Diversity: Learning to live together

A truly multicultural education will be one that can address simultaneously the requirements of global and national integration, and the specific needs of particular culturally distinct communities, both in rural and urban  settings (….) To achieve such a truly pluralistic education it will be necessary to rethink the objectives of what it means to educate and be educated; to remodel the contents and the curricula of formal schooling institutions; to develop new teaching skills and educational methods; and to stimulate the  emergence of new generations of teachers/learners. (UNESCO report Learning: The Treasure Within, 1998)


The student population in adult education is becoming increasingly diverse. Many centres for adult education and social-cultural organisations aim to offer an inclusive learning environment in which every student can develop optimally, regardless of gender, personality, learning style, physical disability, and cultural background or philosophy of life. However, many times this remains more in well-meant intentions expressed in mission statements rather than it is embedded in structure and culture of organisations. Teachers, educationalists and policymakers still too often approach diversity as a separate island in lessons, school life, the school environment and the surrounding society. From this point of view, it is no more than a content to be added to the school programme, a separate set of attitudes to be taught, a project week or an extra bundle of teaching materials. In this way, nothing needs to be changed in the basic attitudes of teachers and school boards. The school’s mainstream is neutral, monocultural, monolingual, homogeneous, heterosexual, non-disabled and so on.

Diversity policy aims to place dealing with diversity better at the heart of the educational process and school life. Diversity is no longer the subject but the starting point of education. In addition to a basic attitude, it is also a quality characteristic of education in all its facets: substantive, pedagogical-didactical, relational and organisational.

This implies that educational institutes need to create space for the question:

How can we create a learning environment in which differences are approached with confidence, in which there is room for differences and in which these differences are valued and exploited?

This is the core question for adult education centres (and many other organisations).

Before we can come to this point we have to answer the following questions

  • Why diversity?
  • What can we expect?
  • How do we deal with it?
  • How do we integrate it into our school system? (embedding)
  • How do we make it inclusive? (part of regular policy)

Why diversity

Organisations can have different reasons to start working with diversity policy:

  • Economic arguments are that more profit is made if broader client groups are reached
  • An organisational argument is to counter conflicts or intimidation on the work floor, or to use the diversity in teams in a positive way to increase the resolving ability and thus better serve the customers
  • Legal arguments are, for example, compliance with quality requirements, guidelines and legislation
  • Moral-ethical arguments concern, for example, ‘equal opportunities thinking’, or wanting to be a reflection of society in order not to lose legitimacy in society.

Be clear about the reasons why you want to promote diversity and mutual appreciation and commitment. To attract and retain talent for your organisation? To respond to the needs of a broader customer base? To promote creativity by having different types of people brainstorm together so that new ideas can emerge? Or because you want to enter a new market and therefore necessarily need to manage a more diverse mix of employees?

Any reason is acceptable, there is no hierarchy order in which one reason is better than the other. Often it will also be a combination of reasons. For every organisation, the motives for starting a diversity policy must be clear. Only then will there be a willingness to invest in a change process. However, it is very important to define why diversity is important and meaningful for your institution. It is to easy to say to be open and accessible for everyone. However, if you look to specific groups they may need extra measures and support to have equal chances to participate. Conversely, it makes no sense to take specific measures for all target groups, if they are not present or if they are not present at all. Specific customisation is required. In practice, a focus on certain forms of diversity is necessary to make real progress. For example, the organisation can choose to focus on difference in origin and sexual orientation because these are the areas where most progress is expected. Secondly, it is necessary to determine which organisational units the policy focuses on. A common mistake made by organisations considering implementing diversity policy is that they focus on either human resources policy or service provision. However, a combined approach that focuses on both personnel, customers and the way diversity is managed can offer the organisation the greatest added value . Personnel, HRM policy must be a total quality policy. Diversity policy is part of regular personnel, HRM policy!

What ever choice you will make, an even more important point is that there is a shared vision of management, employees and other directly involved stakeholders. Diversity policy must be widely supported within the organization. If you have the business reasons for promoting diversity and mutual appreciation and commitment, it is easier to convince and enthuse managers and employees.

What is diversity, what can we expect

When we talk about diversity, most people think of ethnic differences coming together in our society. However, diversity is a much broader concept than that, and includes a range of components that make a person slightly different from the average person- even if it is variable, in every culture the average means something different. Culture also goes beyond countries – every business, school, family and so on has its own culture. In that respect, everyone is diverse, and diversity is a de facto concept of nothingness. When we talk about diversity, we are talking about things like sexual orientation, religion, skin colour, culture, language, physical and mental capabilities and gender identity. Although we all know that people are different from each other, we tend to look at them from the perspective of the norm, and consider anyone who does not comply as abnormal. In this way, there is always a we-self feeling, where they are a group that you do not know, or do not want to know. Out of sheer ignorance we discriminate – we hurt.

In recent years more and more attention has been paid to diversity. Especially in the media, diversity is fiercely promoted. In every programme there is someone with a different skin colour, or someone with a homosexual preference. This is also played out in books – just look at children’s books of the last few years, and notice the coloured children, the children with glasses, the children with two dads, and so on. This is of course a good evolution. It teaches the population to deal with diversity – a necessary thing in this society in which diversity is only increasing. Although there is still a long way to go – the discussion about what diversity is, never ends.

Diversity is, of course, a broad concept: people can differ on an infinite number of aspects.

Diversity is primarily about dealing with differences in:

  • values
  • attitudes
  • culture
  • beliefs
  • religion
  • ethnic background
  • gender
  • sexual orientation
  • age
  • knowledge
  • skills
  • disabilities
  • life experience.

