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Blog post Part of special issue: Spotlight on SEND: Curriculum design and practice

Think like a detective: The vital clue to inclusive teaching!

Margaret Mulholland, Inclusion Policy Specialist at Association of School and College Leaders

To think like a detective gives teachers both a memorable metaphor for inquiry and a compelling methodology that leads to effective inclusive teaching. Like expert detectives, expert teachers should be trained to think about how they think. 

First, let’s examine the metaphor. Ivar Fahsing is a senior detective and associate professor at the Norwegian Police University College in Oslo. By comparing the problem-solving behaviours of experienced detectives to those of the novice, he recognised that trainees needed to be taught early how to think like their more experienced colleagues (Fahsing, 2019). Rather than adopt rigid procedures that failed to take account of variable contexts, his research suggests the need to teach metacognitive skills explicitly. Trainees learn not only to employ deductive reasoning – reasoning on the basis of known facts – but also abductive logic – that is, the cognitive process of identifying the best possible explanation, in the absence of complete knowledge, for a given set of observations. 

How does this approach apply to inclusive teaching? We can start by reassessing our understanding of how to support children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in the classroom which too often relies on using poorly considered labelling of children as a shorthand. By this, I mean medical descriptions such as (and I am paraphrasing here) ‘the one with autism’, or behavioural characteristics such as ‘the hyperactive one’, to define teaching approaches. Such children invariably self-identify with failure in a curriculum designed for the average learner and measurement structures that encourage constant comparison with the highest achievers. 

We need a far more holistic picture for each child of cognition and environment, interests, strengths, fears, and so on. Adopting detective inquiry as a skill, behaviour and disposition for the teacher is a deliberate methodology to inform more insightful teaching. Teacher detectives gather evidence of pupil learning and wellbeing from moment to moment, use multiple micro assessments, and look for patterns without jumping to conclusions. This is not core to teacher development in England right now and I would like to see that change. 

‘Adopting detective inquiry as a skill, behaviour and disposition for the teacher is a deliberate methodology to inform more insightful teaching.’ 

I first explored this idea in 2018 for the Chartered College of Teaching and returned to it at the recent Spotlight on SEND Curriculum event, with updated conceptual models that have helped to inform my thinking, both as a parent and a teacher, about what supports young people with SEND. 

Great teachers have empathy, a sense of efficacy and equity. What are the dispositions or characteristics we should foster to help them think more confidently like detectives? Number one is to be curious about a child and how they learn. There is a wealth of detailed ‘noticing’ skills, to help explore a child’s understanding or their temperament through questioning, looking and listening. I tend to frame this as teachers becoming students of the pupils they teach. 

It also takes time. In order to build the fullest picture of pupils, it is important to seek new information along the way from wide lines of inquiry; consult with colleagues (a teacher mentor, parents, the SENCO (special educational needs co-ordinator)); while triangulating evidence as it is acquired and analysed adds breadth and depth to the investigation. 

The next important step is to connect the detective work to conceptual frameworks that have helped inform thinking about inclusion over the years. I am a tremendous admirer of Lani Florian and Kristine Black-Hawkins’s work on inclusive pedagogy (Florian & Black-Hawkins, 2011). Her work explicitly recognises the limitations of ‘teaching to the average’ and has helped many teachers and teacher educators think about inclusive pedagogy in a way that benefits all children. Stoll and Timperley’s Spirals of Inquiry for Narrowing the Gap provides an excellent model for harnessing the power of inquiry in driving pupil progress (Stoll & Timperley, 2015). 

I’m not a big fan of the terms novice and expert but it can be a useful shorthand to explain why building schools around children with SEND who find learning tricky at times is the best training a new or experienced teacher can have in their sights when developing and honing their professionalism. Developing the disposition of curiosity and the skills of inquiry in every teacher from the outset equips them to deal with the complex and shifting realities of the classroom. What school wouldn’t want teacher detectives with a finely tuned capacity to problem solve? 

Finally, an enormous frustration we hear from parents is that whole-class pedagogy never gets a mention in discussions around SEND provision. It is fundamental that young people with SEND feel they are genuinely welcome and belong in education. An adaptive rather than adapted curriculum is key to achieving progress. By thinking like a detective and connecting this behaviour with deliberate practice for inclusion, we can make the case for change. 


Fahsing, I. (2022). Beyond reasonable doubt: How to think like an expert detective. In P. Barbosa Marques & M. Paulino (Eds.), Police psychology. New trends in forensic psychological science (pp. 267–295). 

Florian, L., & Black-Hawkins, K. (2011). Exploring inclusive pedagogy. British Educational Research Journal, 37(5), 813–828.    

Stoll. L., & Temperley, J. (2015). Narrowing the gap with spirals of enquiry: Evaluation of Whole Education’s pilot. Whole Education.