Can collaborative consultation, based on communicative theory, promote an inclusive school culture?
Désirée von Ahlefeld Nisser
Dalarna University, Sweden
This article contributes to furthering our knowledge of how collaborative consultation, based on communicative theory, can make teachers' learning from, and with, each other an inclusive process, and thus promote an inclusive school culture. The aim is to study special education professionals' experiences of, and reflections on, leading collaborative consultations. The data consists of critical reflection (collaborative meta-consultation) in groups of special education professionals (consultants) and one researcher. The focus of the collaborative meta-consultations was on the consultations that the consultants held with groups of teachers. The data has been analysed using qualitative content analysis. Besides identifying some basic conditions, certain strategies and approaches have also been identified to make collaborative consultation an inclusive process. Collaborative consultation can promote an inclusive school culture if the concept of inclusion embraces how professionals collaboratively examine their practice, strategies, and values.
Levinsson (2011), for example, has investigated the possibilities and obstacles to strengthening the scientific basis by asking the following question: Should evidence for, or against, effects in education be explored and delivered by 'experts' to teachers, or should teachers collaboratively explore and analyse their own practice? Is it possible to link expert-driven approaches to participant-driven approaches, as Levinsson (2011) maintained? How, in that case, should such linkages be implemented? According to Fritzell (2009), communicative starting points - which deliberately take individuals' perceptions about evidence-based practice into account and allow teachers to critically examine their own understanding and practice - can be a link that unites different traditions and perspectives and thus strengthens the scientific basis in education.
The data used in this study has its origin in a research and development project focusing on collaborative learning among teachers. More specifically, the data are recordings and field notes from collaborative meta-consultations  (CMC) that a researcher recurrently held with special education professionals (consultants) regarding their consultations with small groups of teachers.
I will now highlight three concepts crucial to the study: (1) collaborative consultation; (2) evidence-based practice; and (3) an inclusive school culture. They are intended to be understood in relation to the Swedish governments' focus on (a) collaborative learning among teachers, (b) ways to strengthen the scientific foundation in education, and (c) the vision of A school for all.
The concept of communities of practice can also be helpful in understanding what collaborative learning is about. From this perspective, as well as from the communicative perspective used in this article, learning is understood as a social process (Wenger, 2000). However, in order to understand how collaborative learning among teachers can be performed in the most inclusive way possible, the concept of collaborative consultation, which takes its point of departure from communicative theory, is used. The concept includes the following features: deliberate, reflective dialogues, professional exchange, and shared sense making (Sundqvist et al., 2014).
Moreover, there is a gap between theory and the reality of a teacher's daily activities (Cordingley, 2008; Korthagen, 2007). Therefore, research has to allow for critical, professional reflection and assessment among teachers (cf. McArdle & Coutts, 2010; Mraz, Kissel, Algozzine, Babb & Foxworth, 2011; Ng & Tan, 2009). Individuals' perceptions must be taken into account because research that allegedly proves 'what works' in the classroom can be perceived differently by different teachers (e.g., Korthagen, 2007; Zepke & Leach, 2002). Despite the fact that the idea of evidence-based practice is highly prioritised in political agendas, both in Sweden and worldwide (e.g., Levinsson, 2011; Cordingley, 2008; Korthagen, 2007; Timperley, 2010), the emphasis on collaborative learning among teachers reveals that the ideas of participation, communication, and relation are also highly ranked. This makes it interesting to relate the concept of collaborative consultation to what Zollers, Ramanathan, and Yu (1999) refer to as an "inclusive school culture" (p. 157).
Figure 1: The design of the research and development project.
This article is based solely on analyses of the CMCs (3b).
This municipality was chosen because it made contact with the local university to ask for help in increasing teachers' knowledge in reading and writing instruction with a focus on inclusiveness. The project was created in collaboration with the directors of the school board and two researchers. The Swedish Research Council's ethical guidelines were followed. Before the project started, the teachers and consultants were informed about the purpose of the research project and they agreed in writing to participate. As the project was also a part of the municipality's school development program, they were clearly informed that the results would also be used for school development, but in a way that would guarantee confidentiality for the participants. The CMCs between the researcher and the consultants were held eight times over a period of two years. In order to create the best possible atmosphere for the implementation of the CMCs, the twelve special education professionals were divided into two groups. One group met from 10.00 to 12.00 a.m., while the other group met from 1.00 to 3.00 p.m. Each CMC with each group lasted for two hours. A total of 32 hours of CMCs were thus recorded, and the data has been transcribed and analysed.
