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Supporting the Learning of All Students

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The Difference Between ‘Inclusive’ and ‘Special’ Education

Our school has adopted a special education model to support children with disability. I am welcoming the opportunity to collaborate with our College community to consider how an inclusive education model can support all students in a more equitable model of education. These two different philosophies have significant implications in terms of student learning and teaching practices and careful consideration should be given to a model that best supports all learners. We are challenged (See Figure 1) to support the learning needs of all students.

Figure 1. Our professional challenges (Tancredi, 2020)

A key aspect of my role is supporting the diverse learning needs of all students. This year, I will be leading as the Secondary School Learning Support Coordinator and will be promoting a culture that celebrates the “wonder of learning”, which is a key aspect of our College’s Mission Statement.

Current Practices

Students with disability have historically completed learning in both regular classrooms and in segregated settings for withdrawal classes like Life Skills lessons, direct instructional programs, and specialist appointments. Segregated learning experiences do not provide equitable learning opportunities. In the United States, Brown vs. Board of Education highlighted that separate is not equal.

Attempts to support students in the ‘mainstream’ setting have resulted in an integrated approach, where students with disability are taught in the ‘mainstream’ classroom, working within the existing structures of that learning environment. Equal treatment in the classroom does not provide equitable learning opportunities. The experience at our College is consistent with Graham’s (2020, p.13) statement, “Most of what currently happens in Australian schools is integration, not inclusion”. Figure 2 illustrates the difference between Inclusion, Exclusion, and Segregation.

Figure 2. Inclusion, Exclusion, Segregation: How are they different? (Villegas, 2017)

The College’s special education practices were implemented to ‘help’ children. This approach focussed on the identified disability and the ‘treatment’ of that disability. Danforth and Jones (2015, p.11) summarise this as a system of “… diagnosis, placement, treatment…”, which is the medical model of disability. This model has limitations if we are aiming to support each student to experience the “wonder of learning”. The social model of disability supports the learning of all students, with the aim of removing barriers external to the student, and a focus on making reasonable adjustments.

Lipsky and Gartner (1996) address “equity in education” and the implications of a medical model of disability “… one that requires special treatment for students with disabilities. A part of that special treatment is a special and separate education system” (pp.763-764). The medical model does not provide equitable learning opportunities.

Towards Inclusion

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) developed a definition of inclusion in General Comment No. 4 (GC4) in paragraph 11, referencing modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies with the goal of embracing the needs of all students in the learning environment. This practice is supported by the use of inclusive language (Sharma, 2019) and differentiated teaching (De Bruin, 2018). Smith et al. (2017, pp.14-15) note physical integration into the classroom is “… foundational to the equity efforts that follow” and notes that “… physical access is not sufficient to ensure equity…” This model is inclusive by name and practice.

Figure 3. We have an opportunity to "Seize the day." (Gify, n.d.)

The inclusive model gives consideration to appropriate differentiation, reasonable adjustments, universal design and equitable access to learning. This practice is supported by personalised learning plans that provide equitable opportunities for all students to learn. Important lessons about collaboration, understanding and acceptance can be shared in the inclusive classroom (Villa & Thousand, 2017).

Reflecting on Current Practices

Withdrawal programs were developed with the intention of supporting students with disability; however, this is not an equitable solution. Our challenge is to adjust our teaching, learning environment and assessment, and to adopt a social model of disability. Inclusive education provides rich opportunities for school communities to collaborate to support the diverse range of learners. The learning in inclusive classrooms is personalised to meet the needs of each student, with consideration for differentiation and individualisation (Rickabaugh, 2016, p.5). Personalised learning is not equal learning; however, it is equitable learning.

The special education model was implemented at the College to support a targeted group of students. The inclusive education model aims to support all students. A transition to an inclusive model will result in a more equitable approach to supporting all students in experiencing the “wonder of learning”.


Danforth, S., & Jones, P. (Eds.). (2015). From special education to integration to real inclusion. In P. Jones & S. Danforth (Eds.), Foundations of inclusive education research (Vol. 6, pp. 1 – 22). Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Retrieved from

De Bruin, K. (2018). Differentiation in the classroom: Engaging diverse learners through universal design for learning. Clayton Vic Australia: Monash University. Retrieved from

Graham, L. (2020). Inclusive education in the 21st century. In Graham, L. (Ed.) Inclusive education for the 21st century: Theory, policy and practice. Allen & Unwin, Australia, pp. 3-26.

Lipsky, D. K., & Gartner, A. (1996). Inclusion, school restructuring, and the remaking of American society. Harvard Educational Review, 66(4), 762-796. Retrieved from

Rickabaugh, J. (2016). Tapping the power of personalised learning: A roadmap for school leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Seize the day [Online image]. (n.d.). Gify.

Sharma, U. (2019). Teaching students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms: from policy to practice in Australian schools. Professional Voice, 12(3), 18-25. Retrieved from

Smith, D. Frey, N., Pumpian, I., & Fisher, D. (2017). Building equity: Policies and practices to empower all learners. Alexandra, VA: ASCD.

Tancredi, H. [@HaleyTanc]. (2020, February 11). Difficulties in learning are our professional challenges. They are not ‘problems with children’”. [Graphic]. Retrieved from

United Nations. (2008). Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. Retrieved from

Villa, R. & Thousand, J. (2017). Leading an inclusive school: Access and success for ALL students. Alexandra, VA: ASCD.

Villegas, T. (2017, July 11). Inclusion, exclusion, segregation: How are they different? [Graphic]. Retrieved from



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