Building an Inclusive Classroom: Questioning Your Assumptions

This is the fourth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  Other installments are: A Starting Place, Reflecting on Privileges, and  Knowing Your Students.  You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

Reading the news, you will learn one thing for certain: millennials are dangerous.  They seem to destroy, ruin, or kill everything, even things that I didn’t realize were so very precious to our existence.  Of course, these accusations are not anything new.  Older generations have long maligned the youth with indictments of bringing the end to civil society.  What they do reveal, however, is the persistence of the generational divide and the lines on which such divides are drawn.  They intimate the presumed values of an older generation giving way to the equally presumed values of a younger generation.  They provide a context for understanding, explaining, justifying, and defending a changing cultural landscape.

Millennials

In the classroom, these debates often serve as an obstacle to building inclusivity in the classroom.  First, their seeming frivolousness belies a more serious conversation about changing social mores. It’s easy to scoff at the death of cereal, but less so when it comes to paradigm shifts in the workplace.  The classroom is not immune to such changes, and in fact, is often the incubator of them.  Second, these debates consciously and unconsciously create and reinforce assumptions we have about our students.  They presume to tell us about who are students are: their values, beliefs, goals, habits, and attitudes.  And, if we do not get to know our students, we may rely on these external narratives to influence our classrooms and the relationships with them.

So, how can we questions our assumptions and build a more inclusive classroom?  Here are some concrete practices to assist:

Take an inventory of past experience.  If you have taught the course before or have taught this population of students before, take a moment to reflect on these experiences.  You can do a simple “worked, didn’t work, and why” reflection to help you unpack those experiences.  You can also go deeper with a “worked, didn’t work, should have worked, and why” reflection, which can help to further contextualize your past experiences and the underlying assumptions you made.

Conduct a self-assessment. As you create your course materials, assess what assumptions you are making about the students and the class.  What prerequisite knowledge (none, introductory, developing, mastery) are you expecting?  What access to resources (computer, internet, tutors, support systems) are anticipating students have?  What computer skills (file organization, basic navigation, typing) are you assuming students possess?

Lower the stakes.  At the beginning of a course, use low- or no-stakes assignments to measure your students’ knowledge on a particular topic, their ability with a particular skill, and even their comfort-level with course topics.  By lowering (or removing) the stakes, you allow students to be honest with you (and themselves), giving you valuable, concrete insights into their knowledge, skills, and interests and removing the temptation to rely on assumptions.

Build safe spaces for dialogue.  These safe spaces may take the form of an anonymous poll, survey, or discussion board.  Here, students can feel safe talking about a particularly complex issue without the fear of judgement or repercussion.  You can also use these spaces for feedback about the course.  These spaces give you an opportunity to learn more about your students, their needs, and their goals.

Adjust your approach.  You may find that you need to course-correct during a term whether through self-assessment and reflection or as the result of student feedback.  When this happens, consider why you made this decision in the first place.  Was it based on an assumption you made about the course, the students, the content, or the classroom?  What assumption did you make and why did you make it?  How can you avoid making that assumption again?  How can you adjust your approach to account for your change in perspective?

Challenge yourself.  A teaching method and approach that worked for one class probably will not work for every class.  This reality can be equally exciting as it is daunting.  However, by challenging our methods, we also give ourselves opportunities to innovate our pedagogy.  We have to find new solutions to problem we thought we solved.  This might mean learning a new skill, seeking new training and development, asking a colleague to conduct a peer observation, or conducting research into teaching methods in our field.

By questioning our assumptions, we can build an inclusive classroom space that engages them in meaningful dialogue—rather than hurling the latest version of “these kids and their rock music.”

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About the Author

Wehler 2

Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College.  Her publications include book chapters in a variety of edited collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also has a forthcoming article on the television adaptation of Jessica Jones and is the co-editor for an upcoming collection on Supergirl.  She has published on topics of teaching, pedagogy, and student success and has recently launched an open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, developed to support the needs of educators who want to create effective online video content with co-creator, Judith Dutill. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

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