Supportive Inclusive Learning Communities, Creation of
Based on a notion of inclusive education as a concept of supporting diversity rather than reducing it to categories of differences, this chapter depicts the international discourse on how supportive inclusive learning communities for all can be created. How can support structures be implemented in educational organizations that foster the learning of all, and how can one deal with the ambivalence of common and special needs? What role does community play? And what are the roles of teachers and teacher education within this process? This chapter focuses on educational organizations, mainly on schools as well as teacher education institutions such as universities. Regarding the state of discourse within inclusive education, two strands can be identified: On the one hand, the implementation of support addresses the question of how joint reflection processes for the identification and removal of barriers and potential discrimination can be pursued by relevant stakeholders, and, on the other hand, concepts for the development of an inclusive organizational culture are discussed in relation to the creation of inclusive schools and professional learning communities as well as for the development of inclusive teacher education.
Inclusive Learning Communities
Within the last two decades, inclusive education has become a buzzword in the educational discourse, gathering considerations and concepts on social and educational (in)equality and (in)equity regarding the provision of education for all. While the discourse mainly focuses on schools, other educational organizations and stakeholders (e.g., from early childhood or adult education) are subject to inclusive education as well. Therefore, inclusive education has become a major challenge facing educational systems around the world.
However, inclusive education can still be considered a “fuzzy concept” containing a variety of connotations ranging from a narrower view on the integration of students with special educational needs up to a wider view on a systemic change of educational structures for the provision of support and the increase of participation for all. While the first approach follows a rather technical and norm-oriented logic of “equity = disabled student + additional resources”, the latter focuses on measures of community and culture within educational organizations in order to become comfortable with diversity – on the part of teachers and other school staff as well as among students. This can also be applied to teacher education and the building of support and community among student teachers and students.
Thus, instead of questions of placing students within the right type of school, this chapter focuses on questions of inclusive values and the building of values and comprehensive supportive communities (Ainscow and Sandill 2010). This can be considered a school development issue, as Allan and Catts (2014, p. 227) express, for “schools and teachers to recognize and value the opportunities for both recognizing learning and the use of social capital in community settings, and for encouraging students and their parents to extend bridging networks fostered by the school in wider community contexts.”
Therefore, measures for building community as well as implementing support for all students can be regarded as complementary for inclusive learning communities. The specific characterization of inclusive education highlights the focus on all students and the aim to establish supportive, nurturing communities that meet the needs of all students. While special education services focus on the provision of support for selected students, inclusive education as a school development reform tends to shift the outline of support toward all students. The focus then is changed to questions of multi-professional cooperation, leadership, and the continual reflection on removing barriers to participation – which is, as all changes of practices and structures are, far from easy. Rather, “it involves social learning processes … that influence people’s actions and, indeed, the thinking that informs these actions” (Ainscow and Sandill 2010, p. 403).
In the following, two strands will be put into focus: on the one hand, concepts for the development of professional learning communities for inclusion and, on the other hand, the question how joint reflection processes for increasing participation and reducing barriers and potential discrimination can be pursued by the relevant stakeholders.
Creating Inclusive Schools
There is wide international understanding that the development of inclusive supportive communities requires a whole-school approach (Ainscow and Sandill 2010). This can be promoted in a variety of ways, but importance is often given to the link to the wider inclusive education systems, the development of inclusive leadership and shared inclusive educational goals, and collaborative reflection and problem solving among all stakeholders including parents (e.g., Hehir and Katzman 2012). One useful tool that has been widely used for such development is the Index for Inclusion (Booth and Ainscow 2011). It regards inclusive education as a process of reflecting and abolishing barriers to learning and participation by making use of a collection of practice-based questions about three main dimensions of inclusion: the development of inclusive cultures, policies, and practices.
Inclusive culture refers to the value-based establishment of community within educational organizations. An inclusive culture is based on trust for the development of each member within a community – regarding his or her ability to learn, achieve, and communicate. Values are nothing to be imposed upon stakeholders (e.g., principal, teachers, guidance team, etc.) of a community but principles to be negotiated and developed by them. They guide educational organizations on an ideological basis to build structures and practices. This also implies questions of participation and democratic values regarding institutional knowledge – “Do meetings with parents share knowledge about children rather than only convey knowledge from staff to parents?” (Booth and Ainscow 2011, p. 80).
