Providing an inclusive environment for learning – by Lesley Batty

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The notion of inclusivity is not new, despite the rather dramatic increase in its use within the past few years. Human beings have always had the desire to ‘belong’ and we see that in all parts of life, whether that be following a particular football team or within a family unit.  It is not just about the sense of belonging within a group of other people, but also within an environment.  Therefore, inclusivity is really about maximising the potential for everyone to feel that they belong within HE, that they fit in and that they are comfortable.  When this is achieved then surely learning can be maximised.  However, we may make assumptions about the background of our students, not only in the more obvious sense, such as educational experience, social background and home residence, but also in the less obvious, such as their previous encounters with particular environments.

Some of the most obvious challenging environments that students encounter are those that are met when on fieldwork, a core component of many disciplines. When we mention ‘fieldwork’ the immediate image is often of the remote, rugged outdoors, but in fact fieldwork includes any visit that we make outside the lecture theatre.  However, if we start with the traditional idea of staff and students tramping around mountainous peaks (the images most often used on University websites) then this clearly poses many reasons for people to consider themselves to be excluded from that environment.  This may be due to a physical disability, but also due to a lack of fitness, age, gender but can also simply be due to a lack of previous experience.  The great outdoors can be a daunting place for anyone who has not encountered it before, and this can create anxiety for individuals.  With fieldwork there is often the added difficulty of it being residential that then throws up additional barriers to inclusion.  There is often a ‘drinking culture’ on residential field courses and this has been shown to exclude individuals.  We are only now starting to address some of these issues and you can find out some of the great work being done in the Geosciences field here https://theiagd.org/.   We are in need of rethinking our approach to ensuring that our fieldwork is wholly inclusive.  We have too often replaced the need for fieldwork for a student who is unable to carry out the existing work, by replacing it with an essay rather than thinking about alternative ways in which we can adapt and rethink our field visits to allow all students to be included.

A couple of years ago I had some feedback from first year students who had undertaken laboratory work as part of the module that I taught on. This raised some questions around the length of time that they were expected to work (3 hours-a typical lab session) and how stressful they found it. This led me to consider what assumptions I was making about the lab.  As a scientist I am used to being in labs but I couldn’t remember what it felt like the first time I was in one probably because we had good opportunities at my school.  However, do all students get that experience now?  Do they even get a chance to carry out experiments themselves?  I knew that fieldwork was being constrained and reduced at school level, but was this the same for laboratory practicals? Was I making assumptions about how comfortable students felt in the lab, and whether they felt a sense of belonging in that environment?  I am now carrying out research to explore this question through a series of questionnaires and focus groups that aims to determine the previous experiences of students in relation to labs, whether particular groups have poorer experiences than others, and most importantly whether there are actions that we can take to ensure that all students feel ‘at home’ in the lab.   Hopefully we will be publishing this work in the coming year so watch this space.

As educators, we have a responsibility to allow all our students to have the same opportunities for learning, wherever this may occur. It is often minor adjustments that we can make, that change an environment from being alien and unwelcoming, in to one where everyone feels that they belong.

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