Applying Atomic Habits to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Teaching

IEEE Computer Society Team
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Atomic Habits Teaching CircleJames Clear’s Atomic Habits has taken the world by storm. With more than 10 million copies sold worldwide, the book, whose premise is that small shifts in daily behavior allow individuals to get 1% better every day, has become a personal growth phenomenon. Now, with the support of an IEEE Computer Society Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Fund grant from the IEEE Foundation, it has become a driver of change in the classroom environment.

“I have had the opportunity to work in professional development for faculty in STEM for over twenty years. In that time period, I observed faculty who want to make their courses more inclusive but are concerned about the ramifications of making a mistake,” said Akesha Horton, director of curriculum and instruction, Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., U.S.A. “Atomic Habits argues that improving just 1% every day leads to dramatic results. So, a faculty member doesn’t have to worry about making huge changes to their pedagogy, just one small task that can be built on over time.”

Seeking to create a mentoring circle of faculty and doctoral students who are working toward more inclusive teaching spaces for their students, Horton and her colleague, Nathan Ensmenger, informatics graduate director and associate professor at the university, established a program to help uncover slight changes that can lead to a more inclusive teaching environment. The goals of this work centered on achieving better informed and equipped faculty and future faculty, improving course syllabi and lesson plans, and a developing sample lesson plans/case studies that illustrate the techniques and processes required to develop more inclusive course materials.

As a result of two semesters of work—first in a workshop format and then a discussion-circle approach—faculty were able to make concrete changes to their curriculum, including:

  • Implementing a multi-part, interactive syllabus to create a feedback loop and stronger connections with students
  • Developing a set of annotated sample lesson plans that illustrate the techniques and processes required to develop more inclusive course materials
  • Identifying historical case studies that introduce more African American inventors, female computer scientists, LGBTQ+ figures, and other under-represented groups into lectures

“By focusing on the value of persistent and incremental change, all of our participants were empowered to make at least one change to their course practices and/or syllabus,” said Horton. “Even more importantly, from our perspective, they seemed to want to continue the process of incremental change after the end of the grant workshops. We had universal agreement from the participants that they wanted to continue participating in similar workshops.”

Having seen the initial enthusiasm and impact of this first mentoring circle, the school’s leadership plans to invest in future such workshops and sessions, extending the grant’s outcomes and supporting D&I growth at their institution. In short, the IEEE CS D&I Fund grant has led to an expanded focus on ways small shifts can lead to big, inclusive impacts.

“The Atomic Habits approach was a useful framework,” summed up Horton. “We are interested in continuing these conversations and plan to encourage some of the previous participants to take the lead on conversations based on their experiences and interests.”

For more information on IEEE CS’ D&I Fund, currently funded proposals, funding opportunities, and to donate, visit the IEEE CS Diversity and Inclusion Fund.