Gurbaj Multani doesn’t know it, but he helped shape me into the scholar I am today. I was just beginning my Master’s of Education when his case petitioning the Quebec government for the right to wear a kirpan (or ceremonial dagger) to school went before the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). He was 12. What a brave kid.
This case caught my interest. An elementary school teacher at the time, I wondered how my students might respond to the case that was before the SCC. I decided I needed to find out how the children I taught understood what “ethnic diversity” means. But how would I go about doing so? Surveys about people’s attitudes towards diversity are plentiful and so-called politically correct answers are too easily given in surveys: “Should immigrants be able to get jobs in Canada?” Of course! “Should they be able to speak their own language?” Sure! But there isn’t much research on how people actually understand the concept of ethnic diversity. I was interested not only in my students’ attitudes towards it but also in the knowledge structures – conceptions, misconceptions, naïve understandings – that shaped whatever attitudes they might hold.
And just like that, my program of research was born.
Howard Gardner, noted scholar at Harvard, knows how influential prior knowledge is on learning: “If one wants to educate for genuine understanding… it is important to identify these early representations, appreciate their power, and confront them directly and repeatedly.” Constructivist research aims to discover and understand the nature of students’ prior conceptions in an effort to better shape curricula and refine teaching approaches, and ultimately, increase a student’s ability to incorporate new and more complex knowledge into that which they already know.
My early work with Grade 7 students in New Brunswick revealed some interesting results. Using common scenarios – such as a “no hats day” in school – I asked them to consider if all students, including those wearing a hijab or turban, should be required to follow the rule. Most of the students didn’t know the labels “turban” or “hijab.” None of them could name the religion that might require these as part of its followers’ adherence to their faith. Instead, they suggested that perhaps the boy wearing the turban was having a bad hair day and just didn’t want to show his hair. These were kids I knew well. They weren’t trying to be silly or funny with their answers.
There were other examples too. I asked them about the kirpan issue. They didn’t know what a kirpan was and for most, ideas about safety trumped any right to wear a kirpan, even if the kirpan itself was perfectly safe. When asked who they thought might wear such items, one student said, “People who live across the ocean or something.” For these students, diversity was something that was foreign. Canadian society isn’t diverse – other places are.
What were the consequences of these misconceptions? Put simply, my students really saw no reason to accommodate difference because they didn’t understand what it was. Most of my students simply didn’t understand that a turban is not just a hat, that in some religions, material expressions of one’s religious faith are an integral part of one’s identity.
One might argue that perhaps these were just sheltered students; after all, compared to large urban centres like Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver, New Brunswick doesn’t seem that diverse. But it is. It is the only officially bilingual province in Canada, a fact that harkens back to its early Acadian history. It has substantial populations of Maliseet and Mi’kmaq. And yes, N.B. is also home to thousands of visible minorities. In other words, the context in which my students lived included various forms of diversity – some with roots in the province’s history and others that mirrored the kind of diversity (granted, not to the same degree) found in more urban centres.
In addition, learning outcomes related to diversity were (and continue to be) key components of the N.B. social studies curriculum, so even if we imagine the impossible and suggest that my students had never seen or experienced an example of diversity in their day-to-day lives, they were learning about it in school.
There is some good news, however. Although my students did not understand most aspects of ethnic diversity, and although they did not demonstrate an understanding that, in a multicultural, democratic society, some forms of reasonable accommodation are warranted, they were not hostile to the idea. Their minds were open; they were willing to discuss it and some even tried to come up with possible solutions to resolve whatever scenario I’d put before them. Even a small amount of discussion and education with these students went a long way.
Now living in Alberta, I am working with colleagues in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario on an expanded version of this research. Ten years later, we are interviewing more students and also elementary school teachers about their understandings of ethnic diversity.
