Connect, Grow, Thrive

ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice Number 37 (July 2019)

Article: Interview with Phil Dexter

ETAS Journal Volume 37, Number 3 (Summer 2019), pp. 25-29

As a teacher with limited knowledge and experience of educating those with Special Education Needs (SEN), I found this interview with Phil Dexter by Rachael Harris a highly informative introduction to the concept, discussing topics such as the wide range of needs we might encounter in our classrooms and how best to adapt our teaching to accommodate everyone. I particularly  liked the positive focus on what learners CAN do rather than identifying areas they struggle with, and the impressive range of images and resources featured throughout. If you are looking for support with SEN, this interview will provide you with some essential takeaway tools and is bound to answer many questions you might have on this topic.

Hannah McCulloch

This article includes the text only. 

Rachael Harris interviewed Phil Dexter, British Council Global Teacher Development Senior Education Consultant. The conversation ranged from reimagining special education needs, Inclusive education, and inclusive practices. Phil pointed out that the opinions expressed were his personal view. 

       The Interview

Rachael Harris: Firstly, how would you define SEN? Inclusive Practices? Differentiation? People get confused with all these acronyms. 

Phil Dexter: I am really pleased to have this opportunity to talk to ETAS members through your Journal. 

Actually, today I think we need to move beyond a concept of SEN and embrace a much broader understanding of inclusive education and inclusive practices. I’d like to explain what I mean. let me say right at the beginning though that I support and advocate for greater understanding of our learners’ needs and the more we understand these needs the better we will be as teachers. If this means and involves a better understanding of special education categories such as dyslexia, ADhD, autism spectrum conditions, social-emotional learning needs and many others then the more we know as teachers the better we will be able to support our learners. 

Whether this is through support information via a diagnosis, clinical assessment or a more pedagogical process — the issue, in my view, has to start from an individual’s learning needs. These clinical terms, important though they are to understand, are just labels. It has been said that “when you have met one person with autism — you have met one person with autism”! This also applies to all our labels and we need to understand the person and not the label. 

Of course, as teachers and educators, we will put our focus into specific areas where we have the skills and passion to do so and where we can make a difference. If that means particularly focussing on issues such as dyslexia, autism, or social-emotional learning then that’s where we will put our energy. however, I believe an alternative approach to diagnosis and clinical assessment can be, “what teachers can notice” and is based on the reality of the classroom and where and how learning happens. It is also an approach that can build confidence that all teachers can make a difference based on our skills as teachers and it’s not about us being “SEN experts”. I will explain further — but before I get to that I’d like to say something else. 

Inclusive education, the idea of all children being educated together in a unified educational system regardless of any differences between them was originally concerned with the inclusion of learners with disabilities, many of whom had historically been excluded from mainstream schools. As an alternative to segregated or dual track systems of special education for some children, inclusive education calls for a broad rights-based concept of education that has evolved to encompass anyone who might be excluded from or have limited access to the educational system within a country. 

The focus of inclusive education, alternatively, is on ensuring that everyone has access to good quality education in systems that do not marginalise some through organisational and curricular structures that sift and sort learners on the basis of pre-determined judgements about what they can and should learn. (Florian 2017). 

RH: So, what do we mean by inclusive education? 

PD: Inclusive education is not ‘a thing’ that can be pulled down off a shelf and applied. While we can learn from good practice, the application of inclusive education has to be based on appropriacy in local contexts. However, the basic elements of inclusive practices will involve some or all of the following: 

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Special educational needs are today also often reframed in terms of cognitive learner differences and ways of thinking rather than learner difficulties and this is another way of thinking positively about our learners. This is often cited in understanding dyslexia, ADhD, Autism, etc. 

While I believe this is an important way of positively rethinking our view of learner differences I believe this is also too narrow a view of learner diversity. The concept of intersectionality (here we have another term for us to grapple with) is equally important. We are all so different in so many ways — age, gender, disability (including less visible disabilities), race and ethnicity, religion and belief, sexual identity, socio-economic and geographically location, as well as social- emotional life experiences, which all impact on our learning experiences. In really understanding the concept of intersectionality we all have multiple overlapping identities where one, a number of, or all of these factors will impact on us as individuals and therefore, impact on learning. So, it can never be reduced to one type of difference and cognitive differences may or may not be the most significant one. 

