Q & A: Curriculum Design for ALL in the Inclusive Classroom

Inclusion Rules by Paula Kluth

How can teachers prepare lessons for students with and without disabilities in the inclusive classroom?

There is perhaps no better way to make sure that curriculum resonates with students than to include them formally or informally in the planning process. Even students in pre-school and kindergarten can participate in curriculum design by making choices about what they want to learn and bringing questions into the classroom. They may want to further develop their gifts and strengths or explore curricula related to their curiosities (e.g., What makes a rainbow?).

Teachers should also give all students a variety of ways to learn and interact in the classroom. Lectures and whole-class discussions can be part of the instructional day but they cannot be the only lesson format employed or even the primary format employed. Students should have opportunities to experience a wide range of lesson structures including simulations, role plays, debates, cooperative learning, projects, games, drama, workshops, stations or centers, community-based instruction and labs. Students with and without disabilities will be more engaged, retain more, learn in a deeper way, and use higher-order thinking skills when they have opportunities to investigate course content through different avenues.

Using a variety of instructional materials will also help all students learn. Students who are studying United States geography and culture might be introduced to maps, globes of different sizes, brochures from different state landmarks, tour books, travel literature, new and “used” postcards, travel posters, vacation photos and videos from the families of students in the class, and software and websites related to the U.S. and its people. This selection of materials is important because it offers every learner a chance to be successful and learn in a way that suits them best. One student may be unable to effectively interact with an atlas or globe, but may be able to learn concepts easily by creating and studying a salt and flour map of the continents.

What about the standards? Is it possible to have both inclusion and a standards-based curriculum?

The presence of students with disabilities in inclusive schools should actually help teachers in standards-based classrooms. Students with diverse learning characteristics often inspire teachers to use a wider range of teaching strategies, educational materials, and lesson formats.

While some teachers may be apprehensive about giving up the textbook and traditional instructional practices in this climate of high-stakes testing, the effective use of diverse teaching practices can actually enhance learning for many students (Udvari-Solner, 1996). Teachers can use the standards as a curricular guide but retain multi-level and student-centered techniques and strategies.

In other words, teachers need not respond to the standards movement by standardizing teaching and learning. Clearly, a student should not be expected to know and do exactly the same things as her same-age peers at the end of a school year. For this reason, the standards must be viewed as flexible. This orientation to the standards provides different students in the same classrooms with opportunities to work on a range of concepts and skills, based on individual abilities, needs, and interests (Natriello, 1996; Reigeluth, 1997). For example, students may meet the standard, “explain to others how to solve a numerical problem”, in dozens of different ways. Some may use calculators or manipulatives to show understanding, other students may be able to explain in a written paragraph, still others may best express their knowledge by designing flow charts. In addition, students in the same classroom may be expected to focus on problems that range in complexity with some students describing the process for adding single digits and others designing and explaining binomial equations.

What if the child with disabilities has different learning objectives than others in the class? What can a child with significant disabilities do in an academic class?

Some parents and teachers assume that some students with disabilities cannot be provided an inclusive education because their skills are not “close” enough to those of students without disabilities. This is perhaps the most common misconception about inclusive schooling and the law that exists among families and teachers. Students with disabilities do not need to keep up with students without disabilities to be educated in inclusive classrooms; they do not need to engage in the curriculum in the same way as students without disabilities; and they do not need to practice the same skills as students without disabilities. In sum, there are no prerequisites needed in order for a learner to be able to participate in inclusive education.

For instance, a middle school social studies class is involved in a lesson on the Constitution. During the unit, the class writes their own Constitution and Bill of Rights and reenacts the Constitutional Convention. Malcolm, a student with significant disabilities, participates in all of these activities even though he cannot speak and is just beginning to read. During the lesson, Malcolm works with a peer and a speech and language therapist to contribute one line to the class Bill of Rights; the pair uses Malcolm’s augmentative communication device and a writing software program to write the sentence. Malcolm also participates in the dramatic interpretation of the Constitutional Convention. At the Convention, students- acting as different participants of the Convention- drift around the classroom introducing themselves to others. Since he cannot speak, Malcolm (acting as George Mason) shares a little bit about himself by handing out his “business card” to other members of the delegation. Other students are expected to submit three-page reports at the end of the unit but Malcolm will be assessed on a shorter report (a few sentences) which he will write by choosing phrases on his communication device. He will also be assessed on his participation during the class activities, on the demonstration of new skills related to using his communication device, and on how well he initiates social interactions with others during the Constitutional Convention exercise.

The Constitutional Convention example illustrates how students with disabilities can participate in general education without engaging in the same ways and without having the same skills and abilities others in the class may have. In addition, this example highlights ways in which students with disabilities can work on individual skills and goals within the context of general education lessons. It is also important to note that the supports and adaptations provided for Malcolm were designed by his teachers and put in place to facilitate his success. Malcolm was not expected to have all of the skills and abilities as other students in order to participate in the classroom. Instead, Malcolm’s teachers created a context in which Malcolm could “show up” as competent (Kluth, Villa, & Thousand, 2001).

Are there some children for whom placement in a general education classroom (e.g., students with significant disabilities) would not be appropriate?

Teachers (and families) often make assumptions about what students can and cannot achieve based on beliefs they have about their label or disability. Educators, however, are often wrong about students and their potential. For example, throughout history, educators have assumed that several different populations of people who behaved differently were unable to learn including people with cerebral palsy, people with autism, and the Deaf. Historically, teachers have also made damaging negative assumptions about the learning potential of girls, students of color, and students who use English as a second language.

Many teachers are beginning to see that students with autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities are finding “unexpected” academic and social success when provided with opportunities to become members of the general education classroom (Broderick & Hendrickson, 2001; Jorgensen, 1998; Kliewer & Biklen, 2001; Martin, 1994; Rubin et al, 2001). Students without reliable, functional, communication, those with significant behavior challenges, and even those who struggle to complete any classroom task or activity in a traditional way have received a successful education in inclusive classrooms.


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Kluth, P., Villa, R., & Thousand, J. (2001, December/January). “Our school doesn’t offer inclusion” and other legal blunders. Educational Leadership, 59, 24-27.
Martin, R. (1994). Out of silence. New York: Penguin.
Natriello, G. (1996). Diverting attention from conditions in American schools. Educational Researcher, November, 7.
Reigeluth, C. M. (1997). Educational standards: To standardize or to customize learning? Phi Delta Kappan, 79, 202-206.
Udvari-Solner, A. (1996). Examining teacher thinking: Constructing a process to design curricular adaptations. Remedial and Special Education, 17, 245-254