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Accomplishing the goals of multicultural education: a transdisciplinary perspective.

In the United States, a large majority of practicing teachers are White women (Branch, 2005; Lowenstein, 2009; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2012; Sleeter, 2008). With the continued growth of an ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse student population (Buchanan, Correia, & Bleicher, 2010; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2012; National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, 2011), the consensus is that teachers need to be introduced to multicultural pedagogy and to develop a philosophy that embraces diversity (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education's Committee on Multicultural Education, 2002; Delpit, 2006; Grant & Wieczorek, 2000).

Among the many characterizations of multicultural education within the field is the Banks' (2008) model. In Banks' conceptualization, five tenets of multicultural education are outlined. Some of these include the construction of knowledge, reduction of prejudice and equity of pedagogy (Banks, 1995). Over the years, other proponents have advocated an emancipatory notion of multicultural education (e.g., Campbell, 2010; Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1997; Nieto & Bode, 2011; Sleeter & McLaren, 1995). Of these proponents, Kincheloe and Steinberg (1997) present a comprehensive taxonomy delineating diverse perspectives toward multicultural education. This taxonomy highlights assumptions within conservative multiculturalism, liberal multiculturalism, pluralist multiculturalism, leftessentialist multiculturalism, and critical multiculturalism. Across these approaches, various components of multicultural education are discussed. Noticeably absent from these discussions, however, are underlying premises upon which teachers and educators might build in order to achieve the goals of multicultural education.

In light of this, transdisciplinarity is proposed as a useful framework for discussing how teachers and educators come to develop propensities central to advocating multicultural education in schools.


The concept transdisciplinarity was first noted in the work of Swiss philosopher and psychologist, Jean Piaget (1986-1980). In his depiction of the concept, Jean Piaget emphasized the concern of transdisciplinarity with what existed "between" and "across" disciplines. Assuming an alternate stance, Erich Jantsch (1929-1980), an Austrian thinker, represented transdisciplinarity such that it operated within the disciplines. Nonetheless, the Jantsch simultaneously ascribed to transdisciplinarity an axiomatic component, thereby introducing the concept of value. Still, another key figure whose use of the term had lasting impact was Edgar Morin. Morin's concern was less directed toward the technicalities of defining the term, and more toward the freedom of thought associated with the period when transdisciplinarity held sway (Nicolescu, 2010).

Decades later, amidst a definition of wars, transdisciplinarity came to be described as "that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all disciplines" (Nicolescu, 2010, p. 22). Based on Nicolescu's (2010) inclusion of the element, "beyond disciplines," transdisciplinarity was extended to represent that which "opens" individual cultures to what simultaneously cuts across and transcends them. Within one context, this "between", "across" and "beyond" is described as nothingness; a vacuum, "empty, completely void" (Report from The Danish Institute for Studies in Research and Research Policy, 2002/7, p. 112). In another, the vacuum is represented as "full of invisible matter and energy" (Nicolescu, 2005, pp. 4-5). Despite the context, Nicolescu (2011) highlights discontinuity as a fundamental characteristic of the "between", "across," and "beyond" inherent in transdisciplinarity.


Capable of unifying diverse perspectives through a holistic approach to the intersections arising from discussions at the intersections of and across multiple disciplines (Nicolescu, 2010, p. 32), transdisciplinarity may very well afford teacher candidates a mechanism by which to cultivate individual traits required for interacting with diverse learners. As a philosophy that simultaneously embraces diversity and unity, transdisciplinarity is not only educationally sound and consistent with American democracy, but also represents an appropriate philosophy for democratic multicultural education.

Yet, despite its capacity to illuminate our understanding about diversity in the educational arena, little has been done to explore the potential of transdisciplinarity for multicultural teacher education. I assert that the discussion on multicultural teacher education needs to take on a new perspective, the very nature of which is dependent upon "replacing a conceptualization of [White] teacher candidates as a monolithic and deficient group of learners with a conceptualization of teacher candidates as competent learners who bring rich resources to their learning" (Lowenstein, 2009, p. 187; Sleeter, 2008). Moreover, I acknowledge that in order to achieve this goal, teacher candidates' conceptions of diversity as well as teacher educators' roles as facilitators will require a certain degree of transformation.

