inclusive education

The school just didn’t like the way I behaved

Caleb had trouble sitting still and was first suspended from his school in grade 4. From then on he was “suspended every week from that school and it just kept going from there.”

Michael recalled when he was placed in “what was called the naughty class”.

“They just grabbed all the troublemakers in school and then put them in one class. We had a different recess time and lunchtime to everyone else. So, we couldn’t actually associate with all the actual good kids. Yeah, so it was just a bunch of naughty kids, you know?”

Amber remembered that, “If I asked for help in class, they’d explain it but they didn’t really care. I’d put my hand up and ask for help and they just kind of like pointed at the board and explained again what was on the board.” Eventually the school counsellor told her that “mainstream school was not good for her”.

Microaggressions are social interactions that transmit messages of privilege and oppression in everyday spaces. They are experienced as brief and commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental slights and insults.Those who commit microaggressions are often unaware that their communications and actions are received as hostile and derogatory by those from marginalised groups. Three forms of microaggressions have been identified: 1) microassault – a hurtful verbal or non-verbal attack, for example name-calling, 2) microinsult – demeaning communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity, and 3) microinvalidation – communications and actions that exclude or negate the experiences and feelings of others.  

Mainstream schools are places where students are expected to comply with conventional educational practices, policies and relationships. When students do not easily fit educational norms, they can encounter microaggressions from teachers, school leaders and peers – being put in the ‘naughty’ class or having requests for help in class ignored. These send daily messages to students that they do not belong in this school. The impact of these microaggressions include limiting students’ ability to learn and creating feelings of isolation and invisibility.  

In a new study we outline the microaggressions imposed on a group of students who simply do not fit into mainstream schools, students who are often identified as exhibiting challenging behaviours. These behaviours stem from an array of social, economic, health, cultural and trauma-induced roots, and indicate complex needs. These students are, even from a young age treated as disposable and are often made to feel like they are responsible for their inability to comply with expectations., They endure microaggressions at school that devalue and demoralize them and, eventually – by force or choice or both – they leave mainstream settings and turn to alternative and/or flexible learning options. 

There are a range of alternative options.  Flexible and Inclusive Learning programs cater for tens of thousands of young people across the country. As the name suggests, these programs come in many formats and share an interest in providing for students in ways that meet their individual needs for re-engagement with learning.

We explored student experiences of two different Australian Flexible and Inclusive Learning programs. In these settings we found that the opposite occurs: educators use micro-resistance to insist all students are worthy, valued, and human.

Case One: Save the Children’s Out Teach Mobile Education program

Out Teach is an individualised educational initiative aimed at young people living in Tasmania, Australia, who have been involved with the criminal justice system. The classes are mobile, taking place in the back of a van, with the frequency of classes depending upon the needs of the young person. 20 young people were engaged in the program at the time of the research.

Case Two: Aspire College*

Co-located within a community centre that provides a range of vocational education and community services, Aspire College caters for up to 60 young people in outer Melbourne. Students participate in individualised and flexible programs that cater for their learning and wellbeing needs and are based on the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL). 

Student experiences of mainstream schooling 

Young people who participated in our research offered insights into how their interactions with mainstream schooling had damaged them. They explained that their diverse needs were not supported in busy, inflexible, mainstream classrooms. Caleb, a student in the Out Teach program, shared an example that might seem inconsequential but demonstrates the ‘micro’ level of marginalisation,

“They’d want me to sit there and do what I had to do… I always play with pens…I’m always doing something with my hands to keep me occupied and the school just didn’t like it” 

This is an important detail that Caleb recalls from his mainstream school experiences. To educators, asking a student to stop fidgeting would likely be inconsequential, but for Caleb, it contributed to him feeling out of place in the classroom, like he didn’t, or couldn’t, fit in like other students could. This led to regular suspensions and he eventually left his mainstream school.

Our participants also explained how they often felt less important than the rules that were in place. Complex organisations, such as large secondary schools, traditionally have many rules, both those that are explicit, and those that are hidden as social norms and expectations.. 

One example is uniform requirements. Some of our participants related that the requirement to be wearing, for example, the right socks, was made to seem more important than their own personal, often challenging, circumstances.

These examples illustrate how these students endured subtle but invasive microaggressions and microinvalidations that were couched within daily practices. These not only marginalised the students but also caused them to internalise responsibility for their inability to conform. 

Student experiences of alternative education 

In sharp contrast, in the alternative education settings, students felt there was uncomplicated acceptance. Sofia explained that you could talk with the teacher “and not have to worry that you were being judged by him or anything; you don’t have to talk to him in a certain way.” Students described feeling relaxed, comfortable and encouraged in their classrooms. The smaller classes, flexibility, and focus on strong relationships were important as students reconnected with learning that was meaningful.

Different from students’ portrayal of learning in mainstream schools, learning in the alternative setting was positioned as accessible. The students could make choices and tailor experiences to their needs.

And, importantly, learning was seen to be fun. Zali reflected that “We all just get along and have a laugh or whatever. I think that the attitude of everyone around here contributes to the success of it.” The joy of learning and joy in being a learner was often new for these young people.

Micro-resistance in alternative education 

Our study found that in these two cases, the invalidation, marginalisation and disenfranchisement that students had experienced in mainstream schooling were countered by the affirming micro-level, everyday practices in the alternative settings. The practices of educators and the arrangements in these settings re-humanised students. Small, regular acts countered the prior negative associations with schools. Such messages re-built the worth and value of the young people and powerfully contributed to their re-engagement with learning. Although we are confident that such humanising acts occur regularly in mainstream settings, the difference in these alternative settings is that micro-affirmations are intentional, prioritised and consistent. In this way, these practices constitute micro-resistance that works to question the accepted practices  which in mainstream contexts suggest that rules are valued above relationships and that performance is valued over compassion.  

