Our student cohorts are becoming increasingly diverse: in their backgrounds, their experiences, their characteristics, their modes of study etc. Such diversity can create fertile ground for richer educational experiences: with greater exposure to and interaction with difference – in thought, in experience, in understanding – students can develop improved critical thinking, better collaboration skills, an enhanced sense of belonging and engagement, greater resilience and a richer, more nuanced understanding of their subject matter. In so doing, it can support increased retention, improved attainment and the further development of employability skills.
However, such enrichment is not an automatic output of the presence of diversity: it is generated from interaction with difference. It is by the exposure to, the working with and the negotiation of different ways of thinking, being and doing, that our students broaden their academic, political, social, personal (etc.) spheres, not just improving their cognitive abilities but facilitating their development as active social and global citizens.
Whilst we can – and should – create interaction with difference through what we choose to teach, it is through how our students learn that this can perhaps be most impactful. That is to say through interaction with difference being manifested by peer interaction through which diversity is made live, embodied and personal.
What I am arguing for here is not simply the creation of group work – though this is a practical approach to designing interaction. Rather, I argue for the use of teaching and pedagogies that are underpinned by an understanding that learning often emerges best from dialogue, and in which we as lecturers see it as our role to create opportunities for our diverse students to develop and respectfully engage in that – sometimes difficult – dialogue in service of their disciplinary learning.
And key here is the term create. It is unfortunate, but understandable, that too often our students do not interact with those outside of their ‘in groups’. When presented with opportunities, they – as do we and everyone else – are more likely to stick to what is familiar: those they know, those that think as they do, that have the same experiences and the same backgrounds. If we want our students to benefit – cognitively, socially, affectively – from diversity, then the opportunities that we create must be manufactured to ensure interaction between those who do not know each other, those that think differently, that have different experiences and different backgrounds.
We know that interaction can support integration, and so facilitate the sense of belonging and engagement that is so important to retention; however, there is a reason why we tend to stick with what and whom we know: it is safe. To engage with difference is to risk ourselves; to express our difference is to risk that difference being rejected or even attacked. This is especially the case when our difference is contrary to that of the majority. Further, for some of us, the act of dialogue itself is alien, is different to our primary and preferred modes of being, thinking and doing. In such cases, the creation of interactions with diversity – when not managed and scaffolded correctly – can inhibit rather than support learning and engagement.
So, before creating interaction opportunities, we must first plan for these, we must create environments of mutual respect and trust in which our students feel comfortable being uncomfortable and feel safe engaging in what can be difficult and sometimes conflictive interactivity: we must, in short, support our students to be able to fully interact outwith their comfort zones.
Finally, we must ensure it is meaningful. When we design interaction for diverse cohorts for its own sake, divorcing it from the learning context and from the curriculum base, it becomes not just contrived but counterproductive. That is not to say that interactivity for its own sake is not of use, but that it is best left to extra- and non-curricular activities. Rather, when putting it to use for increased learning, for the development of cognitive, affective and employability skills, as well as for increased belonging and engagement, it is best embedded within curriculum learning. As noted above, it is here seen as an approach underpinning teaching and pedagogy, as an approach in service of disciplinary learning, rather than in replacement thereof.
Further reading / watching:
This blog follows on from the HEA Scotland Winter 2017 Spotlight which comprises a mini-literature review of the topic and which incorporates a variety of short video-based case studies exploring best practice in this area. Visit the Spotlight webpage for further reading/watching opportunities.