Productive diversity

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), a German philosopher, coined a term ‘lifeworld. Lifeworld is, in his words, “everyday practical situational truths” and “a realm of original self-evidences” (Husserl, 1970). Such self-evidence is for coming to know in the form of looking, touching, smelling or hearing – through repetition of experience. If / when you experience a different “world”, for instance, if you are a Westerner and go to a village in Nepal, you will quickly discover that the local people there have their own lifeworld, self-evident knowledge, where their “facts” are fixed and verifiable for them, but they are not the same as yours. 

Bob Cope and Mary Kalantzis propose a more flexible view of what they call “divergent lifeworlds”. In order to explain this, we need to introduce two of their terms that they propose: first order differences and second order differences. Have a look at the image below, adapted from their work (Kalantzis and Cope, 2009).


Looking from the left, the second column is what Kalantzis and Cope term as “gross demographics” or “second order differences” – language, race, age, sex. These are the terms that are used in documents such as the Equality Act 2010. In schools, of course, these are often used to label learners under certain categories. They provide very rough descriptors, but often are not very accurate predictors of such groups’ school attainment. The more detailed, right-hand list, however, is what is termed “first order differences”. These shed the light on the fact that there are powerful differences within the first order differences. Humans are different: there is no amount of categories you can actually devise that would allow for this process to be complete – for any category and sub-category you could always add a sub-subcategory! Then there is also a matter of intersectionality – e.g. race-gender identity, age-language identity or class-ethnic identity. I wrote 2 years ago about how many of our pupil premium EAL learners attain highly when compared to overall attainment of pupil premium learners in England (see my blog post here). This would be an example of culture-class / ethnic-class intersectionality.

The label “EAL” in Britain is one such example of a second order difference. Whilst useful in many cases, it is too broad to catch all of the complexities, identities and circumstances of our bilingual learners. This brief list of some of the differences within this group should suffice to make this point:


Yet, again and again, we see many schools insisting on treating our learners in this second order difference kind of way. Whenever the phrase “what works for EAL” is brought up, this is precisely what happens. The individuals within the EAL group, with many first order differences defining their identities are given, in one fell swoop, the characteristics of the entire group. If we consider that the diagram above lists some of the characteristics defining some learners within this group (the list is inexhaustible), any time when “what works for EAL” is used it is as if we were giving all of the descriptions above to any and all EAL learners.

This is, of course, ridiculous.

Statements such as “graphic organisers work for EAL” or “substitution tables work for EAL” followed by encouraging (or getting) all teachers in your school to do them, irrespective of the diversity within this diverse group achieve the exact opposite from what is actually intended: lack of progress or, at best, slowing down the progress at school considerably. 

Context is key. This doesn’t just mean teaching the content of your lessons that is linked to the real life outside of our schools’ confines. This also means contextualising it to the individual lifeworlds of your learners – in this case, EAL learners. This is what Kalantzis and Cope call “pedagogy of productive diversity”: considering what diverse groups bring to your classroom – indeed, their lifeworlds (upon which you can build towards less self-evident school-based learning and teaching) – as the resource for the design of your lessons and as the resource for all of the learners in your classrooms. 

This is the stuff of inclusion.

Except, I have a bit of a problem with the term “inclusion” itself, I have to admit, particularly with the “in” bit. The “in” bit seems to suggest they are somehow “out” to begin with. The productive diversity pedagogy assumes, however, that diversity is simply a way of life – that there is no in or out as such because all learners and all teachers, for that matter, differ from one another, intersectionally. Remember what Paddington says in the last line of the film? “…because I am a bear, called Paddington“. Intersectionality = productive diversity pedagogy. Build on your students’ lifeworlds rather than deny they them and your students will thrive.

The following section considers what kind of approaches can be taken to do this, considering the lifeworlds and first order differences, for EAL learners. Throughout, we will avoid the phrase “what works” as much as we can.

We can consider Jim Cummins’s famous quadrant, who suggests that EAL learners are presented with different tasks, dependent on their current stage/level of English language acquisition. You can see that we can consider our classroom tasks in terms of how cognitively demanding they are and – oh, what a surprise! – how contextualised they are. “Context” here means the context of a task rather than the context of a learner (=his/her lifeworld). But what if we considered both?

Okay, so the D quadrant is not to be done as parroting or copying mindlessly is not moving learners cognitively and no context is provided, so the level of abstraction for a learner who is only beginning to learn the new language is too great. The gradual journey from A to C is suggested, however. This suggests that whilst you do teach the topic of your lesson, the tasks you ask of these learners will vary. 

Let us consider, for instance, key visuals aka graphic organisers (e.g. Venn diagrams or cycles), which are often described as the technique that “works” (oops, sorry, I was meant not to use the term!) for EAL learners. However, applying blanketly graphic organisers to all learners because you’ve been told “it works” – that’s a short straw there for you – you’ve just fallen into “the second order” trap. 