Lessons for mainstream 

By listening to the experiences of these students, the pervasive nature of microaggression in busy, often impersonal, classrooms become more visible. We saw that he insidious institutional and interpersonal microaggressions lead to internalised microaggressions, where students started to believe that their own learning and social needs did not matter.

The small acts that young people identified as occurring in the alternative settings provided a counter-message: you are worthy. The small acts students flagged are noteworthy because in other environments, they would likely go unnoticed: the Out Teach teacher was always on time; the teachers at Aspire ate lunch with their students and played footy during breaks; the students were viewed and treated “like normal people”.

To those educators in mainstream schools who are concerned about the long-term effects of microaggressions on students such as those in our studies: keep on doing the ‘small things’. Every small act that convinces a student they are worthy reduces the level of dehumanisation that they experience. Be on time. Keep your promises. Build relationships with students by asking genuine questions. Check in to see if students are truly understanding. Introduce material through student interests. Connect learning to life. Provide space for choice and voice. See students as multi-dimensional humans.

As much as you can, in all educational practices, seek to facilitate students’ – and your own – full embodiment of being human.

*Aspire College is a pseudonym used to preserve anonymity.

This piece is drawn from a recently released chapter: Reimer, K., & Longmuir, F. (2021). Humanising students as a micro-resistance practice in Australian alternative education settings. In J. K. Corkett, C. L. Cho, & A. Steele (Eds.), Global Perspectives on Microaggressions in Schools: Understanding and combating covert violence. Routledge. 

Fiona Longmuir lectures in Educational Leadership at Monash University and has over 20 years’ experience as a researcher and practising school leader. Her research interests include intersections between educational leadership and educational change with a particular focus on student voice and agency. She is working on projects investigating school leadership for social cohesion; leadership for unprecedented times; and student voice and agency in alternative educational settings. Find her on Twitter @LongmuirFiona and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/fionalongmuir/

Kristin E. Reimer lectures in education at Monash University and works to advance the idea of education as a humanising practice. Her main focus is Restorative Justice Education (RJE), where educators build strong relationships in schools and rigorous, healthy learning environments. Kristin’s research and practice reinforces education as a connective practice: alternative education for justice-involved youth; access to higher education for non-traditional students; experiences of refugee and asylum-seeking university students; and global citizenship education. She’s on Twitter: @ReimerKristin

Differentiation is in our schools to stay. What is it? And why are most criticisms of it just plain wrong?

The use of a teaching practice known as ‘differentiation’ has become more common over time as educators have sought to respond to increases in the diversity of students enrolling in their local school. The term is now used widely by Australian teachers and school leaders, as well as policy makers.

For example, according to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, Australian teachers are expected to “Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities”. They are also expected to implement “Quality Differentiated Teaching Practice to meet the diversity of learners within their classroom”, as part of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability.

Being able to claim and demonstrate high-quality differentiation in the classroom now informs teacher promotion and school improvement review processes. It is also one way schools can meet their obligations under the Disability Standards for Education, as differentiation is a means through which teachers make reasonable adjustments to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and the learning environment.

Given the emphasis in Australian legislation, policy and practice, it is important that when we refer to differentiation, we are all talking about the same thing. However, if you were to ask 10 teachers what differentiation means and how they implement it in their classrooms, you could receive 10 different responses.

As education researchers with expertise in inclusive education, we were interested in the spread of differentiation and what it means to teachers and researchers. We are also curious as to the basis for some especially loud criticisms of it.

Criticisms based on inconsistencies and misconceptions

There are a range of criticisms of differentiation including that it:

  • Requires teachers to provide every student with individualised lessons
  • Increases teachers’ workloads
  • Makes teachers’ work complicated
  • Waters down the curriculum
  • Lowers expectations of students and their exposure to the academic curriculum
  • Is too difficult to implement in mainstream classrooms
  • Is inconsistent with evidence-based approaches such as Response to Intervention
  • Lacks evidence of effectiveness.

We began this review because we knew that several of these criticisms are just plain wrong. For example, the goal of differentiation is to stretch students beyond what they can already do but not so much that they experience frustration or failure. It is about “teaching up”, not “watering down” the curriculum, where teachers raise expectations for all students and provide appropriate scaffolds to help students to experience success.

It is also not about “‘individualised instruction’”; rather, it offers “multiple avenues to learning” through proactive design. In fact, its emphasis on proactive planning aims to reduce teacher workload, not add to it. By building in accessibility and flexibility, it has the potential to save teachers time in the long run by teaching more efficiently and effectively from the outset, preventing the need to spend additional time replanning and reteaching the curriculum.

Some of these criticisms stem from a lack of definitional clarity. This problem was highlighted in Australian research as long ago as 2014, and has been recently confirmed by two reviews from the United States, published in 2019 and 2020.

A consistent and clear understanding of what is meant by differentiation is therefore vital in order to examine the validity of these criticisms and consider whether they correctly construe the motivation for its use.

To examine these issues in more depth, we undertook a comprehensive scoping review to synthesise what can be known from existing studies. We found that the research literature on differentiation contains a range of definitional inconsistencies and misconceptions about how differentiation is conceptualised and implemented.

