How can teachers be more effective in diverse classrooms?

By Neda Forghani-Arani
University of Vienna, Department for Teacher Education

Teaching is a complex, multifaceted task – especially at a time of rapid societal change. Recent migration patterns have led to increasingly diverse classrooms, which present new challenges to teachers.

There is a growing body of research on classroom diversity, with much of it focusing on the challenges that diverse classrooms pose, and potential solutions. But comparatively little is known about how teachers teach in such settings, or the preparation they need to succeed. A new OECD working paper takes a closer look at teachers’ experiences in diverse classrooms – and the competences they need to teach effectively.

In order to effectively engage with students from diverse backgrounds, teachers require the relevant knowledge and understanding, attitudes, values, skills and dispositions. Their efficacy also depends on their awareness of their own perspectives, assumptions and biases, and their ability to empathise with students from different backgrounds. Competent teaching treats diversity as an asset and a source of growth, rather than a hindrance to performance.

Teachers also need a high level of professionalism to select and modify methods that will meet the needs of diverse student populations; to critically evaluate the representation of diversity in teaching materials; and to systematically reflect on the impact of their own practice. This, in turn, requires professional autonomy and latitude, which empower teachers to take charge of developing their pedagogical competence.

The good news is that diversity competence can be learned.

Teacher autonomy and agency are important to counterbalance current policy trends that tend to minimise teacher professionalism. The standardised organisation of teaching has often left teachers without the opportunity to be creative, flexible and innovative, and many systems lack teacher agency. Successful school systems, according to OECD data, have moved to strengthen the position of teachers, and away from systems of strict accountability and administrative control.

Policy-makers frequently use frameworks to help define the competences that teachers need. Competence frameworks can provide education systems with a sound basis for planning and providing comprehensive professional development opportunities. But policies aimed at developing competent teachers are not always coherent with their objectives, and are often limited in scope or even counterproductive and misguided.

Policies should instead focus more on teachers’ day-to-day needs. A teacher can be knowledgeable, empathetic and autonomous, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be effective in diverse classrooms. Even with good planning and preparation, teachers can find it challenging to make spur-of-the-moment pedagogical decisions. Working in diverse classrooms can make those decisions even more complex.

The good news, though, is that diversity competence can be learned – ideally, through a sequenced process of reflection, anticipation and action. This kind of reflective practice allows teachers to step back from what is known or assumed, and look at situations from different perspectives. At the same time, teachers need concepts to help them improve their practice and develop professionally. Over time, they will learn how to make responsible pedagogical judgments – and to meet the challenges of an increasingly diverse world.

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