When Carla Peck was a grade three teacher in rural New Brunswick, she saw a lot of students who looked like her-- white Canadians of European descent. Coming from a larger, more diverse municipality, Peck wondered how her young students perceived ethnic diversity in such a homogeneous community.
Her inquiry sparked an academic career which lead to Peck’s recent cross-Canada Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) project, Teachers' and Students' Understandings of Ethnic Diversity, which generated the resource teach4diversity.ca. Connecting diversity, culture and identity in education is a topic Peck sees as just as timely as when she started this research.
“Every few weeks in Canada there is news about cultural diversity,” she explains. “For example, in the last federal election there was the proposed niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies. Diversity and accommodation are ongoing topics of discussion in Canadian society, and obviously not just Canadian society considering recent events.”
When Peck started the research, the United States military had gone into Afghanistan, and news media was filled with images of people wearing turbans, and looking much different than the students she was teaching.
“I wondered if they were watching the news and how they were interpreting what they were seeing,” recalls Peck. “Did they know what it meant to be Muslim, or belong to any religion other than their own? Did they hold negative stereotypes about the people they saw and learned about on the news? How does that affect their thinking about accommodation of difference or human rights?”
Peck’s research examines how elementary school teachers and students in Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia understand ethnic diversity and how teachers interpret and teach curriculum outcomes related to it. The research team also collected information about debunking myths about teaching diversity, the history of diversity in Canada and a collection of other free, online resources teachers can use in the classroom.
One tool on the website is The ARC of Understanding, which aims to help educators evaluate their own personal awareness levels of diversity and racism. Peck sees this resource as a way for teachers to better equip themselves to correct the misconceptions about diversity that they may encounter in the classroom.
“We know from research on students’ prior knowledge that misconceptions are tenacious and very difficult to change,” she explains. “As teachers, we have to be methodical in our approach in working to correct these misconceptions. We have to create cognitive dissonance where we interrupt and cause someone to rethink their thinking and work towards a more complete understanding.”
In addition, Peck suggests that parents and educators incorporate multicultural children’s literature in day-to-day life as a way to help students develop an inclusive awareness of ethnic diversity. Another approach to help children learn about diversity is to have conversations with them about why we value diversity in our society. She says that when children develop this understanding at a young age they are able to look at the world and see that their perspective isn’t the only one.
“We need to be able to engage, in an informed way, about diversity, identity, accommodation, multiculturalism and rights,” she says. “We face these issues everyday in our global society. If we’re not informed, and if we hold misconceptions about these concepts, we have evidence right now of what that can do in terms of influencing political debate, policy and laws.”
Dr. Peck’s research, Teachers' and Students' Understandings of Ethnic Diversity, is one of ten projects available for an undergraduate student research assistantship for the Spring and Summer 2017 terms. Applications for the Roger S. Smith Undergraduate Student Research Award are due on March 1, 2017 at 4:30 p.m.