  • do all learners know what a graphic organiser is? – those that do and have experience with it (e.g. bilingual learners with full unbroken educational history, perhaps?) will find it easier; refugees with no prior schools are going to struggle enormously?
  • should you use different graphic organisers as per Cummins’s suggestions (e.g. for A: a sequencing one, for B: a planning one, for C: an evaluating one)?
  • are you using your learners’ lifeworlds here and acknowledging them? – this is where the home language comes in, particularly for new EAL arrivals as they need to be able draw on their concepts and understanding previously available to them in L1 only – if you block these, you block their knowledge
    • if you use images as a way to provide more context to your task and make learning more accessible, this is great, but are you acknowledging that your students’ cultural understandings and those self-evident lifeworlds may be very different to yours? – see below the two images for a village : one in Somalia and one in England. This is where translation alone might not be enough, because what your students can see in their heads and what you do can and often are indeed two different lifeworlds.

This is how you can embed the context however much you want, but if you choose a culturally incorrect image, you are not conducting what Sonia Nieto in the States calls culturally-responsive teaching (for a quick overview of this, see this website)Showing a picture of an English village + translating this as “tuulada” might perhaps not give you the effect and learning you desire.

But, one does not need to go as far as Somalia to illustrate this. Let’s think about what “a village” is to Polish people. A few years back, I lived in “a village” in Buckinghamshire, Holmer Green, a mile or two from High Wycombe. In the summer, my father came over for a visit from Poland. Upon hearing that Holmer Green is “a village”, he remarked, “I don’t think so!” There are around 4,000 people living in Holmer green and it takes at least 15 minutes to walk from one side to the other – that is not what a village is in Poland at all – Polish villages are 3 houses in the middle of nowhere. To us, Holmer Green is a small town. 

So, perhaps, giving your EAL beginner learners a task of finding images of a village as representing their lifeworlds and what your English lifeworld village is like is a good start? Why not put these images onto the graphic organiser you want?

The graphic organiser will only “work” for EAL learners if you treat them as complete individuals – it only when you see them as individuals, when you consider their difference, their diversity as productive resources for your classroom (how many of your English learners know about what a Somali village might look like, perhaps? – be careful, though, not to go into stereotyping! – or how many learners realise that Polish villages tend to be places of poverty as opposed to cities which are associated with greater stability and wealth – the exact opposite of what the situation seems to be in Britain?)

This is but one example, but of course this is applicable to any other level of English language acquisition within the Cummins’s framework. This means that you need to differentiate for EAL learners as much as on the continuum as below as in terms of diversity within diversity and intersectionality. All learners have their (complex) histories and particular blend of race-related, gender-related, socially-related stories.

What productive diversity pedagogy really calls for, therefore, is moving away from the perception that difference = difficulty = problem (for teachers). Searching for quick fixes to the “problem” by giving teachers “EAL strategies that work” precisely because by doing so we apply a very rough label to all learners. If we wanted to move down and label more finely, e.g. “strategies that work for all refugee children” or, even further, “strategies that work for all refugee children from Syria” or, “strategies that work for all refugee children form Syria’s Aleppo”, you’d always be faced with the same problem: no two people are the same, no two people have experienced education in the same way, no two people think in the same way. Heard of the Hitchens brothers? – one was a fervent atheist (Christopher) and the other (Peter) is a committed conservative and appears deeply religious: they came from the same parents, same house, same time. Diversity.

Stephen Jay Gould in 1995 said this whilst speaking of IQ tests and intelligence, which links very closely to what is at the core of what this new pedagogy is all about: “One of the things we’re really bad at when we’re faced with something that is very complex, as intelligence is because it involves lots of different independent abilities, the relationship between the hereditary and the environment and all these complex questions… we have this terrible tendency to try and make things simple, trying to get a single number.” The what works approach suffers from precisely that kind of oversimplification. Schools wishing to narrow down the needs of EAL learners to a few simple strategies is the exact same thing that Gould talks about. Rather, diversity needs to become a norm. SLTs need to see it as norm. Teachers need to see it as norm. Pupils need to see it as norm. 

If we don’t, then I don’t care how many smart ways of teaching English language we’re going to employ – graphic organisers, substitution tables, jumbled up texts, matching up activities, collaborative learning, mnemonics, barrier games, teaching content-obligatory and content-dependent vocabulary, using iPads… – if we don’t take care of human element, which makes all of us different; if we don’t see that child from Pakistan or from Russia as perfectly equal to the child was born in High Wycombe; if we don’t allow them to use all they’ve got to productively enrich our classrooms, we’re wasting our time making / producing / using “effective strategies”.

Let’s not reduce our learners to walking stereotypes by stopping at the second order differences. There’s so much to human beings than that.

Below is (a part of) me. Aspects of my life, childhood and adulthood that make me me. What does make you you?

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