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Cultural diversity in the classroom

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Rae Siʻilata, lecturer in bi-literacy at Auckland University, describes what the cultural diversity principle might look like in the classroom. She urges educators to create opportunities for all students to bring their valued knowledge into the school.

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.

Cultural diversity in action

In schools and classrooms where cultural diversity was acknowledged and celebrated:

  • teachers were aware of students’ different cultural identities
  • students’ cultural contexts were incorporated into teaching and learning programmes and into the classroom environment
  • teachers provided practical opportunities for all students to be proud and share their languages and cultures through cultural groups, special events, and school festivals that celebrated cultural difference
  • all students experienced learning contexts from multiple cultures 
  • there were clear expectations in schools’ charters for celebration of diversity, stating the right of all children to feel culturally safe
  • boards that had developed such charters sought representation from all the cultures of their school community, and staff were representative of many cultures.

The New Zealand Curriculum Principles: Foundations for Curriculum Decision-Making (July 2012) 

Consider the indicators above – which are strongly evident at your school, which need further development? 

What does cultural diversity look like in your classroom?

Cultural diversity - Getting started.

Cultural diversity checklist 
This downloadable checklist can be used to help you consider how you are currently enacting the cultural diversity principle. The checklist can be used by the entire school community, including students, parents, families, whānau, and iwi to identify areas of strength and future actions; with teachers to generate discussion and classroom actions; and by school leaders to inform strategic planning.

Word 2007 icon. Cultural diversity checklist (Word 2007, 24 KB)


School leaders and teachers need first to understand that schools are not culturally neutral domains and that they as people are also culturally located beings. And so once they understand that, they need to critically examine their own school curriculum, and think about whether the languages and funds of knowledge that those children are coming with are being represented in the valued knowledge of school.

So they need to look at their own learning areas, their inquiry topics, the text that they use and say, well, how are these children's funds of knowledge being represented in what we present as the valued knowledge of school.

Recognising that as they are coming with these, these funds or ketes of knowledge that we want to add to that knowledge rather than replace it. So in order to do that we’ve actually got to make connections with it, we’ve got to find out what is the valued knowledge of the family – one effective way to do that is to promote the idea of learning maps with students. To actually get them to draw who are the people they learn with, how they like to learn, what they want to learn about and you will find that as you do that, that actually we find out a whole lot about ways of learning with students that we previously didn’t know about.

Another thing that came out of those learning maps was that the children said that they would all like to have more opportunity to learn in their own languages. So this really raises the importance of teachers needing to know how to create bilingual and multilingual opportunities for students in the classroom. So it doesn’t mean that teachers need to know all of the languages that their children speak. But they need to know how to create opportunities for those children to bring that linguistic resource, or that language, into their learning in the classroom. So it’s not just being used for the cultural groups or the performances – although that’s very important – but it’s actually being used to support their learning, their language, and literacy learning across the curriculum.

I remember one of the most effective inquiries that we ever explored was adornments. We called it adornments. So we looked at how do we, how do all of us adorn ourselves. And so it was a really exciting inquiry for many of those families, because they were all able to contribute, it didn’t matter who they were. So we had the Indian children bringing in their saris, we had the Tongan children bringing in their ta’ovala, we had the Māori children bringing in what they wore for kapa haka, their piupiu, their poi. We had the Samoan children wearing their puletasi and so on. So all cultures were represented in that. It was a real celebration of how we adorn ourselves. And so then that moved into a technology topic around creating our own adornments, based on what we had learnt through our cultural adornments but also moving it forward. And so, I remember that all of those students were so excited about what they were learning because they were able to bring in the knowledge of home. Not only were the students excited, but their families were too, and it was the one occasion where I remember we got a lot of parent involvement in the learning in the classroom. Not just at the athletics days, or the cultural food days, or whatever that may be. So inquiries like that I think, are very useful – they’re quite broad and they create opportunity for all students to bring their valued knowledge into the school.

I think it’s really important not to make assumptions about students, but to have genuine learning conversations not just with the students but also with the family. To create a classroom environment where parents or caregivers feel safe to come in and to have a conversation with the teacher about their child. To create an environment where you, as the teacher, show value for who the parents are and for who their children are.

Published on: 21 Apr 2015