It’s a long post, but I could really do with your thoughts!
Suppose a university or college wanted to review the inclusivity of the curriculum. Not recruitment, or admissions, or student support, but the core learning, teaching and assessment activities. What might that mean? And how should it be presented to busy academics? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but it’s easy to get bogged down in bureaucratic language, so I wanted to see if I could articulate some basic claims that might be behind such an initiative. My starting point is the thought that
- although there are many similarities among students and the people teaching them, there are also many differences;
- some of these differences are culturally and politically significant in ways which have affected people’s access to, and success within, higher education;
- these inequalities are not inevitable – they are, in part, the result of barriers created by practices and policies in learning, teaching and assessment;
- we should be working to identify and remove such barriers.
Given this starting point, I take the ‘inclusivity’ of the curriculum to be the extent to which it draws in a wide range of people and enables them to learn to the best of their ability. So I’m thinking about members of all kinds of groups traditionally underserved by higher education. The kinds of barriers which would make a curriculum less inclusive, then, might include
- drawing syllabus content throughout a degree programme from a narrow understanding of the subject or discipline, to the exclusion of critical or marginalised perspectives (see Jill Gordon’s paper What Can White Faculty Do – sadly not available for free unless you have access via an institutional library);
- using ‘high stakes’ delivery or assessment, which only gives students one opportunity to participate or to demonstrate their achievement and leaves no room for them to learn from mistakes;
- relying heavily on a single method of delivery (for instance, the traditional lecture) or a single method of assessment (for instance, the traditional written exam) (see Making your teaching inclusive);
- assuming that students already understand the cultures and norms of higher education in your country – or of specific disciplines – and so failing to make expectations clear;
- using illustrations, examples and language which reinforce stereotypes or convey the message that some ways of being are ‘normal’ and others ‘abnormal’;
- stereotyping students from particular groups and (even unwittingly) treating them differently as a result (see our other posts on implicit bias and the American Psychological Association on racism and psychology) ;
- only offering opportunities for further research or study at times which are inaccessible for students with caring commitments or who need to earn money alongside their studies;
- allowing offensive behaviour or speech to go unchallenged in a way which makes people feel humiliated, excluded or silenced.
Are there other reasons to pursue this work – or reasons not to pursue it? Are there other barriers that seem obvious to you? What kinds of evidence would help establish the nature of the barriers? Or is this the wrong way to think about it?
If you work in higher education, how could you raise these issues with colleagues? And how do you think the conversations would go?