Lessons from lockdown: supporting inclusive teaching and learning for all

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Key lessons from the lockdowns point to the critical role of schools in reaching and teaching all students, as well as supporting students’ access to the curriculum, engagement with their peers, and positive relationships with their teachers. Dr Kate de Bruin and Professor Umesh Sharma of Monash University explain how the pandemic has strengthened inclusion.

Last year brought disrupted schooling experiences for children around the globe, and 2021 promises more of the same. The periodic lockdowns have caused difficulties for many teachers, students and families: stress and anxiety, student disengagement, and organisational issues for both schools and families in juggling remote support arrangements. They also included new challenges for some of the most disadvantaged students, such as those living in poverty, those in out-of-home care, and those with disabilities. Among these challenges were difficulties in accessing technology to engage in remote learning, isolation from classroom peers, as well as the loss of support for accessing the curriculum. Despite this, it’s not all bad news, with reports that some students and teachers thrived during the pandemic. These suggest key lessons for how we might engage better with all students in ways that are particularly beneficial for vulnerable students, historically seen as “hard to reach” or “hard to teach”. 

One lesson is in how access to technology can be ensured for every single student. The digital divide has been a long-standing educational inequity, but the health crisis prompted more urgency in addressing this issue, leading to a solution that was enacted rapidly at the policy level, rather than being left to charities, as had previously been done. This is because during school closures, the requirement for all students to have access to technology, and the barriers experienced by many, led to considerable media coverage and some creative equity-focused innovations in policy. For example, in Australia, Education Departments swung into action and ensured students from poorer households were supplied with computers and Internet access in order for them to be able to engage in online learning.

Another lesson is in how access to curricular activities and content can be supported for diverse students. Beyond basic access to technology by students, 2020 taught us the importance of how it is used. For example, teachers used technology, such as smartphones, and applications, such as Zoom or YouTube, in creative ways. These included delivering face-to-face teaching remotely as well as combining learning for students who were both on and off-site in small groups through online learning environments such as Google Classroom. Students were provided recordings of lessons, which worked extremely well for students with disabilities. They could access the material at their convenience and could revisit the lesson if they were not clear about some information. This innovative blended on-site and online model of schooling has been welcomed by students with disabilities and chronic health conditions, who have long requested such access without success, as schools have indicated it to be too hard to accomplish.

While many teachers found the shift to remote learning arrangements stressful and time-consuming, many others demonstrated impressive creativity and flexibility and embraced new ways of working. Some used high-tech solutions such as sharing recordings of explicit skills and content teaching or providing breakout groups in virtual learning environments. Others innovated by using lower-tech solutions where access to digital devices and the Internet were more difficult, such as teachers in remote locations who used the radio. This highlights an important lesson from the pandemic: that students who cannot be at school can continue to benefit from online learning and connection with their teachers and peers through both low- and high-tech solutions.

An additional important lesson is in the importance of supporting relationships and well-being in education. We wrote in 2020 about how beneficial this was for fostering belonging and engagement for all students during periods of intensive isolation in lockdown, as well as providing enabling conditions for students needing more intensive support in both learning and well-being. Teachers’ use of technology during lockdowns to communicate regularly and maintain relationships with individual vulnerable students and families/carers has shown a model of support that should be maintained for healthy home-school partnerships. Research on the impact of remote learning for students with disabilities has indicated that such personalised and intensified layers of support are highly beneficial for both learning and well-being. It was not surprising to note that most successful teachers identified support from their school leadership team or departments of education as critical for them to innovate autonomously and to procure sufficient resources.

As we move forward and emerge from the pandemic, we should not forget that many schools and teachers have done an extraordinary job of keeping their students engaged and learning despite all the unforeseen challenges. It was not an easy feat, but for the first time, many teachers, schools and education systems enacted rapid and valuable changes in policy and practice to support equity in learning. It is vital that we honour these accomplishments in policy and practice by maintaining them to address existing inequities and transform the education system as we march into the new normal that lies ahead.

Kate de Bruin

Dr Kate de Bruin is a Senior Lecturer in inclusive education at Monash University. She researches evidence-based practices across the pipeline through policy, systems, schools and classrooms, focusing on practices that ensure equitable schooling for all.


Umesh Sharma

Professor Umesh Sharma is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Umesh’s research programmes focus on the area of disability and inclusive education in Asia, Pacific Islands, North America and Australasia.