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In-Service Teacher Training for Inclusion

Summary and Keywords

Following the UNESCO initial statement in 1994 that inclusive schools were the most effective way to counter discriminatory approaches and attitudes toward students with a disability, international legislation and policy has evolved to challenge exclusionary practices and focus attention on equal opportunities for all learners. Inclusion in education is now accepted as a basic right and the foundation for a fairer and equal society. In opposition to earlier dual systems of regular and special education, inclusive education presents a changed paradigm in the way that learners with diverse needs are educated. Specifically, generalist teachers are now required to be able to cater to the needs of the most diverse student populations both academically and socially within regular classrooms.

In most regions, there has been a rather slow and lagging change in teacher preparation to support these new developments. It is frequently documented that new graduates and in-service teachers are not well prepared for managing inclusive classrooms and understanding differences among students. Many teachers will say that they require more professional learning opportunities about inclusive education than they currently receive. When teachers are appropriately trained, have positive attitudes toward including students with diverse abilities, and have access to appropriate resources and support, there are many good practices that become evident. Conversely, inadequate teacher education and a lack of suitable resources often inhibit teachers from developing the appropriate beliefs or attitudes necessary for becoming inclusive practitioners.

As the demand for better training of teachers about the inclusion of students with diverse abilities increases, the question that arises is what constitutes best-practice professional learning for upskilling teachers about inclusive education? While a variety of existing practices ranging from in-school support to system-wide approaches are employed globally, identifying which to use must be grounded in the context and specific needs of individual teachers and schools. This article provides a review of the range of models of whole-school methods, including focusing on teacher competencies, developing school and university links, engaging in collaborative scholarship, and establishing professional learning communities. System support is also examined, as this is critical to effective training. The Hong Kong model is cited as a good example of a collaborative government system/university partnership toward upskilling teachers about inclusive education. This model provides a realistic approach to addressing this issue when a longitudinal plan has been implemented to upskill regular class teachers in inclusive education, using initially an off-site training program followed by a school-based whole-school approach that may be of interest to many other systems. Consideration is also given to the training needs of education assistants who work in inclusive classrooms and their roles in supporting students. The importance of lifelong professional learning should underpin decisions regarding what model or approach to adopt, as student and teacher needs will undoubtedly change over time.

Keywords: in-service teachers, inclusive education, teacher professional learning, Hong Kong, special education


Berlach and Chambers (2011) suggest that the preliminary step to inclusive education is having “… an accurate understanding of “what is” … in preparing for “what may be” on a much broader scale” (p. 52). Yet it continues to be recognized that new graduates are not well prepared for managing inclusive classrooms and understanding differences among students (Australian Institute for Teaching & School Leadership, 2013). Similarly, a considerable proportion of teachers say that they require more professional learning opportunities about inclusive education than they currently receive (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2009). In most regions, there has been a rather measured change in teacher preparation to support these new developments (Forlin, 2010). This is compounded by training institutions that are considered to be out of touch with the reality of how new teachers need to be prepared (O’Keefe, 2009).

A commonly reported barrier for effective implementation of inclusive education policy (particularly in developing countries) is, not surprisingly, inadequate teacher education (Kalyanpur, 2014; Mukhopadhyay, 2015). Combined with a lack of resources, top-down approaches at systemic levels, and challenges with socio-cultural beliefs about disability, upskilling teachers to implement inclusion remains a challenge in many countries. According to the European Commission:

The demands made on teachers, school leaders, and teacher educators are increasing and changing. They are called on to play a key role in modernising education. To do that, they need to develop their own knowledge and skills. Initial education and continuous professional development of the highest quality, and access to support throughout their careers are both essential

(European Commission, n.d.).

Selecting an appropriate model of professional learning to support teachers to become inclusive practitioners is not an easy task. Specifically, this requires a long-term solution, as the traditional approach of a single workshop frequently attended by a few teachers from a given school without any consolidation is unlikely to have any substantial impact on how teachers respond to the day-to-day teaching of the diverse students in their classes.

Emphasizing the Need for Ongoing Teacher Learning

Many researchers have attempted to pinpoint effective practices that can provide the basis for a set of principles to guide educators and policymakers in their decisions with respect to inclusive education. Winter and O’Raw (2010) reviewed the literature in this area and identified nine germane practices, including engaging in appropriate training and professional development for all staff. For teachers to be able to accomplish a high degree of teacher efficacy for inclusive practice, adequate teacher education must be provided, and teachers must take tenure over their own learning and actively investigate opportunities for professional growth (Smith & Tyler, 2011).

