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Inclusive Education: Lessons from Quebec’s English Sector

The English sector school boards in Quebec have had a long experience in the education of students with special needs in a variety of settings – from the early days of closed classes in special schools to inclusion in a regular class within a neighbourhood school. This evolution has occurred as a result of the experiences that many of us had in the early years of special education. To those of us who started teaching in special education classes, this process of change reflected the fact that – more often than not ­– the closed class structure did not meet the needs of the students for whom the experience was designed. This is borne out by other educators in Canada.

Gordon Porter, a long-time advocate for inclusive education, states that “ traditional special education, typically carried out by specialist teachers and in isolation from

other children in special classes or special schools, has failed in several ways. First, it has failed to produce results. Students who experience segregated special education are not prepared for fulfilling lives in their communities when their education is finished. Research in Canada has indicated that they do less well than similar children who go to regular schools.…A segregated school program does not prepare young people to be part of the community and society when they become adults. Growing up and interacting with their peers does that.”[1]  

That is not to say, however, that every student can make the most of an integrated setting all the time; depending on the specific situation, some students require a second option at some point in their education. But those of us who began teaching in the early 70s know what it was like when students were taken out of their home schools and placed in special schools or special classes with inexperienced and untrained teachers. We were those teachers.

In order to understand this evolution, it is important to go back the 40 years it took us to reach the place where we find ourselves in 2011.

Connecting to Our Students

In 1971, I was assigned to teach in a special education class for students with a variety of learning and behaviour difficulties – students who had been removed from their classes in regular high schools and placed in a high school for those identified with special needs.

All of these students had been placed in the school because they did not “fit” into a regular high school program, mostly for social reasons. Many came from impossible home situations. Some came with severe mental health problems. For some, this was the first educational placement following long-term hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. At the beginning, daily crises were the rule of the school, as students clashed with each other and with us, over any request or instruction they received. 

We worked hard at trying to connect with our students. But they had failed in the regular school system and were removed from the general population to be placed in a special school, and they resented it far more than we realized.

This point was driven home to me by one of my students when we were on an overnight field trip. While she was a very difficult student in the school, she was particularly well behaved on this trip. At one point, I asked her, “Why is your behaviour so different here from what it is at school?” Without even thinking, she said, “The school is a mental school, we’re supposed to act mental there.”

It was a turning point in my thinking—we had been treating our students as special needs students, instead of thinking of them as students with needs. We were dealing with their individual behaviours and forgetting to look at them as, first and foremost, needy children. Their needs, we were learning, were far greater than the need for academic achievement.

Dewey writes about placing a strong emphasis on the subjective quality of students’ experiences and the necessity for the teacher to understand their past in order to design an effective sequence of liberating educational experiences to allow them to fulfill their potential as members of society.[2] From our students we learned that their pasts had been traumatic and that many lived in marginal situations on a daily basis. To many, school was their safe haven for a few hours a day.

These students taught me that no matter what their challenges were, they were people first – with fears and issues like any other student. They needed to be listened to and we needed to care for them, because when they felt secure and they trusted us, they would learn. Interestingly enough, we did not know the theoretical basis for our actions at the time, but today we know that the development of a relationship with a student is one of the most powerful educational building blocks.[3]

Heller argues that, “Education should be about helping students become humane, caring individuals, capable of dealing with complex issues that the world presents. We can model humane behaviour for our students without sacrificing standards of learning or behaviour.”[4]

Many of my colleagues, in those early years of special education, began their careers as I did, in closed special education classes. We soon learned that somehow this organizational approach did not really meet the needs of the majority of our students; there had to be a better way. We learned intuitively that attachment to our students was important. We had to help them feel secure and gain their trust before we could teach them.[5]

Why Engagement Works

What we sensed intuitively then is backed by evidence now. We have a lot more information available to us today than we had in 1971, or even in 1991, about how students learn. Brain-based research has shown us much about how the brain learns and what we can do to engage students in their learning.[6] Often students who are thought to have some learning difficulty or a behaviour issue are simply disconnected from learning in school. We have learned since then that not all needy students have special needs; many are simply turned off by schools and either act out, or opt out of learning.

We know that when students’ learning styles and preferences are taken into account – when we ask not “How smart are they?” but “How are they smart?” – they learn. When we teach to their strengths, they learn.[7]

We understand that between 35 and 50 percent of the population learns best by doing, as tactile-kinesthetic learners, and only 18 percent of the student population learns best by listening.[8]Why then do we continue to teach in an auditory style, when we know that our classroom lectures have little carry-over to long-term learning?

