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date: 22 April 2024

Preparing to Teach in Inclusive Classroomsfree

Preparing to Teach in Inclusive Classroomsfree

  • Umesh SharmaUmesh SharmaMonash University


This article presents a critical analysis of inclusive teacher education. The article argues that while teacher education programs have changed dramatically over the last few decades, there are still areas where more progress could be made. It also argues for a need to re-conceptualize the way we prepare teachers so that they can confidently include all learners. It presents a framework, largely influenced by the work of Shulman, which could be applied for the preparation of pre-service teachers to teach in inclusive classrooms.


  • Professional Learning and Development


Regular classroom teachers worldwide are increasingly being asked to include students with a range of diversities in their classrooms as a result of policy and legislative reforms internationally (UNESCO, 2013). The placement of students with diverse abilities (including those with a disability) in a regular school does not guarantee high-quality education. Schools often find excuses not to include a student, citing reasons as lack of resources or lack of necessary skills and knowledge in the teaching community to teach the students. We already know that children are more likely to attend schools if they receive high-quality education (Rouse, 2010). We cannot expect that increasing number of placement opportunities will result in increased participation of learners with diverse abilities, including those with disabilities, in our education system. We need to pay as much attention to the quality of teaching and teacher preparation as we have paid to increasing placement opportunities through legislation and policy mandates internationally (UNESCO, 2013).

UNICEF (2012) conducted a study of participants involved in teacher education programs from 111 countries. The report found that, in general, most teacher education programs do not prepare teachers well to teach learners with diverse abilities including those with a disability in their classrooms. Slightly over 33% of respondents indicated that information about inclusive education was not covered during their teacher education programs. Qualitative comments from participants provided further insight into the data. The report argued that teacher educators’ lack of experience in inclusive education negatively impacted upon their ability to translate theory of inclusive education into practical guidance for pre-service teachers. Inadequate preparation of pre-service teachers for inclusive classrooms suggests that most in-service teachers in the same system are likely to struggle to include all learners in regular classrooms.

In a recent Senate report (Commonwealth of Australia, 2016), the Australian Education Union (AEU) stated that “many teachers report feeling underprepared when it comes to educating students with disability” (p. 77). An overwhelming 63% of teachers stated that the level of training and professional development they had received had not given them the skills and knowledge to teach students with disability. A review of research and policy documents from several countries suggests that inadequate preparation of teachers to teach in inclusive classrooms is a worldwide phenomenon (EADSNE, 2010). In a large study of in-service teachers undertaken by OECD (Schleicher, 2016), it was found that the greatest challenge faced by teachers across all participating OECD countries was their lack of preparedness to teach students with special needs. The problem of inadequate preparation of teachers to teach in inclusive classrooms in developing countries is even worse. In a review of the teacher education programs from 13 countries of the Asia Pacific region, we found that focus on inclusive education in teacher education programs was ad hoc, minimal, and isolated (Sharma, Forlin, Deppeler, & Yang, 2013). While some universities covered theoretical information about disabilities and inclusion, none of the universities had any practicum component oriented toward practicing inclusion.

Clearly there is a need for us to rethink the way we have been preparing teachers to teach in inclusive classrooms. Better prepared teachers not only provide high-quality education to children with disabilities, all children benefit in classrooms taught by competent, inclusive teachers (Sharma & Loreman, 2014). One aspect that needs to be given significant attention relates to addressing gaps between theory and practice of inclusion. Levine (2006) in a comprehensive report “Educating School Teachers” indicated that despite significant changes in teacher education in the United States, there remain clear gaps between theory and practice. A comment made by one pre-service teacher (PST) in the report highlights his point. “I could talk about Carl Jung, scaffolding, cooperative learning groups, [and] the advantages of constructivism, but had no idea what to do when Johnny goes nuts in the back of the class, or when Lisa comes in abused, or when Sue hasn’t eaten in three days” (p. 39). The comment by the participating teacher presents “a symptom of a serious underlying problem described by one education alumnus as ‘an abyss’ between theory and practice” (p. 39). Recently a report on Australian teacher education programs also reported significant disconnect between university-based teaching and school experiences (Ingvarson et al., 2014). It stated that the disconnect is unlikely to produce teachers who were ready to teach in our diverse classrooms. The report stated there are significant consequences of inadequate preparation of teachers, including higher turnover among poorly developed pre-service teachers. The authors (Ingvarson et al., 2014) recommended that we should focus our attention to meet the challenge. There is a need for us to reform our teacher education programs internationally to ensure true inclusion of all learners, including those with a disability, in mainstream classrooms. A number of researchers have discussed ways teacher education for inclusion could be reformed. For example, in one such program Humberto (n.d.) suggested that an inclusive education teacher needs to be prepared to recognize individual differences and implement learning strategies for all. He further suggested that inclusive teacher education programs should focus on equality: promoting the same opportunities for all; quality: offering functional and meaningful learning; and equity: responding to special educational needs. Other authors have talked about various other means that inclusive teacher education preparation should be undertaken. Various authors have talked about various aspects of preparing teachers for inclusion ranging from using an infusion approach to inclusion where content about inclusive education is infused in all teacher education subjects rather than covered in just one stand-alone teacher education subject (Loreman, 2010); use of reflective teaching practice as a dominant frame for teacher preparation (Sharma, 2010); and use of professional learning schools to provide field experience for graduate teachers (Waitoler & Kozleski, 2010). Some researchers have also talked about ways inclusive teacher education could be evaluated to determine its effectiveness (Salend, 2010). Clearly, the work done by these researchers have significantly moved the field forward. In this article I make an attempt to build upon Shulman’s signature pedagogies framework as a possible way to prepare teachers for inclusive classrooms. It is important to recognize that Shulman’s framework was mainly developed for preparation of regular classroom teachers. It is important to acknowledge that Shulman’s framework in inclusive teacher education has previously been applied by Florian and Rouse (2009) in Scotland and has already shown promising signs in the field.

