Beyond Borders: Cultivating Diversity in Higher Education Classrooms

By Dr Ee Yaw SengWe live in an era where diversity in the workplace has become commonplace and is regarded as a vital part of business.Beyond Textbooks: The Power of a Diverse ClassroomWe live in an era where diversity in …

Beyond Borders: Cultivating Diversity in Higher Education Classrooms

By Dr Ee Yaw Seng

We live in an era where diversity in the workplace has become commonplace and is regarded as a vital part of business.

SWINSays is a weekly editorial column prominently featured in the New Sarawak Tribune.

Beyond Textbooks: The Power of a Diverse Classroom

We live in an era where diversity in the workplace has become commonplace and is regarded as a vital part of business. It has been proven that introducing and promoting diversity in the workplace drives employee performance and creativity. By default, diversity in the classroom also reaps similar benefits. A diverse classroom paves the way for academic success. As individuals, we cannot evolve and progress if we remain static while adhering to the same learning patterns and
continually interacting with the same group of people. To contribute and prosper as a society, we must learn how to interact and integrate well with others, regardless of background.   

In light of rapid globalization where the demand for overseas education is growing, the reality of today’s classrooms is that educators are more likely to face diverse students from different cultural, ethnic, religious, socio-economic and disciplinary backgrounds. Diversity in the classrooms refers to differences in the students’ social identity, characterized by age, gender, ethnicity, religion, race, nationality, ability and disability. Learning about diversity and engaging in inclusivity benefit educators and students in the long term as plans and strategies can be crafted to deliver lessons productively. In relation to upholding Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 4 on quality education, it is worthwhile to reflect on the myriad benefits of a diverse cohort of students in classrooms.  

From Awareness to Action: 6 Benefits of Diversity in Learning

In a typical university setting, a single class can represent a rich tapestry of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. This diversity extends to academic disciplines, with students from various fields coming together to learn. For educators, both prospective and incumbent, grasping the depth of this diversity can significantly enhance their perspective and teaching approach. Generally, there are six recognized benefits to having such diversity in classrooms, which are observed and appreciated in various ways.

First and foremost, a culturally diverse cohort fosters enhanced awareness and understanding among students, a benefit that stems from their social interactions. In many classrooms, local students have the opportunity to interact with international peers hailing from a range of countries. This melding of backgrounds creates a rich, healthy, and lively classroom atmosphere that is conducive to learning and growth. 

Second, as one of the graduate attributes for most university graduates, varied viewpoints can teach students how to interact with peers, and communicate better, more effectively and differently than when they interact only with people familiar to them. It encourages students to step out of their comfort zones, fostering a greater ease in navigating unfamiliar social situations in the future. A rich social interaction augurs well for educators and students alike as the classroom is supposed to be a venue where different opinions and viewpoints are introduced, exchanged, shared and deliberated.  

Third, an integrated classroom environment fosters critical thinking and problem-solving. As part of professional skills development, exposure to a variety of viewpoints encourages students to consistently think outside the box, a practice that is pivotal in fostering a deeper and more comprehensive learning experience.  

Fourth, learning about others’ values and cultural backgrounds builds confidence and enables individuals to interact with their environment better. This will be beneficial when dealing with people from all around the world in the future. 

Fifth, more complex thoughts and insights are generated when educators and students interact with diverse perspectives. With differing perspectives and viewpoints, creativity is promoted, while students can collaborate to produce better outcomes. At the same time, for educators, a diverse classroom with differing perspectives can act as a catalyst for innovations in teaching and learning. This will invariably lead to the overall betterment of the teaching profession. 

Lastly, greater awareness and understanding through diversity propels a more respectful learning environment. In an increasingly complex and pluralistic society, diversity prepares students to become good citizens by fostering mutual respect and teamwork. They can learn the characteristics of good citizenship, such as showing and respecting the rights of others and demonstrating compassion and empathy for others. This is important at the workplace as tasks are mostly undertaken and completed by teams, not individuals. Therefore, diversity is crucial for students to learn and to adapt as this helps them to appreciate the differences among people. 

Cultivating Well-Rounded Individuals 

A diverse classroom
equips students for careers in the job market, which is increasingly global. Confidence flourishes when students learn to interact with those of other races, disciplines, ethnicities, and cultures. This better prepares them for the workforce. 

Everyone is unique. Each of us has our own set of attributes and characteristics. Gaining insight into diverse perspectives early on in the classroom setting encourages students to venture beyond their comfort zones, fostering a dynamic and enriching learning environment that optimally prepares them for future endeavours.  Ultimately, fostering such an environment is the collective goal and aspiration of educators, parents, and employers alike.