I’ll tell you this: There are some people, and then there are others.

(Anna Harris)

Anna Harris was Kelvin Seifert’s grandmother as well as a schoolteacher from about 1910 to 1930. She used to make comments, like the one above, that sounded odd but that also contained a grain of wisdom. In this case her remark makes a good theme for this chapter—and even for teaching in general. Students do differ in a multitude of ways, both individually and because of memberships in families, communities or cultural groups. Sometimes the differences can make classroom-style teaching more challenging, but other times, as Anna Harris implied, they simply enrich classroom life. To teach students well, we need to understand the important ways that they differ among themselves, and when or how the differences really matter for their education. This chapter offers some of that understanding and suggests how you might use it in order to make learning effective and enjoyable for everyone, including yourself.

For convenience we will make a major distinction between differences among individuals and differences among groups of students. As the term implies, individual differences are qualities that are unique; just one person has them at a time. Variation in hair color, for example, is an individual difference; even though some people have nearly the same hair color, no two people are exactly the same. Group differences are qualities shared by members of an identifiable group or community, but not shared by everyone in society. An example is gender role: for better or for worse, one portion of society (the males) is perceived differently and expected to behave a bit differently than another portion of society (the females). Notice that distinguishing between individual and group differences is convenient, but a bit arbitrary. Individuals with similar, but nonetheless unique qualities sometimes group themselves together for certain purposes, and groups unusually contain a lot of individual diversity within them. If you happen to enjoy playing soccer and have some talent for it (an individual quality), for example, you may end up as a member of a soccer team or club (a group defined by members’ common desire and ability to play soccer). But though everyone on the team fits a “soccer player’s profile” at some level, individual members will probably vary in level of skill and motivation. The group, by its very nature, may obscure these signs of individuality.

To begin, then, we look at several differences normally considered to be individually rather than group based. This discussion will necessarily be incomplete simply because individual differences are so numerous and important in teaching that some of them are also discussed in later chapters. Later sections of this chapter deal with three important forms of group diversity: gender differences, cultural differences, and language differences.

Individual styles of learning and thinking

All of us, including our students, have preferred ways of learning. Teachers often refer to these differences as learning styles, though this term may imply that students are more consistent across situations than is really the case. One student may like to make diagrams to help remember a reading assignment, whereas another student may prefer to write a sketchy outline instead. Yet in many cases, the students could in principle reverse the strategies and still learn the material: if coaxed (or perhaps required), the diagram-maker could take notes for a change and the note-taker could draw diagrams. Both would still learn, though neither might feel as comfortable as when using the strategies that they prefer. This reality suggests that a balanced, middle-of-the-road approach may be a teacher’s best response to students’ learning styles. Or put another way, it is good to support students’ preferred learning strategies where possible and appropriate, but neither necessary nor desirable to do so all of the time (Loo, 2004; Stahl, 2002). Most of all, it is neither necessary nor possible to classify or label students according to seemingly fixed learning styles and then allow them to learn only according to those styles. A student may prefer to hear new material rather than see it; he may prefer for you to explain something orally, for example, rather than to see it demonstrated in a video. But he may nonetheless tolerate or sometimes even prefer to see it demonstrated. In the long run, in fact, he may learn it best by encountering the material in both ways, regardless of his habitual preferences.

That said, there is evidence that individuals, including students, do differ in how they habitually think. These differences are more specific than learning styles or preferences, and psychologists sometimes call them cognitive styles, meaning typical ways of perceiving and remembering information, and typical ways of solving problems and making decisions (Zhang & Sternberg, 2006). In a style of thinking called field dependence, for example, individuals perceive patterns as a whole rather than focus on the parts of the pattern separately. In a complementary tendency, called field independence, individuals are more inclined to analyze overall patterns into their parts. Cognitive research from the 1940s to the present has found field dependence/independence differences to be somewhat stable for any given person across situations, though not completely so (Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977; Zhang & Sternberg, 2005). Someone who is field dependent (perceives globally or “wholistically”) in one situation, tends to a modest extent to perceive things globally or wholistically in other situations. Field dependence and independence can be important in understanding students because the styles affect students’ behaviors and preferences in school and classrooms. Field dependent persons tend to work better in groups, it seems, and to prefer “open-ended” fields of study like literature and history. Field independent persons, on the other hand, tend to work better alone and to prefer highly analytic studies like math and science. The differences are only a tendency, however, and there are a lot of students who contradict the trends. As with the broader notion of learning styles, the cognitive styles of field dependence and independence are useful for tailoring instruction to particular students, but their guidance is only approximate. They neither can nor should be used to “lock” students to particular modes of learning or to replace students’ own expressed preferences and choices about curriculum.

Another cognitive style is impulsivity as compared to reflectivity. As the names imply, an impulsive cognitive style is one in which a person reacts quickly, but as a result makes comparatively more errors. A reflective style is the opposite: the person reacts more slowly and therefore makes fewer errors. As you might expect, the reflective style would seem better suited to many academic demands of school. Research has found that this is indeed the case for academic skills that clearly benefit from reflection, such as mathematical problem solving or certain reading tasks (Evans, 2004). Some classroom or school-related skills, however, may actually develop better if a student is relatively impulsive. Being a good partner in a cooperative learning group, for example, may depend partly on responding spontaneously (i.e. just a bit “impulsively”) to others’ suggestions; and being an effective member of an athletic team may depend on not taking time to reflect carefully on every move that you or your team mates make.

