School Improvement and Governance Network

Big Ideas

Cultural and social inclusion - discussion paper

Schools have a rich history in developing innovative practices for inclusion. These practices inspire and inform what follows. The paper is the product of discussions with school principals, teachers, parents, students, researchers and policy officers who shared their knowledge and experience with us. VICCSO thanks Keith Staples (an educator and school governance leader) for his contribution to this paper.

Together with a definition of inclusion and a brief analysis of the achievement gap, the following interrelated points are discussed:

  1. Schools as models of inclusion
  2. Students as local and global citizens
  3. A coherent curriculum for inclusion
  4. Learning pathways for inclusion
  5. Teachers' leadership for inclusion
  6. Inclusive dialogue and planning
  7. The power of structured talk.

It is suggested that a Cultural and Social Inclusion Policy and Plan is one way that clusters and networks of schools develop a more strategic approach to inclusion.

What is inclusion?

As cultural and social issues are inextricably linked, the term 'cultural and social inclusion' is favoured in this discussion piece. Thus, consistent with this broad view, a school community's success in advancing cultural and social inclusion depends on the extent to which all students have enhanced opportunities to:

  • Develop new kinds of learning and life pathways that challenge old 'social class' and other constraints on students' educational options, learning outcomes and life chances
  • Be a part of, and help build, inclusive communities, workplaces and organisations, e.g., in a culturally and socially diverse school community, students may routinely learn from this diversity and learn to communicate and collaborate with others using intercultural and cross-class understandings
  • Become global learners and problem solvers, i.e., acquiring knowledge of the cultures, histories, geographies and languages of other countries, including proficiency in two or more languages, as well as becoming a global citizen with the skills to create cross-cultural ideas and understandings
  • Participate in dialogue and decision making, thus further empowering all students including those yet to be involved in school and community decision making and leadership.

Implicit in all of this is also an inclusive view of exclusion - treating it as a mainstream issue that affects everyone in various ways. 

The achievement gap

Students’ learning and life opportunities are strongly shaped by social background. For example, in Victoria, students from the most advantaged backgrounds are up to 16 times more likely to get into a medical course than those from other backgrounds. The most affluent Australian students are also on average three years of schooling ahead of the least affluent in reading literacy.

This sharp polarisation between the life chances of different groups of young people frustrates students, undermines their aspirations and starves a nation of knowledge, skills and creativity.

A 21st century nation should have a public education system in which the disparities between the performance of students from families of different social backgrounds are reduced in the short term and eliminated in the longer term.  This is the fundamental challenge facing education policy makers.

Australia has often imported flawed, even failed, educational models and strategies from the United Kingdom and United States. However, their track record on equity is at least as bad, if not worse, than our own and shows little or no sign of improvement.

With such influences, the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ’have nots’ has continued while other countries are moving in the opposite direction. One such country is Finland, where the degree of inequality we experience would not be tolerated.

Supporting schools in two ways

It is commonplace to attach the ‘underperforming’ label to schools addressing disadvantage and thereby to avoid real responsibilities to these schools. But schools can be supported in two key ways:

  1. Putting pressure on education systems and governments to provide the necessary extra resources to enable the closing of the gap in achievement
  2. Supporting the creative work of schools and systems in developing new ways which include those who are not benefitting equally from schooling.

The evidence is clear: more of the same in terms of resourcing, curriculum design and some teaching methods will not reduce the achievement gap. Copying what works for better-off schools is also a futile strategy. A different approach is needed.

What can be done?

All this may sound like a far too complex task for a school or any one teacher - and it is difficult and demanding at least initially. But aspects of the inclusive approach already exist. It is thus more a matter of reshaping and refocussing existing practices in the pursuit of inclusion rather than of starting all over again.

It needs to be central to everything that a school does and a fundamental element of longer-term plans. It must also be funded adequately to build momentum and to avoid 'projectitis'. Educators, schools, students, families and communities have already identified good practices which for ease of discussion can be organised around the following interrelated points.

  1. Schools as models of inclusion
  2. Students as local and global citizens
  3. A coherent curriculum for inclusion
  4. New learning pathways for inclusion
  5. Teachers' leadership for inclusion
  6. Inclusive dialogue and planning
  7. The power of structured talk.

