Five Essentials for Fostering More Inclusive Learning

Intentionally creating inclusive learning communities takes time and careful planning. These key elements of the Shared Inquiry™ method and Junior Great Books® build transferable lifelong learning skills:

  1. Listening
  2. Welcoming students’ questions, interests, and needs
  3. Sustained interaction
  4. Interpretive focus
  5. Wonderful, rich texts and objects of inquiry

The more you and your students include and practice these elements in your classroom routine, the more every learner benefits—as does the whole community, now and in the future.

You can follow these five guidelines to achieve more inclusivity in your classroom with or without implementing Junior Great Books programs. But to better understand these practices and why they work so well, we recommend two interactive webinars that we offer regularly and for which you can register at any time:



Intentionally focus on listening, and work to improve the quality of your own and your students’ listening skills. Really listening, at many levels, is at the core of being inclusive. Recognize that these are lifelong skills, so you are guiding practice sessions over time, not just flipping a switch.

  • Track participation in discussions, and invite those who haven’t yet spoken into the conversation; be sure to make note of times when students were listening, as well as speaking.
  • Consider setting listening goals (individual and group) before discussions and afterward reflecting on what worked or could be improved next time.
  • As needed, develop individualized plans and goals to support participation.
  • Encourage students to respond directly to one another and to ask questions (this can make it much easier for quieter students to join in).

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


Welcoming students’ questions, interests, and needs

Shared Inquiry learning engages and includes all learners because it is driven by the questions, ideas, interests, and needs of participants. Good planning and a solid foundation in Shared Inquiry helps teachers facilitate truly inclusive student-centered learning across the curriculum.

  • Use students’ own words as you ask follow-up questions, and try to ask questions rather than praise students’ responses or give your own opinions.
  • Conduct readings of texts in different ways, including reading aloud, having students read silently, or having them read with a partner. Re-reading and annotation activities can also be tailored.
  • Allocate time for sharing student responses and especially for sharing questions. Some students will likely have more vocabulary, comprehension, or background questions; working in small groups to do word work, research, or another reading of the text can help.
  • Other students may benefit from visualizing, illustrating, or dramatizing key scenes. Some may even be ready to help co-lead discussions or to write a sequel.


Sustained interaction

One and done just won’t do it. Sustained interaction with complex material enables depth of understanding that simply isn’t possible any other way. And with multiple encounters comes the possibility of being even more inclusive of students with a range of perspectives, experiences, and learning needs.

Everyone needs to read complex texts at least twice. We need time to have first reactions, share questions, and then go deeper by responding to one another. Because each of our lives is unique, our questions, ideas, and understandings of texts can be very different. That’s not only okay and normal—it’s also a wonderful way to go deeper and learn more together through Shared Inquiry.


Interpretive focus

Powerful, open-ended questions that have more than one answer and can be supported with evidence help make learning profoundly more inclusive in several ways. These interpretive questions focus Shared Inquiry discussion and activities at a higher level of thinking. Because the questions assume there’s more than one way to understand something, they promote divergent thinking and deeper comprehension. An interpretive focus requires looking at problems from different angles and weighing evidence for various options. These questions assume learners connect new information to their prior experiences, cultures, and knowledge. Intentionally created collaborative learning is built around sharing, respecting, and celebrating that diversity.


Wonderful, rich texts and objects of inquiry

Mom reading book laughing with child at homeWhat has the power to engage the mind, heart, and soul? A great story, perhaps one that allows a glimpse of the past or another culture? What makes us wonder? When do we encounter beauty in the language of a rich text or in a work of visual art? When are we curious or moved or made wiser? Outstanding literature, art, music, the natural world, and more all offer opportunities for exploration of essential questions  and big ideas—about justice, conflict, friendship, and so on—that invite us all into conversation as equals, each with a unique take on the world.

When the object at the center of a learning experience is sufficiently complex that no one person can fully comprehend or take it all in, then our overall approach is more inclusive—because we know we need to work together. We know we need to take the time to inquire, to ask and answer each other’s questions, to reflect and revisit, and to weigh evidence and draw conclusions based on the multiple perspectives we’ve considered. Then we know it’s worth it because there’s heart, soul, and wonder at the center of our exploration.

Senior Academic Consultant Denise Ahlquist has enjoyed leading thousands of Shared Inquiry discussions with participants ranging from ages 4 to 99, across the United States and abroad. A veteran educator and “road warrior,” she has introduced thousands of other teachers and learners to the Shared Inquiry method and supported them in a wide variety of K–12 environments.