Prior to reviewing inclusive teacher education, it is important to define inclusive education. UNESCO (2013) recognizes “inclusive education is a dynamic process of change and improvement through which the education system, and individual schools, school managers, and teachers address the education needs of all children without discrimination” (p. 4). Implementers of inclusive education make constant efforts to identify and address barriers that might prevent learners from accessing education, and participating in the learning process, and increasing their capacity both academically and socially (UNESCO, 2013). Ainscow (2005) identified four key elements of inclusive education that should form the foundation of inclusive teacher education. First, inclusion is a process. He suggests that inclusion is an ongoing process to search for ways to respond to diversity. It is about an ongoing journey of learning to live with difference, and, also about learning about how to learn from difference. Second, inclusion is concerned with the identification and removal of barriers to learning. Implementing inclusion requires collecting, collating, and evaluating information from a variety of sources to plan for improving practice. Third, inclusion is about the presence (i.e., attending schools alongside other students), participation (i.e., the quality of experiences), and achievement (i.e., learning and achieving across the curriculum not just examination results) of all learners, not just those who have an identified disability. Fourth, inclusion involves a particular emphasis on learners who are at an increased risk of marginalization, exclusion, or underachievement. Inclusion requires that we make serious attempts to ensure their presence, participation, and achievement within our education system.

Understanding the Challenge

In order to understand how best we can reform teacher education for inclusion, we need to first understand what do teachers need to learn to teach effectively in inclusive classrooms. According to Shulman (2004), teacher education or any other professional learning programs must prepare teachers with three key elements (Shulman, 2004). He calls these elements “three apprenticeships.” These are “apprenticeship of the head” (i.e., the cognitive knowledge and theoretical basis of profession); “apprenticeship of the heart” (the ethical and moral dimensions of a professions, attitudes, and beliefs that are critical to one’s profession); and “apprenticeship of the hand” (the technical and practical skills required to carry out the tasks relevant to one’s profession). One critical question that we need to ask is: Are we preparing our teachers who have the heart, head and hands of inclusive teachers? In order for us to answer the question, we need to first understand the heart, head and hands aspects more fully.

Apprenticeship of the Heart

Heart relates to the beliefs of educators. A number of researchers believe that for an educator to include learners with diverse abilities, he or she must have positive attitudes toward students with diverse abilities and toward their inclusion into mainstream classrooms. A number of studies have been conducted on a regular basis since the 1970s to examine educators’ attitudes toward students with disabilities or toward their inclusion into mainstream classrooms. Scruggs, Mastropieri, and Leins (2011) conducted a systematic review of 40 attitudinal survey reports of teachers from countries like the United States, Italy, Serbia, Greece, and South Korea. The combined total sample of teachers in the studies was over 8300. They found that close to 63% of teachers supported the concept of inclusion and almost a similar number of participants (62%) were willing to teach students with disabilities. However, it is important to note that participants were slightly apprehensive to include all students in mainstream classrooms. The researchers reported that only 40% of participants agreed that “all students with disabilities should be educated in general education classes.” It could be assumed that the remaining 60% of participants were still hesitant about the inclusion of all students. The participants were concerned about issues such as insufficient time, training, and support for inclusion. In an earlier review of educators’ attitudes toward inclusion, Avramidis and Norwich (2002) found that educators tend to be reluctant to include students with severe disabilities when compared to students with milder forms of disability. De Boer, Pijl, and Minnaret (2011) conducted a review of 26 studies to examine what attitudes teachers hold toward inclusion of students with disabilities in regular primary schools. Their study found that the majority of participants either hold neutral or negative attitudes toward inclusion. Interestingly, none of the studies that they reviewed reported clearly positive attitudes. Most of the systematic literature reviews have looked at the attitudes of in-service teachers. Such research reviews on attitudes of pre-service teachers is limited. Available research on pre-service teachers tend to indicate that in general pre-service teachers tend to have apprehensive attitudes toward inclusion at the beginning of teacher education programs, which shift in a positive direction after the completion of university teacher education programs. However, most pre-service teachers continue to have concerns to teach in inclusive classrooms (Sharma, Loreman, & Forlin, 2007). Their concerns mainly relate to lack of support available to them when they would start teaching in inclusive classrooms.