Each of these points is briefly discussed in what follows. They may inform a school's diversity policy. Point 7 is also discussed in detail in the 'The Power of Talk' section on this website.

1. Schools as models of inclusion

Victorians originate from over 230 nations, speak approximately 180 different languages and follow at least 116 different religions. This diversity has led to differing educational responses in terms of how schools are organised. The student population of most schools represents broadly the character of the neighbourhood consistent with a culturally and socially diverse society.

If schools recruit students based on ethnic, social class, gender or religious exclusivity, this can create a more or less homogeneous student body. In sharp contrast to the diversity of society itself, students may learn apart from their peers from culturally and socially diverse backgrounds. As Professor Barry McGaw observes, if certain schools divide on the basis of gender, faith, social background, wealth, geography and so on, are they well placed to build bridging social capital?

At the other end of the spectrum are schools characterised by cultural and social inclusion. Not only does the student body more or less reflect the broad mix of their community. These schools are also founded on the principle of students from diverse cultural, social and religious backgrounds learning together.

What really matters is that inherent within the notion of an inclusive school is the powerful principle that it is both possible and desirable for educational and broad societal reasons for all children and young people, regardless of their circumstances or differences, to learn together.

In a more inclusive school, student forums may openly discuss the challenges presented by diversity, harmony and conflict resolution as well as the further steps necessary in their school’s continuing pursuit of the inclusive ideal. 

Students in such a school may thus routinely learn from diversity; they may communicate and collaborate with others using intercultural and cross-class understandings and be especially well-placed to become future leaders and global citizens. In turn, these understandings can build and strengthen local communities and help to develop modern, inclusive societies.

2. Students as local and global citizens

The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, agreed to by the federal, state and territory education ministers in December 2008, affirms that all students should be supported to become global and local citizens. Although a comprehensive Local and Global Citizenship Learning Framework is yet to be developed, it is important in the interim to provide all young people with opportunities to:

  • Respond to the specific challenges and advantages which cultural and social diversity presents in their schools, local communities and the wider world
  • Identify and exercise their rights and social responsibilities in relation to local, national and global issues
  • Develop their understanding as to how to participate in democratic processes at school and beyond
  • Positively and proactively counter any attitudes or behaviours that exhibit racism or prejudice.

Schools will obviously require new resources to support such work, but local and global citizenship learning can already be supported:

  • Across a range of key learning areas through the identification and explicit teaching of generic skills
  • By whole school and community links, experiences and events
  • Through professional learning focused on exploring the meaning of, and opportunities for developing, local and global citizenship.

3. Coherent curriculum for inclusion

Principals and teachers are wary of differentiating the curriculum for under-achieving students if this serves to segregate students. They know that streaming and second choice options are socially unjust and offer no long-term solution to underachievement. This is reinforced by international data which shows that countries with an improved standing are phasing out such practices.

All of this is supported by Professor Richard Teese's research into reducing the achievement gap. Professor Teese argues for an inclusive curriculum and learning pathways that challenge the separation of students into academic and vocational tracks. As Professor Seymour Papert and David Capello observe:

“A long time ago, a distinction was made between working with one's hands and working with one's head. Much of the educational world treated this distinction as though children who could work with their hands could not work well with their heads, and a separate and quite unequal educational track was created. New technology absolutely demolishes the distinction, and creates new pathways for learning for those who think well with their hands".

A school’s starting point is to see its role not as one of passively providing opportunities which students may or may not choose to take up, but rather as one of investigating who gets left out and then bringing about changes so that all students are included. All students have unique life experiences and backgrounds. Educators acknowledge and value this diversity in curriculum planning. This inclusion relates to enhancing the quality of learning of all students including those vulnerable to being excluded.

A socially just, inclusive curriculum seamlessly combines academic knowledge, concepts, theories and principles with applied learning and real world problem solving. The curriculum is then opened up to a wider range of students who may otherwise be streamed into narrowly academic and applied learning and technical pathways.

Many teachers, reflecting on their own backgrounds as academic subject specialists who were largely disconnected from more applied learning, have led the way in developing an optimum mix of academic and applied learning. This mix is readily embraced by many young people and is at the core of a 21st century curriculum.

