Striving for inclusive practice in education

A good teacher can be defined as someone who is skilled in communication, listening, collaboration, adaptability, empathy and patience. But a truly great teacher – one who will have a lasting impact on their students – is a teacher who sees each student’s differences and challenges, and offers appropriate accommodations and support, while empowering them to continue to aim high with high expectations.

The difference between a good teacher and a great one, is a teacher who believes in their students and fosters an environment where everyone is encouraged, valued and included, regardless of ability, the status of their economic privilege, or where they or their parents were born.

We recently came across a media release from the Media Centre for Education Research Australia (MECRA) which discusses new research, "It isn't you: Teachers' beliefs about inclusive education and their responses toward specific learning disabilities" conducted by Griffith University’s Associate Professor Stuart Woodcock.

12 Brisbane high schools and 182 teachers were surveyed as part of the study, which found less than 50% of Brisbane secondary teachers believe in an inclusive classroom. 

“Inclusive education centres around a greater diversity for a multitude of abilities. It’s not just students with various or specific learning differences (SLD) but those from various cultures, and family structures. While teachers understand the philosophy about inclusive education, there’s limited acceptance or adoption by these educators,” Associate Professor Woodcock said. 

The results revealed only 47% of all teachers surveyed believed inclusive classrooms were an effective way to teach all students. That figure rose to 60% for beginner to intermediate teachers (with less than 10 years’ experience) but dropped to 37.5% for experienced teachers (with 10+ years’ experience). 

“In this secondary school research study, the more experienced a teacher is, the less likely they were to believe in inclusive education. It was interesting that in a separate study, where we talked to NSW primary teachers, another correlation was identified.” Associate Professor Woodcock said. 

"The NSW study showed that when primary teachers had a high belief in their teaching capability, they gave strong support for inclusive education.” 

Associate Professor Woodcock says the reason effective strategies to foster inclusive education practices are so important is clear when we examine a teacher’s connection to their student’s success or failure.

“If we believe a child cannot do something, then we are inclined to offer support, scaffolding for learning because we believe they have genuine difficulties doing it. If we believe they will not do it, we may blame the child for lack of effort or motivation and maybe that increases the chance there are negative consequences for the student.”

“In the first scenario, it’s almost like we don't expect any more from them, which can filter through subconsciously as, 'the teacher doesn't really expect anything else from me. It’s all good,'" Associate Professor Woodcock says.

“In the second scenario, the student gets the message, 'My teacher believes I can do far better than that. I better pull my socks up.'

Associate Professor Woodcock’s research on inclusive classrooms certainly got us thinking about inclusive practice in education broadly, and more specifically about inclusive education within physical education (PE), school sport and whole of school physical activity.

A person is not defined by a single characteristic such as their age, race, culture, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation or ability. Inclusion is pro-active behaviours, options and actions to make students from all backgrounds and abilities feel welcome.

An uncomplicated way to think about diversity is to think about your school community. How accurately do your school sporting teams reflect the diversity of your school community?

It is the small things that can make the biggest impact! In an educational setting, inclusion and diversity may be defined as all students having access to participate in their learning, the provision of an equal opportunity to take part in all activities on offer alongside their peers and being supported by informed adjustments and teaching strategies tailored to meet their social, emotional, academic, and physical needs.

As educators, it is essential to firstly consider each students strengths, interests, goals and needs. By doing so we create improved opportunities for students to better participate and reach their full potential at school and in life.

While the sporting landscape has changed enormously in recent years, it is a reality that some students experience barriers to participating in sports at school and in their local communities. To ensure that all students can participate equally, we must question what we do as educators when we are aware that these challenges exist.

We asked CEO of Disability Sport and Recreation, Liz Tesone to share her thoughts on the perceptions of inclusive education uncovered in Associate Professor Woodcock’s research, “It is really disappointing to see inclusive education put in the ‘too hard’ basket. It is our social responsibility to educate Australian students about what being truly inclusive is from education to social and work environments.”

“These vital lessons learnt from teachers throughout schooling will carry on with students throughout their life contributing to a more inclusive society as a whole.” Ms Tesone said.

So how can we promote inclusion through our PE curriculum and sports programs? How do we discuss it with other educators?

Inclusivity in schools is possible, however the right approach needs to be found and applied.A school that can be looked upon as an example of finding the ‘right approach’ is Armstrong Creek Primary School. Armstrong Creek has worked to establish structures, systems, and knowledge, to set the necessary foundations for inclusive practices. This has resulted in inclusive practices being well supported, and improved learning outcomes for all realised. In turn, beliefs about inclusion have been firmly cemented and embedded in the school’s culture.

Acting Principal Kathryn Sier gives a little context, “Since opening our doors back in 2018 with a unique enrolment provision that sees mainstream and special education combined, our identity as the ‘inclusive school’ is something we have continually grappled with. Inclusion is important to us. However, the notion of being labelled so implies a sense that inclusion in itself is the only thing we are here to do. For us, inclusion is not the ultimate objective – our goal as educators remains; to improve student achievement, wellbeing and growth in learning.”

“We do recognise the significant role an inclusive mindset and approach plays when educating a diverse range of learners. The difference for us is that inclusion is not the outcome or something we do; rather, it is how our behaviour, professional practice and actions reflect a belief that all children can learn.” Ms Sier says.“From the outset we knew we had to start with core beliefs. We needed to identify the barriers which have historically stymied teachers from practising inclusion and then invest heavily to address these; for instance, staff capacity and expertise, distribution of resources, instructional practices, and even the learning environment itself. The rationale? Instead of trying to force learners to fit within an existing system, we would transform the structures themselves to reflect the diverse needs of all learners.”

“Over the last five years we have had to tackle the many misconceptions out there about inclusive education; myths like inclusion being a barrier to success or that inclusion jeopardises the quality of education for others. In our sixth year we can confidently demonstrate that when we see inclusion itself is the ultimate enabler and not a barrier, everyone wins.”

“When reflecting now on the positive impact this work has had on student learning outcomes, one might now argue that we haven’t achieved success despite having a diverse range of learners, rather, we have achieved success because of it.” Ms Sier said.

The 7 Pillars of Inclusion

An inclusive school PE and Sports program should afford a range of opportunities to participate, regardless of a student's personal characteristics. When thinking about inclusion and diversity in your educational setting, consider the ‘7 Pillars of Inclusion’.

The pillars place a significant emphasis on our habits, or the things we do, which either support or inhibit inclusion. Once we recognise these patterns of behaviour, we can start to implement adjustments that promote and enable inclusion.

The Active Schools Expert Support Service (ESS) team has developed an ‘Inclusion and Diversity’ Active Schools resource which provides more detailed information about the Active Schools Framework and practical tips on how to best implement it in your school.

To download the PDF resource and learn more about how to create a uniform approach to help move your school beyond simply appreciating and understanding the importance of diversity and inclusion, to taking observable action that will foster cultural change over time, click here >>

Woodcock S., Nicoll S., (2022) "It isn't you: Teachers' beliefs about inclusive education and their responses toward specific learning disabilities", Psychology in the Schools. DOI: 10.1002/pits.22643