Written by Usha James, Executive Director, The Critical Thinking Consortium
Educators everywhere are grappling with how to best serve the needs of each and every student. Our classrooms are becoming more diverse. Our eyes are opening to the inequities that exist in schools, communities, and the broader society and how important education is to addressing those inequities. Do any of the following scenarios resonate with you? Who are the students in your classrooms whose needs don’t seem to be met by your current approaches?
- A secondary teacher is at their wits’ end. One-third of the class has specialized learning needs. The teacher is trying to stay on top of all their individual educational plans (IEPs) but is unsure how to meet every student’s needs.
- During literacy instruction, a middle school teacher notices that students are having a hard time responding to the prompts and their writing is very limited. The teacher thinks about the significant change in the demographics in the classroom, noticing that the books being read with the class don’t reflect the backgrounds and experiences of the students. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the texts being selected.
- A kindergarten teacher is wondering why some students consistently get distracted or dysregulated during their group learning time on the carpet. It feels like they are spending so much time managing the behaviour of a few students who are off-task while all the other students just end up waiting.
In this article, I will humbly make some suggestions about what we can do to create inclusive classrooms where all students feel a sense of belonging and have the environment and approach they need to succeed and thrive.
It is clear that students achieve better results when we plan appropriately and find ways to capitalize on strengths and address the diverse needs of students in our classrooms (De La Paz & Wissinger, 2015; Tomlinson, 2015; Tomlinson & Parrish Jr., 2018). The challenges of meeting the needs of all learners can seem daunting but small steps can make a big difference for some students. This article provides some simple but powerful starting points to begin this journey. I’ll address what it means to have an inclusive mindset and look at how everyday decisions regarding assessment and instruction—focused on getting to know our students, differentiating, and universalizing—are central to taking an inclusive approach in our classrooms.
Adopt an inclusive mindset
Nurturing an inquiry stance toward one’s teaching practices is key to building an inclusive classroom (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Supporting every learner may be less about acquiring a grab bag of strategies (although no doubt important) than about developing a mindset that orients us to think differently about our responsibilities as educators. Inclusive educators:
- Make a commitment to inclusion: actively work to dismantle barriers and facilitate learning of every single student through planning and also through everyday decisions about assessment and instruction. Consider sharing your commitment with colleagues and students. Collectively celebrate your efforts by naming and acknowledging our strengths and successes so that we are most likely to stay the course.
- Adopt an inquiry stance: critically examine your practices, understandings, and beliefs, and investigate their impact on student learning and well-being. Make it a routine to ask yourself questions such as:
- What do I think I know about this student’s strengths in relation to the curricular area at hand?
- How can I confirm or revise my thinking?
- What do I not know?
- For whom is my approach working, and for whom is it not? How do I know that?
- What assumptions and beliefs might be informing my view of the learner, the curriculum, and my efforts?
- Cultivate asset-based thinking: Expect, value, recognize and seek to deeply understand the diversity of students’ identities, experiences, and strengths. Consider how you might cultivate asset-based thinking by leveraging students’ interests and capitalizing on individual strengths. How might you adapt instructional strategies to match what you are learning about students? For example, accommodate students who work better in smaller groups by establishing groupings of varied sizes rather than force-fitting all students into identical groups of three or four.
Know our learners deeply and in an ongoing way
At the heart of an inclusive classroom is student-centred decision-making (Tomlinson, 2016), which is possible only if we deeply understand students as human beings and as learners. Our goal each day is to be able to answer the question: What useful things did I learn about some of my students that I didn’t know before they engaged in today’s lesson?
- Think about what might be helpful to learn about your students and how you might learn. What information would be handy to have at your fingertips about which students when planning your instruction? Start by developing learner profiles. Don’t feel like they need to be comprehensive from the beginning. As a living document, a learner profile can start with one aspect of a student's strengths and needs – for example in reading - and grow over time as you learn more.
- Have meaningful conversations. Consider how you might engage students, families and colleagues in conversations early in the year in ways that demonstrate your curiosity about students’ strengths and strategies that have worked well in the past.
- Plan how to make thoughtful observations. The ability to make accurate observations can be improved through practice and through alertness to and reflection on the inferences we may be making. Consider working with colleagues to co-construct an observation tool that helps you focus your observations and capture what you learn.
As we commit to constantly seeking to learn more about our students and apply that learning to our decision-making about assessment and instruction, it makes sense that we will want to differentiate our approach. Differentiated instruction is often confused with individual programming. This misconception often fuels teachers’ frustration when asked to build a more inclusive classroom. Differentiating does not mean creating unique lesson plans for 25 different students. Rather, it means regularly examining our practices to determine possible barriers for some students and consider alternatives that might enhance their learning.
If we are committed to differentiating, we need to consider many questions before, during, and after instruction:
- What aspect of the learning environment, content or task is creating barriers to student learning?
- Where does the student get stuck?
- Is this learning in this student’s “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1986), that is, just beyond what they can achieve independently already?
- Is the content relevant and engaging?
- How might I mitigate the barriers?
- How might the way I group students impact student learning?
- Does everyone need to grapple with the same content or use the same process or can each group approach the core concepts in different ways?