A reflection on studies undertaken to examine educators’ attitudes toward inclusion suggests that a large number of teachers (both in-service and pre-service) still continue to believe that inclusion is not good for all students and they have concerns about including students in mainstream classrooms. It can be assumed that these teachers may not have the heart of an inclusive teachers and they do not believe that inclusion is a good idea. In such a situation, we can either blame teachers or we can rethink about why teachers do not have the heart of an inclusive educator and what can be done about it. In order to address the issue further we need to first understand why teachers have negative attitudes toward inclusion or toward students with disabilities. The majority of the research on educators’ attitudes have looked at factors that influence educators’ attitudes. The researchers have found that educators’ negative attitudes are mainly associated with their lack of contact with people with disabilities, lack of adequate training, and lack of support (Avramidis & Norwich, 2002). While this research is useful and may provide some guidance on how best to address negative attitudes of educators, I do believe that the research on attitudinal aspects needs to take a new dimension. The majority of the research that has examined educators’ attitudes tends to be largely based on two underlying assumptions. First, it is assumed that students with disabilities are significantly different from mainstream students; and second that inclusion of such students is considered to be good mainly for the students and to the society. Both these assumptions are flawed to some extent. In most of the research on attitudes, researchers typically use a questionnaire with multiple statements and participants are asked to respond to the statements often using a Likert-type response format. An example of a statement from one such scale is “Students with down syndrome should be included in regular classrooms.” A respondent can indicate his or her agreement or disagreement with the statement using Likert-type anchors such as “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree.” Asking such questions can reinforce educators’ beliefs that students with disabilities (in this case Down syndrome) are different from other typical students. Teacher educators make attempts to shift pre-service teachers’ attitudes in a positive direction with a belief that change in attitudes will result in change in educational practices. It is possible that while attitudes might shift in a positive direction, their attitudes could still largely be grounded in a medical paradigm where students with a disability are seen as problems to be fixed. It is, therefore, very likely that change in educational practices could be minimal.

Deep-rooted changes in attitudes and beliefs are needed and systematic efforts should be made during teacher education programs to address this issue. Pre-service educators need to be convinced that teaching in inclusive classroom is an opportunity for them to learn new skills and thus become better teachers for all learners rather than to see it as a burden. It can only happen if inclusion is seen as a foundation to provide high-quality education to all learners rather than for some learners. In-service teachers who are not competent in including all learners need to learn new skills by undertaking various professional learning programs that prepare them to teach in inclusive classrooms.

In most teacher education programs, a significant emphasis is placed on covering theoretical aspects about inclusive education (Sharma et al., 2013). Most programs cover information about “what” and “how” aspects of inclusive education and limited emphasis is placed on covering “why” aspects of inclusion. It can be argued that unless pre-service teachers believe in an idea, they are less likely to learn and apply new knowledge in their classrooms. The question that arises from the discussion is how do we teach “beliefs”? Beliefs cannot be taught. Beliefs can, however, be modified. Most pre-service teachers enter teacher education programs with beliefs that teaching students with disabilities or different ethnic backgrounds is good for such students and schools should include them. In some teacher education programs, pre-service teachers also learn that including learners with disability is their legal responsibility. While the new knowledge forces pre-service teachers to include students with disabilities in their classrooms, the foundation of such beliefs are driven by either sympathy or fear factors (Sharma & Loreman, 2014). It is possible that teachers informed with the new knowledge may include students with disabilities in their classrooms but whether or not all learners, mainly those with a disability, would receive high-quality education is questionable. It is important that pre-service teachers are challenged in teacher education programs. They need to be convinced that including learners with disabilities or other disadvantages is good for teachers first and students second. Teachers who fail to include a learner with a disability or other disadvantages need to understand that unless they are competent to include the student, they cannot call themselves to be fully qualified teachers. Teacher educators need to spend time in engaging in open discussions. Ignoring pre-service teachers’ concerns about inclusion is unlikely to motivate teachers to practice inclusion. Pre-service teachers need to be encouraged in raising their concerns and need to be gradually supported in addressing their concerns throughout the teacher education program. This approach conveys an important message to graduates that despite some difficulties surrounding implementation of inclusive practices, it is possible to implement inclusion, provided teachers genuinely believe in the idea and are prepared to change their teaching practices. When pre-service teachers understand a strong rationale behind inclusion, they tend to develop positive beliefs about inclusion.

