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Inclusive Education in an Increasingly Divisive World

​Years ago, a friend told me that he managed to make it through high school without ever reading an entire book. After graduating from college he eventually pursued his passion, becoming a successful entrepreneur and an active member of his community. In our recent discussions of politics within the United States, he’s commented more than once about just how crucial education is to the well-being of a high-functioning democracy. It relies completely on the informed participation of its’ electorate; an informed electorate becomes so mostly because of the education a country provides to it citizens. Unfortunately, it seems that democracy has been pummeled globally in recent years. If Nationalism is too strong a word, then at least it feels like countries are contracting in an attempt to isolate themselves politically, socially and economically from a world they feel threatened by. Students sometimes react in a similar way, feeling hesitant to participate in classrooms. Schools and democracies are the best versions of themselves when the individual is fostered by the potential within themselves and the environment. Both places thrive when the emerging understanding of its participants supports an appreciation of diversity; diversity of not only ideas but people as well. Resisting the urge to withdraw, instead, they spread their arms wide. Welcoming the unfamiliar is an important act that recognizes diversity as a resource. Taking an inclusive stance helps the world become a better place.

If a well-educated population is a guardian of democracy and schools serve as a place where all students have a right to become “motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, and goal-directed learners” (CAST, 2018) then schools must continue to become more inclusive. If our education system is a mirror of democracy then, “inclusive schooling is making a commitment to provide each student in the community with the inalienable right to belong and not be excluded.” (Falvey, Givner, Villa, and Thousand, 2016).  Over time, some international schools have crafted identities such as “an elite school for elite learners” with little room for those outside of high academic achievement and “typical” behaviors. Now we are beginning to see international school communities asking themselves tough questions about why one sibling in a family may be admitted while the other is not. What these schools are realizing is that the sort of change needed to become more inclusive lives in the heart-set, mindset, and skill-set of the entire community (Bane, 2018). Preparing for that transformation is an example of complex change; strategic thinking is crucial in the design and implementation of such a culture shift.

For many people, the desire of a school to become more inclusive raises questions and concerns that are often emotional in nature. Brain research supports the idea that when people are feeling threatened by a new idea, they are unable to access areas like the prefrontal cortex and it is hard for them to engage in higher-order thinking. This is true for all of us, regardless of age. Think about the last time you were stuck on something because of the emotions you were feeling. How hard was it for you to move into a place where you could really hear what the other person was saying? You were in your “lizard brain” and perhaps the level of stress in the conversation was keeping you in “fight or flight” mode.  Maybe after a few minutes, you were able to move towards another place, or perhaps not. Because of that, we also know that people most often do not change their practice before changing their beliefs. Engaging in complex culture-shifting change, like becoming more inclusive, relies on an ever-evolving plan which supports the transformation of beliefs and values, the mental models used organizationally to guide the choices both individuals and teams make each day (behaviors) and the evolution of the environment in which it all takes place (Dilts, 2014). Attending to the details at each of these levels over time supports the shift of a school’s identity and with it, a new understanding of “how things are done around here.”

So what do you believe about the inherent value of all learners and the diversity they bring to your community?  Thinking about “the way things are done” at your school, what resources exist? Where are the barriers? If, as Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman state in The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups, leadership is a function and not a role, what might you do next to support your school, students and community in becoming more inclusive? If schools are indeed a reflection of democracy, you will not only be a change agent for inclusive education in your community but also be an advocate for the ideals of democracy as well. I think the world needs more of that right now.

-Jason Hicks

Kim, Jason Kelly and Paula can be reached at