Linda Graham

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.

There are definitely better ways to teach reading

Recent blog posts and articles in The Age have yet again stirred debates about the reading wars. We are writing this piece as a call for unity because we agree with the recent blog authors that there is no “perfect way” to teach reading. However, we know from both research and practice that are unequivocally better ways that are both more efficient and more effective for a diverse student cohort, including the most disadvantaged. 

Better ways to teach all students to read

Effective reading instruction involves using the most equitable and efficient teaching practices which result in the highest proportion of children in a class becoming literate. Such practices are informed by the most reliable evidence about the theoretical basis of a reading curriculum, its scope and sequence, and the pedagogies that are most effective. 

To teach reading equitably, teachers must be equipped to use practices that are designed to be beneficial for the most diverse student cohort, not just those in the middle of the curve or better. This is more socially just because it results in fewer children needing access to scarce intervention and support resources. 

To teach reading efficiently, teachers must be equipped to teach using methods known to have the greatest impact and provide the best support for all students to “crack the code” of the most complex writing system in the world, enabling them to move quickly beyond learning to read, into learning through reading. 

The reading wars stem from differences in beliefs as to how this is best achieved.

What are these differences?

Champions of implicit teaching argue that immersing a child in a print-rich environment in conjunction with using incidental instruction creates an environment in which children can learn to love reading. These champions emphasise that extracting meaning from text should always be the highest priority in any teaching moments. Some in this “camp” even argue that explicit and systematic instruction in reading subskills is harmful and can damage students’ potential love of reading while de-professionalising teachers. We have not yet found any empirical evidence to support these claims.

Champions of a structured approach, a group in which we count ourselves, promote the use of a carefully planned scope and sequence of reading instruction using practices supported by strong research evidence. They argue that reading is made of teachable subskills best taught explicitly with some skills being pivotal to the acquisition of subsequent skills and needing to be mastered first. The most common example is phonic decoding or “cracking the code” being a precursor to reading automatically and fluently to aid comprehension, along with developing strong vocabulary skills and background knowledge. This does not mean that decoding is all that is taught at first but is done in an integrated manner using a rich and varied range of books to build children’s background knowledge and vocabulary. These claims are supported by decades of international research and three national inquiries.

Which approach has the most evidence (with a capital “E”)?

There are different types of evidence and each approach above has an abundance of evidence to support it. However, the structured approach is backed by experimental and empirical research best suited to determining the effectiveness of a teaching practice in a classroom. Such research can also be further assessed through systematic reviews and meta-analyses, occupying the highest levels of evidence, meaning that confidence in the findings is higher.

Such research suggests systematic and explicit instruction in the reading subskills of phonemic awareness, decoding, and fluency are efficacious for teaching children to read more accurately and fluently in the early years. Research also indicates that students with learning difficulties and disabilities can master reading when they are provided early with systematic and explicit instruction, as opposed to incidental and implicit instruction, making this a more equitable approach to the teaching of reading. 

What does this evidence suggest?

It is important to support teachers by providing them with knowledge and skills through a framework that  supports teacher autonomy and decision-making to enable personalising of learning for students. However, the Four Resources model promoted in the recent blog is not the most helpful framework for reading instruction, nor does it have the most evidentiary support. 

The Four Resources Model rests on a conceptualisation of reading as a component of critical literacy, being a “mode of second guessing texts, discourses, and social formations”. The architects of the model argue that teaching reading relies on teachers selecting practices based on how they view students’ existing economic, social, cultural and linguistic assets for which the model maps a range of practices to use in response. We have not been able to locate any robust empirical research that affirms the Four Resources model as a theory of reading, or as a framework for teaching reading. 

The Cognitive Foundations Framework on the other hand, is an empirically-grounded and practical model for supporting teachers’ decision-making about instruction and support. It provides teachers with a clear map of students’ areas of strength and weakness in reading subskills. Such mapping provides teachers with a clear path to personalising teaching by identifying what individual students know and what they need to learn next to become skilled readers.

Figure 1: The Cognitive Foundations Network

Source: Graphic from Hoover and Tunmer (2019)

Our research and practice highlights the importance of preparing teachers to use approaches that are systematic and consistent across classes and schools. Teachers and leaders knowledgeable in these are the cornerstone of developing skilled readers and can ensure 95%-plus students achieve foundational skills. 

Many teachers we have worked with speak of their regret when they think of the students in their former classrooms who did not successfully learn to read: children who they now realise could have become successful readers. 

A call for unity 

Every year that we spend debating is another year that many children do not receive the instruction they need to learn to read. This locks them out from all that education has to offer, entrenching deficit perceptions and economic disadvantage. 

