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DEI: Informing the Implicit to Create the Explicit in Classroom Culture

Karen Blaha, University of St. Francis

Joyce Kraus, University of St. Francis

Key Statement: DEI: Creating a Classroom Culture

Keywords: Diversity, Instructional Practices, Classroom Culture


Inclusive classrooms and equitable instructional practices have been a subject of discussion for several years, particularly within higher learning institutions. The diversity and multicultural nature of today’s college classroom calls for use of culturally responsive practices to improve student engagement and learning (Mohammad & Nordin, 2017). But what does this look like in the higher education classroom? Successful implementation of these practices involves more than a few teaching strategies. Pedagogical leadership must balance the validation of students’ cultural socialization and prior experiences (Gay, 2018), with the creation of a sense of belonging and academic discourse that is personally meaningful to participants (Garrison, 2012). Therefore, faculty are called upon to consider implicit approaches to designing dynamic learning environments that foster open discourse with diverse and multicultural audiences. The result will be faculty who enhance their self-awareness and engage in implementing culturally responsive teaching strategies, finding a greater sense of community, enhanced learning, and student engagement in their classroom. Education and social work are two examples of fields where the teacher’s role more routinely includes consideration of diversity and inclusivity in creating classroom dynamics.

Faculty as Facilitator

Creation of an inclusive classroom is arguably achieved in any discipline from a faculty-as-facilitator approach. Rooted in the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework’s teaching presence, faculty leadership in the classroom must include creating a sense of belonging and academic discourse that is personally meaningful to participants (Garrison, 2012). Faculty attend to the implicit content of equity and inclusion through their own preparation as facilitator of learning. First, faculty consider teaching presence, which calls upon the teacher to manage the direction of both social and cognitive factors in the learning environment in addition to any challenges (Garrison et al., 2010; Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007; Swan et al., 2009). By creating space for discourse where dialogue within the classroom is coercion and intimidation free and facilitated by faculty who collaborate with students to achieve academic goals, faculty invite participants to engage in mutual learning.

Second, faculty as the knowledgeable facilitator enhance their understanding of diversity in order to engage with students. They take the time to recognize their own intersectionality and position relative to power and privilege and make space in the learning environment for the resulting nuances. Third, and just as importantly, faculty assess the diversity and intersectionality among their students through active information seeking and observation. This step calls upon the teacher to manage the direction of both social and cognitive factors in the learning environment in addition to any challenges (Garrison et al., 2010; Swan et al., 2009; Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). According to Singleton (2015), the four elements of creating space for courageous dialogue are to stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, expect and accept non-closure. From a teaching presence perspective, rather than identifying an unsolvable problem, faculty-as-facilitator consider the dynamic of their role, nuances among students, and how they manage diversity of students and themselves (Garrison, 2012). Learning activities that allow participants to make connections become an essential piece in developing classroom culture.

Image by Hans-Peter Gauster. Unsplash.

Engaging the Brain and Instructional Practices

Practices that support the facilitation and design of classroom culture are those which utilize explicit practices that allow students to reflect on previous background experiences, share perspectives with one another, and support cognitive development (Blaha, 2022; Muniz, 2020). Research in the field of educational neuroscience has demonstrated that optimal learning occurs not only when students feel a sense of belonging, but also when the brain is actively engaged in cognitively challenging tasks the learner views as relevant (Osaka et al., 2013).

How can instructors engage the brain and prime it for new learning? First, they should consider the element of novelty. Novelty, the element of surprise related to an event (Ranganath & Ranier, 2003), causes the brain to experience a flurry of neural activity (Schomaker & Meeter, 2015), and has been found to impact learners’ motivation, attention, and processing of information (Barto et al., 2013). When novelty is paired with students’ individual prior knowledge and experiences, learning becomes more concrete and relevant (Dong et al., 2020). Scaffolding new learning and providing students time to organize the novel information further leverages the new learning (Gluck et al., 2013), and provides the brain time to build relationships between the new learning and previous learning.

Second, instructors need to ensure the classroom is an active learning environment. Active learning encompasses timely, actionable feedback and addresses different learning styles with various opportunities to think about, talk about, and process course material. Active learning environments also promote student-to-student and instructor-to-student interactions, which leverages the brain’s need to connect with others in a community and minimize perceived social threats (Hammond, 2018).

Practices such as Joint Production or Instructional Conversations, as outlined by the Center for Research, Diversity, and Excellence (University of Hawaii , 2020), allow the teacher to act as facilitator while students share perceptions, points of view through discussions, and complete shared tasks that connect new learning to previous learning. Other activities, such as think-pair-share, case studies, and cooperative groups, provide opportunities for all students to share their perspectives, while also reflecting on their own learning (Instructional Design Team, 2020). When planning these activities, instructors should consider the activity’s level of complexity and how this supports the learning objectives. Instructors should also consider how to organize students into various groups to support interactions, how to ensure all students are included in the conversations/tasks, and how the teacher will assess students’ understanding while facilitating the activities (Instructional Design Team, 2020; University of Hawaii, 2022).


It is important to remember that creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment is a multi-step process that begins with instructor reflection. Before instructors can create a classroom environment and instruction that is inclusive and equitable, they must first engage in self-reflection on their own intersectionality and position within power structures, and how this influences their current instructional practices. When the authors explored faculty perspectives of culturally responsive practices at their own university via four in-person presentations to multidisciplinary participants, the authors learned that the use of inclusive and culturally responsive teaching might sometimes be one-dimensional. Participants were focused mainly on classroom discussions rather than designing both implicit and explicit approaches to the learning environment. During reflections at the conclusion of each university session, participating faculty noted their own “ah-ha” moments, such as, culturally responsive practices include opportunities for students to connect novice information to previous learning experiences. Participating faculty also noted that such practices implement cognitive supports so each student is successful with content. The authors also found these reflections echoed during a recent Lilly Conference session. During the Lilly Conference session, participants noted that inclusive practices allow students to make connections between content and lived experiences, as well as creating a brave space for shared learning. In order to create a classroom culture that is inclusive and supports equitable practices, faculty must be provided the tools and resources to understand why culturally responsive teaching matters, how to implement specific strategies, and what resources are available to continue their efforts.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do the intersectionalities of faculty and students impact the learning environment?

  2. How can you provide opportunities for students to connect background experiences to new learning?

  3. How can you envision utilizing some of the culturally responsive practices in your own classroom?


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