Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

5 Critical Pedagogy: Challenging Bias and Creating Inclusive Classrooms


Regardless of the type of library you work in, your learners will come from varied backgrounds, identities, and life experiences, and will bring different interests and educational needs to the classroom. These experiences shape how learners experience the classroom, the content, and the learning activities, and ultimately impact what they learn and how they use that knowledge. As instructors, we need not only to recognize these differences and how they influence learning but also acknowledge and honor the richness of experience our learners bring. We need to create an inclusive classroom environment where everyone feels welcome and valued, and where our content is relevant to our learners’ diverse identities and interests.

In order to be effective in this role, we must better understand how existing educational, social, and political systems shape our learners’ experiences from their earliest moments and continue to influence what and how they learn inside and outside of the classroom through the rest of their lives. We must recognize how bias has impacted and continues to impact both our learners’ and our own experiences, and develop culturally competent and inclusive practices in order to mitigate bias in the classroom and interact effectively with learners from varied cultural backgrounds.

Critical pedagogy provides a theoretical framework to examine issues of power in the classroom, and to surface and challenge the biases and oppressive structures that can undermine learning and alienate students. Inclusive teaching offers strategies for translating that theoretical knowledge into action. This chapter begins with a brief overview of critical pedagogy, followed by an examination of some of the biases critical pedagogy uncovers and how those biases can impact the work we do as instructors. Next, the chapter presents strategies for mitigating bias, improving our cultural competence, and creating inclusive classrooms where all learners are able to engage with relevant content and effective pedagogies. Chapter 6 extends the discussion of inclusion to address specific issues of accessibility and universal design for learners with disabilities.

Critical Pedagogy

As discussed briefly in Chapter 3, social constructivists in particular recognize that learners’ cultures, including shared values, behaviors, and beliefs, shape their knowledge. However, no society is made up of a single, monolithic culture; rather, different communities reflect different values and beliefs, and encourage and discourage different behaviors. Political, social, and educational systems tend to reflect the dominant culture, and over time the values, behaviors, and beliefs associated with that culture become so ingrained as to be invisible. Those living within the dominant culture do not recognize it as a system but simply see it as “normal,” and anything outside of that system is “other” than normal. Some educational theorists recognized that these differences have a profound impact on education.

Bourdieu (see, e.g., Bourdieu & Passeron, 2000) and Freire (2000), for instance, saw that traditional educational systems tended to reflect and favor the experiences of children from wealthy families. Because these children understood that system and saw themselves reflected in it, they thrived and were successful, while children from poorer families struggled. Since the dominant systems are essentially invisible, those in power tend to attribute the challenges faced by marginalized individuals as inherent to the person. In other words, if a child from a poor family struggles to learn to read, teachers will often assume the issue is with the child’s innate ability to learn, rather than recognize that the child might not have had the same preliteracy experiences and current support systems that other children have. Because they do not recognize the root issue, these educational models tend to replicate rather than challenge the existing systems, so learners from the dominant culture continue to succeed while those from marginalized communities continue to struggle, a phenomenon that Bourdieu refers to as cultural reproduction. While earlier theorists tended to focus mostly on the impact of economic disparities in education, other writers and educators like bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Ileana Jiménez have applied feminist, queer, and critical race theory to examine how existing classroom power structures marginalize women, people of color, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+, and other learners as well.

Importantly, critical pedagogy does not end with theory but rather focuses on praxis, or translating knowledge into action. Critical pedagogy sees education as a tool for empowerment, a place where learners develop the knowledge and skills they need to undo oppressive structures and achieve liberation (Freire, 2000; Tewell, 2015). Unlike the traditional “banking” model of education that positions learners as passive recipients of information, in a classroom guided by critical pedagogy, learners engage with problems that are personally meaningful and are active agents in their own education, and through that education gain agency to enact change in the world beyond the classroom (Elmborg, 2006; Freire, 2000; Tewell, 2015).

Critical pedagogy informs the critical approaches to information literacy discussed in Chapter 2, which urge us to move away from a skills-based, teacher-centered approach to information literacy toward one that questions dominant information structures and adopts student-centered teaching methods. Building on the ideas of agency and empowerment, critical information literacy encourages learners to see themselves as part of the “scholarly conversation” and as creators of information, rather than just consumers, and provides them with ways to recognize and challenge dominant powers within the current systems of creating, sharing, and evaluating information. Thus, for instructors, critical pedagogy pushes us to surface power dynamics in the classroom and the larger communities in which our learners live, and to reflect on how our own culture and biases color our approach to the classroom. In doing so, it offers a model for a more inclusive teaching practice.

Bias in the Classroom

We all have bias. These biases might be based on gender, race or ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, body type, or other elements of people’s personal identity. In some cases, we may be aware that we have a bias, while in other cases, we hold unconscious biases that we have unwittingly picked up over the course of our lifetime. Banaji and Greenwald (2013) show that our unconscious biases are particularly pernicious because we are unaware of the effect they have on our thoughts and actions, resulting in discriminatory judgments and behaviors that are automatic and hard to recognize. For example, research shows that when given résumés with equivalent qualifications from applicants with stereotypically white names and stereotypically Black names, search committees will favor applicants with stereotypically white names (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2003) and that orchestras have historically favored men over women in auditions (Goldin & Rouse, 2000). Unconscious bias also affects library services. Shachaf and Horowitz (2006) found differences in librarians’ replies to email reference queries based on the patron’s perceived ethnicity and religious affiliation, including the time taken to reply, length and quality of answers, and the use of welcoming, professional greetings and conclusions. These examples demonstrate one of Banaji and Greenwald’s important findings–that hidden biases result in acts of commission, such as favoring men or whites in hiring, as well as acts of omission, such as providing less thorough service to some patrons.