This is a huge problem. How can we talk about, implement or indeed criticise differentiation in our schools if we are talking about and doing different things?

So let’s start with a definition

It is essential for teachers and researchers to work from a common understanding of differentiation and so as part of our research we first provided a clear definition. To construct our definition we drew on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, author and speaker who is well known for her work with differentiated instruction over the last two decades.

This is what we, and others in inclusive education, mean when we use the term. It is:

the use of proactive planning and inclusive practices to create accessible learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms, using flexible within-class grouping, as opposed to fixed ability grouping, year-level streaming or withdrawal to separate programs.

For further clarification, we use the term flexible grouping to refer to varied use of whole class and individual learning, alongside heterogeneous and homogeneous small group learning according to interest, learning profile, and readiness.

Our research

We conducted our scoping review of all peer-reviewed research literature published between 1999, when Carol Tomlinson published her influential book, The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners, and 2019, the year we concluded our search. Searches of seven research databases netted 1,235 records, to which we added another six identified through hand-searching.

Our definition was broad and theoretically derived and hinged on practices enacted to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms. We therefore excluded studies that incorporated practices inconsistent with this definition such as ability grouping, year-level streaming or studies in which there was withdrawal of students to separate programs. We also excluded studies informed by misguided practices such as differentiating for learning styles or intelligence strengths, or by ability grouping and segregation as there is either no evidence to support their use or because there is clear evidence against their use.

Multiple screening stages (for those interested in the details of our research process, particularly when it comes to what we excluded and why, please go to our full paper) resulted in a final sample of 34 journal articles. Our review of these 34 articles was guided by two research questions, both of which were exploratory, rather than explanatory:

  1. Are there any discernible patterns in peer-reviewed empirical research conducted on differentiation in school settings between 1999 and 2019 with regard to aim, location, school phase, participant types and methods used?
  2. What are the principal research foci of these studies, how do they conceptualise and research differentiation, and how might research on differentiation be improved?

Findings

Our findings on the research evidence on differentiation were variously pleasing, surprising and of great concern to us. We found that while some teachers can find differentiation a challenge to implement or to implement well, echoing the concerns of some critics, this was not ubiquitous. Indeed we found that the range and depth of teachers’ use of differentiated teaching practices was enhanced by strong and committed leadership. It was also supported by quality professional learning, which contributed to staff buy-in and a school-wide culture of teacher collaboration, as well as supporting the quality and frequency of teacher implementation of differentiation.

We also found great diffusion in how differentiation was conceptualised making it difficult to produce clear findings about whether differentiation works. Despite this, the reviewed studies that examined the impact of differentiation consistent with our definition generally indicated that it typically produced improvements in student learning when compared to regular practice, with some suggestion that this may be even greater in more disadvantaged schools. There was little evidence to support criticisms that differentiation waters down the curriculum or lowers expectations and no studies advocating for the creation of individual lesson plans for individual students. Given the number of studies and participants that are represented in our review, this effectively dispels these criticisms as myth.

The diversity of focus and methodological approaches across the 34 studies, however, prevents a structured comparison of findings and therefore weakens the evidential basis to make stronger claims of either differentiation’s effectiveness or indeed its ineffectiveness. In particular, strong claims were hampered by the fact that:

  • Half the 34 studies were conducted in the United States and most in the elementary (primary) school phase with very few studies focusing on secondary schools.
  • Survey and case study designs were dominant, as was research of influences on teacher practice.
  • Only a small group of studies focused on differentiation’s impact on student outcomes and these typically only examined specific elements of differentiation or in specific academic domains, such as science or reading.
  • The majority of studies were undermined by methodological weaknesses—such as a tendency to rely on convenience samples and to use weak forms of survey methodology, as well as to attempt to determine the impact of differentiation using only student achievement scores—validating some concerns about the state of the research on differentiation.
  • Poor design weakened the strength of the overall findings because of the incommensurability between the measures used by participants from different schools and districts, and the incommensurability of practices across cases.
  • Although there were some studies that investigated the impact of differentiation using rigorous procedures, the majority of research was compromised by the use of small sample sizes and researcher-developed instruments with no clear theoretical or empirical foundation.
  • A lack of transparency due to poor reporting and very little cross-referencing between studies led to the majority ‘remaking the wheel’ rather than working together to create a coherent evidence-base.

Recommendations

Our research suggests that research on differentiation can and should improve, if the understanding of the practice is itself to improve.

Far too many studies are conducted without a coherent and theoretically informed definition to guide the development of instruments or to provide an appropriate lens through which to analyse the data collected. Having now read a vast number of articles, each claiming to be about differentiation, we observe that new research on this topic must build from and improve on previous studies. This is important to avoid researchers approaching the topic with the assumption that there is common agreement as to what differentiation is, or proposing their own new definition.

To achieve this, we believe future research on differentiation could:

  • clearly define differentiation as a range of evidence-based practices that teachers can use to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms
  • investigate the planning and enactment of these practices in both primary and secondary general education settings
  • use rigorous mixed-method research designs capable of assessing the adequacy of those practices for meeting the full range of individual learning needs, whilst determining the effect on students’ engagement, educational experiences, and academic outcomes; and
  • monitor implementation fidelity and the impact on teachers’ work.

We see our paper and our considered definition of differentiation grounded in prior research as a starting point to build useful evidence on differentiation for schools and teachers in Australia. If we are to use differentiation to meet the needs of students with and without disabilities in our schools, teachers need to be on the same page and confident in the evidence behind the practices they are using.

