Diversity and Global Studies:
Elementary Children’s Investigations


Helen L. Carlson and Carol Holm

Two forces are coming together in the United States—diversity and globalization. On the one hand, increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees have entered and are entering the United States, creating multiple languages and cultural bases to complement the diversity already present. There is new emphasis on the maintenance of cultural roots and languages within a pluralistic society. On the other hand, there is growing global interdependence as well as increasing ethnic strife—economically, socially, and culturally. Issues of cultural identity, economic equity, social justice, gender fairness, environmental regard, and family respect cross both the global and diversity dimensions of our increasingly interdependent world as we approach the 21st century.1

Many programs seek to educate youth about global and diversity issues, including student exchanges, Internet pen and key-pal connections, and both print and software resources that address different perspectives. Global education theorists have delineated substantial dimensions of the field: human values, including universal and cultural values, practices, and interconnections; and global systems, including patterns, issues, problems, and history.2 Diversity and cultural theorists have emphasized open-mindedness, resistance to stereotyping, inclination to empathize, social transformation and advocacy, and antibias attitudes.3 The cultural and global connections strands in the NCSS Standards likewise echo the aforementioned dimensions.4

Beyond diversity and global issues, how to involve children and youth in learning is another serious question being addressed by educators in the United States and other countries. Social constructivism, based on the work of such theorists as Vygotsky5 and applied through group participant observation, cooperative learning, investigation, and discussion6 can offer new insights into education. The construction of authentic, accurate, and up-to-date concepts is a major interest as countries, states, and school districts move to standards for performance. The ability to gather and critically evaluate evidence is crucial. Creating empathy and perspective taking is essential.

This article will describe three approaches useful in helping elementary students address issues of diversity, global studies, and social constructivism. These approaches grew out of a collaboration project between a local school district and the university. This collaborative project, the Children’s Center for Global Understanding, was created to infuse global and diversity perspectives into elementary level curricula. Specific goals included the following:


The Children’s Center for Global Understanding included five main components: technology, a resource center of print and computer materials, culture kits, folk festivals, and curriculum development. Teachers and students at both the elementary school and university levels worked together to develop learning experiences.7


Folk Festivals

Taking direction from global connection and diversity standards, children became involved with how art, music, and dance can facilitate understanding of diversity, both within the country and globally. The educator of the campus art museum, along with artists from various countries, designed exploratory lessons based on art works of the diverse communities in four sister cities.8 The lessons included visits to gallery exhibits of art works from different countries, exposure to various art forms through slides and posters, and child creations of various forms.

As part of an intense study of Australia based on teacher exchange visits, children created digiridoos with Aborigine-like art prints covering them. An international expert in dance from Eastern Europe taught the students various folk dances from different countries and cultures. For example, they learned dances from Russia, Hungary, and Greece.

These experiences served as a backdrop for participation in the campus folk festival. The children assisted in setting up a display of their work with global/diversity studies and visited the booths set up by university students from Africa (Tanzania, Kenya), Asia (Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India, Laos), Europe (Russia, Latvia, and Estonia), Mexico, and South America (Chile, Brazil). The children talked with university and community people from various countries and cultures. They also shared the things they had learned in their diversity and global studies curricula.

In addition, the children participated in the performance program of the folk festival, presenting songs in different languages and folk dances from different cultures. Through the dances and songs, the children came to recognize the significance of these expressions in cultural understanding.


“Origin” Learning Centers

Learning centers developed in three different ways. First, foreign exchange university students participating in elementary classrooms developed learning center experiences based on their countries of origin. For example, one of the university exchange students from Sweden designed a series of learning experiences based on that nation’s history and culture. In one learning center lesson, the children investigated the trade routes of the Vikings and confronted the stereotypes often associated with the Viking culture. In another learning center lesson, small groups of university and elementary students took virtual field trips on the Internet, finding sites created by adults and children in Sweden.

A second way that learning centers developed was based on teacher exchanges and face-to-face interviews of children and teachers in foreign countries. United States university students and faculty asked the elementary children and teachers in various foreign countries (Tanzania, Australia, Sweden) to describe what they thought it was most important for U.S. children to learn about their country. In turn, the teachers and children in the United States described what was important for children in other countries to know about the United States. Classroom visitors (teachers and students) from Japan, Sweden, Russia, and Australia were also interviewed in U.S. classrooms.

Learning centers, including mini-culture kits, were created around these suggestions. Learning experiences focusing on language, geography, cultural artifacts, and humanitarian projects were included. Children in foreign countries shared how they celebrated United Nations day, with refugee children from Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda lighting candles and reading poetry about peace and justice. United States elementary children described how they made a quilt, auctioned it, and donated the money to a local women’s shelter.

Children and teachers in all the countries developed learning activities that emphasized significant celebrations, traditions, and customs. One learning experience offered opportunities to create brochures highlighting cultural community sites. Another learning experience used an inquiry approach to explore the lives (celebrations, food preparation, leisure time activities, toys, family composition, housing, school life) of native peoples and immigrants.9

A third way that learning centers focused on origins involved the elementary children in research related to regions or countries from which their ancestors came. After the children experienced learning centers developed by university students, they began their own research by posing questions about their ancestors’ birth countries or regions. Ojibwe children focused on the early history of their regions, the clothing worn, and the migration legends of their culture. Hmong children focused on the folk art from their native Laos as well as the refugee experience. European American children studied countries like Finland, Sweden, and Russia. African American children focused on various countries of Africa. Children developed display boards with learning experiences based on their research.

Children from other classes came to participate in the experience. Parents also came to a “special events” evening, were given passports, and then also participated in the learning experiences. Much in-depth knowledge and appreciation was gained by everyone involved—the children as teachers and the parents as learners.