There are two major ways to use knowledge of students’ cognitive styles (Pritchard, 2005). The first and the more obvious is to build on students’ existing style strengths and preferences. A student who is field independent and reflective, for example, can be encouraged to explore tasks and activities that are relatively analytic and that require relatively independent work. One who is field dependent and impulsive, on the other hand, can be encouraged and supported to try tasks and activities that are more social or spontaneous. But a second, less obvious way to use knowledge of cognitive styles is to encourage more balance in cognitive styles for students who need it. A student who lacks field independence, for example, may need explicit help in organizing and analyzing key academic tasks (like organizing a lab report in a science class). One who is already highly reflective may need encouragement to try ideas spontaneously, as in a creative writing lesson.

Multiple intelligences

For nearly a century, educators and psychologists have debated the nature of intelligence, and more specifically whether intelligence is just one broad ability or can take more than one form. Many classical definitions of the concept have tended to define intelligence as a single broad ability that allows a person to solve or complete many sorts of tasks, or at least many academic tasks like reading, knowledge of vocabulary, and the solving of logical problems (Garlick, 2002). There is research evidence of such a global ability, and the idea of general intelligence often fits with society’s everyday beliefs about intelligence. Partly for these reasons, an entire mini-industry has grown up around publishing tests of intelligence, academic ability, and academic achievement. Since these tests affect the work of teachers, I return to discussing them later in this book.

But there are also problems with defining intelligence as one general ability. One way of summing up the problems is to say that conceiving of intelligence as something general tends to put it beyond teachers’ influence. When viewed as a single, all-purpose ability, students either have a lot of intelligence or they do not, and strengthening their intelligence becomes a major challenge, or perhaps even an impossible one (Gottfredson, 2004; Lubinski, 2004). This conclusion is troubling to some educators, especially in recent years as testing school achievements have become more common and as students have become more diverse.

But alternate views of intelligence also exist that portray intelligence as having multiple forms, whether the forms are subparts of a single broader ability or are multiple “intelligences” in their own right. For various reasons such this perspective has gained in popularity among teachers in recent years, probably because it reflects many teachers’ beliefs that students cannot simply be rated along a single scale of ability, but are fundamentally diverse (Kohn, 2004).

One of the most prominent of these models is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983, 2003). Gardner proposes that there are eight different forms of intelligence, each of which functions independently of the others. (The eight intelligences are summarized in Table 11. Each person has a mix of all eight abilities—more of one and less of another—that helps to constitute that person’s individual cognitive profile. Since most tasks—including most tasks in classrooms—require several forms of intelligence and can be completed in more than one way, it is possible for people with various profiles of talents to succeed on a task equally well. In writing an essay, for example, a student with high interpersonal intelligence but rather average verbal intelligence might use his or her interpersonal strength to get a lot of help and advice from classmates and the teacher. A student with the opposite profile might work well alone, but without the benefit of help from others. Both students might end up with essays that are good, but good for different reasons.

Table 11: Multiple intelligences according to Howard Gardner

Form of intelligence

Examples of activities using the intelligence

Linguistic: verbal skill; ability to use language well

verbal persuasion

writing a term paper skillfully

Musical: ability to create and understand music

singing, playing a musical instrument

composing a tune

Logical: Mathematical: logical skill; ability to reason, often using mathematics

solving mathematical problems easily and accurately

developing and testing hypotheses

Spatial: ability to imagine and manipulate the arrangement of objects in the environment

completing a difficult jigsaw puzzle

assembling a complex appliance (e.g. a bicycle)

Bodily: kinesthetic: sense of balance; coordination in use of one’s body



Interpersonal: ability to discern others’ nonverbal feelings and thoughts

sensing when to be tactful

sensing a “subtext” or implied message in a person’s statements

Intrapersonal: sensitivity to one’s own thoughts and feelings

noticing complex of ambivalent feelings in oneself

identifying true motives for an action in oneself

Naturalist: sensitivity to subtle differences and patterns found in the natural environment

identifying examples of species of plants or animals

noticing relationships among species and natural processes in the environment

As evidence for the possibility of multiple intelligences, Gardner cites descriptions of individuals with exceptional talent in one form of intelligence (for example, in playing the piano) but who are neither above nor below average in other areas. He also cites descriptions of individuals with brain damage, some of whom lose one particular form of intelligence (like the ability to talk) but retain other forms. In the opinion of many psychologists, however, the evidence for multiple intelligences is not strong enough to give up the “classical” view of general intelligence. Part of the problem is that the evidence for multiple intelligences relies primarily on anecdotes— examples or descriptions of particular individuals who illustrate the model—rather than on more widespread information or data (Eisner, 2004).