Two main arguments present themselves as a basis for the integration of Nicolescu's (2011) ideas into the teaching/learning multicultural education dynamic.

The first is Nicolescu's (1999) recognition that transdisciplinarity is capable of transformation in the education system through its ability to inform one's "learning to know," "learning to do," "learning to live together with," and "learning to be" (p. 4). Within this context, the feasibility of transdisciplinarity as a means for enabling teacher candidates to access and develop experiences with the aim of knowing, doing, living, and becoming individuals who can interact with, tolerate, and be advocates for the various students with whom they interact is invaluable. The aim of transdisciplinarity is the unity of knowledge and the symbiotic relationship between unity and diversity. Too often has multicultural education focused on differences with little attention to discussion of the universality of human beings as reflected by basic needs and common traits. Transdisciplinarity maintains that unity and diversity are opposite "sides of the same coin"--e pluribus unum--out of many, one. For teacher candidates, achieving balance becomes a fundamental challenge in a pluralistic democracy. Moreover, given the critical importance of globalization, not only economically, but also with regards to the rapid exchange of ideas, people, cultural artifacts, and widely divergent cultural practices, a transdisciplinary perspective offers teacher candidates a successful path to reducing conflicts and misunderstandings in the diverse classrooms of the 21st century. For teachers in this era, this philosophy functions as an overall basis for the avoidance of extremes, asserting as vital, albeit, critical, the necessity of preserving a national identity based on core values and a respect for diverse cultures.

The second argument stems from Nicolescu's (1999) belief in the possibility that the interrelationship between and among these "four pillars of a new kind of education" (p. 4) is potent with probabilities. Indeed, based on Nicolescu's (1999) proposition, examination of the interactions between and among one's learning to know, do, live with and be may inform multicultural education. The very essence of this integration suggests a subtle change, which counteracts education's current emphasis on the intellect and invites a concentration on human sensitivity and the body. In this regard, the paradigm shift occurs in which teacher educators' roles are transformed from that of primarily content owners to professionals capable of connecting with "self"; a critical requirement in their ability to relate to diverse needs of teachers.

To explore the arguments thus stated, I first provide an explanation of transdisciplinarity's axioms, followed by an explanation of how this framework might shape teacher educators', candidates,' and teachers' thinking, experience, and practice.


Transdisciplinarity's methodology constitutes the ontological axiom, logical axiom, and complexity axiom, constructs derived from such sciences as quantum physics and molecular biology.

Ontological Axiom

The ontological axiom takes into consideration (a) levels of reality (of nature and knowledge) and (b) levels of perception (of a person) (Nicolescu, 2005). By "reality," Nicolescu (2005) refers to "that which resists our experiences, representations, images, or even mathematical formulations" and is "accessible to our knowledge" (p. 7). In turn, a "level of reality" constitutes "a set of systems which are invariant under certain laws" (p. 7). Nicolescu insists there are "levels of Reality" due to the fact that the laws governing a certain level of reality do not apply to other sets of systems (p. 7). He observes that for every system, there are particularly different laws. He describes this inapplicability of laws from one level of reality to another as "discontinuity in the structure of the levels of reality" (p. 7).

Nicolescu's (2005) proposition of "multiple levels of reality" is also based on the need for an explanation of a level of Reality where certain phenomena do not resist man's experiences, representations, images, et cetera. He observes the use of three levels of reality in the natural systems: macrophysical, microphysical, and cyberspace-time levels. This proposed definition of levels of Reality permits human beings to move beyond levels of reality present only in natural systems to those which hold in other systems (e.g., social systems). While there is no referential level of reality from which to understand other levels, Nicolescu (2011) draws upon the principle of relativity to describe how the incomplete nature of each level of reality allows one reality to enhance the understanding of another. He notes the distances in separation of one level of reality from another and the potential of these distances for containing an infinite number of levels of reality. The result of such an observation rests in its implication for knowledge as limitless.

