Why do children go to school?
Most people would say it’s to learn the three R’s: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. But a school culture that promotes diversity in the classroom teaches students something that’s more important: how to live and work in a society where every individual is unique.
In an increasingly fragmented society, the ability to connect with peers, coworkers and neighbours with diverse backgrounds and abilities is invaluable. Diversity improves critical-thinking skills, builds empathy and encourages students to think differently.
If you want to tackle the issue of diversity in the classroom for your school, then this post is for you. We’ll cover:
- A quick definition of what diversity in the classroom means for your school
- Why diversity in the classroom setting is important
- 7 ways to promote diversity in your school and community
What is diversity in the classroom?
Diversity is everything that makes people different from each other. This includes many different factors: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ability, age, religious belief, or political conviction. All these factors work together to inform how students (and teachers, and everyone else) encounter the world.
The University of Rhode Island defines diversity in the classroom as “understanding each student brings unique experiences, strengths, and ideas to our classroom … Diversity is the exploration and incorporation of these differences to enrich learning in our classroom.”
For an illustrated definition of diversity, this video breaks down what the United States would look like if it were just a group of 100 people:
These realities are already reflected in your school, and it’s important for you to address them.
Why is diversity in the classroom important?
If you ignore the issue of diversity in the classroom and choose to not promote diversity in your school, you’re not doing your job.
Children go to school to be prepared for the workforce, so teaching must effectively address and embrace the realities that come with living and working in a diverse school, community and country.
Not only that, but there are other research-backed reasons for promoting diversity in the classroom:
Diversity in the classroom builds better thinkers
According to an article from Scientific American, we’re more likely to think harder about an issue when we’re talking to someone who is different than us:
“Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.”
The same article goes on to point out that even the appearance of diversity (and with it, the suggestion that different opinions exist) makes us change how we approach issues.
Students are no exception to this rule. Diversity in the classroom teaches students to appreciate different perspectives and draw stronger conclusions. Challenging students to consider different perspectives can also teach them how to interact with their peers on a social level, and equip them with skills they’ll use for the rest of their life.
It improves academic outcomes
Diversity in the classroom doesn’t just improve social skills, it can also have an impact on academic results. It improves critical thinking skills and encourages academic confidence.
According to a case study from The Century Foundation, students who attended a magnet school in Hartford, Connecticut that was required to meet racial integration standards through a lottery system outperformed students at suburban school that had a higher percentage of affluent, white students on standardized test scores.
The same report also found that effectively integrated schools had less misbehavior, lower dropout levels and noticed that students were more likely to want to pursue post-secondary education.
It involves more students
According to OISE professor Ann Lopez, diversity can “disrupt narratives and stereotypes in the classroom that position diverse people as lacking in valuable knowledge or unqualified.”
We commend this California high school instructor for encouraging essential #21stcenturyskills, such as communication and social/diversity awareness, through collaboration in the classroom. https://t.co/fnxu1AScJG https://t.co/fnxu1AScJG
— Elizabeth Woods (@woods_spunky) April 1, 2019
When schools take inclusive and responsive approaches to diversity, students are more likely to see their identify represented in classroom materials or other students. When diversity is not a priority and these students don’t feel included, they’re more likely to not participate and feel inferior to their peers.
A study from the University of California, Los Angeles looked at diverse classrooms to assess the emotional gains of students, and found encouraging results. According to the study, students in the most diverse classrooms were more likely to feel safer, less lonely and less bullied at school.
7 ways to encourage a culture of diversity in your school
Alright. So diversity is important to cultivate in your classroom because of the academic and social benefits. That’s a great thing to know, but what does diversity in the classroom look like in action? And how can you promote it in your school?
Good news: there are lots of different ways!
1. Examine your teaching materials
Which voices are speaking in your classroom?
That is, whose stories do you tell? Especially in the humanities and social sciences, teaching materials can often be limited to Western, white, male and middle-class narratives.
