Superdiversity in the classroom
Consecutive migration flows have caused schools and classrooms in Western Europe to become increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse since the 1960s (OECD, 2012; Phalet, Andriessen & Lens, 2004; Vedder, Horenczyk, Liebkind & Nickmans, 2006). In the Netherlands labour immigrants from Southern Europe, Northern Africa and Turkey were the first to diversify the population, along with migrants from previous Dutch colonies such as Indonesia, Surinam and the Antilles. Nowadays migrants from Central and Eastern Europe and refugees from the Middle East and Africa are new groups of migrants (Denessen, Driessen & Bakker, 2010). In the four largest cities in the Netherlands students with a native Dutch background are a minority now (Crul, Schneider & Lelie, 2013). This diversity has brought along new challenges for both students and teachers. Students with a migrant background have to navigate an unfamiliar culture and language (Alsubaie, 2015). Teachers are expected to find ways to serve students with a variety of languages, customs and cultures in these diverse classrooms (Banks, 2004; Severiens, 2014; Vedder et al., 2006).
However, diversity is not only a matter of ethnic and cultural background. Classrooms are characterized by differences that are related to students’ ethnic and social family background, like language, religion, prosperity, etc., but also by individual differences like cognitive abilities, learning preferences and interests. Schools in metropolitan areas – where both low- and high-income families tend to seek residence (Hooge, 2008) – in particular have to deal with a large variety of student backgrounds. Vertovec (2007) introduced the term superdiversity to draw attention to the fact that diversity has increased in two ways. Not only diversity in terms of the number of immigrant and minority groups has increased but also the diversity within these groups; a ‘diversification of diversity’. In the Netherlands several authors have pointed at similar developments in the large cities and their consequences for schools and teachers (Crul et al., 2013; Severiens, 2014; Gaikhorst, 2017).
Creating inclusive learning environments in diverse classrooms
Education plays an important role in students’ opportunities for a prosperous future. It is expected to play this role in a fair way for all students, irrespective of their backgrounds. This implies offering inclusive education and responding to the diversity of needs of all children (UNESCO, 2009) as well as being aware of and actively combatting inequality in educational opportunities (New & Merry, 2014; Sleeter, 1996).
Our consortium shares the ideal that teachers are able to create an inclusive learning environment in their classrooms, in which all students – irrespective of their ethnic and social background, religion, gender, etc. – feel safe and seen and are encouraged to learn from and with each other. We think that this not only implies that teachers are able to deal with the challenges of diversity, but also to use diversity in a positive way. We notice, however, that although diversity in the classroom may offer new opportunities for learning and can be a source of inspiration, teachers often mainly experience diversity in their classrooms as complex and challenging. Many beginning teachers feel uneasy because they think they cannot meet all their students’ needs (Gaikhorst, 2017). Also, teachers often struggle with dilemma’s around values related to personal autonomy, respect and democracy and experience collaborating with parents as difficult (Leeman, 2006; Pels, 2010).
At the same time it has been pointed out that teachers are not always aware of relevant differences in their classrooms and of their own actions in relation to these differences (Denessen, 2017). Others have criticized current ways of addressing diversity in schools for adopting an essentialist or folkloristic approach of cultural diversity, or overemphasizing differences (Gay, 2003; Ledoux, Leeman, Moerkamp, & Robijns, 2000). Intercultural education practices have also been accused of implicitly relying on deficit theories and ignoring structural inequality and power relations (Gorski, 2008). All in all, taking diversity in the classroom into account involves complex teacher competences, including awareness of differences between students and of the wider societal context in which they occur.
Competences for teaching superdiverse classrooms
Based on the research literature we distinguish seven areas of competence (or dimensions) that are involved in teaching superdiverse classrooms (Gaikhorst, Post, März, & Soeterik, 2019 ).
- Adaptive teaching is the first dimension, which refers to differentiated teaching that takes social background (e.g. socioeconomic and cultural) and individual (e.g. cognitive) differences between students into account. Dimensions of differentiation can include difficulty level, content, teaching method, etc. (Severiens, Wolff & Van Herpen, 2014).
