“I learned to see my students with different eyes”

On the value of engaging with students’ diverse cultural backgrounds 
dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Classrooms around the world are becoming increasingly diverse – as are the backgrounds of individual students in cities like Berlin, Germany. There is Fatih, whose paternal grandfather came to Germany in the 1960s as a guest worker from Turkey and whose maternal grandparents are Italian and German; there is Céline, whose French mother came to Germany as a university student and met her husband there; and there is Aseel, who recently arrived in Germany with her family as a refugee from Syria.

Coming from an immigrant background is often seen as a problem in education, as students who have had less exposure to the national language and culture may be at risk of academic underachievement. To address this problem, a great deal of effort has been put into offering additional classes in the national language. And some schools have gone so far as to ban the use of heritage languages.

However, excessive pressure to assimilate to the mainstream culture can have adverse effects. Teachers who support such policies have been found to hold more negative attitudes about students from an immigrant background, which can have negative consequences for those students’ achievement. At the same time, more and more research is showing that students’ diverse heritage cultures and languages can be beneficial for learning. For example, there is evidence that listening skills in students’ heritage language make it easier for them to learn the national language.

Research on school diversity policies also shows that when schools are more supportive of multiculturalism and provide opportunities for positive engagement with cultural diversity, students of all backgrounds have a greater sense of belonging and connectedness with the school, and the achievement gap between students of immigrant and non-immigrant background is smaller. For students from an immigrant background, some of these positive effects are brought about by supporting a stronger identification with their heritage culture.

Diversity can be a resource for learning at school

But what might it look like to engage with students’ diverse heritage cultures? In our group at the Department of Inclusive Education at the University of Potsdam, we recently piloted a German adaptation of the Identity Project, an eight-week, school-based program that was developed in the United States by Adriana Umaña-Taylor and colleagues at Harvard University and is designed to help students engage with their diverse heritage cultures and their own cultural backgrounds. In the Identity Project, students are led through various activities in a series of eight weekly lessons.

The project emphasizes the dynamic and interactive aspects of culture and cultural affiliations. It is important to note that students may have multiple cultural backgrounds of relevance to their cultural identity, and the importance of each may change in the course of their development. Emphasizing such dynamic and interactive aspects may help prevent stereotypes of culture and cultural differences, which pose a risk when engaging with cultural diversity at school and lead to heightened perceptions of ethnic discrimination.

“Students’ diverse heritage cultures and languages can be beneficial for learning.”

Initial studies in the US showed that students who completed the project explored their ethnic identity more fully. This allowed them to gain a greater sense of clarity regarding that identity by the end of the project, and they showed improved well-being and academic achievement one year later compared with members of a control group.

The original materials of the Identity Project, developed in the US, required considerable adaptation for a European and specifically the German context. It proved very helpful to work closely with teachers, who joined us in the classroom for all eight sessions, as we sought to tailor the intervention to our specific context and ensure that students would get the most out of this experience.

The participating students appreciated what they learned about cultural stereotypes and discrimination – and finally having words to describe some of their day-to-day experiences. We also found it gratifying to observe how teachers learned from the project and were inspired to use project materials in regular class activities. As one of the teachers said, “I learned to see my students with different eyes”.

“In the very process of conducting our research – working closely with teachers and students – we may be able to create another kind of impact by making a difference in some students’ lives.”

The project demonstrated how diversity can be a resource for learning – for both students and teachers. And going into a real school and engaging directly with students makes us better researchers as well. It allows us to ask more specific and relevant research questions, and gives us a better idea of what is feasible as we design school-based interventions.

One of my research colleagues recently asked me why we engage in such labor-intensive research. After all, our sample size is small, which makes it hard for us to publish our results in high-impact academic journals. My response was this: In the very process of conducting our research – working closely with teachers and students – we may be able to create another kind of impact by making a difference in some students’ lives.

The individuals listed here are fictitious examples of the diverse students we have observed in our multiple datasets of Berlin secondary school students.

The goal of our team at the Department of Inclusive Education at the University of Potsdam is to contribute to the development of a more socially cohesive and equitable, multicultural society by sharing our scientific knowledge and resource-oriented perspective. Check out our biannual conferences on our team blog and sign up to receive information about our next conference, which will be held in 2020!

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