Nonetheless, whatever the status of the research evidence, the model itself can be useful as a way for teachers to think about their work. Multiple intelligences suggest the importance of diversifying instruction in order to honor and to respond to diversity in students’ talents and abilities. Viewed like this, whether Gardner’s classification scheme is actually accurate is probably less important than the fact there is (or may be) more than one way to be “smart”. In the end, as with cognitive and learning styles, it may not be important to label students’ talents or intellectual strengths. It may be more important simply to provide important learning and knowledge in several modes or styles, ways that draw on more than one possible form of intelligence or skill. A good example of this principle is your own development in learning to teach. It is well and good to read books about teaching (like this one, perhaps), but it is even better to read books and talk with classmates and educators about teaching and getting actual experience in classrooms. The combination both invites and requires a wide range of your talents and usually proves more effective than any single type of activity, whatever your profile of cognitive styles or intellectual abilities happens to be.

Gifted and talented students

The idea of multiple intelligences leads to new ways of thinking about students who have special gifts and talents. Traditionally, the term gifted referred only to students with unusually high verbal skills. Their skills were demonstrated especially well, for example, on standardized tests of general ability or of school achievement, like those described in Chapter 13 (“Standardized and other formal assessments”). More recently, however, the meaning of gifted has broadened to include unusual talents in a range of activities, such as music, creative writing, or the arts (G. Davis & Rimm, 2004). To indicate the change, educators often use the dual term gifted and talented.

Qualities of the gifted and talented

What are students who are gifted and talented like? Generally they show some combination of the following qualities:

      • They learn more quickly and independently than most students their own age.
      • They often have well-developed vocabulary, as well as advanced reading and writing skills.
      • They are very motivated, especially on tasks that are challenging or difficult.
      • They hold themselves to higher than usual standards of achievement.

Contrary to a common impression, students who are gifted or talented are not necessarily awkward socially, less healthy, or narrow in their interests—in fact, quite the contrary (Steiner & Carr, 2003). They also come from all economic and cultural groups.

Ironically, in spite of their obvious strengths as learners, such students often languish in school unless teachers can provide them with more than the challenges of the usual curriculum. A kindergarten child who is precociously advanced in reading, for example, may make little further progress at reading if her teachers do not recognize and develop her skill; her talent may effectively disappear from view as her peers gradually catch up to her initial level. Without accommodation to their unusual level of skill or knowledge, students who are gifted or talented can become bored by school, and eventually the boredom can even turn into behavior problems.

Partly for these reasons, students who are gifted or talented have sometimes been regarded as the responsibility of special education, along with students with other sorts of disabilities. Often their needs are discussed, for example, in textbooks about special education, alongside discussions of students with intellectual disabilities, physical impairments, or major behavior disorders (Friend, 2008). There is some logic to this way of thinking about their needs; after all, they are quite exceptional, and they do require modifications of the usual school programs in order to reach their full potential. But it is also misleading to ignore obvious differences between exceptional giftedness and exceptional disabilities of other kinds. The key difference is in students’ potential. By definition, students with gifts or talents are capable of creative, committed work at levels that often approach talented adults. Other students—including students with disabilities—may reach these levels, but not as soon and not as frequently. Many educators therefore think of the gifted and talented not as examples of students with disabilities, but as examples of diversity. As such they are not so much the responsibility of special education specialists, as the responsibility of all teachers to differentiate their instruction.

Supporting students who are gifted and talented

Supporting the gifted and talented usually involves a mixture of acceleration and enrichment of the usual curriculum (Schiever & Maker, 2003). Acceleration involves either a child’s skipping a grade, or else the teacher’s redesigning the curriculum within a particular grade or classroom so that more material is covered faster. Either strategy works, but only up to a point: children who have skipped a grade usually function well in the higher grade, both academically and socially. Unfortunately skipping grades cannot happen repeatedly unless teacher, parents, and the students themselves are prepared to live with large age and maturity differences within single classrooms. In itself, too, there is no guarantee that instruction in the new, higher-grade classroom will be any more stimulating than it was in the former, lower-grade classroom. Redesigning the curriculum is also beneficial to the student, but impractical to do on a widespread basis; even if teachers had the time to redesign their programs, many non-gifted students would be left behind as a result.

Enrichment involves providing additional or different instruction added on to the usual curriculum goals and activities. Instead of books at more advanced reading levels, for example, a student might read a wider variety of types of literature at the student’s current reading level, or try writing additional types of literature himself. Instead of moving ahead to more difficult kinds of math programs, the student might work on unusual logic problems not assigned to the rest of the class. Like acceleration, enrichment works well up to a point. Enrichment curricula exist to help classroom teachers working with gifted students (and save teachers the time and work of creating enrichment materials themselves). Since enrichment is not part of the normal, officially sanctioned curriculum, however, there is a risk that it will be perceived as busywork rather than as intellectual stimulation, particularly if the teacher herself is not familiar with the enrichment material or is otherwise unable to involve herself in the material fully.

Obviously acceleration and enrichment can sometimes be combined. A student can skip a grade and also be introduced to interesting “extra” material at the new grade level. A teacher can move a student to the next unit of study faster than she moves the rest of the class, while at the same time offering additional activities not related to the unit of study directly. For a teacher with a student who is gifted or talented, however, the real challenge is not simply to choose between acceleration and enrichment, but to observe the student, get to know him or her as a unique individual, and offer activities and supports based on that knowledge. This is essentially the challenge of differentiating instruction, something needed not just by the gifted and talented, but by students of all sorts. As you might suspect, differentiating instruction poses challenges about managing instruction; we discuss it again in more detail in Chapter 10 (“Facilitating complex thinking”) and Chapter 11 (“Instructional planning”).

