Envisioning an ideal classroom for addressing cultural heterogeneity

Alexas_Fotos, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
Alexas_Fotos, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

An ideal classroom for addressing cultural heterogeneity would celebrate diversity, collaboration, and the belief that drives opportunities for all children from all backgrounds to learn how to learn. In this classroom, teachers would strive to develop intercultural awareness and competence in students.

Students of different cultural backgrounds would communicate with one another to affirm personal identities, and gain knowledge of their different cultural norms, values, and tools as well as their semiotics – how they do work – and their learning or narrative traditions, along with the signs and symbols that reflect these traditions and have meaning for them.

Instruction should revolve around an interdisciplinary, theme-based curriculum. And there would be team teaching in elementary school – so that students are not reliant on the skills of just one teacher for high-quality instruction. In addition to basic subjects, the focus would include interesting areas with broad practical appeal for today’s students, such as geography, visual literacy, music, and the strategic acquisition and organization of information for better storage and retrieval.

At the elementary level, there would be no more than 20 students per class. The teacher team would work to provide a range of activities that speak to students’ strengths and weaknesses.

To use the current theoretical lens, this would be an adaptive classroom, with an ambitious learning agenda. Adaptive teaching recognizes that no two students learn in exactly the same way or at the same pace. To help students become engaged in their own learning, teachers use two strategies – one to tailor their instruction to student needs, the other to help students learn to fill in the holes of incomplete instruction for themselves.

As the expanding learning trajectory moves from knowledge building to innovation, students in an adaptive classroom are encouraged to help one another. The goal is to develop cognitive capabilities, while simultaneously building habits of self-regulation and motivating students to get the most out of the material.

Adaptive teaching tries to adjust the fit between students’ capacities for learning and the demands of the classroom environment. Capacities for learning include cognitive and social-emotional qualities that aid in self-management and relationships.

“Teachers would continuously demystify the processes of school learning and show students how to make choices, set goals, mark important points, and review and summarize new material.”

Moreover, in an adaptive classroom, teachers create subgroups for learning. These can mimic different cultural, cognitive, and social-emotional configurations of the larger classroom. They can also create groups based on levels of interest in a topic, prior experience, or ability to take full advantage of the curriculum.

What each subgroup does is then actually more alike than different. Students from all backgrounds and at all levels have the opportunity to be challenged and supported. This is not individualized instruction, but it is adaptive, and it is a way of indirectly developing aptitude for learning.

For example, the instruction adds to the curriculum some content that’s just beyond the reach of even the most advanced students. That way, less advanced learners aren’t the only ones who find assignments difficult – everyone needs to stretch. In addition, advanced students are expected to articulate strategies they use to access difficult content, and the ways that they strengthen work habits. That exposes weaker students to more advanced thinking as they work.

Adaptive teachers capitalize on the strengths of their students

The adaptive approach develops aptitude for learning indirectly, not only by providing appropriate supports and challenges, but also by acting on the dual premises that students’ own efforts enable learning, and that everyone can learn from one another.

A good example of capitalizing on students’ strengths is called reciprocal teaching. The teacher asks good learners to model strategies they use to interrogate text in reading content, or to solve problems in math. Students who are not using effective strategies recognize what they’re missing by learning from their peers.

“The teachers in this ideal classroom believe their charge is to bring up learners who know how to navigate beyond their current classroom community.”

When students are asked to help manage their own learning, they need to know how. A teacher can help less successful students develop the same academic and self-regulation skills as those of their more successful peers. This way, students become more alike than different as learners, even if they have cultural differences.

In addition, peers would ideally have strong relationships with one another and with their classroom teachers. Students would learn not just about their classmates’ cultures but also about some of the languages and linguistics represented in the class.

In this classroom, teachers would get students working online as well as in activities that involve small groups and projects, taking advantage of cutting-edge technology.

“This classroom is filled with productive work that allows all students to succeed, and yet it is not a classroom where all students receive identical instruction.”

Teachers would continuously demystify the processes of school learning and show students how to make choices, set goals, mark important points, and review and summarize new material. Students would learn the utility of participation skills such as volunteering, answering when called on, and asking for help when needed.

The teachers in this ideal classroom believe their charge is to bring up learners who know how to navigate beyond their current classroom community. This classroom is filled with productive work that allows all students to succeed, and yet it is not a classroom where all students receive identical instruction.

If classrooms like this are to become reality, researchers should focus more attention on issues of cultural heterogeneity and equity across all levels of education, both in and outside school.