It can be uncomfortable and even challenging to recognize our own bias. As Sue (2010a) notes, most people “see themselves as fair-minded individuals who would never consciously discriminate” and “their self-image of being ‘a good moral human being’ is assailed if they realize and acknowledge that they possess biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings.” As we grapple with our own biases, it can be helpful to remember that our brains evolved to develop heuristics that allow us to function effectively and safely in our environment. These heuristics often operate at an unconscious level; if you have ever seen a snake and instinctively jumped back even before you could assess whether the snake was venomous, you have experienced an unconscious heuristic that told you snakes are dangerous. Unfortunately, unconscious thoughts and biases influence how we react to people as well, particularly when we perceive those people as “different” from ourselves. If we want to be fair-minded, rational people, it is essential that we identify and reflect on our unconscious biases, including recognizing how our society shapes and influences those biases, in order to mitigate the effect they have on our thoughts and actions (Banaji and Greenwald, 2013). Activity 5.1 provides an opportunity to learn more about unconscious biases you may hold.


Activity 5.1: Take an Implicit Bias Test

As part of its research on implicit bias, Project Implicit at Harvard University offers tests that attempt to measure personal biases. While these tests are not perfect measures, they offer a starting point for reflecting on how we might be impacted by unconscious bias. Visit Project Implicit and try one or more of the available tests.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. How did you feel about your results? Were you surprised or uncomfortable? Did other feelings emerge?
  2. If your test results revealed a personal bias, how might that bias affect your work in the classroom? What strategies could you use to mitigate this bias and deliver high-quality instruction to all your learners?


One manifestation of bias is microaggressions, which Sue (2010a) defines as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Microaggressions may be aimed at women, people of color, individuals who identify (or are perceived) as LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities, among others. Microaggressions come in many forms, including verbal (e.g., “Where are you from?” which implies a person of color must be a foreigner; telling a woman to smile), nonverbal (e.g., clutching one’s purse more tightly or crossing the street around a person of color), or environmental (e.g., Native American mascots) (Sue, 2010b). While microaggressions may appear minor, they create hostile classroom environments, perpetuate stereotype threat, lower workplace productivity, and cause mental and physical health problems (Sue et al., 2009, p. 183).

Because microaggressions often reflect our unconscious biases, they can be hard to eliminate. Princing (2019) notes that when we first meet someone new, we tend to notice what makes them different from us. She recommends we reflect on those thoughts and question any beliefs or stereotypes that may accompany them. The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (n.d.) also recommends that instructors reflect on their assumptions and expectations as a first step to avoid committing microaggressions. For example, an instructor who assumes that learners from first-generation or lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less prepared for college might make a comment to that effect in the classroom, making students hesitant to attend office hours lest they confirm the instructor’s negative belief. Additional strategies instructors can use:

  • Resist the myth of color blindness. Unconscious bias makes it difficult to be truly colorblind. In addition, claims of color blindness obscure structural disadvantages and the very real differences in the experiences of people from marginalized groups (Princing, 2019).
  • Believe the stories of people from marginalized groups. We can learn more about everyday bias by listening to and learning from the stories of individuals who have firsthand experience with bias. We must take care not to dismiss those stories as exaggerations, misunderstandings, or isolated incidents.
  • Do not ask students to speak for their entire racial or culture group. As noted elsewhere in this chapter, learners from the same broad cultural group will not necessarily share all of the same values, beliefs, and understandings, and students may not feel capable of speaking for the experience of others (Reinert Center, n.d.). In addition, singling out learners in this way can make it appear that the instructor sees them as a one-dimensional representative of a particular identity, rather than as an individual bringing varied strengths, interests, and experiences to the classroom.
  • Assume groups you are talking about are represented in the classroom. Treating every classroom interaction as if we were speaking with a member of the group under discussion can remind us to choose our words with care (Reinert Center, n.d.).
  • Remain open to learning about microaggressions and yourself. While it is natural to feel defensive when others point out that we have said something problematic or offensive, we can approach such instances as learning opportunities.

In addition to recognizing the role that bias might play in our own actions, instructors should be aware that students will bring their own biases to the classroom. These biases will affect how learners understand and interact with instructional content, peers, and instructors, and instructors should be attentive to instances where learners commit microaggressions against one another. Microaggressions can be awkward and even challenging to address, especially if they were framed as a compliment (e.g., “You speak English so well”) or reflect commonly accepted stereotypes. Offenders may be unaware of the offense they have caused and because they did not intend to offend others, may be reluctant to accept responsibility for having done so. However, it is important to address such events clearly and promptly. Sue et al. (2019, p. 134) note that when microaggressions occur, small interventions by allies and bystanders have a “profound positive effect in creating an inclusive and welcoming environment” and discouraging further microaggressions. Strategies for addressing microaggressions in the classroom include:

  • Make the “invisible” visible.  Create awareness by naming the microaggression with statements such as “I think that’s a stereotype I just heard” (Sue et al., 2019, p. 136).
  • Disarm the microaggression. Statements such as “I don’t agree” or “I don’t see it that way” and actions such as shaking one’s head communicate to the perpetrator and others that the microaggression is not acceptable (Sue et al., 2019, p. 136).
  • Take an educational, nonpunitive approach. Turn microaggressions into teachable moments by asking learners to reflect on their assumptions (Center for Teaching and Learning, n.d., p. 11). Phrases like “it sounds like you think” or “Could there be another way to look at this?” can prompt speakers to identify and question their unconscious biases (Gonzaga et al., 2019). Ferguson (2015) suggests we approach microaggressions in the spirit of “calling in” rather than “calling out.”
  • Redirect. When students are asked to speak for all members of their racial or cultural group, we can redirect the conversation with statements such as “Let’s open this question up to others” (Gonzaga et al., 2019).
  • Use “I” statements. The use of “I” statements such as “I felt uncomfortable when you said . . . ” communicate impact while minimizing blame (Gonzaga et al., 2019).
  • Discuss intent versus impact. Instructors can use statements like “I know you meant to be funny, but you hurt . . . ” to help learners recognize the impact of something they said. If learners struggle with the idea that they may have offended or harmed someone despite not intending to cause offense, instructors can use metaphors such as bumping someone in the grocery store or causing a car accident to explain the difference between intent and impact (and the need to make amends).
  • Rewind. Sometimes microaggressions happen so quickly, the conversation moves on before they are addressed. Statements like “I’d like to revisit something that was said earlier” allow us to step back and address these microaggressions (Gonzaga et al., 2019).


