Professor Gary Thomas is Professor of Inclusion and Diversity in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham. Before university teaching, he worked as a teacher and as an educational psychologist. His teaching and research have focused on inclusion, special education, and research methodology in education. Most of his funded research has been on inclusive or special education, while his Leverhulme Research Fellowship was awarded to examine the role of theory in education. Gary has an extensive publications list and he was the founding co-editor of the International Journal of Research and Method in Education. He has been a co-editor of the British Educational Research Journal and is currently executive editor of Educational Review. Many post-graduate students will be familiar with his excellent and arguably essential guide: How to do Your Research Project. His latest book is entitled Education: A Very Short Introduction.
1. For how many years have you been part of the School of Education at the University of Birmingham and for how long have you worked in an academic context?
I’ve been at the UoB for ten years and I’ve worked in higher education for 32 years, which makes me feel very old!
2. Over the course of your career and research into education, have you gained a view on what makes a good teacher?
Gosh. I think my views on this rest more on my own schooling, my own time teaching, and my own experiences as a parent than they rest on my academic knowledge, helpful though that is. Let me first say what I don’t think is important. I don’t think it’s important for a teacher to try to impart knowledge. Knowledge is everywhere and it’s easier to get hold of it than it has ever been, so we should let go of the idea that knowledge and facts – measured by ‘outcomes’ – are important. I think a teacher should first and foremost be kind, and try to understand where the child (or adult) ‘is at’. They should try to see where learners want to go and help them to get there, all the while encouraging, guiding and enthusing.
3. In your article A review of thinking and research about inclusive education policy, with suggestions for a new kind of inclusive thinking (2012), you refer to the ‘deﬁcit-related beliefs of the ﬁeld of special education’ (p. 476). Could you explain what you mean by this?
For many years, in fact for almost the whole of the 20th century (and it’s still prevalent now), the idea of learning was dominated by notions of intelligence and ability. In fact, when I was an educational psychologist in the 1970s, my main job was to test children’s supposed intelligence with IQ tests. Everything – all ideas of success and failure in education – rested on this central pillar: intelligence. Some people had a lot of it, most people had enough, and a few had, sadly, too little. My job as an ed psych was to say when a ‘little’ was ‘too little’. There was also the idea around that you might be deficient in certain, specific areas of ability.
So, ideas about special education and who needed it rested on ideas about such weaknesses – weaknesses (or deficits) in general intelligence or in specific areas of ability.
All of this was (and is) wrong – or, at least, it is very largely mistaken. When people can do things, they can do them because they’ve had experiences that enable them to learn them. Sometimes people take longer to learn, but this doesn’t mean that they have ‘special needs’. And specific learning difficulties may exist, but usually not for the reasons people suppose: if children fail to learn it’s more likely the result of restricted experiences, fear, boredom (or all of these) than it is to anything wrong in the wiring of their brains – and the latter is what the idea of ‘deficits’ leads us to think. One of the most profound influences on my thinking about this was Gerald Coles’s book The Learning Mystique in the 1980s, which debunked much of that deficit-thinking about the learning of reading.
“if children fail to learn it’s more likely the result of restricted experiences, fear, boredom (or all of these) than it is to anything wrong in the wiring of their brains – and the latter is what the idea of ‘deficits’ leads us to think”
4. In the same article, you argue that ‘it is not so much absolute standards of ability that are important for assessing learning ‘disability’, as perceptions concerning relative status.’ (p. 481). Do you consider that the label of ‘learning disability’ can ever be useful?
Not really, though it’s a term we can all (me included) use in shorthand, I guess. But I try to avoid it (and I prefer the term ‘learning difficulty’) because it implies a problem or set of problems which sets aside one group from another. I’m not sure that such groups exist. Human learning is about flexibility, adaptability and plasticity. I don’t think the education system acknowledges or makes best use of these ready-made strengths.
5. As you know, there are still major debates in the field of education about inclusion, by which most people understand attending a mainstream school. Do you consider that there is a beneficial role for segregated education e.g. special schools?
