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Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 4: Features of an Inclusive Classroom


In the overlapping spaces between the major dimensions of an inclusive classroom are features that bind these dimensions together. These features are identified as experiential learning, exhibitions of student learning, student input and self and peer evaluations.

In the overlap between active learning and relevance and connectedness is experiential learning. In a keynote presentation at AISA, Pat Wolfe (1997) explained the teaching implications of recent brain research. As teachers, we have two choices: either to "hook" into students' prior knowledge, e.g. to help students make connections with previously learned material, or to create the experience for them. Teaching strategies such as role plays and simulations, project work and field trips create experiential learning, involve the entire physiology and strengthen neural pathways.

Lessons that orchestrate the principles of active learning and integrated assessment produce artifacts which serve as evidence of diverse and complex student thinking. Thus, in the intersection between active learning and dynamical assessment, we find exhibitions of student learning. When posted around the classroom, these exhibitions serve as evidence and reminders of content learned and its meaning to students. These exhibitions form a display of the cognitive history of the class which should not be underrated as a valuable learning resource in and of itself. For example, at the end of our unit on historical knowledge in our IB Theory of Knowledge class, we asked our students, in small groups, to construct a three-dimensional model of their concept of "What is History?" Using a variety of materials including straws, index cards, tape and string, and critical thinking skills in categorizing words and concepts to synthesize a range of ideas, students produced wonderful constructions of trees, bridges, star bursts, mobiles and pyramids that represented their own metaphorical understanding of the nature of historical knowledge. In their class presentations and explanations of their work, we were able to share the complexities of their thinking and assess their interactional skills as group members. The result was a creative display to remind us of the content we had studied together.

When the curriculum is made personally relevant to students, we find that students take charge of their learning and frequently take their learning in new and, at times, unplanned directions. In other words, there is student input into the direction of learning. In the examples given above, students found ways to explore personal interests in science and in psychology. Colleagues have asked if this isn't simply a reflection of what bright students ought to be doing anyway, and we ask, "Why just 'bright' students?" Again, the difference here is that student input is an expectation of all students in an inclusive classroom. Because all students are taught the skills to question, reflect, evaluate and synthesize, we see student input as an indicator of a successful inclusive classroom.

Finally, in the inclusive classroom, we find that students are constantly providing themselves and each other with evaluations of their efforts. Self and peer evaluations evolve naturally from group work and exhibitions, but the skills of such assessments are also taught explicitly to help students monitor, support and sustain their own learning. Students in inclusive classrooms learn to offer suggestions to each other, critique their own and their colleagues' work, and reflect on the processes used to do so.

Good and Brophy (1987, in Villa & Thousand, 1995, p. 101) suggest that the quality of peer instruction/assessment may actually be superior to that of adults for the following reasons:

• Peers will employ more age-appropriate language.

• Peers will utilize more relevant and meaningful examples.

• Peers tend to be more direct than adults.

• Peers are more familiar with the potential learning frustrations because they have themselves recently mastered what they are to teach or evaluate.

Costa and Garmston (1994) write about the importance of "failing forward," the need to reflect (metacogitate) on what was difficult and perhaps even unsuccessful, and why it was so; and in this way use "failure" as an opportunity for growth.

We have often found the initial discomfort in marking one's own or a colleague's writing is soon replaced by an understanding of expectations and standards in writing and can result in an improvement in one's ability to organize and write clear prose. As we become more interested in students becoming lifelong learners and learning how to learn, we focus more on individual introspection and reflection, and less on external measures of information acquisition.

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