All children and young people have the right to access education that is responsive to their needs. Inclusive education is a concept that developed from this fundamental right, but what does it look like in practice?
Inclusive education experts look at the key elements of what defines a truly inclusive education.
For students and teachers, classrooms and communities, research shows that inclusive education works. Small changes can lead to larger transformations, and these can ripple across the classroom and school system.
However, different understandings of inclusion mean that some educators can struggle to implement initiatives. Five experts in the field share a key principle of what defines an inclusive education.
Principle 1: Diversity in the classroom enriches and strengthens education
Anna Laktionova, Leading Teacher and Year 8 Coordinator, Keysborough College
Every student is unique and every group of students is different. Diversity in schools is a given. Learners have different experiences, cultures, beliefs and values.
This diversity is something all teachers come across. It can present challenges for teachers, students and their parents. It also creates opportunities for growth and better connection in personal, social and academic achievement.
Two central questions to ask are:
- How can schools and teachers create welcoming and focused environments that include, motivate and challenge all learners?
- Do teachers have high expectations of learning, effort and engagement for all their students?
Inclusive educators are those who draw on the knowledge and experiences of their students. They question their own beliefs about student learning. They are flexible and ready for a challenge. And most of all, they embrace diversity in their classroom.
Principle Two: A strength-based and personalised curriculum
Stella Laletas, Lecturer, Teacher and Educational and Developmental Psychologist
Strength-based approaches are a key principle of inclusive education. They recognise each student has inherent strengths and talents.
These strengths, as well as a student’s specific needs, should be placed at the centre of curriculum planning and implementation. This optimises opportunities for both teachers and student learning.
A strength-based and personalised curriculum improves:
- student engagement
- academic outcomes for all students.
This approach celebrates diversity and difference, and facilitates opportunities for personalised learning.
Principal Three: Student engagement, agency and voice
Christine Grove, Lecturer and Educational and Developmental Psychologist
Seeking the perspectives of students ensures they make a meaningful contribution to their schooling and educational experience. The ability to have a voice influences both student participation and agency.
Student roles are often consultative, rather than active, even when matters directly affect them. The key to listening well is to have a belief in students’ capabilities, and to develop relationships of trust and respect. It’s not one-sided: students need to trust their teacher too.
When students are given a platform to share their voice, schools gain insider knowledge and better understand the student experience. It sends a clear message that student engagement is important.
But how do you make this authentic?
- Facilitate multiple different ways for young people to be heard, regardless of their ability.
- Consider tools such as drawing, writing, talking, paintings, photographs, and videos to express agency.
- Ask students, as critical stakeholders, to identify indicators of what an inclusive school looks like and measure the school against them.
Principle Four: Engaging with all your critical stakeholders
Tom O’Toole, Leading Teacher and Year 9 Coordinator, Keysborough College
An inclusive education is one where all students of all capabilities have the opportunity to grow and learn.
This means providing each student and parent with access to accurate information on their learning through ongoing formative and summative assessment of each student’s progress.
Schools can also model positive behaviour and feedback, while still offering areas of improvement. For example, low reading confidence can be turned around with sharing positive stories of school success where students have improved or progressed.
Over time, this approach creates a positive community perception of the school and raises awareness about a positive school culture.
Principle Five: Inclusive teachers need commitment, knowledge and practical skills
Umesh Sharma, Professor of Inclusive Education and Educational Psychology
Good teaching is good teaching for all not just for some.
Teaching in inclusive classrooms requires teachers to have the 3Hs: the heart (commitment), the head (critical knowledge) and hands (practical strategies).
Teachers must be fully committed to include all learners. They need to understand inclusive practices benefit all students, regardless if they have additional needs.
Inclusive education also benefits teachers. Strategies are used that make classrooms more engaging, and it can lead to improved professional satisfaction.
Inclusion requires teachers to acquire critical knowledge and skills to teach students who differ in their abilities and their learning styles.
It does not require teachers to become superhuman but it does require them to know about some of the most powerful evidence-based teaching strategies that engage learners across the board:
- assessment for learning
- peer tutoring
- co-operative learning.
A teacher with the heart, head and hands of an inclusive teacher will be effective for all learners, not just for those who need additional support.
We must not forget that a teacher with all 3Hs need to be adequately supported by the school leadership team to use and sustain inclusive practices.
Grové, C., & Laletas, S. (in press, 2019). Educational Psychology: A critical part of inclusive education In C. Boyle & K. Allen (Eds.), Inclusive education: perspectives, practices and challenges. Inclusive Education: Perspectives, Practices and Challenges. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
McCuaig, L., Quennerstedt, M., & Macdonald, D. (2013). A salutogenic, strengths-based approach as a theory to guide HPE curriculum change. Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education, 4(2), 109-125.
Sharma, U. (2018). Preparing to teach in inclusive classrooms. In G. W. Noblit (Ed.), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 1-22). Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.