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Designing for inclusion

“You have no place in the classroom. You should leave the academy.”

That’s what an older, white professor said to my wife Liliana last week at a conference of academics and lawyers. They were having a disagreement, during a formal working session with six other academics, about the role faculty should play in college classrooms in the current political environment. This professor argued that the proper role of faculty is to focus on delivering the content, and not worry about the emotions of his students.

While he didn’t condone the hateful speech that had taken place before and during the presidential election, he also didn’t think it was his job to worry about the effect of that speech on the emotional state of his students. Liliana, who is a lawyer, an immigrant from Colombia, and a professor of education, argued that one should pay attention to the emotional well-being of the students in one’s classes, particularly in the current political environment. She said she tries to structure learning environments that promote discussion and debate, which sometimes elicits strong emotions, positive and negative, from students. She believes part of her job is then helping students navigate those emotions in the classroom.

Until that moment in the discussion, the disagreement had been mostly cordial. But that’s when it happened. Visibly emotional and pointing in the air, the professor interrupted her, saying, “No. No. No. You have no place in the classroom. You should leave the academy.”

At Deans for Impact, we think a lot about how to facilitate conversations between professionals, particularly among deans and faculty of educator preparation programs. So when she told me the story, I had a couple of questions:

  1. What was the racial and gender composition of the group?
  2. What was the facilitator’s role in the group?
  3. What was the protocol for the conversation?

These are the same questions we ask when we design learning experiences for leaders of educator-preparation programs. And we ask them because we are committed to creating effective, inclusive adult learning experiences.

Here’s how we put those commitments into action:

We’re committed to convening leaders of educator preparation programs who are diverse along racial and gender lines, and who represent a diverse set of institutions.
The group in which Liliana was participating was mostly white and male. But, empirical research shows that racially diverse groups, for example, help surface assumptions and biases that may otherwise go unsaid. Everyone benefits from having a more racially diverse working group. Similarly, our education leaders at Deans for Impact will benefit from interacting with deans and other ed prep leaders who bring a diverse set of perspectives.

We’re committed to facilitating conversations in ways that allow everyone to speak and be heard.
A strong facilitator might have noticed that the professor was beginning to feel frustrated and emotional. Perhaps the man felt misunderstood, or perhaps he didn’t feel competent facilitating his classroom in the way my wife was suggesting. Similarly, Liliana deserves to speak without having her professional qualifications questioned – even if she is disagreeing with a more senior colleague. At Deans for Impact, we use facilitators to guide conversations and redirect conversations before they become unproductive or hostile.

We’re committed to using protocols that structure conversations around how to improve educator preparation, rather than attacking those who disagree with us.
Protocols encourage turn-taking and listening – features we think allow adult learners to disagree without shouting anyone down. Protocols help focus people on the content of the conversation, which allows people to disagree, sometimes vehemently, without attacking a person’s character. Liliana’s working group was having a productive argument until some people started attacking others’ qualifications, instead of their ideas. At Deans for Impact, we’re constantly revisiting our best ideas, and want to regularly engage our members and our critics in that discussion. We welcome productive disagreement. We need it.

We’re committed to modeling what we expect from others.
At Deans for Impact, we know we really can’t ask leaders of educator-preparation programs to tackle tough issues that create disagreement unless we’re willing to do it in our own office. And so we’re practicing productively disagreeing with one another in the office before we ask our colleagues in educator preparation to sit down and do the same. We’re committed to using protocols to focus our conversations and make sure everyone is heard. And, we’re committed to creating a diverse, inclusive working space.

These are just some of the design principles that guide Deans for Impact when we bring education leaders together, whether it’s at a biannual meeting of our members or the Impact Academy. Learning together will always be uncomfortable and sometimes it will be unpleasant, but it need not be hostile. At Deans for Impact, we believe learning environments can be designed to maximize inclusion and understanding.

We’re committed to getting better at this, every day.


John Roberts

Program Director


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