Diversity is even more prominent in social studies curricula across the country now, with many jurisdictions paying explicit attention to teaching for and about diversity to students of all ages. Social studies curricula in Canada include standards that encourage progression from knowledge of diversity, through acceptance and respect, to justice. The desired end is not only an understanding of difference, but also willingness to adapt, to accommodate, and to advocate for accommodation.
Our early findings with Alberta students are encouraging. In Alberta’s recently revised K-12 social studies curriculum, educating about diversity is central to its educational goals. The program rationale and philosophy reads, in part: “Students will have opportunities to value diversity, to recognize differences as positive attributes and to recognize the evolving nature of individual identities.” Explicit attention is also paid to Francophone and Aboriginal groups, an acknowledgement, in part, of political philosopher Will Kymlicka’s understanding of these groups as “national minorities” within Canada.
The 12- and 13-year-old students I interviewed in Alberta seem to have fairly well developed understandings of ethnic diversity. Most of the students I interviewed could name religious symbols and many could also explain the significance of such symbols to an individual’s identity. With these deeper understandings of diversity, most students understood why someone might ask for accommodation and – even more encouraging – some students even advocated for reasonable accommodation. Those that did connected it to the concepts of rights and justice and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They weren’t just paying lip service to the Charter. They knew what Section 2 said about Fundamental Freedoms and could explain why these are important in Canadian society.
Although I cannot claim any causal relationship, I do suggest that the explicit learning outcomes and instruction related to diversity that are now fundamental aspects of Alberta’s social studies curriculum are one important factor in breaking down misconceptions and helping students understand key ideas related to democracy.
Our research is ongoing and recent events have made it possible to conduct a small sample of interviews with teachers in Quebec.
Which brings me back to Gurbaj Multani. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in his favour in 2006 and upheld the basic tenets of a social justice-oriented multiculturalism. Now, as a result of the Marois government’s decision to legislate a “Values Charter” that would effectively ban all material forms of religious expression for public-sector employees, he is contemplating leaving his province – his home. What a shame that the Marois government sees fit to turn its back on the fundamental freedoms and values that are an integral part of Canada’s democracy.
To Mr. Multani, for whatever it’s worth, thank you for inspiring my work. I know there’s more to be done.
Photo: Zurijeta (iStock)
First published in Education Canada, January 2014
EN BREF – La rubrique Point de vue présente une réflexion de Carla Peck à propos de ce qui l’a motivée à entreprendre un programme de recherche axé sur la diversité et l’éducation. Inspirée par Gurbaj Multani (un élève montréalais de 12 ans qui s’est rendu jusqu’à la Cour suprême du Canada pour défendre son droit d’exprimer son identité religieuse), madame Peck examine d’abord les premiers résultats de sa recherche sur les perceptions des élèves en matière de diversité ethnique, puis indique des constatations préliminaires de ses travaux récents. Elle conclut par un commentaire sur les événements récents (la charte proposée des valeurs québécoises) qui minent, à son avis, la démocratie canadienne.
 Howard Gardner, The Development and Education of the Mind: The selected works of Howard Gardner, World Library of Educationalists Series (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 77.
 Carla Lee Peck and Alan Sears, “Uncharted Territory: Mapping students’ conceptions of ethnic diversity,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 37, no. 1 (2005); Carla Lee Peck, Alan Sears, and Shanell Donaldson, “Unreached and Unreasonable: Curriculum standards and children’s understanding of ethnic diversity in Canada,” Curriculum Inquiry 38, no. 1 (2008).
 Alberta Education, “Social Studies K-12,” Alberta Learning, 5. www.education.gov.ab.ca/k_12/curriculum/bySubject/social/sockto3.pdf
 Will Kymlicka, Finding Our Way: Rethinking ethnocultural relations in Canada (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
 Sean Fine, “Sikh student who won kirpan case now considers leaving Quebec,” Globe and Mail, October 22, 2013. www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/sikh-student-who-won-kirpan-case-now-considers-leaving-quebec/article15014254/