The greatest enabler of education inclusivity: the technology and attitudes that change the world
Inclusivity guru, Daniel Sobel, takes tech inclusivity, one of the greatest tech challenges of our time, and turns it on its head in search of great answers. Gain insights on global best practice, and illustrations of the steps that education leadership can take right now towards achieving this goal.
Daniel Sobel, Inclusion Expert
Overview – The greatest enabler of education inclusivity
Find answers to key questions including
- What does inclusivity look like for EdTech?
- What does ‘great learning’ look like in a blended environment?
- What does inclusivity mean for the teaching, management, and other staff of education organisations?
Inclusivity has long been at the forefront of educators’ minds. Now we are in a pattern of continual shifting of attitude, adoption and use of technology. Daniel asks big and unexpected questions about how EdTech contributes to solving the inclusivity challenge. He challenges our working assumptions and shows us the route into accessing global inclusive best practice to deploy in British education organisations.
- What inclusivity looks like, with specific reference to technology and blended learning
- How we can model ‘great learning’ in a blended classroom
- What global inclusive best practice for technology could look like in the British classroom, and what can we learn from around the world
- What MAT and school leadership can do to incorporate all this into their goal planning and facilitate these goals for their teams.
Daniel Sobel MA Ed (Psychology) FCMI FCIC FRSA is the Director of Inclusion Expert, Chair of the International Forums of Inclusion Practitioners (IFIP), best-selling author, international consultant, speaker, and advisor. He has authored and leads nine master’s programmes in Inclusion and is a major influencer on LinkedIn.
An internationally respected leader in inclusive education, he has advised the Department for Education, the European Union, governments abroad, the UN and UNESCO and led various large scale initiatives involving thousands of schools.
Daniel has an enormous following, particularly on LinkedIn and is a highly regarded and sought-after speaker for his thought provoking and often hilarious presentations and refreshingly original approach to Education and Inclusion Leadership.
Under Daniel’s leadership, Inclusion Expert has grown into one of the UK’s most respected education organisations, which has worked with over 10,000 schools and launched programs at the Houses of Parliament. His training has been used in more than 40 countries and translated into numerous languages.
Daniel founded and Chairs the International Forums of Inclusion Practitioners (IFIP) which currently has representation in 77 countries and is one of the broadest collections of inclusion training in the world delivered by real practitioners for real practitioners and parents.
“I have a vision of a new era in Inclusion: beyond labels where we all share both a common humanity and a unique individuality” Daniel Sobel
“Daniel Sobel takes a balanced and reflective perspective on attainment and disadvantage and then distils this into helpful guidance for schools. Thoroughly recommended!” Steve Higgins, Professor of Education, Durham University
“Working with Daniel is one of the few times in my career that I’ve not only had a lightbulb moment but an experience that changed my perceptions of learning forever.” Sarah Conant, CEO of The CET Multi Academy Trust
If you’d like to find out more about how Scomis can help you exploit technology to facilitate and manage a more inclusive environment within your school or trust, please do get in touch.
Find out more about our School Leadership services and how our School Leadership Partners are focused on helping improve outcomes for all children, staff and the wider community, by supporting school leadership teams. Working with you to address key challenges including SEND and education inclusivity, we can help you implement your development plans efficiently and effectively.
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If you are looking for inspiration about how to empower SEND students to take greater control of their own learning through exploiting EdTech, find out more about new strategies and hints and tips that you can implement immediately with Google Certified Trainer and Presenter, Phil Wheeler.
Further reading and reference material
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Daniel: There is a video I have seen many times which I think is just great. It features a sceptical doctor talking about Down’s Syndrome in which he enumerates several common preconceived notions about their limits. They tend to do well performing only the simplest of tasks; their cognitive ceiling limits their ability to work; their tendency toward muscle tone prevents any possibility of achievement in sport; their ability to form meaningful relationships is limited. He finishes up by saying that it is a stretch for them to live past their 50th birthday and advises the viewer not to expect too much from them.
As if to prove him wrong, several people who have Down’s Syndrome appear and list their various successes: they are business owners, lobbyists, sports stars, actors, and have long-lasting and fulfilling relationships. One blows out a candle on a 61st birthday cake. They defiantly tell him that those limits are, in their own words, “not mine.”
