New Didactic Methods – Towards an Inclusive Approach

Alice Ceccardi and Federica Limonta 

 

Present society is still characterised by the phenomenon of racism; even though it is undeniable that some improvements on this issue have been made, it is safe to say that many forms of racist discrimination still exist, and that some of them are trickly to recognise because they are increasingly subtle. Even though people do not realise that consciously, they may possess or act according to some stereotypes or prejudices that have found  a way to settle in their minds, generally thanks to a void determined by the lack of an appropriate education on diversity and discrimination. But how can the educational system fill that void?

Any form of social injustice and discrimination, including racism, can and should be addressed by teaching. But acknowledging discrimination (and not acting on it) is not enough. As Esson and Last suggest: “[I]in a racist society it is not enough to be ‘non racist’, we have to be ‘anti racist’” (670). Hence, the need of implementing teaching methodologies and learning curricula that will not only make students familiar with the complex and multifaceted reality that surrounds them, but that also will bring them to question their beliefs, to become more aware of discrimination itself, and to actively act against it.

Foto von RF._.studio via Pexels

 

Merely Acknowledging Discrimination Is Not Enough

Teaching a foreign language, for example, is itself a way to demolish barriers among people – both mental and physical ones. Nevertheless, even if someone learns a new language, that does not necessarily mean that person will be automatically aware of cultural differences. Being capable of communicating with people with a different cultural background, indeed, cannot be limited to the linguistic ability of formulating correct sentences. However, teaching a culture alongside a language is not that common. Whereas the bibliography of language teaching methodologies is rich and this field of research has been investigated for a long time, the same cannot be said for culture teaching methodologies (Byrd et al. 8). Introducing, or implementing, the teaching of culture in L2 curricula might lead students to reflect not only on the culture they are learning of, but also on their own. As Byrd et al. suggested: “L2 students have reported that the process of learning another culture can challenge their notions of their own culture […]” (12). As they reported, this process can be perceived by the students as an uncomfortable experience (12).

Zembylas and Papamichael in their paper “Pedagogies of discomfort and empathy in multicultural teacher education” reported the phrase ‘pedagogy of discomfort’, coined by Boler, and explained it as “a pedagogical framework to engage students and teachers with issues of difference, race and social justice by troubling their emotional comfort zones” (3). It has been proven that “discomforting emotions are important in challenging dominant beliefs, social habits and normative practices that sustain stereotypes and social injustice” (Zembylas and Papamichael 3).

The Relevance of Teacher’s Education

A starting point could be, as Esson and Last suggested, recognising that whiteness, due to the events of modern era colonialism, is linked to privilege and supremacy (671). As already mentioned, it is not enough to recognise the existence of such privileges – however unpleasant such an experience may be –, but they have to be challenged: “effective anti-racist learning and teaching is about White teachers and students embracing this discomfort, and giving up their privileges, to rectify inequity in society” (Esson and Last 671).

If this experience has to be unsettling for it to be effective, the role of the teacher in softening disturbing thoughts and feelings is crucial. For teachers to be able to guide students through this process, they first have to go through it themselves. Hence, the relevance of teachers’ education. It is not possible to expect teachers to foster students’ awareness on such topics, if they had not received the tools to do that.

Foto von Max Fischer via Pexels

But let’s take a closer look at the classroom. How do we teach concrete notions while fostering an open-minded approach to the subject? What kind of methodological tools do educators have to encourage inclusive attitudes? 

Students are often so busy with their lessons that little time is left to learn how to empathise and connect with others. Except for few literary works, educational psychology has been ignored for a very long time. It is only in the last decades that the issue was directly addressed by educators who combined fieldwork with theoretical research.

Starting from the 1980s, the students’ needs have become one of the main criteria to shape a successful teaching method; numerous studies proved that pupils’ psychological response affects academic achievements and in the long run also their personal growth.

