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Changes in Classroom Diversity

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley

The Issue

Unlike other advanced countries who focus their educational efforts disproportionately on an elite group, the United States attempts to educate all students. Today's teacher may find herself facing a classroom of 30 different varieties of students all in one room. At issue are several factors such as, variety of native languages (students with limited English proficiency), students from a variety of cultural backgrounds whose body language can often be misread (Vontress, 1973), students from cultures with a long history of distrust of institutional authority (Wilkinson, 1979), students with activity or behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity, distractibility, perceptual-concept disorders, and emotional instability (Levy, 1973), as well as students whose learning styles vary from auditory to visual to tactile. In addition, one-third of America's children live in poverty and face associated problems such as those caused by abuse or neglect (Dixon, 1995).

The traditional classroom is rigid in style. It is geared for one type of student, or at best, a small range of students. Educating all the variations in culture, language, ability, and learning style is often like trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Because the traditional, didactic classroom has not been modified to fit the variations in students, the student who wants to succeed has been forced to modify his or her style to fit the template of the successful student. The community outside the school often does not see that the components of the classroom have changed while teaching methods have remained the same. Their cry is frequently to increase the amount of traditional teaching methods in order to solve the problem. This is what Senge (1990) refers to as the "'what we need here is a bigger hammer' syndrome...Pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen" (p.61). But more is not always better; Sometimes what you need is different. Typical suggested solutions such as a longer school day, or more school days, or more time spent reciting the 3 R's will not be effective. What is needed is a whole new approach to teaching. Instruction needs to be differentiated within the classroom to address various abilities and learning styles. The problem, then, is how does a teacher effectively modify instruction to allow for this variability in the classroom, so that all students, regardless of ability or background, can succeed.


This issue is a new one. Educating the masses in one classroom is a problem that has been slowly evolving in the last half of this century. Prior to this time, the emphasis was on educating White students from middle-class backgrounds who also appeared to be without any handicapping conditions that would prevent them from succeeding in the mainstream public school. Regarding students of African descent, this is especially true in the Southern states. In the 1940's it was common for schools in the South to spend nearly five times as much money per White pupil as per Black pupil. (Wilkinson, 1979). At that time, according to Wilkinson, the prevailing belief was that persons of color had a questionable ability to learn and therefore, it was unjustifiable to spend what few resources these states had on educating students other than White pupils. Another factor contributing to the discrepancies in White and nonwhite education is that early in this century most American Blacks lived in the rural areas of the South. By 1960, though, nearly three fourths of the Black Americans had moved to urban areas, particularly in the Northern and Western States. The movement was motivated by a desire to find better jobs and less severe attitudes towards persons of color. Schools were officially desegregated in 1954 with the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. the Board of Education (1954), however, many schools remained segregated after this time as the Supreme Court made little effort toward enforcement and deadlines. Consequently, in as late as 1962, there were no Black American students in any traditionally White public school or college in several southern states, including Mississippi and Alabama. By 1964, conditions had improved slightly in that 2.3 percent of Black American students were enrolled in desegregated schools in the South. (Wilkinson,1979).

This scenario holds true with students from all racial backgrounds. In 1974, only 10% of school-age Native American children were attending school in urban areas. Today only one-half of all Native American children graduate high school (Atkinson, Marten, & Sue, 1979). In the 1970's and 1980's, the minority population in public schools grew from slightly over 20% to nearly 33%. Today more than one-third of students in public education come from African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American backgrounds. In the largest Urban districts, these populations comprise three quarters of the pupil enrollment in schools (Matcznski & Joseph, 1989). Although schools today have made significant improvements in desegregation, current statistics show a significant gap in school achievement between White students and minority students. Between 1990 and 1992, there has been improvement in the gap between White and Hispanic students, but no significant improvement in the gap between White and Black student high school graduation statistics.

Appropriate educational programs for children with disabilities has changed dramatically over the last two decades as well. In 1975 Congress passed Public Law 94-142, known as The Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Among other things, this law gives all students the right to a free and appropriate education in what is termed the "least restrictive environment". What this law encourages is placement of exceptional children in the regular classroom with support services that will allow the student to succeed in a community of his peers (National Society for Autistic Children [NSAC], 1984). The mainstreaming process for these children can often be a difficult task, especially for the regular education teacher who has little training in teaching exceptional children. The specific needs of the individual student must be considered above the pre-existing programs in a school or classroom (Button, 1991). Although national and state lawmakers can provide policy for mainstreaming children with handicaps, the teacher is ultimately the determining factor in mainstreaming success. Levy (1973) writes:

Personal experience with the management of several hundred learning-disabled children has convinced me that the child can be helped most by those close to him. No program developed on a regional or national basis is going to solve all the problems of every learning disabled child since each one is different and needs to be treated as an individual. A knowledgeable teacher, concerned parents, and an interested physician comprise the real learning disability team. Together they can try to aid each child according to his own specific need, helping him reach his true learning potential and keeping him in the mainstream of regular education in his own community where he belongs. (p. 12)

Adding to the problem of all this diversity is learning style. As Dunn (1983) points out, our "functioning" style is different from our "learning" style. The elements involved in our learning environment may be more varied than those involved in our everyday functioning with routine tasks. These elements include: noise level, amount and type of light, temperature, the design of the chair and desk, motivation, persistence preference, social influences, and sensory preference (auditory, visual, tactile). Most young people are tactile learners, whereas most traditional teaching methods teach to the auditory and visual learner. Designing instructional activities for the various learning styles can be a new experience for many teachers. So how does a teacher solve these problems associated with the new diversity in the mainstream classroom. The answer lies in leadership skills.


To achieve a successful classroom requires strong leadership on the part of the teacher. It also takes great leadership on the part of those that train and administrate teachers. Leadership training is often aimed at the administrative level and as Sashkin and Sashkin (1993) write, the concept of leadership as well as the emphasis on educational leadership is changing. The traditional administrative manager is being replaced or at least retrained for a leadership role. Very little, however, is written on leadership at the classroom level. One of the National Education goals that our nation is expected to reach by the year 2000 is that teachers will be provided with the skills they need to prepare all students for the next century (National Education Goals Report, 1994). This training can take place either through in-service or pre-service teacher education. It is critical that the leaders responsible for training new teachers adequately prepare them for the diversified classroom.

In teaching the limited English proficiency (LEP) student, Harris (1995) encourages what she terms "sheltered instruction." This instruction relies heavily on tactile manipulatives to teach concepts rather than verbal instruction or textbooks. The teacher is encouraged to allow the students to successfully discover concepts independently using simple manipulatives, graphs, and maps, rather than allowing a language obstacle to promote failure. It is important to remember, as Harris notes, "The students do not lack intelligence, just English" (p. 25). The idea of using more manipulatives for self-discovery is further supported by Keegan (1995). Keegan compares the student-centered and teacher-centered classrooms in what he calls discovery versus didactic instructional methods. He concludes that the discovery or student-centered classroom tends to produce the best results when dealing with pre-adult learners. The teacher-centered or didactic instructional classroom with heavy emphasis on lecture, textbooks, and video, although allowing the teacher to feel in control, is not conducive to long term ability in transferring that knowledge to other situations.

To implement such instructional methods, a teacher must assume the role of leader in her classroom. The first step in classroom leadership is building confidence and trust between student and teacher and between students. Johnson and Johnson (1974) write,

Trust is a necessary condition for stable cooperation and effective communication. The higher the trust, the more stable the cooperation and the more effective the communication. Students will more openly express their thoughts, feelings, reactions, opinions, information, and ideas when the trust level is high. When the trust level is low, students will be evasive, dishonest, and inconsiderate in their communications. Students will more honestly and frequently declare their cooperative intentions and make contributions to a cooperative effort when they believe they are dealing with highly trustworthy individuals. (p. 103)

