An illustrated person sits at a disk, reading from a book. Text reads: "Inclusive classrooms."

Inclusive Classrooms: What is an Inclusive Classroom?

Welcome to our new inclusive classrooms series! As the release of two new RDEISE learning clusters approaches, we’ll take a closer look at inclusive teaching principles and strategies. In this post, we dissect what makes a classroom inclusive, and why it matters.  

Intentionally designing an inclusive classroom fosters a sense of belonging and makes all learners feel intellectually supported. In an inclusive classroom, diversity is celebrated and considered at every step of the learning process. Inclusive teaching ensures that all students are engaged, their voices are heard, each student’s unique learning needs are accommodated, and students from marginalized groups aren’t excluded or sidelined, but rather validated and respected.

An illustration of a classroom. The teacher stands talking in the front of a diverse class of students, who are all seated at desks. The students look engaged—many of them are raising their hands to ask questions.
Image by RDEISE © The President and Fellows of Harvard College

All classrooms are diverse spaces. Each student is unique, with their own intersectional identity, learning style, motivations, educational history, learning and career goals, prior knowledge, abilities, and ways of expressing what they’re learning. Students also have individual contexts, with different resources available to them at home, and varying personal challenges or barriers, such as systemic racism or ableism. An inclusive classroom keeps all these differences in mind to set all students up for success. Inclusive education benefits everyone: it helps all students, not only those from marginalized groups. Inclusive teaching strategies are simply good practice.

Listen to “Think UDL: UDL and Intersectionality With Denia Bradshaw” in the LabXchange library.

Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2021 showed that 35.6% of high school students in the United States reported experiences of racism in school. This was linked to higher rates of poor mental health, feelings of isolation at school, and difficulties with concentration, memory, and decision-making. The CDC stated that antiracist, culturally aware, and inclusive interventions are critical for promoting safe school environments for all students.

“I didn’t realize how much race and learning went hand in hand and how much it impacted Black students’ learning success until I started studying pedagogy. ”
– Shanita Jackson, RDEISE project and content development fellow.

Race is not the only consideration in an inclusive classroom. About 1 in 44 American children are autistic, while 1 in 6 Americans between the ages of 3 and 17 were diagnosed with a disability such as cerebral palsy, ADHD, or blindness between 2009 and 2017, according to the CDC. Mobility International USA (MIASU) reports that 21% of youth aged 15 or older have a disability.

In addition, many disabilities and neurotypes are invisible, or only medically diagnosed later in life. There may be neurodivergent or disabled students who are currently undiagnosed, and who would also benefit from an inclusive learning environment. Creating an inclusive classroom is an effective approach to alleviating and addressing as many barriers to learning as possible, and provides students with different options for engagement.

On the left is an illustration of a student of color at a desk. On the right, text reads: Creating an inclusive classroom is about trying to alleviate and address as many barriers to learning as possible, and provide students with different options for engagement.

Students may also face barriers like inaccessible learning materials or environments, a lack of culturally relevant examples in content, and content being presented in only one way. Students can face difficulties if they are given too little time to meaningfully engage when expected to verbally answer questions in class or write tests. Language that doesn’t demonstrate respect for aspects of students’ identities, such as race, gender, and disability, can be alienating and discourage participation in class. Other challenges might include aspects of students’ home environments, such as a low-income background, poor internet connections, or lack of access to devices.

Read more about how we strive to produce inclusive learning material in “Accessibility at LabXchange: Inclusive Language.”

What is an Inclusive Classroom?” was released as a sneak peek of the second RDEISE learning cluster, “Advancing Equity in STEM Through Inclusive Teaching.” The animation is a useful resource for educators in addressing various barriers and accommodating the diverse needs and learning styles of all their students.

On the left are four hexagons, each containing an illustration of a student. One student has a speech bubble. The other three each have a thought bubble, containing images of a heart, a clock, and a 3D model of the structure of an atom, respectively. On the right, text lists the five characteristics of an inclusive classroom.

The animation identifies 5 key characteristics of an inclusive classroom.

  • All students have opportunities to actively participate. Learning is not just receiving knowledge, but rather an act of constructing meaning. It requires active participation and engagement from students. Educators must address factors that discourage students from engaging in class.
  • All students can make a personal connection to the course material. Students have diverse interests, values and backgrounds, and they will feel more motivated to engage with material if they can apply it to something they care about.
  • All students have the time to think. Students process information at varying speeds. Some may need more time to think about a concept before actively engaging. This is why it’s important to move at a pace that suits all students. This increases the number of students who are willing to participate in class discussions.
  • All students can pose ideas and construct their knowledge of the course content. When using inclusive learning techniques, teachers present learners with challenging problems and coach them in applying skills and concepts to solve them. This makes students actively construct their understanding of the material.
  • All students are explicitly welcomed into intellectual discussion of the course content. This characteristic synthesizes all of the others. It is a reminder to create an environment in which all students feel comfortable contributing and asking questions, and in which they know their voices and ideas are respected and valued.

It is important to use a variety of strategies and techniques, as some will work better than others for specific students and/or learning contexts. Varying strategies and techniques also helps students to explore concepts from other perspectives, and to develop and diversify their own communication skills.

For more useful strategies, watch “What Is an Inclusive Classroom?” on our YouTube channel.

In the next installment of our Inclusive Classroom series, we will learn more about the challenges and opportunities associated with creating supportive teaching environments by talking to two experts in the field of inclusive education.

Our forthcoming Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Science Education (RDEISE) program, created in collaboration with leading scholars and experts, provides educators with high-quality curricular materials and evidence-based antiracist and inclusive teaching tools to use in the classroom. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date.

Written by
LabXchange RDEISE team

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