Note: This is the term paper I submitted for EDUC 450 (Summer 2020), a class about inclusion and the exceptional child. I am making every effort to properly include all references for any further study you. might wish to pursue. Please feel free to engage with this paper and continue the discussion in our community of life-long-learners here on this blog.

Hope and possibilities reside in a different reading of, and acting on, a reading of the word and the world.”  – Paulo Freire

Excerpt from Braiding Sweetgrass by R.W. Kimmerer (P. 107): These are the first words of The Onondaga Thanksgiving address, known in their language as “the Words That Come Before All Else”.

Introduction

My view of the current educational practice has been that it focused on assessment standardization with a goal of capturing the ‘majority’ of students. It looks at the mean outcomes of students and assess on that standard. Not exactly a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a teach to the majority model; an aim for the middle approach. This course of action would seem to put students at the extremities at an increased risk of failure due to demotivation. It doesn’t adequately consider the needs of  both exceptional students and those with disabilities, nor does it take into account needs based on their differences, such as: cultural, linguistic, age, socio-economic, etc…  

My mind goes to the need to eliminate standardized assessment, but this doesn’t address the overall need for systemic change. There’s also a need to reassess how core skills and knowledge are defined and taught. “As scholars rightly note: “the traditional teaching approach of ‘one-size-fits-all’ cannot meet learner diversity in contemporary learning” (Al-Azawei et al., 2016, p. 53. Retrieved from Kennett & Wilson, p.2.).”There have always been excellent teachers  taking individual initiatives to create inclusive learning environments and our current teacher training programs at Concordia University have a greater focus on inclusive classrooms and culturally responsive curricula, however, these efforts are still individual initiatives. There needs to be a systemic change that starts with our training and continues all the way through to the minister of education’s assessment criteria. 

This paper will unpack concepts, keywords, and strategies surrounding what would make an exemplary classroom. Modeling the asset-based approaches of both Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Dynamic Classroom Management (DCM), it will explore the strengths that can be built upon in existing systems and develop an inclusive mindset for the success of all students. It will finish with a call to action for change in teacher training and the revision of assessment methods.  

Definitions

1 – Exemplary classroom:

Edwards & Edwards (2018) suggest that an exemplary classroom is one where students with exceptionalities are provided “with optimum opportunities for learning”(p72), and the key to creating such an environment “is nothing more than good planning and good classroom management” (p72).  Every classroom contains students of various backgrounds and abilities; requiring well planned lessons and organizational strategies; enabling each of them to learn, and express what has been learned in ways that capitalize on their abilities.  Where this definition lacks purpose is in the explanation of psychologically based strategies. Maslow teaches us that before we engage in learning we need to feel secure and loved. Good classroom management could provide this, if it is responsive to the needs of all students.   

We could redefine the exemplary classroom as the responsive classroom, if we consistently design our teaching methods to be “a set of well-designed practices intended to create safe, joyful, and engaging classrooms and school communities. The emphasis is on helping students develop their academic, social, and emotional skills in a learning environment that is developmentally responsive to their strengths and needs.” (RC, 2020) Prior to designing these strategies, we need to better understand the diversity of our classroom and how to promote inclusivity. 

2 – Diversity in the classroom:

Diversity goes beyond multiculturalism, it encapsulates complex questions of identity along the lines of ethnicity, race, gender and sexual identity, language, socio-economic status, age, religion, disability, nationality, and the intermixing of any or all of these. To address the influences of diversity we first need to understand that each member of the class-community, including the teacher bring their own unique set of experiences, traits, abilities, and perspectives to our classroom. To embrace diversity in the classroom we need to become more Freirian and embrace that we are co-learners in our shared space. (Friere, 2020)

Friere (1972) advocated for the breakdown of the traditional teacher-student hierarchy model and the implementation of a more cooperative, collaborative, co-learner model. The primary principle being the acceptance that our students have something valuable to teach us because they have a unique set of experiences that they bring with them to class. They can teach us and each other different perspectives, which is a valuable skill for critical thinking and problem-solving. We need to adopt an inclusive mindset and accept that every experience can be used as a teachable moment. 

