Realising the educational value of student and staff diversity
Often the diversity of experiences, perspectives and identities that our students and staff bring is not acknowledged or made use of. At best this is a wasted opportunity and at worst it leaves individuals feeling marginalised.
"Everyone has many identities. Age, gender, religious or spiritual affiliation, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and socio-economic status are all identities.” (Goldbach, 2017).
Inclusive teaching and learning encourages people to bring their whole selves and respects them for who they are.
Diversity of experiences and perspective
Here are some suggestions for making learning more inclusive in terms of cultural diversity:
- Reflect on what assumptions you make about all students' awareness of culturally specific references, terms and acronyms, for example British TV programmes, the A-level syllabus and the NHS.
- As part of induction make explicit to all students the expectations of studying your subject at university level and discuss the study approaches involved. This is a new learning culture for all learners. The Preparing students for learning section, Imperial’s Success Guide and the Personal Tutors’ Guide are useful resources.
- Provide students with opportunity to make sense of concepts from their own cultural perspective and to share their reflections with others. e.g. What are commonly held views on the topic/concept in question? Why do people hold this view? This both makes students feel their perspectives are valued and enables other students to learn about and from diverse perspectives.
'At the base of intercultural understanding is a recognition of the ways in which two cultures resemble one another... resemblances usually surface through an examination of the differences.' (Valdes, 1986, 49)
- Check that you include examples, cases studies and ideas from a range of cultural perspectives or justify why they are predominantly from a specific cultural perspective. “Case studies are an effective way of raising race-related, cultural and faith issues” - see the Universities Scotland webpages to find out how.
- Encourage students to discuss opinions and ideas based on their cultural perspectives but don’t place individuals in the position of “informed expert” and expect them to speak on behalf of their country or cultural group.
- Incorporate culturally mixed group work to encourage students to practice intercultural communication and collaboration and to build a sense of community amongst the cohort. Specific teaching strategies like Team-based Learning (TBL) can add much needed structure to group working.
- Acknowledge the challenge and value of working in diverse, multicultural teams by:
- preparing students for this experience: students may often be unfamiliar with working in cross-cultural teams and may find it difficult. It is recommended to consider potential problems in your planning and to give students advice on how to manage their cross-cultural group working. The University of Michigan offers useful advice on facilitating cross-cultural group work.
- requiring students to critically reflect on this team working process. The following questions from a project at the University of Hertfordshire may be useful here:
- What do I contribute to the learning experience of my fellow students that they most value in me?
- What do my fellow students contribute to my learning that I most value in them?
Gender and sexual identities
Here are some suggestions for making learning more inclusive in terms of gender and sexual identities:
- Reflect on the importance of being inclusive with regard to gender and sexual identities in learning and teaching, and consider some of the assumptions you may currently make about your students.
- Use inclusive language in teaching where appropriate. This obviously means avoiding abusive and discriminatory terms, but also being aware of heteronormative and cis-normative language in written, verbal and non-verbal communication (see King, 2016). For example, when you refer to a student or colleague as “he” or “she”, are you sure that this is their preferred pronoun? If you are unsure, you can ask them. Remember, some people may prefer a gender-neutral or non-binary pronoun such as “they”, and gender identities can be fluid rather than fixed.
- Establish a zero tolerance policy regarding misogynistic, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour in the classroom. Lecturers should publicly challenge discriminatory language and attitudes in learning environments. A lack of appropriate response from the lecturer may be perceived as implicit approval or public validation of negative values or discriminatory sentiments.
- Avoid the reinforcement of stereotypes in terms of gender and sexual identities in your learning and teaching discourses (for example, ‘women are emotional’, ‘gay men are creative’, ‘lesbian women are masculine’, ‘strong leaders are male’, ‘parents consist of a mother and a father’). Instead, seek ways to challenge such assumptions.
- Look for opportunities to send positive messages about our acceptance and value of LGBT+ people in teaching and learning dialogue, and in general communication. Personal tutoring may be an obvious context in which to do this directly – particularly if you have a tutee who has self-identified as LGBT+, but there may also be opportunities in day-to-day teaching. If you can start to think of yourself as an ‘ally’ to your LGBT+ students (including those who are known to you and those who are not), you will find it easier to send positive messages spontaneously and naturally.
- Point to relevant LGBT+ role models when opportunities arise, and highlight the value of their work. These could be LGBT+ people who are visible in the College, active in the wider discipline, or even historical figures who have made important contributions to science and academia. See Seven Scientists You Didn’t Know Were LGBT (or Even Existed!)
- Make sure you are aware of LGBT+ networks and organisations, both within College and the wider discipline, and/or in professional spheres, that you could signpost students towards if they want to connect with or support LGBT+ people. Start with Imperial College Union.
Inclusive practice at Imperial
In Imperial’s Department of Maths, international and home students are invited for coffee or tea in order to socialise with peers and practise their conversational English language. At first a shout-out was often done in the Maths Learning Centre just before the tea started if the group was short of native English speakers but we never had problems getting enough native English speaking students to drop in and soon the shout-out became unnecessary – the students came for the biscuits and the chat! Some students would be there for 10-20 minutes for a quick tea break, while some came for 2 hours to really practise their English, sometimes also solving maths problems at the same time. Generally conversation centred around maths at the start of the session, but inevitably moved on to more social topics. It also became a great place for the more reserved students, who found it difficult to meet new people, to find a safe space in a relatively small group of like-minded students who they knew were wanting to meet to chat. Ultimately demand for the sessions came from the native English speaking students, who obviously got as much out of it as those who were coming to help with their English and the quieter students who found a safe place to start social contacts.
Anne-Marie Hilder, Maths Undergraduate Liaison Officer
- Read about how Imperial College's teachers enable their students to share perspectives and learn from each other:
- Building inclusivity: engagement, community and belonging in the classroom. A video by Bob Matthew, University of Stirling for the Higher Education Academy.
- Race Equality Toolkit - “Higher education plays a vital role in preparing students for the employment market and active citizenship both nationally and internationally. By embedding race equality in teaching and learning, institutions can ensure that they acknowledge the experiences and values of all students, including minority ethnic and international students.” (Universitites Scotland)
- This video by the University of Michigan's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching on addressing incivility in the classroom.
- Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege
- UNSW Sydney’s Diversity Toolkit gives practical advice on how to develop a culturally inclusive environment and culturally inclusive practice.