4. Learning pathways for inclusion

Developing students’ personalised learning pathways can be a powerful means to move from exclusion to inclusion and disengagement to engagement. This enables students to freely mix and match subjects which favour their own personal blend of both deep academic knowledge and practical and applied learning - rather than being typecast into narrow vocational, occupational or academic study pathways.

An additional consideration is that many more students are creating their own pathways into and out of education and work. Some may begin with university and then attend a TAFE college, and vice versa. Likewise, periods of work and learning are spread increasingly throughout life rather than being concentrated in discrete and separated periods. This pattern is likely to grow as the 21st century unfolds - to the point where it becomes the norm.

For educators, parents and students, this turns attention to the concept of unified learning pathways that consider senior school, VET and higher education as part of an accessible, coherent learning framework. This strategy can improve the quality of learning for all students and increase access to ‘academic’ learning for students who may be initially more ‘concrete’ than ‘conceptual’ in their learning - especially when educators skilfully exploit these kinds of links.

By adopting a whole-of-education approach to students’ life and learning, many more students can be assisted to successfully plan, navigate and develop their own unified education, training and work pathways, without necessarily being restricted by what is available or required at any one institution.

5. Professional learning for inclusion

Supporting teachers to lead and develop more inclusive approaches and providing the necessary time for professional planning for its delivery become vital. If cultural and social inclusion is at the core of all that a school does, then its place on the professional development agenda is obviously a given. Some of the most interesting professional development and educational planning sessions in schools involve educators discussing ideas and practical strategies about:

  • How to create culturally and socially inclusive learning environments
  • Increasing the relevance of languages education to all learning areas
  • Increasing the use of structured classroom talk in all curriculum areas
  • Avoiding deficit thinking in relation to students of diverse backgrounds
  • Ensuring that learning builds on students’ backgrounds and experiences.

The following kinds of questions are used as a basis for group discussions that can also involve parents, students and members of community organisations including community languages schools:

  • How does my teaching reflect my culture and background?
  • How are cultural bias and prejudice manifested in education?
  • What experiences do I have as a result of studying and working with students of different cultural and social backgrounds, and how do I use this to continue to improve my teaching?
  • What strategies and methods do I use to establish an inclusive learning environment?
  • What is my role in helping to build stronger school-family-community partnerships?

Subsequent events can review progress and identify learnings, successes, barriers encountered and resources and time required for further expansion. Further professional learning may be focused on a shared school-family-community goal (such as the goal that all students become bilingual) as well as a school's or school cluster's Cultural and Social Inclusion Policy and Plan.

6. Inclusive dialogue and planning

"I was impressed with how frank and open the discussion was. It challenged and confronted all of us with new thoughts and ideas, compelling us to think afresh about the possibilities in education and what can be done to improve outcomes" (school principal following a school community dialogue)

A community dialogue draws participants from as many parts of the school community as possible to exchange information face-to-face, share experiences, honestly express perspectives, clarify viewpoints and promote cultural and social inclusion. In carefully answering the question ‘Which voices need to be included?’, the diversity necessary for a successful dialogue will be achieved. The event may start with answering the five ‘Ws’ (Who, What, Where, When and Why).

Good facilitation is critical to a successful dialogue. Schools use an experienced facilitator or someone who is a good listener and can inspire conversation while remaining neutral. It is obviously important for the facilitator to carefully think through the purpose of the dialogue, the questions to be asked and the best ways to stimulate conversation. It is also important that the facilitator is familiar with key documents, analyses, data and trends pertaining to the school community and the issue of inclusion.

From the dialogue a Cultural and Social Inclusion Policy and Plan may emerge. This may establish goals and strategies to improve equitable learning outcomes and ensure that responsibility for achieving this is shared by a cluster of schools and by schools and families working together.

Whatever the outcome, there must be a commitment to follow-up. This may take the form of specific actions or plans including reporting back to the participants and the wider school community on what has transpired and what is now intended. Coverage in the local or ethnic press may also be possible.

The dialogue should have generated conversation about the current adequacy of strategies used for school-home communications and parent participation, taking into account the cultural and linguistic backgrounds present in the community.