For those who want more, here is our full paper: A scoping review of 20 years of research on differentiation: investigating conceptualisation, characteristics, and methods used

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research investigates the role of education policy and schooling practices in the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to children with language, learning and behavioural difficulties.

Dr Kate de Bruin is a senior lecturer in inclusion and disability in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. She has taught in secondary school and higher education for two decades. Her research focuses on inclusive education in policy and practice, examining system, school and classroom practices that are supported by evidence, and that promote quality and equity for all students, with specific attention to students with a disability.

Dr Carly Lassig is a Lecturer in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT with a passion for social justice, equity and inclusion. Her research and teaching interests include: inclusive education, disability, differentiation, Universal Design for Learning, gifted education, and creativity. Carly’s PhD, “Perceiving and pursuing novelty: A grounded theory of adolescent creativity” investigated young people’s experiences of creativity within and beyond the school environment. Carly’s background is as a primary and middle years teacher, having taught nationally and internationally.

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is an Associate Professor of Inclusive Education at The University of Sydney. Ilektra worked as a special education teacher and completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield in the area of inclusive education. She worked as a researcher at the University of Sheffield,and as a lecturer at the University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, Greece before moving to The University of Sydney. Her research interests include disability, classroom diversity, and curriculum differentiation.

Students with disability have a right to inclusive education: Reviewing the Melbourne Declaration

Students with disability were not identified as an explicit priority within the Melbourne Declaration, a statement that was agreed back in 2008 by all Education Ministers in Australia. It stated that the main goal for education in Australia should be equity and excellence for all young Australians and outlined a commitment to action.

Now the declaration is being reviewed and we believe this presents an opportunity to address a critical gap in the original Declaration, which made no reference to inclusive education for students with disability, despite being published in the same year that Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and despite explicitly mentioning other equity groups.

The CRPD imposed legally binding obligations on State Parties including, through Article 24, to ensure an inclusive education system at all levels. This Review of the Melbourne Declaration provides the opportunity to emphasise the important role that inclusive education provides in combating discrimination to create a fairer and more cohesive society in which people with disability are active contributing members.

Omission of students with disability from the Melbourne Declaration

Many of the initiatives that resulted from the Melbourne Declaration perpetuated disadvantage for students with disability because they were not mentioned explicitly in the declaration. For example, by not naming students with disability as a priority equity group, there was no requirement to report disaggregated data for these students in NAPLAN or My School as there was for socioeconomic status and Indigeneity.  As a consequence, students with disability have been viewed as a liability by many schools, resulting in increased gatekeeping. Troubling statistics regarding low school completion rates, poor engagement in further education, and high post-school unemployment also show that schooling outcomes for Australians with disability have not improved during the period of the Declaration. This Review presents an important opportunity to ensure that improving the equity and quality of education for students with disability is named as a key priority.

The right to an inclusive education

In 2016, the United Nations published General Comment No. 4 (GC4) to provide guidance on the right to inclusive education. GC4 defined inclusive education, making it clear it is  distinct from (i) segregation, which is when students with disability are educated in separate schools and classes, and (ii) integration, which is when students with disability are enrolled in unreconstructed mainstream schools with the onus placed on the student to adjust to such environments. GC4 also explicitly specified the steps State Parties must undertake to realise the right to inclusive education. GC4 and General Comment No. 6 on equality and non-discrimination (GC6), which was published by the UN last year, state that the segregation of students with disability in education is a form of discrimination and a contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UN Committee is reviewing Australia’s commitment and progress against the CRPD in September 2019.  A new Declaration that reflects Australia’s international legal obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would help demonstrate genuine commitment and intent, as well as provide a guiding framework to support realisation of the right to inclusive education across sectors nationally.

Proposed additions to the next Declaration

As members of AARE’s Inclusive Education Special Interest Group, and All Means All: The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education, we have called upon the Federal Government to consider a range of important additions to the next Declaration.

First, we believe that the Declaration must include a commitment towards inclusive education at all levels of education. Any definition of inclusive education must be consistent with the CRPD. This would promote a nationally consistent understanding of inclusive education.

Second, the Melbourne Declaration stated that “Australian governments and all school sectors must provide all students with access to high-quality schooling that is free from discrimination based on … disability”.  The lack of an explicit reference to inclusive education in the Melbourne Declaration leaves both the quality and model open to interpretation. Replacing “high-quality schooling” with“high-quality inclusive education” would align the new Declaration with the National Disability Strategy (2010 – 2020).

The new Declaration should also emphasise the importance of active participation, consultation and involvement of children and their representatives in needs determination and education provision. This would ensure Australia meets its obligations enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Disability Standards for Education 2005, as well as elaborated in CRC General Comment 9 (2006) on the rights of children with disabilities, CRC General Comment 12 (2009) on the right of the child to be heard, and the aforementioned GC4 and GC6.   

Third, the Melbourne Declaration stated that: Australian governments and all school sectors must … reduce the effect of other sources of disadvantage, such as disability, homelessness, refugee status and remoteness”. However, the Declaration gave no indication as to how this might be achieved, and made no acknowledgement of the societal barriers that create and perpetuate the disadvantage that constitutes disability. In the next Declaration, we recommended the following revised statement,

Australian governments and all school sectors must ensure that structural, physical, attitudinal and cultural barriers to learning, participation and achievement are removed, that students are actively involved in decisions made about their education, and effective teaching and leadership practices are implemented, to support all students in making progress at school regardless of their personal characteristics.

