UDL and AfL – not a drink at the footie

My colleague, Dr Lenore Adie and I have been interested in the alignment and use of Universal (UDL) Design for Learning and Assessment for Learning (AfL) in pre-service teacher education and more widely in higher education (HE).

Our proposition

We propose that the combination of the principles of UDL and AfL is key to enhancing the student learning experience and achievement as well as contributing to our teaching effectiveness. A cornerstone strategy of AfL is to explicitly provide students with intentions for learning . On a partner website we – Demonstrate alignment of UDL and AfL principles illustrate how these can be bought together as a conceptual framework for teaching in HE; Provide examples of practice that we have used that demonstrate the application of the conceptual framework in HE.

You can read more about this alignment at my partner website Universal design for Learning






Practice based evidence: the perfect ally for evidence based practice

I would like to propose that the concept of evidence based practice (EBP) in education needs an ally.  Educators are bombarded with messages that their work should be based on evidence from highly tested research. I wonder what this bombardment does to a teachers self-efficacy and their sense of professionalism when their judgement on what they know works or doesn’t may not seem valued. EBP needs an ally the sits by its side and is relevant to schools and classrooms.

This ally is I propose is practice based evidence. Its use alongside EBP might assist the improved inclusive practice as it would reflect the value of teacher knowledge of what works in their context. Steve Morgan coined the term practice based evidence (PBE) when referring to how health professionals combine scientific knowledge with their work place experience.

Practice Based Evidence should be a way of giving a voice to service users and practitioners, recognising that they have a first-hand knowledge and experience of what works, what needs to change, and how it may best change. These messages deserve to inform the concept of good practice every bit as much as the messages from research (Steve Morgan, 2004).

PBE is not just intuition about what works. Its even beyond professional judgement. I define practice as –


(Duke, 2014)

The efficacy of a teacher’s practice should also be measurable. Action research or action learning is the perfect way to support what works in practice. Action research provides teachers with a tool to justify the use of a particular pedagogy, assessment or strategy. By reporting the results of action research, teachers are able to ‘test’ practice that is thought to be effective or even known to be through academic research. Practice based evidence through action research assists teachers determine how practices determined by others, including professional researchers, work or not in their context. They themselves can contribute to the conversation and justify their practice within accountability systems.








Powering a curriculum for all

Recently, the Queensland (QLD) Government released the findings of a research into the education of students with a disability in QLD schools. There were many areas in which I could comment. I was particularly interested in the recommendations related to the Head of Special Education Services (HOSES).


My interest is related to my PhD research which was about the practices of an exemplary secondary school HOSES. The full thesis was titled, “Powering a Curriculum for All”. 

I think it is timely that I make more public and accessible my research and its findings. I hope that I can contribute to the “redevelopment of the role” based on the findings of my research.

There were many findings of how the role is not always valued in schools; the impact of successful practices of the HOSES; how schools recreate community attitudes and values including exclusion and inclusion; how the word “special” alienates staff as well as children in the educational community; and, how an exemplary leader such as the HOSES can overcome exclusionary practice.

The HOSES in my research was skilled at applying practices that enacted inclusion and “curriculum for all”. We can all learn from the manner and methods of their leadership practices. The link well to the AITSL Leadership profiles as they highlight practice, not just behaviour. “Practice” relates to social groups such as school teams as opposed to behaviour that relates to individuals. I like to use this definition of practice –


An exemplary HOSES has a number of practices (methods and manner) that can be applied to overcome exclusionary attitudes and behaviours and promote inclusion.

HOSES lead

I have created a YouTube video as an executive summary of my research. I hope it is useful for leaders wanting to embed inclusive education in their context.


Action research: practice-based evidence.

After years of working in and with schools in Australia, Pacific and other far-flung places, I can finally say with complete confidence that –

Suprise! One off professional development has minimal effect on teaching and learning.

Ok, so many will say, “Of course it doesn’t”. Deep down I’ve always known this, but after years of assisting schools to change culture or practice, action research has been the most effective tool to enact change.

How do I know that action research contributes positively to teaching and learning?

  1. Others said so! My favourite Australian Action Research book is Tony Shaddock’s, “Using Data to Improve Learning“. Anthony has produced an easy to read guide to action research in schools with a comprehensive overview of the benefits to schools.
  2. I worked it out! Over 15 years ago I started a district-wide mentors program for improving literacy. Together we developed action learning in over 30 schools. Later I had the pleasure of working with schools from four Pacific nations to develop action learning in their schools to improve teaching and learning. And it worked! School-based learning is vital to sustain change. This work was documented and you can download Mobilising School and Community Engagement to Implement Disability-Inclusive Education through Action Research: Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu or Learning about Inclusive Education Action research
  3.  Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals require us to collect, analyse and interpret data to improve the planning and delivery of teaching programs.

