Diversity as a Resource for Learning

Diversity as a Resource for Learning

Students carry more than their backpacks to school. They also carry into the classroom experiences and understandings from their world outside school.

In the 21st century, the diversity of cultures in U.S. classrooms is expanding. Likewise, the diversity of races, religions, languages and learning styles is increasing. For instance, the proportion of students who are ethnic and racial minorities rose sharply from 22 percent in 1972 to 42 percent in 2007, according to census reports.

Diversity in American schools presents a unique opportunity for learning. To begin with, students can learn from each other by sharing their cultural traditions and perspectives. In addition, the knowledge they have from their communities can be a springboard for further learning, especially since it’s important to relate new information to what students already know.

As a researcher and educator, professor Carol Lee has been successful at understanding how to draw on students’ cultural backgrounds for teaching and learning. Her focus is on young people who are members of minorities or low-income communities, and she has developed three African-centered schools in Chicago that have positive records of achievement.

"Education is concerned not only with understanding how people learn but also how to design learning environments that maximize young people's opportunities to learn," she says. Her approach, called cultural modeling, connects students' out-of-school knowledge to academics in order to increase learning. For example, Lee has used rap music to teach African American teenagers about literary symbolism. "Cultural modeling examines what youth know from everyday settings to support specific subject matter learning," she explains.

In this sense, outside-of-school learning provides a resource for building learning in school. And the diverse cultures represented in U.S. schools become a rich treasure for expanding student learning. In a range of ways, educators at the School of Education and Social Policy are paying attention to what students are bringing to school.

By Marilyn Sherman