3- Inclusive classrooms:

Inclusive classroom teachers acknowledge the diversity of the class-members and work with them to implement strategies that foster a safe and collaborative space. Such an environment recognizes that students contribute to the class in the different valuable ways: the experiences they bring and share with the class, the unique ways they express themselves, and the different ways they learn. Each of these distinctions offers multiple opportunities to differentiate the methods of delivering knowledge, which opens possibilities for a deeper understanding of each other and the materials taught, as well as a broadening of our perspectives. 

Edwards & Edwards (2018) explain the benefits of the inclusive classroom through peer relationships: “the level of importance and value that teachers place on supporting and facilitating their students’ relationships will influence greatly their successful development.”(p.351) Emotional and social needs must be combined with the subjects that are mandated for each grade. It is also imperative to have strategies that allow us to teach concepts in the differentiated ways students will understand them and then be able to express that understanding. Planning inclusive curricula with a UDL approach could be the solution. 

4 – Universal Design For Learning

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) defines UDL as “a research-based set of principles to guide the design of learning environments that are accessible and effective for all.” (CAST, 2020) This proactive, asset-based, and child-centred approach to building inclusive curricula “ensures that content is accessible to the largest audience by removing learning impediments.” (Kennett & Wilson, 2011). The Higher Education Opportunities Act of 2008 first broke the concept down into the flexible ways information is to be presented by educators, then received and acted upon by learners. 

The robustness of this approach can be attested to in the volumes of research done on it from different perspectives and the growing popularity where it can be used. Kennett & Wilson (2011, p.1) consolidated multiple sources of research into this assertive conclusion: ““Properly applied to all facets of learning, UDL would conceivably benefit all learners, and not solely those individuals with learning challenges or students with disabilities (CAST, 2011a; Courey, Tappe, Siker, & LePage, 2012; Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014).” They also cited the benefits for different types of diversities in the classroom (p.2): “researchers also suggest that culturally diverse learners benefit from the implementation of UDL principles (Chita- Tegmark, Gravel, Serpa, Domings, & Rose, 2012)”. They concluded student satisfaction leads to greater engagement (p.2): “A recent meta-analysis showed almost exclusively positive student outcomes, including increasing student satisfaction and engagement (Al-Azawei et al., 2016).

One of the most recent elaborations was compiled by CAST in a thirty-one point checklist and can be seen in the following diagram from their website.  

It’s important to explain why I might be biased toward UDL. My goals is to foster life-long-learners. Nurturing curiosity leads a motivation to learn and the mindset that will deliver greater resilience in problem-solving and critical thinking. Modelling open-mindedness and the respect of others; embracing others’ ideas as having equal value; having a desire to understand others, before being understood by them all contribute to how I’m practicing my teaching philosophy. It is equally important to know that when I did my first education degree in the late 1980s, the main topic that was drilled into us was the importance of classroom management. At that time, we were discussion methods of control over inclusion. Since that time, I’ve had opportunities to teach all ages in many different settings. The unifying skill I learned mirrors the principles of UDL, that everybody learns and expresses what they learned in a different way. This helped me develop my own classroom management style predicated upon listening and getting to know my students first.  The closest management model I’ve seen to my philosophy is DCM. 

5 – Dynamic Classroom Management Approach (DCMA)

Davis (2017) promotes DCMA as a cohesive consolidation of “innovative, culturally responsive classroom management theories, frameworks, and strategies from contemporary educators…” (p.129) It’s a student-centred, community-minded, peer-oriented strategy to building a more democratic consensus in the form of a set of social norms and consequences for each classroom-community. It can be entirely based on the opportunity for equal input of each students in that community. It asks each student to exercise their responsibility of good citizenship by actively participating in defining what that means. 

