Kalantzis and Cope on the Complexities of Diversity

See also: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 2016. "Learner Differences in Theory and Practice." Open Review of Educational Research 3:85–132. | download

In the schools of today, differences are more visible and insistent than ever. This paper considers alternative frames of reference for negotiating learner diversity, first a conventional frame of reference that we call ‘gross demographics’, and then a more flexible view of ‘lifeworld divergence’. On the basis of the latter reading of learner diversity, we propose a ‘pedagogy of productive diversity’ in which differences become a fundamental resource for learning.

But first, and introductory note about the perhaps peculiar nature of this text. This paper aims to develop a conceptual framework. In so doing, covers an ambitiously wide territory. Every sentence warrants referencing to empirical evidence. This is not practicable. For the sake of brevity and clarity, this text has to be a work of theory with referencing only to some big ideas. As such, it should be read as a series of conjectures, propositions that the reader needs to test against their experience and knowledge of educational research. We do, however, document parts of argument more closely in other places (Kalantzis and Cope 2008).

Notwithstanding its theoretical focus, this text is not merely ethereal. It is a schema we have worked up in a process of repeated application and continuous dialogue with teachers in schools over the course of a decade of pedagogical intervention—the research and development work of the Learning by Design project (http://L-by-D.com). In this sense, this text sits in a synthetic and dialectical relation to our work with teachers and their students.

Second Order Differences: The Gross Demographics of Learner Differences

A litany of terms is conventionally used to describe and categorize differences—sex, gender, social class, disability, race, ethnicity. Each term, however, is fraught with ambiguities and difficulties. We will call these second order differences, the stuff of gross demographics that stares social actors in the face with a certain kind of obviousness, only to become not-so-obvious on closer examination of what we will call first order differences.


Class: social resource access, employment and social status

Locale: neighborhoods and regions with differential social resources

Family: relationships of domesticity and cohabitation


Age: child development, life phases and peer dynamics

Race: historical and social constructions linked to phenotypical differences

Sex and Sexuality: the bodily realities of masculinity, femininity and varied sexualities

Physical and Mental Abilities: spectrums of bodily and cognitive capability


Language: first and second language learners, dialect and social language

Ethnos: national, ethnic, indigenous and diasporic identities

Gendre: identities based on gender and sexual orientation—a term spelt thus and defined in the New Learning book.

The gross demographics of second order differences capture powerful realities. They are rough if not always reliable predictors of educational and social outcomes. For this reason, there is some initial value in the tick-a-box profiling lists that are at times used to identify educationally disadvantaged students.

However, the more insistent the dynamics of difference become in schools and in the wider society, and the more critically essential the project of managing diversity, the less satisfactory second order demographic categories appear. We have to be able to name differences, to be sure, but when we do, the demographic categories often lack the complexity and subtlety we need. As soon as the categories re created, human reality resists.

Here are five major and highly interdependent problems with second order categorization according to gross demographics.

  1. Unmanageable Lists of Differences

When you need to categorize the infinitely complex, and you want to improve your categories so they are progressively more apt operationally valid, you inevitably find a need to create more and more categories and subcategories. Indeed, this may be an occupational hazard in any activities of categorization, as Bowker and Starr point out in the case of the history of racial categorization in apartheid South Africa (Bowker and Star 2000), and as Burbules points out in a reading of difference that has a Wittgensteinian sensitivity to the contextual blurriness of naming things (Burbules 1997). This is why the project of improving the categories that describe human differences becomes a series of receding horizons. The more earnest one’s application to the task, and the more dedicated and sincere the work of categorization, the more complex the reality that presents itself. The more serious one’s focus on second order differences, the finer the distinctions one needs to make. Soon, the gross demographics become unwieldy—the subtleties of dis/ability, the catalogue of however many different ethnic groups, the proliferation of distinctions of sexuality and gender, the distinctions of language background and language use in different social contexts. In classrooms, teachers today often feel they need to have knowledge of an impossible-to-manage encyclopedia of empirically identifiable differences.

