Let's talk about diversity in the classroom!

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! This week I want to engage you in a dialogue about a topic that is often implicitly on our minds as educators, but too seldom explicitly discussed: diversity. This is part of a broader topic- creating an inclusive classroom- and what I would like to focus on now is how we relate to diversity in our teaching and how we address it practically. Diversity itself has, of course, many facets. But regardless of the angle we take, we need to start by acknowledging that we seldom (if ever) stand in front of a totally heterogeneous class. Our students are different in many ways, and the key to good teaching is getting to know them as best we can and designing our courses mindful of this diversity. In this newsletter I’ll start with a series of questions, a checklist to set us on our way to inclusive design, and continue with a few tips and resources, as usual. I hope you find it useful and look forward to your comments.

Every student cohort is different and every instructor is different. So there is no foolproof recipe for addressing diversity in the classroom. Moreover, the switch to online teaching during the pandemic made us more aware of the existing diversity and also prompted some discussions on how to tackle it. The good news is that if we ask ourselves the right questions when we design our courses we can come up with a personal approach that enables us to skilfully respond to the realities (mind the plural here!) in our classroom. One thing to bear in mind, in terms of framing, is that diversity can- and should- be seen as a genuine resource and not as an obstacle in our teaching.

Let’s start with some questions

In order to address and approach diversity effectively, we need to start by taking a look at the unconscious biases of both instructors and students. Unconscious bias affects how people are seen and how they perceive reality, how people react towards others, how receptive they are towards others, which aspects of a person are paid most attention to, how much of what people say is actively listened to and how much or how little people are comforted in certain situations.

These 10 questions can help to reveal unconscious biases when designing and planning your courses in order to try to tackle diversity with all its facets. Let’s start from the diversity of the student cohort, moving on to the course and syllabus level and then further to the curricular level:

  1. Who do you imagine as the main target group of your course? Who will be in your classroom and who won’t?

  2. What is the context in which your course is embedded and (how) can that affect students’ learning process?

  3. How do you deal with specific student behaviour?

  4. How do you respect minority students’ experiences with discrimination without exposing them in the classroom or singling them out as “experts” and “representatives” of “their” social group?

  5. How is the tone of your syllabus? Is it welcoming and learner-centred, or rather contractual?

  6. What are the implicit rules and guidelines of your course? To what extent are they also explicitly stated in your syllabus?

  7. Have you, the instructor, made your philosophy of teaching and learning explicit to your students? How are you planning to do it?

  8. What are the learning objectives of your class? What role does diversity play, if any?

  9. What is the course content? Whose voices are heard? What perspective dominates? What is missing?

  10. How is the content relevant in the “real” world and for the learners in your class?

Some tips

Even though there is no “one fits all” solution, here are a few tips that can support you in acknowledging and meaningfully incorporating diversity in your teaching (as usual, this is far from an exhaustive list):

  • Start by taking a moment to recognise any biases or stereotypes you may have absorbed; as they are usually unconscious, this is not always an easy process, but it’s a crucial starting point for addressing diversity in teaching;

  • Get the sense of how students feel about the (cultural) climate in your classroom; tell them that you want to hear from them if any aspect of the course is making them uncomfortable; this helps build trust-based relationship;

  • Be mindful of the language you use; rectify any language patterns or case examples that exclude or demean specific groups;

  • Be sensitive to terminology that refers to specific social groups as it changes;

  • Do not assume that all students will recognise cultural, literary or historical references that are familiar to you;

  • Design various types of learning activities and provide opportunities for your students to express themselves in a way that suits them; technology can help here by providing students with a variety of media (video, audio, etc);

  • Whenever possible, select resources whose language is gender-neutral and free of stereotypes; in case the material you choose that does not meet these criteria, make it a learning moment to discuss the shortcomings;

  • Aim for an inclusive curriculum that reflects  a variety of perspectives and experiences;

  • You don’t have to do it all alone- bring in guest lectures to foster diversity in your class; these can be practitioners or colleagues from a different discipline (co-teaching/ team teaching is also a great option);

  • Design assignments that recognise students‘ diverse backgrounds and special interests.


PS: I want to acknowledge here my friend and former colleague Evelyn Hayn, who opened my eyes to the real depth of this topic by sharing her knowledge and expertise.

What’s new @ The Educationalist?

I am happy to invite you to read and listen to two new stories, part of the “Around the world” faculty development series: