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A diverse society requires a diverse curriculum

Ella Oelbrandt, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Jan De Schampheleire, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

The diversity within our societies is one of the aspects that shape our daily experiences. While many societies are (becoming) superdiverse in their demographic composition, the institutions that take care of its functioning are not. Governments, and legal and educational institutions don’t always reflect the rich diversity that exists among the population. As a consequence they are missing out the richness in perspectives, thoughts and ideas characterized by this diversity.

While a diverse society can have many positive sides, it might also be challenging. Learning to live together with different perspectives can be confronting and requires a large amount of energy. Living in a (super)diverse environment, requires certain skills and competences, and one of the possible places to acquire these is during (higher) education. The need for such skills is one of the reasons why Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) started its “Yes We Scan” project. The project aims to diversify the curriculum and teaching practice. Below we will give an overview of why we consider this goal important and how VUB approaches it.

Besides the above-mentioned set of skills, a diverse and inclusive curriculum is necessary to promote awareness about diversity and to encourage critical thinking about stereotypes, prejudices, intolerance and exclusion. Critical thinking is one of the key principles of VUB and the university supports its students to think freely and to remain “reasonable and engaged”. The development of critical thinking is only possible in an environment where students can be themselves, where they feel that they belong and that the expression of their thoughts is respected. As we already mentioned in our previous Partner’s Corner and as Dr. Dounia Bourabain indicated in her research, a sense of belonging can only be created when students see themselves reflected in the curriculum and when a safe space for both students and teachers is actively created.

However, creating such an environment is easier said than done. For this reason, VUB’s educational policy services created a toolkit on ‘diversity in the curriculum’ in collaboration with two student organizations. The toolkit contains different aspects to guide lecturers and educational teams to expand their knowledge on diversity and inclusion. Moreover, critical reflection upon certain topics is stimulated and good practices are highlighted. Both theoretical information and working templates are offered, so that people can use the toolkit according to their needs. The information included in the toolkit was the result of a screening of different programs at VUB. This screening assessed if and how non-western and marginalized perspectives were heard, how the teachers dealt with the superdiverse student body and what the current concern with diversifying the curriculum is. One of the main and positive outcomes of this screening was that many teachers and educational teams are willing to diversify and make the curriculum more inclusive. However, they are struggling with putting theory into practice or don’t know where to start with implementing changes.

This is where the toolkit comes in handy, offering ‘hands-on’ information sheets divided into four topics: teaching practice, learning climate, course content and evaluation. The teaching practice tackles the above-mentioned diversity competences, the focus on talent and growth of the students and the position of the teacher. The different questions related to these subthemes concern the learning objectives, the educational philosophy that is used and the prior assumptions of the teacher. Some of the mentioned good practices are to make these aspects explicit, to acknowledge the existence of different forms of knowledge and to stimulate the active participation of students.

This latter aspect is a key principle of the toolkit and of diversifying the curriculum in general. The student body of VUB is very diverse, with 24% international students and more than 40% students having a migration background. Since the diversity is very apparent at VUB, it seems logical to also listen to the students and discover what they think about the curriculum and how the classes are structured. However, this active involvement also requires specific skills and dedicated energy from the teacher. This is linked to another information sheet about the learning climate. Here, it is mentioned how both safe and brave spaces are important. Both students and teachers should be able to be themselves and talk freely, but also respect each other when talking about controversial or difficult topics. To create these spaces, the teacher should facilitate a supportive peer culture. Students should have space to discuss things among themselves, but a framework with agreements can form the necessary background (of respect). Besides facilitating this framework, the teacher should offer diverse perspectives which allows the students to form their point of view.

These diverse perspectives are the central topic of the third information sheet on course content. The examples and case studies used or the presented ideas should reflect these diverse perspectives. The  integration of these perspectives can only be successful if all topics and frames of reference are contextualized, which allows the lecturer to reflect on possible blind spots and to remain critical of the perspectives used. As mentioned previously, VUB has a very diverse student body and is located in the multicultural, international city of Brussels. Therefore, it is of great importance to acknowledge the knowledge and insights they hold and to include them during classes.

The diversity in nationalities and backgrounds should also be considered during the evaluation. One of the realities of the diverse background is that many students don’t have Dutch as their first language, yet in many study programs the courses and exams at VUB are in Dutch. Even acknowledging this is already a positive step to take. Additionally, the information sheet on evaluation mentions that using a variety of evaluation forms can offer different student profiles the opportunity to excel.

In sum, the toolkit of VUB aims to inspire and encourage teachers and educational teams to consider the different topics and to reflect on how they can implement them. To give them a place to start, the working sheets offer a framework to think about the information in a more practical way. They can help to stepwise map and scan the current situation, choose the priorities and draft a plan for the actual implementation.

A final note on the toolkit is that the team behind it recognizes that this is an ongoing practice and that diversifying the curriculum is a work in progress. People will make mistakes, struggle with different issues and feel lost in the common goal of diversifying the curriculum. Yet this learning process can help to improve or complement the current toolkit and to fulfil the needs of the educational teams.