Social biases, stereotypes and stigmas linked to protected groups (see Equality Act) are disrupting education for students. This happens in various ways: from the triggering of stereotype threat which compounds learners’ emotional and cognitive loads (Bullock et al, 2020) to restricting a sense of belonging and not feeling safe in coming forward with concerns or struggles faced (e.g. in terms of mental health or specific learning difficulties).
I believe a fundamental strategy that, if followed, will enable inclusive teaching and learning practices, is to normalise diversity. Like equality, normalising diversity is an ultimate goal, which can only be reached through first achieving equity. This is because in our current context, diversity is constructed in a way that enables inequalities and power imbalances.
Normalising diversity should be an active process of decoupling difference and power in structures and cultures of our Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). With regards to structures, we must identify areas of practice where difference is linked to structural inequalities (e.g. teaching, assessment and access to career development opportunities). If we can trace the mechanisms at work and dismantle them, we create greater equity in our systems.
New mechanisms to replace, simplify the old or possibly removing barriers or unnecessary requirements could achieve equality. Culturally, difference and power are creating differences in terms of who is perceived as ‘capable’, whose values are valued, and which behaviours and language forms are seen as ‘normal’. To respond to this we need to achieve equity through pedagogical practice (see Penny Jane Burke).
The norm currently is one where certain ‘others’ are characterised by stereotypes or deficit in some way. Normalising diversity, as I understand, would mean removing the ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction so that difference was normal, diversity was the norm. Difference could be understood in its intersectional sense, recognising the whole person or the ‘authentic self’ (see Caroline McHugh). As educators, we must take responsibility for the learning environment.
Normalising diversity culturally would mean we take it as given that our students come with a variety of experiences, values, behaviours and knowledges, and we would enable these to be present in our classrooms (e.g. in curriculum content and pedagogical practices). It becomes normal then to engage with our diverse students (and that it is normal to also use examples in our teaching that reflect the diverse, intersecting identity groups, of patients). Inclusive teaching practice is good teaching (see Brookfield).
Until we achieve equality, we also may need to do more to prepare students for experiences of inequity. We may be able to reduce some of the emotional and cognitive burden that can negatively impact student learning. We can also improve the reporting system and hiring Freedom to Speak Out Guardians at my HEI is a step in this direction.
More discussions with students about things they may experience and/or witness (e.g. microagressions and discrimination) and how they might address this could also be standard in the curriculum. Bystander training for students is one way we have started to do this (for Year 1 MBChB students we used the online Moodle from Coventry University and for Year 2 we invited Melanin Medics to deliver a session) – similar training could be for staff.
One day in the future it may also be normal to have a diverse staff and leadership, but this will take time. To reach that goal, strategies to achieve greater equity, in a playing field historically set up for dominant groups, are necessary.
These ideas have emerged from a reading group convened as part of our I Belong initiative which has I have found to be a welcomed space for developing critical consciousness and reflection on our taken-for-granted assumptions, practices and curriculum design. I welcome critical comments on this blog to develop these ideas further.
Valerie Farnsworth, 1 July 2021