Are you hoping for a better, more equitable future? Are you ready to take steps today that will help your students? While the topic is complex, clarifying key terms and revisiting these six basics of inclusive learning communities—each coupled with specific inquiry-based learning practices—can turn your aspirations into opportunities, whether at the beginning of a new term or at any point during the school year.

Providing a more just and effective education for all students requires concrete action that begins with attention to these questions:

What does it mean to build an inclusive learning community?

What are some fundamentals that are critical to inclusion across the curriculum and for all age groups?

Inclusive classroom of School children using laptop with teacher

1. Awareness

Educators must know that with their own awareness of their words and actions, they are building a community. By doing so mindfully and intentionally, they will enhance the myriad benefits an inclusive community offers for all learners.¹ These benefits are academic, as well as social and emotional, and they increase the likelihood of the “long-term flourishing,” as teacher-author Dave Stuart Jr. puts it, of individuals and societies.²

Awareness and self-reflection often involve clarifying language: What does it mean to be “inclusive”? The narrowest definition in K–12 education is historically linked to special education, particularly for students with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. While full inclusion may not work for every child, as most educators know, when students receive education in the least restrictive environment, research shows they are more successful both academically and socially.³

Over time, the concept of inclusion has broadened to recognize a range of other student needs—linguistic and cultural responsiveness; neurodiversity; and ways to address racial, gender, and economic trauma and inequality—as well as awareness that individual students can be twice or thrice exceptional, thus affected by more than just one variable. Eventually, in its most expanded sense, inclusion honors the varied ways in which we all learn, at times differently from how others learn or from some presumed norm.

2. Feeling Safe

A true fundamental of an inclusive learning community is ensuring learners feel safe, which includes feeling able to openly discuss what matters to them. Beyond just physical safety, our instructional choices and expectations can help build emotional safety in our classrooms, contributing to risk-taking and growth mindsets. “Educators can promote inclusivity by creating environments where students can openly discuss thoughts and feelings about privilege and structural oppression,” as Alexis Anderson notes,⁴ but most students need to learn how to have civil, respectful, effective discussions of complex subjects. When students engage in Shared Inquiry™ across the curriculum, they not only understand content better but also gradually learn the lifelong skill of how to learn from others, recognizing everyone’s need to feel safe.

3. Belonging

Knowing that your presence matters, that you are a key part of the group, is a third fundamental of inclusive learning communities. In inquiry-based learning, teachers start with the expectation that no one has all the answers—especially when we’re thinking about complex content that raises essential questions that everyone cares about. Then, by using skillful open questioning, teachers model curiosity and interest in the reactions, questions, ideas, and perspectives of everyone. They regularly look for opportunities to help all students see how much everyone’s contributions help the group go deeper and understand something better.

At each step in the Shared Inquiry sequence of activities, all students are asked to share their experiences, questions, observations, and ideas. The expectation is always that these responses will vary, that variance is normal and beneficial, and that by learning together, we all learn more.

4. Esteem

Esteem builds on belonging and is a fourth fundamental educators can cultivate to create more inclusive classrooms. Learners seek positive reinforcement and recognition. They want to gain the attention and earn the respect of their peers, which collaborative learning can provide.

By providing anchor charts, question stems, and sentence starters, teachers can help students learn how to share their ideas so that those ideas can be heard and responded to by others. And when teachers follow the five guidelines for Shared Inquiry discussion and shift from using praise to asking follow-up questions, they help students evolve from being extrinsically motivated to being intrinsically aware that their ideas have worth based on evidence and reasoning, leading to authentic self-esteem.

Use question and sentence stems for younger or older learners to get conversations started!

5. & 6. Learner Voice and Agency

The fifth and sixth fundamentals of learner voice and agency are intertwined, and they are often seen as long-term goals that most students may or may not be able to achieve, especially within the constraints of current educational practices. Educators may talk about giving students voice and agency without having practical ways to do that on a regular basis.

But Shared Inquiry enables teachers to gradually release responsibility for key elements of learning to all students in ways that honor the diversity of their needs and experiences. With experience and guidance, students can take on appropriate pieces of learning without having to already know how to learn independently or how to sustain the full effort without support.

Calls for equity and educational excellence for all learners that lead to more inclusive and thus more effective communities of learners build on these fundamentals in countless ways—across academic, nonacademic, and extracurricular dimensions. As part of this rich mix, Great Books programs and Shared Inquiry add transferable value and meaning by making inclusion an essential, core component of the curriculum.

Download Release of Responsibility charts for grades 3–5 or grades 6–8 to see how your role as a facilitator shifts as your students gain proficiency in Shared Inquiry and assume greater responsibility for their learning.

Would you like to bring more inclusiveness to the classrooms in your educational setting? Are you thinking of bringing inquiry-based learning to educators and students in your community? If so, please consider Great Books programs and the Shared Inquiry method of learning. Enter your state or location below to start a conversation with your Great Books educational consultant. We look forward to hearing from you!

Reference List

  1. Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo. February 9, 2016. “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students.” The Century Foundation.
  2. Dave Stuart Jr.. September 6, 2016. “Our One Enduring Standard (and Its Two Components).”
  3. Janine Bowen. March 11, 2020. “Ask the Expert: What Is Inclusive Education? A Beneficial Way to Teach Students of All Abilities Side-by-Side, Says Assistant Professor Jamie Pearson.” NC State University College of Education News.
  4. Alexis Anderson. January 18, 2018. “​​7 Ways to Create an Inclusive Classroom Environment.” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.