Becoming a more inclusive educator will energise you and your students

We must do more to support learners from both individualistic and collectivistic cultures, says Flower Darby

March 24, 2021
A group of diverse students. By becoming a more inclusive educator, everyone benefits.
Source: iStock

Infusing equity into our classes is an important goal we’re all striving toward. Welcoming, including and supporting every individual is a powerful way to teach more equitable classes, and we can do so more effectively when we apply the principles of Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). This framework empowers us to teach classes in which every student feels that they are seen, that they have a voice and that they’re a valued member of the learning community.

According to Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, CRT is more than just diversifying the curriculum to include and represent people who aren’t from the dominant culture. Instead, it requires recognition that every student is shaped by their upbringing, and that these cultural values pervade our learning spaces to influence the motivations, decisions and actions of each person in the group.

When we support learners from both individualistic and collectivistic cultures, we create conditions that foster every student’s ability to intellectually engage with us, our class material and others in the class. 

THE Campus resource: Advice on building equitable learning communities online

These cultural dimensions, proposed by social psychologist Geert Hofstede, are found at opposite ends of the same continuum. While this is an oversimplification of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, this distillation can help us understand differences in orientation that affect the way learners from diverse backgrounds approach learning: In individualistic cultures, the work and success of the individual is more valued (for example, generally speaking, in the US, northern Europe and Australia) whereas in more collectivistic cultures, the harmony and well-being of the group is more important (in many countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, for example, the dominant culture is more collectivistic).

In these more communal cultures, learning is a function of the group; individual processing of new information feels unnatural to students raised with collectivistic values. Even in more individualistic societies, students may be significantly shaped by the collectivistic values with which they were raised in the home. So how do these differing orientations affect how students learn and engage? What can educators do to help each learner feel welcome, valued and supported?

The good news is that strategies that support communal learners aid everyone. Building a robust learning community by making space for social and emotional connections, and structuring ways for students to work together in meaningful and productive ways, fosters the success of all students.

We are all highly social beings, and we all learn from and with each other. Many of today’s educational practices, by contrast, are individualistic in nature, and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Learning in isolation, in our individual Zoom boxes, logging in to class in our homes by ourselves, is foreign to the way we learn best.

THE Campus resource: Activities to improve the student experience online

A greater focus on overcoming this isolation and providing opportunities for students to dialogue and work with each other will result in a more equitable and inclusive environment for everyone. These principles and strategies apply to in-person classes as well as online spaces, so making such approaches a regular part of your process will only strengthen your practice in all formats.

One effective way to build stronger cohesion among the group is to lead a community values-setting exercise, recommended by Courtney Plotts, an educator and researcher whose work focuses on teaching for cultural inclusion.

In this simple yet impactful activity, ask students to co-create a list of values that are important to the group. You can set the tone with a few suggestions such as: “We respect all perspectives” and “We work to ensure everyone’s voice is heard”. Ask students to provide additional suggestions in a collaborative document or space such as Google Jamboard, in the LMS discussion board or in the Zoom chat box. Alternatively, if teaching in person, on a piece of notebook paper that you collect. Collate and refine the statements and share back to the group. Periodically revisit these mutually agreed upon values to reinforce the importance of helping everyone feel included and supported.

Other strategies that provide space for students to talk and work with each other achieve a similar aim of providing a more equitable environment for people from all backgrounds. To this end, structuring effective Zoom breakout groups, strategically implementing asynchronous online discussions, creating small groups (read: really small, so that it’s easier to coordinate communication and schedules if needed) that stay together for the entire term and making time for more collaboration and discussion during in-person classes, too – all these will support students from more collectivistic cultures.

Further, you can become more culturally responsive by including stories and games in your teaching. Before you dismiss this suggestion as juvenile, consider this: stories are powerful. They play an important role in all cultures, they capture and hold our attention and they help us internalise new knowledge and meaning.

So, include stories that illustrate a concept, anecdotes from your personal experience, examples from the real world: anything that brings a concept to life. And learning games promote retrieval practice and help us see connections between otherwise disparate concepts, so where it makes sense to do so, incorporate review and study games. Besides, stories and games are interesting and fun, and that taps into the power of emotions to help people learn.

Becoming a more inclusive educator is a journey. Learning to support and welcome students from diverse cultural backgrounds is an important part of the process. And you’ll probably find that your own teaching energy is supported and renewed along the way.

Flower Darby is a scholar of equitable and inclusive teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University. She is the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.

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