We sat down with I&D advocate, Edgar Meyer to explore the importance of fostering an environment of diversity and inclusion in education. Learn more here in our Q&A.
What are your favorite ways to promote diverse and inclusive learning environments?
There are several ways I enjoy promoting inclusivity in the classroom. It is essential to establish some ground rules on which all members of the class can agree before beginning a class. This should include an expectation for mutual respect between members of the class, regardless of their backgrounds and differences. This respect includes the additional agreement by all members of the class to remain engaged during class time, especially when other students or instructors are sharing information. This means disconnecting from electronic devices throughout the duration of the sharing experiences. The rules should also include a commitment to punctuality, as tardiness causes students to miss important information, especially that shared by their peers during times of group sharing.
Another critical rule involves making a covenant of confidentiality. Sometimes when we build trust with our colleagues or peers in small-group settings, we feel comfortable sharing information that is extremely meaningful and emotional for us. In these situations, it is important to discourage students from sharing any information their peers do not wish to be shared outside of their small groups, but students can certainly carry with them any valuable realizations or ideas generated from the discussions. My colleague called this the “Vegas twist.” I am sure we have all heard the expression, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” but in the case of small-group sharing, what happens in small groups is not discussed outside of small groups without group members’ permission. However, what is learned is taken away and used for the betterment of all the students’ future interactions with their peers and others. (If extremely sensitive information such as suicidal or harmful or destructive thoughts are shared, an instructor should be notified so that professional help can be consulted. As instructors, we must always be mindful of the increasing rates of suicidal ideation among our student populations.)
For the sake of inclusion, it is vital to allow students to share their thoughts about additional rules for the class. These thoughts can be collected orally in large-group discussion format but also via anonymous survey, especially in larger classes. Assuring students that they are key stakeholders in their own learning experiences is key. These ground rules—accepted and developed by the class as a whole—form a foundation on which authentic conversations and discussions can take place.
Incorporating small-group activities and discussions into courses is an excellent opportunity to diversify student groups and foster inclusion of all students. Research has shown that when students self-organize into small groups, they will try to form small groups with people who are similar to them. This is just a natural human tendency, but instructors can purposefully diversify small groups in their classes by various factors, such as learning levels or demographic characteristics. By increasing diversity in small groups, instructors allow students to have more enriching discussions that incorporate varying ideas.
If report-outs in larger group formats are used, instructors can also alternate the role of reporter between each of the students within the small groups—either within the same class sessions or in each successive class session. This gives everyone within the small group an opportunity to have a speaking role. To be inclusive of, and accommodating to, students who do not wish to speak, instructors can allow those students to ask someone else to volunteer. In the case of students who might be members of the Deaf community, and who might not be understood by everyone in the room, a translator who understands American Sign Language (or the national equivalent of whichever country the school is in) would ideally be in the room to provide translation for the students to the rest of the class.
Integrating cultural connections into courses is another way to honor the inclusion of all students. These connections can apply to the profiles of female or other underrepresented minority (URM) scientists or clinicians who have made contributions to the sciences or to female or other URM scholars or professionals in any field applicable to the courses instructors are teaching. These connections could also apply to the contributions of entire cultures to a particular discipline. In addition, these connections could apply to relevant topics that impact marginalized groups such as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, URM’s, veterans, the elderly, those with disabilities, or any other underrepresented groups whose voices are less likely to be heard in the classroom.
Moreover, instructors can promote the observance of special days of remembrance for such marginalized groups (e.g., Indigenous Peoples Day, Juneteenth, World AIDS Day, etc.) or the acknowledgement of certain holidays that are special to religious students within the class. It is even nice to know the birthdays of your students so that occasions can also be planned for and celebrated. Students who come from cultures that do not celebrate birthdays or holidays should be consulted and given the opportunity to opt out of such activities that interfere with their own convictions. There are many other ways to integrate cultural connections into courses, such as through the contributions of the arts and other humanities to the disciplines (or the sciences if instructors are teaching arts and humanities courses).
What drives your passion for diversity and inclusion?
Diversity fosters beauty, and inclusion fosters empathy. I have always loved diversity in every aspect of the world—from its landscapes to its plants and wildlife to its various races and ethnicities of people and their different cultures and languages. If we all really stop to think about what the world would be life if we were all the same—if we all spoke the same language, if we all had the same skin tone, if we all wore the same clothing, if we all ate the same food, if we all had the same desires, if we all had the same ideologies—just think of how boring life would be? There really wouldn’t be any richness, beauty, or wonder in a world of copycats and homogeneity. Thus, diversity fosters a more enriching, beautiful, vibrant, and wondrous world.
Inclusion, in turn, fosters a deeper understanding of people and individuals from backgrounds that are different from our own. By intentionally surrounding ourselves with people who are different from us, including them in our spheres of influence, and inviting them to crucial conversations and meetings, we can increase our cultural sensitivity and cultural awareness. By maintaining consistent professional relationships and personal friendships with a variety of different people, learning to admit our own instances of ignorance about other groups of people or individuals, and asking for forgiveness in our moments of misunderstanding or in the times we might say hurtful words, we can grow in our own cultural humility, the best foundation for fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Humility and empathy go hand in hand as cultural humility continuously encourages us to strive to “walk with” others and work to see and experience life from their perspective. This offers a deeper, more authentic understanding of who they are and what they find meaningful. Research has also shown that greater diversity improves the creativity, productivity, innovation, and critical analyses of groups and organizations. Diverse perspectives invigorate and expand disciplines through new approaches to teaching, research, and mentorship. Plus, diversity begets even more diversity through diverse role models and mentors for the whole student, faculty, and staff bodies of learning institutions.
