Learning About Learning

I’m here in Austria, doing a university subject on Inclusive Education from an International Perspective. This basically means looking at education systems around the world, and how accessible education is, especially to the most vulnerable children amongst us. I have learnt a lot so far, and it’s barely the end of the first week.

Some stats:

About 100 million children do not even receive elementary school education.

2/3 of these children are girls.

One in four children cannot read or write.

2% of the estimated 12 million children with special needs go to school.

In Asia and Africa, only 1% of children with special needs go to school, and only if they can pay the very high school fees.

In Austria alone there are around 9000 unaccompanied minors, mainly from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

So obviously there’s still some work to be done.

Apart from the moral obligation I believe we have towards children, and the statistics that show when children are educated, all parts of society improve, the UN Convention on the Rights of A Child, Article 28, clearly states that every child has a right to access education freely.

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But this isn’t happening. Not yet. The children who need our support the most are being left behind. This is where inclusive education comes in.

We visited an inclusive Austrian elementary school. An inclusive school essentially means each class had students of mixed ability and needs, including some students with severe physical and/or intellectual disabilities. These students weren’t educated separately or at a higher cost, but where placed in classrooms along with their peers.

Each class had 22 students, two teachers and a teacher’s aide. The classrooms were clean and tidy, the atmosphere was calm and engaged, and there was a lot of non direct instruction, group work and individual work (direct instruction is when the teacher stands up the front and delivers content to the class as a whole group). I saw teachers were interacting respectfully with each other and the students. I saw students on task, busy with their work, and excited to show us, the Australian visitors, what they have been learning.

I saw learning in action that was flexible, dynamic and accessible to all the students. This is the most amazing thing about inclusive education – when you make education flexible and focused on removing barriers to learning, all students benefit. When you provide multiple pathways to the same content, all students benefit. When you think through how you do things deliberately, because you have to when you have students with special needs, all students benefit.

Of course, this works best if, like this Austrian school, you have the human and material resources to implement inclusive education properly. I am aware a lot of people reading this probably think it’s too much money, or too hard. I don’t argue there are still many issues before this could work in many places. However, Austria has managed it, and their entire education system is provided free of charge to parents and students. They have made an investment in education, and I believe it will pay off.

Visiting this school was also the first time I have seen co-teaching, also called team teaching or collaborative teaching, work well in action. Here are some thoughts on what it might mean to have two teachers sharing a class.

  • Co-teaching means you need to be humble – your mistakes are in front of another teacher. You will be receiving constructive feedback more regularly. This will make you a better teacher than if you’re left alone to do your thing in your own classroom without feedback, but it requires maturity and a willingness to hear about the things you need to improve.
  • Co-teaching means you have to be more prepared and organised. When you are working with someone else so closely, you need to have planned lessons and content ahead of time. If you can’t leave things to the last minute and plan the next lesson in your break in the same way you can as an individual teacher. Again, this will make you a better teacher, but it can also be challenging if you’re not used to working in an organised way.
  • Co-teaching means you need to be aware of how your personality impacts your teaching. How does your personality impact your interactions with your co-teacher and students? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How do they line up with your co-teacher’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Co-teaching means breaking routines and the status quo. Is this the best way to do things or is it the way you are most comfortable with? Just because you have taught this way before, it doesn’t mean you can continue teaching this way when there is another teacher to weigh in and give opinions and share how they have done things in the past.
  • Co-teaching means students are more likely to connect with one of the teachers, or find their teaching style more in line with their learning style. It means you can try new things, use different approaches and spend more time on intervention and enrichment as needed.
  • Co-teaching means students get assessed by two people, not just one. This makes the process fairer, as there are two opinions weighing in and making judgments, who are both familiar with the student.

I think co-teaching has a lot of potential for use in Australia, and other places in the world. But to do it, we need to do it right. We need to make sure the way we implement it gets right to heart of the goal: making learning accessible to all students, everywhere, whatever their needs.

We have a long way to go. In Australia, most of the teaching literature and conferences on education are excited about new ways to use technology and what resources are best – and these things have their place – but meanwhile, worldwide, there are children being denied the right to learn. We have to get our priorities straight. We have to find the methods that work to teach all children, and invest in our education systems. It’s a big ask, and may seem impossible. You may wonder how we can afford to do it. Right now I am wondering how we can afford not to.

 

Over the next three weeks I will be blogging over at AIM Overseas (the organisation I am doing my program through) as one of their official bloggers. My first blog for them will go up sometime on the weekend. As always, I’m posting photos on my instagram if you want to keep up with my travels.

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