This workshop took place at first annual conference of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education in June 2000

ILTAC 2000 Resources

Feminist Pedagogy and Equal Access to the HE Curriculum

Penny Welch


My plan for this workshop is to start with a brief introduction and then ask you to do a couple of tasks in groups, followed by a report back and a general discussion.


Let's think first of all about what happens when our institutions have increased the participation rate of under-represented groups and we have got a much more diverse student population. I'm taking it for granted that, by this point, our institutions have planned for the needs of diverse groups of students on the non-academic side - there's a crèche, physical access for students with disabilities, services that provide for cultural and religious diversity. But what about the academic side? Does the content of programmes reinforce or challenge existing hierarchies of power and esteem? Are learning resources - printed, technological, human - equally available and accessible to all students? Are assessment methods designed to minimize bias? And, in particular, do learning and teaching methods in the classroom create a climate in which all students feel free to learn?

My particular interest is in classroom interaction - between students and between tutors and students. Is the interaction characterized by mutual respect, inclusivity, engagement, or do some students feel inhibited by hostility, marginalized or excluded? Tutors who are aware of equal opportunity issues will use inclusive language, imagery and exemplification, treat all students with equal courtesy and patience and allocate class resources and time equitably. They will avoid making assumptions about student lifestyles and experience or stereotyping students whose class, colour or gender is different from their own. They will check that their presentation techniques meet the needs of any deaf students and their signers and that blind students or students in wheelchairs can join in group work without difficultly.

But I think we can go even further. I want to make the promotion of equality and respect for diversity part of classroom interaction. For me, it is the theory and practice of feminist pedagogy that makes the promotion of equality and respect for diversity central to every part of classroom interaction. Originally, feminist pedagogy was part of the Women's Studies project in higher education in the UK & USA particularly. Women's Studies challenged existing curricula, epistemologies and pedagogical practices, both as a separate subject and as a strand in other disciplines. For various reasons, feminist pedagogy has not been as well developed in the UK as in the USA but it is receiving more attention now, both in Women's Studies and in other subjects.

My version of feminist pedagogy draws on both feminist and non-feminist writers and owes a certain amount to Paulo Freire and Carl Rogers. For me, there are three principles

  1. to strive for egalitarian relationships in the classroom
  2. to try to make all students feel valued as individuals
  3. to use the experience of students as a learning resource.

There are a lot of different ways that these principles can be implemented. I will mention some of the things that I do and which work for me.

Egalitarian relationships

I don't mean that tutors should ignore the way their roles and responsibilities differ from those of students - that's a sort of false egalitarianism - but I do suggest that tutors should avoid trying to dominate or control students. It's also helpful to negotiate classroom ground rules that discourage students from trying to dominate or control each other.

Participatory and cooperative learning methods are encouraged in most of the learning and teaching literature but, for me, they have more impact when students feel that the tutor is being open with them and as egalitarian as possible.

If the ground rules for debate and interaction promote equality and respect for diversity and if tutors themselves stick to these ground rules, then some of the inhibitions that get in the way of learning are reduced and students find it easier to engage with the topic and the class activities.

Valuing students as individuals

For me, an egalitarian approach does not involve treating students impersonally or identically or always relating to them as a group. Especially today, when so many students have financial and other worries and quite a lot don't feel entitled to be in higher education or have time for much of a student social life, they need individual recognition and acknowledgement from the tutor. Being judged and evaluated is scary for many students and I think it is really important to show that you are evaluating their work and not them when it comes to assignments. I go even further than this and try to receive each classroom contribution equally positively. It's OK to point out factual errors and gaps in a low key way but if you say 'no, that's wrong' or even worse, ignore the contribution, then some students will never contribute again and their learning will be held back.

Using the experience of students as a learning resource

I think you can do this in any subject. Even if the material is very abstract and there's no link with the life experience of students, the subject matter can be related to their previous learning. In all subjects, the students' experiences of study can be discussed from time to time.

In many subjects, some students will have direct life experiences of the topic under discussion and bringing those in can make the subject matter more relevant and accessible and assist everyone's understanding. Any tutor who does this systematically need to do two things as well - to discuss the relative truth claims of research, scholarship and experience and to have strategies to deal with any conflict that arises out of the sharing of experiences. If conflict can be expressed and managed in a non-threatening way, wider understanding as well as respect for difference and diversity is achieved.

The mechanics I use to achieve this sort of interaction are based on small group work with structured tasks integrated with tutor presentations and whole class discussion - not dissimilar from this workshop!

Finally, anyone who intends to organize the classroom in a way that is different from the norm in their institution, must explain their aims to the students first. My aim today is to generate collective reflection on professional experience that hopefully creates some new insights.

Task 1 (15 minutes)

Make a list of all the difficulties you might encounter in using feminist approaches to learning and teaching.

Task 2 (15 minutes)

Choose 2 of the difficulties that you would like to overcome and identify ways of doing so.

Report Back and Discussion

The groups identified the following difficulties

Ways of overcoming some of the difficulties

© 2001 The Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education

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