Work with your teachers to see if you’re representing a wide range of voices in the curriculum. If possible, teach literature from authors of color. Examine historical narratives to see which voices are missing — for example, a discussion about the civil rights movement can examine how it intersects with gender equality, immigration and the stories of Latino, Hispanic and Native American peoples.
Richard Messina, principal of OISE’s Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, defines this practice as “idea diversity:”
“To understand an idea is to understand the ideas that surround it, including those that stand in contrast to it. Idea diversity creates a rich environment for ideas to evolve into new and more refined forms. This pedagogical approach may help students to appreciate and value all forms of diversity and how diversity enriches learning.”
Some of the projects they’re working on to promote diversity in the classroom include:
- A first-grade rally to end homelessness: To learn about homelessness and civic engagement, students write letters to the mayor and use their creative skills to produce awareness materials like posters and songs.
- Second language practice in second grade: Students who speak Spanish at home help teach their classmates and teachers how to pronounce and translate a Spanish song.
- Fourth-grade history: While learning about the gold rush, students write diaries from a wide range of historical actors like mine workers and owners, but also from the perspective of women and immigrants that worked alongside them.
If it’s difficult to change your existing curriculum, use the opportunity to ask students why different perspectives aren’t included and challenge them to apply critical thinking skills.
2. Get to know your students
All the students in your school are unique individuals, so use that fact to build a diverse and inclusive school culture.
Take the time to learn about your students: Where do they come from? What kind of socio-economic situation do they live in, broadly speaking? Are they meeting academic achievement standards, or are they struggling? Do they get along with their peers?
With everything that you have to keep track of and work on, it might be difficult to find the time to intentionally build relationships with students — especially if you’re new to the school or to a leadership position.
Here are some ways to start:
- Schedule time out of your day to visit classrooms or walk through the halls. Let students know that they can approach you with problems (or just to say hello), and then follow through on what they come to you with.
- Communicate your vision and goals for the school to your teachers. Encourage them to come to you with any questions or concerns, and work with them to promote diversity in the classroom.
- Show some school spirit. Participate in school events and visit different clubs or after-school activities. If students see that you’re invested in school culture, they’ll be more likely to also participate.
When you know your students and understand their strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be better equipped to promote diversity and work with teachers to address the challenges and opportunities that come with a focus on diversity in the classroom.
3. Be willing to address inequality
Part of supporting diversity in the classroom is creating a space for students and educators to talk about how issues of discrimination affect them on a personal, classroom- and school-wide level.
The more diversity is a topic of discussion in your school, the less students and teachers will hesitate to address it. As a school leader, you’re in a position to lead the conversation and inspire others in the school to follow.
This conversation shouldn’t just be limited to words — in order to make effective change, you need to take practical steps to address inequality when you encounter it, such as:
- Shut down discrimination whenever you hear it
- Use language that promotes positivity and doesn’t reinforce existing stereotypes (for example, the phrase “boys will be boys” shouldn’t be used to justify sexism or aggression)
- Respond effectively to inappropriate comments or actions. Take infractions seriously and inform parents when necessary
- Encourage students to include all of their peers if you see division forming along racial or economic lines.
- Remove existing markers of inequality in your school. (For example, make sure students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs aren’t singled out and made to feel different.)
Fair does not equal same — fair means making sure that every student has what he or she needs to succeed both personally and academically. When you lead the conversation and follow through with action, you signal that discrimination will not be tolerated in your school.
4. Connect with parents and community
Schools are a central part of the community, and should reflect and celebrate its diversity.
Communicate your goals for diversity in the classroom to parents. Ask if they have any questions or concerns, and then listen. Invite them to identify areas in the curriculum or in the school culture that they feel could benefit from more of a focus on diversity.
Reach out to leaders in the community that can offer different perspectives, either as experts in their field, professionals, community workers or activists. Consider asking teachers to develop service learning projects that connect classroom learning with community initiatives.
When your students meet members of their community, they get to see examples of people from different backgrounds succeeding in their field and might be inspired to think differently about their own future.