We need to focus on what we all share: a strong desire to create skilled readers and find ways to enhance the community standing of teaching by ensuring that knowledge that belongs to teachers is placed in their hands before they arrive in classrooms. 
Let’s give them the full set of professional knowledge and skills they need to truly personalise teaching and ensure every child learns to read and succeed at school.

From left to right (top row) Kate de Bruin, Pamela Snow, (bottom row) Linda Graham, Tanya Serry and Jacinta Conway

Kate de Bruin is a Senior Lecturer in Inclusion and Disability at Monash University. She has taught in secondary school and higher education for over two decades. As a high-school teacher she taught English for years 7-12, ran reading intervention, and provided cross-curriculum support to students with disabilities and learning difficulties. Pamela Snow is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the School of Education at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, Australia. In addition to experience in teacher education, she has taught a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate health professionals. Pamela is a registered psychologist, having qualified originally in speech-language pathology. Her research has been funded by nationally competitive schemes such as the ARC Discovery Program, ARC Linkage Program, and the Criminology Research Council, and concerns the role of language and literacy skills as academic and mental health protective factors in childhood and adolescence. 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. Tanya Serry is an Associate Professor (Literacy and Reading) in the School of Education and co-director of the SOLAR Lab. Previously, she taught in the Discipline of Speech Pathology. Her research interests centre on the policy and practices of evidence-based reading instruction and intervention practices for students across the educational lifespan. Jacinta Conway is a highly experienced educator who has spent 19 working in classrooms and educational leadership, overseeing and implementing a range of interventions and support for learners, both in primary and secondary settings.  She currently works as a learning intervention specialist and consultant. Jacinta has a Bachelor of Education (Primary) and a Masters in Learning Intervention (Specific Learning Difficulties). She sits on the council for Learning Difficulties Australia.

Do we really have a frightening school to prison pipeline in this country? Only one way to find out

Exclusionary discipline is on the rise in Australian schools, as highlighted by recent research in Queensland and South Australia. This is highly concerning that suspension does not address the reasons underlying behaviour and can instead exacerbate those behaviours. For some students, these experiences devolve into ongoing cycles of repeated suspensions. In the long term, students who experience exclusionary discipline tend to have lower educational outcomes than might have been expected and are far more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.  

Of even greater concern is the increasing body of research which shows that students from minority and marginalised groups are disproportionately represented. Such research emanates largely from the United States, where there has been decades of research showing that African American students receive suspensions for incidents that White students do not and that they also receive harsher consequences for the same infractions. 

Evidence of the entanglement between racial bias, overrepresentation in exclusionary school discipline, and overrepresentation in prison, prompted significant reforms to education and school discipline policy and practice in the United States. In 2014, the Obama Administration, together with the Office of Civil Rights, acted on the evidence by issuing a set of Guiding Principles. These principles reminded schools of the dangers of direct and indirect racial bias in the use of exclusionary discipline and advocated for the adoption of evidence-based frameworks that aim to improve school climate, student support, and teaching quality.

Despite the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our prison population, rigorous investigations of Australia’s “school-to-prison pipeline” are rare. Indigenous Australians represent 3.3% of the total population, but account for 29.6% of the adult prison population.  It has now been 30 years since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which found that Aboriginal people were “more likely to die in custody” due to their disproportionate representation in the prison system. 

We cannot afford more decades of research to confirm a link between the use of exclusionary school discipline and involvement in the criminal justice system; a link that has already been established internationally. Rather, we need to urgently identify whether Indigenous students are overrepresented in exclusionary school discipline across Australia, why, and, given its many known ill-effects, how to drastically curtail its use.  

Our recent research (with Associate Professor Kristin Laurens, School of Psychology and Counselling, and Centre for Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology and Associate professor Naomi Sweller, School of Psychological Science, Macquarie University) aimed to make a foundational contribution by examining trends in suspension, exclusion, and enrolment cancellation incidents in Queensland state schools, using publicly available data from the years 2013 to 2019. We investigated differences among Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in exclusionary discipline incidents proportionate to enrolments, and whether these trends were increasing or decreasing at different rates over time.

What do we know from these analyses?

We found that the use of exclusionary discipline in Queensland state schools has increased significantly for all students between 2013 and 2019. However, when disaggregating by Indigenous status, we found that this rise was significantly steeper for Indigenous students compared to non-Indigenous. There were also significant increases in exclusion rates and short suspensions for Indigenous students, but not for non-Indigenous.

Analysis of trends by year level showed that in 2019, suspension incidents peaked a year earlier (Grade 8) for Indigenous students compared to non-Indigenous (Grade 9). When considering the reasons for suspension, the highest degree of overrepresentation occurred for disruptive/disengaged behaviours, which includes categories such as ‘refusal to participate in the program of instruction’ and ‘absences’. 