Another manifestation of bias can be “othering,” or treating the history and experiences of white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied people as universal or the norm, while presenting the history and experiences of other groups as unusual, exceptional, or only of interest to members of those communities. For example, displaying books by Black authors in February, but not at other times, sends an implicit message that the history of America is the actions and accomplishments of whites and that the accomplishments of others are of limited value or interest. While special displays and programs are an important way to recognize and support events like Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and Pride Month, librarians should also integrate materials by individuals of color, women, and LGBTQIA+ authors into displays year-round.

In some cases, the systems that are foundational to libraries treat selected groups as the other. For example, the Dewey Decimal System reserves 200-289 for topics related to Christianity and the Bible, leaving only the 290s for all other religions; Schingler (2015) points out that this reflects an underlying assumption that Christianity not only has more to say on theological topics, what it has to say is more valuable. Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are notoriously problematic in their treatment of women and people of color (Berman, 1969, 1993; Drabinski, 2008; Knowlton, 2005). The presence of subject headings such as “women astronauts” and “African American business enterprises” reveals an assumption that these professions are for white men and that the presence of others is unusual or remarkable, while subject headings that utilize biased terminology, such as “illegal aliens,” send a message about who belongs in America.

These instances of bias and othering can create barriers to information seeking. Howard and Knowlton (2018) point out that Library of Congress Classification distributes materials related to African American and LGBTQIA+ issues throughout the collection, making browsing or even grasping the scope of the topic challenging for researchers. Even when controlled vocabulary uses neutral terminology, the accompanying thesauri can obscure topics for patrons trying to identify the database’s preferred subject heading. For example, a search for “queer” in the ERIC thesaurus returns “the term(s) you entered could not be found” with no suggestions for next steps (ERIC uses the subject heading “homosexuality”). In comparison, a search for “queer” in the thesaurus for PubMed takes one to the preferred subject heading, “sexual and gender minorities,” along with notes about how the term is applied and related/narrower terms.

As part of creating inclusive classrooms, we must be aware of the ways in which library systems and spaces can “other” marginalized groups, and take steps to improve equity and inclusion in our spaces and collections. For example, when creating lessons, we can plan search examples that reflect the diversity of our community and learners’ interests. As appropriate, we can surface and acknowledge problematic practices, and engage students in a dialogue about the impact of those practices and how they might be changed. Integrating diversity into curricular content is addressed in more detail later in this chapter.

Deficit-Based Thinking

Learners, by their very nature, come to our libraries and classrooms with gaps in their knowledge and skills. Oftentimes, instructors seek out research that will help them identify these gaps in order to develop relevant content. While this research can provide valuable guidance for instructors, it is sometimes framed solely in terms of what learners are lacking and can lead us to focus exclusively on students’ weaknesses, an approach termed deficit-based thinking.

Increasingly, educators are taking an asset-based approach that recognizes and builds on the strengths students bring to the classroom (Heinbach, 2019; Ilett, 2019; Kocevar-Weidinger et al., 2019; Matteson & Gersch, 2019; Tewell, 2020). For example, research on returning adult learners may show that they lack up-to-date research and citation skills, framing this as a problem that will hinder academic success. An asset-based approach recognizes that adult learners, by virtue of having spent time in the workforce, bring valuable life experience that can enrich classroom discussions, along with strong collaborative and interpersonal skills developed in the workplace. In addition, adult learners tend to have clear educational and career goals and are highly motivated to develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in higher education. As another example, Kocevar-Weidinger et al. (2019) show that despite the stereotype that first-year college students lack research skills, they actually have extensive everyday research experience that can serve as a starting point for academic information literacy instruction.

Sometimes things characterized as weaknesses or deficits are in fact strengths if we recast our narrative. For instance, research on first-generation students may focus on the challenges they encounter because their families are unable to advise them on how to navigate the academic and social aspects of college. Research also shows that first-generation undergraduate students are less likely to use campus support services (Longwell-Grice et al., 2016; Portnoi & Kwong, 2011). An asset-based approach recognizes that families of first-generation students are often very supportive of their students’ academic endeavors and, if given information about support services on campus, will recommend their students take advantage of such services. Thus, while they lack firsthand knowledge of higher education, family members can be a conduit to connecting first-generation students to campus resources. Activity 5.2 asks you to think more deeply about asset-based approaches.


Activity 5.2: Reflecting on Asset-Based Thinking

Individually or with a group of classmates, select a group of learners you might work with, such as recent immigrants, English-language learners, international students, or older adults.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. What gaps in knowledge or skills are typically ascribed to this group? Are these viewed as simple gaps or as deficits?
  2. What strengths will this group of learners bring to the classroom?
  3. How could you use an asset-based approach to build on these strengths in designing instruction?

Cultural Competency

Cultural competency is the ability to work effectively with people from varied cultural backgrounds. Cultural competency is an essential skill for librarians; it prepares us to recognize barriers to information use, to work with colleagues and patrons of diverse backgrounds, and to develop culturally responsive services and programs (Cooke et al., 2017; Kim & Sin, 2006; Morris, 2007; Overall, 2009). Instructors who are culturally competent understand how culture influences teaching and learning, and are able to engage learners from diverse backgrounds in the classroom.

