Managing and Exploiting the Impact of Classroom Diversity in Adult Arts Education
As the American population becomes increasingly diverse, so goes classroom diversity (Cooper, 2012). By the end of the current decade, a White majority will no longer exist among the 18 and under age group. This rapid progression towards a plurality has already impacted primary schools, but the trend toward increasing diversity is beginning to affect adult education classrooms as well. If educators simply ignore this trend, not only will the academic success of students be harmed, but also the professional skills of educators. The solution, according to Brookfield (1995), is not the adoption of an innocent or naive attitude towards the diverse needs and abilities of racially and ethnically diverse students, but to engage in a process of critical self-reflection. Such a process would help educators uncover their own hidden motives and intentions, thereby minimizing the risk of becoming frustrated and unsuccessful when confronted with the challenges posed by a diverse classroom. As an arts educator of adult students, the first learning objective will be to better understand these challenges and the recommend strategies for achieving academic success.
Although increasing diversity can be a source of problems in an educational setting (Davis, 1993, p. 40), it can also enhance the learning experience for all involved (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999, p. 127-150). Essential to this process is respect for individual and cultural identities, in addition to what Brookfield and Preskill (1999) termed 'dispositions' essential to democratic discussions. These dispositions include humility, deliberation, autonomy, and a willingness to engage fully. The expected benefits include co-creation of knowledge, development of collaborative skills, increased empathy, greater tolerance for ambiguity, and an increased chance for transformative experiences. Accordingly, the second learning objective is to understand how classroom discussions and collaborative learning can be successfully integrated into an arts education program for racially- and ethnically-diverse adult learners. Both learning objectives will be considered in light of the special challenges associated with an online art education course for adult learners.
Impact of Diversity on Adult Education
"… arts are forms of . . . 'symbolic and expressive [knowledge] systems' that can be understood as cognitive processes" (Engel, 1977, as cited by Lovano-Kerr, 1983, p. 78). Cognition is the selective processing of sensory information in such a way that it leads to knowledge creation. The tasks involved include thinking, reasoning, memory creation and management, and imagery; therefore, cognition can be characterized as the "… process of knowing" (Stein, 1966, as cited by Lovano-Kerr, 1983, p. 77). Since cultural identity is the product of cognition, the processes involved in 'knowing' art would likely be influenced by racial identity, ethnicity, and economic status. Lovano-Kerr (1983) reviewed research findings concerning the cross-cultural predictive value of Piaget's stages of development and found substantial support for culture-dependent development and acquisition of sensorimotor, concrete operational, and formal operational stages of development. One study published by Dasen in 1974 revealed that Australian aboriginal children used circles to denote direction, failed to understand numbers or measurement, but exceeded the abilities of Western children when understanding length. Additionally, researchers revealed that the concrete operational stage is not attained by all adults from other cultures. Culture therefore has a sometimes dramatic and always important impact on developmental cognitive outcomes.
Lovano-Kerr (1983) discussed the problems encountered when Piaget's theory was challenged by non-Western cultures and offered a better theoretical foundation in the form of Witkin's theory of psychological differentiation. In contrast to Piaget theory of development, which is a step-wise theory, psychological differentiation holds that development occurs along a continuum of increasing differentiation, while retaining cognitive, psychological, and social patterns of behavior. The central theme of Witkin's theory is cognitive style, of which there are two primary ones: (1) externally- and (2) internally-oriented. For example, American society tends to foster an attitude of self-sufficiency and self-motivation, which would be consistent with an internally-oriented cognitive style or what Witkin's called a 'field-independent' mode of functioning. In contrast, a child growing up in a conformist society would tend to be externally-oriented or field-dependent.
