As part of my professional practice, I work with STEM instructors who are interested in transforming their pedagogy to greater facilitate the academic success of all students, including students who historically underperform in STEM disciplines. The demand for this is high, as institutions of higher education around the country are seeking to better prepare their faculty to serve an increasingly diverse student body. College-educated adults might recall experiences in a science classroom involving an expert in the field unloading a bucket of knowledge, sometimes in an engaging way, for about an hour several times per week. Some might even remember the phrase “look to your left, look to your right,” a dire instruction for you to view your immediate neighbors as potential earners of future unproductive grades from the course.
The implicit message in this approach is that science courses by definition select for the top edge, and that student struggles in these courses are a marker of an unfixable inability in the subject area. The paradigm on teaching approaches however has rightly shifted. Driven by years of an attrition rate that mostly affect black and Hispanic students, institutions of higher education have begun to call for a more inclusive approach to teaching science courses. Inclusive teaching is defined as a facilitative approach to instruction, where the instructor uses differentiated techniques to promote the success of all the students in the classroom.
In general, faculty development of inclusive teaching is highly rewarding work as it aligns with my personal passion for promoting social justice and equity through education. However, unlike other faculty development that I do around active learning, inclusive teaching requires more emotional bandwidth. The concept of inclusive pedagogy is difficult to convey to instructors who in my experience are more readily primed for a “best practices” approach to changing their teaching.
There are systemic drivers of that attitude but I will not address those here. Considering the likely reality that a college classroom will have students with various levels of preparedness, cultural backgrounds, levels of motivation and interest, a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching will underserve and weed out those for whom a particular approach is not a good fit.
An inclusive approach considers the fact that a student’s social context will affect available opportunities students have to be adequately prepared, their feeling of connection to the discipline and ultimately confidence in their ability to perform well. In practice, inclusive instructors may consider using diverse cultural examples in their instruction, utilizing blind grading techniques to minimize the potential effects of bias and shoring up academic support structures (e.g. tutoring and early intervention services), all to provide students better opportunities to be successful.
Developing inclusive practices, especially for practitioners who have not thought deeply about the intersection between race and education is a slow, long-term process. The techniques mentioned above are effective only if there is some context to their application. For example, instructors have to know and understand the nature of the support needed for their students in order for any prescribed support to be effective. Similarly, instructors would need to understand how they might succumb to their own implicit biases to consider the appropriate practices to mitigate the negative effects.
This requires coming to terms with one’s own social positioning, which is uncomfortable and difficult to achieve in the half-day time blocks that faculty development sessions typically occupy. For that reason, I implore participants to view our time together as a beginning step to a journey of seeking a deeper understanding of what it means to teach for liberation and inclusion. For me, it is the ability to extract from students, regardless of their unique backgrounds, an insatiable desire for seeking evidence and truth to understand how life works. In this essay, I would like to provide a window into my own mirror-viewing experience that has led me to this articulation, and which drives my personal and professional mission on a daily basis.
Even as recently as my undergraduate years, I cannot truly say I envisioned myself as a college science professor. A mix of healthy wonder of the natural environment and a desire to preserve its wondrousness drove my youthful science interests. My introduction to teaching science would come much later. I am one of three children of a Baptist preacher and wife of modest means, born in the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago. The Baptist community in Trinidad and Tobago is small, mostly rural, and contains remnants of the country’s colonial past in its structure. The three of us are first generation college students, dutifully trucking off to the unknown world of credit hours and majors in the hope that this opportunity would take us to the next step, not fully knowing what that step would be.
My pursuit of a career in science led me to graduate school, since summer research experiences taught me the joy of using scientific methods to understanding the natural environment. Everything changed however when I was “forced” to become a teaching assistant. I say forced because initially I was advised by many to avoid the classroom as much as possible, since it could be a hindrance to completing dissertation-related work. Initially, I struggled pedagogically, but I thoroughly enjoyed the interactions with the students and the sense of community we developed throughout the semester.