Complicating factor is that all mentioned issues are in turn also subject to change, so recalibration is an ongoing process.

Moreover, it is not only about differences.

It is also about dealing with discrepancies:

  • poor versus rich
  • young versus old
  • men versus women
  • black versus white, etc.

These are strong deep-rooted social contradictions that often reappear in all kinds of situations. COVID-19, for example, mainly affects the poor, the elderly and coloured people.

Finally new contradictions have arisen and will arise during the course of time:

  • literate versus illiterate
  • qualified and unqualified
  • at-risk versus privileged groups
  • those who have access to internet and social media and those who don’t
  • people in need of care and people who can take care of themselves.

Time will tell which groups need more attention. It is important to be constantly alert to this.

In addition to looking at accessibility for different target groups, there are also other aspects of diversity policy that require attention Diversity is always about have’s and have nots.  And the dominance of cultures (power culture, who dominates who).

Moreover, diversity is also related to not being discriminated against and not being excluded. Diversity is strongly linked to equity: equal chances, equal treatment and equal renumeration.

Finally diversity is also dealing with contradictions such as preferential policy, positive discrimination, politically correct thinking and acting. Sometimes there is a lot of political correctness under terms such as “diversity policy” and “diversity management” and it’s good to question the self-evidence of that at times.

For an effective diversity policy, this all leads to a number of general terms and conditions:

  • the explicit will at the top of the organisation try to make diversity a success;
  • the setting of concrete goals that are linked to deadlines;
  • a structure within which a diversity policy takes shape, i.e.
  • clearly defined responsibilities and established procedures in the area of accountability of results of diversity policy;
  • the presence of diversity expertise within the organisation;
  • the availability of financial and possibly other resources and (HR) instruments;
  • the availability of relevant data to monitor the progress of the process of to be able to measure diversity policy on a regular basis;
  • a climate in which diversity lives and becomes diversity throughout the organisation appreciated.

How to deal with it

Diversity in the educational approach pays off: teachers who not only provide explanations, but also create space for extracurricular learning, self-discovery, task-oriented learning, project work and group work give pupils opportunities to explore new content in various ways and to acquire it more sustainably: knowledge comes to life, experience is deepened. They also give pupils opportunities to learn in the way that suits them best. They give pupils a sense of learning because learning becomes more meaningful and more varied. Teachers who keep an eye on the learning process of the pupil and try to adapt their method to how that process goes, can make the difference. Differences in opinions, ideas and perspectives are often very fruitful:  Many of the most fruitful ideas come between people who disagree or view certain things from a different angle. By addressing different ideas, perspectives and opinions, the scope for finding efficient or creative solutions becomes much greater. People who agree on everything and share a lot of ideas sometimes get stuck in their own circles. Classes where pupils can exploit their differences of opinion or knowledge to come up with positive or creative solutions, classes worthy of diversity are sustainably exploited. Neither an idealistic nor a fatalistic vision of diversity will do much to help: Diversity is not necessarily beneficial. Differences between people sometimes lead to conflict, violence, brutality. Diversity is not necessarily problematic either. Everything depends on how diversity is approached and played!

What does that ask of teachers?

Most important: respect differences, identify discrepancies and discuss contradictions. Do not assume that the work can only be done well in one way. Secondly, think about your own way of working. Think about how your own background determines your way of working: what you consider to be the norm may not seem normal to others. Thirdly, value people as individuals instead of classifying them into stereotypes based on the culture or generation to which they belong. Understand different styles of communication. Differences can lead to misunderstandings or overlook good ideas. Last , but not least: correct people in a constructive way if their behaviour, for example their jokes, recruitment policy or way of communicating, has a negative influence on the mutual appreciation and involvement.

Programme managers and instructors often have questions about diversity in education. Examples of questions that have come our way in recent years:

  • How can we make better use of the differences between students? How do we stimulate the exchange of perspectives?
  • How do we deal with tense situations in the lecture hall or workgroup and how do we guide discussions on socially sensitive subjects?
  • How diversity-sensitive is our curriculum actually?
  • We want to make our curriculum more diversity-sensitive, but how do we deal with that?

Learning to deal with diversity is a competence: an interplay of knowledge, attitudes and skills. Dealing with diversity is no easy task for teachers. It requires knowledge (sometimes even specialized knowledge about certain learning disabilities or certain methodologies), the ability to differentiate and widely to evaluate, and above all the attitude of people with a big heart and with a towering belief in the ‘learning power’ and positive contribution of each pupil.   It also requires acceptance of diversity!  Teachers deserve maximum support in building that competence. No reform of education without teacher training. No positive diversity in education without expert professionalism of our teachers.

A key word in the discussion about diversity is dignity, also as spoken word in discussions. Equality cannot exist without dignity. Dignity denotes ‘respect’ and ‘status’, and it is often used to suggest that someone is not receiving a proper degree of respect, or even that they are failing to treat themselves with proper self-respect. Dignity is much more than respect, it includes also the meaning of having value, radiating value and representing values. Dignity can also be taken as a subject for a codification. Dignity as defined in self-esteem, recognised by others, is the basis for diversity. Equivalence versus dominance in cultures reinforces this basis instead of conflicting values maintained by dominant cultures. In this way, through decoding and deconstructing, adult education can endorse learning to live together in the broadest sense of the words. Living together in a multicultural as well as a multigenerational society is a complex learning process in itself that needs critical reflection in which political correctness can change into directness and where identity can change in rotating and flexible identities.

DivCap website adminDiversity: Learning to live together