Neuroscience today also indicates strongly that it is not the physical nature of the brain that determines how we learn but the quality of teaching and learning that can shape the physical nature of the brain (National Research Council 2000). This also puts the emphasis on what teachers and schools can do in making a difference and not being defined or determined by “special needs labels”. 

RH: What can teachers notice? 

PD: Understanding our learners’ needs through the “special needs” lens is often understood today as looking at these needs through a deficit model — what the learner can’t do or have problems/difficulties in doing. As an alternative (or perhaps it is best to say as well as this) we should try to see our learners through their strengths or an asset-based model starting from what they “can do”. 

It’s relatively easy to identify what our learners are having difficulty with whether this is very specific things in reading, writing, speaking, listening, remembering vocabulary, spelling, handwriting, pronunciation, word order, understanding instructions, making phrases and sentences or whether these are more general difficulties associated with memory, organisation of work, going on tasks, engaging in tasks, completing tasks, communicating and interacting with others, concentration, focus and attention as well as understanding the different preferences and ways learners learn. All of these may be similarly identified through a clinical diagnose or assessment – but what message is this giving to learners? Does it help to enhance their self-esteem and promote a positive approach to learning? An inclusive approach starts from what learners can do — what are you contributing and what are you bringing to the learning experience? What is the learner doing particularly well? What approaches seem to be working — can we do more of that? Can we use what the learner can do to help him/her reflect on what the difficulties are? 

In fact, this is also about what learners can notice about their own learning as much as what teachers do. Can we draw a table detailing the strengths and weaknesses and consider ways the strengths can overcome the weaknesses? Can we try out different strategies — whole class working, group/pair, or individual work? Which works best and when? What is the balance between explicit teaching and discovery learning? What can we do that promotes the maximum confidence and self-esteem and set achievable goals and reflect positively on past achievements? 

This approach is focused entirely on what we can observe through our teaching and learning and puts control and power in the hands of educationalist, teachers and learners and not determined by clinicians — however useful their information may be. For me, this is the essence of inclusive education and inclusive practices. Differentiation is, of course, key to all this and I will explain more about this below. 

RH: How did you get involved in this field? 

PD: Though I didn’t realise it at the time my own school learning experience is at the root of my understanding and commitment to inclusive education. Classroom learning is a great fit for some but not for everyone. Everyone has a different education story, for me, it was a number of things and one significant one was that I had a challenge with a stammer which affected the development of my verbal skills. I also had a medical issue that meant I missed school for some time in the important transition period between primary and secondary. 

To an extent, I believe that my needs were not met — though based on the best of intentions of teachers and schools. one of the issues, I believe, is that while we talk about how our learners are different we then often act as if everyone is the same as this is largely determined by and the standardised curriculum and assessment. In the English language classroom, I believe there is a specific methodological approach — for good reasons as language learning is concerned with communication — which best meets the needs of more extrovert learners. The question is how do we ensure we reach all our learners, including those who need more processing time and need to engage through more time to think, process and work in a more reflective way? 

I have always seen the limits of the classroom as the place where “learning happens”, learning is a much more complex process and needs time and different approaches. Again, without really understanding why, I have always been driven to a more independent learning type of approach. of course, we learn best as teachers through working in communities of practice, sharing with others and learning together and schools are an important place for learners to learn collaborative life skills and it is as much about making friends, understanding the world, a sense of belonging and sharing ideas and feelings as well as learning subjects.

About ten years ago I had the opportunity to work with people in the special education field and I realised that what people were saying about SEN was very similar to what I was thinking and doing. In my British Council role, I had been responsible for teacher development and courses and resources for primary and secondary contexts. It seemed obvious that we were missing something by not ensuring a specific focus on special educational needs issues. I, therefore, retrained by taking a course in special educational needs which gave me a much better all-around understanding of what we might call the SEN labels and how they can impact on learning. 

Overall, what I have learnt from this is, I believe, an understanding of the dynamic relationship between diversity and inclusion. They are not separate but really important, I think, that diversity is recognising, working with, and celebrating our differences. Inclusion is how we bring these differences together through collaborative processes and, more importantly, see these differences as strengths that we can share. Whatever our different needs and challenges we are likely to have more in common than what separates us. 

