A teacher next to a therapy dog reads a book to a group of students.

Diversity, Equity, Research

What Do We Actually Mean by “Inclusion”?

How preservice teachers think about inclusion

An image of Chris Ostrowdun, the Master’s-level category recipient of the 2019 Pat Clifford Award, recognizing Canada’s emerging education researchers.

Inclusion, specifically in terms of disabilities, affects all teachers, students, and classrooms. Within Canada, roughly 13 percent of K-12 students are considered disabled, a number that climbs to 25 percent when taking into account students requiring significant learning supports (Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2018). Commonly, preservice teachers receive training on policies, procedures, and strategies for inclusion as part of their teacher education. Armed with this training, teachers (novice and experienced alike) are expected to “do” inclusion and support a gamut of diverse student needs. Teaching practices are shaped by this training combined with teachers’ own beliefs, values, and experiences, yet there is less clarity in academic literature on how teachers integrate their perspectives and training in coming to understand inclusion. This crossroads was the focus of my research as both a contribution to scholarship and to support preservice teachers themselves in developing an understanding of inclusion.

As an instructor of a Bachelor of Education course on inclusion and having worked with students with disabilities over the years, I wondered how preservice teachers grappled with and made sense of their training and what they thought inclusion meant from their own perspectives. Having seen first-hand how a teacher’s understanding of inclusion can impact students’ experiences and learning, I knew this was an area that warranted further investigation. Much of the literature I reviewed considered teachers’ overall beliefs, sentiments, and attitudes toward inclusion and disabilities. However, I was struck by the limited attention paid to the finer-grain aspects of preservice teachers’ perspectives and how they came to develop their understanding.

Although I have not defined either disability or inclusion, these terms have likely evoked from readers (such as yourself) a swirl of meanings and assumptions. In the same way, without explanation, my mention of a typical K-12 Canadian classroom likely prompts a common set of assumptions about what a classroom is, what happens there, and who is there. Chances are most people would imagine a classroom having a teacher, students, desks, and chairs. In such a classroom, students likely take part in learning activities and assessments, and are expected to follow established behavioural norms. While the details of these characteristics will differ from person to person, the commonalities make up what Dorothy Holland (1998) and colleagues called a “figured world.” This concept encapsulates the socially negotiated and recognized, taken-for-granted assumptions about an environment, its participants and activities, and what outcomes are valued over others within a context. Figured worlds vary in scope and type, such as a figured world of schooling, parenting, corporate accounting, or Alcoholics Anonymous. Importantly, figured worlds shape how people engage with daily life and are useful for understanding how people assume orientations to participate in a given context. They are how a person can know what to expect and do within a classroom versus, say, a zoo. (Of course, classrooms and zoos can sometimes feel like they have a lot in common!)

Figured worlds are durable but not static. They are in a continuous process of being refigured and renegotiated by their participants, thus making it a useful framing given that neither inclusion nor teaching and learning occur in a vacuum or strictly follow a script. As well, a person’s experiences and participation in one world influence how that person comes to understand and participate in another. This space, where preservice teachers negotiate previous understandings of inclusion and/or develop new ones, was the focus of my research. I wanted to pull back the curtain on what preservice teachers understood inclusion to be and how they formed that understanding. In addition, I wanted preservice teachers themselves to reflect on their perspectives and discuss them with peers, learn from each other, and couch their perspectives among their peers.

To help make this process visible, at least partially, my colleagues and I tasked the 350+ preservice teachers enrolled in a Bachelor of Education course with creating drawings of inclusion. Intentionally, the task was open-ended. Students were supplied paper and markers and had approximately 30 minutes to create their drawings. Why drawings? The goal was to encourage preservice teachers to go beyond repeating inclusive buzzwords. Moreover, drawings offered a tangible way to externalize students’ thinking and acted as a tool to think with when discussing their ideas with peers. In addition, drawings are unique in showing multiple ideas and concepts in relation to each other simultaneously on a page, compared to a written form where ideas are presented more linearly. For instance, a drawing can more easily show how different groups of students and resources might be positioned in a classroom in relation to each other and the teacher.

Given the range of drawing skill sets among the preservice teachers, they were also asked include a written description to explain ideas or concepts they were attempting to convey through the drawing. In small groups, the preservice teachers shared and discussed their drawings. All drawings were scanned and uploaded to an online gallery accessible to everyone enrolled in the course. The instructors and I reviewed the drawings to get a glimpse into students’ thinking and we referred back to them during in-class discussions.


The drawings were delightful, ranging from depictions of classrooms to abstract shapes and metaphors. They were diverse but also shared common themes.

Accommodations and resources were common among drawings of classroom environments. These included supports such as wheelchairs, access to print and audio versions of books, visual magnification devices, various types of seating, and options to use visual or tactile learning materials. These depictions took a predominantly tool-driven approach to inclusion by offering students resources. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such approaches echo traditional perspectives toward disabilities that continue to underpin systemic structures and practices within education today – specifically, the medical model of disability that relies on matching diagnoses to supports and developing individualized education plans to document and track students’ progress. Critically, such diagnoses are often necessary to prove eligibility for resources and access to government funding.

Also common to the drawings were students depicted as holding hands or collaborating on learning activities. This framing of inclusion tended to emphasize togetherness and a sense of belonging among diverse people. Collaboration was also conveyed in two ways: as students helping one another and as a way to strengthen learning and benefit everyone by combining people with different attributes and experiences. These ideas seem to align with contemporary theories of education such as social constructivism and generally fostering interactions among people as part of learning.

