Diversity in the Classroom

16 May

Many classrooms, especially in higher education institutions offer a high degree of diversity which is both a boon and a challenge. In the initial few months, it is easy for students to revert to their comfort zones and stay with their ‘type’. This is not the healthiest development as these cliques could even become gangs.

Even if that does not happen, it is a sad waste of an opportunity to learn from a larger community. One of the most common reports is one of a North South divide. Separated by language and food preferences, and received wisdom on both, students and those in charge of their pastoral care must work hard to bridge this gap. It is one of the easiest to break, unlike religion or caste and the hardest sex. Girls and Boys have separate living arrangements. With limited hours to study and play together, they have very different experiences of student life. This diversity is probably the toughest to engage with and deliver learning to both groups in the classroom.

The objective really is for all groups to be together in the same classroom, working together as a team. They do not need to be identical, or work as one, but together, like a well oiled machine. For this to happen, one does need professional norms to be laid down and implemented in the classroom.

Diversity needs an explicit acknowledgment of differences and a cognitive assertion of their immateriality.

The leader of the classroom, ideally the teacher, must lead by example. This is the most efficient, direct and effective way of smoothening in the classroom. There are various tools that a teacher or class leader can use to manage diversity… and some of these are similar to those used to manage the range of abilities in a classroom, while others are the complete opposite. Thus a teacher has the delicate task of balancing between range and diversity management all the time. This while focusing on content, assessment and achievement (still think that teachers are paid enough?.

While the principle clearly is to treat everyone equally in the classroom, regardless of where they come from, there is a degree of knowledge and sensitivity required. For example, a teacher cannot wish the class a Happy Easter or Happy Muharram. Nor would it be appropriate to use examples in class that are specific to one sectarian context. For example, a lesson on transportation would be sensitive to diversity if it includes a discussion on the entire range – walking to personal planes. It is not just the poor who can feel left out. A truly diverse session works to the entire spectrum.

The first step is to lay down ground rules, preferably at the beginning of the year or session. And these rules apply to everybody. But more important than the first step is the thinking and effort that goes into defining the ground rules. These must be well thought through, because nothing can be worse than a rule that proves to be wrong – it undermines the effort and undermines the authority of the teacher. Ground rules must be simple and robust.

Such as – all assignments must be submitted by a particular date. Sticking to this rule is not just about maintaining discipline, it is about equal treatment. Similarly, starting a class on time is about equal opportunity – everyone has a chance to come in on time and access the learning.

There is a fine line between equal opportunity and equal access. In building accessibility, we have forgotten that nothing must be or can be for free – it must be earned. This is the essence of civilised society – that we each have our bounds, defined by what we have earned.

Recently there was a case when the VC of a state medical university requested the higher authorities to pass a bunch of students because they had been appearing for the same examination for five years and failing. This is not equality. They had equal opportunity to study and appear for the same examination as everyone else. They had access to the same lessons and libraries as everyone else. The egalitarianism and possibly positive discrimination in this and other cases can only extend to equal opportunities. Not to equal results. In this case, the five who could not pass their examinations obviously do not know enough to practice as doctors – I certainly would not want to be treated by them.

While there still may be a case for positive discrimination whether by economic circumstances or other criteria this can only extend to access to the institution or program. Once the students are in, they are all on an equal footing. Thus, equal treatment in examinations and results too. Once they graduate(high school or college), again, everybody has earned according to their merit and been rewarded likewise. A diverse and equal group.


This article was published in the Times of India Blogs on May 15, 2012. Link here: blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/diversity-in-the-classroom


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