Safe Practices to Embrace Diversity in the Context of Teaching and Learning

09 Sep 2014 9:57 PM | Anonymous

By Peri Ozlem Yuksel-SokmenCollege of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Diversity is one of the most fascinating topics in the discipline of psychology and one of the biggest challenges new instructors face when dealing with diversity in students. This post encourages new instructors to start thinking about culture and ways to integrate this complex topic across the curriculum. But before new instructors teach about culture it is recommended that we take a cultural-historical approach in regard to the definition of culture and the diversity in our students.

Ever since culture has been transferred to social science, anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists developed more complex definitions to understand society’s systems of shared meanings (Geertz, 1973). For example, Kroeber and Kluckholn (1952) collected over 250 definitions and concluded that there exists no single one but that each operational definition of culture is somewhat driven by scholarly interest and scientific method. Reaching all the way to the foundation of Wundt’s lab in 1879 and APA in 1892 till present day research time psychologists used gender and race as top two most popular factors to scientifically study diversity (see Figure 1 in APA psychNet). In order to support the appreciation for diversity and to transform student learning to the real world, it is safe practice to use a broader definition of diversity that includes religion, seniors, sexual orientation, ethnicity, multilingualism, involvement in cultural practices, and ability.

Before designing a course plan that teaches about diversity instructors should be able to first define culture and use their own inclinations towards diversity as a starting point. Nygen and Nolan (2013) provide three main questions that every instructor can use as a mental guide in dealing with diversity:

(1)  What are my own cultural values and biases toward students and people from diverse backgrounds (self-awareness)? 

(2)  Do I know what I need to know about my students’ worldviews and experiences that may influence their learning experiences (knowledge)? 

(3)  Am I using teaching strategies that are inclusive of students from culturally diverse backgrounds (skills)?

Instructors’ self-awareness is an essential part of effective teaching because when we deal with complexity it is a safe practice to understand our own or the focal group’s behaviors that might have triggered cognitive processes, such as prejudice, bias, or stereotypical thinking as quick interpretations for group differences that mistakenly contributed to the misunderstanding of human activities.

"Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."

As this prolific Chinese proverb stresses the importance of self-referencing in the context of participation, just preaching and demonstrating research reports dealing with diversity has little impact on learning outcomes about culture. Rather, do we as instructors engage in meta-cognition and take the time to get to know our students? Do we provide them with opportunities to display their worldviews and special skills? What is our strategy to deal with diversity?

The cognitive revolution in the 60s and the subsequent influx in interest examining mental activities in various social and formal settings, such as human interaction, decision making, and memory formation, has led to the development of interdisciplinary approaches and cross-cultural collaboration.  This has helped researchers to understand culture as a meaning making process that produces similarities and differences in the sharing and learning of information (Matsumoto, 2009). Especially, people’s involvement in common practices of particular cultural communities has contributed to the variation in differences in cultural participation (Gutierrez & Rogoff, 2003).

Certainly, diversity is a worldwide inspiration for research and a topic that is gaining popularity in teaching and learning due to social change, yet it first starts with the individual acknowledgement of the instructors’ ability to self-reflect. Moreover, instructors’ awareness of their own attitudes towards the construct of teaching and student learning styles is another safe practice in the prevention of discriminatory educational practices due to labeling or self-fulfillment prophecies (Reynolds, 1997).  Gutierrez and Rogoff (2003) see the treatment of cultural differences as learning traits in particular student groups (e.g., minority students, students of color, first generation college students, holistic vs. analytic learners, etc.) as a hindrance for effective student learning, which encourages overgeneralization. In order to ensure student learning it is safe practice to regard students as individuals who participate in cultural communities and to listen to their worldviews with a cultural-historical perspective in mind.

The integration of culture into undergraduate teaching go hand in hand with the instructors’ view and experience on student diversity. If the instructor focuses on the more salient abilities of the students, such as gender and race, and provides less opportunities for students to participate in discourse activities concerning diversity than the teaching of culture is a misconduct. Consequently, the learning outcome diminishes opportunities to deal adequately with diversity in the outside world. The instructor’s failure to acknowledge biased thinking and teaching may also transfer to the conduct of research reflected in the eminent cultural attribution fallacy (Matsumoto & Yoo, 2006, cited in Matsumo 2009).


Matsumoto, D. (2009). Teaching about culture. In R. A. R. Gurung & L. R. Prieto. Getting culture. Incorporating diversity across the curriculum, (pp. 3-22). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Gutierrez, K. D., & Rogoff, B. (2003). Cultural ways of learning: individual traits o repertoires of practice? Educational Researche, 32(5), 19-25. DOI: 10.3102/0013189X03200501

Ngyen, L., & Nolan, S. A. (2013). Your sphere of influence: How to infuse cultural diversity into your psychology classes. Strategies for ensuring that diversity is an integral part of the psychology curriculum. Psychology Teacher Network. Retrieved from

Reynolds, M. (1997). Learning styles: A critique. Management Learning, 28, 115-133. DOI: 10.1177/1350507697282002

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