Inclusive policies are the pillars to set a framework for support within this community in order to organize education for all. They focus on questions of leadership, cooperation processes, governance, roles and responsibilities, as well as the supply of professionalization (e.g., further training). Questions of leadership too are of high importance, as barriers to community building might be embedded in governance: “Do a variety of staff chair meetings and ensure that everyone can contribute?” (Booth and Ainscow 2011, p. 99).
Inclusive practices then focus on the practices within these structures. They mainly aim at curriculum development for diversity. Recent developments within curriculum development discourse move project work, life areas, and sustainability into the center of attention. “It suggests learning activities linked to experience that promote an understanding of the interdependence of environments …” (Booth and Ainscow 2011, p. 121). Therefore, the revised edition of the Index for Inclusion focuses on combining inclusive practices with a sustainability curriculum – “Children explore cycles of food production and consumption” (Booth and Ainscow 2011, 122). The index has been used for self-reflection among all stakeholders leading to a higher commitment toward increasing the participation of all in supportive communities with more inclusive cultures, policies, and practices.
Building Professional Learning Communities for Inclusion
The term “professional learning communities (PLC)” (Watson 2014) is a widely used term to express intentional improvement processes within educational organizations. In the international literature on collaborative culture in inclusive schools, professional learning communities are considered teams with different or similar roles focusing on the improvement of skills and knowledge through collaborative study, exchange of expertise, and professional dialogue. The overall aim is to improve the educational aspirations and achievement of students by joint leadership and teaching. The teams are often built around a shared responsibility (e.g., teaching grade 8 in mathematics) and pursue a goal-driven exchange – often in combination with forms of action research and in cooperation with local universities – in order to continually question, refine, and improve teaching strategies and knowledge. The historically divided professional responsibilities according to categories of (dis)ability in schools are thus transformed into a systemic approach of inclusive education that puts the curriculum and pedagogy into a common shared challenge for developing ways for engaging and enabling all students to succeed.
Following this approach, a tendency in the international literature on inclusive education can be witnessed proceeding from category-based support for students with assigned disabilities toward the organization of comprehensive (non-categorical) support for teachers in order to deal with heterogeneity in the classroom. Indicators for this shift are support roles in and outside the classroom, such as teacher assistants or methods and resource teachers, which coordinate assistance, cooperation with parents, and development and documentation of individualized support that, when provided within a teamwork approach, can enable the participation of all students. This is also embedded within the profile of inclusive teachers by the project “Teacher Education for Inclusion” (European Agency 2012) which states: “The support that classroom teachers need to fulfil includes access to structures that facilitate communication and team working with a range of different professionals … as well as ongoing professional development opportunities.” (p. 23). At the same time this implies an enhancement of tasks and responsibilities on the part of teachers and teacher education needs to recognize collaboration as an integral part of teacher professionalism.
Implications for Teacher Education
The above two inclusion processes can be effectively supported also by ensuring that support, collaboration, and community building are part of teacher education for inclusion. This consideration can be pursued on two different levels – either regarding (1) professionalization processes of future teachers or (2) focusing on the processes and structures of inclusion/exclusion within the teacher education organization or “university” itself.
(1) Professionalization processes for teachers: In the international discourse on professionalization for inclusion, comprehensive approaches are supported that comprise measures for the development of cognitive knowledge, practical skills, as well as attitudes and beliefs (Beacham and Rouse 2012). Three possible measures are considered here.