Cultural differences can emerge in our classrooms in numerous ways. For example, contemporary American classrooms tend to be student-centered; students are expected to ask questions during lectures, discuss ideas and even disagree with instructors and peers, and engage in self-directed learning activities. In contrast, some cultures value teacher-centered classrooms where learners are expected to listen respectfully as teachers share their expertise. International students and recent immigrants who are accustomed to teacher-centered instruction may be uncomfortable during discussions and student-led activities and may even feel instructors are abdicating their responsibility to share expertise. They may also be reluctant to “bother” the instructor by asking questions or admitting they did not understand something. Culturally competent instructors can attend to these differences by interspersing discussion and active learning with direct instruction, encouraging questions and participation in discussions, and explaining how the planned activities support learning. In addition, librarians can create more culturally inclusive classrooms by:

  • Speaking slowly and clearly, especially when working with learners from different cultures and language backgrounds.
  • Avoiding slang, idioms, and sarcasm, none of which translates well across cultures, and using humor judiciously.
  • Avoiding library jargon, which is likely to be unfamiliar to international students and recent immigrants, as well as to novice learners in general.
  • Respecting cross-cultural rules for personal space and touching.
  • Making expectations for participation explicit.

Cultural differences may surface in surprising ways. Bunner (2017, p. 43) provides an example of a student who got in trouble for answering a question in class, not realizing that the teacher was asking a rhetorical question, something that does not exist in his culture. The student explained, “in my culture when an adult asks you a question, you are supposed to answer.” Osa et al. (2006) highlight the care we must take in using or interpreting body language and facial expressions; they provide the example of raised eyebrows, which can indicate surprise, interest, approval, skepticism, or disapproval, depending on the culture of the speaker. Whether or not to make eye contact as a sign of respect and the appropriate finger with which to point also differ by culture.

These are only a few examples of cultural differences. Cultural differences also influence written and conversational communication styles, preferences for individual or cooperative problem solving and study, tolerance for uncertainty, conventions of politeness, and expectations for how children will interact with adults (Brook et al., 2015; Cifuentes & Ozel, 2006; Gay, 2002; Weinstein et al., 2003). Activity 5.3 asks you to think about cultural differences you have experienced.


Activity 5.3: Reflecting on Cultural Differences

Think of a specific instance of a cultural difference or misunderstanding that you have observed.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. What behaviors were central to the situation?
  2. What values, beliefs, or assumptions are reflected in the behaviors of each person involved?
  3. How might these values, beliefs, or assumptions influence a person’s experience in the classroom?
  4. How might your recognition of these values, beliefs, and assumptions impact your understanding of your students and your instruction?


In order to provide culturally competent instruction, librarians must develop their cultural knowledge and translate that knowledge into strategies for action. Villagran (2018) suggests librarians use the Cultural Intelligence (CQ) model as a framework for reflection and professional development. This model, shown in Figure 5.1, has four components: drive, knowledge, strategy, and action (Cultural Intelligence Center, n.d.).

  • Drive: This component reflects our interest, persistence, and confidence in learning about other cultures and working in culturally diverse environments. For example, librarians might be motivated to learn about other cultures in order to improve their ability to design and deliver inclusive services for members of their community.
  • Knowledge: This component is our understanding of cultural similarities and differences. Instruction librarians who want to improve their cross-cultural knowledge might seek out readings and professional development opportunities on how culture impacts teaching and learning.
  • Strategy: This component reflects the metacognitive element of cultural competence; it is our ability to plan for and reflect on multicultural encounters. Culturally competent instruction librarians recognize their learners will come from varied backgrounds, develop strategies to create inclusive instruction, and reflect on their teaching experiences in order to identify areas for improvement.
  • Action: This component is our ability to use appropriate behaviors during multicultural interactions. Instruction librarians can translate cultural competence into action through their instructional design and delivery and through their interactions with individual learners.

Figure 5.1: The Cultural Intelligence Model

The figure shows the four components of drive, knowledge, strategy, and action (Cultural Intelligence Center, n.d.; Villagran, 2018).

An example may demonstrate how librarians can use the Cultural Intelligence model as a guide to professional development. Early in her career as an academic librarian, one of the authors, Melissa, heard that international students from Asia would answer questions such as “Do you understand?” with “yes” out of politeness, whether or not they understood the material being taught. Concerned that she might not be teaching international students effectively (drive), Melissa sought out articles about library services for international students and talked with a colleague with expertise in the area (knowledge). This research helped her better understand cultural differences in teaching and learning, and confirmed the need to modify the instructional strategies she used in the classroom and at the reference desk (strategy). As a result, Melissa became conscientious about speaking slowly, avoiding slang and library jargon, using open-ended questions that could not be answered with “yes,” providing written handouts, and using a pencil or her entire hand to point, instead of the index finger (action).

Librarians can use a number of strategies to develop their cultural knowledge, including reading books and articles, participating in relevant conferences and webinars, and attending cultural events such as festivals, museum exhibits, and film screenings. Reflection is an important part of cultural competence; a teaching journal, discussed in more detail in Chapter 14, can prompt librarians to reflect on classroom experiences, record teaching success, and identify areas for improvement. Conversations with colleagues are also a way to increase cultural knowledge, reflect on one’s teaching, and develop new strategies for inclusive pedagogy. Activity 5.4 is an exercise to reflect on your own learning and instructional practices using the Cultural Intelligence model.


Activity 5.4: Building Cultural Competency

Using the Cultural Intelligence Model shown in Figure 5.1, reflect on your cultural competence, either in general or with regard to a specific patron group with whom you anticipate working.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  • How would you rate your cultural competence? Are you stronger in some areas, such as Drive or Knowledge, than others?
  • What motivates you to improve your cultural competency?
  • How have you built your cultural knowledge? What resources can you use to continue building your knowledge?
  • Do you feel confident applying your cultural competence in the classroom? What strategies would you use as you plan and deliver instruction?