Logical Axiom

The logical axiom arises from the contradiction derived as a result of classical logic; a logic which governs habits of the human mind. The classical logic is based on three axioms: the axiom of identity which states that "A is A"; the axiom of noncontradiction which states that "A is not non-A"; and the axiom of the excluded middle which states that no third term "T" exists which is simultaneously "A" and "non-A" (Nicolescu, 2005, p. 11). In Nicolescu's (2005) argument for the logical axiom, the excluded middle is transformed into an "included middle in which the third term 'T' exists at the same time as both 'A' and 'non-A'" (p. 10). This transformation is made possible by the affordances of "levels of Reality" as identified within the ontological axiom (Nicolescu, 2005, p. 7).

The idea of multiple levels of Reality implies that, with any introduction of a new level of reality, there may only be temporary conciliation of the contradictory elements. Given experimental evidence faced at any new given level of reality, the third term "T" assumes self-contradiction on the new level and knowledge of "T" must be reexamined. As such, the concept of an included middle and a third "T" imply that it is impossible to arrive at a theory or body of knowledge that is complete and exclusive of entities not comprised within the development of this theory. In other words, the logic of the included middle necessitates openness to continuous revelation. To use Nicolescu's (2005) words, knowledge in this sense is "forever open" (p. 12).

Complexity Axiom

Nicolescu's (2005) complexity axiom refers to vertical complexity rooted in the principle of universal interdependence. This principle highlights simplicity in the interaction of all the levels of Reality. A distinguishing feature of this axiom is that symbolic language which holistically reflects human beings' thoughts, feelings and emotions, is indispensable to maintaining the interdependence present among individuals.


The overview of transdisciplinarity's axioms appears complex and initially, seems a daunting prospect in terms of its applicability to multicultural teacher education. However, levels of reality, the logic of an included middle, and principle of universal interdependence all hold promise for addressing the inherent qualities and predispositions to be cultivated within teacher education programs and ultimately, the enactments deemed necessary in instruction by teachers in classrooms.

Transdisciplinarity for Teacher Educators

Nicolescu (1999) envisions the capacity for transdisciplinarity's transformation of the education system through its ability to inform one's "learning to know," "learning to do," "learning to live together with," and "learning to be" (p. 4). He notes that the interrelationship between and among these "four pillars of a new kind of education" counteracts education's current emphasis on the intellect and invites a concentration on human sensitivity and the body, an approach he claims is the only solution to the 21st century's attempts at reconciling effectiveness and affectivity (Nicolescu, 1999, p. 4).

Transdisciplinarity requires teacher educators' thorough acquaintance with an understanding of the transcultural and transreligious. In the transcultural, teacher educators envision all cultures by considering that which cuts across and beyond them. In other words, despite the apparent skin color, culture, and language differences in teacher candidates, teacher educators can develop the capacity to identify unifying elements across courses, while simultaneously considering and bringing to candidates' attention that which they are unaware of but need to notice. The transcultural notion outlined here is supported by Gesche and Makeham (2009), who describe the transcultural as "commonalities and connections, without intending to homogenize cultures or establish monocultures" (p. 243). And though the transreligious may seem divorced from the notion of education, in many ways, religion frames the beliefs and perceptions of teachers and educators, and therefore, transdisciplinarity interrupts homogenizing conceptualizations of religion.

Based on these approaches, teacher educators who adopt transcultural and transreligious mindsets may find it easier to focus on the unity imminent in the exploration of difference and develop comfort with exploring differences in interrelationships developed and maintained with, as well as by, preservice teachers in their practice.

Transdisciplinarity for Teacher Candidates

The potential exists for teacher education programs to transform teacher candidates' ways of "learning to know," "learning to do," "learning to live together with," and "learning to be" (Nicolescu, 1999, p. 4).

