Lessons of the Past: Equity, Equality and Education

"'Fancy step' around the classroom," ca. 1899. From the Frances Benjamin Johnson Collection, Library of Congress; this photo is licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

As a new school year fast approaches, I’ve been reflecting on this past year of teaching and thinking ahead to a new one.  My teaching philosophy has been inspired by my past experiences as both student and teaching assistant, my interests and studies, and some good (and not-so-good) models I’ve encountered along the way. 

Seminars and tutorials vary across time and space.  Within my cultural context, tutorials often involve teaching assistants leading small group discussions on assigned readings, held in conjunction with weekly lectures.  Tutorials also differ significantly depending on who is doing the teaching.  Some tutorial leaders will assign mandatory presentations to each student, while others might prefer a more informal discussion sparked by question and answer sessions.  Others still deploy a wide variety of creative strategies in the classroom, a few of which have been discussed in some outstanding contributions to this site on teaching history

As an undergraduate student, I dreaded tutorials where each student had to prepare and deliver a formal presentation.  Then again, with the odd exception, I don’t think I participated willingly in a tutorial until my third year in university.  This was partly due to the difficulty I had adapting to the middle-class environment of the university, along with my discomfort with public speaking.  Additionally, classrooms can be deeply gendered spaces; for example, some feminists have explored how girls and boys have been socialized to behave differently in the classroom.  I certainly felt I could relate the first time I read Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, which explores this very issue.  Perhaps some of us have encountered the female student who poses each statement quite tentatively as a question?  Several cultural factors, including class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion and nationality, can have a significant impact on how we interact in and outside the classroom.

"In disgrace at school," ca. 1875. This image is licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

I tended to prefer the more informal question and answer sessions, but this method also had serious limitations for me.  Often the questions were asked by the tutorial leader, and quickly devolved into a discussion between him or her and a very small minority of the most confident and outspoken students present.  When I saw the same thing happening once I started leading tutorials myself, I began wondering what I could do to avoid this. 

It was at about the same time that I stumbled across community-based education in 1930s and 1940s Ontario through my research.  Through organizations such as the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), academics and trade unionists co-operated to extend education to those who could not afford university.  Voluntary donations were often collected from workers, and academics travelled to cities and towns to deliver free public lectures.  The WEA also offered tutorials, but the agenda was set by working people themselves.  Often, they asked the questions, and thus set the tone and character of discussion.

This seemed to me an interesting way to achieve greater equality in the classroom, and I began thinking about how I might adapt this model for my tutorials.  What if, instead of asking questions of my students, I asked each of them to prepare two or three questions for each tutorial, based on the assigned readings?  After all, isn’t asking good questions as important a skill as providing a good (or not-so-good) answer?  Shouldn’t a classroom reflect the interests of all its participants, rather than one individual coming up with the questions and determining the direction of discussion?

Some might suggest that this sounds like a great way for tutorial leaders to download their duties onto students.  I would counter that in many respects preparing for a class where students are asking the questions requires just as much work, if not more.  You have to be prepared to answer anything.  Rather than putting students in the ‘hot seat’ by asking all the questions, each student gets a turn questioning their fellow classmates and tutorial leader about the assigned readings.  With the ultimate onus on the tutorial leader to provide answers, power can be somewhat more equally shared in the classroom.

I’ve found this strategy to be quite successful in promoting discussion from a larger number of students.  However, a workshop I attended last year on equity in the classroom caused me to question this.  One of the suggestions for creating a more equitable classroom was sending questions to students in advance of tutorials.  Not all students are equally able to think quickly on their feet, and some need plenty of time to read things over and think about them before formulating a careful response.

I would like to think that I offer outlets to offset this.  I encourage students to submit their questions in writing if they do not have the space or comfort level to address them in tutorial, and recommend that students who do not regularly participate in tutorial submit reflections which count towards their participation grade.  By responding to each reflection with positive feedback, I try to help build their confidence so that by the end of the year they too are often regular participants in tutorial discussion. 

I’ve also tried other creative strategies into the classroom, many of which have been shared with me by some fantastic teachers I’ve had the pleasure to work with.  Creative alternatives to the question and answer session have always been a pleasant surprise for me, particularly when students who I don’t usually hear from flourish within a different learning environment.  Creativity in the classroom could form the basis of a lengthy series, and so I’ll leave a further discussion of that for a future post.

In the meantime, my personal solution for striking a balance between greater equality and equity in the classroom has been to remain open to a variety of different strategies in the classroom.  Sometimes, particularly at the beginning of the year, I’ll send questions in advance to my students.  At other times, they prepare questions and bring them to class.  For many other classes, we depart from the question and answer session altogether.  Most importantly, I constantly seek feedback from students to learn what they like best.  It can be a challenge, if not an impossibility, to accommodate every student in the classroom. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

I’d love to hear about ideas or strategies that have worked for others in the classroom.  If you are interested in contributing a post on teaching history, please contact us.

2 thoughts on “Lessons of the Past: Equity, Equality and Education

  1. Melissa Otis

    I love this article; it has finally given me an example of using Adult Education to teach History! Thanks so much for writing and sharing it. It is something I’ve been contemplating as I journey through the PhD process as that is my background versus the usual history/history or history/teacher. I absolutely agree that running a more student-focused class is more work for the teacher/TA but very rewarding for both. So long as students focus on the learning objectives I believe they can work their own interests and learning needs into any history class. In terms of working with learners who need to ‘do’ something to learn, I’ve wondered about letting them create something. A presentation can be a ‘do’ but for those more artistically inclined would allowing them to create something work? How to evaluate it becomes an issue I suppose, but I think presenting it before the class and / or a short reflection piece on how the creation relates to the learning objective and what the student learned from the experience would be sufficient.
    Another adult education ‘tool’ I’d like to see tried in history (and other higher education arenas) is the learning contract. This is where the students use the learning objectives from the syllabus to tell the professor what they are going to do to master each objective. It’s a negotiated instrument; sometimes it is as simple as the usual: attending class, doing the reading, writing a paper, doing a presentation and other times one gets some unusual and creative ideas. The teacher okays or renegotiates their ideas and grading is based on successful completion of each objective. You’d be surprised at how many times the prof has to tell the student they don’t need to do so much when they get to choose their own learning! This may require a reduction in class-required reading or at least pushing the bulk of the class reading to the beginning and tapering it off at the end. The main point is to give the students an opportunity to contemplate their own learning: What do they want to learn about the topic? How do they want to learn about the topic? It makes the learning more meaningful and hopefully more memorable. It does put the teacher in a more vulnerable position because they may not be ‘expert’ on what the student wants to do to fulfill that objective, but then we all get to enjoy that student’s learning. And, wouldn’t that be a confidence builder for a student to become the expert of that topic in that learning objective?!
    I would love to hear other ideas.

  2. Christine McLaughlin Post author

    Thanks very much for sharing this wonderful feedback, Melissa. I agree that creative outlets are important for tactical learners, the more artistically inclined, etc. I’ll be writing a bit more on this in an upcoming post, but I think there are a lot of ways to meet the learning needs of different students that move beyond the enforced oral presentation. For the more extroverted, I’ve offered voluntary oral presentations, but nobody has ever taken me up on it so far. I’m very interested in the learning contract you’ve discussed – thanks so much for sharing this information! It would be great to hear more on this and some of the experiences you’ve had in the classroom. Perhaps you’ll consider submitting a post. Thanks again for taking the time to comment, and for all of the great suggestions!

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.