Ethnicity in the classroom: ‘Emphasise shared interests’
For her PhD, Hooijsma researched primary and secondary schools with more than one thousand children. ‘What we share is more important than what divides us’, she found. ‘So teachers should place emphasis on children’s common interests rather than their ethnic backgrounds.’
Children tend to be selective when choosing their friends but place less emphasis on negative relationships than positive ones. This means that they prefer those who are similar to them, but kids who are different will not necessarily become enemies. ‘They might just be a bit more indifferent towards them’, says Hooijsma.
This doesn’t correspond with social psychologists’ findings about our desire for a positive group identity. We want our football team to be the best and our class to be the most popular, and one of the ways of making our ‘in-group’ look good is to make the others seem inadequate.
But, says Hooijsma, this tendency to put others down was not prevalent in Dutch classrooms when it came to ethnicity. Even though children preferred to form friendships with those who had a similar background, they did not reject those with a different ethnic background.
Things like shared hobbies or music interests also play an important role in choosing who to befriend, as does sharing a classroom. Within classrooms, children are not more likely to defend someone just because they have shared roots, while that effect is visible among children with the same ethnicity from different classrooms.
What can teachers do to help students overcome prejudice towards their classmates?
According to Hooijsma, they should strive to create an in-group and encourage the kids to form deeper friendships. They can do so by giving them an assignment to work on together or helping them figure out what they have in common.
‘We know that friendships are formed based on a shared identity’, Hooijsma says. ‘Whether this is a preference for the same food or a shared ethnicity, largely depends on the ways in which we encourage these children to socialise.’