Sunday, August 14, 2016

Reflections on the Cultural Diversity, Migration, and Education Conference

July 7-9th was the Cultural Diversity, Migration, and Education conference at the University of Potsdam. Organized by Linda Juang and Maja Schachner and supported by the DFG (German Research Foundation), the conference was intended to bring together scholars from psychology, pedagogy, sociology, public health, family studies, and many other disciplines to share theory and research on issues relevant to the increasingly diverse societies in Europe and around the world. The topic is extremely timely given the large increase in immigrants and refugees to Europe from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries in the past year.

The conference was an interesting experience as an American, as there were few of us there outside of those on the invited program (full program available here). The main focus of most of the presenters was Europe, and Germany in particular, given that we were in Potsdam. Nevertheless, research and practice from the U.S. was a frequent topic of conversation, both because the Americans in attendance tended to voice their opinions from their American frame of reference and because all attendees recognized that some lessons—good and bad—could be learned from the American model given the long history of ethnic diversity within the society. As the conference came to a close, I began to reflect more on the similarities and differences in the European and American context vis-à-vis how to address ethnic diversity. Many of these thoughts have been simmering for a while due to my ongoing work in Sweden, but the conference brought many of them into sharper relief. I elaborate below, beginning with the similarities:

Similarities between U.S. and Europe

Homogenous teachers with diverse students – As the primary and secondary student body increasingly diversifies, the diversity of the teachers who work with them does not keep pace. There is a clear pipeline problem in terms of recruiting and retaining teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds. Unfortunately, this was not a big topic of discussion at the conference.

Language, bilingual education – All recognize the need for some kind of bilingual education or language support, but there are many disagreements within and between countries (or states) on how to implement this type of support. Accordingly there is no common model firmly rooted in empirical data to guide such decisions.

Ability grouping and race/SES – As it tends to be implemented, ability grouping, also known as “tracking,” has been clearly demonstrated to perpetuate race- and class-based inequalities. There are conditions under which ability grouping is appropriate and effective, but these conditions are very rarely met in practice.

Deficit models – Educational inequalities continue to be attributed to dispositional factors associated with ethnic minorities—what is called a “deficit model.” These include explanation such as lack of family investment, prohibitive religious doctrines, or poor motivation to learn the local language. There is still a great need to further conceptualize and measure contextual factors that may have greater explanatory power than dispositional ones.

Integration: Assimilation vs. Acculturation – Is it better for newcomers to blend in with their host society, shedding all ties to their former culture (assimilation), or is it optimal for them to adapt to aspect of the new culture while also maintaining connection to their home culture (acculturation)? This is an old question, which much of the evidence suggesting that the acculturation model is associated with more positive outcomes. But it is complicated. Better for what (psychological functioning, academic achievement)? In what domains (behavioral, values)? There is still much to learn.

Differences between U.S. and Europe

Diversity as a fact in the USA vs. something to come to terms with – One of my biggest take-home messages from the conference is that in the U.S. we take diversity for granted. Several presenters made statements to the effect that “European countries are ethnically diverse,” indicating that this view is not necessarily widely accepted. Regardless of their views on diversity, most residents of the U.S. would readily acknowledge that the country is diverse. Not so in many part of Europe. The myth of European homogeneity runs deep, despite the fact that it has never really even been true. Coming to terms with the mere fact of diversity seems like a major first step for many countries. This is even the case for many researchers. Accordingly, there are some fundamental issues well-understood among researchers in the U.S. that are not nearly as discussed in Europe (e.g., the importance of immigrant/ethnic identity for 2nd generation immigrants, institutionalized racism).  

Racialization process, ethnicity vs. race – The concepts of “race” and “ethnicity” do not have universal meaning. Some countries only use one term and not the other, some use neither. In the U.S. we use both, but most people could not accurately indicate the difference. Regardless of the terms used, in any society a meaningful distinction can be made between social groups who have some shared ancestry or culture (ethnicity) and social groups created within a system of power and oppression (race). Furthermore, races are created through the process of racialization, rather than being fixed, biological categories. This process of racialization is happening with Muslims in Europe now (as it did in the U.S. post-9/11), but there is not a strong tradition of thinking of social groups in these ways.

Diversity of Researchers – While disparities of course still exist, in the U.S. there is an emerging group of researchers of color in the social sciences who are asking important questions about ethnic minority students’ educational and psychological experiences. This is much less the case in Europe, where diversity-focused research is largely conducted by members of the White majority culture.

The Use and Access of Data – While policies and practices in all countries are often based on ideologies rather than data, European researchers seem to have greater influence on polices than do many American ones. Moreover, in part because the countries are smaller in Europe and there are often better relations between researchers and schools, there is greater access to large, integrated data sets that can better address diversity-related questions about educational and psychological adjustment.

Overall, I felt like there were more similarities than differences in the issues and how they are being addressed. This speaks to the importance of developing international networks to share information about what works and what does not. The differences, however, tend to be much broader, systematic issues in the thinking and practice of diversity-related research. Most of these differences can be attributed to the longer history and recognition of diversity within the U.S. as compared with Europe. Again, these are just my personal impressions.


  1. Thank you for your insights--especially about the similarities and differences between the US and Europe. I definitely agree that the diversity of teachers (and schools counselors and therapists too) does not keep pace with diversity of students. I am also concerned about the deficit model and need for more focus on cultural and community assets that immigrant youth bring individually and systemically. I think all too often educational systems expect youth to assimilate to the norms of the school versus the school making meaningful shifts to embrace immigrant students' strengths and to foster a sense of belonging. I know in San Francisco there may be programs to help youth "adapt" but are schools accountable for their own adaptations? Thanks for a great post! This is definitely something I think about a lot.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Christine! Yes, I agree that adaptation is often thought of as the responsibility of the students only. This issue also came up in the conference regarding the German language skills of the Turkish immigrant students, and why we don't think about how it would be beneficial for teaching training to include at least some basic lessons in Turkish. It gets complicated when there is a lot of linguistic diversity, but there are still some efforts that can made that involves adaptation of the teachers, and not just the students.

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