Jenna Gillett-Swan

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.

No child should be sacrificed for the ‘greater good’ of a school or ‘best interests’ of majority. This is what child rights is about

Everyone has the right to safe working conditions and environments including children. This right is not negated by misbehaviour or convenience, or because a child’s removal from a situation or classroom will make the rest of the class easier to manage. 

I am not saying that children should be permitted to ‘get away’ with whatever they want and that actions should have no consequence. However, our obligations under various human rights treaties (to which Australia is a signatory) mandates that behaviour management should always be implemented in a way that respects the human dignity of the individual regardless of what they are alleged to have done.

You would think most people would agree with me, but debate following media headlines about the use of restrictive practices in schools – especially when relating to students with a disability and/or challenging behaviour – indicates that public opinion is very divided on the use of physical restraint and/or punishment for children in education contexts.

Exactly what happened in each of these cases is often not clear, however everyone seems to have an opinion about the actions taken and broadcast in the media. As I see it, these cases open up a bigger issue that we need to talk about.

The bigger issue we need to talk about

The bigger, yet unexamined, issue that underlies this debate is the ‘acceptability’ of mistreating an individual if their mistreatment is considered to be in the majority’s ‘best interests’. It is a battle where the rights of the many are perceived to trump the rights of the individual.

This battle plays out in numerous ways in schools. For example, we can see it in responses to systemic pressures such as NAPLAN performance, where lower achieving students are given permission to not attend school on testing days in the ‘best interests’ of the school’s reputation. It is also visible when schools attempt to justify the exclusion of students with disabilities or challenging behaviour because it ‘puts a strain’ on resources or the teacher.

A more subtle example is when teachers reward or punish children for behavioural or academic choices by restricting who is and is not permitted to use the toilet during class.

Schools and teachers play a vital role in helping shape children’s lives and the way children interact with one another and the world around them. Respecting children’s rights through daily school practices has wider reaching effects than keeping a child in class to learn or training them to use the bathroom at appropriate times.

In our research, my colleagues and I consistently come across such examples. So much so that it has become a theme over multiple projects: many students feel their rights are not respected at school. The examples we have noted relate to choices, respect, control, and the inability to enact basic rights (e.g. going to the toilet) for what might seem to the students to be arbitrary reasons.

The denial of basic rights, including being removed or excluded from education experiences because their removal is deemed to be in the ‘best interests’ of the majority, often fails to assure the child’s right to education in a way that respects their human dignity. Children may then develop a mistrust of adults who ultimately want to help them. This may lead to reluctance to go to teachers about other rights or general concerns such as safety/protection, self-harm, discrimination, or generally just feeling low.

This many/few tension is also not unique to adult-child interactions. There are also many examples of parents and teachers battling for assurance that their rights as an individual will not be lost in what is thought to be in the ‘best interests’ of the majority. There are frequent cases where teachers have actively advocated for the rights of their students (or groups of students) to counter restrictive policy or governmental mandates.

How do rights actually work?

The problem with much current discourse is that it pits rights groups against each other. It presents a view that certain rights or the rights of certain people are more/less important than others, when this is not the case.

Whether considering the rights of a child or rights of an adult, we are all humans, and all human rights are indivisible, interconnected, universal, and equal.

In the same way there is no quota for rights (i.e. only a certain number of rights to go around), they are also not something that can be ‘traded off’ for convenience or due to complexity.

There may be times when rights may indeed seemingly compete with one another. For example, when being verbally confrontational, an individual’s right to ‘freely express themselves’ may be thought to conflict with another’s right to protection from harm if the individual’s self-expression is considered abusive.

However, the right to protection from harm includes protection from physical or mental violence, injury or abuse. So, if the individual’s self-expression is deemed discriminatory or abusive in nature (e.g. in some cases of bullying or verbal abuse), it is actually subject to restrictions as “necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others…”.

This means that being abusive, discriminatory, physically or emotionally violent towards another is certainly not an individual right or entitlement. The right of the individual to be protected from harm outweighs the ‘right’ of the individual to freely express themselves, as abusive/discriminatory expressions of this nature are not actually part of the right to freely express oneself at all.

