Reaching out to everyone

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
How can schools succeed with all of their pupils? Mel Ainscow finds inspiration in classrooms around the world.

In a primary school in Inner Mongolia, 75 children sit at desks packed into a bleak room. The teacher stands on a narrow stage in front of a blackboard. In the back row are older pupils who either started school later or are re-sitting the grade.

Lessons last 40 minutes and, typically, the teacher talks or reads, and frequently uses questions to stimulate responses. The pace is fast and the engagement of pupils appears intense. Afterwards, the teacher explains how she tries to help those who experience difficulties by directing many more questions to them and by encouraging their classmates to go over the lesson content with them during breaktimes.

Does this suggest practices that might be relevant to teachers in Britain where there are groups of children whose participation in lessons is marginal, to say the least? Why are these pupils so quiet and obedient?

It would be easy to jump to simple conclusions about strategies that could be exported. Many influences help to shape the events observed in this classroom. We are told teachers are held in high esteem in Chinese societies, although this is changing as a result of economic reforms.

It also seems that children are often under considerable pressure from their families to achieve. In some parts of Asia there are "No studying" signs in fast food restaurants, presumably to discourage students who are seeking space to pursue their schoolwork.

But this classroom does point to the importance of teachers planning their lessons with all class members in mind. A central dilemma for any teacher is: how do I work with the whole group and, at the same time, reach out to each individual?

In the West, it has become apparent that traditional forms of schooling are no longer adequate. Teachers are faced with increased diversity, including the presence of pupils whose cultural experience or even language may be different from their own.

There seem to be three options: lMaintain the status quo in the belief that those who do not respond have some problem that prevents their participation; lReduce expectations in the belief that some pupils will never achieve traditional standards; lDevelop new teaching that can stimulate and support the participation of all class members.

The problem with the first option is that it is likely to lead to conflict with some pupils and, possibly, their parents. It may also damage the working atmosphere.

The second option involves reducing standards for some pupils who may already be vulnerable in our increasingly competitive society. The third option, demanding though it is, has the potential to enhance the learning of all pupils while at the same time reaching out to those who otherwise have been marginalised.

So, what kinds of practices might help teachers to "reach out" to all the class? How might teachers develop their practice to make it more inclusive? Observations and discussions with pupils and staff in different countries point to some noteworthy ideas.

Teachers who appear to be effective in encouraging the participation of all class members, while they each have their own style of working, pay attention to key aspects of classroom life.

First, they seem to recognise that the initial stages of any lesson or activity are particularly important if pupils are to be helped to understand the purpose and meaning of what is to occur. They aim to help their pupils to recall previous experiences to which new learning can be connected. As an Italian put it: "I have to warm the class up - I want hot learners, not cold learners."

It is noticeable, too, how some teachers use available resources in order to stimulate and support participation. Most significantly they seem to be aware that the two most important resources for learning are themselves and their pupils. The idea of using the potential of pupils as a resource to one another seems to be a particularly powerful strategy.

A striking feature of lessons that encourage participation is how pupils are often asked to think aloud as a result of the teacher's sensitive questioning, or with their classmates in well-managed small groups. All of these provide opportunities for pupils to clarify their own ideas, while, at the same time, enabling the class to stimulate and support one another's learning.

Recently, I watched a Year 7 geography class in an urban comprehensive in the north of England. The teacher began by explaining: "This is the first of a series of lessons about the USA." Before they opened their books, he wanted to know what his class already knew. Immediately lots of hands went up and within minutes the blackboard was full. Despite the fact that none of these pupils had ever left the country, their viewing of films and television meant the American way of life was not foreign to them.

On the front row was James, who has Down's Syndrome, and next to him was a classroom assistant. James raised his hand and said: "They have yellow taxis."

The teacher was using a familiar tactic to "warm up" his class; using questioning to draw on existing knowledge, prior to introducing new material. It is an approach many teachers use. It is not "special education" but it proved to be a means of facilitating the participation of a member of the class who is seen as needing a permanent adult helper.

It has taken me many years to recognise that the ways in which earlier attempts to integrate pupils said to have special needs had often, unintentionally, undermined our efforts. We imported old practices from special education which were simply not feasible in primary and secondary schools.

Here I am thinking of the individualised approach, based on assessments and systematic programmes of intervention, that have predominated. Such approaches do not fit with the ways in which mainstream teachers go about their work. The numbers of pupils and the intensity of the teacher's day make this inevitable.

When integration depends upon importing practices from special education, it is likely to lead to yet new forms of segregation. For example, in England we have seen the proliferation of largely untrained classroom assistants who work with some of the most vulnerable children and their individual programmes in mainstream schools.

When such support is withdrawn, teachers feel that they can no longer cope. And, of course, the legal requirement for individualised education plans has encouraged colleagues in some schools to feel that many more children will require such responses, thus creating massive budget problems in many areas.

The gradual recognition that schools for all will not be achieved by transplanting special education thinking and practice into mainstream contexts has opened my mind to many new possibilities.

Many of these relate to the need to move from individualised planning to a perspective that emphasises engagement with the whole class. What is needed are strategies that personalise learning rather than individualise the lesson. An understanding of what these might involve can be gained from the study of practice, particularly the practice of teachers in primary schools and subject teachers in secondary schools.

Scrutiny of the practice of what we call "ordinary teachers" provides the best starting point for understanding how classrooms can be made more inclusive.

Professor Ainscow is dean of the school of education at the University of Manchester. These are edited extracts from his keynote address to the congress.

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