The validity of Witkin's theory of psychological differentiation was supported by the findings of a large study that examined the visual discrimination and spatial skills of eight different cultures. The cultures were stratified by the degree of Westernization, with the baseline representing societies almost completely dependent on hunting for survival (Berry, 1971). Increasing Westernization was found to be correlated with reduced visual discrimination and spatial skills and this was reflected in the arts and crafts industry, such that the most primitive culture by Western standards tended to have the most highly developed arts and crafts industry. In addition, hunting societies tended to emphasize self-reliance, independence, and self-determination, which would place them within Witkin's field-independent mode of functioning.
The findings of Berry (1971) reveals Witkin's theory of psychological differentiation can be adapted easily to different cultures, thereby providing a theoretical framework for understanding the educational needs of adults in a culture-specific manner. However, the pattern has been to impose Western adult education approaches upon non-Western cultures (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). The reading, writing, and arithmetic focus of a Western education system, which is oriented toward employment needs, often does not align with the educational goals of other cultures. For example, Native American adults tend to be more concerned about preserving their culture, honoring traditional values, and resymbolizing and reinterpreting past experiences. In China, adult learning within Confucianism is based on a need to pursue spiritual development. The goal of spiritual development is also important in India, although skill development still permeates the culture as a remnant of its colonial history. A similar spiritual orientation is advocated within Islam, but additional adult learning goals can include communal obligation and the sharing of knowledge. Should an educator providing adult education for ethnically-diverse students simply ignore these important cultural differences the likely outcome would be frustration and high student attrition rates.
Western adult education, however, is surprisingly similar to non-Western pedagogy. Holmes and Abington-Cooper (2000) note that Knowles' influential androgogy model for adult learning emphasizes the goal of helping adults reach their full potential emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually by becoming self-directed learners. In 1973, Knowles distinguished adult learners from children by assuming adults will (1) be self-directed, (2) have a substantial experiential knowledge base, (3) be focused on social role needs, and (4) be oriented toward the immediate application of gained knowledge. If not for the publication of Holmes' and Abington-Cooper's (2000) article in the Journal of Technology Studies, Knowles androgogy model could be perceived by a novice as non-Western education oriented. A culturally-diverse adult education class would therefore encounter fewer problems concerning educational goals if it was based on the androgogy model. Holmes and Abington-Cooper (2000) concluded that no agreement exists in the literature on what an adult learner is, but this conclusion was reached after perusing the Western research and philosophical literature. By comparison, the definition of an adult learner in India or China would be better defined. When faced with an ethnically-diverse class of adults there should be some comfort in the knowledge that students who identify with a non-Western culture probably have a good idea what they want to learn and why.
Strategies for Coping with Diversity
There is no one formula for coping with the challenges of a diverse classroom, but there are general principles that should provide enough guidance for motivated educators to create a safe and rewarding learning experience. The foremost recommendation of Davis (1993) is to look inward for any biases and stereotypes that may have a negative impact on teacher-student interactions. This recommendation is essentially identical to Brookfield's (1995) admonition to practice critical self-reflection, as part of a life-long journey intended to increase the chances of success for both educators and students. This journey necessarily begins as an isolated exercise intentionally designed to gently and insistently uncover our personal habits, biases, and stereotypes, which may have an impact on academic success (Brookfield, 1995, p. 71-83). Some of the tools that can be employed include teaching logs, teacher learning audits, role model profiles, and videotaping. These tools can be employed without fear of critique from colleagues and supervisors; however, peer observation is another effective tool for critical self-reflection.
As an educator works to minimize the intrusion of personal biases through critical self-reflection, additional steps can be taken to help foster academic success in a diverse classroom environment. The most obvious recommendation includes respect for each student's individual and ethnic identities (Davis, 1993, p. 40-51). Other considerations include eliminating language and behaviors that could be perceived as demeaning or alienating by a minority group, engaging students in discussions about the cultural atmosphere in the classroom, and treating all students fairly and equally. The recommendation most relevant to learning objective two is to actively monitor classroom discussions to ensure that no one is excluded because of their minority status. For example, if a teacher suspects this is occurring they can intervene by intentionally asking the student to contribute…