  1. Internal Group Variations

The internal variation within demographically defined groups is of greater significance than the gross demographics allow. In fact, a rough general metric would be that the internal differences in stance, self-identification and behavior within any demographically defined group is almost always greater than the average difference between groups. This means that the demographic categories, whilst helpful to our understanding of the historical and experiential basis for certain moral agendas and social claims, are in practice over-simplified and sometimes counterproductively so. Indeed, the categories of gross demographics can easily lead to stereotypical generalizations—about Chinese learning styles, boys’ communication styles or the educational consequences of socio-economic disadvantage, for instance. For this reason second order demographic categories can prove less than helpful as operational concepts applied to particular individual and group circumstances. As a consequence, diversity programs based on one or several of these categories can at times proved to be ill-judged or irrelevant to individual or subgroup circumstances, and even at times counterproductive. They tend too easily to oversimplify critical success- and failure-determining differences within groups and between individuals. For instance, some students in disadvantaged groups do succeed; background is not all-determining. Indeed, at times a student’s ‘disadvantaged’ background is the basis for their particular resilience, their peculiar success (McGinty 1997). Sometimes, also, the gross demographic terms become invidious labels, implying a deficit on the part of the student, when in fact they may be an opportunity upon which to build constructive learning experiences.

  1. Inter-group Relationality

The very act of categorization tends to imply that in-group dynamics, cultural attributes and personal identifications are more important than intergroup relations and processes of co-construction of difference. However, the social phenomena that the categories purport to describe are in fact relational, as much a product of the dynamics of the social whole as they are products of isolatable demographic categories. Class, gender, race and disability, for instance, are not things in themselves but constructions in and through social relations in which every social actor is implicated. Social groups, in other words, cannot be neatly categorized and described as if that were the beginning end of the equity story; rather they are constituted in relationships in which one group or type of person is defined in relation to another. They exist in dynamic, and never stable tension—class to class, gender to gender, ethnos to ethnos, and disability in relation to the affordances of physical and social structures designed for certain kinds of ability. They are defined in and through social relationships—of comparative power, privilege and access to resources. Each group is created through a series of historical and ongoing intergroup relationships. These relationships (racism, sexism, comparative socio-economic privilege and the like) often play themselves through in schools and classrooms via deeply relational dynamics, not separable group attributes.

  1. Intersectionality

Differences intersect. They are never things in themselves. Rather, they are always complex, multilayered realities in which every aspect of material, corporeal and symbolic difference manifests is deeply overlaid, forming an integrated whole. For any individual, the incidence of any one particular combination of second order demographic dimensions is so low that, in their empirical specificity, they belong to the tiniest of minorities. Throwing them into one of the larger categories may do disservice to the actual needs and interests of particular people in specific contexts. Once again, the second order list of categories is all-too-neat. The groups are not separate; they are overlapping, simultaneous, multilayered. In fact, virtually every individual represents a peculiar conjunction of dimensions of difference, a unique mix of group or community experiences. The constitution of that individual can only be understood through the subtleties of their narratives of life experience. By the time the layers are combined, what might be predicted by one demographic variable is transformed to mean something else by the interrelation of this with other variables.

  1. Change

Differences never stay still. They are not states simply to be found, classified and dealt with. One of the dangers of group categorization is to assume stasis. On the contrary, groups are always moving. Moreover, we social actors do not necessarily remain content to leave differences the way they are. We may want to move them along. This can either be from the perspective of an insider—a woman who wants to change the role of women, or an indigenous activist struggling to improve the conditions of life of their people, or an individual striving for social mobility, for instance. Or it can be from an outsider’s perspective, for instance, the ways in which educators, assist learners in their self-transformation or growth, to achieve dreams and aspirations that may have seemed beyond the scope of possibility within their lifeworlds.

None of this is to say we should not do second order categorization. In fact, it is essential because the categories have deep historical meaning. They are the tokens and sites of significant struggles for justice and recognition. They describe empirical realities for groups. They have predictive validity in developing learning programs relevant to students’ needs (Kalantzis and Cope 2008: Chapter 5). However, we also need to qualify and contextualize second order categorization with a first order reading of learner differences.

