Learning for all: the essential role of teachers in inclusive education

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Inclusive education has been a universally acknowledged goal for over two decades, since Salamanca Statement (1994). This goal has been further strengthened by the Convention on the Rights of persons with disabilities (2006) and the Sustainable Development Goals (2015), the former making inclusive education a fundamental human right and the latter tying it to a broader global development agenda. The central role of the teacher cannot be underestimated if we aim to provide universal and inclusive education for all.

Countries across the globe are making efforts to develop inclusive education in their unique contexts. At the same time, the collaborative efforts by international agencies such as the World Bank, UNICEF, IIEP, UNECSO, donors and others in addition to the local and international DPOs focus on building a common understanding of the need for systemic change at the global and local levels.
 
Thus, while we aim at building a common understanding of inclusive education we very often mean different things with the word “inclusion.” That is why international comparative research is needed to shed light on the different understandings of inclusive education in different countries and on the ways in which the unique cultural historical background of a country affects the enactment of inclusion in the local context. The role of teachers is critical in this regard.


Policies supporting inclusive education

Key to success are teacher education policies that support positive teacher attitudes and the implementation of inclusive education in each unique country specific context the best possible way, recognizing that approaches that work well in a high-income country (e.g. large cadres of professional support staff) may not be available in a lower-income country. In any case, it is important that the teacher is not left alone but supported by encouraging leadership, other teachers and as much as possible by other professionals available in the school or wider community.
 
For example, studies analyzing teacher perspectives on inclusive education, found that the directly pro-inclusion policy environment in South Africa translated clearly into positive teacher attitudes. However, at the same time, mainly due to the lack of clear implementation goals and resources for support staff, teachers seem to be a bit at a loss about how to enact inclusive practices in their own classrooms. When asked why, they pointed to the lack of knowledge of how to implement inclusive education.    
 
In Finland, the quite vague policy environment allows for various local interpretations of educational arrangements, some of which are clearly more and some clearly less inclusive. However, despite the weak policy guidance, most teachers are motivated to do their best. Mostly because they are supported by a large cadre of professional support staff and in some instances, they have developed innovative inclusive solutions within their own classrooms.


From ‘pockets of inclusion’ towards scalability

However, unfortunately many solutions that support inclusive education remain merely as ‘pockets of inclusion’ hidden inside education systems as they are rather individual applications of pedagogy that supports inclusion, than systemic implementation of inclusive pedagogy. Hence, systemic changes are essential for inclusive education to be fully included as part of the overall education planning of all education systems.


Coming up with new questions

In many countries, the debate on inclusion is still too often reduced to the question about the proper place to educate children that are not learning optimally. However, inclusion is about utilizing creative approaches to provide quality education for all children in regular schools that are rooted in their local communities. The backbone of these creative support strategies is based on good pedagogical practices and support which is based on positive teacher attitudes, effective and professional teacher education for inclusion that can contribute to adequate teacher efficacy and knowledge and skills for using effective ways of teaching for all children.


Inclusive pedagogy and ongoing professional development are essential

To support the learning of all children, it is important, that all teachers learn about inclusive pedagogy during their initial training. They also need enough exposure to teaching diverse groups of learners in general education classrooms, thus promoting their efficacy and making their attitudes more positive towards inclusion.
 
The evidence from efficacy meta-studies supports the notion that the most effective methods of teaching students experiencing challenges with learning can best be described as good pedagogical approaches that can be used with ALL children by ALL teachers. However, we have to recognize that there will always be students who need more intensive or individualized support, and thus it is important to educate some teachers as experts in these more individualized approaches so that they can provide effective support for other teachers and learners within general education classrooms.


Shift in thinking about support is needed

The major shift in thinking that is needed is that a child with specific educational need within a general education classroom should not be referred elsewhere to get support. On the contrary, more intensive supports should as a rule be developed within mainstream classrooms where every student can be supported to participate and learn effectively. When needed, the support workers should be referred to the school of the child to work with teachers and students and find inclusive solutions that work for them. This in turn will support learning of the children in the environments they know and feel comfortable in and developing positive learning and social interactions further.
 
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Authors

Hannu Savolainen

Professor of special education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Petra Engelbrecht

Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education Sciences, North-West University, Potchefstroom campus, South Africa and Emeritus Professor of Education, Canterbury Christ Church University, England

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