Curriculum, Equity, Policy

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Me: Diversity, Accommodation, and Citizenship Education in Canada

His head could have been, when he was born, it could have been deformed and he might want to have it covered.

This was the response I received when I asked one Grade 7 boy in New Brunswick to explain why a boy his age, pictured wearing a turban, might want to be exempt from the school’s “no hats rule”. One might think that this student’s response was an “outlier” – that surely other students in his cohort knew more about expressions of religious and ethnic diversity.  They did not.

The 19 students I interviewed, and the 25 students interviewed in a similar study conducted two years later, knew very little about ethnic diversity in Canada. Additionally, the students were generally not inclined to agree with or suggest accommodations related to ethnic diversity precisely because they did not understand the basis for which such accommodations might be sought. Granted, these were very small studies conducted in rural settings. I have often been asked if I thought that I would obtain different results if I’d asked Grade 7 students from one of Canada’s larger urban centres the same questions. It’s impossible to know without doing the study, so happily, I am returning to these questions now with colleagues from Acadia University, the University of New Brunswick, and the University of Toronto.

In the past decade, issues related to ethnic diversity, tolerance, and accommodation have become increasingly important, if not urgent, for educators, policymakers, and the general public across the democratic world – and in Canada in particular. These issues have come to the public’s attention in a number of ways, and have been expressed as political statements, in public demonstrations, and through the development of diversity-related policies.

Listen to a Podcast: a conversation with author Dr. Carla Peck

For example, in 2004 the Nova Scotia government implemented a policy “to promote racial equity” in elementary schools across the province. In February 2009, five federal Conservative Members of Parliament chastised Erik Millett, an elementary school principal in Moncton, New Brunswick, for ceasing the daily singing of Canada’s national anthem after several parents raised religious objections to the practice. A few weeks later, another New Brunswick teacher was in the news for having her students decide, out of “un(e) Chinois(e), un(e) Africain(e) noir(e), un(e) Anglais(e), un(e) Amérindien(ne),” which three people should be saved from an impending (and fictional) disaster – an activity that the teacher had employed for years to teach about ethnic diversity. A few months later, in May 2009, a northern Ontario Anishnawbe family sought legal advice after a teacher’s assistant cut their son’s hair without his or his parents’ permission. In June 2009, the Alberta legislature passed Bill 44, a law that amends the province’s Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act to include protection from discrimination due to sexual orientation, but which also requires teachers to alert parents when religion (a characteristic of one’s ethnicity), sexuality, or sexual orientation will be discussed in their classrooms.

In the past decade, issues related to ethnic diversity, tolerance, and accommodation have become increasingly important, if not urgent, for educators, policymakers, and the general public across the democratic world.

These cases represent individual and institutional responses to ethnic diversity and accommodation of difference. Looking beyond the specific details of the cases presented above, a number of broader questions arise: What constructions of ethnic diversity lie at the root of these issues? What diversity-related policies are in place in the provinces noted above, and in what ways might these policies have influenced individual and societal constructions of, and responses to, ethnic diversity? Johnson and Joshee note that much of the research on multicultural policy to date has found that educational policies rarely match practice when it comes to ethnic diversity and accommodation of difference. They argue that research into policy and practice must also investigate the broader multicultural and/or diversity policy texts in which educational policies are embedded; policies which are often systemically racist or exclusionary, yet accepted as the norm.1

Since the 19th century in Canada, education has been a central institution for the implementation of policy in the area of diversity and multiculturalism. Several scholars have documented shifts in educational policy and practice related to ethnic diversity in Canada over the years, from an emphasis on assimilation, to more contemporary efforts to promote understanding of, and respect for, diversity.2

While there is evidence of a retreat from the activist social justice curricula which appeared in some jurisdictions in the 1980s and 1990s, developing understanding of ethnic diversity is a key goal of education generally and social studies education in particular across the country. For example, an Ontario policy document that guides curriculum development in all subject areas states that the principles of antiracism and ethnocultural equity “should equip all students with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviours needed to live and work effectively in an increasingly diverse world, and encourage them to appreciate diversity and reject discriminatory attitudes and behaviour.” The Foundation for the Atlantic Provinces Canada Social Studies Curriculum, a policy document that outlines a framework for curriculum development in social studies across Atlantic Canada, sets overall standards for the subject area in general and the area of diversity in particular . One Foundation standard states that students should be able to “demonstrate understanding of their own and others’ cultural heritage and cultural identity.” Another states, in part, that “students will be expected to demonstrate an understanding of culture, diversity, and world view, recognizing the similarities and differences reflected in various personal, cultural, racial and ethnic perspectives.” The Alberta social studies curriculum also clearly identifies diversity as 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.” 3  As Sears and his colleagues note, this commitment to “the pluralist ideal” is endemic in Canadian social studies curricula.4