I hope you agree with me that this video says something that is very difficult to articulate or capture in one minute: the idea that people can reach beyond our limitations and what society has told us we can achieve. I have personally experienced this. Growing up with ADHD, I felt quite limited by other people’s beliefs.
One of the programmes which my team and I have been running in Ukraine before the recent trouble in that country focused on training teachers in inclusivity. The first step in this programme is always the same: what is possible for children? What are the assumptions of children with different types of needs and what do we deem possible for them? One of the things which I do on that programme is that I show them that video, but also some other images and videos too. One that really sticks out in my mind is the story of a man who climbed Everest despite being born without legs. Technology plays a huge role in helping us access these stories: in fact, there are many things which I think the world of technology can help with that have been difficult to do until now.
Related to this, shortly before the first lockdown I spoke at a conference hosted by a group of local authorities in London that were aiming to diminish gangland crime and violence. I was on this panel and had to speak. What I ended up saying was “I do not know anything about gangs. I have never been in a gang. I tried to get into the world of crime, but I was no good at it. What do I know? What could I possibly contribute? Except for one thing, which is this – is it possible to make our classrooms a place of belonging more than the gang is a place of belonging?”
And for me this was a challenging question that I wanted to emphasise. If you think about it, there is no real reason that a gang would judge you for having special educational needs of any sort. But so many classrooms present huge barriers to children – and the biggest barrier is attitude. How does a child feel when they are sat in that classroom? Do they feel like they are equal to everybody else? And can they participate, and do they belong there?
During lockdown I reached out to my contacts around the world who participate and act and lead on inclusion. I invited them to join a Zoom call with the idea of sharing best practices. We had participants initially from sixty different countries. Eventually that grew to an organisation which I set up called the IFIP – the International Forums of Inclusion Practitioners (www.ifip.group). Not only is it free to join, but we have thousands of people from around the world who are there to share best practices. What is interesting is that inclusion is the big discussion point in countries all over the world – from Greenland and Chad to Bhutan and to Uruguay. All over the world people are innovating on inclusion and this is especially true of England; we are innovating because it is still a new topic. We are at the forefront of inclusive thinking, but we do not have all the answers yet.
One of the major issues regarding inclusion at the time of writing is that everyone is innovating at the same time, but no-one knows what anyone else is doing. However, throughout the lockdown it has become normal to be able to be in a room where there are people from all over the world. The ease of contacting people is such a great opportunity. We created a simple tech platform which I think of as an educational Facebook and people can share their ideas for best practice. It is an incredible phenomenon and I take it for granted. The only real issue of course is time zones – but that can be solved if we just ask the Australians to stay up late.
One of the big challenges facing people who work in inclusion is that it can be quite intense and stressful. There is a lot of advocacy in terms of persuading people to get on board: stakeholders, parents, teachers, ministries of education. But we do believe that the use of this basic tech platform can help people all offer the world; it really is an incredible phenomenon. I think that there is a direct link between the evolution of inclusion and the technology which is supporting it to grow. That really is the theme of today.
This end goal of inclusion is something I do not want to depart from too much, and that is because I think inclusion is a verb rather than the end goal; it is an act. We are acting in an inclusive manner. The end goal is to belong. There is a piece of tech which we use which tracks the words people use when they fill in a survey and produces a word map which prominently displays the most popularly chosen words. We did a survey with participants in one of the discussions which we hosted, and the question was: “What does inclusion mean to you?” The respondents were from all over the world, and yet the biggest word – above and beyond all others – was the word “belonging”.
It is because of this I think that the net results of all types of inclusive activity needs to be belonging. Now, in my last talk I gave to Scomis a couple of years ago, I demonstrated how sometimes the use of technology can, in a sense, get in the way of this belonging idea. When you withdraw a student from the classroom and stage an intervention, instead of being in the classroom and feeling like they belong in the classroom, they are actually being removed. This is a phenomenon that has been plaguing the world of inclusion and special educational needs and that the plague is exclusion under the name of inclusion. I think the metric for looking at or thinking about whether inclusion is really working or not is this key word “belonging”. The question to ask should always be as follows – does this promote the child feeling like they belong more or less?