While learning about different cultures can empower librarians to provide more culturally relevant instruction, librarians should avoid categorizing or stereotyping specific learners. Cultural groups are not static or homogeneous, meaning learners from the same broad cultural group will not necessarily share all of the same values, beliefs, and understandings, or react in exactly the same way to instructional experiences. In addition, learners are comprised of multiple identities, of which culture is only one aspect. Thus, we should use the knowledge we develop about different cultures as a way to be alert to potential differences that could lead to misunderstandings, but not to pigeonhole or predict the behavior and experience of an individual learner.

Strategies for Inclusive Teaching

Increasing our knowledge and understanding of other cultures is only a first step toward cultural competence and inclusive teaching. We also need to parlay that understanding into instructional practices that acknowledge, appreciate, and attend to the rich diversity of our classrooms. This section presents strategies for inclusive teaching, including fostering a positive classroom climate, integrating diverse content, and using inclusive pedagogies.

Fostering a Positive Classroom Climate

Our sense of belonging in the classroom influences our motivation to learn. The Center for Teaching and Learning (2019) at Columbia University identifies four types of classroom environments:

  • Explicitly Marginalizing: The instructor or other students say or do things, such as committing microaggressions or repeating stereotypes, that exclude learners and perspectives from marginalized backgrounds.
  • Implicitly Marginalizing: The instructor excludes some learners through subtle actions such as calling primarily on male students or using examples solely from the predominant culture.
  • Implicitly Centralizing: The instructor will discuss issues of marginalization and diversity if a student raises the topic, but such conversations are not planned or presented as essential.
  • Explicitly Centralizing: The instructor intentionally integrates marginalized perspectives into course content, raises issues of diversity and inclusion, and takes action to foster sensitivity, such as establishing norms for discussion and group work.

While the environment in any classroom can fluctuate, the overall classroom climate is often less inclusive and welcoming than instructors realize. In one study, instructors rated their course as falling midway between implicitly and explicitly centralizing, while learners rated the same course as implicitly marginalizing (Center for Teaching and Learning, 2019).

One conclusion we might take away from this research is the need for critical self-reflection on the part of instructors. In addition, the research suggests that instructors must make a concerted effort to create an inclusive classroom environment. Some strategies we can use include:

  • Express interest in students. Welcoming participants as they enter the room and learning their names help participants feel recognized (if you are worried about remembering names, you can have them create a table tent or name tag). In addition, instructors should come out from behind podiums, which can be perceived as distancing, to engage with participants. Reflective activities such as minute papers also offer opportunities to respond to individuals and demonstrate interest in their learning (Center for Teaching and Learning, n.d.; Bunner, 2017).
  • Establish ground rules for discussions. Establishing guidelines for civil, constructive interaction is becoming more common in credit courses; oftentimes, instructors engage students in creating these guidelines in order to foster a sense of ownership. The time constraints of library workshops may not allow for lengthy or collaborative agreements; however, librarians can establish simple ground rules, such as respecting the opinions of others and valuing diverse perspectives, at the beginning of sessions (Watts, 2017).
  • Foster student-to-student relationships. Instructional strategies that foster interaction such as think-pair-share, small group work, and class discussions promote positive classroom relationships.
  • Make expectations explicit. As mentioned earlier, cultural background can influence classroom behaviors such as participation styles and how, or whether, to ask questions. Instructors should make their expectations explicit with comments such as “I hope you will ask a lot of questions as we go along,” or “Right now we are going to work independently, but later we’ll share our work with others.”
  • Express high expectations for all students. Instructors should use an encouraging, positive tone, while also setting high expectations for all learners. Gay (2002) and Weinstein et al. (2003) point out that stereotypes based on race and/or gender can cause instructors to lower expectations for certain groups of students. Weinstein et al. (2003) offer the example of a non-native speaker of English who was offended when a teacher told him his English was “good,” rather than suggesting he continue to practice. He felt the former was patronizing and did not help him improve his language skills.
  • Address microaggressions and other forms of bias. As discussed earlier, instructors should be mindful of stereotypes and take care not to perpetuate them, and to practice intervention strategies that can be used when microaggressions occur in the classroom.
  • Ask for feedback. Instructors can use course evaluations and classroom observations to gather feedback on how well they foster an inclusive classroom environment.

Integrating Diverse Content

All learners have a right to instructional offerings that address their needs and interests. At the program level, we should offer workshops and other instructional resources on a wide variety of topics that are suitable for patrons of varied ages and ability levels. We should take care to schedule classes and programs at varied times to ensure access for the widest number of people. For example, a traditional storytime program on a weekday morning will serve families with a stay-at-home parent as well as families where parents work the late shift or on weekends, while a pajama storytime held in the evening will serve families where parents and other caregivers work during the day.

In addition, our course content should reflect the diversity of our communities and the larger world. Not only does this allow learners to “see” themselves in the curriculum, it provides opportunities for all learners to learn about diversity and equity and to develop cultural competence. In addition, integrating discussions of diversity and equity throughout the curriculum ensures these issues are not “othered” or treated as an addendum to a curriculum where whiteness and heterosexuality are the norm. Further, we must engage these topics in authentic ways, rather than with benign or superficial celebrations of multiculturalism (Bunner, 2017, p. 42; Kumasi & Hill, 2011, p. 252). Some strategies librarians can use to integrate diversity and inclusion into instructional content:

  • Use diverse examples. For instance, a librarian teaching a workshop on Overdrive can conduct sample searches featuring authors of diverse identities. An academic librarian or archivist teaching students to locate primary documents from World War II might highlight sites with materials from the Tuskegee Airmen or the all Japanese-American 442nd Regiment. Hinchliffe (2016) notes that librarians can call attention to issues of human rights through the examples used in class.
  • Choose metaphors and analogies carefully. While metaphors and analogies can help learners build on prior knowledge and make concepts more concrete, they are often embedded in cultural knowledge or experiences that not everyone will share. Similarly, pop culture references may exclude learners based on their age or cultural background, although in some cases librarians can pause to offer a brief explanation.
  • Discuss how issues of race, class, and gender impact the material being covered. Gorski and Swalwell (2015, p. 36) argue, “at the heart of a curriculum that is meaningfully multicultural lie principles of equity and social justice—purposeful attention to issues like racism, homophobia, sexism, and economic inequality.” Gay (2002) suggests that instructors address topics such as racism, historical atrocities, and structures of power, and contextualize issues within race, class, and gender. While librarians may initially feel uncomfortable discussing challenging topics in the classroom, Bunner (2017, p. 43) found that ignoring issues of race is more problematic for students of color than imperfect conversations.
  • Model how participants can seek out marginalized voices and perspectives. In addition to incorporating a wide range of perspectives into our own teaching, we can encourage others to adopt a wider perspective and demonstrate resources and search strategies to uncover marginalized voices.