- Lesson content & critical knowledge construction is a second dimension (Banks, 2004). It consists of the integration of knowledge that is relevant considering students’ different cultural backgrounds in the curriculum, and making use of students’ funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff & González, 1992). Critical knowledge construction refers to reflection on how knowledge is constructed from a particular perspective.
- Language development includes paying attention to second language learners, multilingualism, and differences between language use at home and school language (Pulinx, Van Avermaet & Agirdag, 2017; Severiens et al., 2014).
- Social processes & (in)equality is a fourth dimension, involving aspects like sensitivity to stereotyping and power relationships, including the teachers’ own expectations of students that may be influenced by a student’s background or home situation, and actively contributing to prejudice reduction (Banks, 2004).
- The dimension Cooperation with parents focuses attention on parental involvement, and on the interaction and educational collaboration with parents of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds (McDermott & Rothenburg, 2000).
- The dimension (Inter)Professional collaboration refers to collaboration with colleagues in the school, but also with professionals from outside the school, such as youth care agencies (Hooge, 2008).
- The final dimension focuses on the Context of the school and refers to aspects like collaborating with stakeholders in the school’s neighborhood, the community, and dealing with issues like (un)safety and municipal and national policy (Matsko & Hammerness, 2014).
Little is known about how competent teachers actually are in teaching diverse classrooms. Under the heading of culturally responsive teaching and multicultural teaching practices, researchers have mainly focused on teachers’ multicultural attitudes (Ponterotto, Baluch, Greig & Rivera, 1998), self-efficacy (Siwatu, 2007) or the extent to which they feel prepared for culturally responsive teaching (Hsiao, 2015). Verkuyten and Thijs (2013) developed a three-item scale measuring multicultural teacher practices, and members of the consortium have translated Siwatu’s (2007) self-efficacy questionnaire into a Dutch-language instrument that asks teachers about their teaching behaviour (Abacioglu, Fischer & Volman, in preparation). However, these instruments are still based on self-report. Verkuyten and Thijs (2013) also measured teacher behaviour by asking students about their perceptions of teachers’ multicultural teaching and reactions to ethnic victimization. Members of the consortium were also involved in the development of a classroom observation instrument (Diversity Index) that can be used to assess teacher competences that are necessary for teaching a superdiverse student population (Soeterik & Van Mulligen, 2016).
Professional development of diversity competences
The complex competences discussed above can only be acquired by working on them explicitly, and require reflection and dialogue. Research has shown, however, that Dutch teacher education programmes hardly prepare teachers for dealing with diversity. Teacher education curricula pay little structural attention to diversity (Gaikhorst et al., submitted; Public Policy and Management Institute, 2017; Severiens et al.,2014). This increases the need for professional development activities for both beginning and more experienced teachers in this area. Strategies are needed that help teachers to strengthen their awareness of the diversity within their classrooms and their competences to utilize that diversity as a source for learning.
Effective professional development strategies have been found to be characterized by a close relationship between professional development activities and teachers’ daily practice. They offer opportunities to build on the experiences of teachers and to involve teachers in defining the aims of the professional development activities (ownership). They are based on a collective approach through which teachers can collaborate and share experiences, and are ideally embedded in a process of school development (Van Veen, Zwart & Meirink, 2012).
Such strategies should also take into account theories on teacher learning at the workplace. Workplace learning is what happens when contextual experiences cause confrontations with existing capacities and affordances (Eraut, 2000). Out of these confrontations, new professional knowledge (including awareness, conceptual understanding and professional competences) is constructed and reconstructed (Tsui & Law, 2007). In workplace learning three types of learning are involved, that can be characterized by the sources of learning used: experiential learning, social learning and theoretical learning (Koffeman & Snoek, 2019). Experiential sources for learning are the daily experiences of teachers in their classes. Social sources are the interactions, confrontations and inspiration that can be generated while observing, collaborating, and being in dialogue with colleagues. Theoretical sources are theories, concepts and outcomes of research that provide a frame of reference for evaluating one’s own practice and actions. Effective professional development strategies therefore need to take these three sources (experiential, social, theoretical: EST) for teachers’ workplace learning into account.
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