We also considered trends by geographic location, finding that Indigenous students were disproportionately represented in all seven regions around Queensland, but most prominently in Darling Downs South West. In 2019, six regions had between 321.8 and 358.3 suspensions per 1000 students, while Darling Downs South West had 487 suspensions per 1000 students. There was no such diversity for non-Indigenous students with rates across the seven regions ranging between 85.4 and 139.4 per 1000 students.

What DON’T we know?

These analyses provide strong evidence that Indigenous students are disproportionately impacted by the use of exclusionary discipline in Queensland state schools. However, there remains much that we don’t know. 

For instance, the QLD Department of Education publishes the number of exclusionary discipline incidents, and not the number of students involved in those incidents. It is therefore impossible to tell how many suspensions went to the same students, and whether Indigenous students are receiving multiple suspensions at a greater rate than non-Indigenous students. 

Nor do we know whether these Indigenous students might also have a disability or be living in out-of-home care due to the absence of data disaggregated by Indigeneity, disability, living in out-of-home care, and gender.  

Our study points to an overrepresentation of Indigenous students in suspensions for infractions involving disruptive/disengaged behaviour, physical misconduct, and verbal or non-verbal misconduct. More research investigating the extent of potential racial bias in the reasons for issuing a suspension is required. 

Moreover, disruptive/disengaged infractions incorporate reasons such as ‘absences’ – i.e., truancy – meaning that there are students who are being excluded from school as a result of not attending school in the first place.    

Further questions include:

  • How much pressure to suspend are principals facing from other parents, teacher factions and the union? 
  • What is the average short suspension length for Indigenous students? Is it closer to the maximum (10 days) than the minimum and is there a significant difference to non-Indigenous students?
  • Why is the suspension rate significantly higher in Darling Downs South West region?
  • Is the peak in suspensions for Indigenous students occurring in Year 8 due to early school leaving?
  • Where do these students go? What relationship is there to juvenile justice involvement?
  • Most importantly, what do Indigenous students say is the reason they are getting suspended and excluded? What do THEY think needs to change?

Why it is critical to have a national inquiry into this problem and a national solution

The 2014 reforms implemented in the United States have had significant impact. One example is Chicago Public School (CPS) which restricted the use of exclusionary discipline by reducing permissible length and banning suspensions for minor infractions. Critically, CPS did not stop at discipline reform, but also undertook systemic inclusive school reform, by adopting Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is an evidence-based framework that aims to enhance students’ social-emotional learning, academic, and behavioural outcomes.

In the very same year, Queensland went the other way. 2014 brought about legislative reforms that permitted greater autonomy in the issuing of suspensions by principals and schools, while simultaneously abolishing students’ rights to appeal short suspensions and reducing the requirement to consult with parents and their children. As well, alterations were made to the length of ‘short’ and ‘long’ suspensions, with short suspensions being increased in length (from 1-5 days to 1-10 days), while long suspensions were reduced (5-20 days became 10-20 days).

The graph below shows suspension rates per 100 students before and after 2014, for Chicago Public Schools and Queensland State Schools. Notably, CPS rates of suspensions per 100 students dropped from 24.6 in 2012 to 5.17 in 2019. Conversely, in Queensland, suspension rates rose from 11.71 per 100 students in 2013 to 13.4 in 2019, with a peak in 2018 at 15.04. 

Evidence shows positive outcomes from: 

  • implementation of system-wide Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)
  • strict limits on and alternatives to the use of exclusionary discipline through legislative thresholds and safeguards
  • respectful and empathic teacher-student relationships
  • educative responses to discipline enacted within an inclusive school culture
  • systematic implementation of evidence-based practices, programs and interventions to support students’ academic, social-emotional and behavioural development.

Most critically, evidence from the US reforms indicates that the introduction of strict limits on the use of exclusionary discipline, such as banning suspension in the early years (K-3) and for minor reasons, as well as the provision of safeguards for priority equity groups (e.g., Indigenous students, students with disability, children in care) is a necessary first step for effective reform implementation. We cannot wait the decades that the US waited to respond to a problem that was staring them in the face. If some individual states won’t act, then the Australian government must.

Linda J. Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) and a Professor in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at 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 that teachers can find difficult to teach.

Dr Callula Killingly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT and a member of the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage Team (LP180100830). Her research interests include learning and memory processes, language and literacy development, and music cognition.

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.

Beginner teachers are NOT under prepared and NOT bad at managing behaviour. Here’s the evidence

For years claims have been circulating that newly graduated teachers are under prepared to teach in today’s often challenging classrooms, and that they are bad at classroom management. Thanks to mainstream media interest, and critics within education circles, these claims have led to an increasing array of government interventions in Initial Teacher Education in universities around Australia. What, how and to whom teacher education is delivered has been thoroughly examined and churned in the bid to improve teaching quality and student outcomes.

