Diversity down under

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July 16, 2010

Aspiring educators know that embracing diversity is essential to a successful classroom environment, but training future teachers to actually utilize cultural and geographic differences to enhance curriculum is the goal of associate professor Dr. Jean Marie Grant.  To study a successful application of this perspective, Dr. Grant took seven of her ETE 280 (Exploring Diversity: Learners, Families, and Communities) students “down under,” where Australian educators are capitalizing on the continent’s vast cultural, geographical, and historical diversity to enrich students’ learning experience.  

“The goal is to help them understand the different areas of diversity, but also to help them understand how education fits in with the teaching, whether you’re teaching science, or teaching history, or if you’re teaching math,” Grant said.

Field trips to museums, zoos, and other educational tourist attractions are a staple for students across the world, but the amount of knowledge gleaned from such experiences depends on how well teachers tie the material back to their classroom instruction. Dr. Grant says every museum or zoo educator in Australia is a licensed teacher, and every lesson they deliver must be connected to a curriculum framework designed for specific grade levels. 

The Bradley education majors, along with 25 students enrolled in Sociology 313, History 337, or English 300, spent the May interim studying abroad in Sydney and Canberra.  It was just one of many opportunities Bradley students have year-round to study abroad in host countries all over the world.  Their coursework included standards such as textbooks, writing assignments, and discussion sections, but the class structure created opportunities far outside the realm of a typical university experience.  In Australia, museums, tourist sites, and a variety of schools were the students’ classrooms.  They were tested daily, not with multiple choice exams or true/false options, but with real-world challenges like mastering the city’s mass transit system.  Constantly on-the-go, navigating through an unfamiliar country with unique customs, the trip was as much a lesson in problem solving and rolling with the punches as it was a scholarly endeavor. 

Senior elementary education major Kendall Williams (’11) noted that much of what she learned during the experience can’t be found in a textbook.  “Being able to change lessons and plans on a whim was a large part of what I learned. As a small class we needed to change plans due to weather, schedules of locations and time restraints,” Williams said.

The students couldn’t have traveled much farther from Peoria for their lessons in diversity, but they also couldn’t have found a cultural landscape and complementary education system quite as unique.  It is a place where the historically complicated but steadily evolving relationship between native peoples and the descendants of colonizers could become a case study for regions across the globe still grappling with how to protect native customs while offering modern services.  Rich traditions in the aboriginal communities, coupled with a recent push to atone for past oppressions, are bringing students of broadly diverse backgrounds together in the same schools.  The Bradley students learned that while this scenario presents challenges, it also creates seemingly limitless opportunities for educational enrichment.  Whereas most American primary and secondary students receive instruction in one foreign language, pupils attending an international grammar school in Sydney are fluent in two, if not three, languages by the time they graduate from high school. 

“Our students were just blown away by that,” Grant said.

For all its strides in embracing diversity, Grant acknowledged that in some areas, such as special education, Australian schools are years behind their American counterparts.  Bradley aims to give students the opportunity to study and compare the strengths and weaknesses of international education systems, arming future educators with a global perspective applicable in their own classrooms. Next May, Dr. Heljä Antola Crowe will take another round of ETE 280 students to Finland, where they will experience for themselves an education system ranked by the United Nations as one of the most effective in the world.