Fourth, the Melbourne Declaration stated that: “Australian governments and all school sectors mustpromote personalised learning that aims to fulfil the diverse capabilities of each young Australian”. This terminology is not consistent with the terminology being used in recent cross-government initiatives, such as the National School Improvement Tool or the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Students with Disability. In the next Declaration, we recommend the phrase “personalised learning” is replaced by “quality differentiated teaching practice”, “Universal Design for Learning” and “reasonable adjustments”.

Our vision for Australian education

The next national aspirational declaration on Australian education should put forward a view of educational purpose that is ambitious for, and inclusive of, all Australian students. It should provide guidance to ensure that purpose and vision is achieved for all students, in ethical and inclusive ways. It should require appropriate support to enable the educational growth of all students and embrace student diversity as inherently normal and economically, culturally and socially beneficial. It should cover all levels of education — early childhood, school, vocational and higher education — and express broad principles expected of each.

The Declaration should motivate and inspire educators, and school and system leaders, as well as gather all stakeholders around a common goal. It should be consistent with the Australian government’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with a clear progression to end segregated education and exclusionary practices. The removal of systemic pressures that might inhibit the progress of inclusion has education, employment and lifelong benefits for all.

Dr Shiralee Poed is a senior lecturer in learning intervention at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education within the University of Melbourne. Shiralee is also the co-chair of the Association for Positive Behaviour Support Australia, member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Professor Linda Graham leads the Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour (SELB) Research Group in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology. Linda is also the co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and board member of All Means All – Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education and Chair of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel.

Cátia Malaquias is a lawyer, an award winning human rights and inclusion advocate and a co-founder and an Advisor of All Means All.  Catia is also the founder and director of Starting With Julius, a board member of the Attitude Foundation and Down Syndrome Australia, and a co-founder of the Global Alliance for Disability in Media.

Dr Kate de Bruin is a lecturer in inclusion and disability in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Kate is also a co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer in inclusive education at the University of Sydney. Ilektra is also a member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Faculty of Education at QUT. Jenna is also a member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Emily Cukalevski is a lawyer and disability rights advocate.  Emily is also an advisor for All Means All.

Dr Peter Walker is a lecturer in inclusive education at Flinders University. Peter is also a member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Marijne Medhurst is a senior research assistant in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education within the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Haley Tancredi is a research assistant and sessional academic in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education within the Faculty of Education at QUT, and a certified practising speech pathologist. Haley is also a co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG.

Dr Kathy Cologon is a senior lecturer in inclusive education at the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University. Kathy is also a member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Ask a child ‘what works’. How classroom teachers can consult children with communication difficulties

In Australia children with disabilities have the right to be consulted about what can be done to help them participate fully in school life. The Australian Disability Standards for Education specifically directs teachers to “consult the student” about what adjustments they could reasonably make within their classrooms to help students with disabilities “participate in education on the same basis as a student without a disability”. An adjustment is reasonable if it balances the interests of all parties affected.

A school might make more general adjustments, such as in timetabling, room access and so on, but teachers can make specific adjustments. For example a teacher could change her teaching methods or the way she organises her class to enable her student with disabilities to participate more fully.

It is these specific actions taken by teachers that interest me. Although we have had the Disability Standards for over fifteen years it is still not common practice for teachers to consult students with disabilities about the reasonable adjustments that can be made for them in the classroom.

I believe part of the problem could be that there is limited practical guidance available to help professionals, such as teachers, enact their obligations to consult. This is particularly the case if a child has communication difficulties.

Many students with disability will experience communication difficulties, including students with Autism, students with hearing impairment, students who speak English as an additional language or dialect and students with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). This means for a significant group of students, the consultative process itself will need to be adjusted so they can participate in consultation.

In my recently completed Master of Philosophy study I consulted students with Developmental Language Disorder to understand which adjustments can best help them to learn. These adjustments informed the development of an intervention with their teachers.

The purpose of my study was to determine whether and how adjustments based on student insights impacted teaching methods, access to the full curriculum, and academic outcomes, for students with language difficulties.

But first I want to explain what Developmental Language Disorder involves and talk about what ‘consultation’ means in relation to teachers and students with disability collaborating to design and implement ‘reasonable adjustments’.

Developmental Language Disorder: ‘hiding in plain sight’

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is diagnosed when children have difficulties with language for no obvious reason, which impact on their learning and everyday life experiences. It is a lifelong condition that results in persistent impairment of the acquisition and use of language. It affects around two students in every classroom.

Although described as a “hidden disability”, once teachers understand Developmental Language Disorder they often realise that it is hiding in plain sight. These students demonstrate difficulty with phonology (the sound patterns within language) and syntax (the way words and phrases create a sentence). Written grammar, word finding, semantics (meaning of a word, phrase or text) and vocabulary, pragmatics (the social functions of language), discourse and verbal memory are also impacted. The communication difficulties that students with Developmental Language Disorder experience mean that without adjustment, the language of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment may present barriers to a student’s access and participation.

For example, students may experience significant difficulty understanding teacher instruction and difficulty storing and retaining verbal information.

Consulting students with disability

Consultation is a process of inviting someone to communicate their thoughts and feelings about a situation, or event that is important to them, to someone who can help change that situation or event. For a student with disability, consultation about adjustments may be the first time they have been involved in formal decision-making at school. It is part of being a democratic citizen. It is an important social and emotional capability, a lifelong skill. It is also a highly complex (and abstract) linguistic and information processing task.

