A Workshop Model for Promoting Inclusive Teaching Practices

A Workshop Model for Promoting Inclusive
Teaching Practices

Bluma Litner
1996 3M Teaching Fellow

or the last decade or so, I have become increasingly aware of the changing complexion of the student body at the university where I teach. Also, I have been critically assessing my own experiences as an educator, my own positioning vis-a-vis the power/knowledge relationship. I have come to realize that, beyond the power inherent in my status as the professor which a priori separates me from all the students of any given course, there are significant differences in students’ positioning, both in relation to me and in relation to each other.

These differences depend on the extent to which my students reflect the dominant, white, patriarchal, heterosexual, non-disabled, middle-class North American culture. These differences can present major obstacles to the successful l earning experience for those of my students who become the “others” by virtue of their relative distance from the dominant order and culture. Socially marginalized students are often discriminated against, muted or simply overlooked or they are called upon to speak as representatives of their group. Course content and curriculum have typically reflected the dominant group’s assumptions, definitions and perspective on what has historically counted as knowledge.

Thus, the challenge for me became to learn, through both study and practice, to develop course designs, teaching approaches and a classroom environment that would foster the inclusion of all class members. I developed a workshop model to sensitize faculty, regardless of their disciplines, to the importance of re-thinking their teaching in light of the diversity and the differences that are present in the students who attend their classes.

The workshop is experiential, with the emphasis on participants’ active involvement in critiquing, analyzing and problem-solving a learning situation, their own or one that has been presented to them. A video produced by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of Race Relations and Minority Affairs at Harvard University, entitled Race in the Classroom: The Multiplicity of Experience stimulates critical engagement with the issues of diversity and inclusive teaching. Another valuable video series is Critical Incidents, produced by the Learning and Teaching Centre at the University of Victoria (BC). Working alone or in small groups, participants are given the opportunity to reflect on their attitudes, opinions and interpretations and to connect the concepts being presented to their own learning and future teaching practice.

The aim is for faculty to develop a climate of co-inquiry where the taken-for-granted assumptions that students make about each other and their interactions and about course content can be exposed, critiqued and, it is to be hoped, revised. Ultimately, my goal, regardless of course content, is to help students develop an understanding of their identities as socially constituted and as a multiplicity of positionings in terms of gender, class, ethnicity, age, etc. The design calls for individuals to think about an incident in their own educational experience when they felt alienated, silenced or excluded. Working alone, they are asked to write a brief outline of the incident, including what came about, how it affected them and what insights they gained about the learning/teaching relationship as a result.

What I am trying to create is a disjuncture, to loosen the hold on what participants claim as certainties about themselves, their students and the social order. I believe that this disjuncture is the starting point for faculty to take up the struggle to “alter what has long not been altered” and to question the natural, the truth and the taken-for-granted assumptive world of their classrooms. The design then calls for participants to work in small groups. The focus at this stage is to describe quickly what they thought was occurring in the video situation or to describe their own past incident and the impact either of these has had on their thinking about how the teaching and learning experience could be more equitable for, and representative of, all the members of a given course. If participants are using their own personal material, the groups are asked to pick one story that they can work on together after checking whether the group member whose story has been selected is comfortable.

As a facilitator, I come prepared with one of my own stories as an alternative if any or all of the groups express reservations about using their own material. The goal here is to have participants discuss how they might intervene to transform the classroom situation into a more inclusive one.

The design then requires groups to select a spokesperson to summarize the key points in their group’s discussion and to report on the interventions they came up with that would purposefully promote inclusive classroom interaction.

The last phase of the session is to propose to participants a series of considerations and practices which have been found effective in promoting inclusive teaching and learning. Some of the specific practices that I have incorporated in my teaching include the following:

1. At the beginning of a course, I introduce exercises that help my students get to know and appreciate each other’s backgrounds (for example I have created a “diversity bingo” game).

2. I ask students to develop a set of ground rules that will govern how we collectively manage the classroom climate to optimize learning. Periodically, I call “time outs” with the class as a whole or in small groups in order for students to discuss the class dynamics as well as how they are doing. This operates as a “check up” and as a reminder that the quality of our learning is affected by the classroom environment in which the learning takes place.

3. I deliberately use models and examples that represent the experiences of different members of the diverse classroom membership.

4. Whenever possible, I prepare my course reading list to reflect the academic diversity of the class.

5. I ask students to restate an idea that they disagree with before they counter it.

6. I plan a variety of assignments appropriate to a variety of learning styles.

7. In conflict situations, I carefully monitor how students are treating each other and I stress the importance of separating people from the issue or problem at hand.

8. When a student puts forward a racist or sexist comment, I address it in general terms immediately. Without demeaning the speaker, I use the moment to talk about how unquestioned generalizations and stereotypes are perpetuated and are typically based on myths, lack of information or misinformation.

The central message that I strive to convey in these workshops is that inclusive teaching starts with a willingness to re-think our pedagogy, regardless of our discipline or course material, and to apply intentionally a critical lens to the classroom environment that we create. It is about critically assessing and critiquing our part in reproducing institutionalized racism, sexism, classism and homophobia in the university and in society. It is about the unlearning of hegemonic universal truths and the re-learning of alternate realities that make it possible for differences to appear rather than disappear.