Why should instructors consider making their courses more inclusive and diverse?
As instructors, we should always want to protect the best interests of ALL our students and ensure that the needs of ALL our students are met, regardless of their differences or similarities. By including students’ interests and needs in our decision-making processes for our courses, whether those decisions revolve around curriculum development, grading, exam construction, assessment types, lesson planning, etc., we build rapport with our students and convey our sincere respect for them as human beings. This also shows them how much we value them as a part of our courses. The more we foster diverse and inclusive learning environments, the more humble and empathetic we become as educators.
In my opinion, there is no such thing as a diversity and inclusion “expert.” While we have and know diversity and inclusion specialists, there is deep humility in admitting we can never truly become experts of any aspect of diversity, equity, or inclusion. We can only skillfully understand our own unique human experience as individuals. However, by embracing cultural humility, we acknowledge that we can always learn more about cultures different from our own and people who are different from us. It also means being willing to correct our mistakes when we misspeak or share incorrect information about others and their cultures. As I said earlier, humility and empathy go hand in hand.
How can instructors overcome challenges in finding relevant, updated content to support inclusivity in teaching materials (lectures, assignments, exams, discussions, etc.)?
I recommend faculty form their own diversity, equity, and inclusion special interest groups, task forces, committees, or subcommittees within their institutions, departments, or divisions. This promotes the exchange of ideas for improving and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion within their courses and at their institutions with colleagues. As I mentioned earlier, diversity begets diversity, so by creating a diverse group for spring-boarding ideas, faculty can adopt strategies to use in their own classrooms. Instructors can also join diversity, equity, and inclusion committees within professional societies in their respective disciplines. If no such committees exist, they can form their own and recruit members. These committees or groups can serve as excellent sources of resource materials and advice through mutual sharing. Some organizations also have repositories or webpages of diversity, equity, and inclusion literature, toolkits, and other resources that would be extremely useful to faculty members striving to foster and/or improve diversity, equity, and inclusion within their courses.
All educators should also regularly research best practices and evidence-based methods from diversity, equity, and inclusion literature—as well as literature in their fields or disciplines specific to diversity, equity, and inclusion topics. Oftentimes, researchers who have conducted studies among a team or individually have discovered ways for achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion in their classrooms. Many educators have also published their own lesson plans or activities for improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within their classrooms. It never hurts to search and see what resources are out there. By conducting these searches ourselves, we save peers time, and create repositories of our own worth sharing.
Recently, I learned of two great resources from my involvement in the Anatomy and Physiology Teaching and Learning Community (TLC). The first is called the Scientist Spotlights Initiative and it allows instructors to integrate themes of diversity and inclusion while teaching course content. Instructors can select their grade levels, content areas, and even search for specific scientists to find spotlight profiles. According to the website, “The Scientist Spotlights Initiative empowers middle/high school, college, and university science educators to implement inclusive curricula that help ALL students see themselves in science. We provide access to easy-to-implement assignments/activities that link course content to the stories of counter-stereotypical scientists.” The second resource is the BioSkills Guide which contains program-level and course-level learning outcomes that align with the Vision and Change core competencies within the life sciences. The diversity, equity, and inclusion connections are especially strong in the Communication & Collaboration and the Science & Society core competencies. You can join the mailing list for the A&P TLC specifically for anatomy and physiology topics here.
What are your top tips for modeling openness and honest communication?
In my opinion, the best way to model openness and honest communication is to be willing and vulnerable enough to share one’s own personal and/or professional life challenges. When students see their instructors as human beings first, they are more likely to open up and share their own humanity with faculty and each other. We as instructors cannot emphasize enough to students that we value them as humans first and as students second. Open and honest communication are also strongly dependent on establishing those ground rules I discussed earlier that are mutually accepted and upheld by all students and faculty members within a course or classroom.
How can instructors help students be collaborative even when there are different points of view?
As faculty members, we should be open and honest about how frequently we disagree with and/or compromise with colleagues when making decisions in academia. These might involve projects, research, manuscript submissions, committee duties and responsibilities, or teaching content. We should be readily able to provide specific examples of how we as collegial faculty, with different perspectives and viewpoints, can amiably come to decisions in a fair, respectful, and professional manner. If we can make compromises without sacrificing unwillingly—and free of explicit or implicit biases—we can encourage students to do the same. We should also strongly encourage students to strive for win-win scenarios in which all parties involved receive the maximum benefits of decisions requiring intense or critical negotiations. Regardless of the situation, we as faculty should motivate students to be as equitable and inclusive as possible in achieving their goals so that no student’s voice is left unheard. Students should also be continuously reminded of the research that supports how diversity improves the creativity, productivity, innovation, and critical analyses of groups—and they should be working in diverse groups in class so they can see proof of this research in action.
What are positive outcomes of making the classroom more inclusive and diverse?
By making a classroom more inclusive and diverse, students gain more cultural humility and empathy. When students can embody these virtues, both in class and in their personal lives, they become benevolent citizens of society with a deeper respect for all humankind, regardless of background. In addition, as the diversity, equity, and inclusion literature suggests, students who are members of diverse and inclusive classrooms will become creative and innovative thinkers not just in their own courses but out in the world—ultimately contributing to necessary improvements to society. Furthermore, students who experience diverse and inclusive learning environments will be less likely to have racist, sexist, ableist, or other discriminatory or prejudicial mindsets towards marginalized groups. By investing in a youth devoid of such toxic thought processes, we can foster a world full of more harmony, peace, and love.
To hear more from Edgar on the importance of diversity and inclusion in education, watch the recording of his webinar, Inclusion and Diversity within the Anatomy and Physiology Course.