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MISC2017: How can we make classrooms more inclusive?

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of being an invited facilitator at the Melbourne International Students’ Conference, jointly run by the City of Melbourne and Meld Magazine. I shambled into corporate dress code day … and wow were the student delegates slick and savvy! The conversation flowed, and it was wonderful to meet so many motivated, engaged young men and women.

I was part of the ‘Design Your Education’ workshop, and the question I was asking was: How can we make classrooms more inclusive and invite more diverse participation? Over a busy (and loud!) hour, tables were moved between, ideas and experiences were offered, and the coloured pens got plenty of action.

Since ‘the inclusive classroom’ is a great, but rather vague, idea, we started by thinking about what a classroom that is not inclusive looks like. The students summed this up as a classroom that has barriers. Perhaps it’s where all the other students sit with those most like them, and keep to their same places every week. Perhaps it’s where the tutor faces the board, or delivers a monologue, and never asks students to take part. Perhaps it’s where too much Australian slang or keeping to mother tongues means some in the class are excluded from understanding. Perhaps it’s just unwelcoming.

So, how can we break down those barriers? As the students made clear, doing so involves both what the teacher does, and what the students themselves do. Teachers need to lead by example, and be proactive in fostering inclusion. That might mean asking students to sit with someone new each week, designing activities that build a cohort experience, or using a range of examples from around the world. It comes from a recognition that every student in the class has something to contribute – it just might not be what or how we expect. One delegate – and this is a great point – said:

“When teachers ask, ‘Why aren’t my students talking?’, they’re asking the wrong question. They need to ask themselves, ‘Why can’t I talk to my students?'”

Importantly, students have a role to play, too. A big part of that is being open to other students – whether international or local. It also means being brave themselves, and making opportunities to include others.

We came up with a bunch of strategies and practical recommendations. Most importantly, we came to the inclusion that making classrooms more inclusive is about being relational.

Big thanks to all the students who shared their thoughts, and to the ever-fabulous Karen Poh for inviting me along!