What are the benefits of action research in schools?

Teachers who work together in collecting and anlaysing data not only become better teachers but they also renew their enthusiasm for teaching and build capacity in their school.

(Shaddock, 2014, p. 12)

The list of benefits for action research in schools is lengthy. So I pulled together text about action research into a word cloud. You can’t beat collaborative teacher research, conducted in their own school to answer their own questions about their teaching effectiveness in their own time.

action research word cloud

What does action research look like?

Action research looks different in every school. Context is vital in determining how, why and what research will be done. It can be as complex or as quick and simple as the school or teacher wants it to be. Even better it can include students and the community. Below is a simple summary of action research done in four Pacific countries. Many different questions were investigated through a variety of methods and with varied results.


Evidence-based practice hand in hand with practice-based evidence

The push for evidence-based practice in schools should not rely on solely scientific, and/or the results of expensive quantitative educational research. Evidence-based practice can be complemented by practice-based evidence (Erikson in Shaddock, 2014, p. 7).

The point is that evidence based practice, when interpreted and mandated by those with managerial and fundamentalist proclivities, may stifle the spontaneous innovation that must occur every day in schools in response to unique conditions and opportunities.

(Shaddock, 2014, p. 7)

There are many action research projects to check out on the AITSL site. But you can’t beat the satisfaction gained by a group of teachers who collaborate to determine what works for their students in their classrooms in their own time.


Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, Accessed 13 May 2017.

Shaddock, A. (2014). Using data to improve learning. A practical guide for busy teachers. Victoria: ACER.


Leading Inclusive Education 2: making sense of policy

I’ve always had an interest in educational policy. Recently, when my daughter brought home her new Justice Studies text, Marginson’s, “Australian Policy Handbook”, I was so excited. I had used Marginson extensively for my PhD. She wasn’t as excited! While researching literature for my thesis, I reflected too on why I felt policy was so important to me as a school leader and later a lecturer in education. If you haven’t already tuned out at the thought of reading about policy, please try to stay with me for a little while and keep reading. There are good reasons to be up to date on policy and how to enact it in schools!

Why is it important to understand educational policy?

For a start, let me explain that I have never blindly followed all policy that landed on my desk or in my inbox. Policy means many things to many people. A policy could include newsletters, or ministerial directives, legislation and much more. In my case, I reflected on the ministerial or departmental policies that I was directed to enact as a school leader. Whether or not the policy is considered worth enacting is subjective. Personally, I get very excited about policy directing equitable practice. To me, policy related to equity gave myself and then the school not only a social justice direction but a curriculum direction.

The use of the word equity is clearly apparent in Australian policy and legislation related to the education of students with disabilities. The concept of ‘equity’ is related to policy that reflects the social justice expectations of the community. Slee (2008) notes, “[such] legislative and procedural statements, provides Education together with curriculum reconfigurations and professional development interventions to reform the character of teacher attitudes and in turn, their professional practices are in evidence globally” (p. 2). I could see after the “deconstruction” of policy and responsible resource allocation in my schools the positive change in practice.

When new policy arrived, I tried to link this policy to the existing big picture stuff such as the Australian Curriculum or legislation such as Disability Discrimination – Education Standards. As a school community we used the filter of equity to “assess” how new content fitted within the realms of the school mission – then we took it on board. Or not! As a school leader, I felt it was my job to make sense of the colliding innovations (as per Fullen) for the school community and with the community plan how policy enactment would occur. The policy became something that we could “hang our hat on”. Something that directed us together to achieve our school mission. And it worked.

There was really no surprise to me to discover that education commentators say that policy can be considered, “…a key ingredient for encouraging cooperative and synergistic action” (Mingat et al., 2003, p. 73). Also, that the policies we embrace can be seen as a “productive resource” for schools for developing their inclusive practices (Dyson & Gallanaugh, 2008 p. 473). Policy can become a resource to assist me to persuade and influence others to get things done (Giddens, 1994). The policy was a resource that provided me with a tool to develop a shared understanding, consensus and strategy for realising an improvement in our school (Mingat et al., 2003).

