What is inclusive education? Imagine a learning environment that embraces diverse perspectives and empowers all students to be actively engaged. A classroom that encourages active participation is the goal of most teachers, but inclusive learning goes a step further to involve students in a teaching and learning partnership. Intentionality is critical when creating an inclusive classroom. The curriculum must be designed with consideration for a wide range of learning styles and an understanding of cultural differences. If you’re wondering about the key features of inclusive teaching and learning, read on to learn more about this active learning pedagogy.

Tip

An inclusive learning environment provides a welcoming classroom for all learners that adapts to their specific needs in an equitable way.

Set Classroom Ground Rules

You can increase learner diversity and student inclusion by asking the class to create ground rules for discussion. The premise of classroom ground rules is to create a deeper understanding of the value of respectful conversations. This is particularly critical if you’re going to discuss topics that are likely to spark divided opinions. Rules should center on maintaining an open mind, active listening, equal time for all to share and a concerted effort to maintain a supportive learning environment.

You can offer these root topics and ask the class to identify rules that will be supportive, or you can open up the ground rules discussion and see what is generated. Consider creating the ground rules yourself if your class is too large to come to a consensus. Prominently post the ground rules at the front of the classroom. Hold the class accountable, but encourage them to hold each other to the rules too.

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Intentional Course Design

Use a variety of diverse authors and examples to create an inclusive educational experience. If you’re using case studies, consider how you can incorporate various perspectives into the practical examples. Intentionally weave diversity into the fabric of the course. For example, if your course is about the history of science, be sure to include contributions of racially diverse scientists. Add a statement on your syllabus that expresses your commitment to an inclusive learning community and invite feedback from your students. You can proactively plan for students who may have dyslexia by using a font like Comic Sans or Arial that is easy to read.

Consider Employing Environmental Inclusivity

It isn’t uncommon to judge something first by its appearance. When a student walks into your classroom, the environment should convey inclusion. What pictures do you have on your walls? How is the room arranged? Make the room look cozy, with comfortable items that stimulate creativity and togetherness. Have a box of fidget spinners or stress balls to reduce anxiety and consider inflatable balls to replace the chairs. Students who have trouble with hearing or seeing could benefit from your class notes. Consider sharing a PowerPoint or your lecture notes online.

How to Define Inclusive

Students have a wide range of learning styles. If you’re wondering how to make lessons inclusive, vary the way you teach content and how you assess learning. For example, instead of assigning a final project, ask students to create an individualized project that demonstrates what they’ve learned during the semester. You can provide the minimum standards, and they can create a way to show competency based upon a project that fits their learning style.

Group work provides a way for students to interact with one another, but it’s important to think about how you group students together. Avoid dividing them into small groups by gender, since this might make a nonbinary student feel uncomfortable. Number off, use shirt color or put stickers on handouts to create smaller work teams. Similarly, embrace gender-neutral vocabulary when referring to the class. "Girls and boys" or “guys” may exclude certain students. Inclusive language sends a message to all students that their individual identities are valued. Consider using audiobooks or e-readers for students who may have difficulty seeing or hearing. Disguised disabilities can significantly disengage students from a learning environment.

Develop Relationships With Students

One of the key features of an inclusive learning environment is to find ways for all students to share their personal stories. If you strive to learn about each of your students and help the class learn about one another, you will deepen mutual understanding.

Ask each student to write a cultural autobiography and share it with the class. Spend time with each student to learn more about his personal learning style and individual needs. If a student has a preferred name or pronoun, invite him to share that with you, but don’t require him to share that information with the class. You might cause a student to prematurely disclose personal information that he's not ready to share. Encourage students to acknowledge each other and show affirmation when a positive thought is shared. If you strengthen the relationships within your classroom, you’ll create a more inclusive learning environment.

Be Open to Change

An inclusive teacher is nimble and ready to adapt to the individualized learning needs of each student. Use the information that you learn about each student to consider changes that may need to be made to your curriculum and pedagogical style. If you have students with learning accommodations, consider how you can adjust your class so that all can benefit rather than having one student feel singled out. For example, if one of your students has difficulty following a standard lecture, provide the lecture notes in writing for all students. A diverse class is likely to have varied needs. Students with food allergies or religious constraints may have particular dietary constraints. An inclusive learning environment provides alternatives that meet the needs of each student in a respectful way.

Cultivate and Confront

If you permit it, you promote it. When you recognize stereotype threats, be an inclusive leader and intervene. If you let something inappropriate go unnoticed, you’re supporting the behavior. A key feature of inclusive teaching and learning is to educate students on cultural differences and incorporate a standard of respect for all in the classroom. Encourage students of color to participate, but don’t force them to speak if they’re not ready. If you have a predominately white classroom, take the initiative to encourage the students of color to find their voice. At the same time, be careful not to expect students of color to teach the rest of the class about their culture.

Become Self-Aware

Before you can make lessons inclusive, you must do the work necessary to become proficient in multiculturalism. Take advantage of every opportunity to learn more about diversity and inclusion. Check yourself if you feel inclined to make assumptions or to stereotype particular students. Learn how to say the name of every student in your class even if the name is complicated to pronounce. If a student suggests a nickname, make every effort to learn her given name to show her that you honor and respect her.

Regular Assessment Practices

A key feature of inclusive teaching and learning is regular assessment practices. Use formal and informal ways of checking in with your students to determine how they feel about their learning experience. Try a pulse check at the beginning and end of class. Have an anonymous suggestion box in the classroom to allow students to share their feelings. You can even ask students to write a reflection paper about what they’ve learned and what they hope to learn during the remainder of the semester. Periodically check with the class about the classroom ground rules. Most importantly, if something goes awry, be ready to provide a solution to demonstrate your commitment to an inclusive learning environment.

About the Author

Dr. Kelly Meier earned her doctorate from Minnesota State Mankato in Educational Leadership. She is the author and co-author of 12 books and serves as a consultant in K-12 and higher education. Dr. Meier is is a regular contributor for The Equity Network and has worked in education for more than 30 years.