Time has to be allocated
A recurrent theme that emerged in the CMCs was consultants' experiences of teachers' different opportunities to participate in the consultations. This was surprising because the schools were located in the same municipality and the project had been planned in cooperation with the directors of the school board. In one of the schools, it was actually impossible to implement the consultations during the second year of the project. Some of the problems described revolved around external circumstances, such as teachers not having enough time to meet, having to stand in for each other, and having to work in the leisure centre when personnel were missing, even though the consultation was scheduled. Other consultants shared opposing views on teachers who were given all necessary opportunities to participate. These varied possibilities and obstacles to lead consultations can be understood in terms of inclusion and exclusion. It became obvious that principals not allocating enough time for teachers to attend the scheduled consultations contributed to a kind of exclusion. Consequently, opportunities to recurrently engage in collaborative consultation can thus emerge as a strategy in promoting an inclusive school culture.
The importance of consultants
The consultants considered their role as consultants to be important and meaningful. A recurring theme was consultants' experiences of teachers excluding themselves from the consultations by saying that they had not done the assignments, or that they had no experiences to share, but then later saying how valuable it had been to participate in the consultation. The consultants maintained that they contributed to keeping teachers in the project: "If we hadn't been there in the beginning and got them going, they may perhaps have implemented the assignments, but then these wouldn't have led to anything" (CMC 8). They emphasised that it is "... important that there is a consultant who can pull different strings to help the conversation move forward, because otherwise it would be easy to get stuck on the tips level" (CMC 4).
Another conclusion the consultants agreed upon was that they contributed to helping teachers begin to engage in the conversation during the CMC: "The first consultation was tremendously important to help them get started" (CMC 8). The consultants maintained that they contributed to making sure that everybody had the same opportunity to speak. Additionally, they contributed to ensuring that the discussion remained on topic: "Otherwise, it's easy to get off track" (CMC 7). Consultants expressed that they were challenged to pose questions that encouraged teachers to discuss changes they would like to implement in their classrooms: "How do you intend to go on with what you have discovered?" (CMC 5). "How do you think you'll be able to use this knowledge?" (CMC 7). Without these types of challenging questions, there would have been a risk that the reporting of completed assignments may have remained on a descriptive level.
Bridging the gap
The first CMC revealed a gap between the theory that had been presented in the lectures and teachers' practices. The consultants' descriptions of their first consultations with small groups of teachers described teachers as giving voice to an insecurity regarding how to fulfil the first assignments; frustration about not knowing if they were doing 'the right things' (CMC 1), teachers calling for more guidelines, and a polite attitude - free from challenging questions - toward each other. Consultants described teachers as being unfamiliar with this kind of consultation, where they should scrutinise their own practice together with a consultant in a structured way. The uncertainty regarding their role as consultants and how to handle teachers who felt uncomfortable in the situation of consultation was highlighted: "The first consultation with the group was not a good consultation" (CMC 2). Already the first CMC gave the consultants new ideas of how to include and encourage the teachers to participate more actively. Consultants provided examples of teachers becoming increasingly courageous both when expressing their own understanding, and critically reflecting on, and even expressing concerns regarding, some of the assignments. The importance of influencing and challenging the actions of the consultants, including their thinking and learning strategies, by discussing them deliberately became more and more obvious. Thus, possibilities of bridging the gap through collaborative consultation - and thus nurturing greater inclusiveness - became apparent as the project progressed.
Openness about procedures
Consultants' reflections showed an awareness of how to lead consultations in the best way possible. Their reflections also demonstrated that they tried to put their knowledge into action: "We started to talk about the procedure in the dialogue, and that we would start with everyone in turn. We talked about our intentions with this dialogue" (CMC 2). This strategy - to start with an openness of intentions and procedures - was a strategy used in the CMCs. A strategy used at the end of every CMC session was to allow everyone to take a final turn to speak. This was also a strategy consultants used with the teachers. It was obvious how the CMCs influenced the consultants when it came to how they led their groups. Consultants described their concerns regarding how to encourage everybody to participate. As this was an unfamiliar situation for most teachers, it was important to think of strategies that really took everybody into account.