Other options for staying in touch and building relationships with parents and neighbours:
- Host a community food drive. Ask students, parents and neighbours to bring in non-perishable food items to donate to the local food bank
- Start a paper or email newsletter to communicate school news and events to parents
- Host a parent night as an opportunity to outline any curriculum additions or special events the school is having to promote diversity
5. Meet diverse learning needs
Diversity goes beyond just measurable factors like ethnicity, socio-economic status or gender. It also extends to the way that students learn in the classroom — whether that’s through an accelerated learning course or with supports for learning disabilities.
Uniform standards can’t apply to a diverse classroom, so start working with your teachers to establish different approaches for students with different learning needs. Some suggestions for making sure the classroom stays accessible and equitable:
- Introduce adaptive technologies. Adaptive technologies give students with physical or learning disabilities the support they need to enter the lesson alongside their peers. This can include anything from speech-to-text software, talking calculators for students with dyscalculia, or modified computer accessories for students with physical disabilities.
- Encourage teachers to use different teaching strategies. Techniques like project-based learning, differentiated instruction and blended learning all allow teachers to help learners with different needs. (For even more ideas about classroom teaching strategies, read our Ultimate List of Teaching Strategies!)
- Make sure all students are participating in the classroom discussion and activities. It’s sometimes difficult to tell if one group is participating more or less, so encourage teachers to track class participation and adjust as necessary.
6. Hire diversely
The vast majority of teachers in the United States are white and female. According to federal data, 81.6 percent of teachers are white, while just 6.8 percent are black. As a contrast, 47 percent of students are white, while 16 percent are black.
In a 2018 study from the Learning Policy Institute, researchers found that having teachers of color increased the academic performance of students of color.
As a school leader, you can directly impact the diversity of your faculty through hiring and recruitment efforts. Some of the suggestions from the study for hiring a more diverse faculty include:
- Establish programs at the district level that recruit teachers from non-traditional programs and provide financial help and training.
- Improve the data systems that monitor diverse hiring efforts, and reward schools that meet diversity requirements.
- Hire earlier in the year to reach more in-demand candidates
- Support principal preparation programs, including actively recruiting teachers and supporting their professional development
It’s important to always hire the best candidate for the position, regardless of their background. At the same time, work to challenge your biases and assumptions about what makes a candidate qualified. A staff that reflects diversity in the classroom will expose your students to different ideas and teaching styles, and make them stronger as a result.
7. Support professional development opportunities
Your teachers will probably take on the bulk of the day-to-day efforts to promote diversity in the classroom. Offer professional development resources to help them effectively respond to challenges and opportunities.
At Blackstone Valley Prep in Rhode Island, teachers go through specific professional development sessions that illustrate how structural inequalities are present in classroom dynamics, and learn to elevate student voices above their own.
This is especially important considering their student body has a great deal of economic diversity and aims to give at least half of its opening to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. With professional development, teachers in that school are better equipped to address challenges and confront biases in themselves and in their students.
Here are some great resources and organizations to get you started:
- Beyond Heroes and Holidays: This resource is for teachers, school leaders, students and parents alike. It provides a model for building a culturally responsive curriculum and includes in-service activities, strategies for teaching and offers an analysis of racial inequality in the current school system.
- The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning is an organization that offers professional development opportunities for schools, businesses and the general public on becoming culturally responsive, “moving below the superficial focus on culture.” They offer half to multi-day workshops, as well as coaching and online courses.
- Teaching Tolerance is an organization that helps “teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy.” The program emphasizes social justice and anti-bias, and offers workshops in a number of major cities as well as free online resources. They also have a team of professional development trainers available to run sessions at the school or district level.
Final thoughts: Diversity in the classroom
Diversity expresses itself in so many different ways, so it can be daunting to try and start conversations around bringing it to the classroom.
The good news? Your school is already full of students and staff with diverse and amazing backgrounds, abilities and skills! All you have to do is start highlighting that diversity.
Start slowly and intentionally. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer, but always try to keep learning and growing. Listen to what others around you are saying, and look for feedback and ways to continuously improve. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but the most important step is getting started.
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