Diversity in the Classroom: An Invaluable Asset

The numbers are in and they confirm that Canada is becoming an increasingly diverse society. Canadians reported more than 200 different ethnic origins in the 2001 census. Also, according to figures released recently by Statistics Canada, visible minorities make up a growing percentage of the Canadian population—13.4 per cent, compared with 4.7 per cent in 1981.

In Alberta, the visible minority population increased by 22.5 per cent between 1996 and 2001. Alberta’s classrooms reflect this increasing diversity. Although some people may see this trend as a challenge, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) views diversity as an asset in the classroom, helping all students to achieve their potential. Problem solving is an excellent example. People from different cultural backgrounds think in different ways. Their world views come with a wide variety of solutions that people of a single culture would never have considered.

This is precisely the view of the Conference Board of Canada, which has been promoting the importance of creativity and critical thinking in developing a more innovative and competitive economy. A recent landmark study, Technology and Tolerance: The Importance of Diversity to High-Technology Growth, published by the Brookings Institution, concluded that diverse, inclusive communities are ideal for nurturing creativity and innovation.

Children exposed to diverse cultures in the classroom learn to understand different points of view, which is an important part of education. The result is that children will question their own beliefs and understand how their own culture influences the way they see the world.

While some parents may feel uneasy about their children questioning their beliefs, questioning is a good thing. When children ask their parents, “What do our traditions mean to us?” the resulting dialogue can enable them to understand their beliefs at a deeper level and to reinforce those beliefs. Understanding their traditions also helps children to build self-esteem.

Learning about other countries and other cultures is part of the public school curriculum. Having children from other countries and cultures in the classroom can be a positive experience for teachers and students. Indeed, a failure to understand differences is often at the root of bullying. Often, children who are victims of bullies are different in some way.

The ATA has adopted the concept of schools as inclusive learning communities committed to racial harmony, gender equity, Aboriginal education, the reduction of poverty, peace and global education, the prevention of violence, and respect for differences in physical characteristics, ability and sexual orientation. Choosing to view diversity as an advantage rather than a problem is the key to achieving this vision.