First Order Differences: The Dynamics of Lifeworld Attributes

First order or primary differences give substance to second order or demographic differences—life narratives, personae, affinities and orientations. These are the raw materials that give the gross demographics roughly predictable contents, and that connect abstract demographic categories with concrete patterns of human reality. When you look at second order differences, this is the empirical stuff that you actually see. Looking through the frame of first order differences, however, reveals the points at which second order differences overgeneralize or create stereotypes, or when for particular individuals or subgroups second order categories prove to be unhelpful or plain wrong. We call these first order differences ‘lifeworld attributes’.

The ‘lifeworld’ consists of the things you end up knowing without having to think how you came to know them. It is the way you end up being without ever having consciously decided to be that way. The lifeworld is not particularly explicit. It is a set of habits, behaviors, values and interests that go without saying in a particular context. The lifeworld goes without saying because it has come without saying. It is made up of things that seem so obvious to insiders that they don’t need saying. Knowledge of the lifeworld does not have to be taught in a formal way. You learn how to be in the lifeworld just by living in it, and this learning is mostly so unconscious that it is rarely even experienced as learning. The lifeworld is the ground of our existence, the already-learned and continuously-being-learnt experience of everyday life. It is also the locus of our subjectivity and identity, the source of our motivation, the basis of our agency. It is intuitive, instinctive and deeply felt (Cope and Kalantzis 2000a; Husserl 1954 (1970)).

In a formal educational context, the lifeworld is the everyday lived experience that learners bring to a learning setting. It is the person they have become through the influence of their family, their local community, their friends, their peers and the particular slices of popular or domestic culture with which they identify. It is a place where the learner’s everyday understandings and actions seem to work, and so much so that their active participation is almost instinctive—something that requires not too much conscious or reflective thought. The lifeworld is what has shaped them. It is has made them who they are. It is what they like and unreflectively dislike. It is who they are. The underlying attributes of lifeworld difference form the basis of identity and subjectivity. These attributes are the fundamental bases of a learner’s sense of belonging in an everyday or formal learning setting, and their levels of engagement—a case we will develop in greater depth in a later section of this paper.

Narratives are the stories of a person’s life, their experiences, their background, their life history—in short, the givens that are constitutive of who they are, what they know and how they enact their being. They tell of how the social and historical is instantiated in the personal and contemporary.

Persona is identity, grounded both in the quirks of ‘personality’ traits and the experiential narratives of a larger social history. Persona captures the kind of person you envision yourself to be, style yourself to be and present yourself as. It may be affected or unarticulated. It may be conscious, semi-conscious or unconscious. Persona may be manifest in gesture, demeanor, social intersubjectivity, and the various modes of presentation of self such as fashion, ways of speaking or modes of interaction.

Affinity is constituted by attachments, to groups and to worldviews or stances—for instance, the infinitely varied shades of religious or anti-religious affinities, and political or apolitical affinities. Affinity may also be to products or material objects; or games or sports; or aesthetics or styles. You are what you associate yourself with, and what that association stands for. Affinity captures an extraordinary variety of senses of connection, from personal beliefs and attitudes, to membership of networks, to more formal connections with groups.

Orientations are the ways in which people connect into new and unfamiliar contexts on the basis of their preferred ways of knowing (by immersion in the facts or by big picture abstraction, for instance), their ways of learning (experiential or conceptual, for instance), their ways of speaking of particular things (technical or applied discourses, for instance) and their ways of relating to people.

Pursuing these lines of investigation of learner differences—be that self-understanding on the part of learners or the understanding of teachers as designers of learning ecologies—brings us closer to the realities of persons and their learning needs than the gross demographics of second order differences. In fact, it both adds substance to the immediate impressions conveyed by the demographics and qualifies the overgeneralizing tendencies of these demographics. It avoids the unmanageable list of group categories because it focuses on narrative specificities of particular persons and their inter-relations. It discovers internal group variations. It finds inter-group relationality because that’s what its stories tell. It accounts for the unique intersectionality of every person’s group- and history-related position. It looks for and describes change, and anticipates further change. Importantly also, it asks these questions of every learner, thus getting away from the tendency of diversity to start with the at times only-perfunctory list of equity groups.

