple assessment of situations as described in Recognition/Realization toward more justice-oriented approaches to citizenship which include taking action to address social problems and systemic injustice. This level of teaching is sometimes called anti-racist education or social justice education. This level can be uncomfortable for some because it requires those in the dominant group to question their assumptions about marginalized groups and demands that dominant society members account for the privilege and power they hold (whether they know it or not) in society. Educators at this level ask their students and themselves hard questions. They explore difficult concepts such as employment equity and religious accommodation. For example, educators at this level might ask why non-Whites get stopped for “random” checks at the airport most often. Critique-focused educators also work to help fight the inequities and work to resolve them. The key here is that racism and other acts of discrimination are not seen as individual acts committed by “bad people” but instead are systemic throughout society in our institutions, rules for citizenship, and so on. Many of the resources provided on this web site offer curricula and strategies for anti-racist, social justice, and human rights education.
In relation to the voting rights activity in the Recognition/Realization section above, students might extend that by asking if there are any ways in which ethno-cultural minority groups face discrimination today that could be changed. Students might, for example, examine the question of whether or not permanent residents of Canada should be able to vote, discussing arguments such as how other countries allow permanent residents to vote and that because they pay taxes in Canada, they should also have a say in who governs.
Both the survey of historic monuments and sites and the community access scan described above invite taking the issues discovered further into critique and action. In both cases students might organize public awareness campaigns in school and beyond to make the wider public aware of their findings and/or they might engage in political action by making representation for change to relevant political and administrative bodies.
School staff and students could also investigate and analyze the extent to which their school, and the larger school board, have adjusted policies and rules to ensure they are equitable and non-discriminatory. For example, to what extent are religious holy days other than Christian holy days accommodated in schools? How might schools be made more welcoming for non-Christian students? For example, what might it mean if the school calendar was reorganized to ensure non-Christian students did not have to miss school to follow the tenants of their religion? What might students from the dominant society need to unlearn/learn for such a change to be successful?
The ARC of Understanding was developed by Dr. Manju Varma.