Daring not to know
Besides the strategy described above to begin every CMC with openness about the procedure, another strategy constituted a participant-driven approach that was based on the consultants' experiences and the questions these experiences led to. This meant that the researcher never knew what the issues would be, except that they had to be related to the role as a consultant. As a consultant, it is thus important to 'dare not to know.' Being a consultant was experienced as being something other than a teacher: "I haven't understood my role as being a teacher. I have understood it as being a consultant. I shall not teach them so much [in reading and writing instruction]" (CMC 7). Even though a participant-driven approach was important to start with, consultants gave voice to the importance of striking a balance between an expert-driven approach and a participant-driven approach: "How much are we supposed to give of our competencies in writing and reading? It is a question of balance. The trick is how to give the question back to them" (CMC 3).
Daring to be truthful
An important part of inclusiveness, understood from the perspective of communicative theory, is to encourage everyone to say whatever they want to say, which Habermas (1981, 1995) refers to as 'Wahrhaftigkeit' [truthfulness]. This implies that participants dared to be truthful, and in this project, it implies promoting an atmosphere in the CMCs that invite as much truthfulness as possible. It is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, to guarantee that this validity claim can be fulfilled. However, feedback from the CMCs can be understood in terms of truthfulness because they dared to express their thoughts. For example, not all consultations between consultants and teachers were described as 'good' consultations. On the contrary, from the perspective of the consultants, some were described as total failures: "It was a disaster!" (CMC 5) When saying so in a team of professional consultants, and with a researcher present, this admission implies a feeling of safety and acceptance.
Reciprocity in learning
Reciprocity in learning from, and with, each other was often mentioned as something that occurred and can be understood in terms of promoting an inclusive atmosphere. In order to make evidence-based research more available and thus more inclusive, the consultants maintained the importance of understanding the research vocabulary. Some of the terms used in the lectures and in the assignments that followed were considered difficult by both consultants and teachers. Consultants provided examples of mutual learning by examining the meaning of the words used in one of the assignments together: "We used the words. We learned together" (CMC 3). It was important to share this experience of having difficulties in understanding. "It's important to talk about it in a casual way like we are doing now" (CMC 3). Inclusion can thus be understood in terms of how we use language and how we understand words.
It is when sitting in this group [CMC] that questions occur that I should have posed to the teacher group. I need more time to develop myself as a consultant. In the beginning, your focus is so much on yourself being a professional consultant so you don't dare to relax and listen to what is really happening. (CMC 5)The joint communication in the CMCs encouraged the consultants to think about how to develop their role as consultants. "I have to challenge myself in order to challenge the teachers" (CMC 7). The consultants maintained that the CMCs forced them to reflect on what kinds of questions they had to pose to the teachers in order to challenge them and make them reflect more critically. In order to steer a discussion to be more analytical from the start, one of the consultants reflected on what s/he might do differently in the future.
If I'm going to have these sorts of collaborative consultations next year, I'll say, "It's great that you've made notes but now we'll put those aside and start to discuss what you remember that you've worked with! From describing the assignment to discussing it, what new insights has this given you? What have you discovered?" (CMC 8)It became evident that sharing and analysing experiences led to new questions and considerations concerning how to lead consultations in an inclusive way.
You need a professional consultant to make the consultation work. If the professional consultant can develop his/her ability to ask questions by participating in the CMCs, they have a given role. I keep thinking how I would have done... that's how I could have posed the question! (CMC 8)In summary, results from the project indicate that consultants, who are aware of what it means to lead consultations from communicative perspectives (i.e., include an openness about intentions and procedures, an awareness of how we talk and use language, how we give everyone the right to state their opinions and values, and that everyone is seen as a competent person) can contribute to creating an inclusive school culture. Nevertheless, certain basic conditions - such as allocated time, consultants with a mandate to lead consultations, and clearly stated pedagogical purposes - reveal some crucial elements of how a project that emphasises collaborative learning and inclusiveness is communicated and implemented.
As early as 2001, Hammersley stated that it was not sufficient that researchers pointed out 'what works' (p. 4). A research perspective on what constitutes good practice has to be combined with a teacher perspective on good practice, because "knowledge is not a sufficient determinant of good practice, in education or in any other field. One reason for this is that it cannot determine what the ends of good practice should be" (Hammersley, 2001, p. 3). Furthermore, the effectiveness of 'what works' not only has to do with "what is done but also ... how it is done and when" (Hammersley, 2001, p. 3). However, even though research on what facilitates reading instruction had been presented in the lectures, and even though the teachers had carried out assignments on each topic with their students, the consultants' feedback from the collaborative consultations with teachers revealed varied comprehension. The comprehension varied both from a teacher perspective and from a consultant perspective. This is not a surprising result. Knowledge is understood in relation to prior knowledge and experiences as well as beliefs and values, and the complexity of a classroom practice is well known (e.g., Cordingley, 2008).