Every Subject Is a Potential Vehicle for Inclusive Ideas

Not only should the class offer a comforting work environment, thus encouraging students to respect each other’s differences and freely express their ideas, it is essential to bring this attitude also outside the teaching space. The best solution to instil such values as toleranceand respect is to do it indirectly, i.e. to pass the message on without explicitly making the students aware of the process.

Every subject is a potential vehicle for inclusive ideas, we just need to rethink the traditional lesson in terms of “shifting perspectives”. Learners need to understand that few things in life are universally true because different perspectives inevitably lead to an individual perception of the surrounding reality: what is true for me is not necessarily true for someone else.

This can be easy for humanistic studies such as history – “Do people from our countries record history in the same way as we do?” –, geography or foreign languages, but it is obviously more complex for scientific subjects. Maths teachers will clearly ask themselves: “How can I show students that the reality is relative if I have to teach theorems?”. A possible starting point could be the same question used by history teachers: “Is the Pythagorean theorem taught in the same way all over the world?”. Another good example was presented by the Coordinator of Secondary Mathematics and Academic Pathways at Toronto District School Board when teachers had to explain proportions and percentages: If we think about the questions “How many people are there in Toronto? How many of them are white/ black/ brown/ other? How many members of each community possess a permanent abode?” proportions become an opportunity to directly address social issues and possibly social inequity (Okwuosa). This simple but subtle approach is particularly effective with children since they are still too young to conceive themselves – and even less other youngsters – as individuals. Once they achieve self-awareness, it is easier to discuss this topic consciously and actively.

If we ask university students what the risks of entering the world of work with a biased mindset are, they surely understand the question but probably need time and help to find an answer. The point is making them aware of the problem and leading them to draw their own conclusions.

Once again, as the research conducted by B. A. Godley, D. Dayal, E. Manekin and S. E Estroff shows, the best way is to hint at the question indirectly. In their article “Toward an Anti-Racist Curriculum: Incorporating Art into Medical Education to Improve Empathy and Structural Competency” they suggest art lessons to recognise social influences on health and racism in clinical education. One of the aims of the program “Can We Talk About Race?” (CWTAR) was to make medical students empathise with racial minorities and feel at ease discussing racial issues. Contemplating artworks means combining visual perceptions and personal feelings: students need to recognise the piece’s physical characteristics, their own emotions while looking and then to acknowledge the subjectivity of their response. They focused on Kara Walker’s works, which usually deal with race, gender, violence, and identity. Some students maintained that art enabled them to debate delicate topics without feeling discomfort or fear of being judged and secondly to shift their perspective, which is crucial to train empathy.

Whether in primary schools or in universities, educators are responsible for moulding student’s minds. We need to think at classrooms in terms of microsocieties made up of people rather than temporary parking lots for learners only. It is necessary to connect the real world with the academic one; in this way, students will start to recognise both strengths and flaws of our society since an early age. To recognise discriminatory episodes, it is essential to develop critical thinking. This is the keyword for an effective teaching method that helps students turn into responsible citizens. Didactic activities must be designed to develop critical thinking rather than providing students with mere theoretical notions.

Ceccardi Alice and Limonta Federica, University of Milan

References

Byrd, David R. et al.,“An Examination of Culture Knowledge: A Study of L2 Teachers’ and Teacher Educators’ Beliefs and Practices.” Foreign Language Annals, 44:1 (2011), pp. 4–39. 

Esson, James / Angela Last, “Anti‐Racist Learning and Teaching in British Geography.” Area, 52:4 (2020), pp. 668–677. 

Godley, Bria Adimora et al., “Toward an Anti-Racist Curriculum: Incorporating Art into Medical Education to Improve Empathy and Structural Competency”. Journal of Medical Education and Curricular Development, 7 (2020), pp. 1–6.

Okwuosa, Ashley, “What Does an Anti-Racist Math Class Look Like?” tvo.org (2021), https://www.tvo.org/article/what-does-an-anti-racist-math-class-look-like

Zembylas, Michalinos / Elena Papamichael, “Pedagogies of Discomfort and Empathy in Multicultural Teacher Education”. Intercultural Education 28:1 (2017), pp. 1-19. 


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