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Diversity in Education: How to Meet Student Needs

The social fabric of the United States is more diverse than ever, and different identities have been thrust into the nation’s social consciousness with greater immediacy and attention than ever before.

Similarly, there are changing demographics in higher education, which is also becoming more diverse. As a result, it’s necessary that educators prepare and adapt to increasing gender, racial, and language diversity in education in order to best address student needs.

The History of Diversity in the Classroom

According to James A. Banks, a professor and editor of the scholarly collection of essays titled Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, the types of diversity can be boiled down to the social construction of demographic criteria. He unpacked them into five variables:

  • Gender: Gender-role expectations can vary across cultures and even “across social classes within the same society.” Educators should confront these expectations to create a more equitable classroom culture.
  • Sexual Orientation: This identity characteristic requires attention because youths in the LGBT community are much more likely to experience prejudice, discrimination, and even hate crimes, according to Banks. As a result, it’s the responsibility of the educator to approach the topic delicately and create a classroom environment that prioritizes social equality. 
  • Race: Banks stated that race relies on “physical characteristics in a complex way.” Race and ethnicity are necessary components for an educator to address diversity because race can be an indicator for socioeconomic, historical, and political values across different cultures.
  • Social Class: It’s nearly impossible to clarify “which variables are the most important in determining the social-class status of an individual or family.” The variables here include family income, level of education, and type of career.
  • Exceptionality: Exceptionality can be split into two primary identity categories: disability and giftedness. Physical and mental disabilities have historically acted as barriers in education, which is why it’s important for teachers to build accessible, accommodating classrooms to support all students.

With these variables in mind, administrators and teachers can concentrate on incorporating educational diversity. At every level of education, these identity categories require attention to help foster critical thinking and understanding in classrooms. Banks added that educators “should also make sure that students from all social-class, cultural, language, ethnic, and gender groups have an equal opportunity to participate in programs for academically and creatively talented students.”

Exploring further, these tenets began to take hold in the world of education. To help give this context, Kenneth Cushner, writer of the chapter “Intercultural Training for Educators” of The International Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication, articulated the need for introducing multicultural education from a historical perspective. He tracked the work of John Dewey, who even in the early twentieth century found “education as inclusive, participative, and experiential, laying the foundation that cultural diversity should be considered fundamental to education.”

To continue this work and to move further against racism, antisemitism, and sexism, Cushner conveyed the significance of Hilda Taba’s work. Her contributions would lay the foundation for intercultural and multicultural scholars of the second half of the 20th century to explore the best practices surrounding diversity in education.

Cushner further underscored the continuation of research — and teacher preparation — in this arena. Moreover, he highlighted that teachers must receive specific training to incorporate diversity in the classroom. He said, “Teachers, thus, must not only enhance their own intercultural competence, but must also understand the nuances of intercultural communication and interaction sufficiently so they can transfer this to the students in their charge.”

In other words, as teachers strive to familiarize themselves with the best practices surrounding intercultural exchanges, they can introduce those tenets to their students more effectively.

Understanding the Importance of Diversity in Education

To grasp how teachers can best address the ways to facilitate multicultural education, more attention should be given to the ways that other institutions approach the issue.

One such institution is the American Psychological Association, which unveiled a bombshell report about the ways that inclusivity and diversity are the most effective remedies to prejudice and discrimination. The study highlighted nine strategies that enable people to confront and overcome prejudice, and all can be facilitated in the classroom.

  • Intercultural Contact: When people of different cultural and social makeups interact, bias, prejudice, and discrimination will decrease dramatically.
  • Collaborative Learning Opportunities: As students work with each other across different identities, they’ll learn to complete tasks and solve problems together. As a result, students will learn dynamically while they also overcome different forms of discrimination.
  • Intercultural Friendships: Outside of academic activities, teachers can focus on social exercises that enable students to form friendships across cultural barriers.
  • Reclassification: As students of different cultures interact with each other, they’ll have the opportunity “to recategorize themselves as members of the same, more inclusive group,” according to the report.
  • Maintaining a Dual Identity: As students are invited to recategorize their identity makeup when they interact with students from different cultures, they should still maintain and explore further their own more exclusive identities based on their race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status.
  • Grappling with the Dynamic Theory of Human Nature: As educators look to incorporate lessons on diversity, they must understand that humans can change. When teachers subscribe to the static theory of human nature — that humans are incapable of fundamentally changing — their pedagogy will be much less inclusive and prone to facilitating more discrimination.
  • Unlearning Stereotypes: Prejudice and discrimination arise from stereotypes and “learned associations,” according to the report. The study goes further to state “it is possible to combat stereotyping by unlearning and reversing those associations.”
  • Encouraging Self-Reflection: To grow as human beings away from discrimination, teachers who focus on diversity in education can motivate their students to reflect on their past experiences to effectively combat future implicit bias and prejudice.
  • Providing an Empathetic Approach: As the report stated, “evidence suggests that inducing empathy for an out-group member could reduce bias toward members of that group.” As a result, teachers should focus on highlighting diversity in their classrooms to help combat discrimination.

These guidelines are helpful when considering how important a responsibility it is to confront and dismantle close-mindedness, stereotyping, and prejudice.

As for the state of diversity in higher education currently, college students come from the most diverse backgrounds in history. According to the American Council on Education, the population of college students has kept pace with the general American population in terms of diversity since 1997.

At the same time, the level of diversity has not kept up at the faculty and administrative level. Across the board, nearly 75% of faculty members have identified as white, while white men claimed a jarring majority of the college presidencies across the country. At 58.1%, the next highest group to hold the position at the highest level was white women, who make up a quarter of all college and university presidents.

While diversity in education is valued at the classroom level in higher education, more substantive work needs to be done to address the growing need for diversity at the administrative and faculty levels.

The Future of Multicultural Education in the U.S.

Outside of a greater need for diversity at the highest levels, the future of diversity in education relies on specific training methods that teachers should adhere to.

A 2016 scholarly article in the Journal of Transformative Education found that, as more teachers engage in these kinds of programs, they’ll have an easier time facilitating classroom conversation with their students centered on topics pertaining to diversity. The results of the data collected by the researchers found that “teachers not only taught with cultural relevance in mind but also adopted a philosophy of education” that would advocate for inclusivity for diverse children and families.

While valuable work is being done to highlight diversity in education, more research is required to locate the best possible strategies for teachers to use. In other words, more researchers are needed to help gather data to help best address student needs.

One of the best ways to join this expanding conversation is to gain the experience of the seasoned educators who focus on this issue currently. An online Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership for Changing Populations is the perfect entry point to give prospective deans, college administrators, professors, and education researchers a foundation for exploring the shifting landscape of the university.

At Notre Dame of Maryland University, you’ll have the opportunity to explore these different and evolving dynamics in a flexible, online format. Learn more today about how you can help contribute to a growing body of research toward the best practices of inclusivity and diversity in education.