However, Apple’s work (2004, p.xii) reminded  me that policy may assist schools to “…re-create conditions that mirror” undesired economic, political or cultural ideologies that compete with the realisation of schools’ inclusive values (Ainscow & Sandill, 2010). These were the policies I realised that our school community did not enact. Policy is not an “unambiguous thing” (Colebatch, 2006, p. 3) that governments do. Policy involves people in social settings. These people or participants have different perspectives and the policy is ultimately influenced by the processes, systems and shared patterns of interactions and understanding of these participants (Considine, 1994). This is especially important when participants see policy as a resource as I did for challenging the current order and maintaining a right to participate (Colebatch, 2002). Policies related to an inclusive curriculum are sometimes seen as more of “mindset” than a policy (Allan, 2008). This was especially true in the schools I worked in.


I knew that effective teachers who enact inclusive practices are aware of relevant
legislation and policy, and the implications of their daily work (Shaddock, et al,
2007). I saw this daily when teachers planned and carried out plans that were inclusive. Later I was to realise these teachers were are led by a school principal who played a “pivotal role in supporting inclusive practice” (Shaddock et al. 2007, p. 10). I also knew that some teachers did not accept the mindset of inclusion or curriculum reform in our school. However, that meant I had to work harder to work from where the staff were at and align their existing practice to the new policy.


How do leaders make sense of policy for staff?

It is generally acknowledged that school leadership makes a difference and
requires the leader to have a moral purpose (Fullan, 2003), and a strong commitment to equity and social justice (Stevenson, 2007). Effective leadership has been deemed responsible for narrowing the achievement gap between students with disabilities and students without disabilities in the US (Altman, Lazarus, Thurlow, Quenemoen, Cuthbert, & Cornier, 2007). One practice that leaders need to use to reduce this gap is to improve the ability of staff to make some sense of change by making links for them to connect the “torrent of unwanted, uncoordinated policies and innovations raining down on them from hierarchical bureaucracies” (Fullan, 2001, p. 109).
A vital role for school leaders in the educational standards environment “is to dispel
the perceived competition among reforms by showing educators how the values and
practices representing heterogeneous education closely link with and reinforce other
school reform endeavours” (Villa, Thousand, Meyers, & Nevin,1996, p. 42).  School leaders are able to use the content of legislation and policy to persuade teachers that education for all is not just another thing teachers need to deal with, and that, in fact, these policies and legislation support classroom planning, teaching, assessment and reporting practices to provide an education for all.fly093c


There has been ample commentary about the need for schools and systems to align policy, philosophies and assumptions behind special and general education (Defur, 2005; Katzman et al., 2005; Lynch & Adams, 2008). As Shaddock et al. (2007) recommended time to identify and analyse this alignment needs to be a professional development priority for schools by leaders. I engaged staff in the debate about the principles of inclusive education apparent in policy, and how it relates to school and teacher practice (Keefe, 2003). In addition to this, I could engage staff in discussions about the benefits and drawbacks relating to the categorisation of students, and the linking of resources to specific cohorts of students.

Alignment between two sometimes disparate philosophies and policies,
general, inclusive and special education, is required to achieve an effective
curriculum for all students and this needs to occur before planning can even begin
(Gartner, Kerzner, & Litpsky, 2005; Lynch & Adams, 2008; Nolet & McLaughlin,
2005). Lack of alignment of philosophies held by teachers has been an ongoing
barrier to effective collaboration. I allocated much of the PD budget to collaboration between specialists and classroom teachers to plan teaching, learning and assessment. Not all teachers engaged on the same level. It took me some time to realise that I can’t persuade someone to change if their belief system did not align with mine. On one occasion a teacher decided to leave the school on another I left.

Collaboration through curriculum

I endeavoured to create and maintain a learning community that provided a safe environment for an investigation of policy in our school context. Without this leadership practice, I believe there would have continued to be issues with misalignment of teacher beliefs, curriculum planning and delivery, and ultimately continued underachievement of all students with diverse learning requirements.The need for a curriculum focus, that ultimately achieved successful collaboration, provided the “philosophical shift necessary for moving away from the student as the problem to the curriculum as something teachers need to work with in relationship to the student” (Pugach & Wargner 2007,p. 195). This type of strengths-based conversation within collaborative planning opportunities assisted me to address the crucial issues within the curriculum and teacher attitudes. To achieve genuine collaborative planning, teachers needed to share a ‘common language’ of the general curriculum standards (Ainscow, 2005; Nolet & McLaughlin, 2005; Perna & Davis, 2007; Youtsey, 2003).