An examination of curricula and standards in social studies education in Canada reveals a clear assumed progression vis-à-vis outcomes related to ethnic diversity, a progression that begins with knowledge of diversity, through to acceptance and respect of diversity, to justice. For most scholars and educators in the field, knowledge of difference is not enough: “[J]ustice demands the public recognition and accommodation of diversity.”5 The desired end, then, is not only an understanding of difference, but also a willingness to adapt, to accommodate, and to advocate for accommodation of difference. However, if knowledge is the starting point for both respect and justice, it seems strange that there is almost no research on how young people or teachers understand ethnic diversity.

Constructivist learning theories grew out of the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner, among others, and hold that students come to any learning situation not as blank slates but with a range of prior knowledge and experience that is critical in shaping how they respond to new learning. This prior knowledge can be described in a range of ways (constructions, misconceptions, prior conceptions, naïve understandings, for example); however, whatever form this prior knowledge takes, research in several disciplines has suggested that it is persistent (resistant to change) and plays a key role in how students assimilate or accommodate new learning.6 Howard Gardner argues that “if one wants to educate for genuine understanding, then, it is important to identify these early representations, appreciate their power, and confront them directly and repeatedly.”7 Constructivist research in science and mathematics has produced a growing body of knowledge about the way young people understand important concepts and ideas in those fields. In social education, history educators have made a significant start at building the same kind of knowledge base for how students understand historical ideas and processes.8 Outside of that work, very little has been done to map how young people and teachers understand the social world in general and ethnic diversity in particular. Despite the fact that advocates of multicultural education argue that “educators … have to have an understanding of how their students understand difference and adjust delivery of the material accordingly,” little has been done to provide them with that understanding.9

Very little research on prior knowledge of topics related to multiculturalism or diversity, in Canada or internationally, exists. Some notable exceptions include the work of Varma, who found that elementary students in Moncton, NB envisioned Canada and Canadians as White-only;10 Varma-Joshi, Baker and Tanaka, who found that White authority figures and visible minority students in New Brunswick had very different (and potentially damaging) conceptions of racial slurs;11 Short and Carrington, whose research with British students’ found that students who received religious education had more sophisticated understandings of the term “Jewish” than those who did not;12 and my own early work, which found that New Brunswick students lacked sophisticated understandings of ethnic diversity, with some not recognizing expressions of ethnic identity (such as wearing a turban) at all.13 These studies comprise the few qualitative studies that focus on understandings of, versus attitudes toward ethnic diversity, and all of these focus on students’ understandings, not teachers’.

One of the goals for the study I am undertaking with my colleagues (Dr. Reva Joshee, OISE, Dr. Alan Sears, UNB and Dr. Laura Thompson, Acadia) is to investigate teachers’ and students’ understandings of ethnic diversity, in conjunction with a critical interrogation of provincial and federal diversity policy texts, in the hope that this research will provide valuable information to educational researchers, ministry officials, teachers, parents, and students, who wish to better understand individual and institutional constructions of, and responses to, ethnic diversity. The research project is currently in the beginning stages. Our plans are to map teachers’ and students’ conceptions of ethnic diversity and the related concept, accommodation of diversity. It is my belief that, in order to understand an individual’s propensity to accommodate ethnic diversity, it is important to first understand the variety of ways he/she constructs or conceptualizes the concept. I also believe that is it crucial to understand how teachers understand ethnic diversity, given they are responsible for interpreting and implementing school curricula generally, and outcomes related to ethnic diversity in particular.

It is no longer acceptable to have a “colour-blind” attitude towards ethnic diversity. This attitude assumes that, underneath our skin colour everyone is exactly the same. We’re not.