If the process is not accessible, there is a risk that students with communication difficulties will just “check out” and appear quiet, or have their thoughts misinterpreted during consultation. That is why I believe guidelines for teachers on consulting students with communication difficulties are needed.

Three elements that can help teachers consult students with communication difficulties

Through my methodological approach to interviewing students with communication difficulties I identified three elements for successful consultation. These elements uphold a child’s right to share their insights and minimise participation barriers within the consultation process.

The three elements could be used in future consultative conversations and interviews with students with communication difficulties by professionals working in schools (such as teachers, guidance counsellors and speech pathologist) and educational researchers.

  1. Ask concrete questions, based on students’ experiences.

Use concrete questions that draw on students’ experiences. Questions that concrete terms and phrasing will be easier to understand for a student with communication difficulties. For example: “how can teachers help you understand instructions?”, and “is there anything that you wish your teachers knew about you and how you learn?”. Questions that use abstract or high-level terms such, “explain” increase the risk of the student not understanding the questions and thus not being able to fully participate in consultation.

  1. Use multiple short interviews

Conducting multiple, short interviews (rather than one lengthy interview) supports students to manage the processing demands of consultation and allows students multiple opportunities to share their insights. A minimum of two interviews is suggested. The interviewer can cross-check the student’s insights in subsequent interviews to clarify meaning and to support the student to organise and expand their ideas.

  1. Use visual supports and dynamic activities

Teachers can support students organise and expand their thoughts through a co-constructed mind-map. This process enables students to create a static, visual record of their ideas and enables ideas to be clarified and expanded in real time. Pre-prepared visual aids are also effective in supporting students to direct their thinking and make connections between suggested adjustments and their own experiences (both positive and negative).

So … what do students with communication difficulties say helps them to learn?

When asked, using an adjusted process of consultation, the students in my research said they found learning easiest when their teachers:

(a) provided both whole class and individual instruction,

(b) used short, simple language structures and familiar vocabulary during instruction, and

(c) paired talking with other means of representation, such as pictures, video or simple text.

These adjustments align with previously documented evidence-based practices for supporting students with communication difficulties. Research has found that when teachers adjust the pace, quantity and complexity of spoken and written language and rephrase information using accessible terms and language structures, students have better access to classroom instruction.

Changes to teaching practice can benefit all students in the class

The adjustments that the students in my research described form the basis of quality differentiated teaching practice, where teachers are conscious of the need for explicit, perhaps minor, adjustments to their teaching methods to help students with disabilities access learning on the same basis as their peers. Quality differentiation seeks to mitigate the impact of a student’s disability through responsive teaching that minimises/removes barriers to a student’s learning and enables that student to participate.

These adjustments are likely to benefit all students in the classroom, but especially other students with communication difficulties. Also, these adjustments can be designed from the outset of unit planning, which may further address equity issues related to learning and assessment.

Many classroom teachers already use the pedagogical approaches I have described in this blog post but it is the art of utilising most of these practices, all of the time that is likely to result in maximum participation for students with communication difficulties.

And it is the presence of hidden difficulties/disabilities that is a problem for teachers. So I believe the consultation process is a basic, vital step for teachers to take.

By adopting communication accessible consultation practices, teachers have the opportunity to uphold their obligations to consult students about the reasonable adjustments they can make for their students and harness the practical benefits that the consultative conversations offer.

Haley Tancredi is a HDR candidate at QUT and a certified practicing educational speech pathologist. Haley’s research and clinical interests are inclusive pedagogies, adolescents with language disorder, student voice and teacher/speech pathologist collaboration in inclusive classrooms. Haley is active on twitter @HaleyTanc

 

Haley will be presenting her paper on this topic at the 2018 AARE Conference in a Symposium titled “Teaching for diversity in Australian classrooms: Supporting structures, inclusive pedagogies, collaboration and adjustments” on Wednesday 05.12.18 from 1-3pm. Suzanne Carrington will chair the Symposium. Other speakers are Ilektra Spandagou, Shiralee Poed, Kate de Bruin and Suzanne.

Haley is the recipient 2018 AARE Postgraduate Student Award.

Why the minister should act boldly on changes to schooling for children with disabilities

We should see significant changes for children with disabilities in NSW schools if the recently released recommendations by the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the education of children with disabilities are acted upon. These changes will significantly improve the lives of children with disabilities. The impact on families of NSW children with disabilities, their school communities, teachers, school executives and school systems will also be considerable.

We support the recommendations and the way funding and training for schools and staffs were highlighted in the report. However we have grave concerns the recommendations will be simply rubber-stamped by the NSW Government, as has happened with so many other parliamentary inquiries, and that nothing will change. We are worried that issues of inclusion and dealing with discrimination in NSW schools will remain for our children with disabilities.

The NSW Government and Education Minister Robert Stokes now have 6 months to provide a response as to the recommendation. So we call upon Minister Stokes to show he has moral strength as an education minister and that he is not beholden to unelected officials in the NSW Department of Education who might be advising him not to act boldly on making changes. We hope he will take this chance to be a leader for equity and justice.

The recommendations and our concerns
The purpose of the Inquiry was to make recommendations to build upon the positives for children and eliminate the some of the challenges faced for children with disabilities in the future. It came up with 38 recommendations that can be summarised into 4 key areas: inclusion, funding, training, accountability and complaints.