Lockdown brought technology to the fore when it comes to education. It also showed us where some of the great strengths are and where some of the flaws are. One of the flaws as far as I am concerned is that I do not think that we had a good grasp of exactly where we were with EdTech. For those who do not live and breathe EdTech, it was a bit of a surprise, but I will give you a couple of examples. We discovered how children specifically within the world of SEN and special educational needs benefited slightly from lockdown and education over the internet. And so, as an example, we noticed that some children with SEN felt there was less pressure when they were doing lessons at home. The pressure was lessened for several reasons – fewer distractions, the pace of the lesson, the lack of noise or overstimulation and worrying about how their performance might appear to others – which might cause a child to feel safer at home and, ironically, feel like they belong to the class better by being at home. There was a range of advantages for children with SEN; it certainly was not true to say that all children suffered because of lockdown.
The isolation factor is something I do find worrying. I certainly did not wade into the discussion of whether we should or should not lock down, but the thing that worried me the most was child protection issues and unfortunately our fears have been confirmed with the sheer rate of child protection issues which emerged through lockdown. That is a tragedy and I think whatever the benefits are from this sort of remote form of learning it is essential that they do not overcome the benefits from socialisation and the benefits of having safe spaces for children to go to in a school environment.
Because of this, I would never advocate that we swap one education system for the other, but one of the things which we found is that there are advantages to having remote education. I had an interesting conversation with someone who works in the Australian outback. In those vast spaces, there are several small tribes of first nation and Aborigines living in small communities which often have single-classroom schools. They have been using satellite-based education for more than fifteen years and it has proven to be extremely effective.
Another type of learning I have learned about where tech has proven to be extremely useful was pioneered by a company in Sweden. They developed a concept for a robot at home which helps sick children who are off school long-term. The most basic models simply had a camera which could connect to the classroom and prevent the child from feeling completely isolated – usually, a child who may be too vulnerable physically to be able to come to school would remain isolated and uncontacted by them. They might even get sent to a hospital school, but it is more likely that they would spend long periods at home. So, this was a way of connecting the child to the classroom, and it is being used in a number of places across England with some success.
There is another advantage, too, that I was completely surprised with. We had, shortly before lockdown, established a wonderful programme concerning supervision for teachers. The word supervision is easily misunderstood in this context so needs briefly explaining. If you are in a profession which deals with either adults or children experiencing trauma, then one of the dangers for yourself is that you end up absorbing lots of emotional toxicity but do not have an opportunity to offload that. So, the phrase commonly used by counsellors, psychotherapists, and others in that field is “supervision”, which is similar in concept to counselling inasmuch that is an opportunity to be able to speak to somebody and offload any personal issues you may have encountered.
Teaching, for whatever reason, is a profession that does not routinely offer this. We trialled the idea of creating a peer support group with several different schools and got quite far with setting up a large group between two local authorities, as well as several smaller groups within individual schools. But then lockdown hit, and I assumed that that would mean the end of that programme. I had assumed that group therapy was something that you could not do online – and surprisingly, the result was that you can. Not only that, but it ended up being incredibly successful. I was amazed at how we as humans can rapidly adapt to technology to achieve our goals.
Last week, I took a call from UNESCO, the topic of which was, “how can my team and I support what is happening with children in Ukraine?” And one of the things which I suggested was that we could do this supervision training for teachers to deal with – to help them deal with trauma and so on. It is unlikely that I would have thought of doing this prior to lockdown. What I am getting at is that EdTech – or really, technology in general – is opening our eyes to what is possible. Having been in touch with quite a few people in different countries, this little screen here that I see before me has become my world.
That has both positives and negatives attached. It is amazing that I can speak with friends in Somalia who are creating resources for children with sight impairment. On the other hand, it does feel quite claustrophobic. I think there is a real limitation in the fact that the world has very suddenly become a screen; on a personal level it is both brilliant and terrible.
Since I have been talking about technology, education, and the international scene, I think that it is also worth pointing out something which is a real barrier to inclusivity, and which can be difficult to factor in – availability. This was something which became starkly apparent during lockdown. You had children across England who could only really access education from school via a parent’s phone, because they did not have a laptop at home. Of course, an effort was made to try and get laptops out to everyone, but another major issue is that Internet access is still not completely universal. This is true of rural communities in England but of course is multiplied in places such as Africa. That is not to say that there is no linkup from countries in Africa – many richer and more middle-class areas in places like Botswana and Gabon have participated in our events. But the implementation of Internet in a lot of poorer locations still presents a major challenge.
