On the term “inclusive teaching”: Where did it come from and how has it changed?

A 5x5 array of scrabble tiles, with a letter "I" tile left off to the side

Note: This work is in progress and I am open to feedback/suggestions on it.

Peruse the “upcoming events” or even just the website of any contemporary teaching and learning center at a North American college or university and you are sure to find something related to “inclusive teaching.” I started learning about inclusive teaching as a grad student, when I participated in and eventually facilitated workshops on inclusive teaching for graduate student instructors. These workshops were designed to help instructors recognize the diversity of experiences and identities in their classrooms, and design lessons that recognized and celebrated diversity while also recognizing how various forms of privilege and discrimination affected the classroom. Sometimes, even explicitly anti-racist and feminist pedagogies were discussed. 

Some years later, when I began my journey in the field of Disability Studies, I took a course on “Disability and Education,” in which I learned about an alternative definition of “inclusion” or “inclusive teaching,” which seems to predate the definition we typically use in North American higher education. “Inclusive education” is an alternative to “special education,” and refers to an educational context in which disabled students and non-disabled students learn together. I will call these two models of “inclusive teaching” the “disability model” and the “diversity model” as shorthand. What are the origins of the “diversity model” of inclusive teaching that prevails in North American higher education, and how is it distinct from and related to the “disability model” of inclusion? This post aims to address, if not completely resolve these questions.

The Disability Model

Disabled students used to be segregated from non-disabled students in school settings or prevented from attending school altogether. The 1975 Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) (In the United States) guaranteed students with disabilities the right to a “free and appropriate public school education.” IDEA also mandates that students with disabilities learn with non-disabled students to the greatest extent possible in the “least restrictive environment,” an arrangement that is termed “inclusive education.” This version of inclusion is not without its critics: As Jan Wilson notes, inclusive education “rarely means the full and equal participation of all students within a democratic learning environment that recognizes and accommodates multiple human diversities. Instead, inclusive education pivots around a mythical, unexamined norm against which students are measured and often labeled, marginalized, and pathologized.” The framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is now often paired with “inclusion” to address this concern. UDL rejects the idea of the “average” learner and encourages instructors to design for learner variability. When teachers use UDL, they can create learning experiences that are designed for a variety of students, instead of ones that are designed for non-disabled students but will tolerate disabled students’ participation.

While UDL is rightfully becoming a more frequent topic at CTL workshops and events, disability is mostly the purview of the “disability office” in the higher education context. Instructors are often much more familiar with the process of receiving an accommodation letter and providing individual modifications to the course for disabled students than designing a course that is accessible from the outset. In my experience as a faculty developer, few instructors are familiar with the history of inclusive education or with the history of disability activism in higher education. Instructors who engage with this history would learn more about the difference between “compliance” and “inclusion” from a disability perspective, and why simply providing the required accommodations might not be considered “inclusive.”

The Diversity Model

The diversity model is the model which will be familiar to anyone who works at a higher education institution today, especially through faculty development programming. I was curious when the term “inclusive teaching” or the use of the adjective “inclusive” first appeared in the faculty development literature. While this is not exhaustive, I was able to find the idea of inclusive teaching as a way of managing diversity in the classroom present in To Improve the Academy as early as 1992. In her 1992 article “Inclusive Teaching: A Workshop On Cultural Diversity,” Emily Wadsworth presents ideas for a faculty workshop designed to help increase instructors’ cultural sensitivity. Also in 1992, Andrew S. Knoedler and Mary Ann Shea published “Conducting discussions in the diverse classroom,” an article detailing “strategies that can be used not only to make classroom discussions more inclusive but also to foster diversity through discussions.” The term “fostering diversity” is present in much faculty development literature on inclusive teaching, and though it is difficult to ascertain its exact meaning, seems to refer more to the fostering of a diverse group of students as an end itself (i.e. there is a positive value to having a diversity of people in the classroom and them learning together) than to the inclusion of individual students or groups of students in learning activities.

There is a somewhat separate concept sometimes cited within these faculty development-focused pieces, which is that of an “inclusive curriculum.” The term “inclusive curriculum” was used by feminists (especially Black feminists) to describe course syllabi and designs that include the voices of historically marginalized groups, such as women, people of color, and poor people. Women’s Studies faculty were particularly vocal about the need for an inclusive curriculum that brought women of color writers to the center of the classroom conversation. Key thinkers in this tradition include Patricia Hill-Collins, Elizabeth Higginbotham, and Peggy Macintosh. Critically, Peggy Macintosh describes the process of making the curriculum “inclusive” as a phased process. While it may begin with basic movement to include women and people of color on a syllabus, it ideally evolves to a point where race, class, gender, and other identities are understood as factors that shape all history and institutions (i.e. bringing these identities and experiences from margin to center).