A number of authors have written that beliefs to discriminate against learners with disabilities are deep rooted and justifiable through religious and cultural practices in many Asian Pacific countries (see, e.g., Miles, 1995, 1997; Sharma & Deppeler, 2005). Changing such deep-rooted beliefs is extremely difficult. Careful approaches are needed to modify such deep-rooted beliefs. First of all, teacher educators need to reflect upon their own beliefs and be prepared to change them if they are willing to change beliefs of pre-service teachers. Teacher educators in these contexts may find it useful that religious and cultural practices could be interpreted in multiple ways. A number of scholars report that many of the practices could be interpreted in positive ways and should ideally be used to shape educators’ beliefs to support inclusive practices. For example, Bazna and Hatab (2005) undertook an extensive analysis of the Quran to understand how disability is conceptualized and its implication for education. They found that the Quran promotes respect for individual differences and asks society to include people with disabilities in the mainstream of society. They further reported that “physical conditions are viewed in Quran as neither a curse nor a blessing; they are simply part of human condition. The Quran removes any stigma and barrier to full inclusion of people with physical condition” (p. 24). Such positive interpretations of using religious texts to promote educational opportunities are also reported in the religious texts of Hinduism and Buddhism (Gupta, 2011; Miles, 1995, 2002). It may be useful for teacher educators in the countries of Asia Pacific region to engage with relevant literature in the area and use it in teacher education programs. In countries where negative attitudes toward disability continue to be among the significant barriers to providing quality education to people with disabilities, use of religious texts could just be the right solution to address the barrier. Miles (1995) reports several examples (e.g., immunization drives in Pakistan) from Asian countries where religion has been successfully used for large-scale implementation of desired reforms in Asian countries. Some critics have called the use of religion to propagate various practices as “pious fraud” (Miles, 2002).

Apprenticeship of the Head

Teachers need to have adequate knowledge to teach in inclusive classrooms. Prior to understanding what knowledge and skills are necessary for educators to teach in inclusive classrooms, it is important to determine what most teachers do currently learn about inclusive education internationally. The UNICEF review (2012) of 603 university educators engaged in teacher education suggested that little over half of the respondents suggested that teacher education programs covered only some aspects of inclusive education. Of the 603 participants, around 10% of respondents revealed that “inclusion of learners with disabilities in education featured in design of training but was not evident in implementation” (p. 5). Another 11% of respondents indicated that “no attention was paid to inclusion of people with disabilities in education design or delivery of training” (p. 5). Many respondents were concerned about the focus of training. For example, it was highlighted that, “Only types of disability were mentioned, practical methods and knowledge required to help children with disabilities were not included” (p. 6). Participants were also asked to make note of the key aspects covered in their teacher education programs.

In our review of teacher education programs from the countries of the Asia Pacific region, we found that information on disability and inclusive education was not covered well in the programs (Sharma et al., 2013). Only one country (Vietnam) has made subjects on disability and inclusive education compulsory for all teachers. The focus of the programs that we reviewed mainly covered theoretical aspects of various disabling conditions. It remains questionable if such a focus in teacher education programs can really prepare teachers to teach students with diverse learning needs in mainstream classrooms. The review stated that inclusive education should not just be seen as an additional subject that all teachers must do. Inclusive education needs to be seen as a sound foundation to provide quality education to all children. The review (Sharma et al., 2013) concluded by stating that:

In universities inclusive education, and even the teacher educators involved in teaching inclusive and special education, are typically regarded at the peripheries of education programs. Subjects on inclusive and special education are either offered in elective mode or not offered at all. Often it is argued that teachers have to learn a lot and learning to teach in inclusive classrooms is the last priority. As countries move towards ratifying the UN conventions, this has to change. (p. 10)

The question that arises from the discussion is: “What specific knowledge do pre-service (or in-service) teachers need to acquire to teach effectively in inclusive classrooms?” The question has created frequent heated debates among researchers in the field. There are two schools of thought. One school argues that pre-service teachers do not learn enough about various types of disabilities such as Down syndrome, specific learning disability, autism, and other disabilities (Kauffman, Landrum, Mock, Sayeski, & Sayeski, 2005). It is argued that unless they learn enough about these conditions they would not be confident in including all students. This school of thought is sometimes called special education paradigm. The argument is largely based on the premise that children with disabilities have special educational needs that are significantly different from other learners. Therefore, the adequate preparation of pre-service teachers requires teaching them the skills that are often not covered in a teacher education program (e.g., identifying children with disabilities). The other school of thought argues that inclusion cannot be created through the extension of special education paradigm (Allan, 2006; Davis & Florian, 2004; Slee, 2011). These researchers argue that identification of disabilities in students and then developing teaching pedagogy to suit a disability type are unhelpful. They argue that PSTs should learn to identify barriers to learning and participation of all learners and be confident in addressing barriers to the participation of marginalized leaners. Clearly the views proposed by these authors require significant shift in the way PSTs are prepared in terms of content, curriculum, and field experiences.

