inclusion

What I learned from my first year of teaching

“Ring the bells that can still ring, 

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything, 

That’s how the light gets in”.*

Trauma walks to its own beat. As with adults, children and young people who have experienced trauma, or any other adverse experiences often seem to have a different rhythm than children of a similar age. This is because of the way their sensory system makes meaning of the information around them, the information they see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. I recall one of my students, on a school excursion, responding in horror when we walked into the education room. He pointed to a corner of the ceiling and called out, “they are coming…with big horns on them”. His distress so intense, I took him outside until he felt safe and settled. We then returned to our school; he was too distressed to join the rest of the group. No-one suggested another possibility for him to participate in the event. He was excluded.

My first-year teaching in a program for children with disabilities, was filled with experiences like this. It became apparent that all of my assumptions about children, about language, about the very meaning of the objects and situations around me, belonged only to me. The children in my class had other ways of communicating, of seeinging and of understanding the world that was uniquely their own. A uniqueness many schools interpreted as a problem, a “developmental delay”. A perspective, I found only expressed what my students were not yet able to do compared to other children. A perspective supporting the existence of two school systems in Australia, schools for specific purposes (SSP’s) and schools for everybody else.

Last week the disability royal commission heard about the experience of students and their families in both school settings. Despite the legal right of students with a disability to a free education, “on the same basis” as students without a disability, SSP’s appear to be increasing. A phenomenon that is at odds with the overwhelming research in support of inclusive education. Research that outlines how education can be accessible for all.

Education that is accessible for all is not about changing students. It does not problematize students by attempting to (as I did in my early career) correct their differences, their differences in language, communication, the differences in their literacy, numeracy, or the differences in the way they played. It should not be about “getting children ready for big school”, and attempting to shape them into a size to fit a school for which they had never been considered.

It is an approach, as one mother told the disability royal comission, “that will never work”.

Or until we learn to do otherwise. About a year into my teaching, I was introduced to AMICI Dance Theatre at an Orff Schulwerk Conference in Sydney. Wolfgang Stange, the artistic director led us through a series of workshops that for my thinking and teaching were transformational. At the heart of his practice, was a belief in the contribution of everyone to dance, a unique contribution that should be valued and recognized. It was an approach that challenged the notion that there was only one way to do things and explored the possibilities of many, including those dependent on spoken language.

I danced back to my classroom with not only a range of approaches and strategies for children to express their ideas, make choices and reveal themselves in a way that was uniquely their own. I had been given a way “to see” the children and everything that they were doing, a complete contrast to the view of everything they were not. Now the light was getting in.

A light that gave me the permission to bring my knowledge of theatre, drama, and puppetry into the classroom. The puppets helped me not only to “see” but to “listen” to the children. To discover their interests, their strengths and how much they could contribute to their learning at “big school”. I wondered how much “big school” would contribute to them. 

Twenty years later, I am still wondering, wondering if children and young people, walking to their own beat will belong in all our schools.  Testimonies by children, families and young people at the Disability Royal Comission speak of their experience of being excluded. My research told the story of how puppets and the creative arts could bring about alternative ways of teaching and connecting with ALL children. To remove the barriers to communication and self expression through the object of the puppet was a revelation and one that allowed the children and I to learn together, to see our differences and embrace them. 

Teaching is problematic. It asks that teachers be responsive, be reflexive and embrace the idea that every day is not the same and that every child is unique. To let the light shine in.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

What we should all know about authentic inclusive classrooms

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.

Towards a culture of inclusion: teaching to bell hooks

 “If we are to reach our people. All people, if we are to remain connected…we must understand that the telling of one’s story provides a meaningful example, a way for folks to identify and connect” 

bell hooks (2014, p. 77) 

The words of the incredible bell hooks, who died in December last year, remind me of the importance of sharing our stories and of their potential to bring about understanding, promote change and encourage new ways of thinking. Her work asked us to consider education as a “practice of freedom” one that could lead to a community for all, irrespective of our differences. 

Too often, students who experience disability are not part of this education. Their stories remain only of their difference, untold and unrecognized for their own uniqueness. Classrooms that continue to separate some students from others, denying the variation of our experience cannot help but deny the individuality of everyone. A practice that seems at odds with our teaching standards and in particular, “know students and how they learn”. Unless I missed the memo, this asks us as educators to be open to every student and to embrace the complexity of who they are, their culture, their language, their history and their disability. 

Research tells us that teachers, for the most part, support the idea of inclusion. Research also tells us that teachers who teach inclusively provide all students with rich learning environments. Finally, (yes, all things come in threes) research shows that inclusion benefits us academically, socially and economically. Young children in my study developed their creativity, self expression and spontaneous, imaginative play. Teachers learned to use drama and puppetry as tools to support inclusive practice, opening up the possibility for every child to be part of their learning story in a way that was uniquely their own. By observing the children, often through a puppet, teachers were able to gain an appreciation and insight about the children, particularly children with a disability.

