Diverse Learners, Diverse Schools

Educational equality has been a much sought after goal of educators and learners alike because it is a sign of potential mobility in a society (Brighouse, Howe, Tooley, & Haydon, 2010). Social mobility is a near-universal indicator of how motivated individuals can be (and will be) to seek excellence in what they do. Without social mobility there is not a clear reward for making the most effort or investing the most resources, clearly affecting the end result in a negative way.

While some in the past understood educational equality as simply offering the same education to all students, in recent years there has been a shift in the way educators approach the idea of equality. Equality in education seeks to give all students an equal opportunity to learn, striving to reach equal outcomes as a result of different strategies and methods, which vary according to the needs of each individual student or group of students. There are three crucial elements that must be thoroughly understood and put into practice so that schools can effectively meet that challenge and succeed at teaching all students in a relevant and effective way: teachers and administrators must understand what diversity is, they must implement a multicultural curriculum, and strive for a multicultural faculty.

What Is Diversity?

The job of an educator is to teach all students that were assigned to him or her. Learners come to the classroom from a variety of backgrounds, and some of these backgrounds refer to ethnicity, race or language; but the variety can go well beyond those factors: other differences can include regional upbringing, family culture, religion or even physical traits such as Attention Deficit Disorder or other disabilities (Dukes & Lamar-Dukes, 2009). How should the school fulfill its role with such a rich variety of characteristics that have a direct bearing on learning? This diversity of the student body is a real challenge that teachers and administrators face daily (Clark, 2011).

Firstly, schools must understand what diversity really is. Diversity goes well beyond racial or ethnic differences. It is a characteristic that permeates every human interaction and makes humankind so unique in this world. People can be so different as to speak a completely different language and look not quite recognizably “civil,” and yet humans are still able to interact, communicate and even collaborate. The first Europeans to set foot in the Americas were as surprised by the native population as the natives were by the Europeans; but somehow they were able to communicate, trade, make alliances and wage war against each other.

Interaction is enhanced by diversity. If all parties think, act, look and behave the same way, the element of surprise or the creative power of the whole is diminished (Armstrong et al., 2010). The concept of diversity is widely utilized in business, but the field of education is also on track to understand the full impact that diversity can have on the learning experience. For instance, team activities are only able to muster the full resources of a group if the group’s diversity is explored—different background, different points of view, different cultures, all play into understanding problems and finding solutions.

Diversity is not only something that is observable, but it reaches the deepest levels of the human being. An individual’s family heritage sets that person apart from all others because it is very likely that others did not have the same experiences and were not taught the exact same things while growing up. This unique family heritage would affect not only how one would search for solutions to problems, but also how that individual would perceive a situation or communication. Words, gestures, body language and other manifestations may have different meanings for people with different family histories. If this concept is extrapolated to other areas, such as a person’s religious denomination (not just a major religion, but to a sub-section of that religion) or political tendencies, it is possible to have a glimpse of how elaborate and complex a human being really is: there are no two men or women alike.

Human beings are unique—yet educators have attempted to educate all of them using the same content, methods and approaches. As such, not all students can understand and will understand what is being taught the same way; and this would then hinder their ability to achieve equal outcomes. Here lies a challenge to educators: to reach all students in ways that all of them can understand, relate to and learn from instructors who are aware of the different ways learners view the world around them.

Diverse Schools: Multicultural Curriculum

If students are diverse, and their diversity reaches the very essence of who and what they are, the content also needs to be a reflection of that diversity. Teaching a curriculum that speaks only to one student or one group of students is a disservice to the whole because it stifles the potential of diversity and favors some in detriment of others. If that happens, an equal outcome (or even a similar one) will be unattainable. A true multicultural curriculum speaks to all students in ways that they can understand and relate, and favors equality.

Multicultural curricula have evolved with time, starting out as regular curricula with special events or dates inserted for student awareness: special days (e.g. Cinco de Mayo) were celebrated and students learned a little about another culture (Banks, 2006). While there is value in activities such as celebrating special dates or events, a multicultural curriculum requires far more than food and fun. A true multicultural curriculum incorporates the diversity of the student body.

When students are viewed as the diverse individuals that they truly are, a relevant curriculum becomes much more challenging to develop and implement. The multicultural curriculum brings to the classroom different perspectives, points of view, starting points, languages and cultures. It incorporates different ethnicities, religions and politics. It goes beyond static content and becomes a living, changing and evolving basis for teaching and learning.