In contrast to these, several drawings took a more holistic perspective by describing inclusion as a system. For instance, drawings of a forest as a metaphor for how each student represented various elements of a forest (e.g. rocks, stumps, trees, shrubs, soil) and each element was interconnected and collectively made up an ecosystem of inclusion.

In terms of what inspired their drawings, in interviews after the course, the participants often referenced their own experiences of schooling. Some spoke of challenges they noticed or experienced as students themselves and used the drawings to contrast or improve upon them. Others spoke from the perspective of being parents and noticing their own children’s experiences and how their children’s classrooms looked and what resources were available to support student needs. Still others admitted limited experience or knowledge of supporting disabilities and inclusion.

Between the course and the interviews, preservice teachers completed a four-week practicum placement at a school where they planned and taught a portion of lessons. During the interviews, I asked the participants about their experiences around implementing inclusive practices during practicum. One hurdle they repeatedly described was taking into account social dynamics when trying inclusive practices. For instance, one participant described an activity where students had to collaborate to solve math problems. The preservice teacher did not realize one student often had negative interactions with peers, making collaboration difficult. In another case, a participant designed a lesson where students worked in groups and did class presentations, but two students had selective mutism and struggled to participate in the activity given its interactive nature.

Having seen first-hand how a teacher’s understanding of inclusion can impact students’ experiences and learning, I knew this was an area that warranted further investigation.

Some participants also encountered school cultures and norms that resisted certain inclusive practices. In a school that prioritized traditional direct instruction and individual seat work, when a participant offered students multiple options to show their learning – such as thorough multimedia or forms other than written text – all students elected to use a written format because it was the normative practice of that learning environment. In another case, a participant explained how in upper grades, there was often a strong focus on preparing students for diploma exams and other teachers in the school questioned learning activities that strayed from the formats used in exams.

Not all participants encountered challenges in their practicum, though. Several described classes where students had agency to use resources as desired to support their needs. The teacher had established norms and inclusive practices that aligned with the preservice teachers’ perspectives toward inclusion. Similarly, one participant noted how their placement classroom had norms around students supporting each other, reducing the onus on the teacher to foster inclusive practices.

Lessons learned

At a base level, all the participants conveyed a positive sentiment towards inclusion. All acknowledged diversity among students and their needs, and communicated ways to support those needs. Reflecting on the findings, some key takeaways emerged.

First, traditional, medically-oriented approaches to disability continue to be top of mind for many preservice teachers entering the profession. Given that the medical model underpins much of the systemic processes and supports, teachers must learn to navigate and leverage these systems so students can access funding and resources. At the same time, students are more than a diagnostic label and inclusion should approach students as holistic beings with an array of attributes, strengths, and needs. Contemporary models such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) aim for such a holistic approach, and many teacher education programs (including the one in this study) and ministries of education promote their use. Acknowledging that current funding models and systemic structures can impose pragmatic challenges, training teachers on models such as UDL is key in encouraging teachers to move beyond mere accommodations and take comprehensive approaches to supporting students’ needs.

Second, the participants’ common portrayals of students collaborating or interacting as part of an inclusive environment aligns with contemporary theories of learning as a social process. The participants were less clear on how collaborative approaches worked together with accommodation strategies, suggesting a need for more explicit training and/or scaffolds as part of teacher education and professional development to help teachers integrate individualized supports within social models of learning.

Third, as some participants experienced in their practicums, there can also be tensions between inclusive practices and school cultures and priorities. Pressures such as diploma exams can constrain the types of teaching practices and learning activities that are offered to students. Importantly, inclusion and diversified practices that better support a range of student needs are a benefit and not a compromise or detriment. Approaches such as UDL can enhance and enrich learning for all students while enabling a greater range of students to learn and participate in education. While it may be challenging at times, new and seasoned teachers alike should remain vigilant and reflective about their practices and resist following traditional ways of teaching for the sake of status quo, instead focusing on pedagogies that are inclusive and enriching to all students. Similarly, teacher educators can integrate opportunities for preservice teachers to critically reflect on their perspectives as part of their training.

This study has shown a wonderful breadth in how preservice teachers are thinking about inclusion. While the implementation details were still emergent for some participants, their ideals hold promise. The study also points to opportunities to scaffold ways for teachers to make linkages across different aspects of inclusion (e.g. individualized versus class-wide supports) during their training and when they take on classrooms of their own. As well, given the array of ways preservice teachers think about inclusion, incorporating opportunities to explicitly discuss those perspectives in their teacher education can support them in developing durable understandings of inclusion.

Inclusion is a broad and complex topic with many interconnected elements, much like the drawings involving forest metaphors, so it is heartening to see the next generation of teachers actively considering its many facets in an effort to foster an accessible, robust, and resilient education system for all students.

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, January 2021


Alberta Teachers’ Association (2018). The state of inclusion in Alberta schools. www.deslibris.ca/ID/247446; Statistics Canada (2018). Canadian survey on disability: A demographic, employment and income profile of Canadians with disabilities aged 15 years and over, 2017. www.statcan.gc.ca

Holland, D., Lachicotte Jr., W., Skinner, D. & Cain, D. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Harvard University Press.

Meet the Expert(s)

Chris Ostrowdun

PhD Candidate, University of Calgary

Chris Ostrowdun is a PhD Candidate in Learning Sciences at the Werklund School of Education of the University of Calgary. He is interested in studying ways to support educators and students to foster and thrive in inclusive learning environments.

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