Schools and classes that have experienced success have taken into account current research into learning styles and preferences. They have understood that students learn best when they are actively discussing, practicing by doing, and teaching others. They learn least when they are sitting passively in a classroom hearing about new concepts.[9]

If we were to implement learning situations that engaged all students, that showed them the purpose of their efforts and captured their interest in understanding the world a little better, then many of the so-called behaviour problems would be non-existent. Students with identified special needs, as well as those who opt out for other reasons, would learn well along with their peers. Many of our schools and teachers now understand this, and their exemplary practices reflect a commitment to both engagement and integration.

Witness examples of teaching and learning in the robotics program at the English Montreal School Board’s (EMSB) Coronation School, where inner city students took their inventions to the world stage and won recognition in Germany and Japan; where a principal and the staff focused on a vision of inclusion and brought the behaviour issues down in the school from multiple episodes to none in eight years; where a principal refused to let anyone “trash talk” about students in the staff room; where a former graduate, now in a public high school at EMSB, has been courted by the greatest minds in oncology in Montreal, because he, at the age of 16, may be onto a cure for cancer.[10]

Witness Grade 5 and 6 classes at St. Mary’s School in Longueuil (Riverside School Board) where the teachers and students have embraced project-based learning through the ArtsSmarts approach, where the curriculum is taught through the arts with the support of local artists, and all students in this inclusive setting are engaged in creating a classroom from recycled materials that will serve their needs as learners in the 21st century; where it is difficult to identify the students who have special needs because they are all actively engaged in creating a new learning environment for learning their languages and their mathematics.[11]

Witness a school project at Métis Beach School in Métis-sur-Mer (Eastern Shores School Board) where the Grade 5 to Grade 11 students are involved in creating their own social videos, with their teachers and a young film company, exploring issues that they confront in adolescence – bullying, divorce, stalking, etc.[12]

Witness a secondary school extra-curricular program, “The Flat”, at Centennial Regional High School in Greenfield Park (Riverside School Board) – based on the discovered talents of the students in visual arts, hip-hop, and rap – that grew out of a graffiti project to bring the arts legitimately onto the inside walls of the school. This project has been singularly responsible for keeping the marginal students in school and helping showcase their talents to the rest of the school and school board.[13]

Witness Western Quebec School Board’s Environmental Awareness and Outdoor Skills Program, which takes students beyond the four walls of the classroom and keeps them in school because they want to learn, all the while developing stewardship and a future generation of responsible and informed citizens who not only value the environment, but also will take action to conserve and protect it.[14]

Why Engagement Works:

Conditions for Success in the English-Sector Schools

Quebec’s Education Act and its special education policy[15] have supported the integration of the student into the regular class, given certain conditions. Ten years later, a period of reflection is underway, looking back on the successes and the challenges that have arisen.

Within the English-sector school boards, about 85 percent of the student population is integrated into regular classes, and schools are continually searching for means to provide greater success for their students.

Professional development for teachers and staff is critical to this success. In Quebec’s English sector, there is an understanding that the following elements are crucial:

  • a culture of professional learning for administrators, teachers, and other educational personnel
  • an understanding of learning styles and differentiated instruction when working with diverse learners
  • an acceptance that life-long learning applies as much to educational professionals as it does to students
  • an understanding that every student is an individual with needs that must be addressed in the best way possible
  • an understanding that education is a team sport and that it takes a group of committed educators to figure out what will work for a student
  • an understanding that there is no magic in working with students who have special needs, that it takes hard work, frustrating moments, and successes in little steps
  • an understanding that the option of letting a student go without trying everything within our power is unacceptable

The improvement of the graduation rate to over 80 percent in most English sector school boards has grown out of a culture committed to providing whatever it takes to keep students in school and to help them achieve their full potential, of school administrators taking their lunch hours to circulate in the hallways to connect with students, of teachers – in addition to their heavy classroom teaching loads – volunteering extra hours to coach teams and to help students in extracurricular activities, of parents volunteering to help wherever they can in schools, and of students feeling that school is a place for them to be because it has meaning to them.

There is still much to learn and much to be done to address the 20 to 30 percent of the student population not succeeding, particularly among the boys, whose graduation rate lags behind that of the girls in most Quebec school boards by about 10 percent. Things are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Some classrooms are still relying on the lecture method as the sole means of transmitting knowledge. But more often than not, administrators and teachers are focusing in on what needs to change in order for all students to achieve success.