Some of the research that we have conducted favors the second school of thought. For example, in a multi-country study of pre-service teachers from Australia, Canada, Singapore, and Hong Kong, we examined attitudes, concerns and sentiments of PSTs and found that the content and pedagogy that focused on creating inclusive classroom environments for all learners resulted in significantly positive attitudes toward inclusion, better sentiments, and lower degree of concerns among PSTs compared to programs that focused on teaching about specific disability and teaching pedagogy relevant to the disability type (Sharma, Loreman, & Forlin, 2008). We also found that an increased emphasis on content relating to types and characteristics of various disabling conditions increased concerns of PSTs to teach in inclusive classrooms (Sharma, 2012; Sharma, Loreman, & Forlin, 2007). One possible reason that PSTs become more concerned after gaining more knowledge about various disabling conditions is that they start on speculating scenarios of including students with the most severe forms of the disabling conditions covered in the teacher education programs. It is critical that information about various disabling conditions is either not covered in teacher education programs or if it has to be covered, then PSTs must learn that each individual student, despite having a particular label, will differ in his or her abilities, strengths, and learning profile from other students with the same disabling condition.

Does it mean that we should not cover any information about specific disability or about how to teach students with a specific disability? This question has been investigated using different approaches (Davis & Florian, 2004; Kavale, 2007; Lewis & Norwich, 2005). Davis and Florian (2004) undertook a systematic analysis of literature to find out if there are teaching strategies that are particularly effective for teaching students with a particular label. They found that teaching approaches that were effective for teaching students with a particular label were also effective for teaching all other children. Their review failed to reveal any specific teaching strategies that were effective only for a group of students with a particular label. They concluded that:

. . . certain teaching strategies and approaches are associated with, but not necessarily related directly to specific categories of SEN [special educational needs] (such as autism, learning difficulty, etc). However the teaching strategies and approaches identified in the review were not sufficiently differentiated from those which are used to teach all children to justify a distinctive SEN pedagogy. It was clear that sound practices in teaching and learning in both mainstream and special education literatures were often informed by the same basic research, and that certain teaching strategies developed for one purpose could be effectively applied to other groups of children with different patterns of educational need (e.g., cooperative learning). This does not, however, diminish the importance of what might be construed as “special education knowledge” as an element of pedagogy applying to all learners. (p. 6)

Research by other authors (Kavale, 2007; Lewis & Norwich, 2005) also support the conclusions drawn by Davis and Florian (2004). Often increased emphasis is placed on covering information about specific disability and characteristics of students with various disabilities in teacher education programs. The rationale behind covering extensive information is related to the popular belief that when teachers know a lot about a disabling condition, they are likely to be confident in teaching students with the condition.

If teachers should not learn about disabilities, then what should they learn in teacher education about inclusion so that they can confidently include all learners? One way to determine what should be covered in inclusive teacher education programs is to examine exemplary practices used by teachers in inclusive classrooms and then incorporating the information into teacher education programs. In two comprehensive projects, the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education (2005a, 2005b) examined inclusive education and classroom practices in primary and secondary classrooms. The project findings were based on comprehensive literature reviews, expert visits in five countries, as well as exemplary case studies from 14 European countries. Both projects revealed that approaches that are effective in primary schools are also effective in secondary schools. The researchers found a handful of teaching strategies that make a classroom inclusive. The strategies included cooperative teaching, cooperative learning, collaborative problem solving, heterogeneous grouping, and effective teaching. One approach that stood out and was found to be particularly effective in secondary classrooms is the home area system. The home area system is an area that consists of two or three classrooms combined where a small group of teachers deliver the entire curriculum. Interestingly both studies did not identify any specific strategy that could be associated with a particular group of students with a disability (e.g., Down syndrome, or a specific learning disability). A number of other researchers have identified a range of other strategies that are critical for teachers to use to make their classrooms more inclusive. These include assessment for learning, Universal Design of Learning, and collaborative consultation (EADSNE, 2010; Salend, 2016).

