Culture and diversity

NSW Public Schools reflect Australian communities. Students and staff come from a diverse range of cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds.

The department is committed to building a diverse and inclusive learning environment that benefits all students including those from language backgrounds other than English. Students are prepared for engagement and participation in Australian society.

Understanding diversity

Recognising the cultural diversity of school communities helps meet the educational and welfare needs of students and their families. It aids in the planning of teaching and learning activities.

Student enrolment data offers insights into how to support students and their families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, for example, country of birth, languages spoken at home, English language proficiency, refugee status and date of arrival.

Multicultural education provides programs promoting anti-racism and community harmony, intercultural understanding and positive relationships between students from all cultural backgrounds. It addresses educational needs of specific groups of students from language backgrounds other than English and/or who have parents or carers who speak a language other than English at home. They may be Australian or overseas born. They may speak English as a first or additional language.

Find the latest language statistics in the Centre for Education, Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) Language Diversity Bulletin. It outlines language diversity in public schools and languages other than English spoken by students at home.

Students from language backgrounds other than English have additional educational needs and require support to participate successfully at school. This includes students who are newly arrived, are learning English as an additional language or dialect and who are refugees.

Image: Cultural and linguistic diversity in NSW public schools 2022

Understanding culture

Our students identify with multiple cultural identities and ancestries. Culture can impact our perspectives, behaviour, how we interact in the world and our personal identities.

  • "I'm Aboriginal and Croatian."
  • "I'm Anglo Saxon and Australian."
  • "My mum is Chinese and Indian and my dad is Scottish, Sri Lankan, Portuguese and Indian. But I was born in Australia."

Understanding contemporary Australian culture helps teachers build culturally inclusive teaching and learning. Students explore difficult questions around power relations, notions of identity, and cultural complexity. Teachers ensure stereotypes are not promoted.

Key messages:

  • culture is complex and dynamic
  • culture is not the same as identity
  • culture is a widely contested term
  • culture influences perspectives and identities
  • culture adapts with migration, across generations and place and with intermarriage
  • culture can be expressed in a variety of ways
  • culture can be invisible
  • culture does not define people
  • culture can include ways of behaving, thinking, valuing and being in the world.

In the ‘Defining culture’ video below, Professor Greg Noble from Western Sydney University (WSU) discusses the complexity of the term ‘culture’. For more videos please access the Cultural Exchange channel.

Professor Greg Noble, Western Sydney University.


Professor Greg Noble, Western Sydney University.

We have to separate the multi into cultures because one of the points really is that when we talk about multiculturalism the first thing that people say is when you ask people what it means they say ‘Oh, it’s many cultures.’ So, it’s not the descriptive term. But it requires us to unpack the idea of culture which is why we asked you to talk about culture. And if it was simply a case of just many cultures it wouldn’t be too hard except that when we think about what culture means we actually open up a bigger minefield. Okay.

So, what is culture? Raymond Williams, a very famous cultural studies academic said famously that ‘Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.’ And he has written extensively on the idea and developed you know kind of quite detailed arguments and lists about the variations of the idea of culture. Prior to him about fifty years ago two academics actually kind of went around documenting, collecting different meanings of the word ‘culture’. And they came up with fifty or sixty different meanings, different variations in the meaning. Okay.

Again and this is not just a semantic problem because it actually means a couple of significant things. Culture as Williams points out begins as a noun of process, as the idea of cultivation which comes down to us nowadays in things like yoghurt culture which multiculturalism tends to not deal with. And it breaks down over a course of a couple of centuries, it breaks down into two areas: the anthropological meaning of culture as a whole way of life and the arts side of things which is the you know the cultivation of the mind. Now, this kind of bifurcation of the meaning of culturalism is important because it divides things in your definitions as in fact we’re trying to hold together.

So, if we have culture as a whole way of life as an anthropology we’re implying a kind of a collective experience of culture. Culture is about a group of people, okay. A community. But the focus and the cultivation of the mind is primarily individual, even psychic or psychological or internal to the individual. So, we use culture there in two quite distinct ways – as a collective thing and as an individual thing.

