Kids with learning and behavioural difficulties couldn’t possibly tell us anything about quality teaching… could they?
Anti-inclusion sentiment has reached fever pitch following the most recent Hearing of the Disability Royal Commission; one that aimed to hear both sides of a so-called “binary” debate.
If folks were hoping the hearing would prove that it’s all unicorns and rainbows in special schools, they would have been disappointed.
Former students and distraught parents enumerated the many ways respective school systems had failed them, both when students were in mainstream schools and when they were in or had moved to a special school.
There have been dark mutterings in various fora since the Hearing. Frustratingly, but as usual, those mutterings have conflated mainstreaming with inclusive education.
Advocates of the latter are being framed as dangerous ideologues who are arguing for the impossible, especially when it comes to students with challenging behaviour.
So, what is this ‘impossible’?
The goal of inclusive education is to reform schooling, such that all schools are capable of including all students, especially those with a disability.
The goal is not simply to move students with disability from segregated settings to mainstream schools. That’s integration (or what used to be called mainstreaming). Integration is what is currently happening in most schools, and we learned waaaay back in the 1970s that it doesn’t work.
Inclusive education is different. It is also a human right under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD). The Australian government ratified the CRPD in 2008, which means that it agrees to be held legally accountable to its terms.
After a decade of relative inaction that the CRPD Committee correctly surmised was influenced by confusion as to what inclusive education really is, inclusion was defined in General Comment No. 4, as:
“…a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience”.
To make this right a reality, we need to seriously lift the quality of teaching in everyday classrooms. We need to move it from integration (which GC4 also defines) to genuine inclusion.
We can’t do it by using existing pedagogical frameworks and measures because—like the idea of balanced literacy—the approach is skewed towards a perceived majority, ergo “the mainstream”, and is based on what has been shown to work with them.
Assessing quality teaching
What happens when you flip from teaching to reach most to teaching to reach all? What does that add to existing conceptions of quality teaching?
Can teaching even be considered to be quality, if it fails to reach all students? Do students with disability need something different that the average student doesn’t need or do they need something better?
We wanted to know, so we went to the students that few people think have anything to offer by way of insight into teaching and learning, and we asked them.
They weren’t hard to find. We were already working in complex secondary schools serving disadvantaged communities; schools with higher than average suspensions, high numbers of teachers on contract, schools where the quality of teaching matters most to kids’ lives.
We pointed to the Positive Behaviour for Learning triangle and asked the school leadership teams from each school to nominate the kids in the “red pointy end”. The ones with a long record of behaviour incidents, especially involving conflict with teachers. Kids who have familiarised themselves with the principal’s office, who may have been previously suspended or excluded and who, when they weren’t truanting, were generally not engaging and not learning.
The leadership in these schools had no trouble identifying them.
We ended up with a Brains Trust comprising 50 pointy end kids across Grades 7 to 10. We asked them lots of questions. About school, whether they liked it, what they did and didn’t like about it, when they started disliking it, what they typically get in trouble for, about conflict with teachers, and even what they think they’d be like as a teacher!
Around the middle of the interview we asked them “What makes an excellent teacher?”
They were free to say whatever they liked and our job was to make sense of those responses.
The idea for our new paper on the quality of teaching necessary for the inclusion of these students formed when we were conducting the interviews because it became clear very quickly that there was a strong pattern in the responses.
Kids talked differently in response to this question than they did our questions about teachers they got along with (or didn’t). They did not—in the main, for this specific question—refer to teachers they liked, they talked about teachers who taught well.
More than just teaching well, these kids from the pointy end of the behaviour support triangle who some people think have nothing of value to add, described practices that help them to learn.
What did they say about excellence in teaching?
Our 50 participants generated 90 statements that we coded into four categories. Three were based on the domains of teaching quality described in the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, “emotional support”, “classroom organisation”, and “instructional support”. Because there is strong popular belief that these kids want ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ teachers, we added a fourth category, “temperament/personality”.
Only 16.1% of statements related to teachers’ temperament or personality. Importantly, while students said that they appreciate teachers who are bubbly, fun, and good-natured, they clarified that excellent teachers still make sure that students are learning.
