“The first question is: Can learning take place if in fact it silences the voices of the people it is supposed to teach? And the answer is: Yes. People learn that they don’t count.”--Henry Giroux (1992, p. 15)
In 2015, a faculty member at the University of Kansas was investigated after students in her class complained about comments she made regarding racial tensions at her university. According to an open letter from the students, the faculty member dismissed institutionalized racism as an explanation for Black students leaving school: “Those students are not leaving school because they are physically threatened everyday but because of academic performance.” The students also wrote that she said, “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism. … It’s not like I see (the n-word) spray painted on walls….”
Stories like this are unfortunately not rare – college students have reported feeling marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, social class, and more. It is our job as instructors to make our classrooms a space where all students feel valued and able to learn.
What is Classroom Climate and Why Does it Matter?
Classroom climate refers to “the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environment in which our students learn” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 170). Climate can be conceptualized on a continuum: explicitly marginalizing (intentionally hostile), implicitly marginalizing (unintentionally hostile), implicitly centralizing (unintentionally inclusive), and explicitly centralizing (intentionally inclusive; DeSurra & Church, 1994).
An example of explicit marginalization:
I’m in this psychology class this semester, and our teacher told us that he believes that homosexuality is a curable, psychological illness, even though it was taken off the books in 1974. He still thinks gays and lesbians are very sick and need treatment (DeSurra & Church, 1994, p. 23).
And an example of implicit marginalization:
I took a class in woman's studies which was interesting because you know, a lot of the woman's studies departments are criticized for being the lesbian department and blah blah blah and when I took the class it was real interesting because not a thing was covered on lesbianism or anything. It was women in cross-cultural perspectives. There were a couple of times when it would have been appropriate to mention something, like when we were talking about love in different societies and it could have been brought in but the professor treated it like such a taboo thing to talk about, it made me feel weird, like guilt by association (DeSurra & Church, 1994, p. 25).
Although the instructor in the first example is more overt in hostility, both examples have the effect of marginalizing LGBT students. Most of the examples of a chilly class climate are less obvious than the first example, but they have the effect of making a group of students feel alienated in the classroom. For example (Hall & Sandler, 1984; Sandler & Hall, 1986):
- Does the teacher call on underrepresented students less often and generally give them less attention in class?
- Does the teacher interrupt underrepresented students more often?
- Are the experiences of underrepresented students absent from the course (e.g., a literature course with no writers of color, a history class with no mention of important female figures)?
The research on the effects of a chilly class climate is clear – student learning is compromised (e.g., Pascarella et al., 1997; Whitt et al., 1999):
- Students experience negative emotions (e.g., anger, helplessness) that make them disengage from the class
- Students spend cognitive energy thinking about or dealing with the chilly climate, which is cognitive energy not spent on learning
- Students who feel marginalized may change their major
- Students who feel marginalized may drop out of college entirely
Even more insidious is the research on stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995), which suggests that when stereotypes about the students’ identities are activated, students can be anxious about confirming the stereotype, which paradoxically produces a decrease in performance. Hundreds of studies on stereotype threat over the last 20 years show the power of stereotypes to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why Do Some Teachers Resist Becoming Inclusive Teachers?
- Many individuals are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the ways in which they experience privilege (McIntosh, 1989; Wise & Case, 2013). They become defensive, as though acknowledging privilege means that they are being accused of being racist/sexist/etc. (Wise & Case, 2013).
- If teachers have a strong belief in a just world (i.e., that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get; Lerner, 1980), then they might not see that some students have unearned privileges that help them get ahead in their courses.
- Many teachers are likely unaware that their current teaching methods are not inclusive (e.g., no students have complained, they aren’t aware of the literature on inclusive teaching).
- Many teachers might be willing to change but feel anxiety about issues related to diversity; they fear saying the wrong thing or not being able to answer students’ questions in a sensitive way.
What Can We Do To Become Inclusive Teachers?
- Inclusivity starts with the relationships you develop with your students. Getting to know your students as individuals can help you overcome any assumptions you might have about students based on aspects of their identity and can help them feel more comfortable in the class, especially if they are a member of an underrepresented group. Consider coming to class a little early and staying late to chat with your students. Learn students’ names. Some faculty have short mandatory visits to office hours in an effort to engage with students one-on-one (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014).
- Students need to see that the class is a safe space for everyone to speak. Consider setting up ground rules for discussions at the beginning of the class, or have the students come up with ground rules themselves.
- Frequent opportunities for students to provide anonymous feedback about the course can help students feel valued and give them an opportunity to discuss issues they might not be comfortable discussing otherwise (Sorcinelli, 1994).
- Active learning strategies engage students and lead to more student learning compared to passive learning strategies (e.g., listening to a lecture). In addition, active learning strategies outperform passive learning strategies in leveling the playing field for underrepresented students (Eddy & Hogan, 2014). Check out our article on active learning here.