Now, the thing about the whole way of life idea is that culture becomes a kind of a thing, okay. It goes away from being a noun of process and talks about a form of classification of a group of people. So, we talk about cultures – there’s this culture and that culture. In contrast the cultivation of the mind idea in fact sees culture as a process of development. So, it maintains its kind of processional link. The whole way of life idea ends up focusing on what we’ll call the Folkish understanding of culture, kind of every day life for people as a whole.

The cultivation of the mind idea focuses really on the experiences of the elite of culture. Cultural practices are artistic practices. And lastly the anthropological idea implies a kind of culture as a stable social entity. So, we can talk about certain cultures as though they’re relatively timeless or ongoing. And yet at the same time as I was trying to say before, much of what we talk about culture is in fact quite dynamic, changing, evolving. The culture of Australia for example if you can use that term is very different to what it was twenty, thirty, forty years ago.

Now, one fundamental idea that comes out of these series of problems is the community and the identity problem, culture is community and culture is identity. And it’s a really difficult one. I also want to throw up one dimension of it because it came out in a kind of comment that someone made to me the other day, not the other day, some time ago when they said that they had one Sudanese kid in the school, okay.

Now, this doesn’t make sense if you have culture as a whole way of life idea of culture because once you take the individual out of that whole way of life, that whole way of life doesn’t exist in the school, so when you say we have one Sudanese kid what you mean is we have one kid of Sudanese origin which is quite different to the idea of a whole way of life. We can’t import whole ways of life into Australia.

And this point was made many years ago by Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope and some other people where they talked about a really deep anthropological notion of culture is in fact problematic for multiculturalism. In terms of Australia for example there have really only been two cultures in that very profound sense – western culture and Indigenous culture. When migrants come here they in fact can’t bring their whole way of life with them. And they give the example of the Lebanese peasant who can’t import their peasant agricultural modes of living. So, there’s a kind of a problem here about you know what that means to multiculturalism.

But also links to the problem of how stable then is this category of culture if that tradition and change about collectives and individuals so and so forth. And part of the problem is that sometimes we associate cultures with nations and it’s a problem that will come up later on with ethnicity in particular. So, nations for a long time have prided themselves on having a particular kind of culture and yet we can look closely within nations to find that all sorts of groups also claim to have a culture, not just in terms of ethnicities but things like sub-cultures, we talk about urban and rural cultures.

We talk about class cultures. We talk about the culture of consumerism. We talk about workplace and corporate cultures. We even talk about culture of inquiry. And the problem with culture here is that there are two points to be made from it – culture is not just about ethnicity, it’s about a whole range of processes and practices and relations, not just about ethnicity, it’s also about things like gender and class and so on. Some reference before to that the idea of structures is getting in one of the director’s definition is getting towards that recognition.

But it’s an over-used word. It’s become very, very big you know word businesses talk about having culture. And why that’s important is not just it’s a badly used word but it refers to what scholars call the expediency of culture. And by that Yudice means that culture has become so big it’s being used to explain things, okay. It’s being used to explain behaviours, values, customs etc. But the point he and other people have pointed out is that given that whole ways of life are economic and political for example and not just culture but culture is often used to explain things that are say, economic in origin like inequalities.

The logical step of that is that culture has become used to explain particular kinds of social problems. So, and I work in the area of dealing with the Lebanese community that culture is being used to explain the problem of young Lebanese boys. So, the experience of culture is that we use culture now to explain things which may not be explained by culture. And one of the examples that we use in the CPLP Report is the problematic category of learning styles, okay. Which I don’t want to want to kind of develop now but culture is often used to explain the learning outcomes and learning styles of particular kids.

In the ‘Culture, ethnicity and identity’ video below, Professor Greg Noble from WSU, discusses the relationship between culture, ethnicity and identity.

Professor Greg Noble, Western Sydney University.


Professor Greg Noble, Western Sydney University.

Now, to complicate things even further you can notice that I’m not going to offer you a definition of culture at all, I’m just going to make things worse so I’m going to confuse you and hopefully provoke you. Complicated because we’ve now come to use culture for ethnicity. Ethnicity became a problem word a few decades ago primarily because in the Australian context in particular ethnic became unfashionable because ethnic came to be seen as non-English speaking background or you know not the mainstream or whatever.

