How to Develop and Teach an Inclusive Curriculum

A teacher helps a group of high school students studying together.

Students have different backgrounds, cultures, and histories, but the curricula and learning environments they encounter in school often fail to reflect and embrace these differences. The absence of representation and inclusion can cause students in marginalized groups to question their standing in the classroom and their value outside of it.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of prekindergarten through grade 12 students in the U.S. are BIPOC. Hispanic students account for 23% of the student population and Black students 15%. In addition, 2.4% of high school students identify as gay or lesbian, 8% identify as bisexual, and 4.2% are not sure of their sexual identity.

These statistics only hint at the enormous diversity of students, who differ not only in their racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation, but also in their gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, religion, citizenship status, language proficiency, and ability. A curriculum that does not speak to this diversity risks alienating an enormous segment of the student population. An inclusive curriculum––one that values differences and celebrates contributions by all people and groups––is one of the tools education leaders have to promote education equity.

The Importance of Inclusive Curricula

The goal of inclusive curricula is to make every child feel valued, safe, and engaged. Such an environment promotes greater socialization and higher academic achievement for all students, not just those in marginalized groups.

Classrooms are one of the primary places where children learn socialization skills. Students who feel supported and respected learn to support and respect others. Students who study in inclusive environments learn more, exhibit less prejudice, and have more self confidence. According to The Century Foundation, reading texts written by members of underrepresented ethnic groups improves the self-esteem of students of that same ethnic group, and GLSEN, an education organization supporting LGBTQ youth awareness, reports that LGBTQ students who are exposed to inclusive curriculum experience better mental health and academic outcomes. Learning about the diversity and value of their classmates also prepares students for life beyond the classroom, where they will interact with diverse communities in both personal and professional contexts.

Strategies for Developing Inclusive Curricula

Curriculum refers to the lessons and courses taught in a classroom, but much of the work of developing an inclusive curriculum occurs before school begins.

Outside of the Classroom

Efforts outside of the classroom include contributions from educators, parents, and administrators.

Training Teachers

An inclusive curriculum requires an inclusive mindset. Cultural competency training and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs can help teachers view differences as assets, not as challenges to overcome. Being open to new teaching strategies and the perspectives of diverse students can help educators identify implicit biases in existing curricula.

Engaging Parents

Engagement with parents about inclusive curricula promotes understanding of inclusive education and fosters a respectful learning environment. Educators must recognize the diverse needs of parents and families as well. For example, providing resources and information in a variety of languages can help engage multilingual families.

Providing Institutional Support

Teachers need resources to develop inclusive curricula and create inclusive classroom environments. Administrators must manage the funding and administration of DEI initiatives, teacher training, and engagement with parents and the community to ensure educators have the resources required to support a diverse student body.

Inside the Classroom

Once educators, parents, and administrators are aligned on the methods and goals of inclusive education, teachers can focus on classroom strategies that promote diversity and inclusion.

Implementing Diverse Teaching Approaches

Students have different ways of communicating and varying aptitudes and ways students learn. Teachers account for these differences by diversifying their teaching approach. For example, traditional teaching methods such as lecturing and calling on students to answer questions are not equally effective for all students. Integrating more group work can engage students who are unable to concentrate during lectures and reduce stress for those who struggle with anxiety.

Creating Safe Learning Environments

It is important for educators to address harassment or bullying aimed at students in marginalized groups. Such instances can be teaching opportunities, but inaction amounts to tacit approval. By showing acceptance and support for all students, teachers model the behavior they expect their students to practice.

Finding Opportunities for Visibility and Inclusion

Integrating examples of contributions from culturally and socially diverse individuals across all subjects fosters an appreciation of diversity, provides direct role models for more students, and dismantles racially and culturally biased stereotypes. Highlighting the contributions of people of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields corrects persistent misconceptions about aptitude and race, for example.

Highlighting Intersectionality

Exploring the ways that social categorizations such as race, class, and gender overlap and amplify descrimination and oppression can help teachers and students understand the disadvantages that historically oppressed groups face.

Reconsidering Traditional Teaching Tools

Creating an inclusive curriculum requires educators to think critically about biases that exist in traditional curricula and consider the impact of those biases. For example, if students only see U.S.-centric world map projections that distort the relative sizes of continents, it can shape their worldview in ways that reinforce cultural biases.

Tailoring Inclusive Curricula to Classroom Demographics

These strategies address the general needs of marginalized groups, but inclusive curriculum strategies vary depending on the makeup and demographics of a classroom. Looking at examples of LGBTQIA- and race-inclusive lessons illustrates how different groups can be represented.

LGBTQIA-Inclusive Curriculum

Positive representations of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Inclusive curriculum for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) students should include positive representations of LGBTQIA individuals, as well as important historical events. Examples include Alan Turing’s contributions to the development of computers or the importance of the Stonewall riots to civil rights.

Exploring pronouns. Understanding how pronouns are connected to gender identity and the use of gender-neutral pronouns gives students an opportunity to explore the topic openly in a respectful environment.

Race-Inclusive Curriculum

Approaching material from multiple perspectives. Teachers can increase students’ understanding of systemic racism by challenging the exclusivity of many traditional historical narratives. For example, students can learn about the 1619 Project, interactive content developed by The New York Times Magazine that reframes U.S. history by tracing the country’s beginning to the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia. By acknowledging the early presence and contributions of Black Americans, as well as the integral role that slavery played in creating an economic and industrial power, the project restores an often omitted or de-emphasized period of American history and refutes a traditional historical narrative that suggests the country was formed when independence from Britain was declared in 1776.

Inviting guest speakers. Having BIPOC academic, business, and community leaders speak to students about their experiences provides students of color with representation––a powerful experience for those who too rarely see themselves reflected in such roles. Connecting and building relationships with people with different racial backgrounds also counters racial stereotypes and reduces the likelihood of students accepting racist beliefs.

Creating More Inclusive Learning Environments

All children in the U.S. have a right to equitable educational opportunity. However, a gap often exists between the promise and the reality of that opportunity. Mills College develops innovative education leaders who work to close that gap with more inclusive and equitable learning environments. The school’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program teaches educators the leadership skills, cultural competency, and ethical foundation they need to become a force for change.

How to Be a Transformational Leader in Education

Social Justice in Education: The Role Educational Leaders Play

Teaching the Whole Child: Strategies for Holistic Education

Sources

The 74, “The State of LGBTQ Curriculum: Tide Is Turning as Some States Opt for Inclusion, Others Lift Outright Restrictions”

The Century Foundation, “Diversity in Schools Must Include Curriculum”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive”

GLSEN, Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Classroom Resources

GLSEN, Inclusive Curriculum Helps LGBTQ Youth

National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts, Back to School Statistics

Open Society Foundations, “The Value of Inclusive Education”

Pulitzer Center, The 1619 Project Curriculum

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance –– United States, 2017”