How to create an inclusive and diverse learning environment

A typical learning environment consists of students who come from many different backgrounds and who all have different learning needs and requirements. In an ideal world, the individual needs of every single student would be met, ensuring that they all have equal opportunities for success. Unfortunately, that is often not the case, which can lead students to feel alienated and make them fall behind their peers, change their focus of study, or drop out altogether.

According to a recent study conducted in Australia, one in three children have been a victim of racial discrimination from their peers at school. In the United States, black students are also disproportionately impacted by school disciplinary policies, being four times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white children, according to UNESCO. Even teachers are not free from racial prejudice, with studies showing that teacher expectations can vary based on a student’s race, national origin, and economic status, which can have a negative impact on their educational outcomes. It’s clear that something needs to be done about it. “Education has a central role in creating new values and attitudes and providing us with important tools for addressing deep-rooted discrimination and the legacy of historical injustices”, says Mutuma Ruteere, former UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism.

Students of colour are not the only ones who have experienced discrimination at school, though. According to UNESCO, children with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to never go to school than their peers. The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated the matter even further, with 40 per cent of the world’s poorest countries failing to support students at risk of exclusion. One way to address these issues is to create a more inclusive and diverse learning environment. “Every learner matters equally, this is what inclusion is about”, says Stefania Giannini, UNESCO assistant director-general for education. “It calls for transformation in the philosophy and practice of education, away from a one-size fits all approach.”

What is an inclusive classroom?

An inclusive learning environment can be defined as one in which all students are “treated equitably, have equal access to learning, and feel valued and supported in their learning”. While many schools claim to be inclusive, this is sadly often not the case. The 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report reveals that 68 per cent of countries worldwide have a definition of inclusive education. However, only 57 per cent of them include multiple marginalised groups in their definitions.

Initially, inclusive classrooms focused almost exclusively on meeting the needs of students with special needs, impairments, or disabilities. However, the term has since expanded beyond its original definition to also include other groups, such as students of diverse races, economic backgrounds, varying cultures, and sexual orientations. There is far more to creating an inclusive learning environment than just putting students of varied backgrounds into a shared physical space, though. It also encompasses things like making sure they all have equal access to materials and resources, incorporating marginalised voices into the course content, allowing students to demonstrate their learning in more than one way, or even simply acknowledging the fact that certain foods or content may be deemed unacceptable for some students for religious reasons.

The benefits of inclusive education

Inclusive education provides students with a wide range of benefits. Studies have shown that involvement in inclusive learning environments can help students develop positive self-images, friendship and social skills, and respect for others. By sharing a classroom with students from diverse cultural backgrounds, students become more empathetic with those who are different from themselves and avoid developing prejudices later in life. It also sparks their curiosity and helps them embrace the differences between each other. Furthermore, exposure to a diverse range of opinions, thoughts, and cultural backgrounds helps students become more open-minded and boosts their creativity.

By learning more about different cultures, students will also become comfortable with themselves and with cultural differences across social groups, which in turn helps them build self-confidence and a more profound sense of safety, both in and out of the classroom. This also helps with their transition into adulthood and allows them to integrate more easily into a diverse workforce. An inclusive classroom also helps students to become more respectful of other cultures and develop healthy friendships. In addition to social skills, inclusive education has also been shown to improve students’ critical thinking skills and help them achieve better educational outcomes. Last but not least, it helps realise every parent’s dream of seeing their child be happy and accepted by their peers.

Introducing LGBT education in the curriculum

The Scottish government recently announced that LGBT-inclusive education will be rolled out across the school curriculum, thus making Scotland the first country in the world to do so. All school staff in the country will be required to complete a basic awareness e-learning course on LGBT inclusive education and will be given access to a toolkit of teaching resources related to the topic. The government will also launch a dedicated website with resources designed to support young people. The website, e-learning course, and teaching resources were all developed in collaboration with parents, teachers, young people, and LGBT organisations.

From now on, students across all age groups will learn about LGBT identities, issues, and history in class. “I am proud to say that Scotland is leading the way as the first country in the world to embed LGBT inclusive education right across the curriculum. By doing so, we can help young people to reach their full potential and flourish in a diverse and inclusive society”, says Scottish Minister for Children and Young People Clare Haughey. “The launch of this ground-breaking suite of resources for schools takes us another step forward in ensuring that our curriculum is as diverse as the young people who learn in our schools.”

The hope is that this will help improve the educational experiences of LGBT children and young people and reduce bullying. According to a report published by Stonewall, a UK-based LGBT rights organisation, nearly 50 per cent of lesbian, gay, bi, and trans students have experienced bullying at school. “LGBT-inclusive education is life-changing teaching for so many young people, which is why it’s so powerful to see so much of the British public support the new legislation”, says Paul Twocock, chief executive at Stonewall. “We owe it to the next generation to ensure our schools are a place where all children and young people can be themselves.”

Teaching diversity and inclusion in schools

Of course, Scotland is not the only place that teaches its students about diversity and inclusion. The US state of New Jersey recently passed a law that requires all schools to promote “economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance”, starting from the 2021-2022 school year. According to the new law, sample learning activities and resource guides on these lessons will be supplied to all school districts by the state’s Department of Education, while schools will be given freedom to decide how to adopt these lesson plans. Similar legislation has previously been passed in several other states across the US, including California, Connecticut, Vermont, Virginia, Nevada, Nebraska, and Indiana.

The new law was drafted by Democratic assemblywoman Carol A Murphy, who says she decided to do so after talking to students of colour in her districts, many of whom were subjected to racist bullying by their fellow students. “We can’t keep saying kids will be kids, we need to take responsibility”, says Murphy. “Kids must understand that and promote unity regardless of those areas of life we differ in.” In the context of new lessons, students will also learn about unconscious bias and economic disparities, as well as how these can affect both individuals and society as a whole. Teachers and parents alike were very supportive of the new legislation. “By fostering a sense of belonging and cultural awareness in our students, we encourage them to be accepting and understanding individuals who are civically engaged and racially literate”, says Cathline Tanis, an English teacher at Piscataway High School.

Our societies are very diverse places, populated by people of different races, cultures, and sexual and religious identities. This diversity extends into the classroom as well, where students of varied backgrounds come together to meet their learning goals. Unfortunately, traditional learning environments largely fail to take into account that students of different backgrounds will often have different learning needs, which can have a detrimental effect on their educational outcomes. To address this issue, schools need to create a more inclusive learning environment, in which all students will be treated equitably and have equal access to learning. Inclusive education can help students become more empathetic, open-minded, and respectful of other cultures, as well as facilitate their transition into adulthood by helping them integrate more easily into an increasingly diverse workforce.