A set of guidelines has been developed by UNESCO to support countries in strengthening inclusion (UNESCO, 2009). These provide 51 inclusive policy actions across 13 areas of policy concern. One of these policy areas is related to teacher education, which is perceived as being often discussed but rarely addressed. It is proposed that countries need to “[i]nitiate the elaboration of capacity development plans for educational staff both at national, regional and local levels” and “[d]evelop a set of criteria for the requirements of capacities needed for school managers, inspectors and teachers” (26), in order to better prepare teachers for inclusive education. Following this, UNESCO and the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education produced the Inclusive Education in Action website that highlights how different systems and schools are able to bridge the policy-to-practice gap by illustrating a selection of the suggested policy actions (

Similarly, one of the five key messages related to inclusive education proposed by the European Agency for Disability and Inclusive Education (EADIE) is the importance of having highly qualified professionals in general and teachers in particular. In 2012, EADIE produced a Profile of Inclusive Teachers as a guide for the design and implementation of teacher education programs. The framework is based on a set of core values and areas of competence that are proposed as essential for preparing teachers to work effectively within inclusive classrooms and cater to all forms of diversity. The framework includes:

  • Valuing learner diversity—learner difference is considered as a resource and an asset to education. The areas of competence within this core value relate to conceptions of inclusive education and the teacher’s view of learner differences.

  • Supporting all learners—teachers have high expectations for all learners’ achievements. The areas of competence within this core value relate to promoting the academic, practical, social, and emotional learning of all learners and effective teaching approaches in heterogeneous classes.

  • Working with others—collaboration and teamwork are essential approaches for all teachers. The areas of competence within this core value relate to working with parents, families, and a range of other educational professionals.

  • Personal professional development—teaching is a learning activity and teachers take responsibility for their lifelong learning. The areas of competence within this core value relate to teachers as reflective practitioners and initial teacher education as a foundation for ongoing professional learning and development.

(Adapted from European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, 2012b, p. 7)

What Constitutes Appropriate Professional Learning for Inclusion?

A range of formal, non-formal, and informal learning activities is available in most jurisdictions for teachers to gain further knowledge about inclusive education. It has been proposed that “[s]chool leadership, improved teacher training, best-practice teaching and an inclusive culture within schools are all significant factors which contribute to better outcomes for students with disability” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2016, p. 73). To achieve these, improved teacher education requires relevant opportunities for leaders and teachers to develop knowledge and skills through both pre-service education and continuous professional learning of the highest quality. This is particularly pertinent for newly appointed principals who often report that they find it difficult to lead the implementation of instruction design and curriculum development when taking into account the special educational needs of some students (Ng & Szeto, 2016).

In addition to improving pre-service training for teachers, it is essential to ensure that practicing teachers are similarly able to access ongoing professional learning in order to maintain and build upon their initial skills and knowledge of current best practices for supporting all learners within inclusive classrooms. While some professional learning opportunities may be available outside of school, many teachers either do not find suitable courses or cannot attend because of conflicting work schedules. This poses the need for more opportunities for professional learning to occur within the school environment and/or during school hours.

A recent Senate Report by the Education and Employment References Committee in Australia reviewed the impact of policy, funding, and culture on the education of students with disability (Commonwealth of Australia, 2016). One of the 10 recommendations was directly related to the continued need for better teacher preparation and, in particular, ongoing professional learning to ensure that all teachers are successfully prepared to teach in inclusive classrooms. Even though inclusive education has been the practice in Australia for more than a decade and most teacher preparation programs already include a compulsory course on catering to students with special educational needs, the report still proposes that more needs to be done to prepare teachers effectively to become inclusive practitioners. Specifically, Recommendation 7 of the report proposed that:

5.39. In relation to teacher education the Committee recommended that the government works with states, territories and school systems to:

  1. (b) Make it mandatory for all initial teacher education courses to ensure beginning teachers enter the classroom with best-practice skills in the inclusion of students with disability. The government should also work with states and territories to ensure current teachers, principals and support staff are supported to develop inclusive education skills in areas such as universal design for learning, differentiated teaching and cooperative learning.

  2. (c) Investigate the establishment a national qualification standard for teacher aids and assistants to ensure they have the knowledge and skills required to support learning for all students. States and territories should also provide guidance on the role of support staff in inclusive classrooms.

  3. (d) Prioritise the development of a national approach to modifying the curriculum for students with disability. This should include implementation tools and professional development support for teachers to ensure that all students are supported to learn to their fullest potential.

