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Diversity in the Classroom; How to Explain Cultural Differences to Children

Diversity in the Classroom

Several weeks ago I received an email from the Microsoft Innovation Office in Brussels, Belgium. They asked me if I could assist them in explaining cultural differences to a group of children from several European countries; in other words, a lot of diversity in the classroom.I said yes. And with that came the biggest challenge I have done for a long time.

I said yes. And with that came the biggest challenge I have had for a long time.

In this article, I would like to share my experiences with these kids, how I prepared, and by writing this article adding to the little information there actually is available on the Internet to prepare oneself for real diversity in the classroom. I hope you will find it helpful, insightful and entertaining.

The Setting

What Microsoft did was the following: They were bringing together a group of children between the age of 6 and 16 from different European countries.

Microsoft has developed a game coding platform called kodu. In each country, there had already been a competition and the kids coming to Brussels where the winners of their respective country. The countries present were:

  • Belgiumdiversity in the classroom with the kodu kup
  • United Kingdom
  • Greece
  • Estonia
  • Latvia
  • Finland
  • Norway

Norway brought 2 children, while the UK had the biggest delegation with about 7. Each country also had one or two teachers. All except the Belgian delegation were flown into Brussels at the expense of Microsoft to do a final competition for the Kodu Kup (no typo here), of course, enjoy the culture of Belgium/Brussels, and to get to know each other better.

All in all, there were 28 people, students, and teachers combined.

How I Prepared

My first thoughts about this were “how hard can this be?” But then I started thinking a bit deeper and wondering about their ability to understand English. Could they understand something as abstract as culture? Could I deal with children from that age? I deal with diversity in the classroom, but then with adults, not children.

Plenty of questions that I had to find an answer for. The first one was easy: English. Microsoft assured me that language would not be much of a problem since there would be a teacher present who would be able to translate, if and when necessary.

But then the other challenges remained. So, rather than bombarding them with Powerpoint slide after Powerpoint slide, I opted to play a game with all of them. Students and teachers together. The game I chose was called Barnga (if you’re interested in knowing more about this game, make sure to click the link and read the book description).

One of the main advantages of Barnga is that it is an imaginary card game, with simple rules that pretty much everyone can understand. Plus during the game, the players are not allowed to talk, which helped in overcoming the language barrier.

I had prepared a simple Powerpoint presentation to introduce myself, to introduce the concept of culture and the rules of the card game.

The way I introduced the concept of culture was very simple, using images of different types of food (sushi, pizza, sandwich), and different types of dress that different cultures wear (UK, Thailand, Netherlands).

My Try-Out

I diversity in the classroomhave no experience with working with kids. I work with adults all of the time. Adults are able to think on an abstract level. And my use of words is totally tailored to the business world because that’s where my customers are.

But… I have children myself. So I decided to ask the principal of my youngest daughter’s school if she would agree to do a try-out. She (the principal) suggested I would work with kids in group 3, which in Belgium where I live, are kids around the age of 8. So I had to explain cultural differences and play a culture game with kids 8 years of age. There wasn’t that much diversity in the classroom there.

On the day of my try-out, there were 54 (!) kids present in the school’s cafeteria/restaurant. Fortunately, I had the help of 5 teachers.

My biggest challenge and that of the teachers turned out to be to keep all those kids quiet, so I could explain what we were about to do. Also during the actual card game, keeping everyone quiet was the most difficult.

Playing the card game itself went really smooth. I had simplified the Barnga rules a bit and had had a test read with my youngest daughter. I figured that if she could make sense of the rules (she’s 10), 8-year-olds with a bit of help from a teacher would be able to make sense of it too.

But then came the wrap-up of my introduction and the card game we just played. And this is where I stumbled. I simply could not make the transition from the card game back to the subject of culture. Not with those kids. I simply did not have simple enough words to make the essence of cultural differences clear within the context of the card game we just played.

So in the end, I just called it a day and thanked the kids and the teachers for helping me.

Afterward, a couple of teachers and I sat together to evaluate what had happened and how to improve things. One teacher came with some good suggestions:

  • Group tables with children and give them a name of a country. This makes the situation more real and brings it closer to culture at the same time.
  • After the card game, tell a story. A story of a child that moves from one country to another, and how this child has difficulties in adapting to her new environment. This is easier for younger children to relate to than abstract theory. Typically also if there is a lot of diversity in the classroom.

Armed with this experience, and with the tips and feedback, I was ready to do the real thing a week later…

The Actual Event

real diversity in the classroomThe actual event took place in Microsoft’s Innovation Centre in Brussels, Belgium. As I said, there were 28 people in total, all seated at their respective country table.

The first thing that I noticed was that most of the students actually spoke English really well. That was promising.

I started doing my introduction of myself, and the concept of culture. With these older kids, I was able to delve into the concept of stereotyping, and we discussed if stereotypes are true or false.

I further explained what culture was, pretty much the same way as I had done with the try-out session.

We then started the card game. Actually, there is not much to say about the actual playing of the card game; it simply went really smooth. Whereby, during round two, the confusion hit the tables, as it always does with this Barnga game (for the sake of not giving away the essence of this game, I’m not further elaborating on the how and why’s of this game; if you want more information, please click the link mentioned earlier in this article).

Game Debrief

The debrief of Barnga works in three rounds. Each accompanied with its own specific question:

  • Round 1: “What did you think?
  • Round 2: “What did you feel?
  • Round 3: “What did you do?

The feedback I got from the students was very comparable with what I normally get when I play this game with adults. Most kids could easily make the connection between this game and cultural differences. When I asked “Which table was the best?“, all of them answered that none was the best, but that they were just different. Just like cultural differences are only differences, and not good or bad.

Wrap-up and Lessons Learned

If you’re doing anything around culture and kids, I have a couple of suggestions for you to consider:

  • Under the age of 10 explaining something as abstract as cultural differences is very difficult. Younger kids just don’t see the differences (yet). They are so-called color blind. So work with kids aged 10 and up.
  • Keep your groups small. If you want to achieve anything it makes good sense to stick with smaller groups, say max 25. It is easier to manage, and there is more of a possibility of dialogue.
  • Play a game. Using Barnga was a (lucky but) good idea. It is much easier to convey an idea like “culture” if you wrap it into something that is easy to digest like a game, rather than a set of Powerpoint slides.
  • Don’t underestimate children. This might be in slight contrast with my first point, but kids 10 & up already have a pretty good grasp of what is going on in the world and the diversity in the classroom.
  • Don’t go over 1 1/2 hour duration max. I found that older kids do have a longer span of attention, but still, next time I would want to stick to 1 hour to 1 1/2 hour. Otherwise, you simply lose them.

I thoroughly enjoyed working with these young adults. It was very inspirational and rewarding.

Share your experiences in explaining cultural differences to children. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


If you’re interested in learning more why not get one of these books?

Overcome cultural differences in business

Uncertainty Avoidance in International Business


Want to Learn More? Why Not Follow a FREE Webinar?

Chris Smit

I'm passionate about Cultural Difference. I have been helping organizations save time and money when they work Internationally for the last 19 years. I have had the fortunate opportunity to hold lectures, workshops, and consulting projects on this subject World Wide. It has made me understand my own culture much better, and appreciate the differences around the world.
I have a Master's Degree in Organisational Psychology and have lived in the USA, the Netherlands and, currently, in Belgium.
Thank you!

Chris Smit
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