A further and much more troubling challenge is that there is still no generally accepted agreement when it comes to what inclusion really means or where or how to emphasise it. A wonderful colleague in Ethiopia pointed out to me that the World Bank programme has been doing a lot of work in that country relating to specifically physical needs: ramps and access requirements and so on. And that is fantastic. But the idea of cognitive and neurological issues has not yet come into play. In some other countries it is almost the opposite story; I was speaking to somebody in Armenia who was talking about how they got a certain specific focus on cognitive learning, but factors such as social and emotional mental health were not considered. The United States does things differently too. They have got what I would term a slight cultural fetish when it comes to race and diversity because that topic is a huge narrative in that country. That theme is also prevalent in numerous countries in Europe such as Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Spain. I attended a Slovakian conference on inclusion which was almost solely focused on how to include children from the Gypsy Roma communities. Cultural inclusion is something a lot of countries are very engaged with.
My latest book is about the concept of the inclusive classroom, and the main issue I wanted to focus on was this concept of moving beyond labels. One problem that we currently have is that, while we have grown in our knowledge and our understanding of conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, in practice a lot of our knowledge is often not helpful to teachers in the classroom. Consider the following scenario: you have three children in your classroom who are on the autistic spectrum, and they display their activities in three very different ways.
– One is quiet and timid in the corner.
– Another is loud, disruptive, and frequently unsettled.
– The last is in many ways the perfect student: hyper-focused, studious, and well-behaved.
Three very different behaviours. And yet the way I have attributed labels to them does not capture who they are as individuals. It does not help you as a teacher. Labels may well be useful in many contexts. I am proud of having ADHD – it helps explain a lot about me, such as the fact that I frequently meander when I talk, and frequently need something in my hands to stop me from fidgeting. But that does not necessarily help teachers; what helps a teacher the most is knowing the individual, knowing the child. And in a way, our labels often get in the way of teaching, because they create additional barriers to the teacher really getting to know the child as an individual. There are many examples of this, coming from academic research as well as personal accounts.
What I am suggesting is that individualising is the key to all types of practice in the classroom. And regardless of whether somebody is Gypsy Roma or comes from a military family and keeps moving around or has dyslexia or is particularly gifted or has anxiety or attachment issues, and so on, the gateway is knowing the individual personally and knowing their individual needs and being able to work with those. The labelling of an individual might give some sort of explanation because it often is a mystery as to what the cause of someone’s issue is – it may be neurological; it may be developmental. But that is not going to help you in terms of dealing with the individual child effectively.
Generally, my favourite examples when it comes to learning are those of my failures because I think it is very human to fail. And my failures have taught me quite a lot. I will give you an example. When I first started teaching there was a boy in my class who I found incredibly annoying – he was disruptive and caused me a lot of stress, and frankly I hated him. I am sure that every teacher in the world has had a similar experience.
But to be honest, I think the thing I hated the most about him was my sense of failure. I felt that I was screwing up this be opportunity to become a teacher. And the more I felt like a failure, the more I hated him, really.
Ultimately, the course of action I took worked out for me. I decided to go and speak to him at break time. What I said to him was pretty much the opposite of what I really wanted to say – which was something along the lines of, “I hate you; you are making my life a misery.” Instead, I told him, “I really think that you are great. I think you are very bright. You are very interesting, and I really enjoy teaching you, and what I wish is that I was better at teaching you. And I would like to know a bit more about you and how I could teach you better.” What I was really asking him to do was to help me.
I was trying to make a connection with him. And I could tell that he had not experienced that from many other teachers – you can just imagine he was giving lots of other teachers a right royal pain in the neck of a time. And he was very responsive to what I was trying to do. It felt like other people had not done that for him. They had not spoken to him with any sense of care or interest. I do not think that is something that can be replaced by any form of technology.
