04 SES 12 C, New Approaches to Inclusive Education: An Overview
School inclusion has been a central topic in most countries around the world since Salamanca Statement (UNESCO, 1994) and, even more, after the “Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” (UN, 2006). This international aim is currently mainly supported, at political level, by the abovementioned rights discourse and, in the academic field, mostly by theoretical reflections while empirical data seem to be insufficient (e.g. Lindsay, 2007).
The literature in the field reflects the predominance of theoretical reflections with respect to research (Amor et al., 2018). Moreover, research in the field tends to be mainly descriptive, with a prevalence of qualitative methods and give more attention to some issues, such as attitudes of teachers towards students with disabilities and SEN, while neglecting other important ones as for example the implementation of research-based interventions and practices or academic outcomes of students in inclusive schools (see Amor et al., 2018; Van Mieghem et al., 2018).
In order to support inclusive education, building a larger legitimation based on empirical data, we need to be able to have research results regarding different aspects of school phenomenon, especially on its impacts on pupils and students, but also on other people directly involved, such as parents and teachers.
Recent research in the field has underlined negative effects of inclusive school policies, such as marginalization of students with disabilities in mainstream schools (see for example Nes, 2017; Nes, Demo, & Ianes, 2017) and even bullying experienced by students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Cappadocia, Weiss, & Pepler, 2012). Furthermore, some studies found negative effects on peers regarding academic achievement (e.g. Fruth & Woods 2015). Some authors are highly critical towards inclusion for students with severe and complex learning difficulties (Imray & Coley, 2017). Even those countries that for several decades have been committed to the aim of creating a school for all, such as Italy and Norway, have to deal with some alarming data (ISTAT, 2018; Nes, 2017).
Systematic reviews are research methods that synthesize study results on a specific topic of interest, making possible to draw stronger conclusions based on more than a single study. Unlike critical reviews of research, systematic reviews use clear and explicit eligibility criteria that reduce subjectivity and define the population to which you can generalize findings (Card, 2012). In this way reviews might provide operational information to practitioner and policy makers and future research directions to researcher regarding aspects to be further investigated.
In the field of Inclusive Education is difficult to compare and synthetize research outcomes, especially when we consider studies conducted in different countries. On the one hand we face conceptual barriers, due to ambiguous definitions and multiple interpretation of the term “inclusion” itself, as widely discussed in the literature (e.g. Göransson & Nilholm, 2014). On the other hand each country implements inclusion differently, according to many aspects related to its social and political context, as well as its school system structure and tradition (see for example EASNIE, 2017). Therefore the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation has to be taken into account.
Despite the awareness of existing barriers, the academic debate need to base its discussion on comprehensive framework of research at international level.
For this purpose, this paper discusses the usefulness of this synthesis method in providing a general framework in the field, as extensive as possible, and in identifying problematic patterns in relation to research topics and methods. Moreover, issues regarding the availability, reliability and comparability of research in inclusive education will discussed to suggest future directions in research and its impact on implementation.
