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Developing inclusive pedagogy: Some theoretical insights from research evidence

Written by: Eddy Li
5 min read

While working as a newly qualified teacher in Hong Kong, I often reflected upon, and explored with my colleagues, which classroom strategies might help to support the learning of all children. From time to time we felt uncertain about our own capacity to develop more inclusive practices. This was despite our recognition of the transformability of children’s learning capacity (Swann et al., 2012) – that there is always the potential for change as a result of what both teachers and learners do in the present. One of our key pedagogical challenges was how to teach the increasing diversity of learners, many of whom were categorised by our local authority as having ‘special educational needs’ (for example, ‘children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder’, ‘children with specific learning difficulties in reading and writing’ and ‘children with speech and language impairment’). Among other things, these ‘labels of defectiveness’ (Slee, 2011, p. ix) seem to imply that difficulties in learning are deficits in learners (Florian and Black-Hawkins, 2011), rather than manageable professional challenges for all teachers. To what extent are we able to create learning without limits?

Research evidence has consistently suggested that there are close parallels between inclusive pedagogy and our ‘everyday pedagogy of teaching’ (Rix and Sheehy, 2014, p. 459). For example, Norwich and Lewis (2001) reviewed the strategies most used for teaching students identified with having special educational needs and disabilities. They put forward a view that what works with some categorically distinct groups of learners (such as using varied approaches to maintain attention, employing strategies that are focused and visually explicit, and teaching in small and explicit steps) also works with all children. Similarly, Kershner (2009) argues that ‘teaching approaches which seem intrinsic to inclusive learning are already represented in many classrooms where emphasis is placed on pupils’ dialogue, collaboration, choice, exploration and learning to learn, and where it is assumed that all pupils are capable of learning’ (p. 54).

According to Black-Hawkins (2017), inclusive pedagogy ought to focus on extending what is ordinarily available for everybody in the rich learning community of the classroom, rather than offering those who experience difficulties in learning something additional to, or different from, the provision for most children. This theoretical assumption about developing more inclusive practices supports the observation by Ellis et al. (2008) that guidance on inclusion through the National Strategies in England tended to emphasise the strengthening of generic teaching vis-à-vis specialist approaches. Indeed, in settings where teachers were encouraged to try out a range of ways to support the learning of all children most reported that they knew more than they had previously thought (Rouse, 2008). This is contrary to the commonly held belief that many teachers do not have the knowledge essential to teaching a diversity of learners (see, for example, Sharma et al., 2013).

So, what is it about the everyday pedagogy of teaching that we need to know if we are to support the learning of all children? Empirical evidence has offered us some very helpful guidance about what works: the indicators for inclusion (Education Bureau, 2008), the 10 principles for effective pedagogy (James and Pollard, 2011), the six components of great teaching (Coe et al., 2014) and the SEND code of practice (Department for Education and Department of Health, 2015), to name but a few. Yet, while drawing upon any ‘fragment knowledge about effective teaching’ (Florian and Kershner, 2009, p. 173), not least that which is largely conveyed by a prescriptive checklist approach, we shall not undermine the complexity and ecology (Rao and Chan, 2009) of developing inclusive pedagogy in context. As pointed out by Hagger and McIntyre (2006), any one principled way of achieving a given goal in teaching, albeit generalised from across variations, is likely to be best only within a particular range of circumstances. This supports Alexander’s (2009) notion of pedagogy as involving ‘the observable act of teaching together with its attendant discourse of educational theories, values, evidence and justification’ (p. 5).

Developing inclusive pedagogy requires teachers not only to draw upon their context-independent knowledge, but also to engage with ideas within the multidimensional realities of their own classrooms and schools (for example, the cultural frameworks of expectations, values and beliefs about what constitutes good teaching and learning). It also requires an inclusive mindset that celebrates differences in what all teachers do – through their everyday pedagogy – to increase the learning and participation of all children. The million-dollar question is: Amid our research and pedagogical efforts, to what extent have we considered differences as resources to facilitate greater inclusion (see also Li, 2020)?


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