Inclusive Teaching

Inclusive Teaching: Reflections on the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 Theme

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

Each year, the Reinert Center chooses a theme of broad interest to SLU educators, around which we focus programs and resources. This year, our theme is Inclusive Teaching. In what follows, I offer a few thoughts to orient you to the theme and provide a brief overview of how we’ll approach the topic.

So, what is inclusive teaching?

When we hear a term like “inclusive teaching,” we often think of other terms. For example, during a reflection on this topic last spring, members of the Reinert Center’s Advisory Board said the term brought to mind diversity, diversity education, cultural awareness, flexibility in teaching and learning, the challenging of assumptions, student agency and choice in assessments, equal access to education, social justice, universal design, interdisciplinary teaching and learning, and meeting the needs of all students, among other terms. As these terms make clear, the term inclusive teaching is itself broadly inclusive of a variety of areas of focus and of concrete teaching and learning methods.

For the purposes of our work over the coming academic year, we define inclusive teaching as:

The intentional use of course design and teaching methods to create equitable learning environments where all learners can be successful, regardless of differences in identity, background, and ability. This includes an explicit commitment to recognizing and reducing barriers and minimizing the potential for (accidental or intentional) exclusion.

We see inclusive teaching as a continuous commitment to be enacted, in small and large actions, across all aspects of “teaching,” relevant for everything from syllabus design to assessment methods, from instructional strategies to classroom layout. All the decisions we make about courses and how to teach them are implicated. At a Jesuit university, in particular, a commitment to inclusive teaching is one we should all strive to enact, every term, in every course. But like any other aspect of instructional development, the process of becoming an inclusive teacher is a developmental one: we’re all works in progress, continually learning, continually enhancing our practice. Hopefully, the Reinert Center’s focus this year will help to move all of us from our current practices (however inclusive they may be) to even more inclusive approaches.

What will the year look like?

In order to highlight particular aspects of inclusive teaching, we will examine different subtopics each month, beginning with questions about whom we may be including and excluding in our courses. Then we will move through concepts like implicit bias, stereotype threat, and micro-aggressions, culminating in considerations of privilege and power in the classroom, and what it might look like to share agency and decision-making with students. (Click here [LINK] to see the main subtopics for the year.)

All year, we will strive to highlight concrete, evidence-based strategies for reducing exclusion and enhancing inclusion.  So many of us have bought in to the idea that inclusive teaching is an important goal, but we often struggle to identify the practical steps toward creating inclusion in rich and meaningful ways. The good news? Research has shown time and again that the instructional strategies supporting inclusion are the same as those that are just plain good for learning. We don’t need to simplify or “water down” the goals of our courses to create equitable access to achievement and success. Indeed, inclusive practice can contribute to student success in academically rigorous courses.

We also will aim to expand instructors’ awareness of the many categories of “difference” we encounter in our courses (both online and on-ground); to deepen understanding of the potential impact of these differences on student engagement and learning; and to raise or deepen instructors’ awareness of the ways in which our courses may exclude different kinds of students, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

How will we do all of this? Primarily through focused workshops, panels, and other events [LINK] and through new web-based resources on our website [LINK] (short Resource Guides and annotated bibliographies; sample course materials; and targeted posts on this blog), some of which will be linked directly to events. Additionally, Reinert Center staff will be available to consult one-on-one [LINK] with instructors about how to apply principles of inclusive teaching in their own particular contexts.  Because we believe deeply that teaching is a situated act, not all strategies will be right for all instructors. It will be important to discern which are appropriate for your course, your students, your teaching styles.

Why this theme, why now?

There are many compelling reasons to focus our efforts on inclusive teaching at this time, including:

Dr. Pestello’s recent call for departments to identify concrete ways to make SLU more welcoming and inclusive for all,

An institutional commitment to an increasingly-diverse student body (which will likely mean more international students, more students from traditionally under-represented groups, more first generation college students, more non-traditional students, veteran students, students with disabilities, students from diverse economic and class backgrounds, and so on), and

A clear emphasis in the University’s strategic plan on diversity, inclusion, and student success, and a reinvigorated, campus-wide commitment to racial equity on campus and across our region.

Perhaps most pressing are the growing requests from faculty and others on our campus who feel both deeply committed to creating inclusive learning environments and at a loss about how to enact this commitment practically and effectively.

Closing Thoughts

On majority-white, majority-American campuses like SLU, it can be easy not to see “difference” in our classrooms. It is important to complicate our collective understanding of who the learners are in our courses and what the implications of these differences may be for student learning and engagement.

Of course, a theme like this one has the potential to highlight tensions, within our classrooms and within our teaching practice. One inherent tension is that of how to raise awareness of difference and promote inclusion (with a focus on what’s good for all students) without seeming to erase or minimize difference. It is important to state from the outset that, like culturally responsive teaching (about which you can read more here [LINK]), inclusive teaching is not “colorblind” or “gender blind” or “class blind.” On the contrary, inclusive teaching sees differences (as well as our own perceptions about differences) and seeks actively to ensure that differences do not become barriers to learning, implicitly or explicitly.

A theme like this one can involve a tricky balance – and it’s one we’ll grapple with together as we go through the year.  Please join us. This work is worth doing, and it takes all of us to move from inclusive classrooms to a truly inclusive campus.