The standpoint of this article has been to understand collaborative learning among teachers in terms of collaborative consultation. The analysis has shown that collaborative consultation, which takes its point of departure from communicative theory, offers opportunities to unite different interpretations of evidence-based research with different understandings of experienced practice, and can thus contribute to bridging the gap between theory and practice. Moreover, because of its inclusive and democratic dimensions, communicative theory is useful in the field of collaborative learning among teachers as it can contribute to an inclusive school culture. Figure 2 illustrates how a bridging between different perspectives, as well as the relation to an inclusive school culture, can be understood.
Figure 2: Collaborative consultation, based on communicative theory, offers opportunities to unite different perspectives. It can contribute to teachers' learning, from and with each other, in an inclusive way and can thus promote an inclusive school culture.
According to OECD (2016), students benefit from teachers who collaboratively reflect on their teaching practice, and who teach in a more inclusive manner. This study has, in the light of communicative theory, identified what the strategies and approaches might be to carry out collaborative consultation in an inclusive way. These findings might also be helpful for teachers who want to teach more inclusively. Consequently, there are several reasons for considering using communicative theory in relation to collaborative consultation. One reason is that the increased focus on collaborative learning among teachers, both in Sweden and worldwide, is considered as a way of promoting students' skills in e.g. mathematics and science (Government direction, (U2011/2229/G); Goodnough & Murphy, 2017; Gutierez, 2015). Another reason is the still ongoing, and even amplified, search for the 'best practice' and 'what works' (Levinsson, 2011). Levinsson's article reveals that there are beliefs rooted in political perspectives in Sweden that 'experts' delivering evidence-based research to teachers will change teacher practice and improve learning outcomes.
On the other hand, politicians in Sweden also stress collaborative consultation in order to improve learning outcomes. If the intentions are to change teacher practice and improve learning outcomes through collaborative consultation, there is a need to further understand the concept of such consultation, including how it can contribute to sustainable evidence-based practice in education. An awareness of what it means to build collaborative consultation on the premise of communicative theory provides teachers with the ability to learn from, and with, each other in an inclusive way. Sustainable changes in education requires inclusion on all levels in schools (cf. Zoller et al., 1999; Ainscow & Sandill, 2010). This means transparency through deliberate communication - between politicians and directors of the school board, between directors of the school board and principals, between principals and teachers, and between teachers and students/parents - about what it means when politicians and school leaders are talking about the importance of teachers collaboratively examining their practice. If this is not understood, including why it should be done and how it should be done, these consultations will, at worst, be a waste of time, and no changes will occur. If the concept of inclusion is broadened and deepened, and used to build on a holistic understanding that encompasses how we communicate and how we make sure everyone is in agreement, collaborative consultation amongst teachers can lead to sustainable changes over time.
Collaborative consultation where teachers scrutinise their own practice together with a consultant is a rather new phenomenon in Sweden. Therefore, there is a need to further understand what additional skills consultants require in order to empower teachers in these kinds of pedagogical consultations. There is a need to investigate whether consultants require knowledge not only in how to lead consultations in an inclusive way, but also if they require skills in specific subjects such as reading and writing instruction.
It can be concluded that collaborative consultation can promote an inclusive school culture if actions, thinking and learning strategies can be challenged and discussed deliberately and in the most inclusive way possible. Thus, the concept of inclusion is broadened if the term is related to communicative theory. This means that an inclusive school culture is revealed in how we collaboratively interpret situations, express thoughts and criticism, discuss learning strategies and problems, and propose justification for actions.
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|Author: Désirée von Ahlefeld Nisser, Doctor in Special Education, Assistant Professor in Pedagogy. Dalarna University/School of Education, Health and Social Studies
S-791 88 Falun, Sweden|
Please cite as: von Ahlefeld Nisser, D. (2017). Can collaborative consultation, based on communicative theory, promote an inclusive school culture?. Issues in Educational Research, 27(4), 874-891. http://www.iier.org.au/iier27/von-ahlefeld-nisser.html