In/relation: Developing Guidelines to Navigate Complex Classroom Dynamics

in/relation: Developing Guidelines to Navigate Complex Classroom Dynamics

This case study explores complex classroom dynamics involving International and Indigenous learners speaking from their own experiences and positionalities. Themes explored in this case study include: microaggressions, tokenization, setting classroom guidelines, conflicting worldviews, and encouraging participation from underrepresented and marginalized students. This case study was created primarily for those who are involved in teaching in higher education (e.g., faculty, instructors, TAs) for their professional development purposes. However, it could also be used in other learning contexts and professional development settings with or without modifications.

Through this case study activity, participants will be able to:

  1. Identify key concerns around inclusion and equity in situations where students (particularly underrepresented students) present differing and/or conflicting perspectives
  2. Explore the complexities and importance of setting guidelines for classroom inclusion and diversity when students have differing background knowledge, life experiences and perspectives relating to the issues
  3. Work in groups to brainstorm strategies to facilitate more inclusive and equitable classroom discussions and classroom climate

Ahead of the Workshop

  • Familiarize yourself with the case study scenario and Learning Objectives and adapt it to your context where necessary.
  • Evaluate the talking points, which are suggested points for discussions. You may want to adapt the talking points (e.g., modify the language, make additional points) to your specific context.
  • Consider how you would like to facilitate the activity by thinking of the following questions:
    • Would you like to identify people who are going to facilitate small group discussions ahead of time so that you have a chance to discuss key points to be covered in the small group discussions? Or will the session participants work on their own in small groups?
    • Will someone be taking notes during small group discussions? How can these be recorded and shared with the whole group?
    • Would you like to have participants read the case study and discussion questions ahead of time as “homework,” or do you have enough time to do that during your session?

During the Workshop

  • Divide participants into groups of 4-5. You may want each group to include a facilitator with knowledge of the issues discussed in the scenario, and who can help guide the conversation.
  • Give groups 10-15 minutes to discuss the scenario. You may want to give each group a large piece of paper where they can write their response to the discussion questions and other additional thoughts.
  • Can be facilitated online using break-out groups feature. You may wish to give groups a slightly longer time window for discussion (e.g. 20-25 mins), as the online environment necessities a different pace for discussion. You may also consider adding an interactive note-taking feature, especially for participants who may have bandwidth and connectivity issues that inhibit audio or video.
  • During the small group discussions, it is recommended that the facilitator(s) walk around from group to group to check if any are stuck or needing more direction.
  • Debrief together. Each small group shares what they discussed and debrief as a large group.
  • If time permits (15-12 mins), work through the “Watch/Read” section under “Resources” which highlights classroom strategies offered by Dr. Evan Mauro
  • Instructions for learners: Read the case study scenario. Take a moment to think about the discussion questions then discuss with your group.
    • Optional: choose someone to take notes and lead the debriefing process with the larger group

Today is your first day of a course, Canadian History and Society. You introduce the course to students by saying that it is going to include some sensitive topics, including the history of the Residential School System and the Head Tax for Chinese Canadians that may touch some of the students’ family histories. With that, you propose to the class to develop discussion guidelines together so that everyone in class can participate in difficult conversations meaningfully, in a safe space.

You write down all the suggested guidelines by students on the board. The list includes, “Do not put anyone on the spot to speak as a representative of their identity group,” and “Check our own assumptions and stereotypes as we speak.” You ask the class if they have any questions or suggestions for change, and the discussion goes as follows:

International Student A: “I have a question about not putting anyone on the spot. I have never felt bad about being called on to speak about my home country. It’s hard for me to speak up in class, so I actually appreciate a chance to share what I know sometimes.”

Indigenous Student: “I see why you feel this way, but I find it really tiring to always be expected to speak for all Indigenous peoples and communities, and having to explain things and correct people’s ignorance and stereotypes everywhere I go.”

International Student B: “Some people are really ignorant and hold negative stereotypes about my country too, but I believe we need to be strong to deal with this reality.”

You see some students who appear puzzled and some others having a quiet sigh.

