Diversity within the American classroom makes the process of teaching and learning a growing challenge. The faces of today’s students are becoming increasingly dissimilar. Schools are faced with the challenge of integrating the cultures and ethnicities of American based curriculum and students from a variety of cultures and ethnicities. Each of these students brings different culturally based rules, expectations, value systems, and educational needs to the learning environment. Facing the challenge of educating these increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse learners begins not only with a change in the management, pedagogy, and instructional delivery system, but also with a change in designers, trainers, or teachers.
Research indicates that most mainstream cultural educators automatically view the world exclusively from their own viewpoints, which serves as a reference against which all others should be evaluated. This process has been commonplace in the classroom. This results in an unwarranted belief that one’s own way of doing things is “best” and that one’s own group is markedly superior to another.
“Generally speaking, this type of person is the one who neither understands nor accepts the culturally different learners’ values, their motives, the rewards that are meaningful to them, their locus of control, their linguistic systems, their learning styles, and their cognitive styles.” (Zhang, 2001) This is a person who may, upon entering or creating a learning environment, do so with cultural orientations and expectations that reflect his/her own cultural values and expectations. This can create an environment that perpetuates the predominant culture and shuts out others learners.
Zhang identified talking points to enable an educational system evaluate their ability to meet the needs of minority or diverse students. These questions include:
(1) What form of educational system is most familiar to the students?
(2) What kind of learning environment is most customary to these students? In some cultures, for example, teachers are revered individuals who teach sacred truth. The task of the students is to absorb knowledge, and they seldom disagree with the teacher. In the programs designed for these particular students, we can put more fundamental basic skills for them to memorize.
(3) How do the cultural backgrounds of the students influence their uses and views of time? Americans’ uses and views of time reflect cultural biases that alter their educational processes. In contrast to the American clock-oriented value, some cultures are not conditioned to use every moment in a productive, task-oriented manner. Classrooms may not be able to design curriculum in a strictly time-controlled system. Some students may need more time.
(4) What kind of relationship is most natural for these students to have with the teachers? The teacher-student relationship is culturally mandated.
(5) What rewards are attractive to these students? Rewards and reinforcement for learning differ in effectiveness across cultures. Some cultures teach their children different reward systems. For instance, verbal praise, which is viewed by most teachers as a reward, is not perceived as such by children of some minority groups.
(6) How can the program use some slang? American classrooms are structured on standard English, but some minority students feel more comfortable learning in a rather informal setting. The use of some slang in the program may improve learning achievement.
(7) “What about the students’ cognitive styles?” American schools favor the abstract, conceptual style. Studies have shown that some cultural groups develop different cognitive styles.
Some theorists express the view that culturally different children are often judged as incompetent, whereas in reality, it is their individual performance, not their competence, which is deficient. The gap between competence and performance is attributed to inappropriate situation cues –inappropriate because they fail to stimulate the child into action. Mathematics requires more abstract, conceptual ability. Some minority students develop their cognitive style with concrete, objective base. Therefore “situated learning” environment supported by most of constructivism theorists is a good choice. (Zhang, 2001)
Zhang offers the following criteria to evaluate a good culturally balanced curriculum:
1) Materials are respectful of cultural, ethnic, sexual, and/or religious diversity.
2) A balance of historical perspectives is represented that recognizes the complexity underlying historical events, especially wars, and politics.
3) Gender inclusiveness is evident.
4) A balanced perspective on the values and contributions of diverse cultures is represented.
5) Images and icons are sensitive to cultural taboos and customs.
6) An ethical perspective is presented that maintains that cultural practices should be respected unless they violate principles of basic humanity.
7) Ethnic groups are represented in ways that reflect the diversity within these groups.
8) A balance of different cultures and societies is represented in images or texts.
9) Ethnic groups are represented in ways that reflect accurately their overall contributions to society.
10) Ethnic pluralism based upon respect for differences are held forth as the ideal approach to societal development.
Teachers are well aware of the demographic trends in today’s schools indicating that the student population is becoming more ethnically, culturally, and racially diverse. Curriculum development and teachers are challenged to provide meaningful, relevant, and motivating educational interventions to all learners. Instruction must be responsive to the needs of these new learners, who often have backgrounds different from our own.
This pluralistic focus, which requires us to accommodate diversity in the education process, must start with our own cultural sensitivity. This requires being able to view the world from the standpoint of a culture other than one’s own. For educators, this means accepting as valid the culturally different learners’ values, their motives, rewards that are meaningful to them, their locus of control, their linguistic systems, their learning styles, and their cognitive styles. Incorporating these issues into program designs, valuing this diversity and seeing it as an asset to meaningful and effective instruction are key components for relevant instructional design.