Apprenticeship of the Hands

One of the most difficult aspects of inclusive teacher education programs is the ability of pre-service teachers to practice inclusion in real life classrooms. This has been highlighted well in the UNICEF report (2012). A large number of respondents who participated in the project felt that theoretical knowledge contained in teacher education programs does not always translate into classroom practice. The report failed to identify the reasons for ongoing gaps between theory and practice aspects of inclusive education. There are various reasons why theoretical information covered in teacher education programs fail to make an impact in teaching practices of pre-service teachers. Universities and schools are two different worlds. The information covered in teacher education programs often is too distant from the realities of classrooms (Sharma & Loreman, 2014).

In general, most teacher education programs struggle in closing the gap between theory and practice. It should concern teacher education programs considering high-achieving teachers identify access to a high-quality practicum experience as extremely critical for their preparation as effective teachers (Behrstock-Sherrat, Bassett, Olson, & Jacques, 2014). High-achieving teachers from the Behrstock-Sherrat et al. study identified access to a well-qualified and experienced supervising teacher as the most important element of professional practice.

There is a large body of research that has identified key elements of effective teacher education practicum. This body of research does not necessarily target preparation of teachers for inclusive classrooms, but the information from the research could give us some guidance on how best we can improve professional placement aspects for inclusive teacher education programs. Darling-Hammond (2006) analyzed key features of seven teacher education programs from the United States that are known to produce high-quality teachers. Based on her analysis of the programs she found that all programs shared one common characteristic with each program incorporating at least 30 weeks of supervised teaching practice in schools. She also found that these programs shared another common element. All programs nurtured strong connections between university and schools and carefully linked the university curriculum with schooling practices.

Teacher education programs find it difficult to encourage connections between theory and practice due to limited contacts with school personnel, use of contradictory teaching practices in schools in contrast to what is covered in teacher education programs, and limited contact between university and school staff (Capraro, Capraro, & Helfeldt, 2010). The way that most teacher education programs currently organize professional placement is problematic. The number of pre-service teachers that need to be placed for their practicum experiences has risen steadily over the years in countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States. More pre-service teachers need placements compared to the number of placement opportunities available. The conditions are not any better in developing countries such as India, Bangladesh, and China (Sharma et al., 2013). The result has been that most pre-service teachers are placed in whatever settings are available for placements. It can be argued that not all schools and mentor teachers are suitable for placements. MacDougall, Mtika, Reid, and Weir (2013) report that the mentor teacher role in Australia remains largely untrained. They rarely get any support from universities or their schools to become better mentors. They also get limited support from school leadership teams to act as mentor teachers. Mentoring teachers need to have specific attributes that qualify them to act as mentors. They need to be experienced, knowledgeable about subject pedagogy, and must be highly effective teachers; and lastly they must be willing to mentor others (Greenberg, Pomerance, & Walsh, 2011). In a typical school of 25 teachers, there will be only one such teacher who has all these qualities (Greenberg et al., 2011). Thus many of our pre-service teachers end up completing their field experience in settings where they learn very little about exemplary inclusive education practices. A large majority of pre-service teachers find themselves in classrooms of supervising teachers who are not well qualified to mentor new teachers. It should, therefore, not be surprising to see a large majority of these pre-service teachers returning to university classrooms ill prepared to practice inclusion.

The situation could be compared to a person who is learning to drive. Consider about the competence of the learner driver who was given driving lessons on roads that have far less traffic compared to most of the city roads. Also consider the learner is instructed by an instructor who himself or herself has limited experience and confidence to drive on busy roads and in complex traffic conditions. The learner is most likely to fail the driving test when he or she has to drive in situations that are significantly different from the traffic conditions where he or she learned to drive. Teaching in inclusive classrooms is not easy. It is like driving on highly complex roads and through tough traffic conditions. A pre-service teacher with limited exposure to teaching in a class with limited diversity is unlikely to develop skills of an effective inclusive education teacher. It is critical that we pay as much attention to the placement aspect of teacher education as we have given to theoretical aspects of teacher education.

A number of teacher education programs around the world are trying to address the issue of inadequate professional practice. We can learn a great deal from these programs and incorporate the key lessons learned in improving our programs. One common practice to bridge the gap between theory and practice is achieved by establishing strong connections between schools and universities. Professional Development Schools or Professional Learning Schools are becoming increasingly popular in the United States and Australia (Clift & Brady, 2005; Grossman, 2010; Latham & Voget, 2007). A Professional Development School is a setting that is designed to provide high-quality education to students enrolled in school and also to provide a high-level of support to new teachers. There is widespread evidence to show that teachers who have completed their placement in PDS have a high degree of confidence in their teaching ability during the early years of teaching (Clift & Brady, 2005) and are most likely to stay in the teaching profession (Latham & Voget, 2007). Cobb (2001) reports that pre-service teachers who have completed their placements in PDS schools tend to use more refined pedagogical methods, are more reflective and feel more confident to teach in classrooms with greater linguistic and ethnic diversity, and are more likely to seek employment in schools with difficult teaching conditions compared to their traditionally prepared peers.