As teacher educators, intimately involved in teaching our new teachers and supporting them as they embark on their careers, we were deeply concerned about these claims so went looking for evidence of what was going wrong.

This blog post is about our research and what we found.

Be surprised, we found no evidence that beginning teachers in Australia are unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management.  

We believe extensive reforms have been made to Initial Teacher Education in Australia to ‘improve’ teacher quality without any evidence to support the claim that beginning teachers are less competent than experienced teachers.

Our research, carried out in Australian schools, found that most beginning teachers in fact engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues, and for most, behaviour management is not a problem.

Background on government ‘reforms’ to make teachers “classroom ready”

Following the now infamous 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, which formalised the (we believe false) claim that graduate teachers were unprepared for the classroom, Australian universities have responded to accreditation requirements by

Various state governments have also made changes that impact universities intake criteria and course content: Queensland, for example, has mandated that students entering primary teacher education degrees must have four semesters of sound achievement in English, Maths and Science. New South Wales has signalled that to be eligible for employment in NSW government schools, students commencing a teaching degree from 2019, must:

  • Receive a minimum credit grade point average in their university degree.
  • Prove sound practical knowledge and ability, which will be reflected by an assessment of every single practicum report.
  • Show superior cognitive and emotional intelligence measured via a psychometric assessment.
  • Demonstrate their commitment to the values of public education in a behavioural interview.

Those doing online degrees are out.

None of these measures are bad, in and of themselves, although they have created significant compliance burden for teacher educators and schools of education, as well as increasing the fiscal pressure on schools and faculties of education.

The problem is that these interventions into university teacher education have come without any supporting empirical evidence that beginning teachers are less competent than their more experienced colleagues.

Our research into the teaching quality and classroom management skills of newly graduated teachers

What research method did we use?

There are different ways of measuring the quality of teaching. The two main ways involve using test scores (like NAPLAN for example) or by observing teachers teaching, and measuring the presence or absence of teaching practices known to add positively to students’ social, behavioural, and academic outcomes. The latter method is, of course, much more expensive because it uses direct observation, but it also can’t be manipulated like test scores can.

One method of direct observation is the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) observation measure developed by University of Virginia education specialists Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta. We used this method in our six-year longitudinal study.

In our paper published in Teaching and Teacher Education this week, we compare the CLASS scores of beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience) and experienced teachers (more than 3 years’ experience) and found no significant differences between the groups.

We used the CLASS system in our study investigating the development of severely disruptive behaviour of students because we were interested in learning the contribution made by the quality of teaching. In the very first year of this six-year longitudinal study, we noticed three standout teachers who were all in their early 20s and wrote about it in the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

That’s also when we decided to ask how many years our teacher participants had been teaching in our research interviews because we were interested to see whether the excellent practice we were seeing bore out over time with a much larger number of participants.

Six years later, we can finally reveal: yes, it does and no, those three early career teachers were not an anomaly. Beginning teachers really do cut it.

We then broke our experienced teacher category into two (4-5 years and more than 5 years) and compared the CLASS scores of teachers in these groups with beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience). This time there were significant differences with the 4-5 year experience group achieving significantly lower quality in three dimensions: Productivity, Instructional Learning Formats, and Negative Climate.

Importantly, there were very few participants in the 4-5 year experience group. While these findings do align with the possibility of a post three-year decline for some teachers, the findings should be interpreted with caution as extreme outliers can have a disproportionate influence on group means.

What’s the upshot?

We followed more than 200 students over six years and very few of their teachers declined participation. Their length of teacher experience ranged from 3 weeks to 38 years.

Basically, beginning teachers performed just as well as, or better than, teachers with more years of experience, regardless of the groups we compared them with. And, while all research is impacted by self-selection to some degree, in this study that was mitigated by our relationship with and presence in seven participating schools and the longitudinal nature of our project.

We found no evidence that beginning teachers were unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management. In fact, we found that most beginning teachers engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues. And behaviour management was the second highest scoring dimension of the 10 dimensions measured by the CLASS.

This evidence is good news for beginning teachers who must have been feeling pretty bruised in recent years and good news for preservice teachers who are scaling an increasing number of hurdles to prove their worth. It is also good news for teacher educators who work incredibly hard under enormous pressure to continually revise and refine their content and to support their students to do well.

Rather than implementing any more graduation hurdles designed to “vet” entry to the profession or further destabilising university teacher education, governments need to look at the evidence and turn instead to finding better ways of directing support to all teachers and provide intelligently targeted, quality professional learning to those who need it.

