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The Assumptions We Make About Diversity

Diversity isn’t always visible, but it's always present, relevant, and an integral part of student learning.

Most faculty want to make their classes as inclusive as possible, but sometimes we have assumptions that get in the way of exploring all of the possibilities for inclusion. We can begin by examining some assumptions about diversity.

Assumption 1: “My students aren’t diverse.”

Many faculty teach at institutions or in departments where students appear to be relatively homogenous. We often talk to teachers who will comment, for example, that most of their students are white, male, and 20 years old.

First, this raises the question, “Why isn’t there more diversity in your school or department?” The apparent lack of diversity is what makes diversity an issue in your class.

Second, simply because your students are visibly similar does not mean they are homogeneous. Think about all the aspects of your own identity: ethnicity, gender, religion, social class, country or region of origin, age, physical ability, family background, sexual orientation, educational history, physical appearance, learning style. You could probably identify many aspects of your identity that influence who you are in the classroom.

Our students are no less complex. Each student is a unique combination of experiences and identities, most of which will be invisible to us. We may see them for three hours per week for a lifetime total of only 45 hours or so. Our classes take place in the larger context of their lives. Anything we bring into the classroom has the potential to connect to their lives, often having an emotional impact (good or bad) that can affect their learning. We won’t always know when, how, or why these connections occur, but we need to assume they will and be open to them.

It’s all too easy to slip into the bad habit of making assumptions based on outward appearance. We knew one student who looked like a typical 20-year-old white male from the Midwest, a category that is often dismissed as immature and provincial. This student, however, was a veteran who had recently been in combat in Iraq and brought to class a set of experiences that one could not expect just looking at him.

Students are diverse in more ways than we will probably ever know, but starting with the assumption of great diversity opens our classrooms up to exciting and constantly changing possibilities.

Assumption 2: “If everyone is diverse, then why does it matter?”

Sometimes discussion of diversity stops at recognizing that we’re all different. As teachers we also need to consider how those differences can affect the learning environment in both positive and negative ways. Not only do our classes take place in the context of our students’ (and our own) lives, they also occur in the larger context of the world around us. We do not teach in a vacuum. We live within the power dynamics of society at large, and our classes can reinforce, interrupt, or make visible that power.

What happens in the classroom sometimes reinforces inequities outside the classroom. We found an example in this student quote from Interrupting Heteronormativity (Gupta, Farrell, & Queen, 2004):

I took French classes last year, and even though my TA seemed very liberal, as part of getting us to speak in French, she’d ask questions like, “How would you describe your ideal boyfriend?” and “How would you describe your future plans for marriage and children?” I know it was unintentional, but it felt like my whole existence was erased.

The instructor in this case obviously didn’t intend to hurt anyone, but nonetheless, the impact the student felt was powerful, given greater weight because of inequality outside the classroom.

Contrast this to a sample math problem from the same article: “If Dave and Bob want to buy a $200,000 house but only make $25,000 annually, how should they budget?”

It’s a simple example, but one that teaches more than simple math. It interrupts heteronormativity and makes visible the invisibility the previous student commented on, while also creating the opportunity for all students in the class to stop and think. A student who goes on to become a mortgage broker will not only know how to calculate the numbers (and perhaps counsel Dave and Bob to look for a smaller house), but also be more aware of the variety of potential clients.

The goal is not to try to make special accommodations for gay, African-American, or female students, which oversimplifies student identity and casts certain students as “the Other.” Disability studies such as by Ben-Moshe (Building Pedagogical Curb Cuts: Incorporating Disability in the University), offer another useful way of examining the interaction of individual identity and cultural norm:

The social model of disability suggests that disability is not individual deficit but one way of understanding difference amidst narrow definitions of normal. An individual may experience an impairment, but this is not inherently negative. Further, it is not a disability until interacting with inaccessibility and ableism. In this way, difficulties in school must be considered from a broader environmental context. Rather than asking what the student needs to change to succeed in the classroom (or stating that certain students do not belong in our classrooms), the social model asks, “What needs to change about the classroom and the teaching to make learning happen for this student, to allow the student to show all that she or he knows?

This model gives us the concept of Universal Design for Learning, in which teaching is designed to improve the learning of all students.

Assumption 3: “But this doesn’t have anything to do with learning.”

One reason many teachers avoid talking about diversity is the idea that teaching “values” is not our job. But in reality, value-free teaching does not exist (McKeachie, 2002). When we choose what content to teach and what to leave out, when we select examples, when we develop our teaching methods, when we design our assignments, we make decisions about what we value and we communicate those values to our students.

Obviously, creating a safe and welcoming classroom environment has a lot to do with learning. But the relationship between understanding diversity and facilitating learning goes deeper. By helping our students appreciate diversity, we can also make them better thinkers.

Whenever we ask instructors what their goals for a course are, invariably they say, “critical thinking.” They talk about students understanding and evaluating multiple perspectives, becoming aware of the complexities of their positions, and seeing alternative ways of solving problems.

William Perry’s scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Develop-ment (1970) defines four main stages that students progress through, starting with “dualism” (there’s a right answer) to “multiplicity” (there’s no way to tell what’s right) to “contextual relativism” (there’s a way to use evidence to prove a position) and finally, to “commitment.” It is this final stage that instructors hope their students will achieve: when they will go out in the world and cope with uncertainty, define their own values and identity, make educated choices, evaluate options, create new knowledge, and become lifelong learners.

What better way to help them achieve those goals than to create a course which explicitly incorporates diversity, challenges assumptions, and invites multiple perspectives?

References & Resources

Ben-Moshe, L., Cory, R. C., Feldbaum, M., & Sagendor, K. (Eds.). (2005). Building Pedagogical Curb Cuts: Incorporating Disability in the University. Publication of the Graduate School, Syracuse University.

Gupta, N., Farrell, K, & Queen, M. (Eds.). (2004). Interrupting Heteronormativity: LGBT Pedagogy and Responsible Teaching at Syracuse University. Publication of the Graduate School, Syracuse University.

Kaplan, M., & Reed, B. G. (2005). But how can I talk with faculty about that? Approaches to consulting around multicultural issues. In M. Ouellett (Ed.), Teaching Inclusively. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Marchesani, L. S., & Adams, M. (1992). Dynamics of diversity in the teaching-learning process: A faculty development model for analysis and action. New Directions for Teaching and Learning (52), 9-19.

McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers, 11th ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Cognitive Development in the College Years. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Sellers, S. L., Friedrich, K., Saleem, T., & Burstyn, J. N. (2005). Case Studies in Inclusive Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

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