Inclusion is for life, not just for a class or a term or a year. In order to prepare our students with special needs to live within society as contributing adults, and in order to prepare society to accept them as an integral part of the community, we need to structure our educational organization to best serve all students. 

Those of us who have been around long enough can see the majority of our students from the closed classes of the 70s reaching middle age without much connection to their communities – sitting at home as 50-year-olds, dependent on society for their support. We see our students from the last two decades, who were included in regular schools for most of their education, as young adults able to function within society, holding down jobs, working as volunteers, taking public transportation, and contributing to their communities. They are an integral part of their communities and accepted as such by the peers with whom they went to school.

We continuously strive to meet the needs of all of our students where they are best served, and where they can become contributing members of society. The best place for this to happen is in the mainstream – of school and of life. Other options are a poor second choice.

EN BREF – Si nous instaurions des situations d’apprentissage qui intéressent tous les élèves, qui leur indiquent le but de leurs efforts et qui les incitent à comprendre un peu mieux le monde, beaucoup de problèmes de comportement et d’apprentissage disparaîtraient. Les élèves qui ont des besoins particuliers déterminés pourraient bien apprendre parmi leurs pairs. Un grand nombre de nos écoles et enseignants le comprennent maintenant. Pour préparer nos élèves ayant des besoins particuliers à évoluer dans notre société en tant qu’adultes à part entière, et pour préparer la société à les accepter comme faisant partie intégrante de la collectivité, nous devons structurer nos organisations d’éducation de façon à encadrer optimalement tous les élèves. Dans les commissions scolaires anglophones du Québec, environ 85 pour cent des élèves ayant des besoins particuliers sont intégrés dans les classes ordinaires et deviennent des membres à part entière de leurs collectivités, contrairement aux élèves des classes séparées des années 1970, qui sont maintenant d’âge moyen et qui demeurent socialement isolés.

[1] G. Porter, “Making Canadian Schools Inclusive: A Call to Action,” Education Canada 48, no. 2: 64.

[2] J. Dewey, Experience and EducationSixtieth Anniversary Edition. (West Lafayette, Indiana: Kappa Delta Pi, 1998). From the original 1938 text.

[3] M. Fullan, “The Change Leader,” Educational Leadership: Beyond Instructional Leadership 59, no. 8 (2002): 16–20; D. Goleman, Leadership: Social Intelligence Is Essential, 2008. Retrieved April 22, 2008, from http://www.danielgoleman. info/blog/2008/02/28/leadership-social intelligence-is-essential.

[4] D. Heller, “The Power of Gentleness,” Leadership: Beyond Instructional Leadership 59, no. 8 (2002): 76–79; 77.

[5] G. Neufeld and Gabor Mate, Hold onto your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2004).

[6] D. A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2006).

[7] H. Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1983).

[8] A. M. Beninghof, Engage ALL Students Through Differentiation (Peterborough, N.H.: Crystal Springs, 2006).

[9] Sousa.

[10] D. Wood, Six Steps to Student Success. Presentation with Carol Marriott and Julie Hobbs for New Frontiers School Board Administrators, Howick, QC, November 16, 2009.

[11] J. Hobbs, Class visit to St. Mary’s Cycle 3 Immersion class. February 3, 2010.

[12] J. Hobbs, C. Marriott, D. Wood. School visit to Métis Beach School. April 30, 2010.

[13] C. Marriott, Presentation to ArtsSmarts Exchange Symposium, Toronto, ON. Dec. 1, 2009 (In absentia).

[14] A. Earwaker, Environmental Awareness and Outdoor Skills Program. (Western Quebec School Board, Aylmer, QC, 2009; DVD format).

[15] Adapting Our Schools to the Needs of All Students, Policy on Special Education, Ministère de l’Éducation, 1999.

Meet the Expert(s)

Julie Hobbs

Julie Hobbs, une conseillère en éducation, participe présentement à un projet spécial visant à soutenir les  gestionnaires scolaires des commissions scolaires anglophones du Québec dans le cadre des services aux élèves ayant des besoins particuliers. Elle récemment pris sa retraite du poste de directrice générale adjointe à la Commission scolaire Riverside, où elle était responsable du curriculum et des services aux élèves.

Julie Hobbs is an educational consultant, currently working on a special project to support the school administrators of the English school boards in Quebec in their services to students with special needs. She recently retired as Assistant Director General from Riverside School Board, where she was responsible for Curriculum and Student Services. 

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