By Karen Taylor, PhD., Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching
Imagine a warm Friday afternoon in a classroom with 22 fidgety pre-adolescents who have just come from their PE lesson and who are looking forward to a long weekend. The students have a wide range of learning needs both cognitive and linguistic. There are three adults in the classroom: the subject teacher, a learning support specialist, and a classroom assistant whose focus is on the three extended support students in the class.
The lesson’s plenary opens with co-teaching from the subject specialist and the learning support specialist. They clearly know each other well and work comfortably in tandem. They move back and forth easily in a team-teaching model of direct instruction as they introduce the lesson context, objectives and the task the students will undertake individually. The teachers then distribute a handout to the students and everyone sets to work. The adults start moving about the room assisting each student, one by one, in completing the assignment.
This is interesting and thought provoking for a number of reasons. I feel it is important to say first that the adults attend to each child with great good will. They believe in inclusion and are fully committed to learning support programmes and structures in the school but may be exhausted and overstretched. They, like teachers in many schools, speak about the challenge of meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. In almost every school I visit, teachers and school leaders say “there are more and more students with needs.” This may or may not be the case; it is certainly the perception. And yet I believe the strain that teachers feel is augmented by what is perhaps a misinterpretation of inclusion and a child-centred approach to teaching.
Inclusion is grounded in the assumption that all children have a right to be in the same educational space. It is equally grounded in the belief that the entire learning community benefits from diversity of children in the classroom, whether this be in terms of neurodiversity, linguistic, cultural or any other identity diversity. Inclusion reflects a powerful and positive way of looking at the potential of each individual to engage in a personally meaningful learning journey. It means embracing diversity and honouring the unique voice and personal experience of all members of a learning community. It is about recognizing the power of each individual to bring new perspectives and understanding to the learning experience of all1. However, as much as it is essential for educators to respect and value each individual student, it is not possible to teach each of them individually. The challenge is to think in structural terms about how to put in place instructional practices such as complex instruction that will support this vision of inclusion. How, concretely, can we best support the needs of diverse learners ? Co-teaching may provide some answers.
Let’s go back to that classroom on a Friday afternoon. The lesson began with a team-taught plenary followed by individual support for students who were completing a written task. Because it was a class with a high number of students with linguistic, cognitive and/or behavioural challenges, carrying out the task was difficult for many of them and not necessarily for the same reasons. In consequence, the adults moved from one student to another giving individualised assistance. In fact, despite the team-taught plenary, the rest of the lesson reflected a rather traditional approach of direct instruction (albeit by two practitioners) for a class norm (an assignment) that many of the students were unable to complete without help. With 22 students in the class, no wonder the teachers are tired!
In my quest to understand what a truly inclusive classroom could or should look like, I have observed countless lessons. In many instances, the culture of schools and individual practitioners have moved thankfully away from a traditional reliance on pull-out support for children with learning needs (be they cognitive, linguistic, or otherwise). We seek to abandon deficit language and deficit thinking about children as learners. Unfortunately, some of that is still evident despite our commitment to inclusive classrooms.
When children come to rely on adults to assist them in every task, they are unlikely to become autonomous, self-efficacious agents of their own learning. While classroom practitioners embrace the notion of the child at the centre, each with their own individual needs, they exhaust themselves by trying to attend to each child separately and there is a risk, as well, that the children will develop a learned helplessness.
The lesson I have described here started out with a co-teaching model that would be of great benefit if the instructors were fully to embrace the entire co-teaching cycle: co-planning, co-teaching, co-assessment and co-reflection. For this to take place, school leaders must make a commitment to provide the necessary time and training. For true co-teaching models to be effective it also means perhaps radically altering the professional stance of teachers. Teachers need to see themselves as co-equal partners and as learners themselves. Each of the adults in the lesson I observed has specialised knowledge and skills that are not necessarily being utilised to capacity to create an instructionally intense learning experience for children. For students to benefit fully from that expertise, the working relationships among adults need to be based on parity. Co-teaching is not about one expert and one supportive colleague or a variation on that theme. It is about deliberately designing lesson plans and activities that bring that range of pedagogical expertise to all children in the classroom while at the same time promoting their agency and autonomy in the learning process.
Let’s go back once more to our classroom on that Friday afternoon. The lesson might very well begin with the team-taught plenary I have already described. But the handout to students would have been differentiated; perhaps there would have been three or four versions. Each would have aimed at the same learning but would offer different levels of complexity. One handout might have had more input from the learning support specialist, another from the language specialist, perhaps a third version would have been shaped for the extended support students. Rather than keeping the students in rows, the tables would have been arranged so that each adult might have been working with a smaller group of children who require specific support. Being creative with the preparation of lesson content and design combined with an appropriate use of varied co-teaching models will, in the long run, make for a richer learning experience for children who will ideally become less dependent on adults and more confident in themselves. The benefits to teachers include opportunities to strengthen pedagogy, to engage in constant professional discourse, to become partners in the planning process, and to try new ways of doing things. For students, the benefits include choice in the adult you approach for help, having more than one set of eyes to pick up on student strengths and needs, and a more demanding classroom.