While language can be used to uplift others, it can also easily – and at times inadvertently – exclude others by bringing them down. The language that we choose to use in the classroom affects each individual differently. Because everyone has their own values that they bring to the classroom, it can be challenging to develop an inclusive language that reflects and honors the diverse values of participants. Nonetheless, teachers have an important role in shaping the classroom environment, especially because of their position of authority. Consequently, students rely on their teachers to create a safe and inclusive space for learning, along with language that facilitates this process. This module aims to provide a handful of insights and tools to help teachers develop an inclusive language for the classroom – with special attention for the online context.
What do we want them to learn?
To create a learning environment where participants eschew microaggressions, stigmatization and stereotyping towards teachers and students, they need to become aware of how – even some well-intended – interactions can exclude individuals. Stereotypes and micro-aggressions, for example, can hide in well-intended remarks: “For a woman, you do great in maths”. Seemingly neutral expressions that reflect dominant habits can possess similar normative tendencies: “Where did you all travel to during the summer holiday?”. Even casual references to minority identities such as ‘female’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’, ‘poor’, and ‘disabled’ can trigger underlying stereotypical images and function as self-fulfilling prophecies (Spencer, Logel and Davies, 2016). Research has pointed out that when students are told that women underperform to men on a specific test, this lowers the actual performance of female students (Spencer, Steele & Quinn, 1999). This highlights the weight and impact that words have on learning outcomes and how students’ educational experiences.
Teachers and classrooms do not exist in a vacuum but are part of course programmes and institutes, which in turn are embedded in broader societies. Together they not only shape languages and discourses, codes of conduct, and overall education, but also financial, social, and cultural opportunities and barriers for its members. It is not always evident that these invisible forces are percolating through the classroom environment. Such aspects of education that are not explicated in the curriculum but nevertheless shaping students, are referred to with the term ‘hidden curriculum’. These aspects all radiate specific cultural norms yet can go unnoticed because they are deemed as ‘normal’ or commonplace. These concealed norms materialize in myriad ways such as the language and communication of educational institutions (O’Shea et al., 2016; Thomas, 2002). These conceptions all influence which attitudes and contributions are valued and thus who is addressed and acknowledged, whose needs and interests are met, who feels invited to participate, who feels inspired to learn, and who feels capable of educational and societal success. As agents of educational institutions, teachers have a role in the reproduction of existing inequalities but can also play a role in reflecting on and changing existing inequalities (Freire, 1996). Investigating the implications of the hidden curriculum at the nexus of language and digital education can facilitate the development of an inclusive language. It allows teachers to better grasp the hidden curriculum and find ways to harness this latent learning to positively influence the classroom in an online environment. This inquiry is especially relevant considering that in our current era of abundant information latent knowledge based on experiences is becoming an increasingly foundational point of reference for students’ values (Nahardani et al., 2022).
Societal changes bring about changes in our norms and values conjointly with the language we use. Adjustment can be difficult for people because everyone is accustomed to their own frames of reference for language expression, especially since there can be a tendency to consider certain dominant positions as the standard or norm. Developing an inclusive language for the classroom is a dynamic process requiring collective action by all participants whereby the dominant standard – which includes some and excludes others – is acknowledged as such and actively challenged. An inclusive language strives to make everyone feel safe and invited to participate in the classroom regardless of their positions and identities. The aim is not to change someone’s position but rather expand our understanding of people around us and those we are connected to in some form. For example, taking gender variance into account by addressing a group with “everyone” instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “guys”. Of course, no one is infallible, so it is important to acknowledge that people can make mistakes. Under the appropriate guidance and with the right approach, those instances present opportune moments for mutual learning if the teacher manages to facilitate exchanges that are responsive as opposed to reactionary. Adopting a responsive approach calls on teachers to practice reflexivity in order to create awareness of the effect of their positionality (intrapersonal awareness) and relational power dynamics (interpersonal awareness) on the online classroom (Salazar, Norton & Tuitt, 2010). This can be achieved through active dialogue between participants in the classroom about inclusive ways to address and treat each other; use of more inclusive examples in the course; and a more receptive attitude towards different perspectives in the course.
Exploring the identities of the participants in the classroom can help you as a teacher better understand what the needs of your students are – including how they view their own identities and the descriptors that best represent them. To avoid the reproduction of stereotypes, tokenism and generalisations, take into account that some students will have commonalities in this sense but that these preferences will vary among individual students in their weight, meaning, and use. Rather than making assumptions about their identities and preferences, honour their self-determination by actively providing students the space to share their context-relevant experiences and perspectives around specific subjects. For example, ask if there are any students with prior experiences or knowledge when discussing certain topics and indicate why these exchanges are important. Acknowledging students’ experiences in this way can make them feel involved in creating a safe, inclusive learning environment. This approach also increases the feeling of connectedness, alternatively referred to as ‘sense of belonging’ (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981; Strayhorn, 2018). Teachers can offer students acknowledgement as well by broaching difficult subjects like racism and sexism, especially in relevant contexts and situations. For example, teachers can contextualise historical or literary content that is featured in the course by explaining how certain language is discriminatory. The emphasis should be on the experience of the people who are affected by this language, rather than a discussion of what is right or wrong.
ECHO, Center for Diversity Policy