Making the classroom more inclusive


Back in October I’d been working on a project with Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme (PTAS) funding to produce material in a variety of learning formats to enhance teaching in the history department.  The project aimed to produce a website on our virtual learning environment (VLE) for postgrad tutors based on current best practice within the department, chosen on the basis of recommendations from undergraduates.

One section focussed on Student Engagement. After a number of hours of reading, compiling a reference list, distilling the information regarding student demographics, university equality and diversity policies and guidance on learning adjustments into an easily accessible (and I thought quite stylish) format for my peers, I felt quite pleased and sent it off to a senior colleague for suggestions.  Feeling like I’d done my bit to encourage inclusive learning, you can imagine my horror when she immediately queried my ‘choice of colours for the slides. Students with dyslexia for instance find light lettering on a dark background impossible to read.’  A little bit more research reinforced the point – extensive research demonstrated that students with dyslexia find it easiest to read cream backgrounds with dark blue writing, in a non-serif font (as outlined in this “Design for All” guide from Birkbeck University).

Re-visiting this incident, I sat down to formulate this blog post, which I’d entitled ‘making the classroom more inclusive, interrogating the blind spots in our teaching’, hoping that I could emphasise how easy it was to forget the perspective of the reader, the student, the learner, even in our desire to be inclusive.  Until I thought about it, and realised the itself the word ‘blind spot’ carries connotations of able-ism, associating ‘blind’ metaphorically with ignorance, an accusation which, when highlighted, is appalling (see for example this Feminist Philosophers blog post on refereeing procedures).

Why is this significant?   I’ve never met a history postgrad who isn’t fully committed to the Equality Act 2010, which outlaws discrimination on the grounds of Age, Disability, Gender Reassignment, Race, Religion or belief, Sex, Sexual orientation, Pregnancy and Maternity, Marriage and civil partnership.  However, we are often thoughtless in practice.  Even in the most well-meaning of teachers, it is easy to make assumptions, to think about the majority and not think carefully about those who do not fit our perception of the mythological ‘typical Edinburgh humanities student’.  Yet, I’ve met very few of these students.

Our student population is diverse, from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, sexual orientations and ages.  Also important, we need to think about the impact of the diversity of educational backgrounds of students, and the impact that has on their expectations and approach to study.  Our students come from a variety of educational systems, which prioritise rote learning, group and community learning, active learning/progressive pedagogies, home-schooling /unschooling, self-directed learning and intensive teacher support. The impact of a year away from formal education, or entering the higher education after several years in work or childcare profoundly affects performance in essays and exams, but also in discussion tutorials.

Students in our classes continue to work with a number of outside pressures, including both work and caring responsibilities, which mean that often their studies are not their biggest priority.  This is both a challenge for the tutor, and an enormous advantage, as all students come into contact with perspectives and experiences, and with learning styles, which are different from their own.  As teachers, we need to need to think about the ways the knowledge of students assumed to be ‘outsiders’ (mature, working-class and ethnic minority or disabled students) is side-lined in favour of forms of knowledge based on more dominant white, middle-class and male ways of understanding the world?  Most tutors are aware of this in the course material, but is this really reflected in our teaching style/pedagogy, in the examples we use, our terminology, our assumptions about the pedagogical use of both lecturing and tutorials?

Knowing that equality is important is not enough, it must inform our everyday practice.  Our role as tutors is to provide a supportive learning environment for all students.  My suggestion is that mainstreaming most suggested learning adjustments will enhance the learning experience of all students in the classroom.  If we can encourage a safe space to participate in discussion where every contribution is valued, this not only benefits students with anxiety issues, but facilitates contributions from those who feel themselves excluded on the basis of gender, sexuality, educational background and social class.  Asking quiet students to participate near the beginning of the tutorial as valued members of the class (and before everything has been said) or encouraging small group work can contribute to everyone’s learning.  Sitting in a horseshoe may be the best practice to assist students with a hearing impairments, but also it facilitates the conversation for everyone, emphasising equality in the classroom.

However, many exclusions are caused by unthinking norms and assumptions about good tutoring which we fail to interrogate.  Take the issue of food (biscuits, cake) in class, this is often used (and I’ve used it before) as a ‘treat’ after presentations, to stimulate discussion and lighten the atmosphere or to celebrate the end of term.  However, this only works for the majority, causing (I would argue needless, albeit unintended) distress to students with eating disorders, those fasting for religious reasons or with particular health or religious dietary constraints, often making participation harder because of the increased social anxieties surrounding food.  In 2016 it’s not good enough that we are politically committed to equality, it matters that our everyday practice matches up too, and as tutors we need to constantly re-evaluate our own assumptions and practices.

Next steps:

Read guidance on teaching diverse students on the Institute for Academic Development website.

Catriona Ellis

Catriona Ellis recently completed a part-time PhD in the history of children and childhood in late colonial South India and is currently working on her PGCAP.  She has tutored and lectured for eight years in social history and Asian and African history.  Over the summer she produced a website for postgraduate tutors in the History Department, featuring articles, power-points and short pod-casts of senior academics discussing their teaching practice.  Funded by a Principal’s Teaching Award, the website hopes to enhance history teaching across the department.

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