Three practices for improved teaching are specifically mentioned, including the development of skills so that teachers can use universal design for learning, differentiated teaching, and cooperative learning approaches. Of particular note in Section 5.39(c) is the emphasis on ensuring that, in addition to upskilling teachers, teacher aids and education assistants also need to have appropriate training to support the learning of all students. In many school systems internationally, the use of teacher assistants to support learners with special educational needs is a key strategy. This is frequently adopted as the single most-embraced model of support allowing all students to be educated within the same classroom.

Trained and knowledgeable teaching assistants can be very helpful in facilitating inclusion while working under the direction of the classroom teacher (Symes & Humphrey, 2011). Yet, research constantly exposes the challenges faced by this approach, as teaching assistants are usually the least trained personnel in the classroom who are required to support the neediest students (Chambers, 2015). The call by the Commonwealth Government to establish a national qualification standard for teacher aids would seem to be a potential way forward for addressing this. Nevertheless, this would have enormous implications for the cost of training and who would be required to fund it. It would also require a massive effort to implement, as many education assistants would not be interested in undertaking training beyond their work hours when their current salaries are low; without incentives, they may well question the perceived importance of unpaid training. In addition, many assistants are transient, so on-the-job training by teachers is at least directly focused on the immediate and potentially short-term need for their roles.

The recommendation of implementation of a national approach for modifying the curriculum for teachers to adopt is also fraught with challenges. It is difficult to conceive that a one-size-fits-all approach could possibly be suitable for teachers working in such diverse schools and classrooms as those found across Australia. This would similarly apply to other countries where no government systems are catering to a homogeneous group of students and families. Modifying the curriculum for learners with diverse needs requires in-depth knowledge of individual students. Professional learning in a range of options that could be adopted to modify a curriculum for different students might be an effective strategy. Proposing a national approach to implementation is, however, unlikely to provide the most appropriate support for all students to learn to their fullest potentials. Whether a national professional learning program about curriculum modification would be possible across all jurisdictions in Australia, where education is state- and territory-controlled, is another issue that would need to be addressed.

Challenges with Including and Supporting Diverse Learners

When considering how best to support teachers for inclusive practices through professional learning opportunities, a number of challenges exist that are embedded within systems and often underscore the capacity of providers to achieve the outcomes they desire. These include but are not limited to:

Inclusion Being a Political Directive

Realizing policy into practice is frequently given limited attention, with a lack of additional funding to support the required professional learning needs of staff. To ensure that inclusive educational approaches address the needs of learners and that implementation ideas through policy development are manageable and practicable, a more proactive leadership role is needed by those who are daily involved in the execution of inclusion. Unless teachers believe that all children should be included in regular classes, it is difficult to get them to commit to making the necessary modifications to cater to each child’s personal needs. Similarly, unless they are trained in methods for including learners, not all children will be provided with the necessary and most appropriate support to achieve their potentials. Strong school leadership is required to bridge this policy-to-practice gap and ensure that all staff members are fully cognizant of what is needed and have the necessary skills to enact inclusive practices.

Competing Forces with Inclusion Being an Equity Battle

With increasing demand for systems to improve student outcomes and to be more internationally competitive, teachers who are qualified to teach content in narrow discipline areas may be preferred. The relentless fragmenting of training into disciplines perpetuates a balkanized focus on narrow and discrete curricula that continue to endorse and promote autonomy that does not allow for the development of a common inclusive agenda. Time spent on preparing teachers to focus on inclusive approaches rather than curriculum may not be as well supported by employing authorities or schools. Unless catering to student diversity is accepted as an important and essential role for teachers and it is acknowledged that not all learners are going to be able to achieve minimal standards when taking national tests, then high-stakes testing will continue to exclude learners with low expected outcomes. In many countries, teachers are judged and assessed based on the examination results of their students. While this continues, it is not surprising that teachers will remain reluctant to include learners who are unable to meet expected “normal” standards of achievement.

The Role of Universities

The main providers of teacher education remain mostly universities. This is usually implemented by a separate faculty of education within which special and inclusive education are frequently seen as separate entities and taught by specialized staff. Developing a whole-faculty approach that mirrors the inter-curricular collaborations found within effective inclusive schools and highlights that inclusive education needs to be infused in all curriculum areas is essential. At the same time, while faculties continue to be organized into departments, divisions, and narrowly defined discipline areas, and inclusive education is taught as a separate curriculum, there is no common understanding of what constitutes an inclusive curriculum or what the aims should be in furthering it. There are few countries where teachers are really valued as professionals and where their training and support are esteemed. One such country, for example, is Finland where teachers are greatly respected, teaching standards are high, and teaching is seen as a prestigious career (Burridge, 2010). As suggested by Forlin (2012):

If teacher education is to be improved and if teachers are to be effectively prepared to teach in inclusive schools, then not only do universities have to accept greater responsibility for providing courses that meet their needs, but they also need to lead the debate by enacting more research into the outcomes for teachers engaged in inclusive schooling

(Forlin, 2012, p. 10).