Local/Global Inquiry

As the global/diversity collaboration continued, a more in-depth approach emerged. In the local/global inquiry approach, children in classrooms in three countries (Sweden, Tanzania, and the United States) investigated their local environment and culture and then exchanged information. The processes of investigation completed in each classroom included posing questions, gathering evidence, summarizing the evidence, exchanging the summaries, comparing and contrasting the ideas presented in the summaries, and drawing final conclusions. These inquiry processes were completed at five levels: the individual level, the family level, the school level, the community level, and the global issues level.10

At the individual level, the students began by posing questions about what they would want to know and tell students their age in another country. They listed topics like favorite music, favorite subjects, a typical day in school, sports played and watched, number of people in their family, where they lived, foods enjoyed, and family fun. A combination of traditional mail, e-mail, fax, and exchange of small trinkets and books facilitated exchange of information and cultural understanding. As the children grew to know each other, they dealt with serious issues such as drug abuse (including D.A.R.E. lesson material) and discrimination.

At the family level, students interviewed elders in their families and neighborhoods and asked them about life when they were ten years old. For example, how was food prepared? How did they spend their Sundays? How were holidays and birthdays celebrated? What were their favorite smells, favorite foods? There was dialogue back and forth between the students and elders. The information was summarized.

At the school level, the students again posed questions. What did the school look like? How was the school organized and laid out? What happened in a typical day? What did students like best about the school? What would the students like to change in their school? The evidence gathered and developed included maps of the school, history of the school, and organizational charts with staff and student numbers. Videotapes were made in each school.

There were two parts to the community level inquiry. First, the students investigated businesses and organizations by posing questions to their leaders: What is the history of your business/organization? How has it changed over time? How do you use technology? How do you protect the environment? How many people work in your organization/business? How do the workers use math and writing skills in their work? What does your organization do to help build good relationships with the community? After tours of various businesses and organizations and interviews of the leaders were completed, the children with their teacher-candidate mentors gathered in small groups to report, summarize, and discuss the data with each other.

In the second community study area, students observed and gathered data about the vehicles that went past their schools at designated times. The data were compiled and displayed through bar and circle graphs. The types of houses within six blocks of the school were also recorded.

There were two parts to the global level inquiry. First, questions were posed about how the environment was protected in each country. The students worked in small groups to develop photo essays related to the environment. For example, children learned about recycling, composting, and increasing efficiency of energy used.

Second, the students brainstormed about what is needed to lead a good life. Children in all the countries emphasized love, safety, good education, health, and good parents—this led to a discussion of universal human rights. These universal rights were represented in the creation of world peace flags.

After the questions were posed, evidence gathered, and summaries written as outlined above, the summaries (image and print) were exchanged across the classrooms. The students in the U.S. classroom received the Swedish information at each level and compared and contrasted it with their own. Similarly, the students in the Swedish classroom received the information and compared and contrasted it with their own. The same process is also happening with a classroom in Tanzania.

As a final step, the students and teachers in each country developed conclusions. These conclusions addressed the similarities and the differences in each country and led to in-depth discussions about “why” there were similarities and differences.


Effects of Using the Three Approaches

A research study has been conducted to determine the effects of the diversity/global approaches.11 Data sources, the children’s and university students’ investigation work products, were reviewed and analyzed inductively.12

Five major themes emerged from the analysis of the data sources: (1) building friendships with people from another country, (2) understanding diverse cultures, (3) gaining inquiry skills in studying local life contexts in each country, (4) understanding the universality of human values and needs, and (5) understanding global issues from different perspectives.

Comparisons and contrasts across the sites were made. For example, there appeared to be more concern about protection of the environment in Swedish and Tanzanian schools than in the U.S. school. The Swedish and Tanzanian students used more composting, more bicycle riding and walking, and more natural materials in their heating and construction of buildings. There was greater cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity in the U.S. classroom than in the Swedish or Tanzanian classrooms. Global economic disparities also were evident. Discussions about why these differences occurred led to deepened understanding of differences in societal values and goals as well as issues concerning social justice and universal human rights.



Three approaches to global/diversity studies with elementary children have been described. The first approach involved children in art and music cultural experiences as a basis for participation in a folk festival. The second approach focused on “origin” learning centers stemming from research about ancestors or involvement with centers based on input from people in the country being studied. The third approach offered in-depth investigation from the individual to community to global levels with exchange and comparison of information among classrooms in different countries. Children engaged in constructing knowledge, gaining multiple perspectives, and developing empathy individually and in small groups.

What is different in these approaches is the depth of local and personal understanding that emerged and the authentic base that this provided for comparisons and contrasts. Children and teachers were not researching “someone else” through stereotypical tourist methods, but they were experiencing other cultures through bona fide art, music, and dance. They were researching themselves, their elders, and their communities in all their diversity and complexity and offering that for sharing and discussion. They were building friendships and understanding from one human being to another. It is in the area of genuine connections that the Children’s Center for Global Understanding has developed meaningful approaches for understanding diversity with a global perspective.



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5. L. Vygotsky, Thought and Language (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1934 [1986]).

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9. H. Carlson, L. L. Grover, and D. Anderson, A Childhood in Minnesota: Exploring the Lives of Ojibwe and Immigrant Families (Duluth, Minn.: Duluth Children’s Museum, 1994).

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11. H. Carlson, “Building a Global Community: Effects of a Local/Global Inquiry Mode#148; (Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Conference, San Diego, California, 1998).

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About the Authors

Helen L. Carlson is Professor of Education at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Carol Holm teaches at Woodland School, Duluth, Minnesota.