She was speaking at the Qudwa-Pisa education forum at Expo 2020 Dubai on Saturday.
“Seeing the diversity that the world has offers us an opportunity to have phenomenal creative energies that can be used for problem solving,” said Ms McAleese, chancellor of Trinity College Dublin.
“The more time we waste on hatred, intolerance and bullying, the less likely we are to create the world our children deserve.”
She drew on her experience growing up in the north of Ireland as an example of how focusing on differences can hold people back.
“I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, part of the island of Ireland that remains in the United Kingdom,” Ms McAleese said.
“The political and religious differences between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority made strangers and enemies of people who lived close by one another but behind walls designed to keep them apart.
“Those walls are still there today and are unhappy evidence of how generation after generation of political leaders failed to invest in equality, justice and parity of esteem.”
She said for talent to be nurtured, cultural diversity must be embraced not repressed.
“The threat of violence must be seen as failure, not as a convenient tool of social, cultural and political control,” she said.
Appreciation of other cultures is a vital step in creating a better tomorrow, Ms McAleese said.
“We want our children to understand there are others in the classroom sitting beside them of different genders and ethnicities who they can engage with,” she said.
“We need to encourage the good in people to avoid stereotyping, bullying and hurting one another.”
The forum was organised by the Education Affairs Office of the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi in association with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The UAE is uniquely placed to offer perspective on diversity in education given the country’s multicultural make-up, an expert said.
“The UAE is at the centre of three continents and we have a great number of nationalities in our schools,” said Mohamed Al Nuaimi, head of the education and skills department for the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi.
“The diversity we have in schools allows us to be unique and extract different perspectives to share with others.”
Also speaking at the event was Andreas Schleicher, director of special skills at the OECD, who said that education providers had looked inward for far too long.
“Education has often been treated as local and domestic when we actually live in a highly connected world,” he said.
“We need to educate children to be more open to different ways of thinking and be more appreciative of other cultures.”
It is no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has changed education across the world, but some children risk being left behind with remote learning, Mr Schleicher said.
“The [coronavirus] pandemic amplified a lot of the inequalities in our systems,” he said.
“If you had access to great digital resources with amazing supportive teachers and parents you probably found the experience to be liberating.
‘But if you did not have access to that great technology you would be badly left behind.”
The pandemic has also raised the possibility that large numbers of children, most of them girls, would never return to school, another contributor said.
“There are about one billion children at risk of never returning to school,” said Anna Diamantopoulou, chairwoman of the EU High Level Group on the Future of Social Protection and the Welfare State.
“In Africa alone, there is a risk millions of girls will never go back to school.”
She also spoke of the challenges posed by getting girls interested in digital industries, which traditionally attracted mostly males.
“Schools and universities need to have particular policies to attract girls into this area," she said.
“If they don’t, we’re going to have big problems in a few years as digital companies continue to grow.”