The development of improved university school links has been seen increasingly in recent years, especially in regard to organizing teacher practice opportunities during pre-service training. Some systems are actively involved in reevaluating existing training models by developing and trying new approaches through greater collaboration between training institutions and schools (Rouse, 2010). Links between universities and schools, though, tend to diminish once teachers complete their initial training. In some countries such as Germany, however, all university education staff members are required to be co-opted as a resident at a school on a rotational basis (Rouse, 2010). This ensures that school and university staff both benefit from insightful views into current research and best practices for supporting all learners.

Fiscal Constraints

The cost of providing external professional learning, when available, is increasing with a plethora of private education consultants offering their services to support schools. With greater devolution of responsibility to individual schools for the allocation of funding, providing support for professional learning is competitive with the need for other resources and for schools to update rapidly changing technologies to ensure that they remain current. Funding for education fluctuates regularly in countries depending on a number of issues, not the least of which are the constant changes in government. Devolving funds to local districts or schools at least ensures that decisions can be made locally to meet the needs of specific student clienteles. But in contrast, there needs to be some form of effective accountability to ensure equitable allocation of funding across areas to safeguard the needs of learners with diverse abilities and to ensure that they are appropriately addressed and teachers are sufficiently trained to support them.

Regardless of these generic challenges, the provision of ongoing appropriate professional learning is critical for safeguarding that teachers have the required knowledge, skills, and attitudes for working in diverse classrooms. Challenges need to be considered but not used as excuses for a lack of support for upskilling teachers.

Teacher Competencies for Inclusive Practice

To decide upon the type of content that should be included for professional learning of teachers in preparation for inclusive education requires that consideration be given to the competencies that they will require for working in inclusive classrooms. Teacher competencies should involve not only having the necessary knowledge, understanding, and skills but also the appropriate dispositions including beliefs, attitudes, values, and commitment about and toward inclusive education (Forlin, Sharma, & Loreman, 2013; Geijsel, Sleegers, Stoel, & Krüger, 2009). The development of teacher competencies as a curriculum for professional learning requires consideration of a number of key principles:

  1. 1. Engaging teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders in dialogue regarding which competencies are required;

  2. 2. Developing a vision for professional learning that is integrated into system-wide and whole-school planning;

  3. 3. Identifying competencies that are likely to be essential at different stages of a teacher’s career;

  4. 4. Embedding a cyclical program for reflection upon their usefulness and adaptation to change;

  5. 5. Sensitivity to regional and local school contexts; and

  6. 6. Monitoring the effectiveness of training about the competencies.

Teacher competencies, therefore, should include an in-depth pedagogical knowledge of teaching content (Krauss et al., 2008) and also knowledge about ensuring effective practices in diverse, multicultural, and inclusive learning environments (Williamson McDiarmid & Clevenger-Bright, 2008). With diverse classrooms continually in a state of flux, teachers need to be proficient in adapting their planning and teaching on a daily basis. Making appropriate decisions requires teachers to engage with current best-practice ideas and to be able to present these in a motivating way that will engross all children. A set of six broad teacher competencies is proposed by Paquay and Wagner (2001) as being critical for all teachers as professional learners:

  • the teacher as a reflective agent

  • the teacher as a knowledgeable expert

  • the teacher as a skillful expert

  • the teacher as a classroom actor

  • the teacher as a social agent

  • the teacher as a lifelong learner

Developing teacher competencies requires ongoing support and commitment to a regime of effective professional learning throughout a teacher’s career. Access to current information together with opportunities to view good practices is important if teachers are to participate willingly with this learning process. According to the European Commission (2013), three key system components are needed for teachers to be able to acquire and develop their competencies for inclusive education:

  1. 1. stimulating teachers’ active engagement in career-long learning and competence development in effective ways;

  2. 2. assessing the development of teachers’ competences, with tools that are aligned with the purpose and design of the teacher-competence model being used in each system; and

  3. 3. providing coherent, career-long appropriate and relevant learning opportunities, through which every teacher can acquire and develop the competences (s)he needs.

(European Commission, 2013, pp. 34–35)

They suggest that providing a variety of opportunities and inducements is necessary along with designated requirements for participating in professional learning. Five key aspects of teacher expertise are identified for effective inclusive-education practitioners. These include routinization with domain- and subject-specific expertise; sensitivity to social demands and dynamics in the classroom; understanding problems; flexibility and improvisation; and the ability to critically examine one’s own professional practices (European Commission, 2011).

