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Inquiry and intellectualism: professional development for inclusive education.

The systems, structures, and purpose of schooling in the United States are built on notions of social efficiency and assimilation (Kliebard, 1987), which can be highly problematic. Overtly determining students' future potential based on their race or socioeconomic status or asking students to disregard their cultural backgrounds and try to be more "American" can easily be classified as unacceptable practice. Yet these practices are commonly pursued through the hidden curriculum (Anyon, 1996), high-stakes testing (Taubman, 2009), and special education (Ferri & Connor, 2005). Inclusive education seeks to disrupt these problematic and covert practices through an explicit naming of the practices that systematically sort and segregate students and through continuous implementation of and reflection on practices intended to work counter-hegemonically (Brantlinger, 2006).

Drawing from almost 40 years of research on inclusive education, multicultural education, and culturally responsive pedagogies, the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project (hereafter TCICP) seeks to provide teachers with the language, practices, and approaches to rethink their own classroom practices and consider how they can support and teach all of their students. This article begins with a brief explanation of inclusivity as a stance in contrast with inclusion as a space, and discusses how this notion of inclusivity is enacted through a commitment to inquiry (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) and positioning teachers as intellectuals. I then provide an explanation of the professional development that TCICP offers to teachers as well as a broad overview of some outcomes from this work, with the hope of expanding mindsets and transforming inclusive education practices.

Inclusivity: A Stance, Not a Space

Inclusive education is built on a belief in equity in education for all (Ainscow, 2005). As a stance, inclusivity not only assumes and anticipates human difference, it values difference and what differences can teach us (Ainscow, Howes, Farrell, & Frankham, 2003). This is in contrast to a dominant educational discourse that pathologizes and seeks to minimize or eliminate difference. Enacting an inclusive stance means the disruption of ideas about "normal" or "abnormal" and the removal of barriers to learning opportunities and education that have been constructed upon these notions of normalcy (Barton & Armstrong, 2008). Inclusive practices are a tool for challenging cultural assumptions about difference and ability. These practices should be enacted with the understanding that there is no formula for success, but rather a continuous and ongoing learning process that requires work on one's self and constantly assessing one's own assumptions about difference (Allan, 2008).

A fundamental first step toward inclusive educational practices is the rejection of inclusion as a location or service delivery model (Ainscow, Dyson, & Booth, 2006) focusing specifically on special education students (Slee, 2001). Inclusive education is something other than a model within a continuum of service delivery and something other than mainstreaming (Brantlinger, 2006). Enacting inclusivity requires that teachers question their assumptions about students, behavior, ability level, and engagement while entering an ambiguous unknown where failure and messiness are a real possibility. It asks that teachers push against the accountability structures that are continuing to mechanize the profession and reclaim their intellectual, problem-solving selves.

In considering professional development to support teachers working to teach inclusively, two points of tension tend to arise: 1) understandings of inclusivity are varied and often confounded with service delivery models or placement decisions, and 2) teachers working in the current educational climate often do not feel empowered to enact non-sanctioned or divergent practices or curricular moves. Supporting teachers to think differently about inclusive education and work to create inclusive classrooms requires professional development that moves beyond a banking or turn-key model. Thus, while there are multiple ways to support teachers as they think through the reflective, creative, and ongoing work of teaching inclusively, perhaps the most evident framework for this is practitioner inquiry. Consider that:

Most versions of practitioner inquiry share a sense of the practitioner as knower and agent for educational and social change.... Many of the variants of practitioner inquiry also foster new kinds of social relationships that assuage the isolation of teaching and other sites of practice. This is especially true in inquiry communities structured to foster deep intellectual discourse about critical issues and thus to become spaces where the uncertainties and questions intrinsic to practice can be seen (not hidden) and can function as grist for new insights and new ways to theorize practice. (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009, p. 37)

The practice of inquiry requires that teachers engage in iterative, reflective work, take risks, and use failures as points of departure for new learning and teaching approaches. If enacted around capacity notions of student ability and practices that facilitate inclusive community or work against explicit exclusion, practitioner inquiry becomes a process that embodies the theoretical underpinnings of an inclusive stance. Thus, the content of the inquiry, when focused on capacity and inclusivity, has the potential to work against the dominant discourses that marginalize and exclude particular students and populations, while the process of inquiry can position teachers as thinking, creative, intellectual problem solvers, thus working against the dominant discourse of teachers as technicians.

The Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project Approach

TCICP as an organization takes the position that building inclusive classrooms is accomplished through teachers' creativity and problem solving. The work of the professional development project is to provide educators with theoretical underpinnings of practices that can facilitate inclusivity, tools and approaches for enacting these practices in their classrooms, and support as they work to make sense of these practices in their local contexts for their students. As such, inquiry teams are run with the intent of exploring both the idea of inclusivity as a pedagogical stance and the possibilities for practices that have been shown to be effective in teaching diverse communities of learners. Derived from the rich body of research on inclusive education and the teaching experiences of the founding co-directors, these are some of the practices that TCICP promotes:

* Collaboration and co-planning

* Creating dynamic assessments

* Designing accessible curriculum and peer supports

* Designing and supporting flexible scheduling

* Engaging learners through youth culture

* Literacy practices in the inclusive classroom

* Implementing culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy

* Integrating technology in the classroom

* Multimodal projects and approaches

* Restorative justice practices

* Supporting pro-social behavior

* Working with communities and families.

These practices are not discrete nor all encompassing. They overlap each other and support each other as they foster inclusivity. For instance, designing accessible curriculum requires teachers to anticipate difference when creating lesson plans and to incorporate multiple points of access. This is often accomplished through the use of a multimodal approach that asks teachers to recognize a variety of ways of learning and expresses knowledge as valuable. Many other practices, such as designing thoughtful classroom space, also can contribute to fostering inclusivity in a classroom. They are not the focus of targeted development here, because they can often fit under the umbrella of one of these practices.

The professional development experience is designed as follows: teams of 10-30 teachers and one project-based facilitator meet at the project institution monthly throughout the school year to learn and explore the complexities of a particular practice, and to consider inclusivity and how the specific practice does and does not work toward teaching all students in an inclusive environment. As the year progresses, they consider a specific dilemma from their local context as related to the practice being studied. Teachers are provided with concepts and practices, research to support those concepts and practices, ideas on how to implement them, time and space to discuss them, and support over time in their attempts to implement them. Teachers receive some direct instruction regarding a particular practice. For instance, in the Supporting Pro-Social Behavior inquiry team, teachers might read Ross Green's (2008) Lost at School and learn about behavior as communication, assessing lagging skills, and teaching replacement behaviors. They might read Mara Sapon-Shevin's (2010) Because We Can Change the World, and consider how to build supportive classroom and school communities. They might review the tenets of Positive Behavior Interventions Supports (PBIS), and learn how to do functional behavioral analyses.

Teachers then plan for action in their classrooms or schools. The variety of school sites where teachers work means that, despite engaging in the same activities as members of an inquiry team, no two people enact the same practices in the same way. For some teachers, this might mean working with one particular student whose behavior is experienced as problematic in the classroom. For others, it might mean building whole school programs to create a respectful and positive school culture. Each implementation of the inclusive practice varies depending on what resources and ideas the teacher has found most valuable and in line with his or her pedagogical stance, as well as what school-based dilemma he or she has decided to pursue. The intent of the TCICP professional development is to provide teachers with tools to make sense of school-based dilemmas they are encountering as they work to enhance inclusivity and to support them as they develop these practices in their classroom. How these practices are enacted is up to the individual teacher.

Taking an inquiry approach, teachers collect data to make sense of their dilemmas and work with their inquiry team colleagues to consider possible ways to address the dilemmas. Teachers on each team develop their own enactment of the practices as well as materials to share with their inquiry teams and their schools. They share their successes, their failures, their ideas, and their next steps. As a specific output of the work, teachers who participate in these teams are invited to develop professional development sessions of their own and to facilitate these sessions at an annual city wide conference for their peers. Additionally, they are invited to publish their work digitally on a website (http://inclusiveclassrooms. org) curated and published through TCICP. With this work, TCICP intends to position teachers as the makers of their own knowledge and as capable, thinking, and creative problem solvers.