Diving In

In order to start learning, everyone has to dive in. The discussion in this section is essential preparation for meaningful engagement with the material later on. Diving In is for all levels of learners, from people just getting started to experienced scholars and educators.

Discuss in small groups (10-15 mins)
  • What are the issues highlighted in this scenario?  
  • What are the factors that may be shaping each student’s comment?
  • Who is involved in this scenario (what roles) and how is this impacting the discussion?
  • How would you respond to the situation?
  • What do you make of the last sentence in the scenario? What is happening here, and how would you address it?
  • What is your role in this situation, and how do you relate to it?
  • How might your role and your own personal context in the situation affect how you respond?

Diving Deeper

Diving Deeper is an increased level of engagement for learners who already have some background in navigating classroom dynamics and can go further in critical reflection on their role in this scenario.

Discuss in small groups (10-15 mins)
  • What aspects of this scenario have you seen, experienced, or can relate to in your own teaching context?
  • What could have been done to support the students in this scenario? How could the guidelines activity be changed or how might you set up the discussion differently?
  • Consider these questions at both the local level (e.g., what you can do in the short term for your teaching and department) and at a broader level (e.g., long-term, structural changes across your university, wider disciplinary community or professional societies).
  • Based on what you have discussed, what are some strategies for facilitating a productive and inclusive discussion about nationality?

These talking points are meant to help the facilitator generate meaningful conversation with the group. There are no final or definitive answers.

Burden of Representation

This scenario highlights the differing and complex ways that students engage with their national and ancestral identities. Most of us belong to larger communities that include people with varying cultures, languages, and beliefs (i.e., being a woman or a non-binary person, having a particular nationality, belonging to an ethnic or racialized group within a larger nation, belonging to a particular religion, belonging to a particular generation, living in a specific neighbourhood, etc.).

While it is generally understood that no one person can accurately speak for an entire country, region, faith, or other larger community, sometimes people take up a position in a conversation where they speak up as a representative of that community, or a combination of several communities/identities. In the above scenario, International Student A appears to take this position with relative comfort and without expressing fear of misrepresenting people from their home country. It is reasonable to assume that most of the other students in that classroom are aware that while International Students A and B are offering to speak up on behalf of their home country, what they are doing is sharing their own experience of being from those countries. This expectation lessens the burden of representation for those students.

Indigenous students are often not afforded that same level of understanding of the diversity of their larger community, as the general knowledge of Indigenous peoples in Canada is largely unknown to the average non-Indigenous student, and Indigenous peoples and communities are frequently seen as monolithic. Additionally, it's possible that some International students who are accustomed to being part of the majority and are new to being seen for one aspect of their identity, may not be aware of the perspectives and diversity of experiences they are not representing. This might be because they were in a position of privilege in their home country with limited exposure to minority groups, whereas racialized and Indigenous peoples in Canada have likely experienced this for most of their lives.

Indigenous students are often expected to be the representative of their people with little to no recognition that there are hundreds of diverse and culturally distinct Indigenous communities in Canada. Indigenous students are often expected to speak to deep-seated misconceptions and stereotypes about their communities. These communities have their own cultural traditions, political views, ways of knowing and being, languages, and socioeconomic realities. To add another common layer of complexity, belonging to a specific Indigenous community does not necessarily mean that the student is well-versed in the culture and traditions of their community as there is a long history of the Canadian state actively attempting to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Western norms and society. Policies like the Residential School System, the Potlatch Law, the Sixties Scoop, and more have dispossessed countless Indigenous peoples of their culture, language, homelands, and legal Indigenous status. As a result, many Indigenous students have lost connection to certain elements of their indigeneity and may feel shame about this.

This is a complex issue as Indigenous peoples are not the only racialized group to face the misconception of their people being a monolithic group (other examples include “African”, “Asian”, “Latinx” or “Middle Eastern”). Indigenous peoples are also not alone in facing negative stereotypes stemming from ignorance and racism. During a scenario like the one described, it can be helpful to connect Indigenous issues to international students. Histories of oppression are often interpreted in terms of race, gender or sexual identity, class, and/or religion. Consequently, some students in the room might relate because they are aware of the complexities surrounding the same issues in their lived experiences.