Matching teacher learning needs to their specific school context and personal situation is further essential for effective engagement to occur. Connecting teacher appraisals and feedback to professional learning will provide the accountability aspect of the appropriateness of training. This will also give teachers greater ownership for directing their own learning, which in turn is likely to provide greater incentives for them to participate.

Professional Learning Communities

Regardless of whether an in-school or system-wide approach is adopted for teacher professional learning, or a combination of both, participation in professional learning communities or communities of practice has been linked to improvement and more collaborative continuous teacher development (OECD, 2009). Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) propose that a professional learning community model involves reflective inquiry with collective learning and responsibility. In this way, teachers develop knowledge about teaching by being able to combine theory and research through reflective and collaborative activities with strong support from colleagues (Hagger & McIntyre, 2006). Teacher participants in an active professional learning community can act as researchers, receivers and givers of feedback, and innovators (OECD, 2009).

In-school professional learning through the development of learning communities allows teachers to generate new knowledge while responding to the unique needs of their specific students (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Teachers are able to receive and provide guidance by participating as active collaborators within a supportive and understanding team.

The most effective training, nonetheless, should be based on an in-depth understanding of teachers’ specific learning needs depending on the clientele group they have and direct feedback about their teaching.

Best-Practice Approaches to In-School Teacher Learning

High-performing inclusive schools have been found to have a number of key common areas. For example, a review of nine high-performing primary schools in Western Australia, selected based on a positive five-year improvement in achievement according to the standardized results of the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), identified four aspects (Louden, 2015). Each of the nine schools was considered to be high achieving and high improving and were representative of a range of socioeconomic backgrounds as identified by their Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) scores ranging from 1084 (high SES decile 2) to 994 (low SES decile 9). All schools experienced stable long-term leadership with an emphasis on whole-school planning, explicit improvement plans, and explicit teaching. Many of the schools had also adopted lower variation teaching, resulting in a consistent whole-school approach to curriculum planning and pedagogy.

Along with these strategies, all schools had well-established and comprehensive enduring professional learning programs for their teachers. Significant investment had been made in providing a range of ongoing professional support for teachers. These included school-based mentor activities by way of in-class coaching and peer observation programs. More formal support included regular in-school professional development of explicit teaching and participation in study tours to visit and observe schools that were effectively using explicit teaching strategies.

Many schools adopt in-house training for the professional learning of their teachers. While this allows schools to identify and respond to their immediate needs, it does, however, pose further challenges. Providing localized training requires that if “in-school professional learning is conducted by principals or other school leaders it will also be imperative for them to receive appropriate training to have the skills to support and direct their teachers” (Forlin, Sharma, Loreman, & Sprunt, 2015). In order to achieve ongoing positive change in teachers’ practices, attitudes, and beliefs about inclusive education, research shows that in-school professional learning that occurs within a collaborative model is the most effective (General Teaching Council for England, 2005).

Increasingly, schools are turning away from single professional development days, especially if they are attended by only one staff member and are consequently off-site, in favor of more extended programs and, when possible, whole-school engagement in on-site workshops. As outlined by the European Commission (2013):

A “professional development opportunity” should entail much more than “attending a course,” and be understood to comprise a wide range of formal, non-formal and informal learning activities. It is important that all teachers in schools are encouraged to reflect upon their own experiences in the light of different theoretical views, and experiment with new approaches (38–39).

Identifying appropriate content for professional learning within schools will undoubtedly vary significantly according to the school context and localized needs. A few aspects have, however, been identified as effective for preparing teachers for inclusive education. According to a report by EADSNE in 2003, they identified five areas:

  1. 1. Cooperative teaching—working with other colleagues within the school or outside professionals;

  2. 2. Cooperative learning—using peer tutoring with students to support cognitive and social-emotional development;

  3. 3. Collaborative problem-solving—implementing a systematic way of monitoring behavior through the use of agreed-upon rules and incentives;

  4. 4. Heterogeneous grouping—along with a differentiated approach to teaching with targeted goals, alternative routes, and flexible instruction; and

  5. 5. Effective teaching—where education is based on assessment and evaluation with high expectations for all students and curriculums geared to individual needs.

Professional learning on these topics together with support in developing the skills of implementing universal design for learning, differentiated teaching, and cooperative learning have all been found to be effective in preparing teachers for inclusive practice.