As part of creating a more inclusive curriculum, librarians will need to build collections that incorporate the histories and voices of marginalized groups. After all, it will be difficult to use diverse examples or demonstrate strategies for surfacing marginalized voices if our print and online collections do not contain that material. In addition, we need to be skilled at working within these collections. Curry (2005, p. 70) found that small behaviors like raised eyebrows, biting one’s lip, or a reserved or even neutral affect communicated discomfort while helping a patron research LGBTQIA+ topics, leading the patron to be less likely to ask for help in the future. In the same study, Curry (2005, p. 71) found that even librarians who indicated a willingness to help the patron lacked the necessary knowledge to identify appropriate sources of information. While Curry’s study focused on assisting patrons at the reference desk, her findings are very applicable to the classroom.

Part and parcel with building our knowledge of resources, we must understand the biases and weaknesses built into existing search systems, and develop strategies to find information within (or despite) those systems. Drabinski (2008) shares her experience of teaching with a colleague who incorrectly assumed that if LCSH has a heading for “African American women,” it must also have a heading for “white women” and advised students to use that phrase when searching. Noble (2012, 2018) shows that search engines such as Google are not neutral; rather, they replicate the biases inherent in society, delivering search results that reinforce stereotypical depictions of women and people of color. Ultimately, librarians who are committed to integrating equity and inclusion into the classroom must step back to look at the totality of their library’s spaces, collections, and systems.

Inclusive Pedagogy

Pedagogy is our approach to teaching. It reflects our understanding of the learning process, our goals for the classroom environment and student learning, and, subsequently, the activities one plans for the classroom. Instructors who practice inclusive pedagogy recognize that students have varied preferences for and comfort levels with different learning activities such as lecture, whole-class discussion, and small group work, and offer varied ways for learners to engage in the classroom.

Instructors can select from a wide variety of activities when planning instructional sessions. In fact, novice instructors are sometimes overwhelmed by the seemingly endless array of options. Chávez and Longerbeam (2016, pp. 8-9) suggest cultural approaches to teaching and learning range from “individuated,” which tend to compartmentalize content and treat learning as an individual experience, to “integrated,” which are more interconnected and focus on shared learning experiences. Instructors might seek to balance activities that reflect an individuated approach such as lecture, independent practice, and reflective writing, with activities that reflect an integrated approach such as discussion, case studies, and collaborative work.

Another approach we can take is balancing instructor-centered and learner-centered activities. Instructor-centered activities are those in which the instructor has a strong role in directing course content and the process of student learning, such as lecture and demonstration. In student-centered activities, students direct and shape their own learning; examples of student-centered activities include small group work, case-based and problem-based learning, and practice exercises that allow students to explore their own interests.

In addition to varying classroom activities, instructors can offer learners choices. For example, during an online searching activity, we might give learners the option of trying a task on their own or collaborating with their neighbor. Instructors can also adapt activities to create a more inclusive environment. For example, workshop participants might be reluctant to engage in a discussion with others they do not know well, especially if the topic is sensitive. A think-pair-share, which offers time for individual reflection and ordering one’s thoughts, or a small group discussion, where one shares ideas with just a few others, may feel safer for participants and can be used as a lead-in to a whole-class discussion or activity.

Emancipatory Education

While inclusive pedagogy outlines the strategies we can take as instructors to honor our learners’ experiences and make our classrooms and instruction welcoming and accessible to all learners, critical pedagogy also recognizes learners as agents in the classroom and in the world. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (2000) discusses the emancipatory aspects of education, or how education can be structured so as to empower marginalized and oppressed communities to liberate themselves from systems of oppression. Crucial to Freire’s approach is that the learners are the agents of their own liberation. Instructors can facilitate this process by recognizing and mitigating bias and through the inclusive strategies outlined in this chapter, but ultimately, learners should be empowered to act on their own behalf.

We can foster emancipatory education within the library classroom by surfacing oppressive practices not only within education but within library systems and structures, facilitating dialogues about these practices, and encouraging students to imagine and adopt roles for themselves in challenging those systems. Chapter 2 outlines steps we could take in the context of critical information literacy, such as helping students recognize how prevailing publishing practices and notions of authority favor some voices and marginalize others, and encouraging them to seek out those voices that have been marginalized to include their perspectives. We can also work with learners to take action in the wider world, as librarians at Dartmouth College did when they collaborated with students to petition the Library of Congress to eliminate the term “illegal aliens” from its official subject headings (Albright, 2019).


Our learners bring varied backgrounds, identities, and educational needs to the classroom. Using critical pedagogy as a guide, librarians can adopt inclusive teaching practices that create classrooms, libraries, and, ultimately, communities that are more just and equitable for all members.

Key takeaways from this chapter include:

  • Instructors should understand the role unconscious bias plays in discrimination and inequity, and develop strategies to prevent and address microaggressions, othering, and deficit thinking.
  • Cultural competence is a set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that enable librarians to interact effectively with patrons from diverse backgrounds. Instruction librarians need to understand how culture affects teaching and learning, and develop strategies for inclusive pedagogy.
  • Elements of inclusive teaching include fostering a positive classroom climate, integrating diverse perspectives and issues of diversity and equity into course content, and using inclusive pedagogies.