7. Power of student talk

More schools can more systematically embrace what Robin Alexander calls 'dialogic teaching' and the 'pedagogy of the spoken word' and become leaders in developing students’ language and communication skills and articulateness.

Dialogic teaching focuses on using talk and fertile questions to develop all students' understanding in a consistently sustained, structured, profound, conceptually rich and collaborative way. Because it focuses on how students deeply understand what is presented to them, it has the potential to overcome the barriers between the intent of the curriculum and way it is received by students.

Through structured talk, a school aims to ensure that all students, regardless of social background, acquire a highly-developed capacity to speak clearly, publicly, competently and confidently, and at length, about key themes and topics.

Such methods exploit the strong association that exists between oracy (oral skills), literacy and numeracy and so provide possibilities for significantly improving outcomes - in all learning areas - and reducing the huge achievement gap based on students’ social background.

At the core of culturally and socially inclusive learning, dialogic teaching benefits all students, not only those who may be vulnerable to being excluded. Inclusion is thus not an 'add-on' but is fundamental to a high-quality education. Understanding this assists us all to ensure that socio-economic background eventually ceases to be a significant determinant of educational outcomes.

The challenge is to better exploit the power of talk to improve learning outcomes for all students and to better understand the strong correlation between oracy, literacy and numeracy. In light of this, the balance of reading, writing and structured talk across the curriculum may need to be reviewed in many schools and education systems.

It is pertinent to discuss what a school is already doing well with dialogic teaching and building students’ language and communication skills as well as to consider how this important work may be further developed over time at a school.

Conclusion

Measuring progress obviously involves data collection and analysis as a Cultural and Social Inclusion Policy and Plan and specific initiatives such as dialogic teaching develop.

Schools report that such initiatives evolve best when there are formative samplings at 3, 6 and 9 months to indicate any major problems and what further support or resources may be needed.

After 12 months, a more extensive review could take place and then perhaps annually. Schools have also involved students in such evaluations. Students design questions and conduct focus groups of both students and staff and can present their findings to school council, staff and the student body.

Power of student talk - a more detailed discussion

We thank the many teachers and researchers for helping us to understand the centrality of talk to development, learning and teaching and the empowering potential of classroom dialogue. In particular, the work of Robin Alexander details the ways in which talk can significantly improve learning outcomes for all students. Our discussion draws upon his research.

This discussion paper includes the following:

  • What is dialogic teaching?
  • The balance of writing and talk
  • What do we know about effective talk?
  • On-going challenges in developing talk
  • Practical steps
  • Want to read more?

What is dialogic teaching?

Schools have incredibly rich experiences in developing students’ language and communication skills and articulateness. More schools will also more systematically embrace (and embed as the core of the educational experience) what Robin Alexander calls 'dialogic teaching' and the 'pedagogy of the spoken word'.

Dialogic teaching focuses on using talk and fertile questions to develop all students' understanding in a consistently sustained, structured, profound, conceptually rich and collaborative way. Because it focuses on how students deeply understand what is presented to them, it has the potential to overcome the barriers between curriculum intent and way it is received by students.

Through structured talk, a school aims to ensure that all students, regardless of social background, acquire a highly-developed capacity to speak clearly, publicly, competently and confidently, and at length, about key themes and topics.

Such methods exploit the strong association that exists between oracy (oral skills), literacy and numeracy and so provide possibilities for significantly improving outcomes - in all learning areas - and reducing the huge achievement gap based on students’ social background.

At the core of culturally and socially inclusive learning, dialogic teaching benefits all students, not only those who may be vulnerable to being excluded. Inclusion is thus not an 'add-on' but is fundamental to a high-quality education. Understanding this assists us all to ensure that socio-economic background eventually ceases to be a significant determinant of educational outcomes. It is thus worth noting the following points.

Talk has come a long way

In the last twenty-five years or so, research and teachers’ creative practice have provided rich evidence that talk is at the heart of the deep learning experience and a source of major improvements in learning outcomes. The evidence relates to many learning areas, including the arts, science and maths. Brain research is also providing new insights into how speech shapes the higher mental processes necessary for so much of the learning that takes place in school.

