Inclusivity in Learning

When I saw that the topic for the TeachingEnglish blog for January - February was ‘Inclusivity’ I felt exhilarated by the challenge and relevance of the topic. But also a little stumped. Inclusivity is, to me, both fundamental and something that, as a teacher, I surely don’t consider enough.

We live in a politically correct world, for the most part. There are words and stereotypes that were commonly used half a century ago that we wouldn’t stand for now. We work hard to make sure that no-one feels his or her experiences or opinions are worth less than that of an other’s. We still have a way to go, but on whole, I would suggest -- we are on the right track. Our classrooms are mini societies and as such carry with them all the tensions, prejudices, and potential injustices that the outside world can harbour. As teachers, we certainly have an inclination to help create a positive and inclusive atmosphere and I don’t think I’ve ever met a teacher who would consider gender, race, sexuality, class, or a perceived disability to be relevant to teaching or learning English. But then, how often do teachers receive training on creating a positive and inclusive environment in the classroom, and what techniques can we learn and incorporate to ensure this is what we are creating? Let’s look at some practical ways we can increase inclusivity in our learning spaces.

Group Work Placing students into groups can help students to form relationships, build trust, and promote a collaborative learning environment. Many activities can be carried out in groups from tasks in a task-based learning setting such as preparing a presentation, to creating dialogues, and even completing gap-fills. The essential part of group-work is that the interactions are carried out in English. This is one of those special moments when students are learning and progressing, and often don’t even realise it. They are improving their communicative competence, building relationships, and getting practice participating in spontaneous conversations, specifically negotiating meaning. As with any task, it is important to think about and plan beforehand any language the students might need to participate fully in the task such as: That’s a good idea but why don’t we..., I agree..., I disagree..., Could we try this... It is also important to remember to change the members of the groups round so they are not always made up of the same people every time. Group work is not, however, a fix-all as some learners may have stronger personalities and within group situations individuals can still be excluded. To resolve this, teachers can monitor closely and be aware of any tensions and keep open a variety of lines of communication (see point 3).

Promoting Positive Values There is a fine line to tread here. An English teacher is not in the classroom to assert his or her personal ideas and values, but at the same time we must consider the whole learner and the learning environment as essential aspects of the learning process. Our ideas of right and wrong must come into play when we perceive a situation is not as it should be, or a student is for whatever reason uncomfortable or unhappy. We have an obligation to ensure each member of the group is content with the dynamics and the content of the lesson. We need to consider and be aware of certain cultural and personal preferences, and we need to make sure our learners can speak up if these are infringed. Imagine a young man who is uncomfortable with the content of an exercise due to a personal experience, or the preference of a female student to work another woman due to religious or personal preferences. You can’t be aware of every cultural nuance and so I would recommend that you assign a sensible leader in the class to speak to if you have any doubts. This will work if you have what can be considered a homogeneous group, as is most common in the EFL world but if you are teaching in the USA, UK, Australia or in any other situation in which you have learners from a variety of backgrounds (ESL), you will need to find other ways to facilitate the freedom for learners to speak up.

Allowing Feedback In a famous book by Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman, he mentions the halo effect which is a cognitive bias in favour of the first, the most attractive, or the most confident speaker. An example he gave was: at board meetings the majority would often fall in behind the most articulate or persuasive (or even just the loudest) speaker. He recommended, therefore, that each person in the meeting wrote down what they thought before the meeting, so they wouldn’t be overly swayed by the strongest speaker. What does that mean for our classrooms? It means if we want to ensure that learners can voice their thoughts, problems, or suggestions, in a comfortable and convenient way, we need to create various ways that this can happen, other than simply asking at the end if everything is OK, or relying entirely on our perception. This openness and ability to voice concerns could be through an anonymous Google Survey sent out at the end of each term, of every month, a suggestion box, or an occasional private conversation with each student. That way, everyone is given the opportunity to speak about things that might not be easy to speak about in front of others.

Conclusion By being aware of the importance of inclusion and the learners’ emotional well-being, coupled with vigilance, reflection, and the implementation of strategies for promoting collaboration and awareness among our students, we can help create inclusive environments. When it comes to finding a solution to these problems we are at an advantage due to our profession. Teachers are involved in education, and education is the way for us to become more knowledgeable and therefore, more inclusive.

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