Inclusion is a constant teacher priority and our research shows some forms of professional learning foster more effective approaches to getting it right, write Rachel Lofthouse and Mhairi Beaton

Few, if any, teachers in the UK work in monolingual, monocultural schools. Every class is a community of learners with a range of individual characteristics and needs. Schools are microcosms of society, playing a key role in developing inclusivity in increasingly diverse communities.

To do justice to this educational objective there is a need for teachers to continually learn and develop practice. This is by no means unique to the UK, and thus learning with and from the international community makes sense.

Promoting Inclusion in Society through Education: Professional Dilemmas in Practice (PROMISE) is an Erasmus+ funded project which we lead from Leeds Beckett University. Our partners are universities, colleges and government agencies in The Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, Scotland and Hungary working directly with trainee and qualified teachers and school leaders from early years to further education contexts.

The core purpose of the project is the development of relevant resources for professional learning as open-access materials for teacher educators and trainers to share with teachers individually or collectively. The foundation of the new materials is a research and development process undertaken in partnership with practitioners.

Stories of dilemmas faced by teachers form a core part of both the project data and the professional learning resource. We defined ‘professional dilemmas’ as practice-orientated challenges that have no obvious solution. Narratives were collected from teachers from all career stages and school phases.

Narratives were collected from teachers from all career stages and school phases

Two examples help here. In one vignette the immediate issue identified by the teacher is challenging behaviour. Through reflection, the teacher goes on to consider how this might be related to the failure of inclusion within schools, including students’ experiences of curriculum and pedagogy. In another vignette, a SENCO reflects on the struggle of integrating the work of speech and language therapists supporting a child with their own classroom practice for that child.

The premise is that offering teachers the opportunity to tell these stories permits deeper understanding of how they – and by extension the profession – experience challenges posed by increased diversity in their contexts.

In addition to the professional dilemmas they faced, contributors were also invited to write about the ways in which they had chosen to respond to these challenges. The use of narratives as a data collection tool allowed teachers to express their dilemmas in their own words without the constraints of a standardised research instrument. Our evidence base was thus authentic.

We used the narratives to create ‘vignettes’ that contained the same information such as educational setting context, the contributor’s level of experience, description of the dilemma and of solutions that had been tried. Thematic analysis of the vignettes enabled us to identify themes arising from the professional dilemmas and the responses to them, and to recognise the significance of the policy contexts, cultural differences and terminology used across the European partners’ contexts.

Our findings indicate that educators articulate similar professional challenges. The vignettes were categorised under seven themes: behaviour, inclusion, didactics or pedagogy, classroom management, interprofessional working, digital learning and psychological problems. These themes were not limited to national contexts, career phases or educational sectors.

Issues related to students’ challenging behaviour, for example, were reported across all sectors of education, from very young pupils to those undertaking vocational studies in their late teens. But the reality is that solving these problems is far from generic. The vignettes reveal the complexity of the decisions teachers face and the highly contextual nature of solutions.

However, analysis also indicates that one problem-solving tool is near universal. Effective solutions to professional challenges experienced by educators often require collaborative working with and through other professionals.

This study indicates that a new approach to professional learning for inclusion should be adopted. This approach would take as its starting point the complex professional dilemmas that educators articulate, rather than viewing them as discrete issues that can be addressed separately.

Non-judgemental, collaborative and interprofessional learning – where much of the agency for identifying dilemmas and likely solutions is undertaken by the teachers themselves – appears to be the best route to sustainable and effective educational practices.