INCLUSION

The first recommendation is that all children should be included in mainstream education as a default. Further recommendations in the report however appear to contradict this default position through the recognition of segregated Special Schools and units

There is limited to no research that shows segregated settings have any long-term benefit. Also it should be said, Units and Special schools do not demonstrate Inclusion, it is integration at best and state sanctioned discrimination at worst. The UN General Comment No. 4 24.2 states ‘only inclusive education can provide both quality education and social development for persons with disabilities, and a guarantee of universality and non-discrimination in the right to education on the rights to an education states’.

We acknowledge that pragmatically to transfer all children into mainstream overnight would be a disaster for schools and children, however we argue a timeline and process for the closure of all these settings is required.

We also want to point out that children with specific needs cannot be moved into mainstream schooling without first changing attitudes in many mainstream school communities. Also it cannot be done without fully funding support, training and resources for the school staff, parents and children involved.

FUNDING

Ten of the 39 recommendations have a direct impact on funding issues. To implement the report recommendations, equitable and accountable funding needs to be in place.

The committee recognised that Gonski 2.0 will not meet the required needs of students, so funding needs to be found and directed as purposed for the education of children with disabilities in NSW schools.

Funding is needed for resources, infrastructure and staff release so teachers can be given meaningful, hands-on training, not just access to online units that can appear superficial.

To assist in this there is a recommendation that schools should appoint trained business managers, and that funding for children with disabilities be made public and accountable.

TRAINING

Training was seen as key to implementing changes, with 16 relevant recommendations. It is seen essential to change as a successful Inclusion policy. Staff and parents all felt additional training was required to support all learners, with attitudinal change key.

Children with a disability need to be seen as children first. Real, depth of professional development is recommended as a necessity.

‘Snake oil’ training and teaching methods with no empirical research behind them should be challenged and removed from our schools. Staff must be given time to attend training and embed their enhanced skills. Health professionals, parents and schools should work in partnership to build on the expertise they all bring to the education of children with disabilities.

ACCOUNTABILITY and COMPLAINTS.

The Inquiry had the most to say about accountability and complaints processes in relation to the treatment of children with a disability, with 19 associated recommendations.

Too many reports from NSW and across Australia demonstrate that children with a disability are being denied even basic enrolment in their local public school when first applying; and even when eventually being offered a place; are marginalised, often denied access to the curriculum and wider school events.

The gravest of our concerns is the abuse of children with disability in schools. You would not have missed the harrowing stories of abuse that were revealed when the Inquiry released its report in September.   The reaction sparked a unanimous call in the media and from organisations involved with children with disabilities, for schools, school systems and those in authority to urgently take action.

Recommendation 17 called for the NSW Ombudsman Inquiry into behaviour management in schools – August 2017 to be fully accepted and implemented. This calls for an outside committee to review complaints, and for protections against abuse and discrimination of children with a disability to be seen as a priority. There is harsh condemnation of the Department of Educations ‘investigative’ processes in relation to reportable conduct and the role that the Employee Performance and Conduct (EPAC) has played.

Real concerns remain over the Department investigating itself. Statistics must be published, staff supported, whistle-blowers protected and most importantly the most vulnerable children kept safe from abuse.

Other areas of concern

There were some under-developed areas that the report could have been stronger on. Children with a disability in some secondary settings will still be funded at Primary school level and this could be a breach of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. The research on the role of SSPs (Schools with a Specific Purpose), with the diminished educational outcomes for children and the heightened danger of abuse potentials, could have been made more prominent. Segregated special settings should be closed to lead to full Inclusion. The flawed role of EPAC that was highlighted, but we believe that should have led to a recommendation of its disbandment with an independent Educational ICAC put in its place to safeguard all children and staff equitably.

Many parents claim to be left with no other option than to home school their child with disabilities. There is an annual increase in home schooling of around 12% a year (public school enrolments only increased by 0.9% in 2016). This has massive social, moral and economic implications for society. If children are denied an education, how can they become economic contributors to Australia in the future? If a family home schools (not through choice) they cannot work or contribute to the economy and their children receive no educational funding at all.

It all comes down to leadership

Overall what will have the greatest impact to the education of children with disabilities is leadership and attitudinal change in mainstream schools. Funding, training and processes will not be successful solutions until those in leadership at school and system levels place the emphasis on every child’s ability to learn and feel safe, rather than protecting a flawed system. Of course the leadership that matters most at the moment is that of NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes.

The Inquiry recommendations cannot heal or even investigate the allegations of abuse and discrimination of the past that initiated it. Minister Stokes can, but as of yet has done little to do so. This report gives him a chance to be a leader for equity and justice rather than just another politician saddled with the education portfolio. We want him, and his government, to be more concerned with our children and their futures than infrastructure, cutting costs and ticking boxes.

Minister Stokes and the NSW Government have an opportunity here to use this Inquiry to make the radical changes needed. Let’s see if they have the political courage to do so.

 

David Roy is a lecturer in Drama and Arts Education at the University of Newcastle. His research focuses on how we can use the Creative Arts to for inclusion and to support diverse learners, particularly those with disabilities. He has been part of examination teams in Scotland, Australia, and for the International Baccalaureate. He is the author of eight texts, and was nominated for the 2006 Saltire/TES Scottish Education Publication of the Year and won the 2013 Best New Australian Publication for VCE Drama and/or VCE Theatre Studies. His most recent text is ‘Teaching the Arts: Early Childhood and Primary (2015) published by Cambridge University Press. 