- How do I build a climate where students are used to working in various groups and grappling with different tasks or examining different sources in a way that they don’t feel labelled, singled out or excluded?
Regularly asking ourselves these and other questions about individual students’ learning, coupled with a deep-seated belief that the instructional actions we take can either pose or remove barriers to learning, can have a transformative effect on classroom practice.
We can differentiate various aspects of the teaching and learning process:
- Learning tasks
- Subject matter
- Instructional approach
- Thinking strategies
- Student groupings
You might select a starting point and engage in your own critical inquiry independently or with colleagues to identify and try out practical and powerful ways to differentiate so that all students can access meaningful learning.
Universalizing instruction and differentiating instruction go hand in hand. Education has borrowed the concept of “universal design” from architecture. This approach to design believes that removing features that present barriers for some will likely benefit many others as well.
When we think about practices that work for all students, it may be tempting to plan for the majority and think later about others for whom your plan may not be effective. A more critically conscious approach is to plan first for students who have been historically marginalized and centre their needs and experiences, with an understanding that planning this way is also likely to support all others as well.
We can universalize learning conditions and opportunities for all students in several ways. For example, we can reconfigure the physical environment including the arrangement of furniture and the use of classroom walls. We can establish inclusive expectations and routines and select instructional strategies that aim to maximize participation. In this article, I’d like to offer some practical suggestions about universalizing our approach by using inclusive language and resources.
- Using inclusive language
- Honor people’s wishes. Use descriptors that students and communities want you to use to describe them. Rather than make assumptions, ask. Ask students about their gender pronouns. Ask Indigenous community members in the area where the school is situated how to accurately refer to them and address them.
- Commit to refreshing your understanding. There are many existing guidelines for more inclusive language. Language is constantly evolving so be open to changing your language as you learn more.
- Broaden your exposure. Ask for recommendations on who you might follow on social media, what independent or community media sources you might read or documentaries or entertainment you might watch to expand your understanding and enrich the language you use in classrooms.
- Using inclusive resources
- Critically examine all classroom resources. What do you notice about who is represented, what stories are being told, who is telling the stories and how are experiences being represented and interpreted in those resources? Invite students to think critically about your teaching and learning decisions, including your course outlines and assessment plans.
- Commit to centring diverse voices, perspectives, and experiences in all subject areas. Examples used, the types of scenarios in word problems, the origins of the scientists that are highlighted, and the ways of knowing that are validated all send a message about who counts, who doesn’t, and what types of experiences are worth investigating and solving.
- Invite students to challenge existing resources. Find opportunities in lessons and assignments for students to analyze, critique, and rework content found in various resources. Invite students to critique a history textbook, perform an equity audit on the word problems or critique how representations of data in scientific journals or the media are not neutral but project a certain worldview. Even primary students can sort classroom or library books into those that have characters that are similar and different to them or their experiences and notice whose stories are told and whose are missing.
- Co-create new resources. Invite students to collaborate with experts, community members with diverse lived experiences, Knowledge Keepers and Elders, to develop new resources to be used by the community or by the next generation of students to learn literacy, social studies, math, science, or the arts from more inclusive sources.
Make no mistake: creating an inclusive classroom can be hard work. It takes commitment to the guidelines of inclusion and a willingness to critically examine our beliefs, assumptions, and practices. The reflective inquiry stance we must adopt will challenge our self-concept and teacher identity and often leave us scratching our heads, wondering what to do next. Working and thinking together, with a commitment to creating truly inclusive classrooms, we can create learning environments and opportunities that foster a meaningful sense of belonging for all learners.
 The ideas here are adapted from various resources. They appeared originally as chapters in Case, R. and Clark, P. (2020) Learning to Inquire in History, Geography, and Social Studies: An Anthology for Secondary Teachers and Case, R.; and Clark, P. (2021) Learning to Inquire in Social Studies: An Anthology for Elementary Teachers l. For a more detailed discussion on the approaches presented in this article, including practical tips, strategies, and templates, I encourage you to take look at James, U. (2022) Supporting all learners: creating the conditions for inclusive classrooms. Vancouver, BC: The Critical Thinking Consortium (http://tc2.ca).
About the Author
Usha James spent 12 years as a secondary teacher and five years at OISE at the University of Toronto, as an instructor and then Director of the Secondary Program. She has co-authored textbooks, teachers’ resources, course profiles and ministry documents with the aim of providing practical strategies for teachers seeking to refine their practice.
Usha has contributed to The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2) as a resource writer and facilitator and is currently the Executive Director. Usha has worked with principals, superintendents, and teachers of kindergarten to post-secondary students, supporting their efforts to improve the quality of thinking of all learners.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S.L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
De La Paz, S., & Wissinger, D.R. (2015). Effects of genre and content knowledge on historical thinking with academically diverse high school students. The Journal of Experimental Education, 83(1), 110–129
Tomlinson, C.A. (2016). Why differentiation is difficult: Reflections from years in the trenches. Australian Educational Leader, 38(3), 6–8.
Tomlinson, C.A. (2015). Teaching for excellence in academically diverse classrooms. Society, 52(3), 203–209
Tomlinson, C.A., & Parrish Jr., W.C. (2018). Championing inclusion: A reflection. Australian Educational Leader, 40(2), 8–11.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.