Banks (2006) presents twenty-three suggestions to implementing a multicultural curriculum: “ethnic and cultural diversity should permeate the total school environment;” “school policies and procedures should foster positive multicultural interactions and understandings among students, teachers, and the support staff;” “a school’s staff should reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity within the [country];” “schools should have systematic, comprehensive, mandatory, and continuing staff development programs;” “the curriculum should reflect the cultural learning styles and characteristics of the students within the school continuity;” “the multicultural curriculum should provide students with continuous opportunities to develop a better sense of self; the curriculum should help students understand the totality of the experiences of ethnic and cultural groups in the [country];” “the curriculum should help students to identify and understand the ever-present conflict of ideals and realities in human societies;” “the multicultural curriculum should explore and clarify ethnic and cultural alternatives and options in the [country];” “the multicultural curriculum should promote values, attitudes, and behaviors that support ethnic pluralism and cultural diversity as well as build and support the nation-state and the nation’s shared national culture;” “the multicultural curriculum should help students develop the decision-making skills, social participation skills, and sense of political efficacy needed for effective citizenship in a multicultural democratic nation;” “the multicultural curriculum should help students develop the skills necessary for effective interpersonal, interethnic, and intercultural group interactions;” “the multicultural curriculum should be comprehensive in scope and sequence, should present holistic views of ethnic and cultural groups, and should be an integral part of the total school curriculum;” “the multicultural curriculum should include the continuous study of the cultures, historical experiences, social realities, and existential conditions of ethnic and cultural groups, including a variety of racial compositions;” “interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches should be used in designing and implementing the multicultural curriculum;” “the multicultural curriculum should use comparative approaches in the study of ethnic and cultural groups;” “the multicultural curriculum should help students to view and interpret events, situations, and conflict from diverse ethnic and cultural perspectives and points of view;” “the multicultural curriculum should conceptualize and describe the development of the [country] as a multidirectional society;” “schools should provide opportunities for students to participate in the aesthetic experiences of various ethnic and cultural groups;” “the multicultural curriculum should provide opportunities for students to study ethnic group languages as legitimate communication systems and to help them develop literacy in at least two languages;” “the multicultural curriculum should make use of experimental learning, especially local community resources;” “the assessment procedures used with students should reflect their ethnic and cultural experiences;” “and schools should conduct ongoing, systematic assessment of the goals, methods, and instructional materials used in teaching about ethnic, cultural, and language diversity” (pp. 315-336, passim).

A true multicultural curriculum is not easy to implement, but its rewards are great: a spike in creativity (Kaser & Johnson, 2011), increased student engagement and true communication of concepts and ideas are all a direct result of a relevant curriculum that speaks to the student. If Banks’ (2006) suggestions are implemented, one more key crucial piece needs to be put into place as well: a multicultural faculty.

Diverse Schools: Multicultural Faculty

An often overlooked factor in reaching out to all students is the need for faculty who can relate to them and vice versa. If students see in positions of authority only representatives of a specific group, or point of view, or culture, this in itself becomes a barrier to equal outcomes. As Leite (2013) points out:

Students should be able to see instructors who are a reflection of what and who they are, and who can serve as inspiration for them to achieve their full potential. If a student population is comprised mainly of minority students, and most instructors are of the majority, students are subconsciously (or overtly) being taught that the majority holds positions of authority and the minority follows the majority (p. 2).

Vega, Yglesias and Murray (2010) stress that there is a need for minority instructors to be hired and trained in order to ensure that the present and future student populations in the United States will have access to a multicultural curriculum that is relevant and indispensible in a globalized world. But teachers should not be hired simply because they are minority individuals; the needs of the school and the subsequent list of qualities and abilities required to meet those needs should be an integral part of the hiring process. Schools should not hire for the sake of hiring, but should instead seek out highly qualified individuals who will add expertise and diversity to the body of educators responsible for designing the curriculum and implementing it.

A strong mentoring program needs to be in place so that newly-hired instructors won’t become entrapped by politics, racial dynamics or the old modus faciendi that the schools want to change. According to Vega, Yglesias and Murray (2010), a strong mentorship program should incorporate nine fundamental components: “specific goals of the mentoring program;” “outcomes of the program—objectives behaviorally articulated with expected outcomes;” “length of time of the program—approximate number of hours expected to be devoted to the mentoring experience on a weekly basis;” “mentor training—empathy, listening, communication skills, time commitment;” “clearly articulated descriptions of clinical or internship experiences associated with the program;” “list of formal or informal course or workshop attendance that should be undertaken by mentees during the length of the program;” “a well-developed tracking and data collection plan to assess the intended outcomes;” “anecdotal notes on each candidate by mentor, mentee, and program organizers;” “yearly surveys of mentees noting career or job changes as a result of being mentored” (p. 53).

A diverse faculty brings many benefits to the school and to the implementation of the curriculum. For instance, Banks’ (2006) includes among his suggestions for a multicultural curriculum the fact that the curriculum “should help students to view and interpret events, situations, and conflict from diverse ethnic and cultural perspectives and points of view” (p. 331). How can students do that if they don’t have access to individuals who are a reflection of those differences and understand them well? Diversity in faculty is crucial to a well-implemented multicultural curriculum because it makes the lessons come alive: instructors who are capable of different interpretations or points of view are able to connect to students, resulting in better communication and (ideally) better learning.