There are a few preconditions that will contribute to the overall successful implementation and outcomes of this approach. Davis (2017) elaborates them as follows: “(a) flexibility and adaptability in one’s management style, (b) understanding the context of students’ diverse backgrounds, (c) effective pedagogy, and (d) creating a positive classroom culture and community.” (P129) DCMA aims to understand: the students individual needs and what influences their perceptions; allow the teacher to become aware of controls and biases that might be different than those of their students; empower the students to regulate themselves; promote student self-efficacy; and contribute to the safe and loving learning environment Maslow describes as needed for optimal learning. You can see a more clinical breakdown of the terminology in the following diagram: 

The-CLASS-conceptual-framework-for-classroom-interactions by Bridget Hamre (200?)

The process can be summed up as taking the first few days of class to discuss the students expectations for the course and teacher’s role, the student-defined rules for managing an effective learning environment, and the consequences for breaking those rules, including how, when and by whom those rules will be enforced. This can be an excellent method for getting to know the individualities of your students and setting the standard that this learning space is a safe place to express oneself. In knowing more about our students we can connect this to the UDL principle of incorporating practices that allow the students to exercise and build upon their strengths. Thus offer multiple means of accessing, manipulating, and expressing the course subjects. 

With a goal of self-efficacy and depending on the involvement of the group members, we could even use this approach in developing feedback and assessment criteria for the graded classwork: “The literature has also indicated that involving students in the assessment of presentations is extremely beneficial’ for developing self-regulating skills…” (Sahin-Taskin, 2018) Furthermore, in contributing to the assessment of our peers, and because we tend to want to be kind, this allows us to reflect on what we think is good or bad, then adjust these things in our own presentations. This is practice for the soft-skill aspects of critical thunking and is related to empathy and self-talk. Sharing our assessments of our peers in the group and allowing room for debate on that assessment can deepen the understanding of both the original perspective of the subject and the assessments on it. 

Challenges

1 – Teacher Biases

There are many factors that challenge the building of an exemplary classroom. One the biggest is what the teacher brings into the classroom with them. Davis (2017) prefaces three primary attitudes that impact student success: 

a) How the teacher manages the class (p. 130): “when the classroom focus is more on character development and less on behavioural management, the classroom environment is about students’ individual growth and not about keeping students in order (Bear, 2015).”

b) The teacher’s expectations of their students (p. 132): “The deficit model focuses on what students lack rather than what they possess (Weiner, 2006), which can set up students for failure and create opposition and resistance within the classroom (Gutstein, Lipman, Hernández, & de los Reyes, 1997; Weiner, 2003).” Self-fulfilling prophecy can work in both directions: “if educators approach all students as having a surplus of skills and talents, academic rigour can exist.”(p. 133)

c) How teachers interact with their students: “When school personnel and teachers do not show care for their students, they fail to recognize students’ true academic abilities, which may lead to negative school outcomes and underachievement (Moore, Ford, & Milner, 2005).” (p. 133)

2 – Getting to know the students before starting the class

We know that students often come with some history from previous teachers and that history can be seen in their permanent records. In the case study done on Karl H. by Edwards & Edwards (2018, p. 105) we see by the teachers’ reports some agreements about how his LD is expressed, but there are also some dramatic discrepancies in how certain of his skills are assessed. One teacher concludes he does better with verbal cues, while another questions his auditory abilities. This raises the question of any benefit in accepting a students record as a basis for expectations. We can argue the advantage of building your own relationship with the child to get to know them is possibly more time consuming and its subjectivity still has the possibility of making mistakes with this child, but it can also eliminate externally originated biases. The remaining biases would be the teacher’s own and that is something we all need to be conscious of. 

3 – Unclear labeling for Learning Disabilities (LD)

Edwards and Edwards (2018, p. 111) state “there is no one definition of learning disabilities that is universally adhered to by education systems… you may find conceptual definitions produced by ministries or departments of education are different from operational definitions used by psychologists.” Regardless of teacher training, it would be challenging to become an expert at accurately assessing and diagnosing an LD, much less implementing a blanket solution based on the inconsistent criteria described for each label. The best a teacher can do is observe their students’ individual symptoms ( ie. behaviours, traits, weaknesses, abilities, and strengths) and differentiate solutions directed at each symptom.

