Inclusive education is a necessity
How do you ensure that all students feel welcome at the university? In the project “Developing an Inclusive Curriculum and Learning Environment”, education experts search for suitable resources to guarantee that feeling of home in education. “We want to help lecturers to develop antennas for inclusion and put them into practice,” says project leader Jeroen Janssen.
The project started in September 2020 with funding from the Utrecht Education Incentive Fund. It is an interfaculty project with the Faculties of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Medicine, and Law, Economics and Governance as its participants. The plan came about from a direct need, Jeroen Janssen explains.
“I have been doing research into the first generation of students in higher education for some time already and I see that questions about inclusion in education are becoming more and more important. There are currently more themes that students don't easily talk about than before. Not with lecturers, but also not with each other. To name an example: in education sciences, we have been working with the role play on segregation in education for years. That went well for many years, but for a couple of years now, we more and more often get signals that students have become more sensitive to certain arguments that other students present.”
These arguments and the tensions they cause are the order of the day in current social discussions. It's just so important for upcoming education scientists to be aware of that, because you're not getting there with only an academic vision.
“As lecturers, we didn't know how to deal with that. Conversations with colleagues showed that they share the same experience: they feel uncertain about it too. How do you deal with sensitive topics? How do you deal with certain groups of students who are minorities? We don't really have an answer for those questions.”
The umbrella term ‘inclusive curriculum’ covers both the learning environment and the way in which you provide education, as well as the content of the education. In the project, the team members chart the current state of affairs and develop resources for lecturers, course coordinators and degree programme directors so they can work on diversity and inclusive education.
“If you want the university to provide an inclusive learning environment, you also have to help lecturers to realise that,” says Jeroen Janssen. “In the project, we compile best practices and resources for lecturers so they know how to handle uneasy situations. It's directly relevant to education. We started the project with conversations with lecturers and groups of students. This lets us see what students run into and how they would feel more at home if lecturers were to use somewhat different examples in class.”
In an interview with Science Guide, three researchers who are involved in the project tell about the first findings: sometimes during class, lecturers say offensive things they are unaware of themselves. They are also not always aware of stereotypical examples, and there are courses with literature in which diversity is hard to find.
“It is that kind of blind spots that we want to resolve,” says Jeroen Janssen. “One of the resources is a reflection tool with which lecturers or degree programme directors can look at the education and discuss how it's been compiled. How about the class materials and the education, do students feel comfortable with it? These questions lead to reflection on education. This way, we hope that lecturers develop antennas for ways in which they can make their education more inclusive.”
If you want the university to provide an inclusive learning environment, you also have to help lecturers to realise that.
The criteria for goals of inclusive education get a concrete translation in the project. Jeroen Janssen:
“Next to the reflection tool, we are developing a toolbox that lecturers can use if they see possibilities to make their education more inclusive. One example is that a course is well designed and that the discussions are going well, but that the lecturer team observes that the literature is still very one-sided. It is also possible that a lecturer has trouble dealing with sensitive subjects. The toolbox then helps to see which solutions are possible.”
“We are currently investigating what we want to include in the toolbox. One example is that it works well if students work in small groups during a working group, and that the groups are arranged in a heterogeneous way and switch regularly, so students can come into contact with as many different fellow students as possible. Group work is common, and we now ask lecturers to use it to develop things like intercultural skills. I believe it can be a powerful resource.”
“For instance, a part of the lecturer team at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance is interested in decolonising the curriculum. We're going to see what that would take, without making it a check-list of such and so many percent Western, and non Western. The toolbox eventually provides lecturers with the choice to pick those resources they see as relevant to their own courses.”
“It is of course also about staff policy, which makes the issue much bigger. A course coordinator has no influence on this, directors of education do. We're going to do research into advices to directors of education, because it's possible to consciously look for lecturers who are good at learning certain intercultural skills. All in all, I hope that after the project ends in two years, it has become more common to see through that lens as well.”
“I hope this project also contributes to the further development of BTQ and STQ training programmes, courses for directors of education and so forth. Those are important anchor points. Faculties each carry out the BTQ framework in their own way. They should hold on to that freedom, but my hope is that they take inclusion seriously and take it with them into the trainings.”
Despite the sensitive problems, it wasn't difficult to find students for the focus groups. Despite what Jeroen Janssen and his colleagues had expected, the students really wanted to share their experiences with inclusion – or the lack thereof – with the researchers.
“That shows that the students feel safe to talk about it with each other and with us. I can only conclude from that that many things are already going well at the university. The students were very open about their experiences. That gives me the feeling that we're doing something important that can make a difference for the students. Another surprise is that the university is so interested in this topic. Black Lives Matter had a sad immediate cause, but the movement certainly was a catalyst and made many things discussable that either weren't before or no-one thought about.”
“What matters to me is that the project also reaches those people who aren't working on it yet. I also really want to persuade people who are currently sceptic and are saying that diversity and inclusive education are not relevant to their courses. We want to show that an inclusive curriculum is about more than the course material. It's also about how you interact with students. Because we see that diversity is growing among students and that makes this even more important than before.”
Jeroen Janssen is convinced that attention for diversity and inclusion is a necessity, or much talent will be lost.
“I once had an exceptionally good student with a Moroccan background. After her graduation, I spoke with her about her student days and I was shocked when I heard what she had been through. Many prejudices, strange questions about her background and so forth. That made me think. This student could face all this trouble because she was very strong. That doesn't work for everyone. That realisation made me sad. We really want that all students who have the cognitive capacities can feel at home at the university and develop themselves further, regardless of their backgrounds. I am afraid we will lose many good students if we don't have enough attention for this. That's too bad.”