I have and will always love marine biology (the object of my PhD pursuit), but teaching taught me the difference between simply loving something and being so passionate and driven by an activity that it becomes your calling. In the narrow world of STEM graduate culture, this change in focus was frowned upon. The pushback I received likely emanated from a culture of STEM where scientists were created from molds, then replicated the exact training model to produce like-minded individuals.
The fact that I viewed teaching as a passionate, scholarly enterprise had little place in a world that cherished its very narrow definition of what counted as intellectual pursuit. For those married to the conventional graduate student model, I am certain that my choices seemed confusing. Some were more direct, advising me (well-meaning I am sure) that I should “stop this teaching thing and start being a graduate student.” A calling however comes with the courage of conviction, a shield that protects against social doubt. The external pressure to conform, however, forces a mental exercise, a critical reflection on a seemingly unexplainable desire to keep pursuing what you do, especially when well-intentioned advisors suggest pathways that seem more secure.
Thankfully, with age comes wisdom, or at least the ability to reinterpret the past and better articulate its connection to the present. Though I no longer actively practice Christianity, I fondly remember the rhythm of weekly church meetings and prayer groups. I remember the care and intentionality my father placed on building relationships with the community, remembering individuals by name, birthdays, anniversaries and seemingly intangible details about their personal lives. I remember the humility he felt about the degree of trust placed on him to lead a community of believers, and the challenge he subsequently issued to his congregants to aim for something more profound, less earthly and more spiritual. The essence of his practice focused on teaching people to extract something from within themselves that was unrealized but already there.
What inspires me about teaching is not the dispensation of information; it is the awakening of the soul. In bumbling through my initial semesters as a TA, I learned the value not of content delivery, but of what it means to teach someone to believe they could be better than what they thought they imagined. This belief is the fire that propels ordinary individuals to do great things.
Therefore, when I enter my classrooms today I am looking for that fire. I am looking for the social justice mission of the Greensboro Four and the vision of the Freedom Riders. I want the defiance of Malala Yousafzai and the boldness of Daisy Bates. I want students to see credit hours, classroom spaces and degrees as artificial endpoints that restrict the unbridled pursuit of knowledge. I want intellectual horizons to become clear in such a way the classroom feels limiting. I want my pedagogy to encourage students to demand more of the moment and themselves, aspiring in every waking second to this ideal. I want this ideal to hang like a guiding star above the classroom, reminding all involved of our collective responsibility to each other and the common good.
Such lofty ideals do not lend themselves well to traditional assessment, and, especially in STEM education, most instructors have not had reason to think about their practice in this way. For many, teaching is still the proverbial quid pro quo arrangement with the university that allows the individual to have a research program in exchange for delivering a few credit hours’ worth of material. If we were to be brutally honest, as federal dollars and available spots for tenure-track science research programs dwindled, teaching for others became the easily accessible Plan B.
The implicit assumption has been that a card-carrying graduate degree recipient could easily deliver scientific content to an undergraduate classroom. The tide on that mindset is turning, and universities are asking their practitioners to possess an actual skill set in pedagogy. I fully recognize the privilege I have to be inspired into pedagogy in the particular way I described. In my faculty development workshops (and here), I share my story for a couple of reasons. First, I want to share the fact that when building relationships and trust drives the teaching process, great things can happen in the classroom. Inclusive pedagogies turn the focus of the experience on the student, the uniqueness of their contexts and ultimately our individual ability to extract excellence from them regardless of background.
Second, I want to encourage workshop participants (and readers) to challenge themselves to their own mirror-viewing experience. I cannot dictate what will emerge from that reflection or how it might inform practice going forward. “Inclusive practices” by definition, however, also involves critically analyzing how one’s own lofty aspirations for the students impact everyday practice. It is an inexact, vulnerable process, and it may reveal a need to engage in further reading on the transformative role higher education can play in today’s society. Without this reflection process however, best practices lack context, and are likely to stall even within well-purposed pedagogical transformation efforts.