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda is currently Chief Investigator on several externally funded research projects including “Which children develop severely disruptive school behaviour?”, a six-year longitudinal study funded by the Australian Research Council. She has published more than 80 books, chapters, and journal articles, as well as numerous pieces published in The Conversation.

Associate Professor Sonia White is an academic in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education and researcher in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT. Sonia is a registered mathematics teacher and her research investigates children’s early learning and development.

Dr Kathy Cologon is a senior lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. Kathy has a particular interest in research and practice relating to the development and support of inclusive education, with a view towards greater recognition of the rights of all children.

Professor Robert Pianta is Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and founding Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). He is a leading expert in the field of developmental psychology with much of his research devoted to supporting teachers use of quality teaching practices that best support children’s academic, social-emotional and behavioural development. With his colleagues at CASTL, he has led the development of well-known measures including the Teacher-Student Relationship Scale and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS).

21 simple design elements that will make any School Assessment Task sheet accessible

If you have a child in secondary school in Australia, you are probably familiar with assessment task sheets. They outline the task a student has to complete and how it will be assessed. The criteria and standards that will be used to evaluate the performance are included. Often the task sheet will also aim to excite and motivate students to engage with a real-world problem or life-like performance that is relevant and meaningful to them.

Assessment task sheets are really invitations for students to create a performance to show others what they know.

Yet for many students these days, the complexity of the invitation can lead them to give up before they even start. It is a growing problem as assessment task sheets become increasingly complicated documents.

They often now contain a lot of information only intended for adult audiences because they can be used to help justify assessment decisions to parents, and can serve accountability purposes by providing evidence that the teacher has complied with the requirements of a syllabus. So they could feature technical terms from the syllabus and more information than is necessary for student understanding.

For students with language and attentional difficulties, these multiple purposes and the complexity of tasks can present barriers that prevent them from successfully participating in the assessment. Complex assessment task sheets can therefore be unfair.

We believe it is possible to design assessment tasks and write up accompanying assessment task sheets that allow more students to participate than is currently the case. Our research shows design techniques that support teachers to do this.

Currently many teachers spend precious time retrospectively adjusting tasks and rewriting task sheets to give access to students experiencing difficulties. It is a practice that is time-consuming for busy teachers and so is typically only done for students with severe disabilities.

In Australia, however, it is a federally legislated requirement for reasonable adjustments to be made to support all students with disability to access their education on the same basis as students without disability, as described in the Disability Standards for Education.

So we see our work in this field as being relevant to all teachers in every subject and at every level, whenever they are designing and writing an assessment task for their students. If the task is designed and written in an accessible way, students with language and attentional difficulties can do the same task using the same task sheet and teachers will no longer need to create other versions, readjust or rewrite for these students.

But… could this give some students an unfair advantage?

A key barrier to accessible assessment is the fear that reasonable adjustments could lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of the assessment or that they provide an unfair advantage to students with a disability. However, this would only be true if the benefit were not universal or if the main aim of the assessment was to test students’ ability to interpret assessment task sheets.

If accessible assessment tasks are proactively planned and provided to all students, then the benefit is universal. And, if the assessment task focuses on the knowledge or skill being assessed (the first order priority of assessment), then it is still a valid and fair assessment.

Importantly, as Joy Cumming and Graham Maxwell have previously pointed out, when second-order priorities (such as the accountability purposes of assessment) complicate assessment purposes to the extent that the assessment task itself creates barriers to student access and participation, then the result is not a true reflection of that student’s response to the (first-order) purpose of the assessment and the assessment is therefore inequitable.

The challenge is to design assessment that is accessible from the outset of planning, so that teachers can maximise opportunities for all learners to have access to assessment tasks.

Challenges of access that students must overcome

We analysed a typical Year 8 English task sheet and considered the visual, procedural and linguistic complexity of the task sheet design to highlight how some assessment practices may inadvertently affect access and therefore equity.

There are three considerable challenges students must face to correctly interpret an assessment task and successfully demonstrate their learning. These are: –

  • Comprehending what the task is about
  • Working out what has to be done
  • Understanding the parameters in which to do it

Access can be made easier or more difficult depending on the way the assessment task is presented; both in terms of visual presentation and in terms of the language used. The number and type of procedures required can also differentially affect students’ successful completion of the task.

This approach to analysis helped us to produce a list of recommended design elements that will be useful to teachers as they plan and write up their assessment tasks.

