The United States is comprised of over 300 million individuals with unique cultures, identities, and backgrounds, and the population is only becoming more diverse over time. A recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, for example, determined that the “post-Millennial generation”—those born from 1997 to 2012—is “the most racially and ethnically diverse generation” in the country’s history.
As this and other types of diversity have continued to increase in society today, the need for equity among people of different backgrounds has become equally relevant. Conversations about issues such as LGBTQ discrimination or the “Black Lives Matter” movement, among many others, are making their way into workplaces, schools, and communities more often than ever before.
In educational institutions especially, there is a desire among students, teachers, and administration alike to embrace this diversity and create equity in the classroom. Read on to learn about what equity in the classroom is, why it’s relevant, and some of the best practices educators can use to promote it.
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What is Equity in The Classroom?
‘Equity’ can have a lot of different definitions, depending on the context but, at its core, the concept involves giving everyone in a situation the specific tools that they need to be successful. In the classroom, promoting equity is about educators choosing to embrace rather than shy away from the unique backgrounds, identities, and experiences that their individual students bring to the table.
“Classrooms are works in progress in which we inevitably bring…our different social identities and social locations into the learning process,” says Polly Attwood, an associate teaching professor in the education program within Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. “[To achieve] equity, we must [address] the ways in which those identities and locations are part of how we learn and who we are as we learn, and build on those perspectives as a way to understand each other and make learning relevant.”
This means educators must not only be able to recognize the differences in race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other social identities among their students, but also adjust their approach to teaching those students accordingly. “[I try] to make sure that what I teach meets a student where they are, including how those identities and experiences shape how they learn…rather than seeing it as a problem or something I have to manage,” Attwood explains.
By developing her approach to teaching in this way, she has found that she is able to create an environment in the classroom that celebrates diversity, and “build[s] a community across those differences.”
The Relevance of Equity in the Classroom
With this diverse ‘post-Millennial’ generation in their prime education years, it is no wonder the need for embracing diversity in the classroom has become so common today. However, Attwood challenges that, among many teachers, this concept is far from new.
“I think these have always been very real issues,” she says. “What’s changed maybe is that because of the ways in which our society has been broken open…the critical mass, including my students, realize they need to understand and talk about these issues even when it’s not directly about them.”
Attwood’s unique relationship with equity in education is defined by the fact that she not only works to apply these practices within each of the classes she teaches, but also must encourage and guide aspiring teachers to do the same in their future classrooms. For this reason, she has had a unique opportunity to watch her students’ desire for the tools to apply these practices grow over the years.
“[Today], more of my students who are becoming teachers realize they have to think about [equity] and understand it…they want to engage these issues and they don’t want to pretend we’re in a color-blind or class-blind or gender-blind reality,” Attwood says. “[They’re] saying, ‘we are not going to participate in this notion that there’s a kind of bland diversity and inclusion. We want to talk about how these issues of equity and power are part of spaces of learning.’”
4 Practices to Promote Equity in the Classroom
Teachers use a multitude of strategies to try to create a learning environment that does fully embrace the differences among their students, yet Attwood makes it clear that promoting equity in the classroom is not a science.
“There are certain guidelines and practices that are more promoted within the discussion [of equity in education], but there’s not a magic recipe for how you do this,” she says. Instead, she explains that there are some basic approaches to developing a tone of equality in a classroom that teachers should follow in order to get their students in the right mindset to bridge such sensitive topics. These practices—alongside each teacher’s own experiences, background, and personal strengths—will create an equitable environment in which students can learn.
1. Promoting the Act of “Calling In”
This method of promoting equity in the classroom is derived from the idea that teachers must always be listening for and identifying moments of bias, oppression, and other subconscious, identity-based assumptions and ideas that students bring up in the classroom. In these instances, Attwood says, it’s important that “rather than call people out on what they don’t know or where you disagree…[educators should, instead], call in…” and address the issue head-on so that students can “learn from and through their differences, even when [it’s] challenging.”
An example of a situation where the act of “calling in” may be utilized, is if a student was to make an insensitive comment about someone’s gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. during a group discussion. In this scenario, Attwood believes in stopping the discussion and identifying that the comment was insensitive. She stresses that this does not mean making the commenter feel bad about what he or she has said but, instead, simply involves calling attention to the comment, explaining why it demotes inclusivity, and dissecting, with the rest of the class, what about the commenter’s experiences and background may have instilled these biases.
Teachers looking to become better at “calling in” must “learn how to recognize, name, and list out for everyone’s examination what just happened” in a given situation, Attwood says. They must also become comfortable exemplifying how singular instances over time create patterns that everyone can learn from. By identifying these patterns, students are given the opportunity to debrief and explore what socialization processes may have led them to think a certain way about the issue at hand, and take a first step toward breaking free of those subconscious ideas. “If we have learned these patterns that means we can unlearn them,” Attwood says, “But first we have to identify them.”