Angela Rickford, while assessing the progress of reading skills among culturally diverse classrooms, found that there still exists inequities with the system and the instruction methods of teachers. Rickford identified six sound principles, which formulate her theory on “deep teaching,” which is defined as “a teacher’s ability to communicate and impart stated concepts, curriculum content and lesson objectives to a class of students with enjoyment, clarity, understanding, and the permanent acquisition of new knowledge by those students even if they are academically challenged.”
The six principles identified in deep teaching are: 1) student engagement, 2) learner participation, 3) repetition and reinforcement, 4) high expectations, 5) sound pedagogy and 6) conceptual understanding.
Student engagement: In order to educate our children successfully, we should first seek to discover where their interests lie, and then teach to those interests.
Contemporary educators believe that a curriculum that incorporates real-world connections and applications will engage learners. Real-life work is meaningful to students, and effective as it allows the student to apply what they are learning. Rickford promoted culturally relevant literature for teaching ethnically diverse students–literature containing themes, ideas, and issues that are consonant with their lived experiences, and with which they could readily identify.
Learner Participation: The second element of learner participation forms a natural pairing with student engagement. In the classroom, the reading teacher must be a facilitator of knowledge, and a guide and coworker. The current educational emphasis is on learning strategies such as partner reading, shared reading, homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping, authentic assessment and interactive reading comprehension techniques (predicting, visualizing, questioning, and self-monitoring), and on communication and interaction. These techniques are designed to foster a participatory, pro-active, hands-on approach to student learning.
Repetition and Reinforcement: Practice it until you can get it without thinking. It should be automatic. It should become part of the individual.
Expectations: The issue of low expectations continues limit the progress made by minorities in today’s classrooms in both direct and indirect ways. It has been well documented that low expectations are endemic in the mechanism of schooling that supports low-achieving students, and the trend is further manifested in fundamental measures of excellence such as teacher quality, teaching pedagogy, classroom management, and curricular selection. The direct impact of low expectations on the part of classroom teachers has a cumulative effect on students.
One of social psychology’s most profound contributions to education has been the finding that teacher expectations can affect both children’s intellectual growth and their academic achievement. High expectations should be the prevailing standard for all students.
Sound Teaching and Conceptual Understanding: Sound teaching pedagogy is the principle upon which the successful transfer of knowledge from teacher to student depends, while conceptual understanding is what the student gains when that knowledge has been successfully transferred. Sound teaching pedagogy and conceptual understanding are the hallmarks of effective teachers. Research has shown further that teacher knowledge and expertise are directly and systematically related to student growth and achievement.
Coleman & Hamm identified multicultural strategies (integration, fusion, and alternation) that involve a desire to relate positively to individuals from multiple cultural groups, and are characterized by positive attitudes toward one’s own and other groups, a moderate to high degree of facility with the roles and values of multiple groups, and a belief that members of different cultures can successfully form positive relationships.
Although integration, fusion, and alternation strategies differ with respect to the specific knowledge, beliefs, and skills that guide them, each is based on a belief that cultural boundaries can and should be implemented successfully without compromise to either culture and are believed to motivate behavior to further integration.
A common experience in ethnically diverse schools is to collaborate in a group format on academic tasks with peers who are from one’s own, as well as from other ethnic groups. Using a multicultural strategy, students would interact with all members of the learning group, taking steps to ensure that group members of all ethnic backgrounds are respected and are involved with the project.
Learning as a Social and Cultural Process
Given that research has demonstrated the under-performing of minority students within the Western classroom, perhpas learning is primarily a social and cultural process. This is not to diminish the role of the individual; however, individual thinking is strongly influenced by cultural assumptions and beliefs. Because all communities do not think, believe, or learn in identical ways, there may still be much, that is confusing to or misunderstood by children with language, culture, and socioeconomic differences. Teachers must be willing to learn not only who their students are but also who they, themselves, are as cultural beings and how that strongly affects their teaching. (Pransky & Bailey, 2002)
Pransky and Bailey identified a four step process for teachers to implement in the classroom to increase effectiveness:
Step 1. Awareness. A teacher notices a breakdown in communication or an inability (or unwillingness) of a student or group of students to perform adequately on an academic task.
Step 2. Inquiry. The teacher examines the nature of the lesson and begins to identify cultural assumptions that may negatively affect at-risk students.
Step 3. Reconceptualization. With this new information, the teacher reconceptualizes his or her perspective on the students, lesson, curriculum, or school culture.
Step 4. Lesson. A lesson is revisited, revised, or restructured, and one’s instructional decisions change based on that new conception.
What is learned through this process expands the awareness of the teacher, and effectively increases teaching skills. As one develops more awareness, knowledge, and experience with a cultural perspective on learning, one is better able to reconceptualize and then redirect or refocus one’s teaching within the flow of the lesson. This might be termed “real-time inquiry.” In real-time inquiry, especially, it is important to engage in dialogue with students to try to discover the understandings they have of the lesson task or interaction. (Pransky & Bailey, 2002)
Teaching Science in a Diverse Classroom
Houtz & Watson evaluated teacher performance in the science classroom and identified the following needs in order to meet the needs of diverse students:
- They must recognize what is required in learning tasks such as vocabulary knowledge, the ability to make inferences, and the ability to work independently.