 

 

Caroline Dock is a research assistant at the University of Newcastle and a visual artist.She uses Creative Arts and Physical Education as intervention strategies for child development. Working closely with Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists and Speech Therapists she has been developing innovative strategies to support children with ‘atypical’ disability diagnosis. Caroline regularly engages with politicians and public bodies as an advocate for the disability rights of children. Her research interests include, pedagogy, psychology, ASD and dyspraxia. Caroline’s most recent publication is Dyspraxia, Delinquents and Drama. Journal of Education in the Dramatic Arts, 19(1), 26-31.

 

Are regular classroom teachers really not qualified to teach students with special needs?

Sure enough, representatives of parent and teacher groups have emerged to back Senator Pauline Hanson’s claims that children with ‘autism and disabilities’ should be removed from mainstream classroom.

Primary principals in south western Sydney were reported as saying a shortage of places in special schools and classes is leading to the placement of students with disability or special needs into regular classes with a teacher who is “not sufficiently qualified”.

No description of the necessary qualifications was provided in the article but the implication was clear: special qualifications are needed to teach special students. In other words, a regular teacher education qualification just doesn’t cut it.

At about the same time Dr James Morton, who is Chairman of the AEIOU Foundation and parent of a child with autism, in an interview on ABC radio criticised universities for failing to prepare teachers to teach students with disability. His chief complaint was that units specialising in autism are not mandatory in undergraduate teacher education programs and accused universities of not investing in Australia’s future.

Then we had Professor Kenneth Wiltshire of the UQ Business School who argued via an opinion piece that the states had pulled a “con job… late last century” by promising “disabled students could become mainstream in every way by being included in conventional schools”. He then claims the states only supported inclusion because they were “cost-cutting by closing many special schools”.

While confused and lacking any supporting evidence, Wiltshire’s article echoes points made in the other two examples:

  1. special students need to be educated by special teachers in special places,
  2. regular classroom teachers are not qualified to teach students with disability and/or universities are failing to adequately prepare them
  3. there are not enough special teachers and special places (because of inclusion and the closure of special schools).

Is there truth to any these claims?

In short, no.

Firstly, research consistently shows that educating students with disability in special places does not guarantee better academic or social outcomes, better employment prospects or post-school options and social inclusion. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This does not mean that they will do well in mainstream schools built for a narrow range of students. It means that local schools must evolve to cater to the full range of students. And this means teachers and teacher preparation must also evolve.

The 2016 Australian Senate Report made recommendations for teaching skills that would improve workforce capacity for inclusion: universal design for learning, differentiated teaching, and cooperative learning.

With this knowledge, teachers can identify what support students need to access the curriculum, engage in classroom activities, and achieve at school. These skills are emphasised in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, which since 2012 have underpinned the accreditation of university teacher education courses.

The Standards make clear that all classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disability and/or additional needs. To be accredited, university teacher education courses must also cover four key focus areas that directly relate to students with disability: (i) differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities, (ii) supporting learning of students with disability, (iii) supporting student participation and engagement, and (iv) managing challenging behaviour.

Every graduating teacher must provide evidence that they meet each Standard to achieve registration to teach. To maintain their annual registration, existing teachers must provide evidence that they have engaged in professional learning relating to the Standards.

Clearly, there is a framework to ensure that registered classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disabilities and/or additional needs, and for universities to prepare their graduates to do so. The benefits are seen in numerous schools and classrooms across the country, but there is scope for both teacher preparation programs and schools to embrace inclusive teaching practices.

Finally, the claim that places in special schools and classes have declined because of inclusion and the subsequent closure of special schools is completely false.

This is clear from a range of data sources.

 Research from New South Wales has shown that proportion of enrolments in separate special educational settings in Australia’s largest education system has been increasing since the 1990s. In other words, the “mainstream” is shrinking.

These findings are supported by national data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) which shows that there was a 35% increase in the number of students with disability attending special schools between 2003 and 2015.

But most telling is this: Prior to the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act, before we signed the 1994 Salamanca Statement, and before “inclusion” was really a thing, there were 444 special schools accounting for 4.4% of all schools in Australia.

Almost three decades later — after the 2005 Disability Standards for Education, the 2008 Melbourne Declaration, and a multitude of reviews and inquiries nationally – there are now 461 special schools, accounting for 4.9% of Australian schools.

That represents an 11% increase in the number of special schools and this has occurred despite evidence that inclusion leads to more positive outcomes for students with disability.

We may well be living in a post-truth world but none of the empirical evidence supports the claims being made by Hanson’s backers.

 

Professor Linda Graham works in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education and leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning & Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT), and is a member of the Board for All Means All – Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education. She has published more than 80 books, chapters and journal articles, and is leading two current large scale projects investigating educational responses to students with learning and behavioural difficulties. Linda blogs at drlindagraham.wordpress.com.au and can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham

Dr Kate de Bruin works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University Her current research investigates evidence-informed practice and policy in inclusive education, with a focus developing teacher capacity for using inclusive pedagogies in ways that improve equity and quality schooling for all students, and she regularly provides professional learning to school teachers in these areas. She has worked with government departments on projects such as the Victorian Inclusion Support Programme, and the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data for Students with Disabilities.

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She worked as a special teacher in mainstream settings before she completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield, UK, in inclusive education. She has worked in inclusive education in three countries: as a researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK, and as a lecturer at the University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, Greece, before moving to The University of Sydney. Her research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her current research projects focus on inclusive policy and practice within a rights perspective. A common thread of this work is a conceptual understanding of inclusive education as a transformation project requiring a paradigmatic shift in perceptions of both ability and education. Her publications include the book ‘Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice’ (co-authored with A.C. Armstrong and D. Armstrong) published by Sage in 2010.