An approach taken in the UK educational contexts is to reframe our labels into five areas where we can identify learning needs better. These are still categories and labels although the emphasis has shifted towards educational support. These are: 

Cognition and learning
Behavioural, Emotional, social-emotional learning and mental health Communication and Interaction
Sensory and/or Physical
Societal Exclusion Factors 

This, for me, helps us to move beyond the special needs, though I do see understanding special education needs as a starting point for understanding inclusive practices. In my role as a teacher educator, I recognise that many teachers are rightly concerned that they don’t know enough about SEN and, of course, want to do the best they can for everyone. looking at and understanding SENs is a good place to begin. however, there is always a danger here that we reinforce the idea of “medical model thinking” which sees the learner as the problem or as having the problem rather than “social model thinking”, in which the five categories can support a change in our thinking and therefore actions. It also takes us towards a “teaching for all” approach rather than special support for some. 

The following quote explains this well. “We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.” (Stephen Jay Gould, The mismeasure of man, 1981) 

Social model thinking is more about looking at environmental factors that need to adapt to the individual rather than vice versa. In looking at social model thinking we base our actions on the ‘what teachers can notice’ approach. The images below explain medical and social model thinking with the social model all about overcoming barriers to learning – whatever they might be. 

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Understanding what this means for teachers in their own specific contexts is how we can all begin to understand what inclusive practices involve. 

RH: Some teachers worry that it’s too much work to plan lessons for each student in the class, how would you respond? 

PD: This is absolutely a genuine concern that I’m sure all teachers feel. So much to do, so many learners with different needs, follow the curriculum, ensure we assess our learners, etc. one of the big myths is that differentiation is about preparing a different lesson plan for every learner. It is not, it is as Carol Tomlinson (2001) has described it, “At its most basic level, differentiating instruction means ‘shaking up’ what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively” (Tomlinson 2001). 

Differentiation is essentially an approach which is as much about what learners do and the options we give to allow them to show what they know, what skills they have and how they can demonstrate them in ways meaningful for them. It’s all aimed at meeting the same learning outcomes.

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Another approach is BAWD’s — giving options on how to respond to a task. Build, Act, Write or Draw [see].
I actually prefer to call it BAWDS Plus as there can be all sorts of options. There are different types of differentiation — for example, differentiation through content, task or outcome — actually the strongest differentiation is how we, as teachers, can give the broadest range of options for learners in making their choices. That is “empowering differentiation”. 

This now takes us to the question of planning lessons for each student. An individual educational plan (involving teachers, parents/carers, support professionals and the individuals concerned can, of course, be helpful and below is an example: 

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An alternative approach — which might be more meaningful and inclusive is “provision mapping”. This is really a group educational plan and links very much with “what can teachers notice”. It identifies needs and issues across a group of learners or indeed across different classes. This is a more meaningful and realistic way of working. This approach also supports collaboration between teachers as we can also see if ‘issues’ are evident across subjects or particular to one subject. In mapping the ‘issues’ it’s also important to also map the strengths and what learners are doing well — as these strengths are the key to working on the difficulties. 

RH: What steps can I, a busy teacher, practically take immediately to make my lessons more inclusive? 

PD: Firstly, I would say if you are reading this then you ARE already concerned about teaching as inclusively as possible and working to ensure everyone has the possibility of making progress. I would say this is the good news in that you are already working with inclusive practices — carry on and don’t think that you have to make huge changes. It is tempting to give some recipes for the ElT classroom or give you some “inclusive magic dust”. These may or may not be relevant to your context and so much is available online that you can access and choose for yourself. 

I like the phrase, “If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. If what you’re doing is working well then continue doing it. If it’s not working then try something else. often a small change or shift can make a huge difference. 

As a teacher, there is loads we can do to make a difference, and our relationship with each of our learners is probably the most important one, along with the message that we know they can succeed. however, it is very difficult to be inclusive in only one classroom and whole school collaborative approaches ensure we can deliver transformational changes. This can only be done by trying things out and reflecting on them. The uK National Association for Special Educational Needs have a simple formula that they call Assess (the learning needs), Plan, Do, Review. This involves an on- going process of seeing what is works and ditching what doesn’t. 