International Student Perspectives

At the same time, while the two international students’ comments may be perceived as insensitive or problematic, it is also important to consider the contexts surrounding their perspectives or where they may be coming from so that you can engage with them effectively.

For example, even if international students embody “racialized” identities in Canada, they might belong to dominant racial/ethnic groups back home. Compared to Indigenous and other marginalized domestic students in Canada, some international students, especially those who are new in Canada and belong to privileged mainstream communities back home, may have had much less first-hand experiences of being put in a position of Other and being constantly seen and treated as a tokenized spokesperson of a marginalized group. They may not yet be recognizing how tiring it can be to be imposed with the burden of representation all the time.

It is also important to acknowledge that International students at UBC represent a vast diversity of experiences and backgrounds. While some international students may come from privileged backgrounds, others may not. International students include students of colour, working-class students, non-binary students as well as Indigenous students and their multiple identities represent their varied life experiences and knowledges.

It is important to remember identity politics does not mean the same thing everywhere. In some countries, identity politics may be very much in public debates and consciousness because of the history of the country or through media and education. Even so, these issues may still be understood very differently (for example, the language might be different, or the histories are different) compared to Canada, and it can take time for many international students to learn the specific nuances of identity politics in Canada. This is especially true for students who come from countries where identity politics are not openly discussed or recognized, or in countries where such topics are actively suppressed. Issues such as diversity, power, privilege, and justice may be completely foreign conversations to these students. Therefore, before criticizing their lack of empathy or critical awareness, it is important to recognize that their perspectives are a product of many of these circumstantial factors.

Another important point to consider is that international students, like anyone else, are in different stages of figuring out how to navigate power dynamics with the tools they have. It is possible to see that International Student B in the scenario may be trying to navigate Canadian society by aligning themselves with the discourse of model immigrants - as a survival tactic as well as due to a lack of education about how this discourse functions as a tool of racism. When they come to a new country with limited social and cultural capital to support them in navigating the new environment, the dominant narrative that tells them to work twice as hard as others and persevere may be seen as the only way for them to “make it” in Canada, unless critical and alternative narratives are made available to them. The challenging dynamic in the case scenario represents a clash between varying students’ positionalities, backgrounds, and forms of knowledge.

Suspending judgement about the reasons that motivate all students - Indigenous, international, and/or underrepresented - to disagree may help instructors to create classroom guidelines that respect all students’ rights to decide how and when they want to participate. International students who are new to Canadian identity politics may have much to gain from learning about these contexts, and they may also bring other approaches to be considered to the mutual benefit of all learners. As the case scenario shows, conversations such as this one are opportunities for students to explore each students' rights to decide their terms of class participation. Instructors play a key role in providing that context to all students, and particularly, international students.

Consider Context

Considering classroom climate and context, including Indigenous histories, is important in any UBC classroom as the university's campuses are situated on unceded traditional Musqueam and Sylix territories in Vancouver and the Okanagan, respectively. While setting guidelines for a new classroom, it is important to know that students in the room may be carrying this history of colonization with them and that it takes a lot of emotional labour to be called upon repeatedly to educate others, especially when faced with misconceptions that are rooted in racism.

Ultimately, it is important to foster a classroom climate where students feel invited to speak up on topics that they may have a personal connection to, or more information about, while also not expecting students to speak up simply because they are connected to a topic being discussed. Students should have agency and consent when deciding whether to speak up or not on a topic that is personal to them. It is a positive thing when a student feels called in to the discussion and is excited to share their perspective or their questions for the mutual benefit of everyone’s learning. Students are not expected to be in an “expert” position, but there are times when it would be fitting for the instructor to explicitly name this and negate the need for an expert. The scenario in this case study is an example of when that discussion would be appropriate.