Best-Practice Approaches to System-Wide Professional Learning

There is little doubt that good practice increasingly views teachers as lifelong learners, with the understanding that pre-service education is unable to meet their ongoing needs. This was summarized by the European Commission in 2012 when they stated that it is essential to

… revise and strengthen the professional profile of all teaching professions [by] reviewing the effectiveness as well as the academic and pedagogical quality of Initial Teacher Education, introducing coherent and adequately resourced systems for recruitment, selection, induction and professional development of teaching staff based on clearly defined competences needed at each stage of a teaching career, and increasing teacher digital competence.

(European Commission, 2012, p. 669)

With the incredibly rapid rate of change in technologies and progressively more diverse student populations included in regular classes, this momentum is likely to continue. In order to ensure that teachers are effectively supported to cater to the changing dynamics of inclusive classrooms, it is incumbent upon education systems, as well as individual schools, to become more accountable for ensuring suitable access to ongoing professional learning for their employees.

Professional learning should begin with the systematic induction of new graduates and become a continuous process of assessment and development of competencies across a teacher’s career (European Commission, 2010). Opportunities for staff to develop their competencies need to be in each school’s strategic planning, with adequate support to ensure enactment. Likewise, professional learning for teachers should be part of every education system’s strategic planning for monitoring improvement across all schools by ensuring some consistency in learning opportunities for all teachers.

Several system-organized training models exist. Some countries provide teachers with financial support for undertaking further professional qualifications. Others organize centralized training programs that are government-funded. In most regions, there is a wide choice of options for further professional learning for teachers. Almost 90% of teachers across Europe, for example, indicate that they have taken part in some form of professional learning. There is, however, considerable variation among countries in the type of activity, its impact, the intensity of participation, and the age and proportion of teaching staff participating (European Commission, 2013). In reference to data obtained in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), the OECD (2009) reports that significant numbers of teachers do not believe that current professional development is meeting their needs in terms of quantity, quality, or content. The European Commission proposes that this could be addressed by provisions that

  • take into account the perspective of the specific school context and needs, as well as national demands, making a connection between the two (e.g., linking the needs of school development and curriculum development);

  • are based on a vision and an analysis of the local situation (e.g., the different stages of development of schools and individual teachers);

  • are integrated into the wider school development plan;

  • are negotiated so that they connect school development with individual professional development;

  • define priorities that are connected to a wider competence framework;

  • are connected to teacher appraisal and feedback, to identify development needs and related CPD plans; and

  • consider professional development needs throughout the different stages of teachers’ careers, especially as they represent an aging profession, and their skills and competences require constant updating, to keep up with social changes and expectations.

(Adapted from European Commission, 2012, pp. 40–41)

System-Wide Professional Learning in Hong Kong

As an example of how a committed system-wide professional learning approach has been adopted and modified to support the upskilling of teachers for inclusive education, the following case of Hong Kong is considered.

Integration in Hong Kong

Hong Kong remains a Special Administrative region (SAR) of China with a total population of 7.3 million. In 2014, the total student population in kindergartens, primary, secondary, and special schools was 888,254. All students are eligible to receive 12 years of free education from the ages of 6 to 18 years. Hong Kong has retained a dual-track education system. Five percent to 6% of students with special educational needs (SEN) are educated in regular schools, while 1.1% of students with severe levels of disability study in special schools (Education Bureau (EDB), 2015a). In regular schools, the policy is based on a “Whole School Approach to Integrated Education” (the term applied to inclusive education in Hong Kong) with a three-tier intervention model widely advocated for helping students with SEN (EDB, 2015b).

A Systemic Approach to Teacher Professional Learning about Inclusion

Transitioning from a segregated education system to a more inclusive one in Hong Kong since the first policy in the mid-1990s (Forlin, 2006) has, as in many other countries, led to a number of challenges. The professional capacity of teachers in catering to students with SEN, for example, continues to be highlighted as a concern in local studies (Equal Opportunities Commission, 2012; Forlin & Sin, 2010). In response to the increasing numbers of students with SEN in regular schools and the concerns raised by teachers about their lack of preparedness for this, the EDB now provides schools with an additional budget for resources, training, and manpower. Since 2007, the government has engaged a local university to provide different levels of teacher professional development for inclusion, namely, in basic, advanced, and thematic courses on catering for students with SEN (EDB, 2015b).

The framework of training for teachers helps heads of schools formulate plans for staff training in SEN by enabling them to attend appropriate courses that meet individual school needs. A basic course offers 30 hours for equipping teachers with the necessary knowledge and skills about teaching strategies, curriculum, assessment, and accommodations to cater to diversity. The advanced course is a 102-hour program for preparing teachers in providing tier-two support for students with SEN. The thematic courses, ranging from 90 to 120 hours, offer in-depth training for students with SEN at the tier-three (highest) support level.