Gender differences in the classroom

Gender roles are the patterns of behaviors, attitudes, and expectations associated with a particular sex—with being either male or female. For clarity, psychologists sometimes distinguish gender differences, which are related to social roles, from sex differences, which are related only to physiology and anatomy. Using this terminology, gender matters in teaching more than sex (in spite of any jokes told about the latter!).

Although there are many exceptions, boys and girls do differ on average in ways that parallel conventional gender stereotypes and that affect how the sexes behave at school and in class. The differences have to do with physical behaviors, styles of social interaction, academic motivations, behaviors, and choices. They have a variety of sources—primarily parents, peers, and the media. Teachers are certainly not the primary cause of gender role differences, but sometimes teachers influence them by their responses to and choices made on behalf of students.

Physical differences in gender roles

Physically, boys tend to be more active than girls, and by the same token more restless if they have to sit for long periods. They are also more prone than girls to rely on physical aggression if they are frustrated (Espelage & Swearer, 2004). Both tendencies are inconsistent with the usual demands of classroom life, of course, and make it a little more likely that school will be a difficult experience for boys, even for boys who never actually get in trouble for being restless or aggressive.

During the first two or three years of elementary school, gross motor skills develop at almost the same average rate for boys and girls. As a group, both sexes can run, jump, throw a ball, and the like with about equal ease, though there are of course wide significant differences among individuals of both sexes. Toward the end of elementary school, however, boys pull ahead of girls at these skills even though neither sex has begun yet to experience puberty. The most likely reason is that boys participate more actively in formal and informal sports because of expectations and support from parents, peers, and society (Braddock, Sokol-Katz, Greene, & Basinger- Fleischman, 2005; Messner, Duncan, & Cooky, 2003). Puberty eventually adds to this advantage by making boys taller and stronger than girls, on average, and therefore more suited at least for sports that rely on height and strength.

In thinking about these differences, keep in mind that they refer to average trends and that there are numerous individual exceptions. Every teacher knows of individual boys who are not athletic, for example, or of particular girls who are especially restless in class. The individual differences mean, among other things, that it is hard to justify providing different levels of support or resources to boys than to girls for sports, athletics, or physical education. The differences also suggest, though, that individual students who contradict gender stereotypes about physical abilities may benefit from emotional support or affirmation from teachers, simply because they may be less likely than usual to get such affirmation from elsewhere.

Social differences in gender roles

When relaxing socially, boys more often gravitate to large groups. Whether on the playground, in a school hallway, or on the street, boys’ social groups tend literally to fill up a lot of space, and often include significant amounts of roughhousing as well as organized and “semi-organized” competitive games or sports (Maccoby, 2002). Girls, for their part, are more likely to seek and maintain one or two close friends and to share more intimate information and feelings with these individuals. To the extent that these gender differences occur, they can make girls less visible or noticeable than boys, at least in leisure play situations where children or youth choose their companions freely. As with physical differences, however, keep in mind that differences in social interactions do not occur uniformly for all boys and girls. There are boys with close friends, contradicting the general trend, and girls who play primarily in large groups.

Differences in social interaction styles happen in the classroom as well. Boys, on average, are more likely to speak up during a class discussion—sometimes even if not called on, or even if they do not know as much about the topic as others in the class (Sadker, 2002). When working on a project in a small co-ed group, furthermore they have a tendency to ignore girls’ comments and contributions to the group. In this respect co-ed student groups parallel interaction patterns in many parts of society, where men also have a tendency to ignore women’s comments and contributions (Tannen, 2001).

Academic and cognitive differences in gender

On average, girls are more motivated than boys to perform well in school, at least during elementary school. By the time girls reach high school, however, some may try to down play their own academic ability in order make themselves more likeable by both sexes (Davies, 2005). Even if this occurs, though, it does not affect their grades: from kindergarten through twelfth grade, girls earn slightly higher average grades than boys (Freeman, 2004). This fact does not lead to similar achievement, however, because as youngsters move into high school, they tend to choose courses or subjects conventionally associated with their gender—math and science for boys, in particular, and literature and the arts for girls. By the end of high school, this difference in course selection makes a measurable difference in boys’ and girls’ academic performance in these subjects.

But again, consider my caution about stereotyping: there are individuals of both sexes whose behaviors and choices run counter to the group trends. (I have made this point as well in “Preparing for Licensure: Interpreting Gender-Related Behavior” by deliberately concealing the gender of a student described.) Differences within each gender group generally are far larger than any differences between the groups. A good example is the “difference” in cognitive ability of boys and girls. Many studies have found none at all. A few others have found small differences, with boys slightly better at math and girls slightly better at reading and literature. Still other studies have found the differences not only are small, but have been getting smaller in recent years compared to earlier studies. Collectively the findings about cognitive abilities are virtually “non-findings”, and it is worth asking why gender differences have therefore been studied and discussed so much for so many years (Hyde, 2005). How teachers influence gender roles?

