Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 8, 2016

Curriculum Transformation: Fostering inclusive classrooms

Curriculum transformation is a process that asks faculty members to take a critical stance on power and difference in the classroom, interweave multiple perspectives and integrate student voices and knowledge into the learning process. “The Diversity Blueprint and the Diversity Requirement set goals for change at the university level, but within each classroom, curriculum transformation is an opportunity for each instructor to create a thoughtful and equitable space for learning, with support from instructional experts,” says Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

Curriculum transformation has a long history at UW, including the Center for Curriculum Transformation which aided faculty from 1993 until 2013, largely under the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity. Today, the Center for Teaching & Learning in offers guidance in areas of inclusive teaching and other best practices.

Now, as then, academic units come to curriculum transformation with different needs and levels of understanding. Individual professors may vary in how comfortable they feel discussing racial equity or connecting it to their course topics. There are many ways to enact real change on a departmental level. As the School of Public Health and the iSchool demonstrate, open communication and mutual respect are key ingredients.

The School of Public Health: Adding a core competency on race and equity

In 2016, the School of Public Health passed a new school-wide competency specifically addressing the effects of racism on public health. India Ornelas, assistant professor of Health Services and chair of the School of Public Health Diversity Committee, dates the origin of this competency to a 2014 workshop that challenged participants to undo institutional racism. Many began looking critically at the school’s curriculum.

India Ornelas (far right), chair of the School of Public Health’s Diversity Committee, says that passing the new core competency was a collaborative effort involving many meetings, presentations and informal conversations to communicate the importance of the proposed addition. Photo: Filiz Efe McKinney.

India Ornelas (far right), chair of the School of Public Health’s Diversity Committee, says that passing the new core competency was a collaborative effort involving many meetings, presentations and informal conversations to communicate the importance of the proposed addition. Photo: Filiz Efe McKinney.

The first result was a one-credit course that addresses the effects of race, power and privilege on public health — which remains popular, with a wait-list every quarter. Soon it became clear that a greater commitment was needed as Public Health students in the course advocated that the concepts in the class were equally vital to the school’s broader curriculum.

For more than a year, multiple committees vetted several draft proposals of the new competency. The process required stakeholder involvement at every level. In a coordinated leadership effort, the school-wide Diversity Committee and Curriculum Committee worked together for the first time.

“The big leap was going from something that was voluntary and largely master’s students to having all degree plans required to meet this [competency],” says Ornelas, who cites three key factors that helped the School of Public Health approve the competency.

Earn departmental buy-in by listening, educating and asking questions:
“It’s really important to bring people in from the beginning, and get the whole community behind you,” says Ornelas.

The school needed approval from all departments to pass the competency. Diversity Committee members met with departments, committees and individuals at every unit level.

Ornelas says, “We talked through all of these issues and asked departments, ‘Do you want your students to be able to work across difference? Do you want them to be able to understand racism as a social determinant of health? Do you want them to be able to work with diverse research teams?’ No matter what environment you’re working in, race and equity issues are happening, and your students will have to understand how racism works.”

“Recognize the means by which social inequities and racism, generated by power and privilege, undermine health.”

— School of Public Health new core competency

Involve students leaders as activists and counselors:
Students drove the work at all levels. Schoolwide activism helped push the competency forward, while individual student representatives advocated within department committees. In addition to higher-profile actions, many students provided feedback in discussions with staff and faculty.

Communicate about progress:
With five departments, the school’s approval process can be long and cumbersome. Ornelas recommends designating a web page to regularly update internal stakeholders. Colleges and schools undertaking similar efforts can provide transparent communications in-person and online to build trust in the process.

In the end, the school became one of the nation’s first public health programs to enact such a requirement. “I’m very proud of the stand that people in the curriculum committees and diversity committees took, saying that the importance here is naming racism, power and privilege,” says Ornelas.

Creating a National Impact

The work done in the UW School of Public Health influenced the Council on Education for Public Health, the accrediting body for schools that offer the master of Public Health degree. Now, as a requirement, all graduates of accredited schools will be able to “discuss the means by which structural bias, social inequities and racism undermine health and create challenges to achieving health equity at organizational, community and societal levels.”

The iSchool: Partnering For Inclusive Teaching

Cynthia del Rosario, diversity, equity and access officer, and leader of the iSchool’s Curriculum Transformation Project

Cynthia del Rosario, diversity, equity and access officer, and leader of the iSchool’s Curriculum Transformation Project

Cynthia del Rosario, diversity, equity and access officer, leads the iSchool’s Curriculum Transformation Project. Undoing institutional racism requires honest self-reflection. Del Rosario knew that faculty would need trusted partners to turn to for support. As a result, she based the program around fostering mentoring relationships.

The project builds partnerships between faculty and community members who have expertise in diversity practices, using the iSchool’s alumni and network to identify potential experts. Each quarter, del Rosario recruits three to four experts who can help faculty integrate diversity into curricula, and she matches each expert with one or two faculty members based on areas of expertise and compatible learning styles.

Over the quarter, expert partners support faculty in planning and implementing ways to diversify their curriculum and make their classrooms more inclusive spaces. “We try to keep partners consistent [from year to year], so they understand our culture,” says del Rosario.

To create supportive partnerships:

  • Get everyone on the same page: Del Rosario schedules time for people to connect before the quarter and organizes activities to introduce concepts of microaggressions and privilege.This helps everyone develop shared understanding and common ground, even if participants have been through the program before. Then, instructors meet with their partners to look at how syllabi, course content, pedagogy, assignments and evaluation can be more inclusive. Together, they create an action plan and discuss potential challenges and opportunities.
  • Offer regular feedback: Partners observe the faculty twice, near the beginning and at the end of the quarter, and sometimes participate in class if the instructor agrees it’s appropriate. Throughout the quarter, partners are available to answer questions or discuss emerging situations. “If something happens in a class, the partners already have context,” says del Rosario, and together with the faculty member they can discuss issues that arise. That it’s a consistent partnership means that “if something happens in a class, the partners already have context.”
  • Reflect on lessons learned: At the end of the quarter, the partners and instructors discuss lessons learned. They can base their reflection around guidelines del Rosario developed, but she emphasizes flexibility and freedom. “We say: ‘Do it how it’s going to work for you.’ It’s not about what it looks like on paper, it is about how the partners can best work together to create a learning environment that engages diversity and fosters inclusive thinking.”