Firstly, the realization of inclusive education needs the progression of a professional self either in school practice or within teacher education in order to build capacity for the support of students’ learning. This implies the development of shared responsibilities for those who are in educational action or responsible for education. Working together with colleagues proves to be a highly considerable issue for achieving more inclusive practice and a sustainable community in schools. However, while it seems obvious that according to a professional background different abilities and competences need to be developed (e.g., subject didactics, age groups), collaboration as a topic and practice of teacher education was left to recede in the background. Therefore, it seems necessary to focus capacity building in teacher education also on multi-professional groups and their practices rather than only on the individual growth of teachers’ professional competences. One way is to build professional learning communities also in teacher education, among students from various professional backgrounds (e.g., future teachers, special education teachers, teacher assistants, counsellors) as a structural element of teacher education in order to simulate multi-professional cooperation in school. This includes joint further training programs for teachers in practice which are – in most countries – still organized role-based.
Secondly, teachers need to be engaged in the transformation of their thinking toward inclusion-oriented education through “clearer thinking about the fulfilment of the right to education, the challenge to deterministic views about ability, and a shift in focus from differences among learners to learning for all” (Florian 2008). As future teachers are highly influenced and socialized by the way they were taught in their school career, the reflection on implicit attitudes and beliefs becomes a significant pillar for teacher education. This implies a focus on shared values such as inclusion, sustainability, and democracy (Booth and Ainscow 2011) and needs to be looked at in reference to experiences in school as well as in reference to the way students work with each other.
Thirdly, the gap between theory and practice needs to be addressed in the transformation of teacher education for inclusion. In order to develop practical skills, future teachers not only need to know what they should do – on a normative and in inclusive contexts oftentimes morally charged basis – but also when, where, and with whom. Much knowledge is available based on theoretical and practical work in developing and developed countries. Different organizations have developed statements of teacher competences, beliefs, and attitudes for inclusive education. The challenge today is not the lack of knowledge or standards but putting it into practice in diverse contexts and cultures. Potentials lay in practical phases of initial teacher education to support insights into collaborative practices in inclusive schools. In joint internships or research-based school projects, future teachers can explore collaboration on a practical basis and connect theoretical knowledge about inclusive education (e.g., human rights and social inclusion) with value-based pedagogical work in schools. In given practical situations, future teachers learn how to activate sets of competences (e.g., diagnostic or didactic skills with a focus on all students) in combination with beliefs and attitudes that support community building. Through the use of practical phases and problem-based learning, students get to know the complexity of social situations and are likely to develop reciprocal competences (in relation to students, team partner, etc.). Approaches for teacher education which foster the creation of supportive and collaborative teachers should contribute to the development of these competences.
(2) Transformation of the teacher education organization: The second dimension of the creation of community and support in teacher education refers to the educational organization of the “university” itself. Universities as organizations to provide higher education regulate on the one hand the inclusion/exclusion of students according to achievement and set implicit barriers for allocation which sustain inequity in education. On the other hand, initial teacher education provides a time and space frame to develop learning communities and make the organization accessible to all. Higher education development provides possibilities to critically reflect on structures, practices, and cultures of discrimination as well as build support and empowerment structures for learning. These can range from forming learning groups which support each other in seminars and workshops to learning in fixed project groups during their studies. On the level of support structures, universities steadily implement easily accessible service centers which support students according to their needs on the basis of a wide understanding of inclusion and heterogeneity, not only offering support for students with special educational needs. Measures for compensation due to disadvantages are also part of support structures within universities.
The provision of support for learning in teacher education is not limited to the time frame of initial teacher education, but it is a trans-institutional dialogue and collaboration between schools, universities, and regional community to foster lifelong development across the teachers’ professional career. As schools gradually implement measures for transforming into inclusive schools, they become increasingly concerned with professional development of the teachers and other educational staff. Therefore, support structures need to be interlinked on a trans-institutional basis including other stakeholders, e.g., ministries and local authorities.
This chapter has argued for a whole-school approach of inclusive education that shifts the outline of support toward all students and asks for collaboration and community. The overall aim is to establish a community and culture in schools and in teacher education institutions which cherish diversity and at the same time provide specific support structures. Two strands have been discussed regarding teacher education. First, the use of the index for inclusion as a tool to reflect on the potential participation and barriers in educational organizations and, second, the concept of professional learning communities for inclusion, which focuses on collaboration and shared responsibilities, including interdisciplinary cooperation in teacher education, to ensure supportive structures for the empowerment of all students and teachers.
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