4 – Cultural & Linguistic distinctions

Davis (2017) draws attention to a “Diversity in Context” (p. 137) to argue self-identity of every member of the classroom, including the teacher’s, influences the interactions within the classroom and school communities. He defines self-identity as the interaction of culture, race, sex, gender, language, ability, etc… With this in mind, he poses a clear warning to teachers to be aware of their own biases by stating “educators often link the disengagement of students, as a result of cultural misunderstandings, to problems with classroom management (Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke, & Curran, 2004).” (P129) Language and culture are intertwined in this argument and we need to be responsive to the ways different languages might translate meanings of words. 

5 -Systemic failures

Undoubtedly, this could be a research paper on its own and would require taking a historical perspective of statistics, as well as temporal cultural attitudes and what systems permitted them. For example, today in Quebec and Canada we are engaged in considering the impact of systemic racism as we strive to develop inclusive curricula and learning environments. While both teachers and preservice teachers are immersed in this discussion, we are confronted with a government that refused to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism. It is understandable why this proverbial can of worms is seen as a major problem, but with no quick solution, especially when it will require changes to entrenched policies regarding immigration, access, language, services, education, etc… and could potentially open the government up to lawsuits. However, the solutions are being implemented by a grassroots movement from individual educators. These systemic discriminations can and are being replaced from the ground up in some classrooms and schools using the following practices: “Culturally Responsive Classroom Management (CRCM), which includes five components: (a) recognition of one’s own ethnocentrism and biases; (b) knowledge of students’ cultural backgrounds; (c) awareness of the broader social, economic, and political context; (d) ability and willingness to use culturally appropriate management strategies; and (e) commitment to building caring classroom communities.” (Davis, 201, p.137)

Strategies & Solutions

1 – Starting with additional teacher training – initially teacher initiated

Davis states “It is the teacher’s responsibility to know the context of his or her students’ backgrounds in order to thoughtfully engage them in the classroom.” (2017, p.136) This knowledge can be gathered piecemeal in the classroom, but incorporating concepts of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, hegemony, constructivism, cultural responsiveness, exceptionalities, inclusiveness, and comparative education into every teacher training course, regardless of the subject would model different ways of how to become aware of your students’ individualities and how to teach them according to their needs. 

While Davis suggests two strategies to be taught to preservice teachers: The reactive approach of “Response to Intervention (RtI), which refers to tiered levels of support for all students that become increasingly intensive and individualized (p. 142), and the proactive approach of UDL as discussed throughout this paper. I would suggest we ned to consider the several methods become core tenants of our training: The Proactive approach of UDL in tandem with the Interactive approach of DCMA. These can become the building blocks to having an inclusive mindset and practice. 

2 – Using DCMA to build the understanding of culture

Davis insists “teachers must first adapt an explicit class-consciousness and then inclusively integrate students’ perspectives and ways of learning where students feel encouraged to apply and challenge their ways of thinking.” (P140) Creating open-discussions on challenging topics becomes a must in breaking down prejudices and misconceptions. Davis advocates for anti-racism in the curriculum by demanding that “educators need to challenge dominant ideologies by incorporating the perspectives of gender and sexuality minority groups.” (p.140) By allowing the unpacking of stereotypes we can get a better understanding of different cultures, how they are perceived by others and those within them. 

3 – Using UDL to build self-efficacy

Kennett & Wilson refer to the UDL framework as the blueprint for fostering self-efficacy through a dynamic curricula. They state “Instructors are guided to craft lessons and courses with built-in scaffolds and approaches that will support and meet the needs of all students, which includes providing materials to learners in various formats, allowing flexibility in how students demonstrate their learning, and motivating students to become active agents in their own learning…” (2011, p. 2) Combined with empowering effects of a DCMA environment, the students develop abilities to learn and hopefully a love of learning that will carry them forward to future successes.

