Across the world, schools are becoming more inclusive. This means that they are expected to enable the full participation and academic achievement of diverse students, many of whom may have previously been excluded from schooling.
South Africa introduced inclusive education in 2001 to address the very high numbers of children and young people who were out of school, and the many students who were in school but not learning. One of the strategies was to develop full-service schools. These schools are ordinary (mainstream) schools, which serve students with a range of learning needs, including those who need additional support to meet the required learning outcomes. As such, they are expected to be frontrunners for the eventual conversion of all schools to be inclusive schools.
Like their counterparts in other countries, many South African teachers do not feel equipped to teach in inclusive classrooms. Efforts have been made to provide professional development opportunities for inclusive teaching through workshops, but teachers do not find these effective (Walton, Nel, Muller & Lebeloane, 2014). An alternative is the development of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for systematic, site-based teacher learning for inclusive education. Research (Vescio Ross, & Adams, 2008) shows that the knowledge and support that teachers receive in PLCs helps to change attitudes, and enables them to use teaching strategies that promote student achievement.
PLCs have been instituted in one full-service school in Johannesburg. A university team is collaborating with the school to develop six grade level PLCs, facilitated by grade leaders and other teachers. The PLCs have been in place since 2014, they meet four times a year, and their progress is being researched. With institutional ethical clearance and consent from all participants, the PLC meetings are being audio recorded and interviews have been held with teachers.
I wanted to know what professional learning for inclusive education takes place through these PLCs. To find out, I analysed the PLC meeting transcripts using Florian’s (2014) Inclusive Pedagogical Approach in Action framework. This framework has three underlying principles: that difference is an essential aspect of human development in any conceptualisation of learning; that teachers must believe that they can teach all children; and that the teaching profession must continually develop creative new ways of working with others. When applied to the data, this enabled me to identify shifts that teachers make in the way they view their students, the way they teach and how they work collaboratively.
During early PLCs, teachers discuss student failure in terms of poor parenting and household poverty; a lack of understanding of the language of teaching and learning; physical, developmental and sensory impairments; inattentiveness and behaviour problems; and inherent “weakness” or “slowness”. Over time, though, there is evidence that teachers talk more about their responsibility for, and responsiveness to their students. More of their time is spent discussing teaching strategies that would benefit all students. This includes various forms of co-operative learning, and ways of differentiating their teaching to enable access by all students. They also encourage their colleagues with suggestions for inclusive teaching.
The features of PLCs create conditions that make it possible for teachers to adopt a more inclusive pedagogy. First, because all PLC meetings have a knowledge focus, existing exclusionary beliefs and teaching practices can be challenged. This occurs as teachers are given information about more inclusive ways of thinking about students, and about teaching and learning. Second, because PLCs are site-based, the knowledge of inclusive pedagogy is made relevant to this context of poverty and deprivation. Third, the PLCs provide the opportunity for teachers to collaborate and share their challenges and successes. This ensures that the whole school is learning together to become more inclusive.
PLCs have many challenges, and they do not solve many problems of exclusion in and from education. But this research does show that in a developing context, with material and resource constraints, PLCs offer conditions that are conducive to in-service teacher learning for inclusive teaching.
Florian, L. (2014). What counts as evidence of inclusive education? European Journal of Special Needs Education, 29(3), 286-294.
Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 80–91.
Walton, E., Nel, N.M., Muller, H. & Lebeloane, L.D.M.(2014) ‘You can train us until we are blue in our faces, we are still going to struggle’: Teacher professional learning in a full-service school. Education as Change,18(2), 319–333.