Developing Learning Environments – How We Teach
Welcome to the section on developing learning environments. At university, the quality of education relies heavily on the design and development of effective learning environments that cater to the needs of the students. As such, it is essential to ensure that the curricula being developed and reviewed are focused on creating an environment that facilitates and encourages student learning.
In this section, we will explore the different aspects of developing learning environments and how they can be optimised to enhance the quality of education.
- Our Aim
Our aim is to provide you with the knowledge and tools necessary to develop effective learning environments that foster student engagement and promote academic excellence. Whether you are an academic or a member of professional services, this section will offer valuable insights and practical advice to help you enhance the quality of education delivery at the University of Aberdeen.
- Our Approach
As part of an overall approach to developing an inclusive learning experience, and in decolonising the curriculum, it is vital that the learning environment, whether that is in person or online, enables students to:
- Feel a sense of belonging
- Feel safe and able to express their diverse views and share experiences in appropriate ways
- Experience an antiracist environment
- Share the educator’s understanding of what and how they are expected to learn
- Reflect on how all disciplines have been historically influenced by a Eurocentric colonialism and its cultural concept of race
Developing the learning environment
The Antiracist Curriculum project asset, ‘Language Matters portfolio’ introduces the ‘Framework for Humanity-Centric Language’ which is an overarching approach which may support you in your work on decolonising the curriculum, and in particular on how you go about developing the learning environment.
It focuses on:
Creating curricula that are more reflective of the world in which we live
De-centring Western paradigms as the primary source of knowledge
Enhancing student and staff experiences through creation of safe learning environments
How teaching and learning activities, engagement initiatives, research activities, and leadership and management support the aspirations
When developing the learning environment to support decolonising the curriculum, consideration should be given to:
- Remember that some skills that we might assume everyone possesses or feels confident in using (such as asking questions in class or working in groups) might not be in a particular student’s comfort zone. To address this issue, consider building in time and space to explicitly build skills such as effective questioning, collaborative group working, active listening, critical thinking and other relevant skills. Break down these skills into practical steps, provide examples, and offer opportunities for guided practice.
- How your teaching practices may racialise students, or be racist. For example, Racial Stereotyping in Classroom Discussions: If a teacher calls on racialized students primarily to speak about topics related to their race or ethnicity, it can create a burden on them to represent their entire racial or ethnic group. This may lead to tokenism and reinforce stereotypes.
- Scaffolding conversations on race, and ensuring classroom discussion is respectful and inclusive by, for example, adding in a statement of inclusivity to your course guide.
- The ways in which students are supported to give feedback on their experiences in the classroom, and be heard. For some excellent example of approaches to gathering feedback on teaching (Feedback on Teaching - Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning and How do I get feedback from learners? - University of Aberdeen).
- The use of humour in the classroom can be a powerful tool for engaging students and fostering a positive learning environment. However, it is essential to recognise that humour has the potential to unintentionally exclude or marginalise certain students, particularly those who may not share the same cultural background as the teacher or their peers. To avoid such issues, we should be mindful of the following aspects:
- Cultural Sensitivity: Humour often relies on cultural references, wordplay, or specific contexts that may not be universally understood. Teachers should be sensitive to the diverse cultural backgrounds of their students and avoid jokes that might only resonate with a subset of the class.
- Inclusive Humour: When using humour, aim for jokes that are inclusive and can be appreciated by students from different cultural backgrounds. Humour that is based on shared human experiences or universal themes is more likely to be enjoyed by all students.
- Avoiding Targeting Characteristics: Humour should never target or ridicule students' characteristics, including race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or any other personal attributes. Using such humour can be hurtful and create a hostile learning environment.
- Personal Boundaries: Be mindful of individual students' sensitivities and boundaries. What may be amusing to one student could be offensive or uncomfortable for another.
- Addressing Harmful Humour: If a joke or humorous comment goes awry and causes offense, take the opportunity to address the issue openly. Acknowledge the impact, express regret if necessary, and use it as a teachable moment to discuss cultural sensitivity and the importance of respecting one another.
- Consciously identifying any personal biases, positions, and prejudices, for example in relation to your views on the ‘native speaker’.
Remember that confronting racism and prejudice requires ongoing effort and a commitment to creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment. By modeling appropriate responses and promoting open conversations, educators can help their students develop empathy, critical thinking, and respect for one another's diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Responding to racism and other forms of prejudice within classroom conversations
Confronting racism in the classroom requires a proactive and sensitive approach. As an educator, you must be prepared to address racist incidents when they occur and model appropriate responses to racism and other forms of prejudice within classroom conversations. You might find the following steps useful when considering how to respond.
- Step 1: Pause and Acknowledge
Take a moment to pause and process what was said. Stay composed and avoid reacting emotionally, as it's crucial to model a measured and respectful response.
- Step 2: Set the Tone
Address the comment directly but without blame or judgment.
- Step 3: Open the Conversation
Encourage a discussion about the comment to ensure that everyone's feelings are acknowledged.
- Step 4: Address Misconceptions
If the comment was based on misconceptions or stereotypes, take the opportunity to dispel those myths and provide accurate information. Use reliable sources to back up your statements. If you don’t have these immediately available you can provide them through the VLE after the session.
- Step 5: Reinforce Classroom Norms
Remind the class of the established classroom norms that promote respect, inclusivity, and open dialogue. Emphasise that racism and prejudice have no place in the University of Aberdeen and will not be tolerated.
- Step 6: Reflect and Follow Up
After the incident, take time to reflect on how it was handled and consider what could be improved. Follow up with the class in subsequent discussions, reinforcing the importance of respectful communication and addressing any lingering concerns.
Some additional reading that you might find useful: