Education is the gateway to a better life. Complete access to education is the first step towards realising the dream of equal opportunity. Yet, access to education, by itself, is insufficient. What also matters is whether or not the education provided adequately caters to the needs of all who have access to it. It is an undeniable truth that not all children are the same. Some children have physical and/or learning disabilities which a traditional and typical education does not adequately cater for, nor does it facilitate the unlocking and realising of these children’s full potential. As a result, not only do these children miss out on better employment opportunities in the future, but we as a community also lose out by preventing these children from becoming individuals that can contribute to society to the best of their abilities. It is obvious now that the education our schools provide must be inclusive, to ensure that students with disabilities have the same opportunities as other students and that their diverse needs are met. Below are some principles that we believe will cater to a more inclusive education system in Malaysia.
Principle 1: Classroom Diversity Enriches and Strengthens Education
Anna Laktionova, a Lead Teacher and a Year 8 Coordinator from Keysborough College states that “every student is unique and every group of students is different.” This is a definite as learners have different experiences, cultures, beliefs, and values that they hold on to. Through diversity in schools, where children of different learning disabilities are put together amongst students who do not require assistance, opportunities are created for growth and better connection in personal, social, and academic achievement. Segregations according to gender, race, religion, and learning disabilities should be abolished during the tender years of a child. As teachers begin to apply this type of initiative, it automatically creates a welcoming and focused environment that would motivate all types of learners. Educators’ efforts and engagement for all their students without any exclusion factors make the education system an inclusive environment.
Principle 2: A Strength-Based and Personalised Curriculum
Strength-based approaches are a key principle of inclusive education. They recognise each student has inherent strengths and talents. These strengths and a student's specific needs should be placed at the centre of curriculum-planning and implementation. This optimizes opportunities for both teachers and student learning. A strength-based and personalized curriculum improves student engagement, motivation, and academic outcomes for all students. This approach celebrates diversity and difference and facilitates opportunities for personalised learning.
Principle 3: Student Engagement and Voice
Seeking the perspectives of students ensures they make a meaningful contribution to their schooling and educational experience. The ability to have a voice influences students’ participation. Christine Grove, Lecturer and Educational and Developmental Psychologist from Monash University believes that “student roles are often consultative, rather than active, even when matters directly affect them. The key to listening well is to have a belief in students’ capabilities, and to develop relationships of trust and respect.” It’s not one-sided: students need to trust their teacher too. Therefore, when students are given a platform to share their voice, schools gain insider knowledge and better understand the student experience. To further authenticate this principle; teachers should facilitate multiple different ways for young people to be heard, regardless of their ability. Consider tools such as drawing, writing, talking, paintings, photographs, and videos to express themselves, and through these techniques, an educator will be able to gauge a learner’s expectations. Teachers should also not shy away from asking students to identify indicators of what an inclusive school looks like and measure the school against them.
Principle 4: Engaging with All Your Critical Stakeholders
Inclusive education occurs when students of all capabilities have the opportunity to grow and learn. This means providing each student and parents the access to accurate information on their learning through ongoing formative and summative assessments. Schools can also model positive behaviour and feedback, while still offering areas of improvement. For example, low reading confidence can be turned around by sharing positive stories of school successes where students have improved or progressed. Over time, this approach creates a positive community perception of the school and raises awareness about positive school culture.
Principle 5: Inclusive Teachers Need Commitment, Knowledge, and Practical Skills
Umesh Sharma, Professor of Inclusive Education and Educational Psychology from Monash University says that “Good teaching is good teaching for all, not just for some.” Teaching in inclusive classrooms requires teachers to have the 3Hs: the heart (commitment), the head (critical knowledge) and hands (practical strategies). It’s a must for educators to be fully committed to including all learners. They need to understand that inclusive practices benefit all students, regardless of the additional needs. On the other hand, inclusive education also benefits teachers, where strategies used to make classrooms more engaging, leads to improved professional satisfaction. Inclusion compels teachers to acquire critical knowledge and skills to teach students who differ in their abilities and their learning styles. It does not require teachers to become superhuman but it does require them to know about some of the most powerful evidence-based teaching strategies that engage learners across the board.
A teacher with heart, head, and hands (3Hs) will be a more effective educator for all learners, and not just for those who need additional support. We must not forget that a teacher with all 3Hs needs to be adequately supported by the school leadership team to use and sustain inclusive practices. It is pivotal to prepare educators to practise inclusive teaching by ensuring adequate teacher-training is provided. Education is a seed for the generation of tomorrow. Investing in educators ensures a brighter and better future for everyone regardless of differences.