Teachers often intend to interact with both sexes equally, and frequently succeed at doing so. Research has found, though, that they do sometimes respond to boys and girls differently, perhaps without realizing it. Three kinds of differences have been noticed. The first is the overall amount of attention paid to each sex; the second is the visibility or “publicity” of conversations; and the third is the type of behavior that prompts teachers to support or criticize students.

Attention paid

In general, teachers interact with boys more often than with girls by a margin of 10 to 30 percent, depending on the grade level of the students and the personality of the teacher (Measor & Sykes, 1992). One possible reason for the difference is related to the greater assertiveness of boys that I already noted; if boys are speaking up more frequently in discussions or at other times, then a teacher may be “forced” to pay more attention to them. Another possibility is that some teachers may feel that boys are especially prone to getting into mischief, so they may interact with them more frequently to keep them focused on the task at hand (Erden & Wolfgang, 2004). Still another possibility is that boys, compared to girls, may interact in a wider variety of styles and situations, so there may simply be richer opportunities to interact with them. This last possibility is partially supported by another gender difference in classroom interaction, the amount of public versus private talk.

Public talk versus private talk

Teachers have a tendency to talk to boys from a greater physical distance than when they talk to girls (Wilkinson & Marrett, 1985). The difference may be both a cause and an effect of general gender expectations, expressive nurturing is expected more often of girls and women, and a businesslike task orientation is expected more often of boys and men, particularly in mixed-sex groups (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003; Myaskovsky, Unikel, & Dew, 2005). Whatever the reason, the effect is to give interactions with boys more “publicity”. When two people converse with each other from across the classroom, many others can overhear them; when they are at each other’s elbows, though, few others can overhear.

Distributing praise and criticism

In spite of most teachers’ desire to be fair to all students, it turns out that they sometimes distribute praise and criticism differently to boys and girls. The differences are summarized in Table 4.2. The tendency is to praise boys more than girls for displaying knowledge correctly, but to criticize girls more than boys for displaying knowledge incorrectly (Golombok & Fivush, 1994; Delamont, 1996). Another way of stating this difference is by what teachers tend to overlook: with boys, they tend to overlook wrong answers, but with girls, they tend to overlook right answers. The result (which is probably unintended) is a tendency to make boys’ knowledge seem more important and boys themselves more competent. A second result is the other side of this coin: a tendency to make girls’ knowledge less visible and girls themselves less competent.

Table 12: Gender differences in how teachers praise and criticize students

Types of responses from teacher




Correct knowledge

“Good” or compliant behavior

Overlooks or ignores

“Good” or compliant behavior;

incorrect knowledge

Misbehavior; correct knowledge



Incorrect knowledge

Source: Golobuk & Fivush, 1994

Gender differences also occur in the realm of classroom behavior. Teachers tend to praise girls for “good” behavior, regardless of its relevance to content or to the lesson at hand, and tend to criticize boys for “bad” or inappropriate behavior (Golombok & Fivush, 1994). This difference can also be stated in terms of what teachers overlook: with girls, they tend to overlook behavior that is not appropriate, but with boys they tend to overlook behavior that is appropriate. The net result in this case is to make girls’ seem more good than they may really be, and also to make their “goodness” seem more important than their academic competence. By the same token, the teacher’s patterns of response imply that boys are more “bad” than they may really be.

At first glance, the gender differences in interaction can seem discouraging and critical of teachers because they imply that teachers as a group are biased about gender. But this conclusion is too simplistic for a couple of reasons. One is that like all differences between groups, interaction patterns are trends, and as such they hide a lot of variation within them. The other is that the trends suggest what often tends in fact to happen, not what can in fact happen if a teacher consciously sets about to avoid interaction patterns like the ones I have described. Fortunately for us all, teaching does not need to be unthinking; we have choices that we can make, even during a busy class!

Differences in cultural expectations and styles

A culture is the system of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that constitute the distinctive way of life of a people. Although sometimes the term is also used to refer specifically to the artistic, intellectual and other “high-brow” aspects of life, I use it here more broadly to refer to everything that characterizes a way of life—baseball games as well as symphony concerts, and McDonald’s as well as expensive restaurants. In this broad sense culture is nearly synonymous with ethnicity, which refers to the common language, history, and future experienced by a group within society. Culture has elements that are obvious, like unique holidays or customs, but also features that are subtle or easy for outsiders to overlook, like beliefs about the nature of intelligence or about the proper way to tell a story. When a classroom draws students from many cultures or ethnic groups, therefore, the students bring to it considerable diversity. Teachers need to understand that diversity—understand how students’ habitual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors differ from each other, and especially how they differ from the teacher’s.

But this kind of understanding can get complicated. To organize the topic, therefore, I will discuss aspects of cultural diversity according to how directly they relate to language differences compared to differences in other social and psychological features of culture. The distinction is convenient, but it is also a bit arbitrary because, as you will see, the features of a culture overlap and influence each other.