We cannot afford to continue to prepare teachers the way we have done in the past. We need to conceptualize the challenge better and identify ways the challenge could be addressed to better prepare teachers for inclusive classrooms. A number of educational and inclusion theorists have talked about ways we can prepare educators for inclusive classrooms. Each theory on its own can have significant impact in the way we prepare teachers. In this article an attempt is made to integrate the work of various theorists with an intention to propose a new framework that is likely to result in better preparation of educators for inclusive classrooms.

Addressing the Challenge

The purpose of this article is not just to present what is wrong with how we are preparing our teachers for inclusion; it is also about how best we can reform what we have done for so far. One way we can prepare teachers with head, heart and hands is to use the existing research on various aspects of head, heart and hands along with what we have learned from other research that is complementary to the field of inclusive education. In this regard, work done by Ajzen (1991) and Ainscow, Farell, Tweddle, and Malki (1999) could be useful. Ajzen made a significant contribution in explaining human behavior and how our attitudes shape behaviors. According to his theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1991), a person’s actual behavior could be predicted based on the individual’s intentions to perform the behavior. For example, whether a teacher will include a learner with a disability in his or her classroom depends on the teacher’s intention to include the learner. Intentions to perform a behavior in turn are influenced by three closely related psychosocial constructs of attitudes, perceived competence, and subjective norms. Attitudes toward the behavior relate to the person viewing the behavior favorably or unfavorably. Perceived competence relates to the individual’s capacity to perform the behavior. Subjective norm refers to how significant people in the environment evaluate the behavior. Applying the theory to the field of inclusive education, if a teacher has favorable attitudes toward inclusion; if he or she is competent to include (high-efficacy beliefs) students with disabilities; and if he or she is working in a school where school leaders, other teachers and parents favor inclusion (favorable subjective norm); the teacher is likely to have positive intentions to include students with disabilities in his or her classrooms. Positive intentions in turn would positively shape the teacher’s behavior and he or she would most likely include students with disabilities in his or her classrooms. In recent years, some researchers (Ahmmed, Sharma, & Deppeler, 2013; Kuyini & Desai, 2007) have applied the theory in understanding intentions of in-service teachers and found that attitudes, efficacy, and subjective norm influence their intentions to include a child with a disability in their classrooms. Ajzen’s theory complements the work done by Shulman. For example, two key components of Ajzen’s theory, that is, attitude and perceived competence are similar to two key aspects of Shulman’s theory, that is, heart and hands. Ajzen’s theory provides further guidance about changing a teacher’s actual classroom behavior (i.e., hands). In order to change classroom practices of a teacher, he or she will need to be well supported and he or she needs to teach in an environment where other people will be supportive of the idea of inclusive education. It can thus be implied that for us to prepare teachers with head, heart and hands, we need to make sure that pre-service teachers are asked to complete their field placement experiences in schools that believe in inclusion philosophy. They should be placed in schools that are willing to support pre-service teachers during their placements. It is at this time that most pre-service teachers will come across difficult teaching situations, and if they are supported to get through difficult teaching situation they are more likely to develop long-lasting confidence to teach in inclusive classrooms. More research is needed in determining what support is critical at the time of field placement for pre-service teachers to build their capacity to teach in inclusive classrooms.

There is a second body of research that could be useful in making a decision about when pre-service teachers are ready to teach in inclusive classrooms. Many authors have argued that teaching practices, also known as professional experiences or field experiences, are central to the better preparation of teachers (Beauchamp, Clarke, Hulme, & Murray, 2013). However, research evidence for the effectiveness of different types of teaching practical experiences is limited (Beauchamp et al., 2013). We cannot expect PSTs to acquire all necessary skills to teach in inclusive classrooms as many skills develop when they actually start teaching. However, significant inroads can be made during the time of field experience to improve knowledge, skills, and dispositions to teach effectively in inclusive classrooms. The common practice is that a mentor teacher makes subjective judgment about the readiness of a PST to teach. It is an area that might be contributing to inadequate preparation of teachers as it is possible that PSTs obtain passing grades from mentor teachers who themselves are not exemplary inclusive professionals. All students, including those with a disability, should be involved in making a decision about the readiness of a teacher.

