Many discussions about making our classrooms more inclusive in higher education revolve around our attitude as teachers. This post summarises them, then presents my classroom policy to encourage inclusive behavior between students, even outside of the learning contexts.
Recommendations for teachers include:
- Making expectations explicit, in a highly structured and scaffolded module/course;
- Minimising assumptions about prior skills or knowledge, as well as providing links to resources letting students catch up with pre-requisites;
- Providing multiple ways of asking questions to the teacher, including ones that are anonymous. One way of doing that during class is providing all students with post-its;
- Sharing with the whole class the questions received during office hours and their answers;
- Sharing about ourselves and our path as learners, showing we also have encountered bumps on the road and normalizing them;
- Allowing computers in the classroom: this is an accessibility matter;
- Making assignments inclusive to students with disabilities or encountering difficulties by default, by having several assignments with low stakes, or breaking down term assignment in small subtasks:
- Being flexible regarding attendance rather than suspecting by default students are lying about the issues they encounter;
- Developing curriculum including historically marginalised voices and perspectives;
- Being mindful of exclusionary dynamics and encouraging inclusive behaviors between students.
This latter aspect is less easy for teachers to implement as so many interactions between students occur outside of our presence, such as during discussions, collaborations on individual homework, group work, or outside of learning contexts altogether. There are things we can model (sharing our pronouns for instance) but I struggled to find policies I could include in my syllabus or module introduction. Therefore I wrote one, fueled by different incidents I’ve seen happening between students over the years. My goal was to make explicit that learning well together requires relational work and care:
- 20% of the population has a disability. Many disabilities are invisible. Be considerate of the needs of your classmates, of what could cause their harm (e.g., high ambiance noise) as well as their different approaches to learning and that some of them may need to not have any distraction to be able to focus.
- If one of your classmates stops answering messages, it might be because they are not coping. Being kind, proposing help, is the right response. Your classmates might struggle with anxiety and mental health issues are widespread in our society, especially among students and faculty. They or their family might have financial difficulties, and they may be juggling with a student job and caring for a dependent. If you don’t know, ask! If they do not wish to discuss it, assure them of your support and that they can change their mind.
- Women are under-represented in engineering and design due to hostile environments. This is due to many factors, which range from being excluded when they don’t share cultural interests that are overwhelmingly considered as masculine, not being recognised for their contributions to sexual and sexist harassment. Equality is everyone’s responsibility and should be a right. Consider how your remarks or group activities could prevent women from participating. You should be attentive that women participate equally to the conversation (you could use this tool). You should amplify women’s ideas: give credit where credit is due.
- Students come from all walks of life, and may have experienced racism and violence in the past. Consider how their point of view and experiences may differ from yours and inform yourself about the challenges encountered by minorities, such as police violence.
- LGBTQ+ people experience many forms of marginalisation. Support your classmates, whether they are openly LGBTQ+ or not. We expect that you will not engage in expression that can make people feel unwelcome or unsafe. This includes graffiti and jokes about LGBTQ+ people and statements against marriage equality. We also expect you will go further: you should not comment on someone’s gender expression and choice of clothing or make assumptions about people based on how they look.
- People have different notions of personal space. Don’t touch another students without asking, even on the shoulder, arm or hand. There is of course an exception in cases of medical emergency.
- Some students may find it difficult to discuss how certain behaviors negatively affect them. This is why it is important that you act proactively to ensure the classroom, and later on, your workplace, are inclusive to all people.
- Soft skills are consistently rated as the most important to your future career. Recognise all the skills necessary to make a good designer and foster them: collaboration, centering other people’s needs, kind and constructive feedback, and helping others developing their strengths rather than demonstrating yours. Remind your classmates that you’re here for them, tell them what you admire in their work.
As a note, this is a policy written for design and engineering students. Feel free to use it, or parts of it, as well as to let me know how you handle this issue in your classroom!