During the research phase of my doctoral studies I concluded that all teachers understand that inclusion means all students being educated together fairly. This is not a shocking revelation, of course educators know what inclusive education is- it has been around for a few decades! However, what intrigued me was the comments that followed the simple question ‘what is inclusive education?’. In answering my practice-based questions, many of my participants acknowledged a distinct grouping of students: ‘mainstream’ students & ‘special education’ students (inclusive of students with behavioral challenges and, at times, EAL). The latter group was often referred to as the ‘students who fall under inclusion’. This example highlights the common conflict between theory and practice.
The conflict between the two can be explored in multiple dissertations. However, a recurring theme in the world of inclusive education is ‘if we say, if we write, it is true’. With education changing with every new government, we rarely have time to explore the system, let alone track our reforms. As well, taking the time to have the tough conversations surrounding the topic of inclusive education does not happen. And, as we are well aware, finances for education come and go like the tide. Creating accessible environments takes a lot of money, especially when it involves updating buildings from the 1950s & 1960s. If we do not create accessible environments for all our students, how can we expect all our students to be able to participate and achieve at school?
This conflict is frustrating, it is unfair, and perpetuates the divisive thinking common in today’s school systems: students that are able & students that are disabled- those who fall under inclusion. The problem is we can no longer view inclusion through a medical lens. We must view it through a social lens- ALL students fall under inclusion. With the release of the Salamenca Statement calling on all governments to create welcoming and inclusive schools, inclusion should have transitioned from ‘fixing’ students with disabilities to reducing barriers of access within our neighbourhood schools. Our policies and our words represent an approach to inclusive education that aligns with the social perspective; however, our actions align more with that of the medical perspective.
It is common to hear people say ‘Inclusion is not working’- I think this is rubbish! Inclusion works, and it is the only approach one can take to society. What is not working are the systems and the structures in our schools that never changed when inclusion policies were introduced a few decades ago. For example, we have one curriculum guide (based on grade levels). You either meet it or you don’t. In inclusive settings, our curriculums should look more like a spectrum with different access points. Focusing on the ‘Report Card’ should take a back seat to ensuring all our students are given fair learning opportunities. Remedial support programs are currently in the form of add-ons and pull-outs. Instead, resource support should be fully integrated into the school day at the appropriate times. When we start pulling students out and patching in remedial support programs, the divisive thinking of those who can and those who cannot continues. Standardized testing is still a large component of many school systems, unless you are working from an individualized plan. I always wonder how you can track the success of inclusive systems by tracking the scores of some students. Instead, we should be looking at ways to ensure all our students are succeeding in school, all our students are active participants, and all our students can be present in the school setting (ie, schools physically support our students).
Just today a teacher asked me about whether a student was capable of being in music class because she does not participate. I gave a few suggestions, but the most important piece of advice I could give to ensure the success of this student is about building a relationship. Without that piece, this child will not feel comfortable enough to take any risks. AND the teacher will not feel comfortable enough in providing the appropriate support. The response was that she does not have time to build a relationship with the student. What this example highlights is the notion of conflict- conflict between what a student ought to receive and what teachers can reasonably do in today’s schools. There is never time! Time is necessary to build relationships, it is necessary to plan lessons that allow for all students to participate appropriately, and time is necessary to construct school communities that are open, welcoming and inclusive.
How does this tie into what my research so nicely emphasized? Our policies are written to reflect the importance of inclusion being about ALL students achieving, being present, and being participative. However, our practice is still indicative about inclusion as a means to include often excluded groups. Our inclusive practice is reflective of the medical model because, with the introduction of inclusion, very little changed in the systems and structures that are the foundation of our school systems. Without these changes, educators often struggle to shift their mind from one perspective to another. In this case, the conflict stems from us knowing that inclusion is about everyone as individuals and part of society (a social responsibility to reduce barriers and increase access for all). However, our systems and our structures are indicative of the medical model (the impairment is the problem). This conflict has created a divisive system. Without creating accessible systems and infrastructure, how can we shift our thinking from looking at inclusion as a means to include excluded groups to viewing inclusion as an approach to society?
I often write about changing the little things in your practice and your class community in order to increase your inclusive pedagogy. I am a firm believer that is one of the most important steps in the journey from exclusive education to inclusive education. In this case, our practice needs to be reflective of our policies. In order to do this, the systems and structures need to change. Buildings need to be well-planned and accessible, furniture needs to be level and sturdy, curriculum guides need to change, standardized assessments need to be revisited, and collaboration between programs and services needs to strengthen. School systems need to abandon special education jargon and move towards inclusive language. However trivial some of these changes seem, they are key in supporting the mind shift in how we view inclusive education.
We no longer have separate schools or segregated classrooms. Our policies and our words call for a fair and just education for all students. However, we still have a very long way to go in improving our system to make sure all students have the opportunity to an equitable education system.