Learning to Know

"Learning to know" refers to the capacity for permanent engagement in the search of knowledge of a high quality, as well as the ability to continuously reorient one's self to the presentation, understanding, and acceptance of novel concepts. Transdisciplinarity's logical axiom in which separate levels of reality allow for two seemingly different and contradictory elements to be reconciled requires teacher candidates to develop a unique approach to "learning to know". Teacher candidates informed by the tenet of this logical axiom recognize and appreciate the open-ended nature of knowledge. With such a perspective, they realize that within the constant quest to explore the resistance of Reality exists a true representation of knowledge based on the acknowledgement of, and dependence on, the zone of nonresistance to Reality; their scientific spirit (Nicolescu, 1999).

Adherence to the logic of the included middle which is based on the logical axiom of transdisciplinarity further redefines the experiences required to facilitate teachers' understanding of the diversity and its accompanying assumptions. As scholars note, the continued growth of the United States' ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse populations necessitates teachers' introduction to multicultural pedagogy and the development of a philosophy that embraces diversity (Buchanan, Correia, & Bleicher, 2010; Delpit, 2006; Grant & Wieczorek, 2000). While teacher candidates' knowledge continues to be viewed as a body of information and a way of perceiving the world in the general context, within the context of transdisciplinarity, a body of knowledge is not the point of concern. Rather, emphasis in this context is placed on teacher candidates' abilities to continuously and consistently adopt varied understandings of differing bodies of knowledge (i.e., levels of reality) through which they realize the impermanence of their "knowing" and their "learning to know". Such an approach allows for teacher education to assume a novel perspective to teacher candidates, and in turn, facilitates the reconceptualization of teacher candidates as "competent learners who bring rich resources to their learning" (Lowenstein, 2009, p. 187). The realization that every new encounter with a person, culture, norm, way of speaking and doing takes on varied meanings in different situations, and therefore, deemphasizes a dichotomous perspective to multicultural education.

As Nicolescu (2005) states, the logic of an excluded middle is most applicable to "relatively simple situations" such as driving on a highway where strict rules must obtain for what is permitted and prohibited. Nicolescu (2005) further asserts that application of the logic of the excluded middle is "harmful in complex cases" (p. 12). He cites complex cases as those in which circumstances and experiences are not clearly defined, such as the "economical, social, cultural, religious or political spheres" (p. 12). He also highlights situations more applicable to, and/or consistent with, the logic of exclusion, such as good/evil, heaven/hell, and left/right. Such an approach introduces, as Nicolescu (2005) describes, a "permanent flexibility" toward the infinite possibilities of equally viable contributions by individuals from varied social groups.

Learning to Do

Teacher candidates' "learning to do" takes into consideration candidates' growth in the teaching profession as a critical quality in their learning of multicultural education. Inherent in the concept of "learning to do" is the consideration of specialization as a process of developing several competencies while simultaneously becoming an individual with a flexible nature, whose competencies can be capitalized upon in an educational system currently undergoing tremendous change. In a transdisciplinary context, teacher candidates in search of and developing their "learning to do" experiences would be wary of excessive specialization in a given area of the profession. This rationale is based on the complexity axiom, which highlights the principle of universal interdependence.

Universal interdependence, in its natural and uncontaminated state, is directly opposed to the competitive norms established in contemporary society. Specifically, it comprises of a "concern for the equal opportunity for all human beings" and therefore, a teacher candidate's "learning to do" may no longer be viewed as a specialization in teaching, but a specialization of specializations in which the teaching profession for him or her becomes an "authentically woven occupation, an occupation which would bind together in the interior of human beings threads linking them to other occupations" (Nicolescu, 1999, p. 5).