- They also should know their students’ strengths and weaknesses.
- Once these tasks are accomplished, the educator must determine the reason for the mismatch between a student’s abilities and the task requirements of the lesson
Culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students may be at risk of performing poorly in science if they lack the linguistic, the cognitive, the social, and the emotional behaviors required by science learning. Because the behavior, culture, and language of CLD students may be different from those involved in the task requirements, these students may experience difficulty completing science projects. Teachers need to identify the discrepancy between task demands and student ability and then modify to their lesson plans accordingly. By understanding the process of acquiring a second language and a second culture and the cognitive, linguistic, emotional, and social demands involved in the process, science teachers can incorporate instructional conditions that attend to the students’ needs.
Science teachers can use numerous instructional strategies to accommodate CLD learners without weakening the curriculum. Contextualization allows students to draw from personal experiences and build on their prior knowledge to learn the new scientific concept. Teachers can “group individualize” the process by structuring questions that encourage students to think about their own personal experience as it relates to the topic or content to be learned.
The use of contextualized instruction provides CLD students the support they need for understanding the lesson by visually representing the information through experiments, pictures, graphic organizers, and charts. Contextualization allows teachers to (a) consider their students’ language proficiency levels of vocabulary control and (b) highlight specific text information.
Analogies and examples that are culturally relevant may also be used to help students understand scientific concepts. Analogies show the similarities between a new concept and a familiar concept, making the new concept more meaningful to the student. Analogies can assist in diminishing the cognitive and linguistic requirements of the task.
Cognitive modeling and demonstration are especially beneficial for CLD students because these strategies increase understanding by providing concrete, step-by-step procedures that lessen the cognitive, linguistic, and social requirements of the task. (Houtz & Watson, 2002)
A Learner Centered Approach
An essential factor for a learner-centered approach is placing the learning characteristics of all learners under close scrutiny with emphasis on low-performing learners. The focus in a learner-centered approach is on individual learners’ heredity, experiences, perspectives, backgrounds, talents, interests, capacities, and needs. A learner-centered approach is defined as clarifying what is needed to create positive learning contexts, in order to increase the likelihood that more students will experience success. The culture of the learning context is as important to learning as the content and the methods used. (Brown, 2003)
In the learner-centered environment, classroom teachers share narratives about students’ interaction with content and methodology. Teachers participate in professional development to learn how to differentiate instruction. Differentiation is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that is based on a set of beliefs that students who are the same age may differ in their readiness to learn, their interests, their styles of learning, their experiences, and their life circumstances. The differences in students are significant enough to make a major impact on what students need to learn, the pace at which they need to learn it, and the support they need from teachers and others to learn it.
Differentiated instruction meets the needs of diverse student populations by combining student needs with a focus on content, process, and learning profiles. The learner-centered approach, focuses on content knowledge and design flexibility to allow learners to construct their learning. Learner needs and characteristics take precedence over knowledge of facts and skills; the emphasis is on engaging learners in learning for understanding and thinking, to help them build their own interpretations.
Creating Equitable Classroom Climates
Kelly outlines recommendations that include creating a mixed set of expectations for all
students in order to reduce the participation inequity altogether. These expectations focus on being able to identify each individual’s area or areas of strength and expertise. In order to create this new set of expectations, teachers must convince students of three things: (a) the cooperative task requires many different intellectual abilities, (b) no one will have all of these abilities and, (c) everyone will have some of these abilities. Kelly believes that teachers who teach and model equitable classroom culture will probably be more likely to convince students to behave more equitably to their peers. (Kelly, 2002)
This method of implementing change by using a multiple-abilities approach and assigning competence to low-status groups, teachers will limit the impact of high expectations for high-status learners and low-expectations for low-status learners, and create a mixed set of expectations for everyone. This approach should reduce the differences in participation noted previously in high- and low-status students. Kelly identifies the key factor to success in the latter intervention is recognition, a truthful evaluation by the teacher of the low-status student showing him/her as being strong in a specific, relevant area.
Diversity in the classroom and the challenges faced by teachers to meet the needs of minority students has been studied and debated for more than twenty years. Progress in the identification of strategies has been made, but implementation is likely to be slow, as the revision of curriculum is a costly and time consuming project.
The strategies outlined in this paper are not dependent on the revision of curriculum however, and may provide for ease of implementation. One focus of these strategies is to assess each student, understand who they are, based on their culture, and direct your teaching methods accordingly. Further, teachers must identify their own cultural beliefs and how those may prejudice their teaching methods. Including students in the process of learning, modifying the process, and outlining the challenges will be beneficial to the learning of all.
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