I wanted to say that because I think at the heart of all good inclusion is how a child feels like they belong in a classroom. And this is very often determined by that human-to-human contact. One of the limitations which I have discovered over this period is about the extent that we, as teachers, have the emotional intelligence to understand what is going on for a child. So, you can have one teacher looking at a child and what they see is a child who is in distress. You can have another teacher looking at that exact same child and they see a child who is causing distress. And I think this links back to the very first point which I mentioned about attitude. Sometimes the attitude is limited, but not by knowledge. Not by skill either, but by the innate ability to be able to perceive and to be able to understand human psychology, as it were. And that is something which we, as a profession, are not necessarily good at – weeding out people who are not necessarily good at empathising with children. And that is something that I think is a frontier for us that we need to wake up to. It feels a little uncomfortable to say that there may be teachers in our ranks that possibly ought not to be there. It is a controversial statement, but it is true. One of the things which I found that most people will admit is that, in pretty much in every school you come across, there are good teachers and there are outstanding teachers – and there are the teachers who make you wonder why they ever became a teacher in the first place. This is something which is true the world over, in every kind of school there is.
There is something else I have come across in my quest for inclusion which I feel is another new frontier we need to tackle. It is to do with the mental health of teachers. I have already talked about supervision for teachers, so I am going to build on that idea. One of the most inclusive schools I have ever come across was in Wales, where we were doing a project with Central South Wales Group. One of the schools in the group was notable for being the highest-performing inclusive state school in the country; what is meant by that is that it had a range of children with SEN, from a pupil premium background, and children in care, among others. Yet this school’s data was very strong. This felt like what I had been looking for.
It was so interesting to see what they had done. They had invested a huge amount of time, money, and effort into staff wellbeing. They had a package which gave teachers various amenities: they could bring in their ironing once a week, they could get their car valeted once a month, they had free counselling and yoga as well as other measures designed to support mental health and wellbeing. The list went on and on, including the senior leadership personally in-house cooking and serving a meal to the staff once a term. And so on and so forth. It was a very long list; I wrote an article about it in Headteacher Updates, so please look at it there, if you like. But the net result was that teachers did not leave that school. They stayed because they loved it.
There were two standing questions of the senior leadership team every week. The first: How can we reduce the teacher burden? The second: How are our teachers coping? It was a powerful experience to be in an environment like that. One of the most interesting things I was told by the senior leadership about their recruitment process was that teaching skill was not necessarily what they prioritised among potential hires. What was prioritised instead was emotional intelligence. In their view, teaching skill could be fashioned and shaped and taught – but you cannot teach emotional intelligence.
I was accompanied on my visit by a headteacher who said precisely what I am sure most of you reading this are thinking: we could never afford that at our school. So, we did the sums. How much are you paying per year for staff absences and cover? How much are you paying for recruitment when you need to recruit new teachers every single year? When you start adding all these things up and include CPD as well, you are looking at a bill of around £100,000 minimum if your school is a similar size to this one.
There really is something utterly crucial about staff wellbeing which was being done in this school at such an excellent standard that it manifested itself into happy staff. And happy staff obviously had happy attitudes and beliefs and built classrooms with a sense of belonging – and that is where you saw the grades. If lockdown has taught us anything it has to be that mental health is critically important for everybody. But this is what it looks like when it is done well.
So, the two points which I wanted to end are these. While technology is immensely useful, we cannot – and should not – hide behind it as a way of covering gaps in relationships and teaching skill. What technology can do is help us communicate more effectively, and I have found over the years is that it can be an extremely effective way to get through to those hard-to-reach children and families. A thirty-second phone call in which you say, “Hi, I have good news for you, your son John has done well this week. He participated in class, it was good to see, and you are doing a great job as a parent; well done and I have to rush off to a class now” can make a world of difference.
The drip-feeding of positivity changes the relationship between the home and school over time. And one of the worst things we can do is to use that communication window to alienate parents further by saying, “This is what has gone wrong with your child” and so on, thinking that we are relating to parents effectively just because we are using an efficient method like an email or a text. Reaching out to parents and making a personalised relationship is something that I do not think technology can cover the cracks of. If anything, I think now that we are moving beyond the COVID lockdown and constrictions, we need to find ways of meeting parents again.
I am very proud to have co-authored a global inclusive teaching initiative in partnership with UNESCO. It is being trialled in fifty different countries. The aim is that every teacher in the world should be trained to teach every child. I have co-authored with Professor Carol Tomlinson, who is very much the grandmother of inclusion (I believe she was the one who invented the word “differentiation”), Helena Walberg from Sweden, Louise Dawson and Abigail Grey from England, and together we have brought together the best of our books, the best of our training, and put it into a bite-size form of learning. We are in discussions with ministries of education in countries all around the world, but we will be doing this with hopefully thousands of schools in England. Take a look at what we are doing, and I hope to see you there.