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Inclusive curriculum frameworks: a contradiction in terms?

17 May 2024 | Dr Elliott Spaeth and Professor Stella Jones-Devitt In advance of the #LTHEchat on 26 June, Dr Elliott Spaeth and Professor Stella Jones-Devitt share a dialogue of their thinking in the development of the Inclusive Curriculum Framework due to launch this week.

Creating a framework on “inclusive curriculum” is a weighty task. After all, what is inclusive curriculum if not something that can flex, adapt, and grow to best enable each student to flourish in a meaningful way for them? A framework means committing something to a physical (or digital) form so that it can be used to guide people’s practice. How can we help shape a framework in a way that allows the core “ingredients” of inclusion to shine through, without it becoming a tool that “must” be used, one that facilitates stasis, compliance, and fear, rather than an agent of connection, responsiveness and compassion? 

To set the scene for this work, we are sharing our responses to some of questions that we considered concerning enduring difficulties when trying to undertake inclusive curriculum work. These shared thoughts are provocations for thinking about what effectiveness looks like for the ‘inclusive curriculum’. They are provocations rather than panaceas. We hope they stimulate debate and further engagement.

Elliot and Stella


ES – I'm delighted to introduce Stella Jones-Devitt, who is leading the literature review that has informed the framework. Stella directs the Staffordshire Centre of Learning and Pedagogic Practice. Her expertise on the nuances of evidence – particularly on what kinds of evidence we value and how this can reinforce non-inclusive approaches – makes her ideally placed to do this meaningful work. I was struck by Stella’s insightfulness, brilliance, and compassion, and – most remarkably – how she immediately seemed to truly see and understand me. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to explore Inclusive Curriculum, a topic that is so close to my heart, with Stella.

SDJ – I'm even more delighted to introduce Elliott Spaeth, who is a truly visionary and award-winning leader in the field of Inclusive Practice in Higher Education. Elliott is a tour de force in considering ways for empowering staff to create psychologically safe environments for disabled and/or neurodivergent students. He brings his considerable intellectual clout and lived experience to bear in asking many of the critically astute questions that others might be afraid to ask. He does this with humility and transparency. I have already learned so much from him in discussing and co-authoring this short missive as we consider what an Inclusive Curriculum Framework might comprise. Elliott works across the Higher Education sector as a Senior Consultant in Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) for Advance HE and is a visiting Fellow at Durham.

Embedding inclusive learning and teaching: A dialogue

Q1. How can we scaffold support to learning and teaching staff so that they can do the same for their students?

ES - For me, inclusive learning and teaching is a mindset rather than a list of rules to follow. Because of this, one of my favourite things is working with learning and teaching staff to help them explore what inclusion looks like in their context. This involves having conversations about how decisions are made about learning and teaching; what “standard” practice looks like; and helping them explore the ways in which these decisions and practices might be based on rules or assumptions that do not hold true for many of our students. A crucial component of this work is in the facilitation of psychologically safe environments to support staff through the uncertainty that can come from critical engagement with habitual approaches to learning and teaching. By experiencing this scaffolding, staff are able to experience an approach that they can take forward in their own practice.

SJD - To be able to scaffold, you first have to ‘notice’ what’s going on in your own context. This relates to developing a lot of reflexive self-awareness about your own biases, practices, organisational awareness (amongst many facets) and how this all translates into navigating personal and professional accountabilities. Once you are able to do this honestly, consideration needs to be given to what activities and approaches will work to get others to notice, too. It’s not about being heroic or worthy; more about being able to recognise how the filters on your cognitive and perceptual lenses influence the ways you position other social phenomena, including learners, structures, agency and how this constructs the curriculum, per se. 

Q2: How can we create a framework that embodies inclusive learning and teaching without mistakenly giving people justification to withdraw compassion towards students who we misunderstand?

ES - I feel like there is a robust wall of misunderstandings and misinformation that stands in the way of inclusion. The wall is made of bricks bearing fallacies like “current practice provides a level playing field for students”, “high quality education does not need to be inclusive”, and – my most feared brick – “I, as an educator, must be the one who decides what student needs are legitimate”. 

Inclusive curriculum means breaking down this wall, before we can move forward towards a sector where people, processes, and pedagogies are ready to react compassionately to the complex contexts ahead. But how we can express this in a framework without reifying the framework over the values and principles that drive it? How can we navigate the “certainty” that often accompanies a framework, when acceptance of uncertainty is vital for this work? I don’t know, yet. Perhaps a meta-cognitive approach is the answer. 

SJD – Yes – Metacognition is crucial. I like the critical thinking cycle comprising meta-cognition, knowledge, assumptions, evidence and praxis. Too often in work concerning inclusivity, we start with an opinion which we dress up as ‘fact’, when we should really include an exploration of definitions, conceptualisations and possible boundaries of our thinking. For me, by being braver with how we scope evidence, analyse and report effectiveness of work in this domain.

It is so easy to be dismissive or alienating towards those we don’t intuitively understand. Key to this is recognising that heterogeneity is crucial for advancing inclusivity. It also links with having the capacity to notice that you might be part of an all pervasive and privileged hegemony which takes no account of difference. It feels like a perfect form of false empiricism; one in which you have observed something consistently within your own limited experience, which then causes you to assume that alternative realities don't exist or are invalid or of lesser importance.

Q3. How can we support staff to make decisions in a way that considers their own needs, as well as students’, so we are scaffolding a sustainable cycle of self-determination?

ES - I think that this is crucial to the whole concept of inclusive curriculum. There is so much pressure on staff, and I personally feel that asking staff to be compassionate to students is only ethical when we are also supporting them to be compassionate to themselves. If we don’t do this, and staff feel their own needs are not valid, those needs can end up being projected onto notions of “how everyone learns” - a subconscious attempt to make their own need valid by universalising it. For example, I tend to feel awkward when I’m teaching online, and no one has their camera on. I think I ramble more, because of the lack of the cues I’m used to from other people. But that doesn’t mean that it’s “better for student learning” if their cameras are on. Suggesting that it is means conflating what’s good for us with what is good for others, while bypassing the fact that these others are real people with their own contexts and conditions in which they thrive.  Unpacking these ideas is the first step to empowering staff to navigate decisions in ways that treat everyone involved like they matter and supporting students to do the same.

SJD – This is a really interesting question and relates to notions of agency to think and act with relative autonomy without abandoning shared notions of accountability. One way forward might be to build confidence in areas of self-actualisation, often neglected within an increasingly neoliberal HE sector. This relies on organisations and the sector being open to further risk-taking within aspects of inclusive practice, rather than by stymieing ideas for fear of failure via a pervasive blame culture. If staff feel genuinely valued, this can enhance learning and innovation within inclusive practice areas. Increased self-actualisation is an essential requirement for effective reflexivity and criticality to enable change to be surfaced and implemented.


Join in the conversation on X on Wednesday 26 June at 8pm GMT with  @AdvanceHE_chat and @LTHEchat  using the hashtag #LTHEchat.  

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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