Ethnic Identity Development through Social Studies Instruction

By Sheets, Rosa Hernandez | Multicultural Education, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Identity Development through Social Studies Instruction


Sheets, Rosa Hernandez, Multicultural Education


Multicultural Resources

Rosa Hernandez Sheets

Social interactions and relationships among individual children, groups of children, and teachers are lived through a multitude of identity dimensions-ethnicity, culture, race, class, socio-economic status, gender, ability, nationality, sexual orientation, age, and so on. These interactions and relationships shape and are shaped by the ways these identities are given meaning. Ethnic identity and its related constructs (such as, self-labeling, affiliation, self-concept, racial awareness, and racial attitudes) affect how children view themselves, how others view them, and how they perceive their ability to cope and adapt in academic and social situations (Branch, 1994).

Ethnic identity, as a dimension of culture and influenced by racialized experiences, is defined as a psychological and subjective sense of self based on personal and group membership in an ethnic group (Sheets, 1999). Ethnic identity is a multidimensional construct that is socially and cognitively created. It develops throughout the life span and is influenced by factors such as race, status, and class. Socially, individuals learn and acquire the cultural norms of particular groups. This experiential knowledge allows individuals to understand expected behaviors and anticipate actions and responses from members and non-members of their particular ethnic group. Cognitive behaviors, screened through cultural norms, allow individuals to understand self and others and to interpret the myriad of interactions experienced in their world.

The socialization process begins during infancy and continues throughout life. Infants learn from adult caretakers and others in their immediate environment how to anticipate and respond competently to social interactions. As children develop, they are influenced by their encounters with others in institutional settings such as churches, community, and schools. Classrooms are particularly important in supporting the ways in which children acquire the knowledge needed to function effectively in the school setting, community, and in the greater society.

The psychological and cognitive experiences children encounter in classrooms validate children's ethnic identity or produce social and cognitive stress hindering the teaching-learning process (Sheets, 1999). Since school practices are often based on the majority White cultural norms, children from ethnic groups of color may not consistently experience validation. Conversely, children from the dominating culture, if repeatedly exposed to culturally biased school practices, are at risk to develop identities based on the debasement of others.

Traditionally, courses and textbooks in European American History - generally called American History-in the public schools are based on the origins and contributions of European Americans without accurate recognition of the accomplishments made by other ethnic groups. This tradition encourages "Americanization" or assimilation to a single culture and ultimately results in a distortion of ethnic identity for both those included and excluded in the curricular content.

In the elementary school, social studies is the only area in the school curriculum devoted entirely to the study of people. While social studies instruction includes a variety of learning experiences and instructional materials, the textbook is often the most important instructional resource. In social studies, teachers generally use only one textbook. Since children are also exposed to textbooks in other content areas throughout their schooling, they learn to perceive themselves from what is included and omitted and from the perspectives represented in their textbooks.

Much of the social studies curriculum is implicit, rather than explicit; that is, children are likely to be unaware of the images and impressions that become part of their individual and group ethnic identity. …

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