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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Meeting the Needs of a Culturally Diverse Classroom

Teachers in U.S. public schools are educating students who more racially and ethnically diverse than at any other time in our history (Levin & Nolan, 2014); any other time in history. In 2008, 44 percent of students were from minority ethnic groups. By 2040, this number is expected to grow to more than 50 percent (Levin & Nolan, 2014).

What does this mean for teachers? For starters, the challenge to meet the needs of diversity in the classroom are massive—and are not going away. Those lacking the ability and knowledge to establish a culturally, ethnically diverse classroom will be at a major disadvantage.

Gone are the days where teachers can simply teach a cultural lesson on a holiday—for instance, teach about Native Americans around Thanksgiving time or read a short biography about Martin Luther King Jr. before his national holiday. We must go much deeper, building diversity into the very fabric of our classrooms. This means considering diversity in our classroom management systems, curriculum planning, instructional strategies, community building, and communications with parents and students.

While this blog cannot possibly cover the entire subject, let’s consider some basic understandings when it comes to cultural differences in the classroom.

Collectivism versus Individualism

Collectivist cultures, such as those permeating Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and China, emphasize group and family goals—working together cohesively for the good of the group—while individualism, such as that found in the United States, values self needs and goals. Since these cultural paradigms deeply permeate society, knowing these positions can help a teacher to align his or her classroom with these cultural concepts. Rothstein-Fisch and Trumbull (2008), who studied the subject and wrote a book on managing culturally and ethnically diverse classrooms, note that insightful teachers recognize the usefulness of using the metaphor of the classroom as a “family,” however, without a framework to guide them, the construct may go undeveloped. For instance, a teacher aware of a strong collectivist presence among his or her students might orchestrate classroom activities that revolve around group work and solving potential conflicts as a whole (e.g., taking a class vote). However, it is also important to structure opportunities for individual learning, such as independent reading, research, and reflection times.

Understanding Differences

Possessing knowledge of different cultures and how this impacts student behavior is necessary to enhance learning and avoid problems. For instance, Svinicki and McKeachie (2014) write that what a teacher might perceive as non-participation in a class—which could lower a student’s grade in some cases—by a Japanese student might be an expression of humility that is revered in the student’s culture. In other cases, Ford (2013) warns that sometimes students’ culture—such as an African American student’s way of animatedly expressing himself—could be perceived by the teacher as rude or disrespectful; this misperception could also prevent the child from being referred to for gifted education testing or other opportunities.

Culturally Rich Curriculum

Ford has also proposed a multicultural framework for students. In this model, teachers consider moving from merely topically introducing culture in lessons to having students understand the perceptions of those from different cultures to finally identifying issues of inequality and discrimination and engaging in social action. For example, rather than simply read about Mexican immigrants, then perhaps writing journals from the perspective of the children in these families, the students could organize a project that helps these students in the school to receive educational support and to educate others about their experiences, lifestyle, etc.

Going Beyond the Curriculum

I would like to share an idea I implemented a few years ago to help my gifted students better understand culture. We created a lunch group, called the Culture Club (not after the famous 80s band), where students met once per week to research and discuss different cultures. I invited a few pre-service teachers from the local college to come help my students; in return, their professor gave them credit and letters of recommendation for this service project. The students selected a country or culture and researched it, then shared what they learned. We also encouraged them to find students of those or different cultures in the school to interview.

Meeting the needs of the most diverse classrooms we will ever face in history will require much study and practice. As educators, we must increase our own knowledge and expand our own perceptions if we are to understand the children who sit before us each day.


Updated on 1/19/2017