Design elements that support making assessment tasks accessible

Visual accessibility

The layout of the task sheet helps the students access the important elements of the task

  • The most important information is easy to find
  • White space is used to separate sections
  • Text size aids readability (11 or 12 point font with 1.5 line spacing)
  • Margins are left-justified
  • Visual cues direct student attention
  • Information that is irrelevant to students is not included

Procedural accessibility

Consistency and clarity of instructions

  • Authentic context is relevant
  • Common access barriers have been addressed in the design
  • The task, objectives and criteria align
  • Students are able to respond within the prescribed conditions
  • Enough space and resources are provided for responses
  • The assessment is scheduled to give students the best opportunity for success
  • Processes for evaluating quality are clear
  • Authentication strategies are included
  • Student feedback on the draft task was sought
  • Teacher peer feedback on draft task was sought

Linguistic accessibility

Directions are clear

  • Instructions are clear and direct
  • Sentences are short and simply structured
  • The language is free of bias
  • Specialist language is defined using student-friendly terms
  • Information is stated once only and if it needs to be referenced more than once, consistent terminology is used

Encouraging results from using these recommendations

We used an accessibility checklist based on these recommendations to support teachers in their assessment design work in two secondary schools participating in our research.

Significantly, teachers who participated in this research reported that students who had not previously found success were able to demonstrate their learning with new levels of confidence.

We believe proactive accessible assessment design has the potential to increase the assessment participation and success of all students, especially those with language and attentional difficulties.

An added bonus is that designing for accessibility from the outset promises to reduce teacher workload due to fewer requests for clarification from students and less need for retrospective adjustments.

 

More in our open access paper Designing out barriers to student access and participation in secondary school assessment

 

Haley Tancredi is a Master of Philosophy (Education) candidate at QUT. A certified practicing speech pathologist, Haley also presently works for Brisbane Catholic Education. Haley’s research and clinical interests are adolescents with language disorder, student voice and teacher/speech pathologist collaboration in inclusive classrooms. Haley is also an active #WeSpeechie on Twitter @HaleyTanc.

 

 

 

Linda Graham is a Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham and at linda.graham@qut.edu.au

 

 

Jill Willis is an assessment researcher and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She investigates how educators promote learner agency and equity through their everyday assessment practices. You can reach her via Twitter: @JillWteachEd

 

 

 

Kelli McGraw is a lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her current research is on the role of social media technologies in engaging first year university students, and the use of online writing for assessment. Previously she worked as a teacher of high school English in South-western Sydney, NSW. Kelli is the Vice President of the English Teachers Association of Queensland. You can reach her via Twitter: @kmcg2375

 

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.

Expensive new government funded website for schools fails to deliver

Students with disabilities often struggle in Australian schools. There have been many inquiries and reports over the years that tell us this. Of course, students with disability struggle for a range of reasons but a major one is the lack of funding for support materials that can be used by teachers with the responsibility of educating them. So when funds do become available it is very important for them to be spent carefully and wisely.

Our post is about a new resource, the Leading Learning 4 all website, which was commissioned by the Australian government in response to the latest review of the Disability Standards for Education in 2015. The resource aims to promote inclusive school practices but we believe it makes some fundamental mistakes.

We decided to air our concerns here because it might help raise awareness of the issues involved and hopefully improve future support and resources for teachers involved in educating children with disability.

What is “Leading Learning 4 all”?

Leading Learning 4 all is a website developed by the Australian Special Education Principals Association and built by Schoolzine Pty Ltd.  The idea for the website is it that it will be a place where teachers and schools can go for ideas and to learn strategies that will help them with the education of children with disability. The website aims to develop a repository of inclusive teaching practices across Australia, which will be added to over time.

It claims to be organised around the Disability Standards for Education for Australian schools and is aimed at school leaders. It cost taxpayers $622,000.

We believe this was money poorly spent and a great opportunity wasted.

The bulk of the resources available on this site are in the form of videos and schools are invited to upload their own.

The website states that these videos “are not intended to be crafted, professionally directed pieces”. The idea is if teachers and schools upload their own videos of what they are doing with their students with disabilities, this will help develop a repository of practice that will be useful to others looking for help.

Although this signals respect for the teaching profession, it also assumes that school practitioners have the means and technical know-how to generate videos that are appropriate for broader use.

One fundamental problem with this site is poor modelling

Teachers and school leaders will look towards the existing videos on the site as a guide. We should expect they would be good models of the things teachers and schools might aim for.

For starters, the videos are both low-tech and low quality, so on a production level alone they do not provide a good model for amateur video producers to work towards.

But we have identified far more serious problems with the videos on this site.

For now, we will highlight just three: poor accessibility, flawed representation of students with disability, and incorrect interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education.

Poor accessibility

The provision of accessibility, such as text captioning—to enable access to information and equitable participation—is basic to any resource intended for students with a disability.