My story speaks to this, it is a story that is inspired by children, children who showed adults that disability is natural. I happened to be at the right place, at the right time, having just piloted a school-based teacher professional learning program that placed me alongside a primary school teacher in a “collaborative” class. Collaborative being the terminology for a class that included children who did and did not experience disability. The response to the professional learning was incredibly positive, with teachers introduced to new ways of seeing, listening and knowing their students through the creative arts. The most powerful place to see was the playground, watching children that have never played together…play together. Los Angeles Unified School District asked me to become their Inclusion consultant.  

I continued to see, listen and soon know my students and their teachers. We communicated with drums, feathers, watercolors and tuille. We danced and made short films, films that told their story and the story of their teachers, teachers with strong opinions about the possibility of inclusion. Teachers’ beliefs about inclusion are formed from a variety of sources, including personal experience and teacher education, they are reinforced by schools, policy and society. Their beliefs are highly variable and may be inconsistent with their practice. For many teachers, a huge shift in thinking is required to become an inclusive teacher. I encourage my pre-service teachers and the teachers I work with in schools to consider the scope of disability, to think about anyone they know who has a disability, to share their stories of disability, to explore their attitudes, and how they were formed. We explore these ideas with image work, drama, with questions, visible thinking routines and by sharing our stories. Stories that become the foundation of our beliefs.

Inclusion appreciates our differences and considers this difference as natural and a resource in the classroom. Inclusion is not a choice, a place or a privilege. Inclusion is a way of thinking, a belief in the value and contribution of every student. Inclusion does not label students or place them in boxes. Inclusion is the story of every child, an education that is “practice of freedom”.  

 And again: “If we are to reach our people. All people, if we are to remain connected…we must understand that the telling of one’s story provides a meaningful example, a way for folks to identify and connect” 

bell hooks (2014, p. 77) 

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

People call me “bogan”: how to mend the country-city divide in higher education

Rural and regional students want to go to university – but they don’t, at least not in the same proportion as their urban counterparts. Education needs to be accessible to everyone regardless of where they live to ensure that diverse perspectives are valued in society.

We aren’t suggesting that university is for everyone or that university is the only positive post-school pathway but underrepresentation of regional and rural students in university populations persists. The government’s focus on initiatives to get non-metropolitan students to university, such as increases in scholarship programs, and increased ATAR loadings for completing schooling outside a metropolitan location, are noteworthy but they are not having the desired outcomes.

With this in mind we bring a new ‘take’ to understanding this dilemma. We undertook research that explored the experiences of rural students at university in 2019 and 2020 (prior to COVID-19) with the aim of understanding sociocultural factors that were influencing their success. 

We spoke to a total of 25 current university students in group and individual interviews at four universities in NSW and the ACT. Students were asked to describe their experiences of moving to the new location their university is situated in, making friends, socialising, participating in the coursework, and experiences going back home. In these discussions regional students expressed feeling distinct social and cultural differences compared with their metropolitan peers, and that these differences impacted their sense of belonging at university. Two main overarching themes were evident in the students’ experiences: using different knowledges, and impacts on belonging in ‘home’ and ‘university’ spaces.

Using different knowledges

Students identified a distinct difference in the nature of knowledges that were valued in their home town compared to the nature of knowledges  valued in their university town, a factor that also impacted on their relationships.  This was evident in the conversations that occurred across each space, the knowledges that were valued in their coursework, and their career expectations when they graduate. 

In their course work, no student felt non-metropolitan communities were represented in a positive light, instead they were all represented for their problems, such as lower achievement in school, worse health outcomes, and lack of career opportunities. When asked about whether knowledges from non-metropolitan communities were considered and represented in their course work one student described feeling that:

“There’s no representative for that rural lifestyle; the whole conversation is directed from the perspective of people that live in the city the whole time, so they’re using city examples, city schools, that type of thing”.

Further, students felt that examples discussed were usually very negative:

“…there’s only 3,000 people, we have very limited services in our area and it’s been discussed, like we have to travel three hours to the nearest cancer treatment centre, we have to travel to get a cast put on your arm and because I’m in the health faculty, we discuss it a bit because our services are limited and so we look at why they’re limited and how and whatever”.

This was problematic for some students who wanted to return to rural areas for their career:

“I  don’t think anybody talks positively about rural towns. Nobody is promoted to go out there. I can’t imagine anybody in my class being like you want to go practice in a rural town like xx or xx. Even the jobs out in xx, like the requirements you need for social work, are a lot lower because no one goes out there”. 