And why must we go to these first order differences? Learning succeeds or fails to the extent that it engages the varied subjectivities of learners. Engagement produces opportunity, equity and participation. Not engaging produces failure, disadvantage and inequality. The dilemma for teaching is that, no matter how much filtering is done according to the second order categories (by age, or ‘ability’, or social destiny, or gender, or ethnicity, for instance), from person to person, learners invariably remain different. For behind the demographics are real people, who have always-already learned. The range of their learning possibilities are both boundless and circumscribed by what they have learned already and who they have come to be through their learning.

Education, then, needs to start with an engagement with difference far deeper than the gross demographics of second order differences would allow. The challenge, then, is how do we engage all learners in classrooms of deep difference? In other words, how do we do diversity?

Developing an Inclusive Agenda for Education

One of the fundamental challenges schools face today is to create the conditions or learning that support the growth of persons comfortable with themselves as well as flexible enough to collaborate and negotiate with others who are different from themselves; to work on common projects and forge shared interests; and to be able to learn and to transform themselves in new and changing situations. This is the new mainstream. Or, at least, this is a strategically optimistic vision of what a new mainstream could be like. This is the basis of a newly inclusive education, grounded in a pedagogy of productive diversity in which differences become a resource for learning.

Inclusive education is a way of working with learner differences such that differences are without prejudice to social access and symbolic recognition. Inclusion means that you don’t have to be the same to be equal—to have similar opportunities, not identical opportunities, but the same kinds of opportunities measured in terms of comparable access to material resources in the form of employment, civic participation and senses of belonging to a broader as well as a localized community.

Inclusion involves a profound shift beyond the more superficial multiculturalism of recognition of minority presence. It means that the mainstream—be that the culture of the dominant groups or institutional structures such as education—is itself transformed. Instead of representing a single cultural destination, the mainstream is a site of open-ness, negotiation, experimentation, and the interrelation of alternative frameworks and mindsets.

Learning, in this context, is not a matter of unilinear ‘development’ in which you leave your old self behind, jettisoning lifeworlds that would in earlier times have been framed by education as less inadequate to the task of modern life. Rather, learning is a matter of extending one’s cultural repertoire; starting with a recognition of lifeworld experience and using that experience as a basis for extending what one knows and what one can do. An inclusive process of transformation, then, is not a matter of vertical progress but of one of expanding horizons. These new horizons do have an impact on the lifeworld: learners still engage in and with their lifeworlds in new ways, but not necessarily in order to leave those lifeworlds behind in a kind of one way trip.

Two examples, the first of which is dis/ability. The question for institutions such as schools, is how does one create a genuinely inclusive environment for people whose body forms and abilities are so manifestly various? As the range of disabilities comes to be better recognized and as the variety of meaningful educational responses becomes better known, disability appears as a bigger and more pressing issue for educators. Taking into account the enormous range of permutations of abilities and disabilities, and the overlay of other material, corporeal and symbolic dimensions of difference, there can be no simple classification of challenges and solutions.

In the past, differences of body form were ignored, or the people most deviant from the norm were sent to special institutions. Today, ‘mainstreaming’ or integration is often attempted. One danger here, however, is that communities of similar experience are broken up (for instance, sign language communities). Also, teachers end up dealing with so many differences, each requiring such specific educational response, that they sometimes find themselves dealing with specific situations beyond the scope of their competence. The solution in part is to work collaboratively with experts outside of the classroom, and also to create open learning environments in which the experience of learning can vary according each learner’s needs and interests—from each according their abilities, and to each according to their need. Instead of having a never-ending catalogue of disabilities about which a teacher needs to learn, teachers need ways of assessing and negotiating a broad range of types of ability in the context of a supportive system of experts and specialists (Bowe 1978).

And a second example, culture. A paradoxical thing happens to culture in the era of total globalization. The whole world becomes the domain of representation and action—products, media, communications, travel. In one moment this appears to be a process of homogenization—consumer products look much the same wherever they are; media and entertainment giants make their presence felt everywhere; and English becomes the lingua franca of the new, digital media. In another moment, these very processes of universalization prompt people go out of their way to make poignant differentiations—products whose special aura derives from the fact they were made in a distinctive place; media that tells stories of differences in culture and circumstance at the ends of the earth; the flourishing of many small as well as large languages using the new media; and travel and tourism whose very rationale is the fact that the destination is different. The cultural logic of globalization, in other words, is as much one of cultural divergence as cultural homogenization. For every cultural thing that seems to be becoming pragmatically—or distressingly—standardized, there is something else that people are actively trying to differentiate (Cope and Kalantzis 1997).