All schools have come a long way from a time when talk could be discredited as not being conducive to thinking and learning, when reading and writing were considered by some as the only ‘real’ school work or when talk was seen more as a discipline problem than a learning opportunity.

Cullinan notes, in this respect, that “traditionally, we have valued silent classrooms because we tend to equate silence with thinking and with productive work”. Indeed, the term ‘oracy’ was coined by Andrew Wilkinson, a professor of education, in the 1960s to draw attention to the then perceived neglect of oral pedagogy and oral learning skills.

Both deep knowledge and skills

There is greater awareness of how talk and dialogic teaching contribute to deep content knowledge and understanding. The work of renowned researchers and theorists (such as Vygotsky and Bruner) supports this conclusion as do the experiences of many educators in developing classroom talk over many decades.

Talk is not simply a matter of acquiring ‘communication skills’, as a subset of interpersonal or social skills, but rather embraces both deep knowledge and generic skills (skills that apply across a variety of jobs and life contexts).

In contrast to a narrow ‘skills’ view of spoken language in education, teachers and students co-work to develop extended, sustained, deeper, conceptually rich and reflective classroom talk! Some researchers (e.g., Bereiter and Scardamalia) refer to this as the ‘fundamental literacy'.

Research is also examining talk in computer-mediated communication and how what some call a new form of oracy is emerging; one that is not speech and not writing but a hybrid fusion. Consider students’ text messages, wikis and e-mails; they can be closer to spoken language in real time than to standard written communication.

With talk via computer screens, and not only verbal exchanges, the possibility arises to solve an old problem. As Wells (2000) points out, ‘old’ talk had a serious disadvantage as a medium for collaborative knowledge-building: it left no record of what has been jointly developed and understood.

The balance of writing and talk

While modern classrooms are obviously places where a great deal of talking goes on, talk that in an effective, sustained way engages all students and scaffolds their deep understanding and learning is less common than it should be. Countries such as England and Australia do not have the same tradition of oral pedagogy that is characteristic of public education in many European countries. As Robin Alexander also suggests:

We need to “rethink and adjust the balance of writing and talk in the language curriculum; redress the balance of written and oral tasks and activities; and shift from random, brief interactions to sustained and longer ones” (2001).

“We [also] need to move from a view of talk as about ‘communication skills’ and ‘the development of confidence’ to a recognition of the neuroscientific and psychological evidence of its unique status as a sine qua non for all learning, especially during the first 10-12 years of life” (2004).

There are some warnings to heed before embracing talk as part of the solution to exclusion. As with any initiative it requires careful thinking through and planning and the realisation that it will not all fall into place at once. In fact, as with many, if not all, educational initiatives, things may seem to be at their worst just before making a breakthrough and getting on to the road to success.

Achieving effective dialogic talk and not just time wasting exercises is obviously not an easy task and requires highly skilled teachers. It may also require shifts in attitudes among students, as some may have outdated ideas about the value of talk.

Studies show that in some classrooms talk is unproductive and group activities are not organised in ways that best achieve productive interactions. As well, studies document the ways in which talk in classrooms can be inequitable and thus reinforce rather than diminish the achievement gap. It also obviously takes time for all students to develop the communicative skills for engaging intellectually and collaboratively with each other.

Traditional talk includes taking turns in speaking and listening to and hearing others out. Dialogic learning may go beyond these conversational rules to include correcting others, being open to being corrected oneself and working collaboratively with others. Teachers find that working with other colleagues to share ideas and resources and document both the triumphs and pitfalls is the best way to mainstream dialogic learning.

A school council in drafting a policy around dialogic teaching would obviously also want to be assured that this practice would be supported by appropriate planning and adequate resources.

What do we know about effective talk?

In Australia, effective talk has been pioneered and practiced by numerous teachers in lots of classrooms over many decades. What, then, do we know about it? As Robin Alexander puts it, when structured talk is working well and consistently in a classroom, students routinely talk to the class as a whole, read aloud, come out to the whiteboard, write on it and explain in detail and in depth what they are doing.