4 – Using UDL to reform assessments for additional learning

I’d like to borrow Valenzuela’s “politics of caring” (Davis, p. 144) as the basis for embracing a reform to assessment standards. He states “how authentic caring can empower students…” (p. 144). We teachers need to authentically listen to our students and understand how they express themselves is intertwined with what they are expressing.  Starting with this premise, we need to adopt the second principle of UDL and make available multiple tools and possibilities for expression. There will need to be a level of subjectivity in these assessments and a basic rubric of criteria to follow. “To be flexible, teachers need to get to know their students rather than relying on strategies they learned from others.” (P138)

Call to action – Where to start and finish

Reform to the Quebec Education Plan (QEP) should start with a demand for specificity in their wording. Firstly, I must admit I’ve only been able to read and reread it superficially, since the wording presents itself in very broad strokes. My own unique learning style is more proficient with concise language and specific and applicable examples. The QEP pages don’t take into account my learning style and I believe many people would feel the same. Much of the information is generalized to encompass the widest range of students and teachers possible. Finding and understanding guidelines for specific diverse needs requires a deeper understanding of the needs in question. Furthermore, one can find UDL principles and DCMA domains described within the pages, but they are not directly referenced to these strategies. There is a short paragraph emphasizing the importance of differentiation, but without any examples of application.  

Start the rewording to include specific criteria for teacher training, including detailed definitions for diversity, cultural responsiveness, inclusivity, and integration. Add detailed strategies for developing exemplary classrooms: DCMA, UDL, Indigenizing the curricula, and STEAM/STEM – cross-curricular lessons. Considering future events like Covid, add online, blended, and pod (teaching family or peer-group) methodology.  This also shows us the need to have better training on how to integrate technology into our teaching and curricula. 

Finish with building and possibly incentivizing professional development that includes all of the above and courses on developing better team-minded relationships with colleagues, parents, and the community at large. We are preparing our students for the world they will live in, we need to have practical knowledge of what that looks like to them. 

Conclusions

The education system is failing our students by not systemically implementing the strategies of modern educational theory and the adaptations of individual teachers. With my assumption that there are many amazing teachers applying methods that include the needs of students with all types of exceptionalities: LDs, Gifted, Linguistic, Cultural, Gender, Age, and personal. The inclusive classroom presents differentiated learning by including multiple modes of learning, expressing, and engaging with knowledge. It invites different perspectives with the goal that they will combine to deliver a deeper and broader understanding of the subject, oneself, and others. It presents knowledge, education, the classroom environment, and the members of the classroom community as dynamic components in the process toward a greater understanding of the world we live in. 

The majority of researchers presented here agree on a student-centred view that learners brings their own influencing experiences to their understanding of what is being taught. Furthermore, there is consensus the influencing experiences of the members in the classroom, including those of the teachers, must be acknowledged as equally valuable and interacting upon the individual and collective understandings that develop in these classrooms.  Davis (2017) advises mindfulness with his directive that “Teachers must learn to see the dynamics of their classroom through the eyes of their students and the communities from which they come. Additionally, teachers must recognize and accept that their students possess expert knowledge .…” (P138)

Aiming to treat each student as an individual with a unique set of strengths and needs isn’t new to many teachers, but new strategies to apply this mindset effectively might be. Kaka (2019, p.75) warns us of the impact of not training teachers on these new strategies: “Research suggests that teacher quality is the largest school-based factor for improving student achievement (Canales & Maldonado, 2018; Goldhader, Brewer, & Anderson, 1999; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005) with the difference between having an effective and ineffective teacher equating to more than a year of student growth (Schafer et al., 2012).” She makes her own call to action by stating “It has become imperative to measure whether or not teacher preparation programs are creating teachers that not only help their students achieve academically, but that can also use content and pedagogical knowledge to help their students learn, understand, and improve.” (p.75)

