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Education Fellowships

Inclusive education: how do we enable all students to reach their potential?

12 December 2022
Person smiling

By Dr Ceri Morris, Lecturer in Education Development.

One of the joys of leading the Fellowship programmes for Cardiff Learning and Teaching Academy is the conversations I have with participants which explore and challenge the concepts I am introducing: the questions keep me on my toes!

In every workshop we engage in lively discussions on learning and teaching, across disciplinary and role divides, which ensure we continually reflect on, clarify and deepen our understanding of the concepts and issues.

In a workshop this week, I was introducing the principles of inclusive education. One participant asked ‘what does it mean to “enable all students to reach their potential?” Are we seeing potential as fixed?’. This gave me a pause: what is a student’s ‘potential’? Are we assuming they come in with a certain potential (a final grade, a set outcome)? How can we know what that might be, when students develop and change so much as a result of their learning and experiences in university?

A return to the literature of inclusive education helped me clarify: enabling students to reach their potential, through developing inclusive practices, does not mean that we see their potential as fixed, and that we don’t aspire for students to develop in terms of knowledge and skills, in relation both to their discipline and their whole selves. Rather, that research across many decades has repeatedly demonstrated that, across higher education, traditional approaches to organisation, teaching practices, resources and assessments have prevented students with certain characteristics from reaching their potential.

Hockings (2010: 1) gives this definition:

‘Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education refers to the ways in which pedagogy, curricula and assessment are designed and delivered to engage students in learning that is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all. ​​It embraces a view of the individual and individual difference as the source of diversity that can enrich the lives and learning of others’​.

The significance of that final sentence cannot be under-estimated: rather than seeing diversity as a challenge, we embrace and celebrate the richness and variety of the university community. We value the opportunity for students (and staff) to be part of an exchange of ideas, values, experiences and cultures, which can enrich both the educational experience of students and society as a whole. Thus while we might define ‘potential’ narrowly as the ability to achieve a certain grade, through Hockings definition we can see potential in its broadest sense, developing through interaction with diverse others with different educational, circumstantial, dispositional and cultural backgrounds (Thomas and May 2010).

A table of the dimensions of diversity - educational dispositional circumstantial and cultural - from Thomas and May, 2010.]
A table of the dimensions of diversity – educational dispositional circumstantial and cultural – from Thomas and May, 2010.]

However, to ensure this potential is achieved, we must recognise that students with disadvantaged characteristics are impacted by the policies, practices, structures and organisation of learning and teaching in HE (Lawrie et al. 2017). Therefore, to enable all students to reach their potential, we need to reflect on and make sufficient changes to our practice to ensure education is inclusive, ensuring all students, whatever their characteristics, have an equitable experience, not just those who are able to navigate and engage in our traditional practices.

In our Fellowship programmes and in the Cardiff Learning and Teaching Academy CPD Inclusion workshops, we move on from the early workshops which explore inequality, exclusion and the principles of inclusive education, to begin to explore solutions in inclusive and universal design, inclusive practices, and inclusive assessment and feedback.

We recognise that inclusion is a process, and that any steps you can take, such as making resources available in advance, and recording live sessions, can make a significant difference to the ability of all students to reach their potential.