An interdisciplinary team of top experts, the Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Science Education (RDEISE) Faculty Steering Committee leads and oversees the project.
Dr. Jamiella Brooks is the Director of Equity & Inclusion Initiatives at Penn Carey Law School. Her work focuses on programming and support for equitable and inclusive teaching practices. As a faculty member, she advises primarily on the upcoming RDEISE cluster, “Inclusive and Antiracist Teaching Strategies.”
We spoke to Dr. Brooks about inclusive pedagogy, the challenges faced by students, and strategies for educators.
I have been studying inclusive and equitable teaching for over a decade, and I have come to recognize the limits of inclusive teaching, as well as the urgency and necessity of addressing the equity question on a deeper level. Inclusive teaching, overall, is a good thing. It recognizes the broadest swath of student learning, provides opportunity for students to engage in a variety of ways, intentionally makes space for curiosity and growth, and makes the learning process more transparent. It’s about teaching approaches that work for “all students,” acknowledging that our students come into our classrooms from different backgrounds, life experiences, and neurodiversities that make for a differential learning experience. At the core, inclusive teaching isn’t groundbreaking, it’s simply good teaching—a pedagogical tool to increase the opportunity for every student to succeed in our classroom.
In working with faculty across nearly any discipline you can think of, I’ve seen inequities deepen. This remains the case even in classrooms that claim to be designed inclusively, even as learning outcomes for the majority of students have improved. The problem is that inclusive teaching isn’t equitable in and of itself. It doesn’t call an instructor to care about their students, to alter their biases away from students most like them and towards students they have more difficulty connecting with, or to reconsider power dynamics in the classroom and in our education system in general. It isn’t a means to redress inequities that continue to persist in a system that rewards competition, limits community, and promotes hierarchy.
My research tries to explore those constraints and breach them as much as possible. Inclusive teaching is a first step and it is a good one–but once we have challenged ourselves to move our teaching approaches away from the tradition of filling “empty vessels” (our students) with our own wealth of knowledge, what’s next? We must then prioritize equity by focusing on anti-racist and anti-colonial teaching practices. This is the point I believe Gloria Ladson-Billings was emphasizing in her speech-article, “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt”—what it is that we owe to our students and ourselves through our teaching practices. The answer involves acknowledging the massive debt accumulated from historical and systematic disadvantages since the foundation of our educational institutions.
If inclusive teaching is a set of tools, equitable teaching is a set of principles and frameworks. It challenges us to ask the questions that do not have immediate, clear, well-packaged answers. It is not a list of “best practices,” but a provocation, to embrace what Kevin Kumashiro refers to as unlearning and learning through discomfort.
My work explores some of these discomforts, which elucidate two major tensions in teaching and learning: firstly, that our classrooms come from a history that can be accessed and studied, a history which tells us the colonial methods of control that we can now subvert. Secondly, that our classrooms are history. We are in the moment of a new history and future of teaching and learning, and must transform and remain flexible accordingly, so as to shape that future more equitably.
I often tell myself and my workshop participants this adage: if it’s convenient, it probably isn’t inclusive. Too often we search for “the answer” and by applying this to “the question,” we can come away with an immediate thing we can do to respond to a problem in our classroom.
In the short term, this can work. I can restructure my assessments, create activities, and deploy strategies that invite student thinking-time—in other words, teach inclusively—to solve the problem as I understand it. While facing the demands of service and research, these are all inconvenient enough that I can feel I am making progress.
The problem is that these are not long-term solutions. They allow me as an instructor to potentially see some issues, do something concrete to address them, and feel that I am making individual progress as an inclusive instructor.
The challenges I see are largely structural—we are so extremely busy as educators, especially meeting the demands of research and community service, that teaching has become a casualty. We fail to think of teaching as a research load in and of itself. We don’t have the time, so we don’t make it, and so the rigor we bring to our research agenda is never applied to our teaching.
It’s possible to stumble into excellent teaching practices, but never fully understand the research behind good teaching. Implementing equitable and anti-colonial teaching is not simply an addendum–it is research in and of itself, which needs to be respected, cited, and understood better than it currently is.
We should begin with the resource closest to us—finding ways to foster an interdisciplinary community of teachers. It’s important to be in the regular practice of demystifying teaching and making it a regular part of our everyday conversation. What teaching strategy did you try out today? What didn’t work? Can you troubleshoot why and modify it so it does the work you want to do in the classroom? So often we are isolated in our classrooms, and sometimes in our departments, to the extent that teaching becomes just another way of going through the motions. If a local community isn’t available, there are lots of teaching and learning groups online where folks connect to talk about the joys and challenges of the process of making a more inclusive and equitable classroom.
We’re also lucky to live in a world with so much access—often free—to podcasts, videos, and texts on a variety of teaching topics. I’d recommend choosing something to obsess over for a semester or a year. My favorite podcast so far is Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning, because it addresses our false notions about the classroom from a variety of perspectives and classroom experiences.
Ask all students at the beginning of class to think of a particular strength they have–something in which they would consider themselves to have expertise. Then, over the course of the semester, challenge them to connect that action to the course content. Depending on what you’re teaching, that may be hard and even a little abstract. That’s okay. Transferable skills aren't often taught in school but it’s a necessary life lesson.
A strength you have in persistence (playing a complex game, be it karate or soccer) is just as necessary a skill as being able to persist in a very difficult class. The ability to bake a delicious, flaky biscuit (chemistry, attention to detail such as volume or temperature) is also the ability to focus on minute, yet important details. Perhaps your skills are social. Bringing together diverse people (community-building) helps immensely when building a team to solve a complex problem, highlighting strengths and filling in the gaps of weaknesses.
We don’t often allow our students to enter our classrooms as experts in anything. By honoring something they are good at, we are drawing them into our fields, not shutting them out.