In the first of our new series, regular columnist Victoria Murphy explores the correlation between experimental research, social justice and diverse classrooms.
This year has been a challenging one for the UK. It has seen increased political turmoil and uncertainty, difficult Brexit negotiations, and several terrorist attacks. These have all contributed to tension between communities; as teachers and researchers we have a lot of issues with which to contend.
There are a lot of children in our classrooms who could feel a conflict between home, community and school. The degree to which they will feel conflicted no doubt depends very much on their experiences of school; particularly, whether children from diverse linguistic backgrounds and cultures are made to feel like they belong, or whether they are made to feel like outsiders (because they’re not white, English native-speakers, monolingual, wealthy, settled, and so on). As educators, therefore, we need to spend more time in carefully examining – with hard evidence – what the actual consequences are of our curricula and pedagogical strategies. This must recognise more than GCSE or A Level results: our ‘hard evidence’ needs to encompass the developing child, their feelings of self-worth and their sense of belonging to their community.
Research supporting plurilingual classrooms
A number of researchers are working to demonstrate that children’s languages should be both recognised and valued in the classroom. A prominent figure in this area is Jim Cummins. In numerous publications, he identified the importance of including children’s home language in majority-language classrooms across a range of different educational and linguistic contexts, a key component of which is helping students reflect on and develop their self-identities in a positive light.
The research review in the last issue of the EAL Journal revealed just how little evidence there actually is that demonstrates the effects of bringing other languages into the classroom.
The notion of translanguaging (García & Wei 2014) has also received much attention in the past few years. At its heart is the idea that welcoming each person’s full ‘repertoire’ of language enables learners to get the most out of their educational experience. This is closely connected to the idea that learners draw on ‘funds of knowledge’ from outside school [we have new articles on translanguaging and funds of knowledge coming in future issues of the EAL Journal. Watch this space! Ed.]. This may indeed have merit as a pedagogical strategy. Unfortunately, there is little current research that demonstrates through controlled intervention studies the specific value of such an approach. Indeed, the research review of the use of the L1 in the L2 classroom by Hamish Chalmers in the last issue of the EAL Journal revealed just how little evidence there actually is that demonstrates the effects of bringing other languages into the classroom. I know it’s a cliché for researchers such as myself, but in this case it really is true that more research is needed.
How does this work for Déidre’s school?
I was reminded again of Cummins’s important work when I attended an international conference in Dublin in May, hosted by the Dublin Institute of Technology and focused on ‘Multilingualism in the Early Years’. One of the plenary speakers at this conference was Déirdre Kirwan, a former head teacher, who gave an inspirational talk demonstrating how her school implemented many of the strategies people like Cummins espouse. Déirdre talked about how her school in Ireland went seemingly overnight from a mostly entirely monolingual student population to over 80% EAL pupils as a consequence of significant immigration. She talked movingly of how she imagined what it was like for those families trying to forge a new life in an unfamiliar country.
She tried to put herself in the shoes of the parents by imagining her own family moving to a far-off country and being told that English wasn’t welcome or even allowed in her daughters’ school, and that she should try to only speak the majority language of her own country and abandon English. She felt (as many of us do) that this was morally unacceptable and so resolved to implement some of the same policies developed and espoused by researchers such as Jim Cummins, Ofelia García and others.
She spent the majority of her plenary showing us examples of how her school brought in the children’s L1s in the classroom as they were engaged with various different activities. What we saw (in the videos) was a group of highly articulate, seemingly happy, and well-balanced children. Déirdre confirmed this in her depiction of the ethos and feeling within the school. She explained that it was at times difficult, and that some teachers found it a challenge at first, but once the whole school was on board, it proved to be a highly successful pedagogical approach. In the question period following her talk, I asked how she knew this.
How did she know that this was a successful pedagogical activity and not just another pedagogical activity, because – as I’ve mentioned here – there is scant direct evidence for the specific impacts (positive or negative) of such approaches. Déirdre accepted that yes, while there was no control group and no set of rigorous assessments, it was nonetheless palpable in the school that the children were happy, well-adjusted, learning well, achieving appropriate milestones, and felt that they were an integral part of the school community. That is certainly how it looked to us in the audience as well from the video footage. Again, while we have no evidence for this that I can point to in a data file, individuals’ observations and reflections are important and is, apart from anything else, a very good start for those of us who want to be able to investigate these issues in carefully controlled studies.
Reconciling ‘hard evidence’ and personal experience
At the heart of approaches such as the ones Déirdre described is the idea of integration. I believe it is no coincidence that people who are most concerned about so-called increased immigration in England and the UK tend to be those who actually have relatively little experience living and working alongside people from different ethnic backgrounds. Those of us who are fortunate enough to do so know from daily experience that people from different ethnicities are just people, like everyone else. Better integration, with plenty of time to learn about each other, is key.
This issue was nicely demonstrated in a study by Robin Murphy and colleagues in 2011. They talk about something called the ‘illusory correlation’ where participants in an experiment develop a negative evaluation of a fictitious minority group even though the proportion of negative and positive events associated with the minority group is identical to the proportion of negative and positive events with the majority group. Participants in the experiment had to read sentences describing various members of two fictitious groups: a majority group (Group A), and a minority group (Group B). The participants’ task was to judge whether they liked or disliked the majority or minority groups based on these sentences. For example, ‘G.H., a member of Group A, helped an old lady across the street’ or ‘K.P., a member of Group B, failed to return a borrowed item.’ The only difference between Group A and B was in terms of the absolute number of positive or negative sentences. Given Group A was a majority group there were more positive (and also more negative) sentences for Group A (in absolute terms). Group B, being a minority group, had fewer (i.e., fewer positive and negative examples of their respective behaviours). However, the proportion of the number of positive and negative examples for both groups was held identical. The researchers then asked how the participants judged the two groups? Did they pay attention only to the absolute number of items? Or did they pay attention to the fact that proportionately, the positive and negative sentences are equal?
The results showed that at the very beginning (baseline) of the study the participants’ judgements were the same (and relatively neutral) – both groups receive the same judgements. However, after a few blocks of sentences, the participants begin to rate the majority group more positively than the minority group. This is the ‘illusory correlation’ that the minority group are more highly associated with negative behaviours than the majority group despite the proportion of good and bad behaviours being the same. The really interesting issue for me was that by the fifth block of sentences (with 18 sentences in each block) the participants had finally figured out that proportionately there was no difference between positive and negative behaviours associated with the two groups and therefore there was no longer a difference between the ratings associated with each. In other words, learning takes time, but with time we can figure out that there are no differences between the proportion of negative and positive behaviours associated with the different groups in the study.
What does this have to do with education and embracing linguistic diversity in the classroom? Well, I am no doubt being overly simplistic here, but I think it demonstrates that we are all more than capable of understanding that there are no fundamental differences between us and that in order to truly learn that we need to have time and better integration with different groups. Hence, by extension if we spend more time in classroom settings with children from a wide variety of backgrounds, and learn that their languages are just languages, like English (or whatever the majority language is), that diversity is the norm not the exception, and that all cultures have equal value, then perhaps over time (i.e., the entire period of formal education) our school children will develop into rational, reasonable human beings who understand that diversity is not a dirty word and nothing to fear but rather something to embrace.
A failure to integrate cultures and recognise people from all backgrounds as allies and fellow citizens encourages marginalisation, disenfranchisement, and at the very worst, radicalization. We can do something about this in education, and as educators working with EAL pupils and therefore by extension many children from ethnic minorities, we need to do a better job to develop a truly plurilingual and pluricultural educational curriculum.
Cummins, Jim & Margaret Early (2014). Identity texts: The collaborative creation of power in multilingual schools. London: Trentham.
García, Ofelia & Li Wei (2014). Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Murphy, Robin A., Stefanie Schmeer, Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, Esther Mondragón & Denis Hilton (2011). Making the illusory correlation effect appear and then disappear: The effects of increased learning. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 64 (1), 24-40.
The EAL Journal is published termly by NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit www.naldic.org.uk to become a member.