These and other similar rights tensions represent a fundamental misunderstanding of human rights and what they constrain and enable. It is these misunderstandings that contribute to a polarising focus on absolutes. These absolutes then distract from the main issue of wide acceptance when the choice is made to restrict or sacrifice an individual or group’s rights for the ‘greater good.’

An associated problem with this many/few discourse, especially for education, is that pitching groups against each other (majorities vs minorities; teachers vs students; students vs students; parents vs teachers) also discourages members of these groups from listening to each other.

Significant transformation can occur when different stakeholders actually start listening to one another, and perhaps more importantly, actively seek ways to authentically engage with and act on students expressed needs and experiences.

All stakeholders ultimately have the same goal. That is, to try to ensure and assure that all children are provided with a quality education that fosters the holistic development of each child. Trying to act in the best interests of the majority can therefore neglect a significant and underutilised resource in seeking to understand the student experience from the perspective of students themselves.

Benefits of teachers and schools listening to students

Recently we worked with a school on their journey to seek, include, and act upon wellbeing matters identified by students. Through this process, the school evaluated, refined, added, and developed student wellbeing provisions to connect directly to what mattered to students.

Throughout the project (funded by QLD Government Horizon Grant), students valued being able to “work on something that’s impactful for the school… normally we don’t get to do that kind of thing… Teachers and adults are [now] able to see our point of view of things that are happening around the school” (Grade 9 student) and actively contribute to enhancing the school experience. Students referred to developing greater confidence in themselves, as well as leadership, and transferable academic and critical thinking skills as a result of their project activities.

Student voice can be powerful. Some of the benefits we found in our research, include:-

  • Student voice can strengthen existing relationships between students and staff, or cultivate the formation of new relationships.
  • Student voice enables preventative and proactive resolutions for school related decisions
  • Student voice increases mutual understandings and respect of multiple perspectives, even when you may not personally agree with the perspective.
  • Student voice supports all members of the school community in feeling valued, connected and invested in the school experience.

Obtaining a better understanding of the student experience from the student perspective also enables greater insight into students lived realities and can change the way adults and children respond to one another.

When decisions are made that affect students, they are often not consulted or provided the opportunity to give feedback. Being authentic in seeking and actively including students in decisions and processes relating to their school experience also enables greater ownership and connectedness to the process of education and reiterates that they are a valued stakeholder – not just a passive consumer.

Ultimately, listening to all children enables greater insight into what really matters for students in the school environment and whether the interventions and strategies that we as adults are focused on, are actually able to address each child’s identified needs.

Respecting rights is enacting the core business of schools

When teachers and other school staff listen to and respect the rights of all their students, they are enacting the core business of education; that is, to support the full and holistic development of the individual “to their fullest potential.” As one teacher noted, they’re “starting to notice already, it’s changing the culture of how teachers are starting to view their role, like I’m not just a [subject] teacher, I’m a teacher of a student. Looking at the student holistically and looking at the mindset of teachers…”

Working in partnership with students supports a rights centred approach to education in fostering the “development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” while enabling “the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality… and friendship among all…”

In doing so, we are one step closer to an educational system that is more equipped to support the diversity of each child, in all contexts. We need to assure the child’s right to “preparation for responsible life in a free society” and protect that right against the tendency for some to believe the rights of the few/individual should be sacrificed to enable the rights of the many.

Jenna Gillett-Swan is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on wellbeing, rights, voice, inclusion, and participation. She also specialises in qualitative child-centred participatory research methodologies. Jenna is the Children’s Rights Research Strand Leader for the QUT Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group, co-convenor of the Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network of the European Educational Research Association .  Jenna is on Twitter  @jkgillettswan. She is co-founder of #ChildRightsChat Twitter chat

Jenna is participating in the forum Child Rights and Wellbeing at School as part of the Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour (#SELB) Research Group at QUT on Wednesday 20th Feb.

  • The image on this blog is a joint effort by three students working together during our research project. They were asked to think about what a school with wellbeing would look like, and this is what they came up with.