Bilingualism: language differences in the classroom

Although monolingual speakers often do not realize it, the majority of children around the world are bilingual, meaning that they understand and use two languages (Meyers-Scotton, 2005). Even in the United States, which is a relatively monolingual society, more than 47 million people speak a language other than English at home, and about 10 million of these people were children or youths in public schools (United States Department of Commerce, 2003). The large majority of bilingual students (75 per cent) are Hispanic, but the rest represent more than a hundred different language groups from around the world. In larger communities throughout the United States, it is therefore common for a single classroom to contain students from several language backgrounds at once.

In classrooms as in other social settings, bilingualism exists in different forms and degrees. At one extreme are students who speak both English and another language fluently; at the other extreme are those who speak only limited versions of both languages. In between are students who speak their home (or heritage) language much better than English, as well as others who have partially lost their heritage language in the process of learning English (Tse, 2001). Commonly, too, a student may speak a language satisfactorily, but be challenged by reading or writing it—though even this pattern has individual exceptions. Whatever the case, each bilingual student poses unique challenges to teachers.

Balanced or fluent bilingualism

The student who speaks both languages fluently has a definite cognitive advantage. As you might suspect and as research has confirmed, a fully fluent bilingual student is in a better position than usual to express concepts or ideas in more than one way, and to be aware of doing so (Jimenez, et al. 1995; Francis, 2006). The question: “What if a dog were called a cat?” is less likely to confuse even a very young bilingual child. Nor will the follow-up question: “Could the ‘cat’ meow?” confuse them. Such skill in reflecting on language is a form of metacognition, which I discussed in Chapter 3 and defined as using language as an object of thought. Metacognition can be helpful for a variety of academic purposes, such as writing stories and essays, or interpreting complex text materials.

Unbalanced bilingualism

Unfortunately, the bilingualism of many students is “unbalanced” in the sense that they are either still learning English, or else they have lost some earlier ability to use their original, heritage language—or occasionally a bit of both. The first sort of student—sometimes called an English language learner (ELL) or limited English learner (LEL)—has received the greatest attention and concern from educators, since English is the dominant language of instruction and skill and obviously helps prepare a student for life in American society. ELL students essentially present teachers with this dilemma: how to respect the original language and culture of the student while also helping the student to join more fully in the mainstream—i.e. English-speaking—culture? Programs to address this question have ranged from total immersion in English from a young age (the “sink or swim” approach) to phasing in English over a period of several years (sometimes called an additive approach to bilingual education). In general, evaluations of bilingual programs have favored the more additive approaches (Beykont, 2002). Both languages are developed and supported, and students ideally become able to use either language permanently, though often for different situations or purposes. A student may end up using English in the classroom or at work, for example, but continue using Spanish at home or with friends, even though he or she is perfectly capable of speaking English with them.

Language loss

What about the other kind of imbalance, in which a student is acquiring English but losing ability with the student’s home or heritage language? This sort of bilingualism is quite common in the United States and other nations with immigrant populations (Tse, 2001). Imagine this situation: First-generation immigrants arrive, and they soon learn just enough English to manage their work and daily needs, but continue using their original language at home with family and friends from their former country. Their children, however, experience strong expectations and pressure to learn and use English, and this circumstance dilutes the children’s experience with the heritage language. By the time the children become adults, they are likely to speak and write English better than their heritage language, and may even be unable or unwilling to use the heritage language with their own children (the grandchildren of the original immigrants).

This situation might not at first seem like a problem for which we, as teachers, need to take responsibility, since the children immigrants, as students, are acquiring the dominant language of instruction. In fact, however, things are not that simple. Research finds that language loss limits students’ ability to learn English as well or as quickly as they otherwise can do. Having a large vocabulary in a first language, for example, has been shown to save time in learning vocabulary in a second language (Hansen, Umeda & McKinney, 2002). But students can only realize the savings if their first language is preserved. Preserving the first language is also important if a student has impaired skill in all languages and therefore needs intervention or help from a speech-language specialist. Research has found, in such cases, that the specialist can be more effective if the specialist speaks and uses the first language as well as English (Kohnert, et al., 2005). Generally, though also more indirectly, minimizing language loss helps all bilingual students’ education because preservation tends to enrich students’ and parents’ ability to communicate with each other. With two languages to work with, parents can stay “in the loop” better about their children’s educations and support the teacher’s work—for example, by assisting more effectively with homework (Ebert, 2005).

Note that in the early years of schooling, language loss can be minimized to some extent by the additive or parallel-track bilingual programs that I mentioned above. For a few years, though not forever, young students are encouraged to use both of their languages. In high school, in addition, some conventional foreign language classes— notably in Spanish—can be adjusted to include and support students who are already native speakers of the language alongside students who are learning it for the first time (Tse, 2001). But for heritage languages not normally offered as “foreign” languages in school, of course, this approach will not work. Such languages are especially at risk for being lost.

Cultural differences in language use

Cultures and ethnic groups differ not only in languages, but also in how languages are used. Since some of the patterns differ from those typical of modern classrooms, they can create misunderstandings between teachers and students (Cazden, 2001; Rogers, et al., 2005). Consider these examples: In some cultures, it is considered polite or even intelligent not to speak unless you have something truly important to say. “Chitchat”, or talk that simply affirms a personal tie between people, is considered immature or intrusive (Minami, 2002). In a classroom, this habit can make it easier for a child to learn not to interrupt others, but it can also make the child seem unfriendly.

