By: Megan Graham
“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, perhaps we should teach the way they learn.” – Ignacio Estrada
“Tell me and I’ll forget. Teach me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll learn.” – Ben Franklin
Inclusive teaching practices are vital at every level of education. The above quotations speak to the learning experiences of a young child, undergraduate, teaching assistant (TA), and professor alike. Whether I am in my violin studio teaching groups of young children or in a campus classroom addressing undergraduates, I strive to engage every student in the room. The success of inclusive practices depends on the environment in which teaching and learning is happening. Environment is everything. A great believer in the power of learning environments, child education professor Otto Weininger said, “You can’t make children grow faster by pushing them, just as you can’t make flowers grow faster by pulling them.” The environment should nurture an attitude of inclusivity and then facilitate inclusive practice. In this paper, I will reflect on what the meaning of inclusive teaching practice, strategies to adopt, and changes to be made for TAs who implement inclusive teaching, as well as personal and institutional challenges that TAs will likely encounter through their careers.
The meaning of inclusive teaching practice
Teaching inclusively means that our approach to teaching is sensitive to the social, cultural, physical, and linguistic diversity of our students. Publications about inclusive teaching focus on different domains of diversity, such as multiculturalism, gender diversity, and myriad forms of disability (Bart, 2012; Kelly, 2012; Soisson, 2016; Zane, 2016). Several authors note that approaches to inclusive teaching vary across countries and that the concept generally resists clear definition (Florian, 2014). Florian (2014) suggests that, in Canada, inclusive teaching focuses on a person-centered approach that views difference as a resource to be valued. Florian contrasts the Canadian approach to inclusive teaching with British and American approaches that focus on changes to institutional practice and place to reduce the gap between differences in students and create a ‘least restrictive environment’ (LRE), focusing on a given place (i.e., the classroom). In order to draw away from place-based, institutional-level definitions, authors recommend thinking about inclusive education as a process of increasing participation and decreasing exclusion (Florian, 2014). For Canadian TAs, this could mean a strength-based approach that taps into students’ individual styles and interests and mobilizes those talents through a variety of activities and equitable evaluations to ensure success for everyone.
Adopting inclusive teaching practices may be new to teaching assistants and may vary depending on the country in which they are working. Scholars of inclusive teaching advise that teachers can take time over their careers to develop an inclusive attitude and their personal set of inclusive teaching practices and strategies (Kelly, 2012). Matt Ouellette from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explains that inclusive teaching is not an all or nothing game but is instead a continuum of best practice: “No matter where your class is or where you’re starting, there are always ways to think more deeply about how to make it a more welcoming and inclusive environment for the success of all students” (Kelly, 2012). Establishing an inclusive environment is key to successful inclusive practices. Students must feel they are respected and valued individually. This mutual respect between student and TA contributes to a collaborative environment and builds a sense of community, where students feel safe to work together and ask for help when needed. The welcoming environment should also motivate students to perform well and actively engage in classroom activities (Orlando, 2013; Palmer, 2009). These activities should be as diverse as the student population and capture their strengths rather than exposing their weaknesses. If the environment is set up as an inclusive space, these activities will lead to successful teaching and learning. Like Weininger’s observation that you cannot make a plant grow faster by pulling it, establishing an inclusive environment is also an organic process that requires attention in order to nurture students’ growth. The following section will consider best strategies that contribute to an environment of inclusive teaching.
Strategies for inclusive teaching practice
An environment of inclusive teaching should begin with awareness and knowledge about the diversity of students’ backgrounds, strengths, learning styles, and so on. TAs must be aware of where their students are coming from, or at least know that their students are coming from myriad places. Christine Stanley from Texas A&M University says that teachers should begin by asking, “What do I want my students to learn from this course that they could use to live, grow, and function in an increasingly global and complex world?” (Kelly, 2012). In my teaching, I have found several teaching strategies that include students in diverse ways.
Kelly (2012) noted that learning-outcome goals are often correlated with inclusive learning environment. In small group work, the learning outcome is to be able to work effectively or successfully in groups, learn to think critically, and learn to engage with multiple perspectives in the group. Small group work was highlighted as a successful teaching strategy during several Carleton University TA training sessions for its power to allow students to engage in a more comfortable forum with their peers. In a past tutorial, I put students into small groups and asked them to discuss one of four Indigenous rights topics that were part of the lecture earlier that morning. There were 4 small tasks assigned, and each group member took responsibility for one: 1) find the presence of the Indigenous activist group on social media, 2) briefly discuss the environmental connection through a related news article, 3) identify the cultural rights issue, and then 4) apply three key terms from the current or past lecture to discuss the issue. Students were then asked to share their expert knowledge with the class from the podium. This activity worked exceptionally well. Students enjoyed using the internet together, were interested in the social and political power of the hashtag on social media, and rose to the challenge of presenting as a group to their peers. While part of inclusive teaching is being sensitive to students’ different strengths and perspectives, part of it is also encouraging high performance as a result of the myriad strengths in the classroom.
