There are special departments in many educational institutions, especially in the public sector, which focus just on how to create and maintain inclusive work environments.
So what is inclusion and why is it important? It is not just about including learners with Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs). Inclusion is a basic right of everyone and its objective should be to embrace everyone regardless of race, age, gender, disability, religious and cultural beliefs and sexual orientation. When we have true inclusion, it is when we have removed all barriers, discrimination and intolerance. When implemented properly, it should make everyone feel included and supported, whichever environment they are in.
What does inclusive practices mean, and how can we ensure that all our classrooms and work environments are truly inclusive?
Inclusion is about how we structure our schools, our classrooms and our lessons so that all our students learn and participate together. An inclusive classroom is one that creates a supportive environment for all learners, including those with learning differences, and can also challenge and engage gifted and talented learners by building a more responsive learning environment.
Inclusivity also means respecting people from all backgrounds and cultures, and by teaching our students the importance of this we create a much more tolerant and understanding environment, not just in the classroom and school but also in wider society.
An inclusive school or classroom can only be successful when all students feel that they are truly part of the school community. This can only happen through open, honest discussion about differences and understanding and respecting people from all abilities and backgrounds. An inclusive environment is one where everyone feels valued.
Here’s how you can help promote inclusivity in your classrooms:
Think about your own values and approach to disability, gender, race, etc. Does how you teach acknowledge the experiences of the students from different backgrounds? Is your approach non-stereotypical? Using stereotypes can alienate and marginalise people, and using generalisations can have a negative effect on learners. Do you encourage alternative perspectives, debate ideas, create an environment which is open to representation of different viewpoints?
Are your students treated as individuals, encouraged to share their own lives and interests? Building a good rapport with your students helps with this. If your students feel comfortable and supported by you, then they will be more open to sharing their ideas, thoughts and interests with you and the other students. This can be achieved quite easily. On the first day of class, share some information about yourself with your students. Tell them what your interests are, why you like teaching, etc. Another activity you could do in the first lesson is to write five words on the board about yourself. Tell your students that they have to ask you questions to find out what the words are the answers to. Then get the students to do the same activity for themselves in groups.
In an ELT racially diverse classroom, have you thought about your own conscious or unconscious biases about people from other cultures? Do you have different expectations of students of colour than you do of white students, of male or female student, of students from the LGBTQ community?
Create a supportive, respectful environment: promote diversity and equity.
‘Classroom climate is affected not only by blatant instances of inequality directed towards a person or group of people, but also by smaller, more subtle "micro-inequities" that can accumulate to have significant negative impacts on learning’ (Hall, 1982).
This can be created by thinking about a couple of things: Think about how you deal with student–student interaction. The way you deal with negative interaction is very important.
Also think about the interaction between teacher and student. Are you an approachable teacher? ‘Students who felt that their teacher was approachable, had concern for minority student issues and treated students as individuals and with respect reported a better course climate’ (Astin, 1993). If you establish some ground rules about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, this will help students understand more clearly both your and other students’ expectations. You can do this at the beginning of each course and involve your students in putting together what everyone feels is acceptable and unacceptable. It is always a good idea to revisit this from time to time as a reminder to everyone.
Have high expectations of all your students. Research shows that students respond better when they feel that their teacher has faith in their abilities and is not focusing on their inabilities.
Plan learning which includes participation from everyone and encourages success. You can do this by creating an environment which is personalised to the students’ needs and talking about learning that focuses on what students can do and what they would like to do next. This can be done through tutorials, individual learning plans (ILPs) and short- and long-term goal-setting by the learner so that they feel they have ownership of their learning. If you provide students with opportunities to tell you what is working and what needs attention, you will have a better idea of what to focus on.
Take a ‘community’ approach to learning and teaching. Inclusive values are developed through a student’s lived experiences and their exposure to other cultures and world-views. Bring your community into the classroom and take your classroom out to the community.
And a final thought on why inclusion is important:
‘Even though some of us might wish to conceptualize our classrooms as culturally neutral or might choose to ignore the cultural dimensions, students cannot check their sociocultural identities at the door, nor can they instantly transcend their current level of development … Therefore, it is important that the pedagogical strategies we employ in the classroom reflect an understanding of social identity development so that we can anticipate the tensions that might occur in the classroom and be proactive about them’ (Ambrose et. al., 2010, p. 169–170).
Creating an inclusive environment will not only help those students with learning differences, it will also support those students who don’t have a learning difference by making them more aware, tolerant and understanding of each other.
- Hall, S. (1982). The classroom climate: A chilly one for women? Washington D.C.: Association of American Colleges.
- Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M. & Lovett, M.C. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
- Astin, A. W., (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.