If a classroom is to form united working relationships, the leader must set the precedent for communication, organization and direction (Bennis & Nanus, 1985). Applying these author's 5 key skills of leadership, the teacher must show and prove acceptance of her students, she must look at the relationships in terms of the present, focusing on the here and now and set new direction for each student. Focusing on present and future performance rather than past experience is critical when working with at-risk students. The teacher also needs to view the problem of diversity in term of the present. The classroom has changed. The diversity is here and it will not be going away. The situation that exists now requires some action. The classroom leader must encourage and build trust, even though the risk is great. Many students have grown up in families with a rich background of distrust of established institutions such as schools, police, and judicial systems. During the Brown v. Board of Education hearings in the 1960's, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell was quoted as saying "the Negro has had, until recent years, little reason to respect the law. The entire legal process, from the police and sheriff to the citizens who serve on juries has too often applied a double standard of justice" (Wilkinson, 1979, p.163). Although Justice Powell's quote was from 1966, attitudes have changed little in terms of trust as was seen during the recent Rodney King trial in California. A teacher is often seen as a part of an American institution, one that may not have been a positive experience in some family histories. So trust building may be difficult, but it must be in place before the students can work on goal setting. Bennis and Nanus' fifth key skill involves tenacity without recognition and support. This can be especially true in some school situations or communities where the teacher is a pioneer in differentiating instruction within the classroom. Even trying to modify instruction for various learning styles can often bring friction from teachers and parents clinging to traditional methods. In the face of controversy, credibility becomes key to a leader's success. A credible, competent and honest leader will bring support from the community. Ways to build that credibility include leading by example, (in terms of ethics and control); standing up for your beliefs, (show the community that you are not afraid to take risks); and know your constituents, (acknowledge the differences and be honest about those differences). Learn how to effectively communicate the vision for a diversified classroom. Communication can be the most important element in persuading support (Kouzes & Posner, 1993).

The key to individualizing instruction is to see the classroom as a community. In that community, each student needs to be empowered to make his or her own decisions as far as assignment choices and evaluation. Bennis and Nanus (1985) discuss 4 dimensions of empowerment that can be applied to the classroom. Their first dimension, competency, is seen in a student's individual effort to learn. The student can choose the level he or she needs to be at and then work toward personal goals to reach a competency. Goal setting can be a joint project between teacher and student so long as the trust is there so that the student buys into the goal. In group work or cooperative learning, Bennis and Nanus' second dimension, significancy, can be demonstrated. Each member of a group or team takes a role based on individual strengths. One of the group activities may be to find individual strengths. If the group has identified their own personal strengths, there will again be ownership of the goals and work. By helping each other work towards a goal, the students feel the sense of community, Bennis and Nanus' third dimension, where there is interaction and dependent relationships. The students in this community build a network of support. They may have a group goal, they may divide tasks based on individual strengths, and give credit where credit is due (Kelley, 1993). Once a student is given the power to choose his own goals and assignments, he takes ownership in his work and transfers the task from "teacher-given" to "student-chosen." This ownership allows not only for more enjoyment but also more effort and time spent on reaching goals.

A teacher must also teach leadership skills to her students by teaching them how to translate intention into reality by setting personal learning goals, deciding on the best path to reach those goals and then successfully achieving them (Bennis & Nanus, 1985). Students are accustomed to following the teacher's assignments, often unaware of the goals or objectives. It may be difficult in the beginning for them to set goals. Their learned helplessness in personal education direction may be difficult to change. Through trust building and encouragement the teacher can pull, rather than push students toward goal setting. This is a sign of leadership rather than the traditional manager of curriculum as was seen in the traditional teacher-given instruction (Bennis & Nanus, 1985). Johnson and Johnson (1975) suggest goal setting as a group activity. In this situation, the teacher would facilitate the sharing of ideas within a group and encourage division of labor so that everyone's strengths are utilized. Students could evolve to individual goal setting without regard to the individual accomplishments of other students. Once the students experience some success in their own personal goal setting, they will be more willing followers, even demonstrating more responsibility for their own learning. It is this shift in responsibility that shows the classroom moving from teacher-centered to student-centered. As Max DePree (1993) writes, "Performance of the group is the only real proof of leadership" (p. 140).

