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Diversity in students contributes to the cultural richness of a university and makes it a cosmopolitan community. However, educating a group of heterogeneous students requires teachers to have a clear understanding of the various dimensions of diversity in classrooms and adopt appropriate teaching approaches and materials to cope with the pedagogical challenges of a Heterogeneous Student Body.

July 2003, Vol. 6, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Coping with a Heterogeneous Student Body
 
Mr Alan Koh
Human Resource Specialist
Human Resource Management Unit, NUS
Dr Chung Yuen Kay
Head
Human Resource Management Unit, NUS
 

Heterogeneity dots the landscape of tertiary education in a world increasingly defined by cultural diversity. Within the context of a variegated world, there is reason to suppose that today’s students have a seemingly vast array of diverse ideas to pick and choose from when they attempt to forge a life- and world-view. As educators encounter a multiplicity of life-views and thought patterns at the frontlines of teaching, it is in this sense that we approach the issue of student heterogeneity.

Heterogeneity can of course be narrowly defined by some superficialities such as height, age, weight, colour of one’s hair and so on. Yet each of these criteria does not constitute a relevant enough source of the challenges we face in the classroom, laboratory or clinical setting. Similarly, other seemingly important differences (e.g. diversity of nationality, race, religion or gender) matter only because such social groupings partially account for the differences in learning styles and frameworks of thinking amongst the members of different groups.

In our view, the difference that counts as far as teaching is concerned is the heterogeneity that is informed by the diversity in thinking orientations and frameworks of understandings. In other words, it is the differences that are defined by one’s framework of reference that poses the most intriguing pedagogical challenge to the modern educator. Consequently, the educator must question if the diversity in thinking orientations amongst the students is as heterogeneous as it may seem to be. Sometimes individuals may appear to be holding extremely contrasting positions when their differences are actually just shades away from each other; the dissimilarities may not necessarily constitute deep chasms informed by the clash of the differences between all-embracing, comprehensive paradigms.

In addition, there appears to be a sense of disintegration in the way we conceive how things work in the world. For example, we are prone to dissociate engineering principles from principles governing the bio-medical sciences. Yet, not only is the integration between them possible, but it is in fact being forged within our university community to improve the respective disciplines and the society that we serve.

Such a fragmentation in our perception could have arisen because of:

  • The century-long trend towards increased specialisation of the disciplines, leading to a lack of a sense of ‘interconnectedness’ of the world, and

  • Our educational system that used to place a premium on memorising facts in bits and pieces without any attempts to relate the information to overarching themes in the learning process.

Thus, frameworks of understanding tend to be loosely forged such that what often comes through are snatches and bites of an incoherent mass of views and ideas that oftentimes represent knee-jerk reactions to issues rather than well thought out positions that is logically consistent with our other ideas. Against this backdrop of ideational disintegration, the teacher emerges as a resource by which students are encouraged to re-examine their frameworks of understanding to see if some of the ideas they hold are in keeping with observable reality and are in tandem with some of the students’ other ideas in their respective conceptual complexes.

In our view, the teacher ought not to form conceptual complexes for students as this would pre-empt the process of self-discovery. Rather, the teacher’s role is to:

  • Encourage students to construct their own complexes,

  • Help to broaden the bases of the students’ complexes, and

  • Integrate the scaffoldings (ideas/concepts) around a number of basic principles.

The process is achieved through suggesting plausible alternative perspectives to interpret the phenomena in question and subjecting those ideas/concepts and their inter-relationships to a process of logical and analytical scrutiny. For example, when our Unit engages students to think of the concept of ‘the self’, students initially think of it as arising out of the individual’s personality. Though it may well be true, there is also a case for suggesting that ‘the self’ arises out of the multiplicity of interactions that are socially grounded, causing us to think and behave differently in different social contexts. Students are encouraged to conceptualise the phenomena in various ways to see if they represent diametrically contrasting positions and examine other logical ways by which the observations can be integrated and applied.

Based on this process, it is possible that students are able to construct as many alternative conceptual complexes as they wish. While some of the conceptual systems will either be more sophisticated or more faithful to empirical reality than others, they all lead to more coherent and tightly knitted ideas and concepts than if the integrationist agenda were not followed through. In other words, if there is going to be heterogeneity in thinking orientations, these differences ought to flow out of the diversity of well-integrated frameworks of thinking and schools of thought rather than out of bit-part disagreements over isolated ideas and concepts.

However, it does not mean that once these frameworks are forged, dialogues among different schools of thought are impossible to achieve. The teacher again emerges as a resource by which the process of engagement across frameworks of understanding is facilitated. Otherwise, communication between proponents of diverse schools could break down in the heat of rhetorical arguments, thereby short-circuiting the learning process. Even though a framework of understanding has been rigorously constructed, and praxis may be achieved on the basis of particular frames, there is always room for more testing, more re-formulations and more rectifications of one’s assumptions. To assume otherwise is to stagnate learning by smothering the feedback loops in rhetorical clashes in the place of dialogue across schools of thought.

To achieve all of the above, the teacher needs to have:

  • Clarity of mind so that the essence of different views are surfaced and not mere superficial dissimilarities,

  • Sensitivity to one’s own frames of reference and that of others,

  • An appreciation that some of these frameworks of understanding do rest upon existential bedrocks (and therefore can be quite emotionally-laden), and

  • An ability to facilitate dialogue so that areas of ambiguity are brought to the fore for consideration such that students are clear of where the differences are, why they remain, and how far apart they are one from the other.

In conclusion, if the teacher stays open to fresh perspectives and new data, these dialogues are not altogether as mammoth a task as it may seem. This is because no matter how well formed the frameworks of understanding may appear, there are always areas of ambiguity over issues or ideas that may not have been fully addressed. Logical systems are never so tight that they cannot be reformulated either in its entirety or at the edges where seemingly contrary evidences can be accommodated within the framework of the paradigm. It is the task of the teacher to bring alternate understandings to bear upon the issue under discussion so as to provoke a rethink of the existing framework either in the direction of its abandonment, reformulation, or clarification and expansion of concepts within that system.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Empowering a Diverse Student Population
   
Strategies for Achieving ‘Cultural Synergy’ in a Culturally Diverse Student Body
   
Coping with a Heterogeneous Student Body
   
Self-help Material for USP Students