As noted at the beginning of this article, questions and issues related to ethnic diversity are part of the everyday experiences in Canadian classrooms. Furthermore, curricula mandate that teachers teach, and students learn, about diversity. It is no longer acceptable to have a “colour-blind” attitude towards ethnic diversity. This attitude assumes that, underneath our skin colour everyone is exactly the same. We’re not. “We all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position….We are all, in that sense, ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are.”14 This doesn’t mean that we (teachers, students) should focus only on the things that might, potentially, divide us, but it does mean that we should endeavour to understand what makes us similar and what makes us different, in order to better understand one another and so that the decisions we make (in the classroom, on the playground) are grounded in knowledge, not assumptions about ethnic diversity. Otherwise, what you don’t know can hurt me.

EN BREF – Les questions de diversité ethnique font partie du quotidien des salles de classe canadiennes. Pour la plupart, les personnes faisant des recherches et exerçant leur profession en éducation présument que connaître la diversité mène à l’acceptation, au respect et à la justice. Connaître la différence ne suffit pas, mais c’est un point de départ vers le respect et la justice. Pourtant, peu de recherches portent sur la façon dont les jeunes et le personnel enseignant comprennent la diversité ethnique. Si nous ne comprenons pas ce qui nous rend semblables et ce qui nous rend différents, nous fondons nos décisions (en classe, dans la cour d’école) sur des suppositions, et non sur des connaissances – et ce que vous ignorez peut me faire mal.

1 Lauri Johnson and Reva Joshee, eds., Multicultural Education Policies in Canada and the United States (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007).

2 R. Bruno-Jofré and N. Aponiuk, eds., Educating Citizens for a Pluralistic Society (Calgary: Canadian Ethnic Studies, 2001), Johnson and Joshee, eds., Multicultural Education Policies in Canada and the United States, George H. Richardson, “The Death of the Good Canadian,” in The Death of the Good Canadian: Teachers, National Identities, and the Social Studies Curriculum, Counterpoints, Vol. 197 (New York: Peter Lang, 2002).

3 Alberta Education, “Social Studies Program of Studies. Kindergarten to Grade 12: Program Rationale and Philosophy,”  (Alberta: Alberta Education, 2005), 5, Atlantic Provinces Education Foundation, Foundation for the Atlantic Canada Social Studies Curriculum (Halifax: Atlantic Provinces Education Foundation, 1999) 6 and 12, Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, “Antiracism and Ethnocultural Equity in School Boards: Guidelines for Policy Development and Implementation,” ed. Education and Training (1993), 5.

4 Alan Sears, Gerald M. Clarke, and Andrew S. Hughes, “Canadian Citizenship Education: The Pluralist Ideal and Citizenship Education for a Post-Modern State,” in Civic Education across Countries: Twenty Four National Case Studies from the I.E.A. Civic Education Project, ed. Judith Torney Purta, John Schwille, and Jo Ann Amadeo (Amsterdam: IEA, 1999).

5 Will Kymlicka and Magda Opalski, “Introduction,” in Can Liberalism Be Exported?  Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe, ed. Will Kymlicka and Magda Opalski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1.

6 National Research Council, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, ed. John D. Bransford, et al. (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000).

7 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.

8 Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004), Rosalind Driver and Jack Easley, “Pupils and Paradigms: A Review of Literature Related to Concept Development in Adolescent Science Students,” Studies in Science Education 5 (1978),

9 Manju Varma-Joshi, “Understanding Multiculturalism in the Social Studies Classroom,” in Challenges and Prospects for Canadian Social Studies, ed. Alan Sears and Ian Wright (Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press, 2004), 152.

10 Manju Varma, “Multicultural Children’s Literature: Storying the Canadian Identity” (PhD dissertation, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 2000).

11 Manju Varma-Joshi, Cynthia J. Baker, and Connie Tanaka, “Names Will Never Hurt Me?,” Harvard Educational Review 74, no. 2 (2004),

12 Geoffrey Short and Bruce Carrington, “The Development of Children’s Understanding of Jewish Identity and Culture,” School Psychology International 13 (1992),

13 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)

14 Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities,” in Identities: Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality, ed. Linda Martín Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta (London: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 94.

Meet the Expert(s)

Carla L. Peck

Associate Professor of Social Studies Education in the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta

Carla L. Peck, PhD, is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education in the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta. Investigations into diversity, identity, history and citizenship are the core of her teaching and research. In 2010, Carla was awarded the CEA’s Pat Clifford Award for Early Career Research in Education.

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