In addition to teaching personal goal setting, teachers are responsible for leading a set of ethics that govern the followers. A teacher must establish good conduct through role-modeling. This is particularly important when working with students whose backgrounds may not have included good role-models (Bennis, 1986). The teacher may be the only person in a student's sphere of reference who is capable of modeling appropriate behavior. Sashkin and Sashkin (1993) write,

Words can clarify, interpret, draw attention to, and reinforce values and thus help build and strengthen cultures. But directly observable action--preferably involving interaction with others--is more effective than speech for instilling values that guide subsequent actions....Only repeated action ensures that others will clearly see the values one models. (p. 204)

Another aspect of leadership in teachers is the use of wholistic thinking when working with students. Their family, their peers, their environment, their mental ability are all related components to their situation in the classroom. The student cannot be considered isolated from the other components once inside the classroom, because all of those other factors influence outcomes as well as the instruction within the classroom (Senge, 1990). These factors often become part of the limiting factors to learning. If learning is not taking place it may not be the instructional method but rather one of these outside factors, as Senge writes, that operate within the student. As educators, we must consider these factors, yet still maintain our current level of expectation. What is tempting, yet should never be allowed, is to simply lower the standards, let goals erode in order to make the problems of diversity go away. The tension created by this diversity should be used to generate energy to make the necessary changes (Senge).


These necessary changes should be in terms of positive goal setting. The traditional teacher-centered classroom often focuses on "negative vision" (Senge, 1990) or behaviors which we don't want rather than what we do want. The basic difference is referred to as punishment and reinforcement. Punishments are action taken to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. Reinforcements are actions taken to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. Punishments tend to teach people to be more creative in their behavior so that they don't get caught. Reinforcement teaches pride, effort and responsibility. Punishment often leads to confusion and anger, whereas reinforcement usually leads to cooperation. Whether something is perceived as a punishment or reinforcer can often be based on minor semantics. It is important in the classroom to allow the students to perceive as much control as possible. The goal is to let the students see themselves as a partner in their education. This perception encourages responsibility (Lee, 1993). Senge writes, "It is abundantly clear that rigid authoritarian hierarchies thwart learning, failing both to harness the spirit, enthusiasm, and knowledge..." (p. 289). The difficulty in giving students control is that teachers have to give up some of the control they have traditionally maintained. To change the behavior of others, we often have to change the behavior of ourselves.


A good teacher/leader in the classroom is an innovator of instructional ideas. She asks why and what questions such as "Why has this objective always been taught this way?" or "Why do we need textbooks to teach these skills?", or "What would happen if I had no textbook and no chalkboard?". These questions challenge tradition and begin a focus on alternate ways to teach using student-directed activities. An innovator is a risk taker and risk taking can often lead to mistakes or failures. Leadership is an on the job skill. Failure is not something to be feared as long as the failure is a learning experience. In his chapter Moving through Chaos, Bennis (1989) writes "Everywhere you trip is where the treasure lies" (p.149). He discusses the valuable leadership lessons that can be learned through setbacks and failures. This is especially true in trying new teaching methods. Be prepared for failures and learn from them. Even the bad ideas teach you something if only it is to know what won't work. The important thing is to keep taking the risk. Teaching to different abilities in the same classroom should be an exercise in personal mastery, a practice that never ends.



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Bennis, W. & Nanus, B. (1986). Leaders the Strategies for taking Charge. New York: Harper-Row.

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Rosenbach & R. L. Taylor (Eds.), Contemporary Issues in Leadership (pp. 122-133). Boulder, CO: Westview.

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Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (1993). The Credibility Factor: What People expect of Leaders. In W. E. Rosenbach & R. L. Taylor (Eds.), Contemporary Issues in Leadership (pp. 57-61). Boulder, CO: Westview.

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Matcznski, T. C. & Joseph, E. A. (1989). Minority teachers shortage: A proposal to counter the lack of activity. Action in Teacher, 11, 42-46.

NSAC, The National Society for Children and Adults with Autism (1984). How they Grow: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children with Autism. Washington, DC: Author.

Sashkin, M. & Sashkin, M. G. (1993). Leadership and Culture Building in Schools. In W. E. Rosenbach & R. L. Taylor (Eds.), Contemporary Issues in Leadership (pp. 201-212). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

US Government Printing Office (1994). The National Education Goals Report Building A Nation of Learners. Washington, DC: Author.

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About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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