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How to Make Your Classroom an Inclusive One

How to Make Your Classroom an Inclusive One 

 

Insights from Alexandra Sedlovskaya, assistant director of the Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard Business School, adapted from Diversity and Inclusion: Building Connection and Community in Physical, Online, and Hybrid Classrooms, a Harvard Business Publishing Education webinar 

Set expectations early, and establish what you’re here to do 

Even before the first day of class, I reach out to my students by email and welcome them to our course. And I’m very explicit that this is our course. I make it clear that I’m very interested to learn about their backgrounds, why they are taking this course, and what their goals are for our semester together. 

I also take my time to respond to each one of them. I know this is a significant time investment, but it’s hugely important—it’s what allows me to start establishing trust and building those critical connections with students. 

Then, on the very first day of class, I tell my students, “Let’s take a moment. Let’s look around our (virtual) classroom space. Right now, you might not know your classmates or know many of them well. The semester will fly by, and we’ll reflect back on this first day. We’ll think about how far we’ve come, and what a community we’ve built. This process starts now, with establishing norms.” 

 

 

  Enact a framework for class discussions: The four Cs 

Right away, I set up some of the norms that will allow us to become a strong community of learners by introducing the four Cs framework. I tell the class that, throughout the semester, we will draw upon these four Cs to guide meaningful discussion. 

 

 

1 

 

Curiosity. Drawing on our introductory emails, I tell students that I’ve already seen their high level of intellectual curiosity—and that we’re going to pursue that strong desire to learn together. I know from student introductions that we have an amazing diversity in our class—diversity in more than just what meets the eye, diversity in experiences, diversity in perspectives. I share that with my students and emphasize that our diversity will enrich our learning! 

 

2 

 

Candor. I note that, as a group, we need to talk about issues candidly. I want to make sure we get to hear the diverse voices in our class. And that means we might hear opinions that we’ve never heard before, or that are drastically different from—or are even in direct opposition to—ours. That level of openness and candor is not just encouraged, it’s expected. 

 

3 

 

Courtesy. I let students know that we need to be able to voice our perspectives respectfully. And we need to listen and respond respectfully to those who have different perspectives. A lot of times, important conversations don’t happen because we fear that we might offend someone. We’re not going to let that fear stop us because we’re going to operate from a place of good intentions. We must assume that our classmates have the best intentions when they’re raising different opinions, and we must pursue our intellectual curiosity with kindness and courtesy. 

 

4 

 

Courage. Importantly, I acknowledge that it takes courage to voice our perspectives. And, it takes even more courage to be able to listen, really listen, and understand the perspectives that are different from ours, that contradict our views. Listening and understanding isn’t the same as agreeing. It’s how learning happens. Learning takes courage. 

 

Address students’ concerns about being judged 

I tell my students that sometimes we might be afraid to say something because we’re afraid of being judged. To that, I say—perhaps counterintuitively—that I’m not going to ask them to stop judging. Judgments happen. They happen automatically, without us thinking about it. It’s not a good or bad thing—it’s just what we do. 

But what I do ask is for my students to think about how they’re making their judgments. And that requires a lot more effort, asking yourself, “What is influencing my judgments?” It can be very revealing, and often more so about us and how we’re making the judgments than about the person we’re judging. Our own identities, and those of others, influence how we perceive others and appraise information that they are sharing. I ask my students to be conscious of that.   

Finally, I share with my students a phenomenon that occurs—pluralistic ignorance—when many members of a group privately disagree with a particular idea but believe erroneously that everyone supports it because nobody in the group openly disagrees. Building on this phenomenon, I tell students that you may have a question or opinion, and you may be afraid to voice it because you think you are the only one with this question or opinion. The beauty of our diversity is that you may indeed be the only one with this view, and we want to hear from you. Alternatively, you may be not alone in your view, and that’s where the idea of pluralistic ignorance comes into play. Others may feel the same way and be just as reluctant to voice their questions or views. Unless you speak up, you don’t know who else shares your perspective, and your feeling of isolation grows. 

We must empower our students to have the courage to speak candidly and pursue their curiosity—all while knowing they’ll be met with respect and courtesy. That’s the foundation of an inclusive classroom.