Creating an inclusive learning community involves mindful design and teaching so that each student feels that their perspective and experience is valued. It implies that there are processes in place to foster friendships, relationships, and mutual respect among students and between students and teachers. An inclusive learning community is an environment in which all students feel a sense of belonging and are comfortable in expressing themselves and participating fully in the educational process. This allows students to participate and learn to their greatest potential

However, this can be harder to achieve if student behavior is set in ways that limit inclusion. Here are some of the biggest challenges and suggested solutions to achieve an inclusive learning community. 

Challenge #1: In many classrooms, students sit only with people they know. This means they are less likely to make others feel welcome or learn the benefits of knowing and working with everyone. 

Solution: Begin each course with a frame-breaking simulation that involves random groupings of students working jointly to accomplish an assigned task. This sets the stage for the need to rely upon other students with different perspectives and gives them a brief exposure to all classmates.  

Challenge #2: When students do not feel a sense of belonging or community in a classroom, they make less effort to memorize names or to learn how to pronounce unfamiliar names. 

Solution: Challenge students on the first day of class to start learning everyone’s names.  Help them get started by having the students stand in circular groups and throw a tennis ball to people whose name they do not know; eventually, they have to name people before throwing the ball to them and be able to repeat everyone’s name in the circle. With names that are difficult to pronounce for anyone in the room, write them on the board, both as they are spelled and phonetically so that students can practice them. In preparation for a name quiz, students are allowed to work with their team to make sure they can identify everyone in the class by name. This sometimes involves “runners” who ask people their names and then add them to a shared team list. The instructor’s contribution is learning and using student names quickly and calling the roll at the start of each class. The “quiz” is carried out by dividing the class into two equal groups and separating them with a large tarp or blanket. Two tall volunteers are recruited to hold the edges of the tarp. A person from each group sneaks up to the tarp and crouches so they cannot be seen (the rest of the group also tries not to be seen by huddling together farther back from the tarp). When the tarp is dropped, the first person to correctly name the  person facing them from the other team “wins” that person for their own team. This results in general hilarity as people struggle to recall names quickly. However, it is also an excellent way to test and cement their knowledge of everyone’s names, which they then continue to practice and use throughout the course. 

Challenge #3: Left to their own devices, students usually form homogeneous teams or continue to replicate team membership from other courses. 

Solution: Frame team formation as a valuable opportunity to maximize their learning by working with diverse and unknown team members. After doing a physical sociogram to identify their pr-existing friends in the classroom, students list all the various ways in which the class is diverse before using these criteria to form diverse, multicultural teams — with people who are not already friends. As a class, double-check the diverse nature of each team and, if necessary, encourage people to move around until everyone is satisfied and situated in a diverse learning or project team. 

Challenge #4: Many student project teams are unsuccessful and exclude certain members, in part because instructors do not equip students to work in teams. 

Solution: Begin courses with experiential ropes course activities and content knowledge focusing on effective team practices and the importance of including and using all team members’ skills. Students begin each class session by sitting with their team so that they have a “home” in the classroom, which also increases attendance. Halfway through the semester, use the Nominal Group Technique (NGT) in which teams first identify the top 5 characteristics of an ideal team followed by the top 5 characteristics of their actual team. This allows them to suggest and enact team improvements to take place in the last half of the semester. If there is an inclusion problem within a student team, it will usually surface in this exercise. The NGT is an extremely useful process they can use in other settings to check upon and improve inclusion.  

Challenge #5: When students don’t share the same experiences, values or beliefs and don’t have the tools to bridge their differences, a stressful and tense learning environment can result.  

Solution: Start by having the students assess where they stand in terms of inclusion competencies. Instructors can use assessments like the Inclusion Competencies Inventory (ICI) to evaluate each person at the individual level. Students can identify what capabilities or learning edges they bring to the challenge of being more inclusive and the steps they will take to improve themselves. Specifically, the ICI measures and introduces students to the following three key factors and methods to improve them, which can help to alleviate the stress or frustration felt within a diverse learning community and promote inclusion:

1) Knowing Yourself: Awareness of “who you are” and how open you are to changing, as well as the likelihood to adapt to challenging contexts. 

2) Knowing Others: The interest in and actions to develop relationships with people who differ from yourself and the ability to understand them. 

3) Bridging Differences: The interest in multiple perspectives and the ability to see and value them and to be sensitive to the inequities present in many contexts.

Gaining the capacity to cope with these challenges is crucial to developing and maintaining a healthy learning community. The ICI, developed by the Kozai Group, is an excellent tool to use with students or participants in the early stage of creating a learning community. This short but rigorously developed assessment enables people to focus on improving their inclusion competencies in the classroom/training setting and to compare their progress with a post-test at the end. For more information about administering or taking the ICI, please contact us at info@kozaigroup.com

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