Outcomes of the Work

The TCICP professional development approach is specifically designed to work on two parallel counter-hegemonic agendas--one that addresses the positioning of teachers as intellectuals and one that addresses the learning and inclusion of all students. Thus, when considering the outcomes of this work, it is necessary to consider outcomes for both teachers and students. Across the four years of this work, ongoing research documents the ways in which teachers are taking up the goal of inclusivity in their classrooms as well as how the approach supports their commitment to working inclusively. In terms of sustainability of the work and its importance for teachers, teachers have reported that engaging in the inquiry process and being part of an intellectual community has been paramount to their capacity to not only continue to work inclusively but also work against a sometimes siloed and deprofessionalized climate of schooling. What is more, with the support of their intellectual community and the research base from which they are working, teachers report feeling more able to autonomously make decisions that they believe to be most supportive of their students' learning (Schlessinger, 2013).

These decisions and enactments toward inclusivity come in a variety of practices across a variety of age groups and classroom spaces. As teachers move away from a normative discourse that suggests that students should not be "included" if they are not performing on grade level and toward a counter-hegemonic practice of creating environments that welcome all students across all differences, they enact practices of designing and redesigning curriculum for access for all students, integrate specific technologies to mitigate barriers of communication and print text literacy, and engage their students through multimodal projects and recognition of their interests and background knowledge. As teachers move away from a normative discourse wherein students are bodies to be disciplined and controlled and toward a counter-hegemonic practice of approaching student (mis)behavior as communication, they enact practices of collecting data for assessment to drive instruction, specifically teaching social-emotional skills, and building relationships with and between their students to create community in their classrooms.

The project of inclusivity is an ongoing and complicated one that challenges dominant discourses and basic assumptions that we all make about the practices of schooling and the taken-for-granted school-based teaching and learning. This work is not as simple as inviting teachers to participate in an inclusivity-driven inquiry team, or one year's worth of professional development. Yet through the work of individual teachers claiming their intellectual identities and acting to bring inclusivity into their classrooms, it is possible to imagine how this mindset and these practices might spread and change student access to learning in schools.


Ainscow, M. (2005). Developing inclusive education systems: What are the levers for change? Journal of Educational Change, 6(2), 109-124.

Ainscow, M., Dyson, A., & Booth, T. (2006). Improving schools, developing inclusion. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ainscow, M., Howes, A., Farrell, P., & Frankham, J. (2003). Making sense of the development of inclusive practices. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 18(2), 227-242.

Allan, J. (2008). Rethinking inclusive education: The philosophers of difference in practice. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Anyon, J. (1996). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. In E. R. Hollins (Ed.), Transforming curriculum for a culturally diverse society (pp. 179-203). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Barton, L., & Armstrong, F. (2008). Policy, experience, and change: Cross cultural reflections on inclusive education. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Brantlinger, E. (2006). Winners need losers: The basis for school competition and hierarachies. In E. Brantlinger (Ed.), Who benefits from special education? Remediating [fixing] other people's children (pp. 197-232). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research in the next generation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Ferri, B. A., & Connor, D. J. (2005). Tools of exclusion: Race, disability, and (re)segregated education. Teachers College Record, 107(3), 453-474.

Green, R. (2008). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York, NY: Scribner.

Kliebard, H. M. (1987). The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (2010). Because we can clmnge the world: A practical guide to building cooperative, inclusive classroom communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Schlessinger, S. L. (2013). Enacting inclusivity in an exclusionary climate: what motivates teachers to work against dominant special education and accountability discourses (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest.

Slee, R. (2001). Social justice and the changing directions in educational research: The case of inclusive education. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 5(2/3), 167-177.

Taubman, P. M. (2009). Teaching by numbers: Deconstructing the discourse of standards and accountability in education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sarah Schlessinger

Lecturer, Secondary and Elementary Inclusive Education, Senior Research Associate, The TC Inclusive Classrooms Project, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, New York.
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Title Annotation:Focus on Middle School
Author:Schlessinger, Sarah
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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