In the case of ethnic and indigenous cultures, today’s paradoxical forces of globalization provide new openings for cultural self-differentiation, local community self-governance and more powerfully interconnected diasporic communities. And another paradox: you might be concerned that the way in which your neighbors live is off on a worryingly diverging tangent to yours (and where do their loyalties really lie?). However, people who feel they genuinely belong, in their difference, develop a more powerful and effective sense of inclusion than they would if homogeneity were forced upon them.

From territories as expansive as the nation-state and as localized as the classroom, the most powerfully inclusive senses of belonging are created when differences are productively used, and by virtue of that, a presence that is and is seen to be to everybody’s advantage. For the nation, or the enterprise, having a diverse membership creates links into diasporic networks and markets and provides the benefits of a broad variety of experiences and perspectives. And in the classroom, if all learners feel they belong in their difference—that the learning values and uses their different knowledge and perspectives—then this learning will so much more powerful. Try to ignore the differences, and many learners will feel less comfortable about their relation to what is being taught and other learners.

The paradox of belonging is that if you are to live more comfortably in the mainstream, that mainstream must recognize your difference and regard that difference as one of the mainstream’s strengths and resources. But by this time, from the narrative of the nation to the lesson in a classroom, the mainstream has transformed itself into something that is open and inclusive in character. Then, when the story of the nation finds its way into the classroom, it may have become the stories in the plural—of different cultural groups and their fruitful collaborations, and of struggles for rights and democracy including, at times, heroic acts of inclusion.

In this context, even the dominant global language, English, changes. On the one hand, for the majority of its speakers, English becomes a pragmatic language of global interchange and communication of knowledge rather than a language of identity. On the other hand, English becomes fragmented into hybrid and unstable forms that are less mutually intelligible, including the creoles of post-colonial societies, the dialects of urban ghettoes, the arcane vernaculars of divergent youth cultures, the specialist discourses of experts and the technicalese of sports and hobbies. More than diversity—differences as found objects that are to be preserved for their inherent value—language is in a dynamic state of divergence.

How do we address the tendency to divergence within a language like English? In public life, we need to switch quickly and often between one social language in one discourse community and another (Gee 1996). In each of these places we need to speak like (and act like and feel like) that community. When we don’t quite understand what is being said, or the other person does not quite understand us, the old literacy of correct usage and rigid rules leaves us stranded. There is no point in suggesting to the other person that they speak properly because there is no single ‘properly’ any more—there is only aptness to situation. So, instead of teaching language learners the rules of a standardized national language, we need to teach them the ‘multiliteracies’ techniques of contrastive linguistics: how do how we make sense of the differences in meanings we encounter, and how do we create reader- and listener-aware communications (Cope and Kalantzis 2000b; Cope and Kalantzis 2009; New London Group 1996)?

A starting point in addressing questions of difference of this order is that learners have always come to school already knowing a lot of things. These things they have learnt in an informal way from their everyday life experiences—from their families, their communities, their cultural environment and the things they have done in their lives. This realm of everyday life experience we have called ‘the lifeworld’.

A fundamental challenge for education, then, is to engage with and extend learners’ lifeworld experiences. This immediately raises some fundamental ‘how to’ questions. Just who are these learners? Where to they come from and what do they already know? How does formal school learning connect with, build upon, extend and transform what learners already know from their everyday experience (rather than counter-productively ignore or negate what they know)? What is the role of background environment, identity and everyday life experiences in learning? The biggest challenge of all for the educator is how does one juggle the teaching and learning process when learners’ lifeworld experiences are so different?


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Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 2009. “Learner Differences: Determining the Terms of Pedagogical Engagement.” Pp. 13-30 in Beyond Pedagogies of Exclusion in Diverse Childhood Contexts, edited by S. Mitakidou, E. Tressou, B. B. Swadener, and C. A. Grant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.