Re-Imagining School: Diversity as a Central Value in Schools

Through others we become ourselves. (Lev Vygotsky)

The current model of schooling divides students in multiple ways: by age, by ability level, by socio-economic means and by ethnic or national origin.  By taking the world that we face as a ready-made given, we fail to question the historical and cultural context for how the dominant school model came into being.  Further, we leave unasked: How can we re-imagine school to prioritize diversity as a central value?

Organizing students into classes by age group came about in the nineteenth century, when mass schooling movements originated (in the USA with Horace Mann’s Common Schools Movement, for instance).  This occurred within the context of the Industrial Revolution and is shaped largely in its image.  Ken Robinson discusses how schools are organized like factory lines, with ringing bells, separate facilities, separate subjects and separate grades for each age group. He questions: “Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It is like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture” (  What underlies this assumption that students must be organized by age group? 

Enlightenment thinkers, such as Locke and Rousseau, elaborated upon their ideas about human development and education.   During this period the concept of childhood changed dramatically from the view of a child as a miniature adult to seeing childhood as unfolding in stages of development.  This view, coupled with an industrial model, contributed toward the conception of schooling which divides students into age groups. 

An additional separation of students, beyond age, has been the leveling students into different classes or different groups by academic ability.  Students are labeled as strong or weak; above level, on level or below level; or proficient or deficient.  What underlies this assumption that students must be organized by level?

One origin of leveling groups by academic ability can be found in the discussions of tracking in the USA in the 1890s.  In his book, “Someone Has to Fail: The Zero Sum Game of Public Schooling”, David Labaree (2010) sites the National  Educational Association’s Committee’s decision towards school tracking due to market considerations which called for “differentiating curriculum choices and school experiences according to a student’s class background and future prospects” (23). 

This class-based separation of students has already occurred in many cases around the world prior to walking through the doors of the school.  In some places, such as the USA, a student’s school is largely determined by the neighborhood in which he/she resides, which is largely determined by his/her family’s socio-economic conditions.  The division between public and private schools also contributes to the separation of students by socio-economic conditions, which is typically the case in many countries around the world.  A further separation of students in schools based on ethnic or national origin can occur due to higher concentrations of certain groups of common ethnic or national origin in specific neighborhoods or within schools when recently immigrated students are separated into different classes (for ESL, for instance).

All of this separation can be reduced to the belief that homogeneity is preferential to heterogeneity.  In other words, if we put students together that are similar (in age, in ability level, in socio-economic level and ethnic and/or national origin), it is easier to teach them and easier for students to learn.  Even phrases like “teach to the top/middle/bottom of the class” are indicative of this belief.  Typically this position toward teaching and learning is heavily skewed toward abilities in math and language arts, considered by many to be the top tier subjects of academic studies.  This argument for homogeneity in the classroom is usually situated within a task-based system of teaching and learning that operates from whatever is taken to be simple to increasing levels of difficulty.  Within this line of thinking, the individual, and what he or she can do on his/her own, is the focus of teaching and learning.  Additionally, getting the right answers is rewarded and getting the wrong answers in penalized within this overarching conception of teaching and learning.  This larger context, in which a preference for homogeneity is set, has been historically constructed. Behaviorist educators, inspired by the work of B.F. Skinner (and others), have furthered this model for schooling, heralding it as the definitive model for education, rather than one possibility for schooling amongst many. 

The world, however, is not a homogeneous place (unless you take the unifying quality of all being human, therefore homogenous).  People have different beliefs, unique experiences, discrete passions, varied preferences and distinct interests.  The fundamental question is how to re-imagine schooling such that this diversity is embraced and viewed as a resource for growth and development, rather than an obstacle.

Lev Vygotsky, the father of social constructivism, argued that people learn in collaboration with one another and can do much more in collective activity than by themselves.  Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development posits that what children can do in collaboration with others is a better indicator of their development, than what they can do on their own.  In "Mind in Society" he argues, "what is in the zone of proximal development today will be the actual development level tomorrow - that is, what a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow" (87).  He discusses the cases of two children, both eight years old, yet when given support one child can deal with problems up to a twelve year old's level and the other up to a nine year old's level.  This reasoning lends support to heterogenerous grouping.

Another argument to for heterogenerous grouping is that people cannot be reduced to one single identifying factor, such as being “a good student”.  People have multiple characteristics, which include many different levels of ability, depending on the task at hand.  A student who is skilled at math might have a lot of difficulty with reading and interpreting texts, which can be problematic when having to solve word problems in math.  Putting together a student with an opposing, yet complementary skill sets can create a win-win situation for both students.  We must, however, be very careful not to classify students as strong at this and weak at that.  In different contexts and with different activities, students can perform in different ways.  In the article, "In Life, Ten; In School, Zero" (translated from Portuguese: "Na Vida, Dez; Na Escola, Zero") researchers showed that students that were tested on the same mathematical content in two different ways, one related to their life outside of school (making calculations in a street market) and another in a standardized school form, performed exceptionally well on the one and exceptionally poorly on the other.  This shows that there are many ways of knowing something and showing it, which supports my argument for diverse grouping.

Furthermore, when taking analytical problems, concept development and decision-making into consideration, heterogeneous groups have the opportunities to see many more different points of view and make choices together from an array of possibilities.  At times, it is the novice that poses a breakthrough question for the group, which moves inquiry further.  Students that learn to think divergently with others and then bring together diffuse ideas into a plan for action develop high levels of creativity.  Critical thinking in collaboration with people that think differently than one’s self and working together to understand each other to make decisions, builds webs of interconnected meaning of complex concepts across disciplines and constructs caring social relationships with others. 

Recent studies conducted by Columbia University researcher, David Stark, and University of Texas researcher, Sheen Levine, show that diversity makes people brighter (   They found that: "Diversity improves the way people think.  By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions.  Our findings show that diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike."

Along this line, other research studies have shown that working together with people who have different perspectives increases creativity and innovation, as cited in a recent article in Scientific American magazine (  

Putting students together into heterogeneous groups that represent a diversity of students of different ages, ability levels, socio-economic conditions and ethnic and national origins with real world problem-based activities to solve together builds the 5Cs of Contemporary Education (collaboration, connection, caring, criticality and creativity) into schooling.  By bringing real world problems into schools for students to share responsibility in solving them together, they grow and develop ways of seeing the world and being in the world by arguing divergent points of view and negotiating decisions for taking action in the world. 


No one educates anyone else, nor do we educate ourselves.  

We educate one another in communion in the context of living in this world. 

(Paulo Freire)

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The founder and primary contributor to Education for Contemporary Times is Sarah O. Weiler, long-time educator with a M.A. in Global Education from the University of Illinois and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Education at the prestigious Institute of Education at the University of London in the UK.
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