Youtsey (2003) predicted that standards as a common language for planning for special and general educators would improve consistency across classrooms, districts, and schools. For many years, special and general educators have had a separate vocabulary that they brought to planning. Jargon and words whose meaning vary from “discipline to discipline…hamper the ability to connect and interact as partners in the learning process” (Perna & Davis, 2007 p. 33). Without the use of a common language between special and general educators, teachers will find it “very difficult to experiment with new possibilities” (Ainscow, 2005 p. 149) when planning together. I noticed that when all teachers used the language of ACARA in planning, there was an increased focus on instruction and curriculum, thus improving the perception of shared responsibility for the team for achievement of students with disabilities.

Compared to today’s standards, I don’t think what I did to make sense of policy is innovative. Ten years ago, however, perhaps it was. I remember a District leader telling me that the “navel gazing” about policy was a waste of our time. However, my research about leadership for curriculum enactment, “Powering a Curriculum for All”, confirmed the efficacy of the practices of alignment and collaboration, and so much more. The practices and methods of exemplary leadership for inclusive education are extensive and complex and continue to interest me as I work with undergraduate teachers to persuade them about the joys of policy!

Please contact me for a full list of references for this Blog post.





Leading for inclusion 1: Challenging discourse

Leadership sustains inclusive education

One essential and commonly agreed on characteristic of inclusive education is
the need for leadership that begins, continues and sustains it. The theories of leadership
have been debated, analysed, and constructed over many years and is, “…a highly
contested phenomenon” (Cranston & Ehrich, 2009, p. 1). The academic literature
about leadership proffers many models, typologies and frameworks. I would like to
add to the discussion by encouraging a change in the tangent from sometimes
simplistic rhetoric, such as ‘develop learning communities’ by school leaders, to one
of how, why, and when power is used in the social setting to influence inclusive
education. I don’t believe there is such thing as an ‘inclusive leader’. As Mulford in Cranston and Ehrich (2009) warn us there is an:

…enormous risk in us becoming too enamoured with the plethora of singular, simplistic, ‘adjectival’ leaderships now on offer (such as charismatic, heroic, instructional, transactional, transformational, sustainable etc.). While one leadership style or approach may work well for some leaders…Successful leaders adapt and adopt their leadership practice to meet the changing needs of circumstances they find themselves in (Mulford et al, 2009, p. 422).

There is much literature about the effect of school leadership and its
influence on school reform and student achievement (Fullan, 2006; Leithwood, &
Riehl, 2004). It is acknowledged widely that effective leadership contributes positively
to the development and achievement of inclusive education (Ainscow & Sandill, 2010;
Aleman, 2009; Armstrong, Armstrong, & Spandagou, 2010). A multitude of styles and
types of leadership have been determined, including leading with a moral purpose
(Fullan, 2006), having change management skills (Burnett, 2005), and, developing
learning communities (Senge, 2000).

The leadership practices that encourage, develop and sustain inclusive education assists us understand how schools enact inclusive practices for all learners rather than resorting to exclusive and specialised practices; e.g. programs where students are withdrawn to another classroom for specialised therapy or intervention. This is important as these exclusive and specialised practices have been blamed for maintaining lowered teacher expectations for students with a disability that eventually result in lower student aspirations and achievement.


Powering change

My experience in the area of curriculum policy implementation in schools
was that the school leaders hold, withhold, and wield power as practices that influence
inclusive education. For example, when a leader sees inclusive education as purely a
professional learning priority, it may become an activity simply to be ticked off. As one
principal said to me in reference to professional learning for inclusive education,
“We’ve done inclusion”. This dialogue does not reflect great leadership in the eyes of
many commentators; however, it does indicate practices of power. The principal used
power by withholding any further access to or resources for professional learning because it had been done. The principal did not consider inclusion as an ongoing
educational reform that required multiple long-term professional learning.
Though I acknowledge that power is not exclusively exerted by the person
in a leadership role or position, there are many members of a social group who have
agency to create or limit change through practices of power (Giddens, 1990). Within
the team, anyone can take on a leadership or linking role including teachers, teacher
aides, parents, and students (Margerison & McCann, 1985). Development or
enactment of inclusive education cannot be left in the hands of one or two people in a
school community, as the “…causes of exclusion run deep in the architecture of
schooling” (Slee, 2006 p. 102). However, an individual leader may purposefully or
inadvertently maintain this architecture of exclusion.