Teaching strategies must cover the diverse needs of students. Old strategies that focus on memorization generally do not work well for learning. Learning happens when students engage with course material in a way that suits them. Hands-on approaches or multi-sensory techniques that call for student interaction can be effective strategies. Providing a range of strategies that appeal to different types of learners is helpful. For example, white-boarding allows students to summarize and synthesize material for students who learn visually, but it only works for students who have no vision difficulties or reading and/or writing challenges.
In my first few years of being a TA, one of the students in my tutorial was an international student who was congenitally blind. Not only was she unfamiliar with Canadian university lecture and tutorial formats, but she was also struggling to navigate accommodations and other basic actions that sighted students took for granted. The professor was not well-versed in inclusive teaching practices until I informed him that there was a student in the class for whom the YouTube videos played in lecture (even with the closed captioning) made very little sense. The professor also provided handouts to TAs for tutorial discussion and in-class quizzes. Once again, I reminded the professor that this format was not suitable for the student who could not see and asked if the material could be sent a few days ahead of time for the student to review or have on her laptop so the JAWS program could read it to her. Among the students with whom the student sat for small group discussions, I encouraged them to speak aloud more than read silently in their group and to use each other’s names when asking addressing another student rather than relying solely on visual cues. Everyone grew as a result of the learning curve they faced that semester.
Adapting to develop more inclusive teaching practices
If a TA decides to adopt a more inclusive approach to teaching, there are several adjustments they may choose to make in their preparation and facilitation of tutorials. Some scholars note that a first step toward inclusive teaching practice is to assess the inclusiveness of the course through self-reflection, reading, and discussing it with other scholars in the field who are interested in inclusive teaching (Kelly, 2012). For the TA, it may be more difficult to incorporate inclusive teaching practices when the course design is rigid and exclusionary. A TA can adopt the role of advocate for students who they see struggling with a course and discuss student challenges with the professor. The TA can also strive to bring diverse activities to the tutorial or discussion group that engage students in learning through a “show, don’t tell” or a hands-on approach.
Bart (2012) proposed a 4-part framework for multicultural course design that is helpful for teaching as well. The framework consists of the following basic questions: Who are you? Who are your students? What are your pedagogical choices? What are your content choices? The framework encourages instructors to model inclusive behaviour by creating opportunities for diverse perspectives to be heard. This can involve presenting examples, illustrations, and videos that reflect the diversity in your classroom, or integrating activities that encourage students to mobilize and build their own knowledge and strengths.
TAs may also have to reflect upon their own set of assumptions regarding differences, students, and learning. Florian (2014) proposed a framework for inclusive pedagogy that details some of the assumptions and associated actions that can move a classroom toward an inclusive environment. For example, teachers must believe they are capable of teaching all learners, must continually develop creative ways of working with others, and must assume that difference is an essential aspect of human development. Accordingly, teaching practice should include opportunities for students to co-construct knowledge together, and tutorial preparation should emphasize what and how material is being taught, as well as who is learning through what quality of the teacher-student and student-student interactions. With regards to who is being taught, the TA may also become more aware of the language used when addressing students —for example, the use of pronouns in a classroom that accounts for gender diversity (Zane, 2016).
Finally, TAs should prepare themselves for difficult dialogues and conversations in multicultural classrooms (Bart, 2012; Soisson, 2016). Matt Ouellette suggests having “pedagogical parachutes” for tense moments where a student says something quite misplaced and you are not sure how to respond. For example, the TA could ask, “Can you tell me more? How did you come to believe this? Are there other perspectives on this topic?” (Bart, 2012). The TA should be as sensitive as possible to the variety of backgrounds and needs of their students, open-minded, and prepared to feel unprepared.
Challenges to inclusive teaching for TAs
Committing to inclusive teaching practice is a progressive step for TAs. Unfortunately, there are several challenges that accompany this adjustment. Some of these challenges are on a personal level, while other challenges are at the institutional level. With the help of university educational development centres, TAs can access information and guidance about creating and implementing inclusive teaching activities in tutorial and discussion group, as well as tips about how to manage interpersonal ‘hot spots’ and difficult conversations that potentially arise in an inclusive classroom. In my experience, novice TAs are receptive to inclusive teaching models and eager to encourage engagement in their classes. However, the TA’s best efforts can be undermined by an unsupportive institution and uninformed professor.