At the time of our investigation of the website, there was a video with the captions presented in the Dutch language and two videos with no captioning at all. The remaining videos only had auto-generated captioning by YouTube.

This practice does not comply with international accessibility expectations and organisations have been asked to lift their game. For example, the US Ministry of Justice last year ruled that the automatically generated captions on Berkeley University’s YouTube channel “were inaccurate and incomplete, making the content inaccessible to individuals with hearing disabilities”.

This is not the only accessibility problem with the videos and we have listed others below:

  • no pre-recorded sign language, or available scripts of the videos
  • continual background music in the videos that could distort what viewers hear
  • many resources are in PDF format, which means they need to be downloaded and filled-in, presumably using a pen or pencil. No other formats are provided
  • no glossary or plain English information
  • no contacts for translation or interpreting services. While the website can be translated using Google Translate, this service lacks accuracy in translating policy and legislation. In a multilingual society like Australia providing support to families from non-English speaking background to access information in their language is an essential advocacy practice
  • The information provided for sensory disability (as a handout) makes no reference to digital accessibility. In our fast-changing technological world, teachers need to be aware of how technology can be both a facilitator and a barrier to students with disability

Flawed representations of students with disability

Students are present in just 7 of the 17 videos available on the website in the Interpreting the Disability Standards for Education section. In these 7 videos, 11 of the 12 students featured have an obvious disability.

One indicative video in the section Reasonable Adjustments with the title ‘Adjustments in the Curriculum’, has the credit “Sue and Students, Teacher [school name]”. The teacher, Sue, is sitting between two girls and starts talking to the camera:

“The two girls are from grade 3/4. One is a hearing-impaired girl and the other girl is not hearing impaired. They both work on Maths on money recognition and simple addition and equivalency. And they are working with me together in the deaf facility because they are at a similar level and it gives them some focus with me in a smaller group situation. So girls, let’s have a look…”

Sue keeps talking to the girls for another two seconds and the video ends. The ‘girls’, who have no names and no voice and who have been introduced by their impairment (or lack thereof), are treated more like props than thinking, feeling humans.

This is a huge concern because a central feature of inclusive education is the use of person-first language. While there are exceptions with some communities or individuals electing to be known as ‘Deaf’ or ‘Autistic’, this is a personal choice and should not be assumed.

School children should therefore never be referred to as a ‘hearing impaired girl’ or a ‘Down syndrome boy’ because of the risk that they will be defined by their disability. Disability is only ever an aspect of humanity and not the sum of who a person is. The respectful use of language should be a basic consideration in any resource relating to inclusive education.

It is also not at all clear what adjustment is being made in this video example, what relevance this adjustment has to hearing impairment, or why the lesson needs to occur in the deaf facility, especially when the second girl is not hearing impaired.

Rather than an exemplar of inclusive practice, this video example appears to be about reverse integration—a concept that is deeply entrenched in special education traditions.

Interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education

Both the 2012 and the 2015 reviews of the Disability Standards for Education have commented on the lack of confidence that schools and teachers feel in interpreting the key terms of the Standards. Despite the emphasis on training, schools still struggle with the concepts of ‘on the same basis as’, ‘consultation’ and ‘reasonable adjustments’, which are all examples of the key terms of the Standards.

The examples provided in the Leading Learning 4 all website do not assist in clarifying these terms. They instead provide a poor model to guide practice. This is exemplified in a video on ‘consulting with students’ where collaboration between teachers and a physiotherapist to develop a fitness program to enable a student’s participation in sport is discussed, without once mentioning whether or how the student was consulted in the process.

Why the problems with this site need to be fixed

Everyone involved in the education of students with disability should understand the fundamental concepts and practices underpinning inclusive education; concepts as simple as ‘consultation’ and practices as important as using person-first language.

We strongly support the development of quality resources for teachers and schools to enhance their inclusive practices. Unfortunately, the Australian government’s Leading Learning 4 all website falls short of this aim and may lead well-meaning educators to unknowingly engage in practices that are both discriminatory toward, and stigmatising of, students with disability.

Rather than addressing poor practice, this website risks perpetuating it. And, if the Australian Government’s own inclusion website does not model inclusive practice, who will?

An example of videos that DO model expectations and good practice

We thought you might like to see what we do consider to be a great example of modelling and expectations.

The Reasonable Adjustments Project developed in England produced a manual and DVDs in 2005. The DVDs are now available on YouTube. They are of high quality and consistently use sign language interpretation and embedded subtitles.

The Leading Learning 4 all website represents a costly, missed opportunity for the Australian Government to do the same for the Australian school context.

 

Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has been involved in teacher education in special and inclusive education both in Greece and Australia. She has experience working with general and special education teachers in the area of theories of inclusive education, and the nexus of policy and school practice. Ilektra’s research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her publications include the book Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice.