Rosaen and Florio-Ruane (2008) highlight various practices that teacher candidates may engage in as a means of "learning to do". Among these are: learning a professional discourse through which teacher candidates examine preconceived notions and metaphors used in their personal experiences and with students; learning through experience in which teacher candidates immerse themselves in inquiry of their teaching which fall outside of the periphery of their culturally accepted ways of thinking, speaking and interacting; using technological tools which permit teacher candidates to capture their experiences in photographs, video and audio while simultaneously and progressively raising questions about practices toward diverse groups; and investigating curriculum, policies and standards to consistently determine how ideological and political agendas of the broader educational experience impede or afford them the agency with which to respond equally to students' needs.

Based on this dynamic, and in much the same way as Nicoelscu (1999), Rosaen and Florio-Ruane (2008) utilize "weaving" as a metaphor to describe the multiplicity of actions inherent in teachers' "learning to do". However, Nicolescu (1999) extends thinking about "learning to do" beyond the act of weaving. Viewed through the lens of the complexity axiom, more characteristic notions of "learning to do" are expected of teacher candidates. Teacher candidates who function holistically must bring to their teaching repertoires, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. These qualities are determined to be as important as the cognitive and natural elements encountered within the teaching/learning environment. Within this proposed framework, teacher candidates' "learning to do" is no longer a function of the social hierarchy with its dependence on competitiveness among human beings; neither is it simply a reflection of ideological and political agendas that govern the broader academic arena. Rather, "learning to do" becomes a way of being "based on the equilibrium between the exterior person and the interior person" (Nicolescu, 1999, p. 5). Within this equilibrist existence, external manifestations of behavior produced as a response to the scientifically based requirements demanded by candidates' teaching positions operate in tandem with a proportionate display of feeling and emotion in response to students with whom they relate.

Learning to Live Together With and Learning to Be

Nicolescu (1999) envisions "learning to live together with" as a propensity extending beyond the superficial dispositions of tolerance to the development of transcultural, transreligious, transpolitical and transnational attitudes as individuals become more responsive to their own interests and convictions. In teacher candidates' approaches to students, their development of awareness beyond the cultural, religious, political and national is, therefore, integral to a sense of embracing, reflecting and consistently acting upon cultural differences.

Nicolescu (1999) describes transdisciplinarity as a prerequisite for "learning to be" when he states:
   We can begin by learning that the word "exist" means, for us:
   discovering our conditioning, discovering the harmony or disharmony
   between our individual and social life, testing the foundations of
   our convictions in order to discover that which is found
   underneath. To question, to question always; here too, the
   scientific spirit is a precious guide for us. Learning to be is
   also a permanent apprenticeship in which teachers inform the
   students as much as students inform the teachers. (p. 6)

Teacher candidates can accomplish the goals of multicultural education through exploration of their "learning to be." As Nicolescu (1999) asserts, a person's experiences are shaped through transition within a transpersonal dimension. The inability to realize and respect this process, he claims, is responsible for the extensive friction present in the contemporary era in the form of the huge divide between the material and the spiritual world.

Teacher candidates' capacity to dig deep and to engage perpetually in a spirit of inquiry provides them with tools to dissect their assumptions' underlying beliefs, both within their material and spiritual worlds. Kegan's (1982) conception provides an excellent framework through which teacher candidates may harness the material and spiritual as they progress through the developmental stages noted. Candidates' consistent examination of their "learning to be" via the lenses proposed (i.e., Kegan, 1982) equips them with the tools necessary to determine the underlying reasons for approaching individuals, cultures and groups in predefined ways. Reflexivity may, therefore, allow them to continually redefine their sense of self in their interactions with diverse groups.

Transdisciplinarity for Teachers in Classrooms

Given the above, transdisciplinarity may directly transform teachers' enactment of curriculum in ways that promote the goals of multiculturalism. Ideally, a teacher interested in a transdisciplinary approach to curriculum implementation would seek to dismantle ways of viewing education, which reinforce the compartmentalization of disciplines. This approach would necessitate that disciplines such as science, mathematics, social studies, and literature, currently taught in isolation would merge, the interaction among which would be governed by the desire to solve authentic problems prevalent in the society in which students operate. Teaching via curriculum whereby disciplinary boundaries are eliminated diminishes the notion that knowledge is contained within domains, but rather, as Nicolescu (2010) asserts, is fluid, interdependent, and never ending. Through perpetuating interaction and learning based on such a curriculum, teachers may emphasize the necessity of differing views in order to arrive at solutions. Students are, therefore, constantly required to engage with opposing viewpoints in their quest for addressing challenges, and thereby, appreciate the differences of others.