From 2007 to 2016, with support from the university, local schools, and the EDB, over 30% of all regular class teachers in government schools in Hong Kong have completed the basic course. Many teachers in regular schools have also completed the advanced and thematic courses. The completion of 90 contact hours or more in the teacher professional development framework on integrated education is now recognized for promotional purposes (EDB, 2015b).

The teacher professional development framework on integrated education in the government’s policy has now become the major task and mode of training for teacher empowerment in catering to the diverse learning needs of students with disability in regular schools. In order to achieve the expected outcomes, certain measures are noted. First, the EDB has supported the training with the aim of supplying teachers to schools so that serving teachers can attend courses. The practice frees teachers from heavy teaching or administration duties within a course period. Second, all school heads are now required to have plans for staff development and make recommendations for course attendance in order to meet the specified training target numbers in their five-year plan. By doing so, schools will have adequately trained manpower for meeting their contextual needs. Third, the university has built up a strong team to provide the teaching and organize cohorts of training courses for thousands of participants over most months of the school year.

The concerted effort in the partnership of government, schools, and university over the 10 years since its inception has gained wide recognition. This tripartite model of support for professional learning has been accepted by other local regions (e.g., Macau, Shanghai, and Guangzhou). The provision of government financial support, the development of school policy for staff professional learning, and a strong partnership with a university for the special-needs training have all been considered as effective ways to ensure that teachers are better prepared for inclusive education (Sin et al., 2010; Forlin & Sin, 2010; Sin & Law, 2012).

New Trends for School-Based Support

Although the EDB confirmed the effectiveness of the training mode in their course review in 2012 (EDB, 2015b), a local territory-wide survey (EOC, 2012) stated that for further development of inclusive education in Hong Kong, it is necessary to support teachers, once they were trained, to practice their skills in school. Despite the positive changes in attitude and self-efficacy (Forlin et al., 2013, 2015), there was a lack of evidence-based practice after course attendance (EOC, 2012). Many barriers, including the complexity of students’ SEN, heavy workloads, weak team leadership, tight curriculum schedules, and a lack of commitment for change, still exist in regular schools in Hong Kong (Sin, 2005; Lui et al., 2015). School heads report that, following the first phase of off-site professional learning in the three levels of courses, they continue to look for strategies to support their trained staff in school-based work on inclusion. There was, therefore, increasing demand for on-site school support services to supplement the training programs taken at the university. This led to teachers and professionals from the EDB, NGOs, and university staff working together as a team to resolve this issue and support slowly emerging good practices.

On-Site Support Services

A trial program of on-site school support service to secondary and primary schools was made possible by external funding through the chief executive’s community project funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust for 2013–2016. The project offered an innovative frontline support-and-study program for teachers by university experts for adopting a wide range of strategies and curriculum approaches in catering to the diverse learning needs of students with SEN. The project tasks included providing intensive school-based support (108 hours) for schools with a great number of students with SEN; consultancy (18 hours) to schools that need assistance; knowledge transfer seminars on differentiated instruction; and empirical study on student learning, teacher effectiveness, and whole-school approaches for support among schools. In total, 145 schools have already received these services.

This second phase of a system-wide professional learning approach to upskilling regular class teachers in Hong Kong about inclusive education is already demonstrating a number of emerging best practices.

Building up a New Mode of Professional Support for Knowledge Transfer

The project was coordinated and carried out by a university-level support team, including academics, professionals, mentors, and instructors with expertise and training in special needs. This was designed to supplement the first phase of professional development for teachers that occurred off-site and was course-focused. This school-based model is an innovative tryout of knowledge transfer by the university-level support team for supporting teachers within their schools in a systematic and holistic way. The territory-wide reaching-out service is considered a breakthrough of teacher professional learning in special needs in the development of inclusive education in Hong Kong. University participants are able to overcome the unique challenges faced within each school in regard to the complicated nature and variety of the schools’ needs and the support that teachers need.

Promoting the Systematic Change and Commitment Using a Whole-School Approach

The university and school partnership approach has enabled schools to view inclusion from a new perspective and gain a better understanding of and reflection on their situation and students’ needs using the three-tier support model. The professional advice from the consultants sheds light on the systematic change and reform in school work for diversity. Teachers review their limitations and strengths and draw strategies from successful cases for school improvement. The reflective process strengthens their conceptual understanding and commitment, especially if the staff members experience successful outcomes in their reforms. In the final dissemination seminars, it is always reported that the difficulties they experience making changes in the system have been minimized to a great extent. Teachers are more willing to exert a concerted effort for removing systematic barriers on the basis of a whole-school approach.