      • Eye contact varies by culture. In many African American and Latin American communities, it is considered appropriate and respectful for a child not to look directly at an adult who is speaking to them (Torres- Guzman, 1998). In classrooms, however, teachers often expect a lot of eye contact (as in “I want all eyes on me!”) and may be tempted to construe lack of eye contact as a sign of indifference or disrespect.
      • Social distance varies by culture. In some cultures, it is common to stand relatively close when having a conversation; in others, it is more customary to stand relatively far apart (Beaulieu, 2004). Problems may happen when a teacher and a student prefer different social distances. A student who expects a closer distance than does the teacher may seem overly familiar or intrusive, whereas one who expects a longer distance may seem overly formal or hesitant.
      • Wait time varies by culture. Wait time is the gap between the end of one person’s comment or question and the next person’s reply or answer. In some cultures wait time is relatively long—as long as three or four seconds (Tharp & Gallimore, 1989). In others it is a “negative” gap, meaning that it is acceptable, even expected, for a person to interrupt before the end of the previous comment. In classrooms the wait time is customarily about one second; after that, the teacher is likely to move on to another question or to another student. A student who habitually expects a wait time long than one second may seem hesitant, and not be given many chances to speak. A student who expects a “negative” wait time, on the other hand, may seem overeager or even rude.
      • In most non-Anglo cultures, questions are intended to gain information, and it is assumed that a person asking the question truly does not have the information requested (Rogoff, 2003). In most classrooms, however, teachers regularly ask test questions, which are questions to which the teacher already knows the answer and that simply assess whether a student knows the answer as well (Macbeth, 2003). The question: “How much is 2 + 2?” for example, is a test question. If the student is not aware of this purpose, he or she may become confused, or think that the teacher is surprisingly ignorant! Worse yet, the student may feel that the teacher is trying deliberately to shame the student by revealing the student’s ignorance or incompetence to others.

Cultural differences in attitudes and beliefs

In addition to differences in language and in practices related to language, cultural groups differ in a variety of other attitudes and beliefs. Complete descriptions of the details of the differences have filled entire books of encyclopedias (see, for example, Birx, 2005). For teachers, however, the most important ones center on beliefs about identity, or the sense of self, or of “who you are”. A number of other cultural beliefs and practices can be understood as resulting from how members of a culture think about personal identity.

In white, middle-class American culture, the self is usually thought of as unique and independent—a unitary, living source of decisions, choices, and actions that stands (or should eventually stand) by itself (Greenfield, et al., 2003; Rogoff, 2003). This view of the self is well entrenched in schools, as for example when students are expected to take responsibility for their own successes or failures and when they are tested and evaluated individually rather than as a group or team. As teachers, furthermore, most of us subscribe to the idea that all students are unique, even if we cannot implement this idea fully in teaching because of the constraints of large classes. Whatever the circumstances, teachers tend to believe in an independent self.

To a greater or lesser extent, however, the majority of non-white cultures and ethnic groups believe in something closer to an interdependent self, or a belief that it is your relationships and responsibilities, and not uniqueness and autonomy, that defines a person (Greenfield, 1994; Greenfield, et al., 2003). In these cultures, the most worthy person is not the one who is unusual or who stands out in a crowd. Such a person might actually be regarded as lonely or isolated. The worthy person is instead the one who gets along well with family and friends, and who meets obligations to them reliably and skillfully. At some level, of course, we all value interpersonal skill and to this extent think of ourselves as interdependent. The difference between individual and interdependent self is one of emphasis, with many non-white cultures emphasizing interdependence significantly more than white middle-class society in general and more than schools in particular.

There can be consequences of the difference in how the students respond to school. Here are some of the possibilities—though keep in mind that there are also differences among students as individuals, whatever their cultural background. I am talking about tendencies, not straightforward predictions.

      • Preference for activities that are cooperative rather than competitive: Many activities in school are competitive, even when teachers try to de-emphasize the competition. Once past the first year or second year of school, students often become attentive to who receives the highest marks on an assignment, for example, or who is the best athlete at various sports or whose contributions to class discussion the most verbal recognition from the teacher (Johnson & Johnson, 1998). Suppose, in addition, that a teacher deliberately organizes important activities or assignments competitively (as in “Let’s see who finishes the math sheet first.”). Classroom life can then become explicitly competitive, and the competitive atmosphere can interfere with cultivating supportive relationships among students or between students and the teacher (Cohen, 2004). For students who give priority to these relationships, competition can seem confusing at best and threatening at worst. What sort of sharing or helping with answers, the student may ask, is truly legitimate? If the teacher answers this question more narrowly than does the student, then what the student views as cooperative sharing may be seen by the teacher as laziness, “freeloading”, or even cheating.
      • Avoidance of standing out publicly: Even when we, as teachers, avoid obvious forms of competition, we may still interact frequently with students one at a time while allowing or inviting many others to observe the conversation. An especially common pattern for such conversations is sometimes called the IRE cycle, an abbreviation for the teacher initiating, a student responding, and the teacher then evaluating the response (Mehan, 1979). What is sometimes taken for granted is how often IRE cycles are witnessed publicly, and how much the publicity can be stressful or embarrassing for students who do not value standing out in a group but who do value belonging to the group. The embarrassment can be especially acute if they feel unsure about whether they have correct knowledge or skill to display. To keep such students from “clamming up” completely, therefore, teachers should consider limiting IRE cycles to times when they are truly productive. IRE conversations may often work best when talking with a student privately, or when confirming knowledge that the student is likely to be able to display competently already, or when “choral” speaking (responding together in unison) is appropriate.
      • Interpersonal time versus clock time: In order to function, all schools rely on fairly precise units of time as measured on clocks. Teachers typically allot a fixed number of minutes to one lesson or class, another fixed number of minutes for the next, another for recess or lunch time, and so on. In more ways than one, therefore, being on time becomes especially valued in schools, as it is in many parts of society. Punctuality is not always conducive, however, to strong personal relationships, which develop best when individuals do not end joint activities unilaterally or arbitrarily, but allow activities to “finish themselves”, so to speak—to finish naturally. If personal relationships are a broad, important priority for a student, therefore, it may take effort and practice by the student to learn the extent to which schools and teachers expect punctuality. Punctuality includes the obvious, like showing up for school when school is actually scheduled to begin. But it also includes subtleties, like starting and finishing tasks when the teacher tells students to do so, or answering a question promptly at the time it is asked rather than sometime later when discussion has already moved on.


