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Inclusive education helps students thrive academically, socially
Author: Anika Berning-Van Zyl
Published: 05/03/2024

​​Inclusive teaching and learning practices in higher education are important because embracing diversity not only cultivates empathy, understanding, and mutual respect among students, but also empowers them to thrive academically and socially. This is the view of Dr Anika Berning-Van Zyl from the Department of Business Management in a recent article for University World News.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Anika Berning-Van Zyl*

In a society striving for equity and diversity, the realm of education, particularly higher education, stands at the forefront of change. As university classrooms become increasingly diverse, the call for inclusive teaching practices grows louder. This notion is supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as they argue that inclusive education involves dismantling barriers within institutional systems to ensure every student can participate fully and equally, becoming valued members of the learning community. In an attempt to foster these elements, UNESCO has appointed Darla Deardorff as the UNESCO chair in Intercultural Competence which was awarded to Stellenbosch University (SU) in 2023, and is housed in the Africa Centre for Scholarship in Stellenbosch University International.   

Inclusive teaching and learning is also highlighted further as a fourth Sustainable Development Goal by the United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development pledge “to leave no one behind". Inclusive education is important because embracing diversity not only fosters a sense of belonging, but also enhances the learning experience for all students. From accommodating various learning styles to celebrating cultural differences, educators are embracing a paradigm shift towards inclusivity, paving the way for a brighter and more equitable future in the world of learning.

In higher education, the concept of inclusive teaching and learning takes on added significance, particularly within the dynamic landscape of the international classroom. With students from diverse cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds coming together, creating an inclusive environment becomes paramount. According to Mona Kamal Saadeldin from the University of Notre Dame, these exciting changes provide teachers and facilitators with both unique challenges as well as opportunities in which they can help students to thrive. Mona argues that “teaching international students requires a pedagogical finesse that transcends borders".

Inclusive teaching practices in this setting involve not only acknowledging and respecting cultural differences but also actively integrating them into the curriculum. By using the teaching approach of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), educators can promote effective learning and more inclusivity in classrooms. According to the Center for Teaching Innovation at Cornell University, UDL works to accommodate the needs and abilities for all learners and eliminates unnecessary hurdles in the learning process. Consequently, a flexible learning environment is developed in which information is presented in different ways, students have the opportunity to engage in learning in a variety of ways, and students are assessed in a more inclusive manner by means of a variety of different assessment techniques. From incorporating global perspectives in course materials to fostering cross-cultural communication skills, universities are redefining the notion of education as a truly borderless experience.

By embracing inclusivity, higher education institutions empower students to thrive in an interconnected world while cultivating empathy, understanding, and mutual respect among learners from all corners of the globe. Educators who possess strong intercultural competencies and communication skills can foster an environment of mutual respect and understanding, where cultural differences are celebrated and leveraged to enhance learning outcomes. By recognising and embracing cultural diversity, educators can create inclusive classrooms that empower students to thrive academically and socially.

Intercultural competencies play a pivotal role in fostering inclusive teaching and learning environments, particularly within the context of the international classroom. According to the Council of Europe, intercultural competences refer to the set of skills necessary to act in an intercultural way in diverse societies. Rooted in the recognition of cultural diversity as an asset rather than a barrier, intercultural competencies enable educators to effectively navigate cross-cultural interactions and address the needs of diverse student populations. Darla Deardorff, a renowned expert in intercultural competence, underscores its significance when she states that “Intercultural competence is the ability to navigate and communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations."

Over the years, intercultural competencies have evolved into a multidimensional framework encompassing skills such as cultural sensitivity, empathy, communication, and the ability to adapt to diverse cultural contexts. In the realm of education, integrating intercultural competencies into teaching and learning practices is essential for preparing students to thrive in an increasingly interconnected and multicultural world.

According to Deadorff, universities often fall in the trap of not cultivating the intercultural competence of students. Universities commit themselves to diversity and global citizenship, but they neglect to educate students and develop their intercultural competence. This journey does not only require universities to adapt an intercultural approach on a holistic level, but it should spread further down to educators and into classrooms. 

One notable initiative advancing inclusive teaching and learning in the international classroom is the collaborative effort between SU and the University of Groningen, which recently hosted an Inclusive Teaching and Learning Summer School: Equipping Ourselves and Each Other. Hosted by SU, it was the first in-person summer school after two years of online development and refinement. This groundbreaking programme brought together educators and stakeholders from diverse cultural backgrounds to explore innovative strategies for promoting inclusivity in higher education. Through workshops, panel discussions, and collaborative group work, participants engaged in meaningful discussions on topics such as culturally responsive pedagogy, inclusive curriculum design, fostering equitable learning environments, intercultural group dynamics, and the role of language.

By sharing best practices and experiences from different contexts, the summer school served as a platform for building intercultural competencies among educators and fostering a collective commitment to inclusive teaching and learning. This collaborative effort highlights the importance of international partnerships in advancing global agendas for education equity and inclusivity. Going forward, universities should develop and implement inclusive teaching and learning policies, provide ongoing training and professional development for educators, as well as embed diversity and inclusion in their curriculum.

  • Photo by Yan Krukau at Pexels.

*Dr Anika Berning-Van Zyl is a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Business Management at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She specializes in strategic management, management control systems, and sustainability.