Constructing the Dynamic Partnership in Making Changes

The school support service starts with a cyclic working model: needs analysis, identification of issues of concerns, preparing plans for change, tryout, and then evaluation and modifying plans for further action. The process involves gaining professional knowledge, problem-solving skills, collaborative work, and commitment among the team members, with reference to the students’ needs, classroom teaching, and school development. Mentorship is crucial for supporting teachers’ work in the identification, planning, and implementation of strategies to support learners with SEN. It is different from the outsourcing services provided by NGOs, in which the teachers perceive that they are always the “outsiders” in the process of supporting students with SEN. For example, through the process of collaborative lesson planning, lesson observation, and post-lesson discussion, teachers learn more about planning and teaching for diversity. Such an action-and-reflection learning-cycle mode is helpful for professional learning among team members.

Enhancing Pedagogical Practices to Support Inclusion

To implement a whole-school approach to integration, some models of professional learning, including the practices of mentoring, in-class coaching, peer observation, outcome-sharing, and learning exposure, are crucial for success. In the program, mentoring is on either an individual or group basis, with support from internal or external mentors. The on-site support service facilitates the mentorship formation in schools. The mentor is seen as essential for providing a good role model, problem-solving, and emotional support. The in-class coaching is further considered as an operative method for knowledge and skill transfer, using skill demonstration and problem-solving in authentic situations. It provides a strong link between the theory learned in the first training course and the practice of implementation in the classroom. Peer observation helps to build a reflective culture in schools. In the community of practice, teachers learn more from observing colleagues who provide comments on their teaching and peers who share innovative practices and creative approaches. Outcome-sharing in workshops and seminars further strengthens the team’s commitment and internalized efforts in catering to diversity. In the sharing, the presentations represent not only the outcome and successful strategies, but also the reflective and thoughtful changes experienced by the teachers. Public dissemination is a kind of professional learning. Engagement and professional dialogue support the professional learning. In the project, members are more willing to work on tryouts in universal design for learning, differentiated teaching, and cooperative learning when working in a supportive whole-school environment.

In Hong Kong, the on-site support services, together with the professional development framework on integrated education, fill in the service gap by linking theory to practice in the process of school-based support. The services meet the contextual needs by offering an alternative way of professional learning. More importantly, the features of work also respond to the five core values: appreciating learner diversity, supporting all learners, working with others, and supporting personal professional development, specified by the European Commission (2012). Teachers become reflective practitioners by gaining further confidence in ongoing professional learning and development.


Several questions remain in regard to what constitutes best practices for ensuring effective life-long learning for teachers in maintaining inclusive educational practices. It would seem unquestionable that, to sustain the professionalism of teachers throughout potential careers of more than 40 years, an effective and highly relevant program of learning must be implemented so that they remain up to date on changes in thinking and practices about teaching. This should not be left as an ad hoc approach but rather should be part of a strategic effort by education systems, governments, and individual schools. How this will be accomplished internationally remains a key question for individual countries to address.

How will support for teacher learning be funded to guarantee equitable access for all teachers? Most countries are diverse in their populations, geographical regions, schooling systems, and challenges that they face in the ongoing training of teachers. In addition, funding is always tight for education and may be heavily affected by changes in government aligned with fluctuations in fiscal support. The question of how to ensure that all teachers are able to receive ongoing appropriate professional learning that can be guaranteed even with limited fiscal support will also need to be seriously considered by all countries.

Ultimately, any support for teachers must directly correspond to improved student learning. Providing proof that demonstrates professional learning for teachers is making a difference for students is critical. While there is internationally a strong movement toward evidence-based practice, this has not as yet transferred to measuring the quantity or quality of professional learning. This is an important area that needs much more study in the future.

Inclusive education, in its broadest interpretation of catering to all student differences within regular classes, will remain a major philosophical change to education. Preparing teachers to accommodate the needs of increasingly diverse student populations within a rapidly changing technological world will be challenging for everyone involved. Teachers have to progressively cope with greater and more complex emotional needs of students, more complicated family backgrounds that affect student learning, a growing population of disenfranchised students, and increased accountability by systems that require rapid changes and extensive paperwork, along with their own personal needs.

Sleegers, Bolhuis, and Geisel (2005) note a shift in the focus of professional learning from what they say was previously a technical-rational-top-down approach toward a more cultural-individual-interactive approach. The development of professional learning communities, if embedded within a whole-school approach to teaching and learning, can provide a very strong localized and culturally sensitive approach to upskilling teachers for inclusive education. The provision of effective professional learning will, nonetheless, remain a significant factor if equitable and rightful inclusive education is going to be fully realized.

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