Some reflections that may help instructors to open the discussion in this case scenario are:

  • Suspend judgements about students' comments and what is behind their disagreements. It is helpful to know that there are complex contexts informing our students' comments, but we don't need to presume to know everything about their backgrounds to understand the complexity of their social locations and prior knowledge.
  • Recognize that some students who are coming from different life experiences and backgrounds may need some context to understand why some students might respond negatively to “being put on the spot“ as a representative of their identity group.
  • It may be important to explicitly acknowledge in the classroom guidelines where the class is taking place (e.g. on Musqueam or Syilix Territories) and how such an acknowledgement impacts learning and classroom conduct. For instance, doing so invites students to consider their relationship to Indigenous lands and the history that has taken place on these lands, and what their responsibilities are. This may invite further conversation around how to remain open-minded to differences and listening.
  • Instructors may need to follow up these conversations since these topics need some time to be processed and digested by students individually and as a group.  
  • Pulling Together: Indigenization Guide for Teachers and Instructors
  • The Chinese Head Tax and The Chinese Exclusion Act
  • The Residential School System
  • Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
  • The Potlatch Law
  • The Sixties Scoop
  • Microaggressions
  • Intersectionality
    • Kimberlé Crenshaw: What is Intersectionality?
  • Tokenization
    • What I Learned in Class Today Discussion Topic on Tokenization
  • Classroom Climate
    • Indigenous Initiatives: Our Work with Classroom Climate
  • Fischer, K. (2020, June 29). The diversity conversation colleges aren’t having. The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Article is accessible once logged in with a UBC Campus Wide Login)

Going Further: An Additional Resource

Read (3-5 mins):

Read the transcript of Dr. Evan Mauro reviewing the way that he approaches discussing classroom guidelines and dynamics

Question: How do you go about cultivating a respectful learning environment, especially when class discussions cover contentious or difficult topics?

Evan: "This is a really, really crucial piece, and it's something I talk about early in the course and often, right? Any time that were dealing with material like [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls], there’s obviously the possibility and the likelihood that people are going to have trouble with it, so making sure that we talk really early on about how what a respectful learning environment will look like in a seminar, how we’re 25 different people who probably won’t agree on most things, however we need to find ways of learning from each other and that involves listening to each other, right? Just really basic seminar rules that you use to set the table, and talking a little bit about what self-care looks like in a classroom, how students are sort of… they’re responsible for their own learning, but they can also be… they can also ask for, sometimes, more than they think they can, just in terms of making sure learning is available to them in different formats, that if material gets too intense on a given day, they can take a bit of a breather, and that’s totally alright. And thinking about what community care could look like… so looking around the room and figuring out if I, you know, bring up that comment that my uncle said into class here, how is that going to be heard by the room, right? So making sure people are kind of looking around the room and figuring out what their audience is and how their words are going to be taken in that room. So I mean it’s fairly basic you know classroom climate stuff, CTLT’s been really good at running seminars for a while, helping me think through what a good learning environment that’s sensitive to different learning styles looks like, and the Indigenous content that deals with… that deserves a content warning in front of it I suppose, is, you know it’s meant to be unsettling, it’s going to be emotionally difficult thing for everybody in the room, like not just your Indigenous students who are self-identified, right, but for everybody in there, I think, quite often hearing about the specifics of the colonial project is going to be hard, so figuring out ways to support students through that, challenge them with it, but support them through that, is something that I spend a fair bit of classroom time just talking about and trying to put into place through the course of the term."

Discuss as a large group (10-15 mins):

  • After reading Dr. Mauro’s words, would you change your approach to supporting the students in the scenario?
  • Would you change how the classroom guidelines activity is presented and led?
  • In what ways does the concept of “community care” change your role during the scenario? What about the roles of the students?
  • Microaggressions often play into the experiences of marginalized students in the classroom. With that in mind, how would you respond to students “looking puzzled” or losing interest in the conversation?

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document according to the terms in Creative Commons License, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0. The full text of this license may be found here: CC BY-NC 4.0.

When re-using this resource, please attribute as follows: developed by Janey Lew, Hanae Tsukada, Chloe Erlendson, and the IN/Relation Project team


Post Image Credit: in/relation logo.