Understanding Diversity as Academic Excellence

One of the main reasons I enjoy working at Latin is the clarity of the strategic plan. Two of our four priorities focus on excellence (#1) and inclusion (#4). Often I’m asked how these two concepts relate to each other when thinking about our academic program. Given preparations for our MLK speaker Jacqueline Woodsonand all that is happening both locally and nationally, this question is especially relevant right now.

When I first arrived, Shelley asked me to work closely with our Learning Resources department. This vibrant team is working to strengthen the School’s commitment to diverse learners, and they are some of our strongest advocates for learning diversity as an essential difference, not a presumed deficit. Just as children come to Latin from a variety of backgrounds, they also have many ways of learning. Our goal is to support and develop those differences so our students can bring all of themselves to the learning environment.

Yet, why does difference in the classroom make all students smarter? Professors at the University of Michigan have been leading the research on this important topic. Dr. Scott Page wrote The Difference to illustrate how diverse teams enhance and improve collaboration as well as outcomes. And Dr. Patricia Gurin has been able to quantify the value of racial diversity in classrooms and on campuses across the country. Her team of researchers looked at informal interactions among African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and White students as well as classroom environments. Their purpose was to measure the effects, if any, of racial diversity on academic and social growth.

In considering learning outcomes, researchers identified intellectual engagement, self-confidence, the drive to achieve, academic skills, writing and listening ability, general knowledge, analytic and problem-solving skills, and the ability to think and write critically as measures of learning. They also considered democracy outcomes such as the ability of students to participate in an increasingly heterogeneous democracy. To participate fully, students need to understand and consider multiple perspectives, to appreciate common values, and to understand and accept cultural differences that arise in a racially and ethnically diverse community.

They found that all four groups of students were positively impacted by both informal and classroom interaction with racially diverse peers. Many educators have argued that diversity can be achieved without the presence of racial diversity. Since content about race can be introduced in classrooms, it was important for the researchers to explore whether informal interaction among peers had significant effects on learning. The researchers found that informal interaction with racially diverse peers had the greatest effect on learning and democracy outcomes, confirming the value and necessity for racially diverse student populations. The most consistent effects were found for White students. Both classroom diversity and informal interaction were significantly related to intellectual engagement for this group. Overall, the learning and democracy outcomes for all four groups were positively affected by interaction with racially diverse peers both in and out of the classroom setting. Thus, a diverse student body is clearly a resource and a necessary condition for engagement with diverse peers and for the attainment of academic goals.

When we have the opportunity to learn side by side with someone who is different from us, we experience cognitive dissonance. We “bump up” against something new and unfamiliar, and then we have to push through our discomfort to reach a new understanding – what teachers refer to as the learning moment. That dissonance promotes critical thinking: “That’s a different way of looking at that. I never thought of it that way. I wonder what it means?” Due to our commitment to a more diverse teaching/learning environment, our students have the opportunity to experience this kind of social and cognitive difference all the time. Back when the School was founded, the parents wanted a different kind of learning environment for their children that would prepare them for a world that was evolving in a compelling way. I’m glad to say that Latin is maintaining that commitment to diversity, in all its many forms, as academic excellence.