This paper is primarily based on two systematic reviews conducted on the outcomes of inclusive education. The first review focuses on experiences and learning outcomes of students without Special Educational Needs (Dell’Anna, Ianes, & Pellegrini, 2019), the second review on students belonging to one of the most vulnerable groups, that of students with severe and complex learning difficulties. Eligibility criteria and processes were similar for both the reviews, in brief included studies had to meet the following criteria: 1. Setting – studies have to be carried out in inclusive settings defined in general as school or class contexts that do not select or separate on the basis of individual characteristics (e.g. achievement, SEN, disabilities). 2. Research design – studies could be qualitative and quantitative studies conducted in inclusive settings. 3. Participants – studies had to include students without disabilities / students with moderate/severe/profound intellectual disabilities from preschool to university. 4. Timeframe and Language – studies had to be published in English in the last ten years. Search, selection and coding procedures were conducted by two of the authors independently. When disagreements occurred, the inclusion or exclusion of a study was discussed with one of the other authors. From the analysis of findings of these reviews, three main issues were identified: (i) the absence of a clear and shared definition of inclusion; (ii) the ambiguity and variability of the categories “SEN” and “disability” in different national contexts; (iii) the lack of empirical studies with high methodological quality in the field of inclusive research, especially experimental studies that can inform about the impact of inclusion on different variables. Since the purpose is to discuss how research syntheses in inclusive education may identify problematic issues related to research topics and methods, we are further searching reviews published in the last ten years on inclusion. In this second step analysis we want to compare the results reached by different reviews and determine how synthesis methods were used in inclusive research since today. We searched in different educational databases (e.g. ERIC, Education Source) and in peer-reviewed international journals to locate reviews on different aspects of inclusion (e.g. teachers’ perceptions and attitudes, student academic achievement and/or socio-emotional skills, etc.). Until now – our search is not finished yet – we located 6 systematic reviews on inclusive education.
At first, we examined epistemological issues emerged from the two reviews, secondly other reviews in the field were taken into account to see if our considerations could find any connections with other reviews conclusions. Our reflections upon the usefulness of reviews in inclusive education are based on the frame suggested by Kinsella (2018), that takes into account and correlates variables belonging to the following categories: input, process and outcome. Starting from input, studies included in the reviews highlight the conceptual ambiguity of the term “inclusion” and how its main interpretation is related to the presence of students with disability and SEN relevantly impact on research processes. This limitation reduces the comparability of studies – as studies were conducted in different countries and there was a lack of detailed information about the defined “inclusive schools or classes” – and the generalization of results. Regarding processes, we noticed that little to no importance is given to contextual variables, such as teaching methods and strategies. Many reviews, such as Amor et al. (2018) and Van Mieghem et al. (2018), show the tendency of research in inclusive education to mostly focus on issues regarding disability or SEN (e.g. attitudes towards students with SEN, interventions for students with SEN, etc.). On the last category, the extreme variety of outcomes considered (e.g. moral judgement, attitudes towards students with disabilities, intentional behaviors, academic performance in reading, academic performance in math, etc.) make difficult to synthesize the results in wider categories. Another issue that emerged from the reviews is related to research methods, mostly descriptive, and their quality. This issue is going to be discussed to suggest future directions in research and possible implications for the practice. These preliminary findings will be enriched of further considerations from new reviews found in database searches.
Amor, A. M., Hagiwara, M., Shogren, K. A., Thompson, J. R., Verdugo, M. A., Burke, K. M., and Aguayo, V. (2018). International perspectives and trends in research on inclusive education: a systematic review. International Journal of Inclusive Education. http://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2018.1445304
Card, N. A. (2012). Applied meta-analysis for social science research. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
Cappadocia, M.C., Weiss, J.A., & Pepler, D. (2012). Bullying experiences among children and youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(2), 266-277.
Dell’Anna, S., Ianes, D. & Pellegrini, M. (2018). Effects of inclusive education on pupils and students without Special Educational Needs: A Systematic Review. Paper presented at ECER Conference 2018, Bolzano, Italy.
EASNIE. European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2017). European Agency Statistics on Inclusive Education: 2014 Dataset Cross-Country Report. (J. Ramberg, A. Lénárt, and A. Watkins, eds.). Odense, Denmark.
Fruth, J. D., and Woods, M. N. (2015). Academic Performance of Students Without Disabilities in the Inclusive Environment. Education 135(3), 351–361.
Göransson, K., & Nilholm, C. (2014). Conceptual diversities and empirical shortcomings - a critical analysis of research on inclusive education. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 29(3), 265-280.
Imray, P., & Colley, A. (2017). Inclusion is dead. Long live inclusion. Abingdon: Routledge.
ISTAT (2018). L’integrazione degli alunni con disabilità nelle scuole primarie e secondarie di primo grado. Anno scolastico 2016-2017. Retrieved from
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