Without a diverse faculty, students are likely left with a curriculum that is not truly multicultural in nature. As such, according to Nieto and Bode (2003), those students are subject to “monocultural education, which reflects only one reality and is biased toward the dominant group” (p. 49) and “are miseducated to the extent that they receive only a partial and biased education” (p. 50). The inclusive nature of multicultural education precludes the selection of monocultural faculty and requires that instructors be of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, races, religions and cultures.

Conclusion

Human beings are diverse by nature. This innate diversity is not a weakness, but rather it is one of the explanations for human survival and dominance in the natural world. Oddly, this human strength has been made by some to be a weakness and a sign of inferiority. This tendency to oppose diversity has resulted in attempts to take over the world and impose the rule of one race over all the others (e.g. Nazism), or in long-running clashes between ideologies that value either what humans should have in common (e.g. Communism) or what they are capable of producing and selling at a profit (e.g. Capitalism).

When educators fully understand the uniqueness of each human being, and how each individual has a different worldview, history and cultural and ethnic traits, then they can begin to comprehend how incredibly difficult it is to communicate in a meaningful way that can help each student to achieve the outcomes that educators wished they would achieve. This diversity is a mighty challenge to education, but one that can be overcome with the help of two other factors: a multicultural curriculum and a multicultural faculty.

A multicultural curriculum is a relevant curriculum in a multicultural world, where the diversity of the student body is the norm and not the exception (Syed, 2010). Various points of view for each topic in each discipline provide a more accurate and global understanding for students who have different worldviews and understand things differently from each other. Foreign language education helps to connect with students from different cultural backgrounds and equips all students to better communicate with each other and better understand the world. Ethnically sensitive lessons that tackle the difficult issues in a caring and transparent way have the potential to transform race relations and open a new era of dialogue between the races.

But a multicultural curriculum is only one more set of lessons if it is not implemented by a diverse faculty. Instructors must relate to the curriculum so that they can relate the curriculum to the students. If students don’t see that schools have truly embraced the multicultural curriculum, well-intended lessons may be understood as token gestures and not true attempts at providing an education that is relevant to all. Instructors should be of diverse backgrounds (culture, race, ethnicity, etc.) so that they can present different points of view and interpretations “from the inside” and not simply as outsiders (Nieto & Bode, 2008). Students should see a body of educators that are reflections of what the world currently is: a global community, where cultures interact and learn from each other daily. After all, in addition to possible negative perceptions on the part of students, the lack of diversity in faculty may serve to perpetuate traits that multicultural education seeks to eradicate, such as the subordination of certain groups, the implied superiority of certain narratives, etc.

By truly understanding what diversity is and implementing a multicultural curriculum with a multicultural faculty, schools will be one step closer to realizing the goal of providing a relevant, sensitive and comprehensive education to their students. It is not an easy step; it is rather a series of difficult steps that can lead to a more successful teaching and learning experience for both students and instructors. And this success can certainly lead to a world where people get along better, understand each other and collaborate to overcome the numerous challenges that a globalized world pose to humanity’s very existence.

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References

Armstrong, C., Flood, P. C., Guthrie, J. P., Liu, W., MacCurtain, S., & Mkamwa, T. (2010). The impact of diversity and equality management on firm performance: Beyond high performance work systems. Human Resource Management, 49(6), 977-998. doi:10.1002/hrm.20391

Banks, J. (2006). Cultural diversity and education. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Brighouse, H., Howe, K. R., Tooley, J., & Haydon, G. (2010). Educational equality [electronic resource] / Harry Brighouse, Kenneth R. Howe and James Tooley ; edited by Graham Haydon. New York, NY : Continuum International Pub. Group, c2010.

Clark, C. (2011). Diversity initiatives in higher education: Just how important is diversity in higher education? Multicultural Education, 19(3), 57-59.

Dukes, C., & Lamar-Dukes, P. (2009). Diversity: What we know, what we need to know, and what we need to do. Research & Practice For Persons With Severe Disabilities, 34(3/4), 71-75.

Kaser, K., & Johnson, M. (2011). Diversity education and improved team interactions. Business Studies Journal, 379-93.

Leite, S. (2013). Five suggestions for an effective multicultural curriculum. Unpublished manuscript, School of Education, Northcentral University, Prescott Valley, Arizona, USA.

Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Syed, M. (2010). Developing an integrated self: Academic and ethnic identities among ethnically diverse college students. Developmental Psychology, 46(6), 1590-1604. doi:10.1037/a0020738

Vega, W., Yglesias, K., & Murray, J. (2010). Recruiting and mentoring minority faculty members. New Directions For Community Colleges, (152), 49-55. doi:10.1002/cc.427

Wynne, R. (2012). Defining diversity. Bized, 11(1), 32-34.

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