As teachers, we want our courses to be good learning spaces for all our students. But how do we make that possible? Inclusive pedagogy is a method of teaching in which instructors and classmates work together to create a supportive environment that gives each student equal access to learning. In these courses, the content takes into account the range of perspectives in the class, and is delivered in a way that strives to overcome barriers to access that students might have. Inclusive classrooms work to ensure that both teacher and student participation promote thoughtfulness and mutual respect. And research shows us that students of all backgrounds—not just marginalized groups—do better in more inclusive environments! (African Americans and high blood pressure: the role of stereotype threat. Blascovich et al., 2001.)
Inclusive pedagogy invites us to consider our choices around both the content we teach and the means through which we deliver it. Additionally, inclusive pedagogy argues that the social identities of both student and teacher have a direct impact on the learning experience. Self-awareness is therefore an important point of entry into inclusive pedagogical practice.
Inclusive pedagogy—creating a space that works for all students—makes intuitive sense. It’s also supported by a growing body of research. First of all, a sense of belonging to an academic community has been shown to be an important predictor of academic success (Moallem, 2013), and that, meanwhile, many students—particularly those from groups marginalized because of things like race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.—do feel excluded from learning spaces (see, for example, Tanner, 2013). This experience of exclusion can hamper academic performance (APA, 2006) in a process that can spiral out of control, through a “negative recursive cycle...where psychological threat and poor performance feed off one another, leading to ever-worsening performance” (Cohen et al., 2006). Beyond the purely academic, a sense of alienation or exclusion can even lead to negative health effects (Blascovich et al., 2001, Eisenberger et al., 2003).
Luckily, it’s also been found that efforts to increase marginalized students’ sense of social belonging or competence lead to increases in both academic success and well-being among those students (Walton & Cohen, 2011), and these benefits can last years (Cohen et al., 2009). Furthermore, techniques that help improve the academic performance of students in marginalized groups (e.g., active learning, regular opportunities to practice new skills, etc.) tend to benefit other students, too (Eddy & Hogan, 2014, Haak et al., 2011).
Here at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, Inclusive Pedagogy is one of our most important priorities. We offer a range of workshops where faculty and staff can gather to think about how to bring inclusive teaching and learning strategies into their engagement with students. We also compiled a pamphlet of tips and resources for making classrooms more inclusive. Additionally, the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, which we administer in partnership with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, aims to support faculty and the campus community in engaging with diversity inside and outside the classroom, through a faculty fellowship program, campus events ranging from a film and culture series to an annual symposium, and curriculum grants. Find out more about all our Inclusive Pedagogy work here.
Georgetown hosts an array of centers and offices that aim to make our campus a welcoming space for all our students across a variety of dimensions. You can find a compilation of some of those resources here.
The human mind depends on unconscious mental shortcuts and generalizations just to get through the day—gray skies probably mean rain so I’d better bring an umbrella; traffic tends to be light on this road, so I’ll take it again today; my colleague is usually a nice person, so she must have meant that last comment as a compliment; etc.—so we all regularly do this kind of heuristic thinking. When these shortcuts intersect with identity groups, however, they can be dangerous. For example, maybe, without even realizing it, you have a picture in your mind of what a “good student in the major” looks like, and maybe that picture has a very particular demographic profile. Or maybe you see a particular kind of name on your roster and think, completely unintentionally and perhaps even unconsciously, “That student is going to have trouble writing in the English language.” Those are examples of implicit bias, and they can attach to race, nationality, class, religion, gender, sexuality, or any of a number of other identity-related categories, and they can lead to an environment that’s not equally conducive to learning for all of your students.
Again, we’re all equipped with brains that work this way, so we all have bias of one form or another (or, likely, multiple forms). The appropriate question isn’t Who’s biased? but What are my biases, and what am I going to do about them?
Luckily, lots of different strategies help. What they all have in common is forcing yourself to think consciously about your approach to the classroom so as to counter any bias before it happens. Here are a few possibilities:
One last thought: it’s worth noting that society’s -isms are not reducible to individual bias, and can’t be corrected entirely by attention to individual bias—they are also driven by structure-level systems and problems that need their own solutions—but attending to your own biases will be, for your students, a step in the right direction.
Beyond the strategies designed to combat implicit bias, there are many ways you can make your classroom more inclusive. This can range from making sure that course materials represent a range of perspectives (and that their authors come from a variety of backgrounds) to planning accommodations for students with disabilities (perhaps through Universal Design for Learning) and avoiding cultural generalizations (including in the form of jokes) in class. Here are a few other considerations:
One issue that instructors could encounter in an effort to make classrooms more inclusive is a student-led resistance to the very idea of “inclusivity.” An instructor who is careful to use and encourage inclusive language could ultimately run up against an attitude held by students that asks “well, why does this matter?” As we noted above, there’s plenty of research to back up an inclusive approach, but, regardless, inclusive teachers should prepare to hold a dialogue with students who disagree with the practice, keeping in mind that the term ‘inclusivity’ often means including those who are resistant to change. In fact, the pedagogical ideal of a vibrant open dialogue in our courses is probably dependent on adopting a truly inclusive approach to teaching.
Preparing students for material is common practice in all classrooms. Teachers often say things like, “Now, this next section is really crucial, and will be covered extensively on the test, so pay close attention,” or “What I’m about to get into is intellectually tricky, so let me know if you have any questions,” or “Today’s material is going to build on the theory we discussed in the last session, so look for connections.” Preparation is about making sure that students are equipped to get the most out of the material to come, and so it’s a regular part of most teachers’ practice.
One of the situations where this is likely to be relevant is when you’re introducing content that’s necessary but has potential to offend a particular group. Students might have strong negative reactions if, for example, a film were to be shown in class that contains slurs that target their identity or another’s. In a case like this, it can be a good idea for the instructor to provide a heads-up to all students (some use the term “content warning” or “trigger warning”) as a way of informing them that the course does not support the usage of this language, and that you’ll be expecting students to view the material critically. It also helps when teachers explain why the material is important (as we sometimes even have to do with inoffensive material whose relevance isn’t immediately obvious to students).
Furthermore, it’s never safe to assume that a student claims a certain identity simply because the student appears to bear traits of that identity. This could occur on the grounds of race, class, gender, or sexuality, with instructors assuming that a specific student needs an individual content warning because the instructor thinks they would claim an affected identity. Instead of targeting a student or assuming something about their level of comfort, instructors can use inclusive language generally and give any heads-up to all students. Again, the point is to prepare students to get the most out of the activity.
Difficult discussions may be daunting, but they can also be crucially productive moments in a semester—and sweeping such moments aside when they flare up can lead to problems, including students feeling unheard, alienated, and hurt—but you do have to work to make sure these moments are productive.
Handling difficult conversations comes in two phases. The first is the laying of a foundation for productive discussions. At the very beginning of the semester it’s helpful to acknowledge that these kinds of moments may crop up—you could even name particular topics that are likely to emerge or that are probably on people’s minds—and to give students guidance in advance on how to handle them, including possible ground rules for discussion (e.g., focus on ideas, not people; connect comments to course material; etc.). You might need to prepare yourself as well. What are your hot buttons? What’s likely to make you uneasy or upset? What will you do when your buttons get pushed? Once you’ve done the preparation, the second phase of handling difficult discussions is dealing with the discussions as they happen—whether you plan them or whether they flare up unexpectedly (e.g., reminding students of ground rules, using the blackboard to distance ideas from individual speakers). For more specific strategies—ideas for ground rules, ways to structure and manage these conversations, etc.—see our Difficult Discussions page.
Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.