Activity 5.5 asks you to reflect on inclusive teaching.


Activity 5.5: Reflecting on Inclusive Teaching

Find (or draw) an image, photo, gif, etc., that captures your thoughts on inclusive teaching. Share your image and a brief explanation with your classmates.

Suggested Readings

Accardi, M. T., Drabinski, E., & Kumbier, A. (Eds.). (2010). Critical library instruction: Theories and methods. Library Juice Press.

Edited by leading writers on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS, this book offers a series of authored chapters that apply feminist, critical race, queer, and anti-oppressive theory and strategies to the library classroom. Chapters range from a broad examination of social power in the library classroom to application of specific strategies such as service learning and problem-based learning.

Adichie, C. N. (2009). The Danger of a Single Story. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Adichie’s warning about how seeing others through a “single story” reflects systems of power and leads to deficit thinking is an important one for instruction librarians.

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blind spot: Hidden biases of good people. Delacorte.

Based on the authors’ extensive research, this is an excellent and highly readable introduction to unconscious bias.

Bunner, T. (2017). When we listen: Using student voices to design culturally responsive and just schools. Knowledge Quest, 45(3), 38–45.

Bunner worked with students in grades 4 through 12 to identify strategies for culturally responsive teaching. In this article, she outlines six strategies and uses student voices to illustrate their importance and examples of successful implementation. The article includes an activity where instructors can reflect on their own practice.

Ettarh, F. (2018). Vocational awe and librarianship: The lies we tell ourselves. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Ettarh coined the term “vocational awe” to describe the perception that librarianship is a calling that requires sacrifice. As a result of vocational awe, librarians are hesitant or unable to critique libraries and the work of librarians, not only leading to workplace problems but oftentimes preventing us from solving (or even acknowledging) those problems.

Feminist Teacher.

By noted critical pedagogist Ileana Jiménez, this blog explores a variety of issues around critical pedagogy, diversity, equity, and inclusion in teaching, with a focus on the K-12 classroom.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary edition). Bloomsbury.

Freire’s foundational text examines the ways in which traditional models of education replicate oppressive structures and argues for an educational model that centers the learners’ experiences in order to empower them to challenge those systems.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-116.

Gay provides four strategies for culturally responsive pedagogy: developing knowledge about cultural diversity, designing culturally relevant curricula, developing cross-cultural communication skills, and demonstrating caring.

Inclusive teaching: Supporting all students in the college classroom. Center for Teaching. Columbia University.

Available from edX, this professional development course offers a thoughtful introduction to inclusive teaching. Although aimed at faculty teaching credit courses, instructors in all types of libraries will find valuable tips for creating an inclusive classroom environment, diversifying content, and engaging in critical self-reflection. A print resource with similar information, Guide to inclusive teaching at Columbia, is available online at and numerous videos from the course are available from Columbia Learn on YouTube at

Jensen, R. (2004). The myth of the neutral professional. Progressive Librarian, 24, 28-34.

Jensen challenges the myth of neutrality within libraries, arguing that to claim to be neutral is to support the existing political system. His critique of library programming is particularly relevant for instruction librarians.

Leckie, G. J., Given, L. M, & Buschman, J. E. (2010). Critical theory for library and information science: Exploring the social from across the disciplines. Libraries Unlimited.

Through a series of essays, chapter authors explore various aspects of library and information science through different critical lenses and apply the work of specific theorists to examine current practices in LIS. Chapter 8 proposes a model for transformative pedagogy based on the work of Freire, but readers will find inspiration and ideas for integrating critical theory into their work throughout the text.

McCombs School of Business. (2018). Implicit bias. University of Texas.

This brief, nine-minute video offers a cogent introduction to unconscious bias.

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2015). Speaking up: Responding to everyday bigotry.

The Southern Poverty Law Center offers strategies and scripts for responding to microaggressions and other forms of bigotry in workplace, educational, social, and family settings.

Souza, T. (2018, April 30). Responding to microaggressions in the classroom: Taking ACTION. Faculty Focus.

Souza provides a framework and helpful scripts for instructors to address microaggressions.

Storti, C. (1997). Culture matters: The Peace Corps cross-cultural workbook. Peace Corps Information Collection and Exchange.

Developed for Peace Corps volunteers, this interactive workbook is an excellent introduction to cultural competence. Chapters address how people of different cultures understand the concept of self, personal and social obligations, time, and locus of control, and how these differences impact communication, interpersonal relationships, and the workplace.

Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, white allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128-42.

Sue et al. provide a concise introduction to microaggressions and the harm they cause and suggest strategies that targets, allies, and bystanders can use to disarm them. Although the discussion and examples focus on racial microaggressions, the strategies are applicable to all types of microaggressions.

Tewell, E. (2015). A decade of critical information literacy: A review of the literature. Communications in Information Literacy, 9(1), 24-43.

Tewell provides a concise, cogent explanation of critical pedagogy and its application to library instruction.

Weinstein, C., Curran, M., & Tomlinson-Clarke, S. (2003). Culturally responsive classroom management: Awareness into action. Theory into Practice, 42(4), 269-276.

This article is rich with examples of how culture affects expectations for teaching and learning, and provides strategies for developing a culturally responsive classroom practice.


Albright, C. (2019, April 22). ‘Change the subject’: A hard-fought battle over words. Dartmouth News.

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blind spot: Hidden biases of good people. Delacorte.

Berman, S. (1969, February 15). Chauvinistic headings. Library Journal, 94, 695.

Berman, S. (1993). Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. McFarland.

Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2003). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination (NBER Working Paper No 9873).

Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.C. (2000). Reproduction in education, society, and culture (2nd edition). Sage Publications.

Brook, F., Ellenwood, D., & Lazzaro, A. E. (2015). In pursuit of antiracist social justice: Denaturalizing whiteness in the academic library. Library Trends, 64, 246-284.