Taking a look at the opportunity gap

In any discussion about individual and group differences that impact student learning we must also acknowledge the structural inequities or opportunity gap that disproportionately impact the learning outcomes of students from diverse backgrounds. Opportunity gap refers to inputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities—while achievement gap refers to outputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of educational results and benefits. Disparate outcomes in the classroom cannot be adequately addressed without developing solutions to critical systemic issues. Read more about why educators should be focusing on the opportunity gap and not the achievement gap.


Accommodating diversity in practice

Hopefully I have persuaded you—if you did need persuading—that students are indeed diverse. The important question that follows from this point is what to do about the diversity. I have begun answering that question by including a number of suggestions in the sections and paragraphs of this chapter. But there is obviously more to be said about accommodating diversity—about actually working with students’ diversity and turning it into a resource rather than a burden or challenge. In the rest of this book therefore I offer more suggestions not only about knowing how different one student can be from another, but also about diversifying teaching to acknowledge this fact. Differences among students remain a challenge during all phases of teaching, from planning instruction, to implementing lessons and activities, to assessing students’ learning after lessons or activities are all finished. In the next chapter, I illustrate this reality by describing how students with disabilities can be included in classroom life— one of the more telling examples of accommodating to diversity.

Chapter summary

Students differ in a multitude of ways, both individually and as groups. Individually, for example, students have a preferred learning style as well as preferred cognitive or thinking styles. They also have unique profiles or intelligence or competence that affect how and what they learn most successfully.

In addition to individual diversity, students tend to differ according to their gender, although there are numerous individual exceptions. Motor abilities as well as motivation and experience with athletics gradually differentiate boys and girls, especially when they reach and begin high school. Socially, boys tend to adopt relationships that are more active and wide-ranging than do girls. Academically, girls tend to be a bit more motivated to receive slightly higher marks in school. Teachers sometimes contribute to gender role differences— perhaps without intending—by paying attention to boys more frequently and more publicly in class, and by distributing praise and criticism in ways differentiated by sex.

Students also differ according to cultures, language, and ethnic groups of their families. Many students are bilingual, with educational consequences that depend on their fluency in each of their two languages. If they have more difficulty with English, then programs that add their first language together with English have proved to be helpful. If they have more difficulty with their first language, they are risk for language loss, and the consequences are also negative even if more hidden from teachers’ views.

In addition to language differences as such, students differ according to culture in how language is used or practiced—in taking turns at speaking, in eye contact, social distance, wait time, and the use of questions. Some of these differences in practice stem from cultural differences in attitudes about self-identity, with non-Anglo culturally tending to support a more interdependent view of the self than Anglo culture or the schools. Differences in attitudes and in use of language have several consequences for teachers. In particular—where appropriate—they should consider using cooperative activities, avoid highlighting individuals’ accomplishments or failures, and be patient about students’ learning to be punctual.

On the Internet

<www.nabe.org> This is the website for the National Association of Bilingual Educators, which represents both English Language Learners and their teachers. The website offers a variety of information, free of charge, about all aspects of bilingual education, including introductory summaries of the field, position papers released to the government and the press, and research articles from their journals.

<www.singlesexschools.org> This website represents the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which as its name implies advocates for all-girl and all-boy classes and schools. The website contains thoughtful summaries of the advantages to both boys and girls if they are educated separately and in public schools. Whether you agree with their point of view or not, their point of view is worth considering; though keep in mind that their supporting information tends to come from media sources (e.g. newspapers) instead of full-fledged research studies.

Key terms

African-American English

Balanced bilingualism


Cognitive styles




English language learner (ELL)


Eye contact

Field dependence

Field independence

Gender roles

Group differences



Independent self

Individual differences

Interdependent self

IRE cycle

Language loss Learning styles

Limited English learner (LEL)


Multiple intelligences

Opportunity Gap


Social distance

Test questions

Unbalanced bilingualism

Wait time


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