Building from the superpower of multiply diverse students
Reprinted from the The Many Faces of Neurodiversity issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (3), pp. 15-17
My superdiverse perspective
I’m a settler, teacher and scholar of mixed ancestry. I grew up on the territory of the Plains Cree People and homeland of the Métis, in what is now known as Saskatchewan. I was a girl in family lineages where boys were prized. My family didn’t have a lot of financial resources when I was young, but we were well-loved. I faced mental health challenges throughout my life but was also considered gifted, so I was forgiven for any inconvenience I caused. I think these experiences have given me a superdiverse view of the world, marked both by privilege and injustice.
What is superdiversity?
“Superdiversity” is a term that helps us understand the strengths of people who have multiple identities or experiences that set them apart as different from the typical white, middle-class, able-bodied, cis male experience that is often centered in society.1 It is about diversity, but it is also about more than diversity.
Superdiversity recognizes that people cannot be put into boxes according to a single aspect of their identity—we are a complex blend of many different identities and intersecting experiences. Identities might include diverse Indigenous, cultural, racial, dis/abilities and gender identities and may be shaped by sexual orientation and languages. Our experiences of the world are also often determined by class and other people’s perceptions.
Neurodiversity, or the ability to think differently than what is considered “normal,” is a particularly important piece of any superdiverse identity, especially in relation to learning. In the opening poem, I tried to capture the possibilities that come from superdiverse identities and experiences. I see these possibilities as expansive, imaginative and crucial in solving pressing problems in our communities. The colonial narratives that have brought us to our current climate emergency, opioid crisis and escalating anxiety can be reimagined to create more sustainable societies.
Unfortunately, I don’t think schools or society really appreciate the value of superdiversity. Instead, people who are different are often seen as needing to be fixed or changed.2 Diverse ways of being in the world are often, and sometimes cruelly, “corrected” so that students conform to Western ideas of an ideal student.3 Certainly, superdiverse students may need help at times. But despite the challenges we all have, we can still recognize and build from individual strengths. In turn, these strengths contribute to growth in everyone within the community of learners.
How can we embrace superdiversity?
How can we, as advocates, families, educators and superdiverse peoples, create classrooms and communities that value superdiversity more than sameness? There are many possibilities, but to keep things simple I want to share the two foundations of my own growth: first, create a superdiverse reality, and second, give people choice within structure.
Creating a superdiverse reality
Think for a minute about the shows you’ve been watching on TV, the songs you’ve been listening to or the stories you’ve been reading. Do any of them have superdiverse characters? We can start valuing superdiversity by understanding and normalizing the story of superdiverse people.
One of the first things we can do is seek out stories that centre superdiversity. For example, David A. Robertson does a great job of building from the superdiverse experience of many Indigenous children in his Misewa Saga series.4 From here, we might start to think about our language. How do we communicate about and value diversity and superdiversity—especially beyond classrooms and professional boundaries? How can we value superdiversity in the community, like in yoga class, when walking the dog or shopping for groceries? I want to love and appreciate that all people are diverse. How can I live in this truth?
This thinking can then be extended to our families and classrooms. In the classroom, it's easy to begin by studying books with superdiverse characters. Teachers can ask questions with no right or wrong answers so that students can give their own interpretations that further everyone’s learning. We can point out when we see our community of learners benefitting from diverse thought. This way, students begin to understand why diversity is so important. These ideas seem simple, but they require a challenging shift in thinking.
For example, in my own university classes I first create a superdiverse reality through the readings I give. I often have students work in reading groups of four, with each group member reading texts about one issue from a different viewpoint. I give choices that represent Indigenous and other equity-deserving perspectives, alongside conventional understandings.
Students look for connections across readings and come up with some very original thoughts. I might ask them to report to the class by sharing a picture that represents the main ideas they talked about. We often marvel at how each group’s pictures and understandings are slightly different from the others. Seeing their ideas represented in so many different ways helps to strengthen learning for all of us, including me.