“Just have a bit of fun in the classroom but still on task and that type of stuff” (Grade 10, School A).
A slightly higher percentage of statements (18.3%) related to classroom organisation. Students told us that excellent teachers kept them on the ball but were fair and kind in how they did it.
“Mr V. He cares for basically the whole school. He gives us reasonable detentions and gives us fitness if we don’t do what he says, and he’s just a very nice teacher” (Grade 8, School A).
Almost one quarter (24.7%) of students’ statements related to emotional support: the positive climate that teachers fostered in their classrooms, teachers’ sensitivity to their students, and their responsiveness to student perspectives.
“…their understanding and their kindness… if you get a teacher like that, then you automatically you feel safe, so you’re like, “Okay, well I can learn with this teacher. I know that they’re going to help me and understand me” (Grade 9, School D).
The majority of statements (40.9%) fell into the instructional support domain which is sometimes referred to as ‘cognitive activation’. This domain includes practices that scaffold and support and extend intellectual demand, such as feedback, modelling and explicit teaching.
One student talked about how this prevented student-teacher conflict:
“It’s like he always like stops fights before they happen. He like – so like say that a student doesn’t get it he stops and like he explains it like multiple times until like the person actually gets it and does demonstrations, get the students up there. Like the students that don’t get it and gets them to do it, so they get it” (Grade 9, School A).
Other students said excellent teachers were those who checked in with students to make sure they had understood and who then clarified if they didn’t.
“They explain everything, they take time out of the lesson to ensure you’re okay and see if you’re on track and always supportive and even if you’re not normal, they support you no matter what” (Grade 9, School D).
A really important finding from our work with these students is that they do not need something that other students don’t need. They just need quality teaching to be accessible.
We also concluded that existing pedagogical frameworks and measures of quality teaching do not emphasise accessibility, and nor do they go to the granularity necessary to help teachers produce a level of quality teaching that is good enough for these students.
So what now?
This work is informing the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project, now in its second year.
From the 400-plus Grade 10 students participating in this Linkage, we have identified a subgroup of 63 with identified language and/or attentional difficulties. In student interviews, we are checking their views on teaching excellence.
This time we have provided a matrix describing the four categories above and have asked students to select which element is most important to them.
When presented with the matrix, students have ruminated, “Well, they’re all important but if I had to say most, I’d say…”
Instructional support, which we have described as teachers helping students to learn by explaining things well and providing examples, still came in first (42%).
The pattern shifted slightly after that with just over a quarter (27%) choosing temperament and personality. Emotional support came in third with 19% of responses, and classroom organisation came in last (13%).
The schools that we are now working in are not as complex as our previous high schools and this may explain the change in pattern. Overall however, the students we are working with say the same thing: they need accessible quality teaching and they rate the teachers who strive to provide them with it.
Although we are yet to crunch the masses of data being produced in this project, we are already seeing benefits from our work with these students’ teachers.
In an interview last week, both interviewer (Graham) and teacher (who we’ll call “Miss Maudie”) were in tears as Miss Maudie described what the various refinements to her practice, that we proposed during this term’s program of learning, had achieved.
In doing she talked about “Patrick”, a “solid D” student who had finally made it to a C-. More than the grade though, for Miss Maudie, the positive impact came from the fact that Patrick had for the first time really engaged and that he believed he could achieve the task being set.
We want many more Patricks and Miss Maudies to feel like this, rather than how our original pointy end kids and their teachers did.
We have a lot more work to do but the revolution has started. And it isn’t going away.
From left to right: Linda J. Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on responses to students experiencing difficulties in school and with learning. Ms Haley Tancredi is a PhD candidate on the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project, investigating the impact of accessible teaching practices on the engagement, experiences and outcomes of students with language and/or attentional difficulties. She is also a senior research assistant within C4IE. Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan is an Associate Professor and researcher in the Faculty of CI, Education, and Social Justice at QUT. Her research focuses on wellbeing, rights, voice, inclusion, and participation.