In the British Council, we talk about and advocate four themes in implementing inclusive practices at a school level. 

Access (this ensures young people can be in school in the first place). There will likely be legal obligations around this and also in ensuring support for learners with a variety needs particularly on sensory and physical support — but, while this is essential it is not enough as you can be present in school but still excluded from learning. 

Engagement (this is to address the quality of the learning experience, ensuring it is positive, engaging and meaningful and we, as teachers can do something about this). 

Enablement (ensuring teachers have the skills to understand and apply changes through attending workshops, seminars and different types of sharing of good practice which is relevant to your context organised by ETAS, IATEFl’s Inclusive Practices and Special Educational Needs SIG, the british Council and other organisations or online). Empowerment (the role of strong school leadership to give teachers the authority to innovate. 

All of this can lead to transformational approaches where schools promote an on-going professional development community of practice where policy, (educational) culture and practice are aligned and make sense in context. In that sense, inclusion is a process and not a one-off event and all solutions are inevitably local ones based on a ‘try and do’ approach. 

An example of this shift from the medical model to social model thinking is in the examples below:

Medical model question and answer Social model question and answer 

How can we change the learner’s hyperactive behaviour? 

Give him/her Ritalin or other medication 

What can we do better do to understand and support the behaviour? 

Prepare a learning plan for the child setting objectives and behaviour management support strategies over a six week period that can be monitored with regular feedback with the learner 

How can we work with a learner who’s reading and writing is much weaker than her peers 

Take her/him out of the class for 1:1 additional support 

How can we adapt the lesson so the learner can contribute to achieving the learning outcome? 

Consider what s/he can do well – can s/he demonstrate skills in other ways that support the learning outcome? Could she/he prepare a visual mind map and meet the learning outcome that way? 

RH: What other examples can you think of yourself in how you can rethink from a medical to a social model one? Can you share these with other teachers and come up with solutions? 

PD: You may wish to consider a framework for inclusive teaching and learning in the model below from Phil Dexter 2018. There are also practical examples of how to apply this in a classroom in the links below in the sources section. 

The ten approaches to inclusive practices are a framework for good practice, teaching and learning. As mentioned above you will likely be doing much of this already. Specific interventions around the ten approaches can meet specific needs for particular individuals and groups of learners (and in turn meet everyone’s needs). This puts the emphasis and focus on learners’ needs and inclusive practices rather than special educational needs and away from ‘medical diagnosed conditions’ such as dyslexia, ADhD and autism etc. 

The top ten approaches are presented in the form of a pie divided into ten slices. It is a large pie and eating all the slices at once will likely lead to ‘indigestion’! The idea is to take it slice by slice and explore these areas — perhaps doing some reading around the issue, exploring the internet trying out ideas with learners, talking to and sharing with other teachers, discussing in a classroom or on an online forum, creating all sorts of communities of practice. 

Above all use the Assess, Plan, Do, review approach and see what works best for you and your learners. Through this, we can take the small steps necessary in working towards effective inclusive practices that can make a huge difference. 

In the UK many schools that apply inclusive practices say they are making it up as they go along. This doesn’t mean they do things without thinking and not based on evidence-based good practices. but their strength lies in trying things out, having a go and reflecting on works best. That’s my best advice – have a go and share what you do with others. This way we will all learn. 

Good luck! 


Inclusion or special education: Future Trends lani Florian 2008 j.1467-8578.2008.00402.x 

How People learn: brain, mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2000) National Research Council 2000. 

IP&SEN SIG on Facebook

IP&SEN SIG on twitter 

The British Council Teacher Development Inclusive Practices continuing-professional-development/using-inclusive-practices 

Top ten approaches to inclusive learning part 1 – Phil Dexter 2018

Top ten approaches to inclusive learning part 2 – Phil Dexter 2018

The ten approaches to inclusive practices are a framework for good practice, teaching and learning. As mentioned above you will likely be doing much of this already. Specific interventions around the ten approaches can meet specific needs for particular individuals and groups of learners (and in turn meet everyone’s needs). This puts the emphasis and focus on learners’ needs and inclusive practices.