School leaders ultimately apply practices of power that aim to encourage, develop, and maintain leadership of teachers. Grenier (2010) discusses the concepts of power and inclusive education by highlighting the importance of school leaders to apply strategies that ensure collaborative practices, challenge “teacher autonomy in order to enhance the teaching and learning process” (p. 398), and support student ability and strengths and influence teachers to do same.Effective teachers who enact inclusive practices are aware of relevant legislation and policy, and the implications of their daily work (Shaddock, et al, 2007). These teachers are led by school principals who play a “pivotal role in
supporting inclusive practice” (Shaddock et al. 2007, p. 10) and who disrupt discourse of difficulty.

Discourse of difficulty sustains specialisation and exclusion

People acquire discourses, “…certain ways of thinking, talking, and acting
that are infused with power” (Gee, 1990, p. 425). Discourse used by staff therefore
can influence practices that result in exclusion or inclusion of students. The careful
choice of positive discourse related to students with disability in school, system, and
social documentation can become part of teacher’s daily language. If it is made
explicit by leaders and used consistently in schools, this language may positively
influence change when teachers speak about their work. “Language carries within
itself the seeds for a transformative politics – once spoken into existence we exist
and can, with care and strategy, cultivate an ethical self of which we ourselves are
the author” (Graham, 2010, p. 62). We need to speak about our work in a more positive manner if inclusion is to gain traction.

The discourses around inclusive education sometimes focuses on
how hard inclusive education is to achieve (Allan, 2008). Teachers are bombarded
with the implicit and explicit messages by peers, community, and leaders that inclusiveWords such as ‘challenge’, ‘exhaustion’, ‘pressure’ and ‘struggle’
have become synonymous with the inclusive education agenda, and represent a
discourse that confirms the feeling of incompetence and lack of confidence of
teachers enacting it (Allan, 2008). I recognise the premise that specialisation and exclusive practices in some schools, continue to validate and fuel the concerns of classroom teachers who they arenot competent, prepared, or resourced to teach the diverse range of learners in their classes (Allan, 2008). The language and practice of specialty about learners and programs compound the confusion felt by teachers regarding the responsibility for the education of students with disability, and whether they have the required specialised skills to meet the needs of students with disability.

Conflicting discourse as a “leadable moment”

Conflict can occur between staff especially those who identify with different
educational practices e.g. Special education and inclusive education. This could be
seen as “sabotaging change strategies” or the school leader can see them as “leadable
moments” that can “leverage conflict for social justice aims” (Aleman, 2009, p.
1).These “leadable moments” may include the school leader “testing” teacher attitude
and practice (Aleman, 2009, p. 2) with an emphasis on accountability to student
learning and how staff use power to achieve the goals of inclusion. The
“interrogation of power structures in schools that reproduce injustices” (Gillies &
Carrington, 2004, p. 8) is one important practice for school staff to develop an
inclusive culture. When leaders collaboratively develop an inclusive ideology it
“…will permeate all thought and practice” (Rice, 2005, p. 406). The school leader
may test teacher attitude, discourse and practice by wielding power within the political context of the school to achieve their goals. Accordingly, when a school leader drives these high expectations and equitable practice, improved performance of all students will result.


School leaders need to persuade staff that the accountability for achievement
lies with the teacher and the teacher’s ability to align behaviour, practice and curriculum
planning, rather than blame lowered achievement for some cohorts of students on
student ‘deficits’. School leaders need to challenge school practices and name staff
behaviour, including the use of deficit language commonly used to describe students.
Focused professional development (Thompson, 2004) that allows staff to identify
and reject inequitable practices and low expectations can be useful. Fulcher (1989)
contends that teaching is not just a technical process, and that teaching involves
political, moral and technical dimensions. In fact, moral and political dimensions
precede a teacher’s decision about how or what to teach and can reflect low
expectations. Fulcher (1989) reminds us that, “Teachers, like everyone else, are
equally members of an unequal society and may contribute to, or undermine, this
inequality” (p. 259). Leaders need to take a moral stance and challenge practices that
undermine the journey towards inclusion in their schools; e.g., confusion about
policy and existence of low expectations of learners. These challenges or conflicts
may previously be deemed as “controversial or inflammable” (Aleman, 2009, p. 2)
but can ultimately lead change in practice for social justice.


If leaders do not create explicit opportunities to explore and challenge vocabulary and
practices of exclusion, these may continue unopposed. School leaders need to create and maintain a dynamic learning community that provides a safe environment for investigation in their school context. Without this leadership, there will continue to be issues with misalignment of teacher beliefs, curriculum planning and delivery, and ultimately continued underachievement of all students with diverse learning requirements, not just those with disabilities.

Please request full reference list via comment box.