- Frequent testing has been shown to be effective in student learning, a phenomenon known as the testing effect (McDaniel, Roediger, & McDermott, 2007). It also has been shown to reduce achievement gaps between low- and high-income college students (Pennebaker, Gosling, & Ferrell, 2013). Check out our article on formative assessment here.
- The research on flipped classrooms suggests improved student engagement and learning outcomes (Gross et al., 2015). Flipped classrooms can also reduce achievement gaps between men and women (Gross et al., 2015). Read more about how to flip your classroom here.
- There are strategies that you can use to reduce stereotype threat in your students; check out the “Reducing Stereotype Threat” website for more details.
- Students in your class may occasionally make comments that are perceived by others as insensitive or hostile (e.g., demeaning jokes, stereotypical statements about groups of people). How you handle these “hot moments” in the classroom can determine the degree to which the class as a whole perceives the climate as inclusive (e.g., Dunn, Gurung, Naufel, & Wilson, 2013; Warren, 2006). First, think about issues that may be triggers for you and have a plan for how you will manage your emotions in the moment and what you might say in response. When such incidents occur, remember to stay calm and not take the statement personally. Ask for clarification from the student; perhaps he or she misspoke and/or can clarify the comments in such a way as to defuse the offensiveness. It can be helpful to depersonalize the comments (e.g., “Many people believe that. Can anyone think of any criticisms of that viewpoint?”). You can even validate that they spoke up without endorsing the view (e.g., “Thanks for raising that perspective; it’s widely held, and now we have an opportunity to talk about it.”). Allowing students the opportunity to write before speaking can give everyone a chance to cool off and collect their thoughts. It is important to address the issue in some way, though, because if the teacher ignores an offensive statement, students get the message that such comments are permissible and perhaps even endorsed by the instructor.
- Consider spending some class time on activities designed to help students better understand issues related to diversity, inclusiveness, and privilege. For example, in the “privilege walk,” students are asked to form a line and take a step forward (e.g., “If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up”) or backward (e.g., “If your parents did not grow up in the United States”) after a series of statements designed to reflect privilege. At the end of the activity, students reflect on the various positions of students in the class. Be careful though; sometimes this activity can raise more defensiveness in students (see, for example, http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/25794/). It can be helpful to start with a non-threatening type of privilege to reduce resistance. For example, students should readily acknowledge that right-handed people have privileges that left-handed people do not, and they should understand that these privileges are often invisible to right-handed people (Gilbert, 2008).
Taking a Look Inward: Critical Self-Reflection
According to bell hooks (1994), “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students” (p. 15). To what extent are we as teachers self-aware regarding diversity in the classroom? Marchesani and Adams (1992) suggest that instructors go through a critical reflection exercise for determining the extent to which they are inclusive in their teaching. Consider the following questions:
(1) What assumptions or stereotypes do you hold about certain students? Even if you consciously think that you treat all students equally, there might be unconscious biases affecting the way you interact with students (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Students can pick up on subtle, unintended differences in treatment, and their performance in the class can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which students who were expected by their teachers to do well in fact do better than expected (and vice versa; Rosenthal & Jacobsen, 1968). A good place to start examining your own potential biases is to take a version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) or rate yourself according to Michele DiPietro’s Checklist of Assumptions. It is difficult for most people to acknowledge their own prejudices, but we as teachers have an ethical obligation to understand ourselves to create a safe space for all students to learn.
(2) What do you know about race/gender/sexual orientation/social class/culture/etc. and how these dimensions of diversity affect classroom dynamics? For example, are you educated about the ways in which institutionalized racism affects the experiences of students of color (Karkouti, 2016)? Do you know about the research on the ways that women’s contributions to class discussions are ignored or minimized (Hall & Sandler, 1984)? Are you familiar with the literature on how stereotype threat affects the performance of underrepresented students (Steele & Aronson, 1995)?
(3) What can you do when you teach to address diversity of experience, values, and learning? Henry Giroux (1992) argued, “You can’t deny that students have experiences and you can’t deny that these experiences are relevant to the learning process… Students have memories, families, religions, feelings, languages and cultures that give them a distinctive voice. We can critically engage that experience…But we can’t deny it” (p. 17). To what extent are students permitted or even encouraged to connect the material to their lived experiences? Are your teaching methods connecting with the students in your course, or are they reproducing hierarchical systems of domination and oppression (hooks, 1994)?
(4) How can you represent diverse groups and perspectives in the courses you teach? Is the perspective primarily coming from a White, western, male lens? Would it be appropriate to talk about aspects of diversity that may be ignored in your textbook or in the traditional way of teaching the course (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, disability, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity)?
There are other ways to reflect on the extent to which your teaching is inclusive. For example, a checklist from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching can help you self-assess the degree to which interactions between you and the students, interactions between the students themselves, the content, and the instructional practices exhibit best practices.
Learning is compromised when students feel marginalized in the classroom. We owe it to our students to create learning spaces where everyone is able to contribute and feel heard.
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