How do we can promote inclusive learning in education?

Unprecedented times

Not to dwell on recent events but if we were ever to shine a light on systemic and societal inequities, it would be how we treat our most vulnerable and under-represented in a time of crisis. We have seen an unprecedented 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement, universal marches on climate change and a global health crisis with Covid-19 (some calling it a care crisis). Those already on the margins or under-represented have been hit harder than most, by facing increased poverty, debt, loss of earnings, physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and homelessness. Globally countries went into lockdown for months with a sudden shift to working and learning from home at a previously unforeseen pace and scale. As countries begin to release lockdown conditions, what does it mean for our education sectors and what if anything have, we learned?

The learner experience is central to all education sectors across Northern Ireland from primary to higher education settings. Whilst governments and governing bodies aim to prioritise health and wellbeing, where is the learner and educator voice in decision making?

Prior to Covid-19 there were many areas in education where those considered as educationally disadvantaged, marginalised or under-represented, experienced significant barriers compared to their more fortunate peers. The frantic pivot to online teaching has heightened the vast disparities around digital poverty, infrastructure, expertise, training and preparedness. How can we use this crisis as an opportunity to move our education sectors forward to be more inclusive, equitable and sustainable with learner variability at the centre of what we do?

One such way is to think about learner variability that recognises our learners are made up of unique individuals from different backgrounds, cultures, experiences, linguistics, and with different learning preferences. Instead of learners’ needing to conform to the curriculum, the system fits around the learner. Moving away from a one-size fits all approach, the goal is for learners to become expert learners that celebrates learner variability. To become an expert learner a number of things need to be facilitated.

So how do our educators facilitate expert learning? In fact, how do people learn?

Learners’ need to be engaged, motivated and resourceful, goals need to be set that are clear, purposeful, strategic and achievable and where choice and flexibility is a core part of teaching, learning and assessment. Not all learners have to learn the same content, at the same time and using the same platform. Learners can demonstrate their knowledge multiple ways (e.g. poster, presentation, ePortfolio, story etc) and be provided with accessible content through different formats (e.g. text documents, audio, video, infographics, demonstrations etc).

Indeed, some examples of excellent home schooling have included these variable methods, demonstrating creativity and innovation during the pandemic. These learner-based approaches should not be discontinued. Imagine a learning environment where alternative formats were standard practice. Adaptive schedules both encouraged and allowed. Choice offered and variations to interact with and demonstrate knowledge, based on a method that was meaningful to learner preferences.

It is clear is that things do need to change if we are to ensure equitable learning outcomes for all our learners. One way forward is to introduce Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an evidence based inclusive education framework based on neuroscience. The UDL approach is committed to designing flexible pathways that meet all learners’ needs regardless of variability. UDL is about maximising learning and minimising barriers.

Whatever the environment (in class or online) the UDL framework can guide educators to ensure our education sectors are inclusive, equitable and sustainable.

However, what needs to be unlearned for this to occur?

Tracy Galvin
Educational Developer, Queen’s University Belfast.

Tracy is a Senior Fellow with the Higher Education Authority (SFHEA).

Tracy has over 13 years’ experience in teacher education in higher education. Her interests and research include: Social Justice, Curriculum Design, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), Internationalisation of the Curriculum (IoC), Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) and Inclusive Assessment.

Tracy chairs the UDL and IoC working group committees in QUB and lead on an Advance HE EDI in the Curriculum project with Advance HE and is passionate about inclusive learning. Tracy is in her final year PhD candidate at the University of Limerick.

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  • Date

    Thu 20 Aug


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