Linda Graham is an Associate Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham

 

Ben Whitburn is a Lecturer of Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. Ben draws on critical disability studies, policy sociology, and insider perspectives to research and teach principles of inclusive schooling in theory, policy and teacher practice. He tweets @BenWhitburn

 

Parent-teacher partnerships: poisoned by ‘bad parent’ click bait

onnecThe late January back-to-school ritual has turned ugly. Among the cute little stories about multiple sets of twins beginning school together and the healthy snacks parents can concoct for their child’s lunchbox, is a new form of click-bait that blames parents for coddling their child and turning them into monsters that harried teachers then have to deal with.

One particular piece would have us believe parents feed their children nothing but junk, allow them to stay up to all hours then pass their “already tired” offspring to beleaguered teachers at the end of six weeks of holiday chaos. Mums and dads (but typically mums) then lie in wait for about the first two weeks, at which point they begin to “whinge” about their child’s teacher.

Have you noticed how opinion pieces like this follow a predictable pattern? First come the generalisations, then incitement to outrage, followed by the taking of sides (always the right one) and self-righteous advice gained from the perfect personal experience.

Another example of this type of ‘bad parent’ click bait features a series of rants by anonymous teachers about the horrors of teaching today’s school students. Seriously.

These articles may well do what they have been created to do, act as click-bait, but they are just plain awful when it comes to nurturing parent-teacher relationships in Australia.

They also have a nostalgic air; they present as a short-form journalistic ode to the ‘good ‘ole days’ when children were seen and not heard. Are we supposed to believe that no one parents well these days, even though a large proportion of teachers are also parents?

Evidence shows that today’s parents are probably working harder at parenting than at any time previously. Whilst it is always possible to find examples of neglectful or ineffective parenting (both now and in mythical golden-ages), those parents aren’t helped by contempt directed at them by the media.

And here I will add that teacher staff room gossip about parents should be included in things that are not helpful. Staffroom gossip can also breed an unhealthy feedback cycle that works to build reputations around particular kids and families. The result is that some students never get a fair go.

What’s worse is that it can set up a vicious triangle that works to keep teachers, students and parents at odds. The teacher generally ends up being at the long end of the triangle and it is very difficult to get a positive outcome from there.

What my research tells me

One thing that has come across very loud and clear in the many student interviews I have conducted is that no matter how dysfunctional their family background, children still feel love for their main caregivers.

When asked if there was anything they would change about themselves if they could, one boy replied that he wished that he could turn back time. He wanted to go back to the time before he was taken away from his mum, before she became addicted to drugs and alcohol, before she would lie on the floor in her own blood and vomit.

Children often know when teachers speak and think ill of their families. The resentment towards teachers felt by some of the young people in my research was palpable and many indicated that they reserve their worst behaviour for the teachers they perceive as judging them and their families.

Many teachers will know that one sure-fire method kids use to start a fight in the playground is to call another kid’s mum a “slut”.

But, what doesn’t seem to be as well understood is that the disapproving glances, dismissive air, imperious tone, and short shrift that some teachers give when interacting with parents is picked up by their children.

And it makes those childen angry. It makes them both defensive and protective. It makes them feel inferior. What it doesn’t do is help.

The strongest message that came through these student interviews is that, if forced, kids will back the people they love.

We need to reject the parent versus teacher positioning

That’s what worries me about click-bait that positions parents as inept and teachers as victims. Such articles exacerbate an “us v them” mentality.

It gives licence to hostile teacher behaviours that can affect a whole school’s culture. Over time, the more positive teachers may leave, taking with them the possibility of seeing and doing things differently.

The end result can be a war-zone with rampant bullying and physical aggression between students, complete disrespect for teachers, high absenteeism and very little learning.

Places much like the schools described in one of those articles. But rather than question how these schools became like that or what we can do to fix them, it seems easier or perhaps more entertaining to just blame parents and the ‘monsters’ they’ve produced.

Schools need involved parents

Parents are great advocates and many (mothers in particular) contribute a significant portion of their time to fund-raising for their local school, sitting on P&C committees, and/or supporting teachers in reading groups, going on excursions and donating class supplies.

This occurs much more now than in the good ‘ole days because many schools are critically under-resourced.

Children who have parents who are involved in their schooling, even on a very simple level, can have a much more positive experience. Teachers who get to know parents can find new ways to connect with their students.

For this to occur, we need to acknowledge that productive parent-teacher partnerships benefit all involved: students, parents and teachers.

So, as tempting as it might be, we have to resist the click bait because it won’t help any of us form those partnerships.

GrahambigLinda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.