Bunner, T. (2017). When we listen. Knowledge Quest, 45(3), 38–45.

Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Guide to inclusive teaching at Columbia. Columbia University.

Center for Teaching and Learning. (2019). Common challenges related to course climate [Video]. YouTube.

Chávez, A. F., & Longerbeam, S. D. (2016). Teaching across cultural strengths: A guide to balancing integrated and individuated cultural frameworks in college teaching. Stylus.

Cifuentes, L., & Ozel, S. (2006). Resources for attending to the needs of multicultural learners. Knowledge Quest, 35(2), 14-21.

Cooke, N. A., Spencer, K., Jacobs, J. M., Mabbott, C., Collins, C., & Loyd, R. M. (2017). Mapping topographies from the classroom: Addressing whiteness in the LIS curriculum. In G. Schlesselman-Tarango (Ed.), Topographies of whiteness: Mapping whiteness in library and information science (pp. 235-250). Library Juice Press.

Cultural Intelligence Center. (n.d.). CQ model.

Curry, A. (2005). If I ask, will they answer? Evaluating public library reference service to gay and lesbian youth. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 45, 65-75.

Drabinski, E. (2008). Teaching the radical catalog. In K. R. Roberto (Ed.), Radical cataloging: Essays at the front. McFarland.

Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-9.

Ferguson, S. (2015). Calling in: A quick guide on when and how. Everyday Feminism.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary edition). Bloomsbury.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-116.

Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of “blind” auditions on female musicians. American Economic Review, 90(4), 715-741.

Gonzaga, A. M., Ufomata, E., Bonifacino, E., & Zimmer, S. (2019, August 29). Microaggressions: What are they? How can we avoid? How can we respond? [PowerPoint slides].

Gorski, P. C., & Swalwell, K. (2015). Equity Literacy for All. Educational Leadership, 72(6), 34-40.

Heinbach, C., Fiedler, B. P., Mitola, R., & Pattni, E. (2019, February 6). Dismantling deficit thinking: A strengths-based inquiry into the experiences of transfer students in and out of academia. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Hinchliffe, L. J. (2016). Loading examples to further human rights education. In N. Pagowsky & K. McElroy (Eds.), Critical library pedagogy handbook 1: Essays and workbook activities (pp. 75-84). ACRL.

Howard, S. A., & Knowlton, S. A. (2018). Browsing through bias: The Library of Congress classification and subject headings for African American studies and LGBTQIA studies. Library Trends, 67(1), 74-88.

Ilett, D. (2019). A critical review of LIS literature on first-generation students. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 19(1), 177-96.

Kim, K., & Sin, S. J. (2006). Recruiting and retaining students of color in LIS programs: Perspectives of library and information professionals. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 47(2), 81-95.

Knowlton, S. A. (2005). Three decades since Prejudices and Antipathies: A study of changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 40(2), 123-145.

Kocevar-Weidinger, E., Cox, E., Lenker, M., Pashkova-Balkenhol, T. T., & Kinman, V. (2019). On their own terms: First-year student interviews about everyday life research can help librarians flip the deficit script. Reference Services Review, 47(2), 169–192.

Kumasi, K. D., & Hill, R. F. (2011). Are we there yet? Results of a gap analysis to measure LIS students’ prior knowledge and actual learning of cultural competence concepts. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 52(4), 251-264.

Longwell-Grice, R., Adsitt, N. Z., Mullins, K., & Serrata, W. (2016). The first ones: Three studies on first-generation college students.” NACADA Journal, 36(2), 34-46.

Matteson, M. L., & Gersch, B. (2019). Unique or ubiquitous: Information literacy instruction outside academia. Reference Services Review 47(1), 73-84.

Morris, V. J. (2007, January). A seat at the table: Seeking culturally competent pedagogy in library education [Conference presentation]. American Library Association Midwinter Meeting / Association of Library and Information Science Education Annual Conference, Forum on Library Education, Seattle, WA, United States.

Noble, S. U. (2012, Spring). Missed connections: What search engines say about women. Bitch, 54.

Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York University.

Osa, J. O., Nyana, S. A., & Ogbaa, C. A. (2006). Effective cross-cultural communication to enhance reference transactions: Training guidelines and tips. Knowledge Quest, 35(2), 22-24.

Overall, P. M. (2009). Cultural competence: A conceptual framework for library and information science professionals. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, and Policy, 79(2), 175-204.

Portnoi, L. M., & Kwong, T. M. (2011). Enhancing the academic experiences of first-generation master’s students. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 48(4), 411-27.

Princing, M. (2019, September 3). What microaggressions are and how to prevent them. Right as Rain.

Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Avoiding microaggressions in the classroom.

Schingler, M. A. (2015, August 18). How Dewey do: Head-scratching library categorizations. Book Riot.

Shachaf, P., & Horowitz, S. (2006). Are virtual reference services color blind? Library & Information Science Research, 28(4), 501-20.

Sue, D. W. (2010a). Microaggressions: More than just race. Psychology Today.

Sue, D. W. (2010b). Racial microaggressions in everyday life. Psychology Today.

Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, white allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128-42.

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-90.

Tewell, E. (2015). A decade of critical information literacy: A review of the literature. Communications in Information Literacy, 9(1), 24-43.

Tewell, E. (2020). The problem with grit: Dismantling deficit thinking in library instruction. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 20(1), 137-59.

Villagran, M. A. L. (2018). Cultural intelligence: Ability to adapt to new cultural settings. Knowledge Quest, 46(5), 8–14.

Watts, J. (2017). Inclusive cultural and social pedagogy in the library classroom. LOEX Quarterly, 44(1), 8-10.

Weinstein, C., Curran, M., & Tomlinson-Clarke, S. (2003). Culturally responsive classroom management: Awareness into action. Theory into Practice, 42(4), 269-276.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Instruction in Libraries and Information Centers Copyright © 2020 by Laura Saunders and Melissa A. Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book