SECTION 1: Context and Foundation
What could be more compelling than undertaking a profession that literally places the future of children in your hand? (Blankstein, 2004, p4). Blankstein’s quote reminds educators each day of the incredible responsibility and opportunity that teaching children presents. The powerful impact educators have on students, and on their parents, is significant but may not be fully known for years to come. As parents enter this trust relationship, they are reminded of their need to work in a collaborative manner with schools to ensure a successful educational experience for their children.
The new Education Act sets out the responsibilities of all partners in the education system: learners (to be actively involved in section 31), parents (to make informed decisions in section 32) and the preamble that recognizes the importance of an inclusive education system to provide each student with the relevant learning opportunities and supports necessary to achieve success and enabling high quality and socially engaging learning opportunities with flexible timing and pacing through a range of learning environments to meet diverse student needs and to maximize student success.
The Act provides for the right of access to an education program for learners from 6-18 years. However; providing the right to an education program does not presume the right to access success. Success can be achieved, in part, through participation in the appropriate educational program. The Setting the Direction Initiative provides a reminder about how, “attitudes and practice, which are often unintentional, sometimes create division between groups. The same can happen in classrooms, which are often a reflection of society as a whole”. Our responsibility as educators is to ensure that we promote participation in learning for all students.
Trying to define inclusion and inclusive education has been the topic of discussion for many years and will continue to be debated in the future. It is an emotional topic, and each of us brings our perspective and experiences to our definition. A significant international statement, the Salamanca Statement on Principles and Practice in Special Needs Education argues for children to learn together in schools – but it does not specify the place where learning happens:
The fundamental principle of the inclusive school is that all children should learn together. Inclusive schools must recognize and respond to the diverse needs of their students accommodating both different styles and rates of learning and ensuring quality education to all through appropriate curricula, organizational arrangements, teaching strategies, resource use and partnerships. There should be a continuum of support and services to meet the continuum of needs encountered in every school (UNESCO, 1994).
In particular, four key elements related to inclusion are identified. Inclusion: is a process; is concerned with the identification and removal of barriers; is about the presence, participation and achievement of all students and involves a particular emphasis on those groups of learners who may be at risk of marginalization, exclusion or underachievement. (UNESCO, 2005, pp15-16).
UNESCO’s concept of inclusive education is mirrored in the more current work in Alberta from Setting the Direction Framework, Government of Alberta Response:
An inclusive education system is: “a way of thinking and acting that demonstrates universal acceptance of, and belonging for, all students. Inclusive education in Alberta means a value-based approach to accepting responsibility for all students. It also means that all students will have equitable opportunity to be included in the typical learning environment or program of choice” where such a placement is appropriate, and is undertaken in full consultation with a child’s parents/guardians, teachers, school officials, and relevant community service providers. Inclusion and choice must never be considered in a vacuum (Alberta Education, 2010, p2).
The key consideration in this definition is the view of inclusion as an approach and not as a placement. As we work in our independent schools towards ensuring that all students who attend our schools are welcomed in an environment where we practice an inclusive approach, we are working towards helping learners access success. We are working to prepare learners for success; using the regular curriculum as the starting point, involving parents in a meaningful way and using a collaborative approach.
Alberta Education’s dialogue with Albertans between September 2008 and April 2010 was an opportunity for Albertans to articulate their vision for education and resulted in the release of the Inspiring Education: A Dialogue with Albertans (2010). The report expands on the vision, values, guiding principles, policy and governance shifts for Alberta’s inclusive education system. Support for these guiding principles will help promote successful learning environments in independent schools. The guiding principles include: learner centred; inclusive, equitable access; responsive, flexible approach; sustainable and efficient use of resources; innovation to promote and strive for excellence; shared responsibility and accountability and engaged communities.
This resource defines inclusive education as an approach; therefore, we cannot set a single educational goal to achieve this approach. Instead, we can set small, manageable goals for ourselves, our independent schools and our communities as we continue to enhance an inclusive approach. To do this, school leaders across the province require continuing conversations with their school community about inclusive learning environments and how the staff can work to further reduce barriers to participation and learning so that every student in their school has a sense of belonging and is a successful learner.
Alberta Education’s Indicators of Inclusive Schools: Continuing the Conversation offers information and tools that school leaders can use to guide conversations related to inclusive learning environments in their schools. The conversations will provide an opportunity for schools reflect on how schools are demonstrating a commitment to inclusive education which can then lead to the development of strategies and action plans to strengthen inclusive education and ensure equitable access for all learners.
The Indicator’s resource is organized around five dimensions:
Establishing Inclusive Values and Principles
Building Inclusive Learning Environments;
Providing Supports for Success
Organizing Learning and Instruction
Engaging Parents and the Community.
Each dimension is supported by sample indicators that provide descriptions based on current research and promising practices. A number of indicators contain links to further information, examples and resources. The indicators in dimensions 1 and 2 may be particularly helpful in supporting conversations and practices around inclusive learning environments.
UNESCO also offers a planning matrix and a check-list of questions to guide conversations (UNESCO, 2005, pp. 32-35).
Questions to Ponder:
These questions are intended to serve as a self-reflection on own practice and our practice within the school community to create inclusive learning environments. Perhaps these questions could be conversation starters at staff meetings or other professional development opportunities?
How do I define inclusive education?
Does my school have a policy on inclusive education?
What decisions to I make that take into consideration the needs of all my learners?
What are some of my strategies that I use to create an education setting where each of my students can find success?
Where would I rate my practices related to the indicators on Dimensions 1 and 2 of Indicators of Inclusive Schools: Continuing the Conversation?
Where would I rate my school’s practices on these indicators?
Scenario to Consider:
Imagine walking into a room of work colleagues where a friendly conversation is taking place around a table. You sit down in an available seat, intending to join the conversation, but others don’t seem to notice you. When you try to add to the conversation, it seems that others ignore your comments and dismiss your ideas. The conversation moves on without you.
Does this scenario happen in your school? In your classrooms?