There is a need for systemic change to education, specifically in regard to differentiation and assessment. Individual initiatives of classroom teachers and researchers have brought practical strategies for building inclusive educational experiences and it’s now time we incorporate some of these strategies into every aspect of preservice teacher training, as well as personal development programs for experienced teachers. Good teachers are constantly learning and growing in their field through both reading the current research on Education and by conducting action research in their own classrooms.” (Lohmann) Teacher training also needs to adopt UDL principles. We need to place all the subjects into the multi-modal format and allow knowledge to be shared this way, as well as be expressed this way. For example: The APA format for writing papers cannot be a focal point in the rubrics handed out. There must be a focus on expression of the knowledge. There should always be room for students to present what they know in different ways.

References

1 – Capp, M. J. (2020). Teacher confidence to implement the principles, guidelines, and checkpoints of universal design for learning. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 24(7), 706–720.  https://0-doi-org.mercury.concordia.ca/10.1080/13603116.2018.1482014

2 – Davis, J. R. (2017). From Discipline to Dynamic Pedagogy: A Re- Conceptualization of Classroom Management. Berkeley Review of Education, 6(2), 129–153.

3 – Edmunds, A., Edmunds, G. (2018). Special Education in Canada, 3rd ed. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

4 – Harvey, C. (1998). Putting self-management into the classroom: one person’s journey. Journal of Management Education, 22(3), 408–15.

5 – Horbach, J., Mayer, A., Scharke, W., Heim, S., & Günther, T. (2020). Development of Behavior Problems in Children with and without Specific Learning Disorders in Reading and Spelling from Kindergarten to Fifth Grade. Scientific Studies of Reading, 24(1), 57–71.

6 – Kaka, S. J. (2019). Cooperating Teachers’ Perceptions of their Preservice Teacher’s Impact on Student Learning. Educational Research: Theory and Practice, 30(2), 75-90.

7 – Kennett, L.N., Wilson, N.A. (2011). Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Student and Faculty Perceptions

8 – Lewis, S. (2018). Universal Design for Learning: A Support for Changing Teacher Practice. BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp. 40-43

9 – Sahin-Taskin, C. (2018). Effects of active learning environments supported with self- and peer assessment on pre-service teachers’ pedagogical and self-efficacy beliefs. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 46(5), 421–440. https://0-doi-org.mercury.concordia.ca/10.1080/1359866X.2017.1355049

10 – Yu, J.W., Fikes, A.E., Ferguson, K., Wei, X., Tiruke, T., Hall, T.E., Blockorby, J. (2019). Efficacy Study of the Science Notebook in a Universal Design for Learning Environment: Preliminary Findings. Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Toronto, Canada.

11 – Zelenka, V. (2017). Universal interventions for students with adhd–and all students. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 53(1), 37–40.

Additional Resources

American Psychological Association: Classroom Management.  Retrieved from www.apa.org/education/k12/classroom-mgmt.aspx (2020)

Freire Institute. Retrieved from https://www.freire.org/paulo-freire/ (2020)

National Association of Special Education Teachers — Classroom Management Series. Retrieved from www.naset.org/783.0.html (2019)

PBIS-SCP Canada.  Retrieved from https://pbisscpcanada.wordpress.com

Québec Education Program. Retrieved from http://www.education.gouv.qc.ca/en/teachers/quebec-education-program/

Teacher Vision — Behavior (sic) Management Resources. Retrieved from www.teachervision.com/teaching-strategies/behavior-management

The Behaviour Management Network. Retrieved from https://www.edu.uwo.ca/research/newsletter/2013-spring/dynamic-classroom.html (2013)

The Teacher’s Guide — Classroom Management. Retrieved from www.theteachersguide.com/classroommanagement.htm#Classroom_Management_Strategies (2013)

The Responsive Classroom – RC.  Retrieved from https://www.responsiveclassroom.org (2020)

Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org (2020)

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