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Embracing diversity: Simple but practical applications at Woodlands International College

| November 26, 2018 | 0 Comments


On entering the grounds of Woodlands International College in Boksburg, Gauteng, for the first time in January 2018, what did the words transformation and diversity really mean to me?

Picture a 54-year-old white South African man with an Afrikaans heritage. Picture a person who attended a coeducational, government, suburban, exclusively white school in the 1970s. Picture this person then attending the political melting pots of the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1980s. Follow that up with employment in the educational sector through the 1990s, and then self-employment in the economically elitist sphere of private practice psychology in the 2000s. What did this eclectic background produce? A person with a full understanding of diversity and the need for transformation? Certainly not. A person free of unconscious bias? Certainly not. A person open to learning about and applying these concepts? Definitely.

Discovering the depth

And so the journey at Woodlands began, first with research into the 16-year-old school’s history and context. Then, discovering what the school’s specific mission is: “To provide for a liberal, balanced education which challenges each pupil to think, question and strive for excellence. To develop each pupil to their full potential.” The school motto: “To rise above mediocrity”. Then on to research what exactly transformation and diversity means in a co-educational independent school in South Africa in 2018. The excellent “Embracing Diversity” conference, hosted by St Benedict’s College in March 2018, followed by the “Raising Boys and Girls” conference, hosted by St Stithians College in April 2018, provided some answers but ultimately raised more questions. However, the real research involved the discovery of what Woodlands had already put in place in terms of practically embracing diversity. In the words of Professor Jonathan Jansen: “I don’t want young people to tolerate each other; I want them to embrace each other”.1 Spending time watching the children at play at school, watching the teachers interact with the children in the classroom, and becoming involved in the day-to-day running of Woodlands, it became increasingly clear that the narrow definition I had in my head of what diversity meant within the school context was not even scratching the surface of all the facets of life and circumstance that had to be taken into consideration. Diversity means much more than just different races and ethnicities.

The diversity wheel

Much of what I have observed at Woodlands has probably been implemented in many other schools already, in one form or another, but for me, I had never considered how these abstract concepts could be applied in a school context. For purposes of breaking down the dimensions of diversity, I was introduced to the ‘diversity wheel’, conceived in 1991 by Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener.2 This visual representation of the dimensions of diversity has been adapted many times since that original 1991 version. I then further adapted this concept to make it specifically applicable in a primary school context. It looks like this:

The Woodlands diversity wheel I’d like to share with you how I use the diversity circle to explain how Woodlands embraces diversity:

Diversity of religion

One of the defining features of diversity at Woodlands is that of religion. Children of different faiths and religions are encouraged to express those beliefs – for example, Muslim children are allowed and encouraged to wear religious dress, such as a hijab, if they so wish. Muslim children are allowed to leave for prayers on a Friday before noon, and all the missed work is presented to them on a Monday by their teacher/s. Muslim boys at Woodlands have been allowed to leave the school for a period of time in order for them to complete their studies at a madrasa, and then return to the school a year later. During Ramadan, Muslim children are encouraged to wear their traditional religious dress. Woodlands staff use the opportunity every year to explain the meaning of Ramadan to all the children of the school, including the fact that all Muslim children at the school would be fasting daily for the month.


At Woodlands, as is the trend throughout South Africa currently, girls are encouraged to participate in competitive boys’ sports leagues such as soccer, hockey or cricket, particularly in the primary phase. In addition, in the high school, one of the enrichment categories is netball (traditionally a girls’ sport), in which many boys also regularly participate.


Approaching the issue of racial diversity in South Africa requires a large amount of sensitivity, and one way we try to take cognisance of this at Woodlands is by making sure we are addressing a child as an individual and not just as a part of their collective race. Another contentious element of racial diversity is encapsulated in the hair policies of the school. A hair policy needs to be very open and should cater for all races. Woodlands is sensitive to the fact that not all children are able to fit into a narrow hair policy, and therefore a complete diversity of hair styles is clearly evident in the corridors of Woodlands.

Physical and intellectual abilities and skills

One of the basic tenets of diversity and inclusion is the need for every child to feel fully part of their team/group/class/school. The belief is that participation in sport or cultural activities is vitally important, and therefore that there is a place or a team for children of all abilities in either the ‘A’ squad for the highly skilled and competitive children, or the ‘B’ or ‘C’ for less skilled individuals. One of the more pleasing moments this year at Woodlands was when the fledgling sport of swimming grew to the point where we could enter a ‘B’ squad into galas. To see the complete satisfaction and sense of achievement on the face of a six-year-old who completed her first length in her first gala was incredible, probably rivalling the feeling of achievement of a child receiving a gold medal in the same gala! On the intellectual development and academic achievement front, the concept of cooperative learning – where less competent children develop with the help of more skilful peers – is evident throughout all classes and levels. We also see the value in the policy of special examination accommodations, such as a reader, a scribe or extra time, depending on the individual needs of the child with special educational needs.

Personality and learning styles

In the classroom, major emphasis is placed on training teachers to cope with different personalities and learning styles, and even disorders. For cooperative learning to be successful, it is critically important for the teacher and each child in the classrooms to understand and embrace children with differences, and to know that what could be perceived as ‘bad behaviour’ may, in fact, just be a child reacting or relating to a certain situation differently.

Family financial standing

Even within the privileged financial environment of an independent school, there are different levels of financial status. We have often encountered parents from less elevated financial backgrounds buying the child’s entire uniform from the swop shop, and even asking whether it would be possible to buy and wear the old or discontinued uniform, as it is far cheaper. Of course, such a request is always granted.

Gender expression

This area is of vital importance to the natural and balanced development of a child. In the preschool arena, both boys and girls are encouraged to play in all the imaginative play areas, from the traditionally female environment of the kitchen to the traditionally male environment of the fire station. They are also encouraged to try on all the dress-up clothes and take part in all the extracurricular activities, from dancing to karate.

Go for the gateways

The most important lesson for me is that in addressing diversity, especially in a South African context, we need to be alive to the fact that our approach needs to be changing constantly, due to the unique combination of races, cultures and ethnicities within our schools. Obviously, within the school context, the whole point of addressing diversity is to negotiate a space that is conducive to each child being able to learn at an optimal level. There is naturally a long way to go before we, as a school and as South Africans, ultimately find the best approach to making every child feel accepted and valued as a unique individual. In the words of Ralph H. Blum, writer and cultural anthropologist, “Nothing is predestined. The obstacles of your past can become the gateways that lead to new beginnings.”3

Greg Pienaar is principal at Woodlands Junior College.

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Category: Summer 2018

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