I am not sure that these calls were seriously taken up in the faculty development space, as subsequent writings on inclusive teaching in that realm focus more on the management and celebration of diversity rather than a radical “reconstruction of knowledge.”

Today, the very broad inclusive teaching model prevails in the institutionally approved context of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). For example, the Sheridan Center at Brown University has a page containing seven different definitions of “inclusive teaching.” None of the definitions reference the disability model of inclusive teaching, and three mention the importance of including “all students.” It may even be that faculty development efforts around inclusive teaching have made a transition from a more justice-oriented approach to a very broad diversity model. In a 2016 article about an inclusive teaching faculty development cohort experience, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison cite a definition of inclusive teaching they took from the University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning: “teaching in ways that do not exclude students, accidentally or intentionally, from opportunities to learn.” Today, the inclusive teaching web page at the University of Washington reads:

“Inclusive teaching fosters learning environments in which students of all backgrounds can thrive. Instructors who pursue an inclusive teaching practice value the diverse strengths that they and their students bring to the classroom, and also acknowledge the systems of power and privilege that shape the learning environment.”

The idea that inclusive teaching addresses historical or present exclusion seems to be gone.

Two different books published last year seem to exemplify the current understanding of inclusive teaching: “Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom” by Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy and “What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practice for Excellence in College Teaching” by Tracie Addy et al. Neither seem to make extensive reference to disability or the meaning of the term “inclusion” as it relates to disability (but both do helpfully bring in UDL as an inclusive design framework). Both books address the importance of a diversity of voices present on the course syllabus, but do not cite the writers mentioned above who thought of this practice as a process of knowledge reconstruction, rather than simply a move to have students feel more inspired in their coursework by seeing themselves in the curriculum. 

So what?

It seems to me that the key difference between the two models is about scope. The disability model aims to include (and not segregate) disabled students. The diversity model aims to include “everyone,” especially in its turn away from the feminist “inclusive curriculum” approaches which aim to include particular marginalized groups and identities in the curriculum. Pedagogical and design strategies that claim to be “for all” have been subject to sharp and insightful critiques, especially from disability activists. Scholar Aimi Hamraie brings a feminist disability-informed perspective to the “universal” part of “universal design,” explaining that “not all human variations straightforwardly count as part of the universal. When the content of the universal is unspecified, UD can slip into vague notions of ‘all’ or ‘everyone’ that assume normate users and de-center disability.” Educational Developer Ann Gagné points out that framing a teaching strategy as accessible “for all” can work against inclusion, because it may make disabled students feel instructors are not open to additional modifications that they may need.

I have two suggestions for integrating the findings of this investigation into teaching and faculty development practice: The first is to make disability and the inclusion of disabled students a more explicit part of inclusive teaching efforts. (Shameless plus: I have taught about these topics and would love to teach them to others or help other folks teach them to each other). It is actually quite surprising that none of the institutionally sanctioned versions of “inclusive teaching” seem to be aware of or in conversation with the disability model of inclusion, given what an important concept it is in disability community and history. I think it would benefit faculty developers and administrators to familiarize themselves with the history of disability inclusion in education, both the important development of disabled and non-disabled students learning side-by-side and the critiques that integrated classrooms sometimes still ask disabled students to conform to non-disabled norms. 

The second suggestion is to reconnect inclusive teaching efforts to the feminist “inclusive curriculum” ideas cited above. These approaches unapologetically make inclusive teaching efforts not about including all students as a goal, but about attending to the voices and experiences that are missing or marginalized. It is not lost on me that a version of inclusive teaching that aims to include all students from all backgrounds is most tolerable at the administrative level (concerned as the administration is with recruitment, retention, student success, and student satisfaction). These two suggestions are related in that they both encourage a rethinking and rejection of the idea of the “norm” (whether a student in a classroom or a scholar on a syllabus). They also provide more concrete areas of focus, rather than a long list of “inclusive strategies” that no instructor could ever implement completely. In my work as a faculty developer, overly broad frameworks such as “inclusive teaching” tend to overwhelm instructors, and make them feel like inclusive teaching is out of reach for them. 

There is surely much more to say about inclusion and how we can learn from its many definitions. Perhaps there is room for a longer piece investigating more definitions of inclusive teaching, as I’m sure there are more than the ones I have presented here. I hope that this analysis can encourage teachers and faculty developers to consider moving away from the “for all” framing of inclusion and towards concrete responses to marginalization in educational settings.

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