The students also described how in the university town, conversations were different and metropolitan students were unaware of many of the issues impacting on rural communities. Students cited the example of the recent bushfires and drought, where many of the metropolitan students were unaware of how it was still impacting them and their home community:

“I know a lot of people who were affected by it on res [university accommodation] and they wanted to talk about it but no-one really gave a damn about it, and people seemed to think with the drought thing – people seemed to think, “Oh well, they’ve had rain now, the river’s flowing again, so it’s over”.  It’s not over, it’s nowhere near it”.

Many students also felt that these issues impacted on their identity and made them feel more self-conscious:

“ I know that sometimes people call me “bogan” and stuff before because of the way I talk and I have noticed it and I have actually had to curate my language sometimes for who I’m with…”

These issues all linked to the students’ sense of belonging, both in their university town and their home town. 

Impacts on ‘belonging’ at university and at home 

Although the physical spaces of their home town and university were different, students described the impact of this to be cultural, social and emotional. 

For example, although students were surrounded by more people in the university city, students often missed the sense of community and belonging from their small non-metropolitan home town: 

“I guess that’s kind of what means the most to me in a rural location is that sense of community, the sense that you know people, that you grow up with the same group of people; you have neighbourly relationships which is not really something that I see here as much”. 

Many of the students described feeling like an outsider, and felt their experiences and lives were treated as foreign and fascinating:

 “… I’m like the rural outlier sort of thing; they come to me if they want to know about a lamb or something like that you know”.

These issues all impacted on the students sense of belonging, in particular, their connection to their home town and community. For example, when asked about going back home, many described a disconnect:

“It’s ok. Sometimes it’s a bit distant, like I go back and won’t feel the same”. 

And

“… when I go back home, I’m only seeing family now; my friendship groups have changed and that’s awkward going home to because some people, they say, “Let’s catch up” and we don’t have anything to talk about anymore but I still enjoy going home”. 

As the student described, this is more than not being up-to-date with local happenings, it’s more fundamental and related to their changing understanding of the world due to higher education. These are all factors that influence a students’ self-worth and identity while navigating post school transitions. 

Implications for Universities

This research provides insight into issues of different social and cultural capitals of rural and metropolitan peoples, especially how students navigate what it means to be rural in an institution that doesn’t appear to value their knowledges and experiences. To succeed at their studies, students have to ‘learn to leave’ either mentally or physically from their place to be able to participate. Students were as a result torn between the knowledges and friendships of their home town and those of their university town, and the needs and expectations of both. For some, this made it difficult to stay connected to their home town. When thinking about accessing, and staying in, higher education, these factors are also likely to influence student retention. Some students who we interviewed considered these issues to be a key contributing factor to the high rate of student drop-out at university. 

For universities, this has implications for coursework and support services. From a coursework perspective, universities need to consider rural knowledges in their course content and value careers in rural areas. Examples from non-metropolitan locations need to be valued, rather than disincentivised through the pressure to achieve benchmarks dominated by standards from metropolitan regions. This goes beyond inclusion of examples in practice, but recognition of the epistemological dimensions of those practices. From a support services perspective, students need opportunities for students to access mentoring and support from other rural students. Further, metropolitan students need more opportunity to understand what it means to be a rural student, rather than students from rural areas having to learn to ‘be’ like the majority to succeed. 

While we continue to prioritise metropolitan places and knowledges, we will continue to contribute to the gap in rural student participation and achievement at university. We have much to learn from our successful regional university students, we need to listen and to ‘do’ university differently to be a more inclusive and desirable educational destination for regional students.

Natalie Downes works in the Rural Education and Communities Research Group within the Centre for Sustainable Communities at the University of Canberra. Her research focuses on rural-regional sustainability and the sociocultural politics of education for rural futures. She also works closely with the Student Equity, Participation and Welfare unit on equity initiatives for higher education participation.

Sam works at The University of Sydney in initial teacher education. Her work explores how teachers’ engagement with multiple knowledges effects the equity of student experience and how students’ lived experiences impact their understandings of education. Her current research projects include: evaluations of widening participation programs for students experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage; and shifting discourses of gap year and university for regional students in NSW

Kristy O’Neill is a lecturer of Health and Physical Education at the School of Education, University of New England. Concurrently, she has a decade-long professional background and strong passion for social inclusion and student equity within higher education. This grew from her time working on a range of HEPPP-funded schools outreach projects with Widening Participation and Outreach at The University of Sydney. Kristy completed her PhD at The University of Sydney in 2018.

Philip Roberts is an Associate Professor in Curriculum Inquiry and Rural Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Canberra.  He is the research leader of the Rural Education and Communities Research Group in the Centre for Sustainable Communities at the University of Canberra. His research focuses on the role of knowledge in curriculum, rural knowledges and the sustainability of rural communities.

Acknowledgement

This project also includes the team members Fran Collyer, Amanda Edwards, Laurie Poretti and Tanya Willis