While such a proposal seems tempting, the structure of public education as is may present obstacles for the adoption of such approaches to curriculum and instruction. Alternately, therefore, through engaging in the ways of thinking, doing, knowing, being as defined by transdisciplinarity, teachers may develop certain stances that permit movement beyond disciplines, which simultaneously maintain the status quo. The following are examples of what might be done via the curriculum.

(a) Social Studies: teachers providing instruction about Islam, Hinduism, or Confucianism, based on the logic of the included middle, may require students to demonstrate how the three systems reflected very similar streams of thought, thereby illustrating how the similarities inherent among them transcend that which makes them different.

(b) Science: when teaching inquiry within science, transdisciplinarity would require teachers to enable students to express their emotions in relation to empirical evidence obtained. This approach ensures that a balance is maintained between the material and spiritual sense of self. Cultivating awareness of students' personal reactions to scientific knowledge not only increases the probability that they remain open to infinite ways of knowing, but also enhances their recognition of how scientists' individual backgrounds and predispositions toward knowing the world influence the empirical evidence with which they interact. Through harnessing students' emotions and feelings in inquiry, teachers develop students' abilities to question, always question, even the scientific inquiry in which they are engaged and to consistently invite divergent viewpoints in the construction of learning.

(c) Mathematics: when teaching the concept of fractions and decimals in mathematics, a teacher may demonstrate the tendency of elements that appear dissimilar to be the same. An example of this can be demonstrated by illustrating how 3/6 and 1/2 appear to be different but are not. Similarly, this can also be highlighted via the use of the decimal 0.5, which appears different from 3/6 and 1/2, but is not. Through emphasizing the multiple ways in which one concept may be demonstrated, teachers may reinforce the idea of unity in diversity, thereby opening students' minds to novel ways of thinking.

(d) Literacy: in teaching literature, teachers may incorporate the idea of transdisciplinarity by considering how themes such as loyalty, betrayal, death, family, love, power, and lust are universal, despite variations in culture. Teachers may also extend this to enable students to realize the pervasiveness of emotions in the daily aspects of human life. By extension, teachers may enact their personalities in classrooms, allowing students an opportunity to observe how their personal sense of self permeates their work, thereby validating an awareness of emotion in academic settings.


The invitation to teacher educators to systematically examine practice and recreate the learning experience via a transdisciplinary approach constitutes a critical stance from which to approach avenues to teacher candidates' success in the diverse context of academia. In a century where the demonstration of competence is dependent on multiple proficiencies for successful teaching performance; an era where learning is approached through lenses which require teachers to think divergently in relation to authentic societal problems; in environments where teacher performance is becoming increasingly determined based on student performance; at a time when the United States is becoming more diverse; and in circumstances where the capacity of academia to individually meet the needs of diverse students remains a central concern, a reconciliation of human sensitivity and intellectual capacity is critical to achieve the balance required for effectiveness and affectivity in multicultural teacher education.

Teacher educators can learn to first examine the professional self and consequently, facilitate teacher candidates' utilization of their personal resources and experiences in developing a sense of their humanity in tandem with a reliance on cognition and the intellect. Future research in transdisciplinarity as a framework for enhancing the goals of multicultural teacher education might attempt to provide the field with an alternative, but albeit, insightful account of how teachers in classrooms "learn to know," "do," "be," and "live with" through ethnographic accounts of these teachers' practices in their teaching/learning contexts. Otherwise, attempts may be made to determine specifically how courses and programs in higher education stand to reflect multicultural perspectives from adopting a transdisciplinary lens.


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Title Annotation:CHAPTER 3
Author:Smith, Patriann
Publication:Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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