This blog is part of the Advance HE Thematic Series resource for ‘The intercultural curriculum’, this is an output of the Advance HE Scottish National Priority Plan.
The aim of the Thematic Series are to strengthen core academic capabilities of staff through the sharing of effective practice and focused theory, and to support institutional enhancement of Learning and Teaching, complementing and further building on their existing in-house work. Topics are identified by the Scottish Sector, and resources are authored and curated by colleagues from Scottish institutions, with case studies and blogs sourced from both national and international colleagues, and the resources aim to guide practitioners to relevant material and experiences to support them in developing their own teaching practice.
I am a very young teacher in a university classroom, teaching English as a Foreign Language. Also in the room are 18 Japanese students. We are all there because we want learning to happen, but something is wrong. I am qualified and experienced. The techniques I have learned and refined worked well with the students I was teaching in France up until a couple of weeks ago. But these students are different. They do not respond to my questions. Instead, they look at the floor, or each other – anything to avoid eye contact. How can I possibly teach them to speak English when they won’t speak at all?
Part of me is annoyed with them and I probably let it show. But mostly I am annoyed with myself. My educational background in postcolonial studies means alarm bells are sounding in my head – I sense that the problem is with me and that cultural differences are at work. Yet that knowledge alone does not answer the question: what do I do now? Overnight, it seems, I have gone from being a good teacher to being a bad one, not because I’ve changed what I do, but because I haven’t.
Experiences like this can make the idea of responding to diversity in the classroom seem overwhelming - yet another drain on precious time and energy. I have met many HE teachers who feel this way. In my academic development consultancy work I also hear, "We need you to do something on inclusivity in teaching – but people are very resistant". So here I am sharing an approach I’ve used with early-career HE teachers, which is designed to remove some of that resistance and sense of overwhelming and open the way to deeper engagement. Inclusivity and diversity are hugely complex and this is a pragmatic starting point. It comes from a wish to encourage people to reflect on and change their practice, by observing and listening to their students. It recognises that, while my approach is informed by reading and theory, the participants’ may not be. It recognises that, while some may be inspired to go further (and I will be glad to support them in this), others will not.
I start with some examples. If I’m working with a group of staff, I give participants three or four paragraph-long case studies of particular (fictional) students. To ensure these are authentic, they are always based on my own experiences, or those of trusted colleagues, with great care taken to anonymise them.
Here are some that could all be relevant to the intercultural curriculum. However, I prefer to mix them up. The more varied they are, the more the emphasis is on the differences between all students rather than particular groups. The descriptions are in the first person, in the voice of the lecturer. For example:
1. 'S is a student in my group who has submitted an essay that is not really an essay. There are a lot of reflections on personal experiences (which is not in the criteria); and no reference to the relevant literature. It doesn’t even follow an argument. I really think this student is not up to the level of the course. Yesterday I gave the essays back and he waited for me after class. He said, “I don’t really know what an ‘essay’ is”. What am I supposed to do about that?’
2. ‘This year I have a student, M, who always sits in the front row, frowning. She looks unhappy or angry the whole time. Whenever I ask her opinion or thoughts about something though, she looks blank and just says she doesn’t know. This started to really annoy me, so I took her aside after yesterday’s class. She cupped her ear and asked me to repeat myself a few times. Eventually, she just said nothing was wrong. When I asked if she had a hearing problem, she looked scared and said she didn’t want to be thrown out.’
3. ‘There’s a student in my module on the one-year full-time Master’s degree course - I’m bad with names. She originally asked lots of questions in class and had some good ideas, but she’s got quieter as the term has gone on. I notice that when I get them doing group work, the others don’t like to include her.’
Using ‘I’, in the voice of the lecturer, makes it clear that the view being given of the situation is subjective. Making reference to the teacher’s feelings, assumptions, or previous experiences can make it even clearer. This subjective framing draws attention to the fact that the many lenses between us and others – lenses of personality, class, educational background, gender, professional experience and race – can obscure the other person’s perspective. It also helps avoid reducing real people to sets of characteristics. Although at least the first two of the examples above give strong clues about the nature of the issues, ambiguity can be useful too. Inviting participants to name the assumptions the teacher is making and make suggestions about what might be going on is more sympathetic and ethical (and productive) than seeing students as problems to be solved. Has 'S' from the first case study come from a very culturally different education system, or has it been a while since they studied, or is there something else going on in their life that is stopping them engaging fully with their course? Once we’ve identified the possible issues at work, I ask the group to suggest ways the lecturer can ensure everyone is getting fair learning opportunities. I split them into groups, each taking a different case. As they’re talking, I go around and listen. Often I challenge them to be more specific or to break down one of their proposed actions into more detailed sub-actions.
After they’ve all created their lists of strategies and shared them with the whole group, we stick them on the wall. I ask them to pick out which ones would have benefitted more than one of the students. Then we think about which would benefit all of them. This can be captured in a Venn diagram, or three different lists or different colours. Although they will rightly propose some quite specific interventions (might 'M' need information about disability support and – eventually – a hearing aid?), many of their ideas will be beneficial in most or all of the situations we discuss and more widely (which students wouldn’t like to see assessment information on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) at the start of the course?). What the group has done is create a list of strategies which begin to support more inclusive teaching. At this point, I ask for participants’ comments on which strategies are likely to save them time in the long run. I watch them relax – many smile. They are less resistant and more engaged. They’re open to more challenging ideas.
This exercise creates some manageable take-away messages. If you can’t get to know all students in your class of 200 individually, you can create an environment in which they’re confident to approach you, and learn their names when they do. If you can’t second-guess every misunderstanding about a new assessment method, you can provide opportunities for questions, and for practicing and learning from mistakes – and learn from what emerges. You can’t be expected to know everything about cultural difference in learning and teaching - but you can be alert to it, and open to learning more.
This exercise asks what our students tell us, consciously or not, about their learning needs. We can show that we value their voices by providing different channels for them – online discussion boards, direct emails, the chance of a quick chat after class. Introducing diverse voices into the classroom through case studies, visiting speakers and audio or video material can be a means of validating a wider range of experiences than the group shares. It also avoids placing the burden of providing ‘different’ perspectives on students from minority groups. While some might be keen to do this, we can’t take it for granted. When students do share their diverse knowledge – of our subjects, as well as their experiences - we need to be ready to learn.
Where do we go from here? In the first place, it’s good to evaluate success. Do you get as many questions about assessment, now that you devote class time to exploring it? Have your changes to the VLE made any difference to the profile of marks across students from different educational, cultural and ethnic backgrounds? When we’re in the thick of work, in responsive mode, it can be easy to forget the power we have to make change happen. As a junior teacher in that class of Japanese students, even when I’d addressed the learning and teaching climate in my own classroom, my colleagues and I could see bigger structural problems that were affecting the students’ learning. We challenged these – sometimes successfully. If you notice persistent problems – particularly if certain student groups are under-achieving - ask yourself what’s going on and how you can change things for the better. Which student voices aren’t being heard in your university? Who else is out there with the same thoughts, who will support them - and you?