2. Communicating Classroom Standards
It is an educator’s responsibility to set the standards for the way a classroom will run, which must be done both very clearly and very early on in the learning process. In order to promote equity in the classroom, there are a few very specific and significant standards educators should aim to set.
Learning in Discomfort
Attwood explains that in order to practice the act of “calling in,” students need to build their capacity to learn in and through discomfort. It is in this state, she says, that students can actually be most open to new ideas, including those that may challenge how they previously looked at a certain aspect of the world.
Respecting Everyone’s Voice
It’s important that each student in the room feels that they have both the power to speak their mind and that their words will be used productively in conversation. Without this standard in the classroom, it is only natural that the most outspoken voices will try to lead the conversation while quieter voices fall behind, when often it’s the quieter voices that most need to be heard in discussions of equity.
Attwood believes that students who are able to listen and process others’ perspectives without feeling the need to jump in and defend their own views can learn the most in an equitable environment.
Setting Personal Teaching Standards
Alongside setting standards for how the students in his or her classroom should act, a teacher must also take the time to address and live out their own personal teaching standards. Educators set these standards by communicating personal traits like openness, fairness, and approachability so that students who do partake in these often difficult equity-related discussions feel comfortable doing so.
Attwood explains that it’s important she can “communicate being approachable and willing to listen to some students who are feeling that something’s not working in that climate of the classroom.” This, she stresses, is a key factor in creating the open dialogue needed to address these delicate issues.
3. Setting the Tone for Learning
Whereas setting classroom standards is about developing how students will react and engage with discussions in the classroom, setting the tone for learning is about starting students off with activities, exercises, readings, and discussion questions that bridge these difficult topics right from the start.
“I often do exercises at the beginning of a class to present an opportunity [for students] to explore for themselves—then share with each other—who they are and the backgrounds that they bring. I share mine [too],” Attwood says. “Then I name that this is going to be in the room with us, this is a part of the strength of who we are. It might also create different perspectives that we have to be willing to engage.”
These types of community building exercises—which focus on identity and social location—help to ease students into larger discussions that will be had throughout each course.
Similarly, educators can present tone-specific articles that explore the way in which the class will be conducted. Being able to call upon materials that identify what “calling in” is and the benefits of that approach, or that explore the differences between taking an issue personally as opposed to exploring the general patterns aligned with it, can be incredibly helpful in setting the tone for how the class will be conducted.
One such article that Attwood suggests is “Willing To Be Disturbed” by Margaret J. Wheatley, which encourages students “to ask questions and see confusion and discomfort as a part of learning.” She also recommends “Leaning In: A Student’s Guide to Engaging Constructively with Social Justice Content,” by Robin DiAngleo and Ozlem Sensoy.
4. Analyzing the Unique Makeup of Each Class
While the previous three practices can be applied to any group of students, it’s important that educators take the time to consider the backgrounds, identities, and experiences that students in each unique class may bring to the table.
For example, Attwood identifies that some students will come into the classroom already very comfortable with conversations about social identities and locations. These students are often instrumental in facilitating such discussions. Other groups may be made up of students who all find the topic of equity uncomfortable and shy away from “calling in” on raised issues. This group may take more coaxing or a re-analysis of approach from educators trying to promote equity in the classroom, but that comfort can still be achieved just as successfully over time.
The approach to promoting equity should also vary depending on the ages and maturity levels of the class. “You can [bring equity into the classroom] from preschool through doctoral and postdoctoral programs,” Attwood says. “Teachers across all age groups [must] figure out age-appropriate ways, and what the conversation needs to be, to promote equity.”
It’s important to identify what types of diversity are present in every group, as well—which can be accomplished through those community-building exercises—and how that will affect the way these discussions will play out in the classroom. “When you have a class with various sexualities, races, genders, ethnicities, and so on—when that diversity is in the room, you can create a space where people can understand and learn across those differences,” Attwood says. “Something very powerful can happen because that diversity is represented and there’s an opportunity to learn in the midst of it.”
Beyond the Responsibility of Educators
While the above practices are aligned with strategies an educator can use to promote equity in the classroom, Attwood explains that this responsibility falls as much to the students and organizational leaders within a school or university as it does to the teachers.
Students can positively partake in generating an equitable learning environment by simply being open to the process. This includes:
- Really listening to and learning from one another
- Standing strong in their own perspective, while also recognizing the differing views of others
- Differentiating between opinion—which everyone has—and informed knowledge—which comes from sustained experience, study, and practice
- Striving for intellectual humility
- Reaching for curiosity and new understanding when challenged
Attwood believes that the administration must also take responsibility in this process. “The literature will show you that any organization, be it a school or otherwise, that takes this issue on successfully, [can do so] because the leadership is on board,” Attwood says. “The leadership…creates an environment in which everybody can keep learning with and from each other in order to build that community.”
Learn more about how educators can promote equity in the classroom—along with the best practices for addressing other real-life problems within organizations in today’s evolving society—within Northeastern’s Doctor of Education program.