I’ll tell you this: There are some people, and then there are others!

—Anna Harris

Kelvin Seifert’s (one of the authors of this book) grandmother Anna Harris as well as a schoolteacher from about 1910 to 1930. She used to make comments, like the one above, that sounded odd but that also contained a grain of wisdom. In this case her remark makes a good theme for this chapter—and even for teaching in general. Students do differ in a multitude of ways, both individually and because of memberships in families, communities or cultural groups. Sometimes the differences can make classroom-style teaching more challenging, but other times, as Anna Harris implied, they simply enrich classroom life. To teach students well, we need to understand the important ways that they differ among themselves, and when or how the differences really matter for their education. This chapter offers some of that understanding and suggests how you might use it in order to make learning effective and enjoyable for everyone, including yourself.

For convenience we will make a major distinction between differences among individuals and differences among groups of students. As the term implies, individual differences are qualities that are unique; just one person has them at a time. Variation in hair color, for example, is an individual difference; even though some people have nearly the same hair color, no two people are exactly the same. Group differences are qualities shared by members of an identifiable group or community, but not shared by everyone in society. An example is gender role: for better or for worse, one portion of society (the males) is perceived differently and expected to behave a bit differently than another portion of society (the females). Notice that distinguishing between individual and group differences is convenient, but a bit arbitrary. Individuals with similar, but nonetheless unique qualities sometimes group themselves together for certain purposes, and groups unusually contain a lot of individual diversity within them. If you happen to enjoy playing soccer and have some talent for it (an individual quality), for example, you may end up as a member of a soccer team or club (a group defined by members’ common desire and ability to play soccer). But though everyone on the team fits a “soccer player’s profile” at some level, individual members will probably vary in level of skill and motivation. The group, by its very nature, may obscure these signs of individuality.

To begin, then, we look at several differences normally considered to be individually rather than group based. This discussion will necessarily be incomplete simply because individual differences are so numerous and important in teaching that some of them are also discussed in later chapters. Later sections of this chapter deal with three important forms of group diversity: gender differences, cultural differences, and language differences.