Giving people choice within structure
Once we’ve created a reality that values superdiversity, we can shift teaching practices to amplify, rather than accommodate, diversity and superdiversity in the classroom. To amplify diversity means to increase diversity or make it more prominent, and it can often be done by giving people choices. Choice is essential because, as the teacher, I cannot presume to know which identity a superdiverse person wants to connect to for a specific assignment. Identity and connection are dynamic and ever-changing. With choice, students can connect to, and develop, their diverse identities within structures that let them take risks in learning.5
Students need options so they’re free to engage with whatever aspect of their identity is speaking to them today. If there is too much choice, however, students may become overwhelmed, anxious and insecure. Balancing choice with structure allows students to safely explore their identities while learning. For example, in my course I have students choose a topic within educational psychology. I ask them to create a 15–20 minute presentation that an audience can listen to, watch or read. Students have chosen to study the effects of social media; Indigenous storytelling and cognitive development; support for 2LGBTQ+ students; and the relationship between culturally responsive teaching and lowered anxiety. Building from the strength of superdiversity lets students learn, grow, develop and transform how they understand themselves and their communities.
Superdiversity, neurodiversity and other kinds of diversity are cornerstones of healthy communities, including the classroom. We’ve already seen some movement to recognize diversity, especially in schools. I often hear people express a wish to “celebrate” diversity. I appreciate this shift from the casual racism and ableism I have experienced, but I think we can do better. For all the children who are superdiverse and struggling with their very existence, and for all the families who are barely hanging on, we need to do better.6 By creating superdiverse realities and then amplifying this diversity in the classroom through choice within structure, we can uplift the most important gift students can bring.
come in clusters.
Smiles streaming sunshine
like the first breath of dawn:
the pale pink potential
of a fresh day;
each morning new beauty
like the first time
the sun thought to rise.
Their adolescent voices are
quick to surge like
on the verge of
in a cacophony of
In a moment,
the winds change
and fluffy white
cotton candy clouds
sing lazily in the sky,
playing finger shadows
with the sun.
Their youthful ideas bloom
like a field of wildflowers.
Daffodils cheering us through
rainy grey days;
sunflowers nourishing feathered bodies
making their way across the world.
so uniquely precious,
lives what they are and
what they hope to be,
bundled in a rush of energy
in the classroom.
They come to me like this.
The bell rings and I watch
as they fold
their light, their laughter, their gangly beauty
down into hard wooden desks.
They tuck in trailing tendrils and
dim the light in their eyes.
Hands to themselves.
It’s so quiet.
They are ready to…
Every one of them now
looks the same.
They are safely contained.
Their splendor constrained.
About the author
Nikki is an assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and a settler scholar of mixed Chinese and Mennonite descent. She is interested in learning about how to open decolonizing possibilities in education and in her own life
Li, G., Marom, L., Anderson, J., Hare, J., & McTavish, M. (2021). Introduction: Superdiversity, emergent priorities, and teacher learning. In G. Li, L. Marom, J. Anderson, J. Hare, M. McTavish (Eds.), Superdiversity and teacher education: Supporting teachers in working with culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse students, families, and communities (pp. 1–16). Routledge.
Bailey, B., & Betts, P. (2009). Culture and special education. International Journal of Special Education, 24(3), 78–84. files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ877939.pdf
Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group. (2016). Racism in schools: A barrier to education among Aboriginal students – BC antiracism research. BC Ministry of Education. www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/education/ways-to-learn/Aboriginal-education/abed-antiracism-research.pdf
Robertson, D. A.. The Misewa Saga. Series published by Penguin Random House. See: penguinrandomhouse.ca/series/EWS/the-misewa-saga
Reeve, J. (2006). Teachers as facilitators: What autonomy-supportive teachers do and why their students benefit. The Elementary School Journal, 106(3), 225–236. doi:10.1086/501484
Yee, N. (2021). Final report: Review of inclusive and special education services. Government of Yukon. yukonassembly.ca/sites/default/files/2022-01/pac-35-submission-exhibit-executive-summary-final-report-review-inclusive-special-education.pdf