The form of a student’s oral intervention (clearly audible, well-articulated and grammatically correct) together with intonation, changes of speed, and even facial expression and body language are no less important than its substance. Related questions which can only be touched on here include:

  • What is it that students need to know in order to improve as speakers and listeners?
  • How can talk be better built into the curriculum?
  • To what extent might the development of spoken language be fostered in learning areas other than English such as Science and Maths?
  • What does talk imply for the training, work, expertise, and professional development of teachers?

Dialogic teaching continues to evolve

Alexander’s UK research findings are consistent with Victorian experiences and provide positive evidence that:

  • Teachers construct their questions more carefully. The type of questions changes; those starting with 'What?', 'Who?' and 'How many?' are giving way to much more 'Why?' and 'How?'
  • Teachers balance factual recall questions with those which more deeply probe thinking
  • Further, 'now who can tell me...?' questions, and competitive hands-up bidding to answer them, are being used more discriminatingly
  • Student contributions are more diverse. There are more contributions of an expository, explanatory, justificatory or speculative kind. There is also reduced pressure on students to provide instant responses, with student-teacher exchanges becoming longer and more collaborative
  • Students are answering more loudly, clearly, and confidently, and at greater length, and speculating, thinking aloud, and helping each other
  • Teachers and students are beginning to build on questions and answers, adopting a questioning strategy of extension (staying with one student or theme) rather than rotation (questioning round the class), which can still be the favoured mode in many classrooms (as it obviously gives everyone ‘a fair go’) rather than developing more sustained lines of thinking and in-depth understanding with fewer students at any one time
  • There is greater involvement of so-called 'less able' students, who are finding that the changed dynamics of classroom talk provide them with alternative opportunities to show competence and progress, and of quieter, more compliant children 'in the middle' who are often inhibited by unfocused questioning, the competitiveness of bidding and the dominance of some peers
  • The reading and writing of all is benefiting from the emphasis on talk.

On-going challenges in developing talk

Alexander acknowledges challenges in attempting to encourage what, in some classrooms, is a transformation of the culture of talk and associated assumptions about the relationship of teacher and taught.

The achievement of deeper learning through complex scaffolding is far more demanding of teacher knowledge and skill than imparting information or testing recall through rote or recitation or, for that matter at the other end of the spectrum, student-centred learning, which are the two extremes that teachers seek to avoid. Difficulties include:

  • Making the transition is not easy; the pilots show a significant gap between teachers who are achieving real change and those whose practice has shifted little. The proportion of teachers whose work consistently is dialogical may remain small for some time
  • There is the challenge of avoiding ostensibly open questions that may stem from a desire to avoid overt didacticism and too much teacher talk, but may be unfocused and unchallenging, and may not provide for sufficiently sustained, profound and meaningful feedback
  • Alexander refers to this as ‘pseudo-inquiry’. If there is not a balance between teachers’ and students’ roles in talk, the cognitive potential of verbal exchanges may obviously be lost
  • Although students are being given more time for thinking through their responses to questions, and are more frequently encouraged to provide extended answers, it is rather less common for answers to be responded to in a way that helps the student and/or the class to learn from what has been said
  • It remains the case that after such extended responses the feedback is often minimal and judgmental ('excellent', 'not quite what I was looking for' or the not-so-ambiguous 'Ye-es...') rather than sufficiently informative and scaffolding to promote deep learning
  • Insufficient attention is being given to the repertoire of learning talk, and the far more systematic building of students' capacities
  • Teachers need to be supported to make more use of oral assessment, so that they can better assess understanding from what students say as well as from what they write
  • With greater emphasis given to classroom talk that is sustained and public, assessment has the option of going public and thus, with a better balance of oral and written assessment, oral pedagogy turns many students into assessors, too.

Practical steps

The challenge is to better exploit the power of talk to improve learning outcomes for all students and to better understand the strong correlation between oracy, literacy and numeracy. In light of this, the balance of reading, writing and structured talk across the curriculum may need to be reviewed in many schools and education systems.

It is pertinent to discuss what a school is already doing well with dialogic teaching and building students’ language and communication skills as well as to consider how this important work may be further developed over time at a school.

Want to read more?

Professor Robin Alexander's discussions of dialogic teaching and talk in learning include the following papers: