Ethno-culturally diverse education settings; problems, challenges and solutions

P. Vedder, G. Horenczyk, K. Liebkind, G. Nickmans*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debate

54 Scopus citations


Some 40 years ago, the booming economies of North and Western European countries required extra labour force. These economical conditions elicited a flow of immigrant 'guest workers' from Southern Europe and North Africa to Western Europe. Initially, these immigrants were received with open arms and it was assumed that they would return as soon as the extra labour force was no longer needed. However, the 'guest workers' did not return to their home countries. Instead they brought their families along and/or created new families in their host society. Currently, the same Western and Northern European countries have a steady influx of new immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers. As a consequence, immigrants, ethnic minorities and nationals have created societies in which ethno-cultural diversity is the rule rather than the exception. For society at large, and for the school in particular, this diversity has brought new challenges, as even second and third generation immigrants are often still considered to be - and treated as - 'second class' citizens. There is widespread agreement about the need for active cooperation between research and policy to improve the opportunities of immigrant youth in society and to ease their process of integration. This position paper sets out to inform policy makers, educators, researchers and other relevant persons about educational problems that are related to an increase of ethno-cultural diversity within Western European societies. It scrutinizes educational challenges related to ethno-culturally diverse societies and takes a closer look at relevant ways to cope with the challenges. Educational challenges related to ethno-culturally diverse societies: An abundance of studies shows that immigrant youth in modern western societies insufficiently benefit from schools and often leave schools without the necessary certificates and qualification. An important challenge for the school is to guarantee that every student, regardless of its ethno-cultural origin, has equal chances for social and economic mobility. Current schools seem to fail in addressing the needs of immigrant students. Surveys have shown a growing intolerance among nationals towards immigrants' presence in general and impatience about the rate of their integration. This 'rejection' is experienced by the immigrants as a depreciation of their presence. An important challenge for educational settings is to reduce the uncertainty and tensions that have evolved in interethnic relationships, to prevent racism and discrimination and to foster healthy intercultural relationships. The ideal of multiculturalism: Some scholars put forward the concept of 'multiculturalism' as basis and goal of multicultural education and they understand it as a notion that emphasizes 'the value of diversity as a core principle' and the principle according to which 'all cultural groups are treated with respect and as equals'. When taking such a position, however, some scholars seem to adopt an essentialist notion of culture. Essentialism can be used to foster racism and intergroup discrimination since culture is understood as being 'natural and unchangeable'. Research has shown that nationals who hold an essentialist view of immigrant culture tend to favour multiculturalism less. On the other hand, ingroup cultural essentialism among minorities is positively related to their endorsement of multiculturalism. It is important to stress that a strong cultural identity does not necessarily imply holding essentialist views about the own and other cultural groups. A person may have strong multiple or hybrid identities, which are not combined with an essentialist notion of cultures. Cultural identity involves a sense of belonging to one or more cultural groups and the feelings associated with group membership. A strong cultural identity has shown to be highly functional for personal well-being and it is positively associated with immigrants' adaptation. Perceived discrimination that can be attributed to prejudice towards one's group strengthens the orientation towards the ingroup as a source of comfort or a defence against discrimination. Studies suggest that academic success among some minority groups may originate in more collectivistic motives for achievement. For example, when 'giving back' to families and communities is an important value, and when there is a strong sense of belongingness to one's cultural group, there is a greater chance for successful academic achievement. However, a strong attachment to one's heritage culture does not imply that the individual is not able to have skills in - and a sense of belongingness to - additional cultures. Multicultural competence is important here since this allows minority youth to master the shifting challenges and resources they encounter in their contacts with different cultures. Research has shown that generally, an adherence to one or more ethnic cultures combined with a positive attitude towards the national culture is more adaptive than preference for a single culture. Strategies for coping with ethno-cultural diversity: Proficiency in the national language is essential for social participation in social settings. The importance of language for learning and development is indisputable. Research has shown that it is important for children whose first language is not the language of instruction to start to read in their own language, provided there is support from a first language reading method and a first language teacher. Stimulating a further acquisition of the first ethnic language is beneficial for the children's learning opportunities and it is important for parents or siblings to support a child's school learning. In this position paper, three models on how to deal with immigrant languages in schools are presented: the ethnic identity model, the language assimilation model and the language integration model. It is important to explore these models and to identify the model which is most appropriate for a particular group of students, their parents and their teachers. The attitudes, beliefs and views of the teacher also play an important role in educational practice. The central question here is which beliefs and attitudes are beneficial to the immigrant student. With regard to adaptation of immigrant students, the fit between the immigrant's own orientation - assimilationist or pluralistic - and that of his or her environment (the school and the teacher) seems to be very important. In addition, since modern didactic approaches stress the importance of social interaction and verbal reasoning, students with low language proficiency need special attention. It is also important that teachers adapt their educational practices to the needs of their students for their engagement in fruitful interaction and reasoning related to the learning task. Studies have shown that the some educational contexts are likely to prevent students with low language proficiency from engaging in fruitful social interaction and reasoning related to the learning task: On the one hand, settings in which there is no clear structure, i.e., where a 'laissez faire' atmosphere dominates. And on the other hand settings characterised by a traditional transmission model of teaching. Teachers often lack information and skills and occasionally they lack motivation that is necessary to successfully cope with increased heterogeneity and to face the challenges of multicultural societies. In many cases there is a 'mismatch' between teaching styles which are developed and successful with native born children and those required for immigrant students. This often contributes to behavioural and academic problems among the immigrants. This mismatch can also cause 'diversity-related burnout' with teachers. It was shown that the highest level of this type of burnout was reported by teachers who hold assimilationist views but work in schools that they perceive as leading a policy of assimilation. It is often assumed that an increase of intergroup contact is needed to improve intergroup relations but research has shown that contact by itself is insufficient. It is important that groups enter the contact situation with equal status, there must be cooperative interdependence between the groups and the contact must occur in the context of supportive norms. Furthermore, there must be an opportunity for personal acquaintance and friendship between group members and the category membership of the individuals in the interaction must be of at least minimum salience. More positive intergroup attitudes will also emerge when ingroup members observe ingroup members having close friendship relations with outgroup members. Since intergroup contact is often assumed to be the primary means to improve ingroup relations, school segregation is usually perceived as 'negative' and efforts are usually made to undo or avoid ethnic and religious segregation among schools. However, these attempts often fail because demographic processes, housing policies and parental school choices are strong forces, very hard to counteract by school or national educational policies. A research review suggests that immigrant students may feel more self-confident in groups of predominantly immigrant children which may result in a stronger engagement in learning situations. Assessments of the effects of school segregation on school achievement often focus on academic and linguistic performance, and the research evidence is inconclusive in those areas. The effect of the ethnic school composition on the social competencies of the students is rarely investigated. Conclusions and practical guidelines: For individual immigrants, a combined positive attitude and orientation towards both the national and ethnic culture is conducive to their development and learning.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)157-168
Number of pages12
JournalEducational Research Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


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