The most poignant example of an institutional-level obstacle to successful inclusive teaching for TAs is the format of evaluations and assessments. At times, it seems like the university system is based on equality, not equity, and the singular approach to student assessment and evaluation through essays can be incongruous with inclusive teaching activities. The cartoon entitled “Climb that Tree” is the best depiction of the problem with equality-focused rather than equity-focused standardized assessment and evaluation (Russo, 2012). The cartoon depicts an older male teacher sitting at a desk in an outdoor space explaining to a row of “students” (a bird, a monkey, a penguin, an elephant, a fish in a bowl, a seal, and a dog) standing in front of a tree that, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: Please climb that tree.” If inclusive teaching practice means that everybody is engaged through person-centred, strength-based activities in which students have some say in the format through which they learn and are evaluated, then at times the institution is actively thwarting inclusive teaching through its tyranny of essays and scantrons.
This seemingly impossible hurdle of standardization in Canadian learning institutions is being overcome elsewhere in the world. There is an excellent set of videos about inclusive teaching practices from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, where anatomy and pharmacy students are encouraged to use white-boarding, body painting, clay modelling, and model-building (both physical and virtual) to learn and for assessment and evaluation (Baverstock, 2013; Diaz, 2013). The RMIT professors Dr. Katherine Baverstock (Pharmacy Practice Lecturer) and Dr. Claudia Diaz (Senior Lecturer in Medical Sciences) make sure the activities and evaluations are congruous by including material or images from the activities in their assessments. Students are allowed to choose their learning activity format and their assessment format. This approach provides students with the opportunity to engage with their interests, work at their peak level, and demonstrate their scope of knowledge without being restricted by the standardized evaluation format which is ill-suited to many students.
Thus, some of the real challenges TAs encounter when they try to establish an inclusive teaching environment are above them at the institutional level and will remain so until the today’s TAs become tomorrow’s course professors, department chairs, faculty deans, and university presidents. Recalling the Weininger quotation from above, we cannot make plants, children, or institutions grow by pushing and pulling them. Continually, the environment must be nurtured from the ground up and then the institutional body can be guided and encouraged to change in a direction that the new environment supports.
Inclusive teaching practice means creating an environment that is mutually respectful, that encourages learning through myriad practices to engage everybody in the classroom, and that is prepared to navigate difficult discussions when they arise. The inclusive teaching environment is not about spotlights on the “T-zone” of students; it is about fully illuminated classrooms that have dynamic, changing lights where students and TAs are cooperatively directing the production. Inclusive teaching practice requires knowledge, training, and a positive attitude that embraces diversity in a person-centred and strength-focused way. In an inclusive classroom, learning activities and assessments and evaluations should align and motivate every student to work at their peak performance level. Non-inclusive course designs present a challenge for TAs, and they may find that they have to advocate on behalf of students and take on the task of talking to their professors about inclusive teaching practice and its benefits to students. Despite the challenges, it is a worthy effort to make because eventually the changes made in tutorials will lead to changes made in future larger visions and mandates for university education in Canada.
Bart, M. (2012). Strategies for creating a more inclusive classroom. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/strategies-for-creating-a-more-inclusive-classroom/.
Baverstock, K. (2013, December 8). RMIT inclusive teaching practices: 2. Negotiated assessment. Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvgEG_4Kfow.
Diaz, C. (2013, December 8). RMIT inclusive teaching practices: 1. Design intentional curriculum. Youtube. Retrived from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snyjvz6y4ck.
Florian, L. (2014). What counts as evidence of inclusive education? European Journal of Special Needs Education, 29(3), 286-294.
Kelly, R. (2012). Understanding the elements of an inclusive course design. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/understanding-the-elements-of-an-inclusive-course-design/.
Orlando, M. (2013). Nine characteristics of a great teacher. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/philosophy-of-teaching/nine-characteristics-of-a-great-teacher/.
Palmer, C. (2009). Building student engagement: Classroom atmosphere. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/building-student-engagement-classroom-atmosphere/.
Russo, A. (2012). Cartoons: “Climb that tree.” Retrieved from http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2012/08/cartoons-climb-that-tree.html#.WEQo2PkrLIU
Soisson, A. (2016). Seven bricks to lay the foundation for productive difficult dialogues. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/seven-bricks-to-lay-the-foundation-for-productive-difficult-dialogues/.
Zane, S. (2016). Supporting transgender students in the classroom. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/supporting-transgender-students-classroom/.