So, you had Australians and you had ethnics and we realised that was problematic because everybody technically has an ethnicity. So, there was a move away from that towards broader notions of culture or cultural background. But ethnicity is still a useful word even though some people still find it awkward to use. Now, the only problem of course is that like culture it’s in a problematic relationship with things like nation. And what we do in Australia for example is to turn nationalities into ethnicities. So, we talk about the Lebanese as though a bunch of people and their children who migrated from or settled in Australia over the course of many decades become a kind of coherent category, Lebanese.

But we also have and you’ll find this kind in common discourse people use terms like Middle Eastern and Asian as though they are current and coherent categories of ethnicity. Now, the classic definition of ethnicity or the classic modern definition of ethnicity comes from the work of a chap named Barth who simply makes the point that ethnicity is a kind of a social construction. It’s the way groups draw boundaries around themselves and others. That’s the point he’s simply making. Okay.

Against what people call primordial notions of ethnicity which harks back to the questions of race. I’m not even going to go into that territory. So, it’s a social construction drawing on a whole range of cultural resources to foster a sense of common descent through ancestry, customs, beliefs, language, faith and a myriad of other ways. Okay. Now, it’s interesting here so what Barth is trying to do is to bring together the thingness of culture, the groupness and the processes. Okay.

But the point he makes is that this process is only important as a process of differentiation. Ethnicities only need to be constructed when they’re in context where there’s otherness around. Boundaries only make sense if you have us and them, ins and outs. One of the points that Barth makes is that one of the interesting paradoxes about ethnicity is that it has to be constantly reproduced and yet we perceive it as a continuity as a stability. It feels like something that’s been around for a long time and yet dramatically changes. And there are lots of examples about how that occurs.

And the next point that links to that is therefore it’s not just about identity, okay because it’s about both self-identification, what we particularly refer to as identity and identification of others. It’s a dialectical process. It’s not just what you want to be or what you identify it as. It’s not a question of choice. It’s also how others perceive you. So, there are many people of Lebanese background for example who aren’t happy being constructed as Arabic or Arabs.

The very category of ‘Lebanon’ is a recent historical phenomenon. They might have called themselves something else you know a hundred years ago. So, we can’t assume that identity is a nice term about a positive sense of agency what you want to be. It’s also about the way other people construct you. Now, what’s this got to do with multicultural education? I hope it’s partly clear why it’s important to multicultural education to do with why the perceptions that we have of these things shape our practices.

But importantly as we said in the CPLP Project Report it’s often used to explain the outcomes, the behaviours and so on and so forth of particular groups of kids. So Pacific Islander kids are like this because of their culture. And there may be a problem built into that kind of process of explanation. Now, there’s also another problem for multicultural education because multiculturalism is committed to not only the recognition of other cultures but their preservation.

We want to allow for the processes of cultural maintenance. But there may in fact be a tension in there if only because multicultural policies may treat as static things, things that are in fact dynamic and complex. So, when we start to talk about particular cultural communities we then in fact may be putting them into things when they are in fact complex dynamic processes. And this is often referred to as the process of essentialism. That is we think there is a particular essence to a culture or ethnicity.

Intercultural understanding

Intercultural understanding is a key capability in NSW syllabuses learning across the curriculum content. It encourages a pluralist, just and inclusive society. Teachers understand the complexities of culture, its relationship with individual identities, views and perspectives. Teachers help students critically engage in intercultural understanding activities.

Culture is dynamic. It’s vital to avoid ‘essentialised', or traditional, understandings of culture in teaching and learning as this can inaccurately portray particular groups as having fixed characteristics. Teaching and learning facilitates positive interactions and relationships within school communities and broader Australian society.

Australians come from all cultural backgrounds — Indigenous, English speaking and non-English speaking backgrounds. These groups have an equal part to play within society.

The resource Intercultural understanding through texts (PDF 7.5 MB) reviews texts which address the Australian curriculum capability intercultural understanding through conceptual programming. The English KLA concepts explored within it are: Characterisation, Representation, Perspective and Interpretation.

Using picture books for intercultural understanding: Learning across the curriculum (PDF 1.55 MB) is a resource for Geography, History, English, Creative Arts K-10. The resource suggests learning activities based around picture books selected for their value in developing intercultural understandings and their literary worth.

Further reading on intercultural understanding can be found in:


  • Teaching and learning

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