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The importance of research on inclusive education

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #15

By Tim Loreman

15.TimLoremanAmerican author and academic Stanley Fish says that university scholars should “save the world on their own time” and avoid declaring bias and politicizing their research work. In his view, advocating for action in one area or another is not the job of a university professor. A professor should simply research and present the results for others to do with as they may. Fish would doubtless not approve of me saying that I support the practice of inclusive education, but I do, and am prepared to explain why.

There are convincing arguments that an inclusive approach is a socially just, democratic, and fair way to educate. It is, advocates argue, an approach that is most consistent with the values of our society (in Canada and the west, at least). However, consider a circumstance in which we knew that an inclusive approach was ineffective, or worse, harmful to children. Would that support continue to be as widespread or as strong? What if we knew that no matter what ‘positive’ changes we made to schools and teaching practices inclusive education would fail? Such evidence would certainly shift my views, and I suspect the views of most others. Nobody wants to see children hurt, and nobody wants to continue to advocate for educational practices that are negative given the enormous human and financial costs involved.

Luckily, we have a solid and growing body research evidence to suggest that, overall, inclusive education has a positive impact (or at least in the worst case scenario a neutral one) and that it is therefore a model worth pursuing. Conversely, and perhaps most damningly, there is sparse to no research indicating that non-inclusive approaches have a positive impact compared with inclusive approaches, at least that I am aware of. In short, research results on the effectiveness of inclusive education are worthy of discussion, thought, and action. The other side of the argument, supporting segregated forms of education, has not yet earned a place at the research table even as such a lack of evidence comes out of a long history of research opportunities. Segregation only remains part of the ‘debate’ because we have a tradition of segregating, and because some people feel intuitively that it is the best approach. Neither are good reasons for continuing a bad practice. This is why research on inclusive education is important. It allows scholars to recommend it as an educational approach because the research says it works best, and importantly, does not show that the alternative approach is worth pursuing. That is why I openly support inclusive education. A good researcher draws conclusions from evidence and does not support the unsupportable. A field such as education is an applied one, and so we must make choices as to what to recommend schools, teachers, and others do based on the evidence at hand.

There is another reason why inclusive education research is important. We can recall anecdotes involving certain instances where an attempt at inclusive education has not worked well. Why is this? Research says that generally that it is effective, but we need to also continue to explore through research what policies, practices, and contexts make it so or what gets in the way. Many researchers are looking at just this question from a number of angles. Teaching is an art and science, and if we know scientifically what we need to do to make inclusive education the best it can be, then that is perhaps half the job done (the other half is application – the ‘art’ of teaching – that we might also look into).

Research on inclusive education is important. It tells us that it is effective, and may also tell us if one day it ceases to be effective. Research can also tell us what practices, policies, contexts, etc., make it work. Without that we are really just arguing on the basis of ideological orientation, which has a place, but is ultimately perhaps inadequate on its own if we are to adopt an evidence-based approach to education. Stanley Fish might argue that as an academic I should not take a position on supporting inclusive education or otherwise, but given the very one-sided research evidence available in this area, not recommending the approach to those seeking an opinion would make little sense.

Tim Loreman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Education and Vice-President Academic and Provost at Concordia University of Edmonton, and and Inclusive Education Canada Associate and Contributor.