Students with disabilities represent hidden voices and rarely any attention is paid to what they have to say about their education (Dunleavy, 2008). It is argued that failure to engage in conversations about their learning can significantly increase the chances of their disengagement (Dunleavy, 2008). Students, including those with a disability, do have a voice and it is unfortunate that we have failed to listen to them (Dunleavy, 2008). Listening to students’ views provides a powerful mechanism for making connections with vulnerable students. Considering students are the primary consumers of educational services, their voices need to be captured and have potential to significantly improve teaching practices of pre-service teachers. The need to listen to the voices of people with disability was echoed by themselves during the Lisbon declaration (Soriano, Kyriazopoulou, Weber, & Grunberger, 2008). They said, “teachers need to be motivated, to be well informed about and understand our needs. They need to be well trained, ask us what we need and to be well co-ordinated among themselves” (p. 22).

A New Framework

It is possible for us to prepare teachers with head, heart and hands of inclusive educators. However, it will require a significant shift in the way we have prepared them in the past. Figure 1 below represents the conceptual framework. It also shows how it can be evaluated by measuring efficacy, attitudes, and teaching practices.

Figure 1. Conceptual framework.

In a reformed teacher education program, four things must happen. First, pre-service teachers need to be jointly taught by a team of university academics and school educators. This partnership will allow bridging the gaps that have existed between theory and practice. School educators should not just deliver guest lectures in teacher education programs, they should co-teach the whole subject on inclusive education alongside the university academics. It will be even better if all pre-service teachers could complete their field experience in the schools of those educators who teach in teacher education programs. Pre-service teachers prepared using this kind of partnership are likely to have a higher sense of teaching efficacy (head or knowledge) to teach in inclusive classrooms and would be more willing to include learners with diverse abilities in their classrooms (positive attitude or heart). Second, pre-service teachers should only learn information that aligns with inclusion philosophy and which is evidence based. This article earlier presented information from various exemplary inclusive education programs and other sources. Some of the common topics that must be covered in a teacher inclusive education program will include a rationale for inclusive education, assessment for learning, knowledge of inclusive education strategies (e.g., cooperative learning, peer tutoring, differentiated instruction), working with parents and para-professionals, Universal Design of Learning, and assistive technology. Most importantly, information on various types of disabilities should be covered minimally or not covered at all. If information about any disability category has to be covered, participants must learn that an individual with a particular label will differ in his or her abilities with another individual with the same label. Information about the categories of various disabilities does not inform teachers about how to teach a child who has a specific label. It only teaches about the medical aspects of a type of disability and the information may not be particularly helpful when teaching students with a range of abilities. Third, the university academics and the school educators should jointly support pre-service teachers during the time of placement. If school educators have been co-teaching with university academics, then they will be in much better position to support pre-service teachers and can facilitate PSTs to use teaching strategies covered in the teacher education programs. School educators can also call upon university academics for additional support when a pre-service teacher faces difficulty in teaching effectively in the classroom. Last, all pre-service teachers need to be thoroughly assessed at the time of teaching placement to determine their readiness to teach in inclusive classrooms. An innovative way to assess pre-service teacher readiness is to get information from three key stakeholders (the pre-service teacher, the mentor teacher, and the students) using parallel forms of the same rating scale/tool that covers core inclusive teaching practices (e.g., Inclusive Practices Classroom Observation Scale (IPCOS) (Sharma & Sokal, 2015). Using such multiple forms of data will allow the pre-service teacher to get a true sense of his or her readiness to teach in inclusive classroom. Scores from different stakeholders will also allow the pre-service teacher, mentor teacher, and university academics to target areas where the pre-service teacher scores poorly.


The article presented a critical analysis of inclusive teacher education programs internationally. We know that currently our new teachers graduating out of teacher education programs are not fully equipped to include all learners with disabilities. Most universities do a reasonable job of preparing teachers with a head of inclusion (i.e., cover relevant knowledge about inclusive education). However, transforming this knowledge into truly inclusive classrooms is sometime difficult. Not all pre-service teachers believe that including all learners with disabilities is possible in their classrooms. In order to change the situation, it is critical that we adopt a new framework that will allow all teachers to be prepared with the heart, head and hands of inclusive teachers. Preparation of teachers with head, heart and hands will require close partnership between universities and schools. Neither universities on their own, nor schools on their own can create truly inclusive classrooms and prepare new generation of teachers who can include all learners. In this article I proposed a framework that builds upon the work done by Shulman, Ajzen, and other eminent researchers from the field. The framework brings four key elements (why should university and school educators co-teach, what should they teach, how to support pre-service teachers, and how to determine their readiness to teach in inclusive classrooms) needed to prepare future teachers to be inclusive of all learners. The framework could be applied in countries with limited resources as it is not very resource intensive. However, it does require commitment from both universities and schools to work together. Unless schools and universities collaborate and are jointly responsible for preparing the teaching force, producing inclusive teachers with the head, heart and hands will remain a distant reality.


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