Dim 3: Access

Equitable classrooms provide all students access to meaningful disciplinary concepts and practices, supporting those students in developing their own understandings and building productive disciplinary identities.

This dimension, Equitable Access to Content, focuses on the question of whether, within the classroom, there is differential access to the content being addressed. There may be rich discussions or other productive activities taking place – but, who participates in those discussions or activities?

There is a long history of differential achievement by students from varied racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, which, it has been argued, can be tied to differential access to opportunities to learn (Oakes, Joseph, & Muir, 2001). While one obvious source of this differential access is tracking, which is outside of the scope of a classroom improvement efforts, another is the pattern of discourse within classrooms. Do all students have frequent opportunities to discuss important ideas? In How Schools Shortchange Girls (American Association of University Women, 1992), for example, research revealed a pattern of boys being called upon far more often than girls. Moreover, when girls were called upon, they were often asked questions that were less conceptually oriented than the questions that were asked of boys. What opportunities do emergent bilingual learners have, or students from differing demographic or racial groups? Do multiple opportunities exist for students to engage with the content, to develop and display competence (Cohen 1994), and to build understanding based on the knowledge they bring with them into the classroom (see, e.g., Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992)?

Research indicates that effective teachers encourage participation by all students in the intellectual community of the classroom (Boaler, 2008; Cohen & Lotan, 1997; Schoenfeld, 2002). They select and utilize tasks that enable all students to engage in challenging content, and they establish and reinforce expectations for various ways to participate in and contribute to classroom activities.

There are numerous ways in which students can be supported in access to disciplinary content and practices.

  • In choosing and designing activities, and in launching activities, teachers can provide multiple access points to the relevant material, supporting the expectation that all students are able and expected to participate.
  • Tasks that can be approached in multiple ways or from multiple perspectives, and in which approaches can be compared and contrasted, provide access to students who choose different pathways into the activity. In addition, they provide opportunities for making connections between student approaches.
  • Teachers can encourage the generation and refinement of ideas rather than mainly critiquing or ignoring comments that are only partially correct.
  • Teachers can support the use of multiple language registers by, for example, asking one student to restate another’s contribution in more precise academic language, or, perhaps, in more informal language.
  • During discussions, teachers can use a variety of strategies to encourage broad participation, for example: choosing to call only on students who have not yet spoken; allowing time to talk to a partner before responding publicly; and randomly selecting students to contribute.
  • Teachers can use tasks with language and contexts that connect to students’ lived experiences and provide windows into unfamiliar experiences, being mindful of power and privilege.

See the tools sections for a deeper discussion and pointers to further resources.

Next page: Dimension 4, Agency, Ownership, and Identity