What inclusive learning could and should look like

Three key insights from our conversation with students and district leaders about materials
Blog Post
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
June 14, 2021

Last month, New America held the second roundtable in a series designed to help explore the intersections of inclusive education and digital learning. This conversation centered around the first of three takeaways from the previous discussion, which we wrote about in Bridging Digital Equity and Culturally Responsive Education in PreK–12. One takeaway highlighted the need to account for broader inclusion and representation in definitions of “quality” instructional materials.

Our May conversation brought together 15 high school students and 4 district-level leaders from around the country (California, Georgia, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington) to talk about what inclusion means to them when it comes to materials and content. The students—who are each engaged in thinking critically about their own learning, either at school or through student groups—lifted up representation as a key factor. Seeing themselves represented in content and understanding its application to the real world is key to an empathetic and engaging education, they said. The district leaders who were present—two instructional technology specialists and two directors of equity and inclusion—agreed on this need for students to see themselves, and underscored the need to address larger implementation barriers that often prevent this type of material from being used in classrooms. Overall, the group agreed that delivery methods and digital tools are just as important as the content itself, and equity and inclusion should be considered at every level of decision-making.

Below are three big insights from our conversation from the roundtable

I. Students are knowledgeable about their own learning.

The conversation made one thing very clear: these students know what they need to learn, and they can recognize when materials aren’t serving them. Citing Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of mirrors and windows, some explained that materials will feel inclusive when they hold up a mirror to every student—that is, when every student sees themselves in the content, particularly those whose identities and experiences are not traditionally portrayed in textbooks. These students said they recognized not only which content would be best for their own learning, but which delivery method and tools as well. Many participants surfaced issues of technological disparities between schools and districts, explaining that the physical tools they have to learn with, and how prepared teachers are to use those tools, make a world of difference. In particular, reliable internet access, appropriate learning devices, such as laptops or computers, and even intuitive online learning portals or programs all reduce barriers for students to engage.

2. Tensions exist between students, teachers, and administrators when it comes to teaching content not traditionally taught in schools.

Out of a conversation about what teachers need—both for teaching using digital technologies and facilitating learning of new topics—came an interesting discussion of students’ and teachers’ perceptions of what it really takes to teach the kind of content that reflects students’ identities and interests. Students agreed that many of the topics they’re most interested in sometimes require difficult conversations that can be uncomfortable and require a teacher who is well-prepared to facilitate. They also expressed feelings of exclusion and dismissiveness from their teachers when it comes to deciding which content is taught and how. Some students explained feeling as though their teachers or districts may disregard their input or not ask for it at all. One student recalled a time when he tried to engage his teachers and was denied the opportunity, citing difficult power dynamics and feelings of inferiority.

At the same time, we heard from the district leaders and those who have previously taught in the classroom that the opposite is often true—teachers aren’t always comfortable facilitating these conversations, particularly when it comes to discussions of groups to which they don’t belong. The feelings that students are getting may be due to the fact that teachers are well aware of this and also often restricted by decisions that are made at the district level. Many expressed general impressions that, by and large, teachers want to be better equipped to teach new content, but need the support and learning capacity to do so. After a particularly grueling year for many, and with communication made more difficult by remote settings, teacher support is key. More than anything, the conversation highlighted the need for better communication—between students, teachers, and administrators. The group concluded that more opportunities are needed for conversations between students and decision makers at all levels.

3. The process of adopting and implementing inclusive materials is deeply affected by social and political contexts at the school, district, state, and national levels.

The district leaders present—who come from four states of varying political environments with differing standards and policies—explained some of the implementation challenges at each level. Teachers need support and adequate professional learning, surely, but also support from their principals and district leaders. Some of the material that students mentioned wanting to learn more in class, such as anti-racist and LGBTQ+ inclusive content, are cropping up in state legislation all around the country, including attempts to ban certain conversations altogether. By virtue of these topics often being mislabeled as divisive or political, support to teach them in the classroom is often not always a given for teachers. What’s more, because states are increasingly legislating what can and cannot be taught about particular topics or groups of people, schools and districts must navigate an increasingly complicated and layered legal landscape. These barriers, combined, make it tricky for teachers and district leaders alike to push for more inclusive content and practices.

All in all, the roundtable participants agreed strongly on one thing: more inclusive and responsive education is needed urgently. Since long before the pandemic, students have needed content that they can see themselves in, relate to, and apply to their lives. Inherent to this need are the implications of the past year of online and hybrid learning—what challenges have been exacerbated, what’s been made easier, and how it has impacted inclusive and responsive education. The next roundtable, hosted by New America in the coming months, will convene participants to talk through some of these issues.

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Related Topics
Culturally Responsive Education