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South African study shows the power of sharing daily experiences for teachers to learn how to include all learners

An adult woman in a peach-coloured hijab and black dress dances with a small group of schoolchildren in a classroom
Teachers can learn from each other and come to see that they are inclusive educators. zeljkosantrac/Getty Images

Globally, more than 258 million children and young people between the ages of 6 and 17 are not in school. In South Africa, the figure stands at 232,000 for children aged between 7 and 17. The main reasons they’re not attending school are related to the quality of education, financial constraints, disability and child or teenage pregnancy.

The notion of inclusive education focuses on ensuring that all children attend school and receive a good education. The first is a challenge for governments. The second is a challenge for teachers – but they don’t often get the support they need. Wacango Kimani, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, explains how professional learning communities could hold the key to supporting teachers in their efforts to be inclusive educators.

What is an inclusive school?

An inclusive school is one that has the resources and professional staff to serve a diverse school population – including children with mild or moderate disabilities.

Sadly, there’s a big gap between what inclusive education should be and the daily realities, especially for children with disabilities.

In South Africa, where I conducted my research, teacher education is usually suggested as the best way to solve this problem.

Read more: South Africa's doors of learning are open – but not yet to all

But it’s been shown that merely learning about special education, which usually happens in the form of workshops, doesn’t always promote inclusive teaching and may not change teachers’ perceptions about their capability to teach inclusive classrooms.

So what does work?

Teacher education for inclusion requires teachers to see themselves as an inclusive teacher. For this to happen they need learning experiences to support a shift in their teacher identity.

Professional learning communities have been recommended as a professional learning model for inclusion. These are school-based programmes that happen over an extended and continuous period, such as throughout an academic year. They provide a space for teachers to discuss their teaching methods and their immediate realities, for instance, something that would have happened in a class setting just that day.

This approach has been shown to change both teacher identity – they come to see themselves as inclusive educators – and how they teach.

You studied this approach in your doctoral research. What did you find?

I studied what teachers talked about in professional learning communities that focused on teaching all learners in a classroom. This focus revealed how teachers thought about themselves and how they taught all learners.

The three-year study was conducted in an inclusive school in South Africa’s Gauteng province. All teachers had ordinary (mainstream) diplomas and degrees in education; they hadn’t been specifically trained to teach kids with disabilities or special needs. Professional learning communities were established in partnership with a local university and all teachers at the school participated.

The research examined how teachers talked about themselves and how they talked about teaching all the learners in their classrooms, including learners with disabilities.

Teachers expressed their preference for group discussions rather than lectures in a workshop setting. They identified that working in small groups of five to eight was better than workshops because this made learning more personal, whereas workshops did not encourage participation.

The professional learning communities provided an environment where teachers shared experiences, challenged their perceptions about teaching learners with disabilities, and talked about how they implemented inclusive teaching. Sharing in a small group provided helpful ideas. Teachers learned from others who willingly shared knowledge and experience.

During a discussion, one teacher said:

[M]eeting like this in small groups, I believe it can help us to improve our daily work, to improve in our profession as well and also know how to tackle some of the issues that we have encountered within the day with our learners.

How did the teachers in your study talk about themselves and their work?

Teachers spoke confidently about their ability to help learners succeed. The way they talked showed they were concerned with doing the best for all their learners. They were caring teachers and lifelong learners. They saw their role as extending beyond teaching to concern for the learners’ well-being beyond the school. They discussed learners’ home circumstances, sharing information about how this affected the learners’ behaviour and achievements. They considered how to engage with guardians and parents.

The teachers discussed innovative ways to teach without labelling learners according to their abilities. As one put it during a discussion: “All that we can say is that every child is special. And every child has got a gift. So let’s just be patient with these learners and then one way or the other they will, their gift will be out. We don’t know how but as teachers we will keep on encouraging them.”

Teachers discussed how they made decisions that were built on past teaching experiences. “It worked for me” was a common expression in the sessions.

Yet, despite their clear ability to teach learners with diverse abilities, they didn’t describe themselves as inclusive educators. Their notion of an inclusive teacher was one who “easily” identified learners with learning difficulties, underlining an obvious disconnect between themselves and who they saw as an inclusive teacher – one with special training.

What recommendations emerged from your research?

Professional learning needs to give teachers opportunities to “story” their own learning. When teachers can tell their own stories about their identities and their learning, they can challenge the negative way they are often described in deficit ways, including being incompetent.

Teacher educators need to appreciate the biographical histories and traditions that teachers bring into a professional learning programme and help them become conscious of their values and beliefs that inform their teaching. I suggest that teachers could record their everyday classroom experiences and practices, and share these in professional learning communities as a way to consciously reflect on their identity.

Any school can create professional learning communities. However, collaboration with a “critical friend” such as a university’s education department is valuable because it can connect theoretical knowledge to classroom realities.

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