Connecting with students from diverse backgrounds can be a challenge. But the professor who is able to include every student in the learning process will succeed in creating the richest possible learning experience.
Each of us experiences diversity in several ways in our daily lives as we interact with individuals from very different backgrounds. We are increasingly aware of the myriad identities and experiences our students bring to the classroom. Differences in age, learning styles, gender, levels of preparedness, pre-existing skills, ability, language, socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, family make up, sexual orientation, and other dimensions of social identity present significant pedagogical challenges.
One challenge for us as educators is to use the opportunities presented by such diversity to enhance the quality of teaching and learning, so that every student in our classrooms has an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of their background or social identity. If we act as if diversity is not present, we may end up privileging those students who are members of dominant groups whether the groups are described in terms of age, ability, level of preparedness, language, gender, ethnicity or class.
For example, many students of the current generation, known as the Millennials, exhibit learning preferences characteristic of those who have been surrounded by a wide range of information and communication technology from birth, and for whom using multi media has become a way of life. But sitting right beside them in our classrooms are students whose socio economic background preclude their ready access to the very multi media with which their classmates are so comfortable. If we assume equal access, we unconsciously design assignments or assessments that create a favourable bias for some students and a negative one for others. If we ignore such diversity, the result is likely to be inequity in the classroom, meaning differential treatment of students on the basis of some characteristic of their social identity.
We cannot teach as if we have a homogeneous classroom. Instead, we need to use the diversity within our classroom as an opportunity to engage in what has been called “teaching for inclusion”. This term refers to a multifaceted approach to infusing diversity in curricula, teaching methodologies and learning environments so that all students, regardless of their social identity, have an equal chance to learn and be academically successful.
Teaching for inclusion requires that we rethink three very important pedagogical questions about:
Content (or what should we include in our curricula?);
Conduct (or what learning processes should we use?); and
Context (or what kind of learning environments should we foster?).
More and more institutions are now offering subjects in their curricula that educate students about diversity. In the context of increasing diversity, a global economy and a volatile political and economic climate, universities are developing ways to assist students in learning conflict management and human-relations skills for better cross-cultural interaction. One approach is to include in the curriculum elective courses on specific aspects of understanding diversity, for example, courses on race and ethnicity, anti-racism, and intercultural communications. But these are often peripheral courses, not integral parts of existing courses, and offering them as electives means than students can and often do opt out of them.
The most effective way to include diversity in our curricula is to integrate it into all individual courses. We usually choose the content that we deem most relevant or most important for our students to explore within a given time frame. Consciously or unconsciously, we often choose what’s most comfortable for us, without recognizing and acknowledging that our academic knowledge is derived from a particular social and political context and is therefore not immune from cultural bias. We often communicate by our choice of scholars we cite or by problems and issues we identify as important that one perspective is more valued than another.
Teaching for inclusion requires us to challenge existing paradigms and to question the cultural values we are propagating. It means infusing our curricula with relevant, multiple perspectives and materials so that students are continuously exposed to accurate and diverse content. No student should ever feel marginalized by distortions, imbalance and omissions in the content of our courses, nor should others have their positions of privilege reinforced because their perspectives are treated as the only ones worthy of study. All students must feel welcome within our institutions and the curricula must at some point be relevant to their respective cultures.
We must ask ourselves the following questions about the content of each course we teach:
- Do the instructional materials reflect diverse perspectives? Do they include a broad repertoire of cases and examples to show students that people of all types can make or have made contributions to the field?
- Does the content thoroughly and accurately represent the discipline? Does it include voices or perspectives of people with whom diverse students can readily identify?
- Does the course help students develop the knowledge and skills necessary for effective interpersonal and group interactions with diverse populations?
- Does the course promote values, attitudes and behaviours which support cultural pluralism?
Changing what we teach means changing how we teach. Teaching for inclusion means using instructional methods and learning activities that foster respect for differences. For example, we can:
- Develop a repertoire of instructional methods that address various learning styles.
- Use collaborative and interactive pedagogies, consciously modelling the value of diversity in our teaching so that students shift their focus from competition to collaboration.
- Facilitate students’ understanding of others’ perspectives and experiences by providing opportunities for them to;
- Take turns relating their own experiences, concerns and attitudes;
- Interact in a positive and constructive environment with people of other social identities;
- Engage in self-reflection; and
- Generate action strategies for the application of their learning to real life.
Teaching for inclusion means that we must foster non-threatening learning environments or contexts, characterized by safety and trust that will allow students to accept that diversity includes all identity groups and all people. In other words, teaching for inclusion means fostering learning environments where every student can feel valued and can learn to value “the other.”
Here are a few examples of ways of fostering such an environment:
- Take time at the beginning of your course to discuss and promote a code of conduct or a common understanding of appropriate classroom behaviour.
- Be aware of your own non-verbal behaviour in class. Do you pay more attention to one social identity group than to others? Do you consistently call on students with a particular social identity more than you call on other students?
- Ensure accessibility for students with disabilities so that they can participate equally and fully. Do you include a statement in your course outline that lets students with special needs know that you are willing to accommodate them (e.g. by allowing them to write exams in a different room if necessary)?
- Discourage and challenge racist, sexist, homophobic or other bigoted remarks against any social identity group. Insist, for example, on gender-neutral language.
Teaching for inclusion is dynamic and pays attention to the choices we make about what we teach, how we teach and the learning environments we create. In the final analysis, the best teachers are those who ensure that all students will succeed, regardless of their academic, social or developmental backgrounds.
Joy Mighty is the director of the Teaching and Learning Centre at Queen’s University.