I’m less dogmatic about this than I was 20 or 30 years ago. I’ve seen some excellent special schools, and I’ve wondered how what they provide could be provided in integrated settings. However, the existence of special schools has also meant that children with certain difficulties have been screened from the view of the general population, and we have proceeded as though their needs can be catered for separately. In fact, thinking more profoundly about the kinds of learning and teaching that these children need would be beneficial for all children.
“we should always be wary of the problems of stigmatization that (…) separation can cause”
I think specialist facilities need to be provided for some children who have quite profound difficulties learning or communicating with others. Whether these specialist facilities should be provided in a special location (or integrated everywhere) is a moot point. There probably needs to be some form of central location that children with certain profound difficulties can attend for some minor or major part of their schooling. But we should always be wary of the problems of stigmatization that such separation can cause.
6. At ACER, the focus with regard to schools is on autistic children, obviously: do you have a view on how their inclusion in mainstream schools can be facilitated?
I’m not an expert on this and I’d bow to the guidance of colleagues who work in the area. One of the principal means must be about the education of mainstream teachers and headteachers, though I’m bound to say that the neoliberal turn of politics and education doesn’t encourage schools to think about anything very much other than ‘outcomes’ and ‘results’. In such circumstances, inclusion for autistic children will become even more difficult.
7. In your essay Changing our landscape of inquiry for a new science of education (2012), you consider the apparent low status of education research. You also argue that teaching ‘is neither open to nor penetrable by (…) scientific research’ (p. 35), the nature of which, you contend, is often misconceived. Do you have a view on what kind of research is most likely to impact positively on educational practice?
I think an entirely different mindset needs to overtake education before research is taken seriously. The current model (of ‘what works’, or some variant) is entirely wrong, since ‘what works’ for you probably won’t work for me. I think research needs to be far more local and home-grown: bottom up. Teachers need to find their own solutions, to find ways of improving their own practice, developing their own knowledge and capabilities as people. This is what research needs to be about.
8. Do you consider that our schools are more inclusive now than say, 20 years ago? How would you define ‘inclusion’ in an educational context?
Yes. In fact the world is more inclusive than it was 20 years ago. The world (at least the affluent world that we live in) is kinder, less racist, more understanding. There are laws against sexism, racism, disability discrimination. All of this is good and much of it has influenced education for the better.
“For me, inclusion is about much more than disability or special needs. It’s about a mindset of acceptance of everyone for who they are.”
But it’s just relative. Inclusion is by no means ‘done’, if indeed this would ever be possible. And education as a system is reactive rather than proactive on inclusion. Much of this is down to the neoliberal turn (see above) which has sadly become amplified in recent years.
For me, inclusion is about much more than disability or special needs. It’s about a mindset of acceptance of everyone for who they are. It’s about not discriminating because of disability, yes, but also because of gender, race, income level, family status, sexuality or whatever. Education needs to become very differently organised before it is able to get anywhere near such a mindset.
9. Which of your achievements in your career are you most proud of, and why?
Probably my ‘How to …’ books for students and my ‘Education: a very short introduction’. I get more supportive and welcoming comments and emails about these than anything, and they’re always nice to get. In these books I’ve tried to debunk the silliness and pomposity of much academic writing, and people obviously like this.
10. How do you like to relax when you are not engaged with your work?
I’ve got two grown up daughters, and two grandchildren. Oh yes, and I’ve also recently become an older dad (much older!) of a wonderful little girl of 21 months called Maya. She’s an absolute joy and delight, and takes up nearly all of my spare time. She teaches me a lot about learning and just how complex and wonderful human learning is. She has about 40 words at the moment, and she goes through phases in which certain words are favourite. For a while ‘Dada’ was the all-purpose noun, referring to any person or thing. ‘Dada’ then narrowed its meaning to any male person (which was occasionally embarrassing) and eventually was employed just for me (phew!).
Thomas, G. (2012) , A review of thinking and research about inclusive education policy, with suggestions for a new kind of inclusive thinking. British Educational Research Journal. 39, 3, 473-490. DOI: 10.1080/01411926.2011.652070
Thomas, G. (2012) Changing our landscape of inquiry for a new science of education. Harvard Educational Review, 82, 1, 26-51.
Interview by Becky Wood.