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Learning Activity 1: Co-Teaching in Teacher Education for Inclusion

Learning Activity at University College Leuven-Limburg (UCLL) Belgium 7th – 11th November 2016

UCLL logo Erasmus logo

LA Leueven Group shot 1

The EiTTT project team together with colleagues from each of our institutions and schools travelled to the university town of Leuven, located 25 kilometres east of Brussels, in the province of Flemish Brabant. We were welcomed to UCLL by host partner Lijne Vloeberghs and her colleagues.  Our base was the Hertogstraat campus in Heverlee, where the entire student body, of approximately 5,000 students, is enrolled in various teacher education programmes, in the largest teacher education institution in Flanders.

‘Moving Minds’

The UCLL maxim, ‘Moving Minds’, refers to the college’s underlying philosophy of motivating people and turning ideas into action.  This practical, profession-oriented vision fitted well with the aims of the project team.  In the course of oral and video presentations, round-table seminars with teacher educators, workshops, visits to schools and discussions with classroom teachers, we considered how the ideals of inclusion policy for education might be realised in school practice.

‘M Decree’

Belgium is a federal state, within which education is largely regulated and financed independently in each of three distinct communities/regions, overseen by the federal government.  In Flanders, the Dutch speaking northern region of the country where we were located, ‘Inclusive Education’ is currently at the forefront of educational discourse.  This follows the institution in September 2015 by the Flemish parliament, of legislation known as the ‘M Decree’. ‘M’, which refers to the concept ‘Maatwerk’ (‘custom-made’ / ‘tailor-made’ – i.e. to the educational needs of the child), requires that all primary and secondary school students, including those with learning difficulties and ‘mild’ disabilities, be enrolled in the first instance, in mainstream schools.  All students there should follow the mainstream curriculum, with ‘reasonable accommodations’ if required, for students with additional needs.  While special schooling remains an option, the student’s need for such provision must now be very well justified. This focus on ‘mainstreaming’, aims to accord with wider EU policy on inclusive education.  It has also emerged in the context of concerns about comparative data on the education of children with special needs in Europe, which have suggested that the percentage of pupils in ‘segregated’ special education in the Flemish community, is the highest in Europe (European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, Country Data 2010).  The ‘M Decree’ therefore, is designed to uphold the child’s right to be enrolled in mainstream school, and to prevent too rapid and potentially undue referral to special schooling. 

Nonetheless, in Flanders, as in other jurisdictions represented in this project partnership, inclusion policy has proven to be controversial.  Concerns have been expressed as to whether the mainstream school system there is ready to meet the needs of all children.  Teachers’ groups have called for significant financial investment in mainstream schools to support the infrastructural adjustments and resourcing they believe are required if education is to be truly ‘inclusive’.   Similarly, questions have been raised as to whether teachers are being afforded adequate time and support to develop the competence necessary to incorporate this policy change in practice.  These issues are of interest to the project team, as the premise of our project is that if mainstream teachers’ needs are overlooked during such change, there is a risk that inclusive ideals may be conflated with integrationist practice.  In Flanders, one very promising response in this regard is a pilot redeployment programme in which some 180 teachers from special schools have been assigned to mainstream schools to work alongside and support (co-teach with) teachers in that system.  The programme also serves to offset teacher job losses in special schools.  

Co-teaching at UCLL

In light of these developments, the purpose of our visit to UCLL was to explore the potential of co-teaching, particularly as a preparation strategy for inclusive educational practice.  Co-teaching refers to two classroom practitioners (teachers; host teacher and student teacher; student teachers) sharing planning, teaching and evaluation activities.  Therefore, the strategy may be employed for several purposes; to enhance teacher preparation; to serve more experienced teachers’ continuing professional development needs; and ultimately, to provide all pupils in the class with better learning opportunities.  For student teachers working with host teachers, or in pairs, it also holds potential to advance their learning for inclusive practice.  At UCLL, the promotion of co-teaching is designed to serve each of these purposes, and features particularly in a three-strand approach to the preparation of future teachers for inclusive practice. 

The project team considered various concepts of, and approaches to co-teaching, including:

One Teach, One Assist

LA Leuven fig 1


  • To assist individual pupils
  • Assisting teacher has specific expertise
  • Assisting teacher observes and gives specific feedback to partner teacher


  • In new co-teaching situations
  • When the particular lesson requires instruction from one person
  • When some pupils need more guidance



One Teach, One Observe

LA Leuven fig 2


  • To gather information about class routines or specific pupils
  • To observe the interaction between pupils


  • Introducing co-teaching
  • When there are questions / concerns about a particular pupil
  • To highlight learning difficulties




Station Teaching

LA Leuven fig 3


  • Lower pupil : teacher ratio
  • Opportunity to teach different subjects / aspects of subjects at same time
  • To incorporate diversity and focus on different talents


  • Pupils work in smaller groups
  • When the lesson content is not hierarchical


Parallel Teaching

LA Leuven fig 4


  • Lower pupil : teacher ratio
  • Increase participation at discussion time
  • Follow and guide some pupils more closely
  • Increase opportunities to communicate with pupils


  • Introducing a new subject / topic
  • Pre-teaching, rehearsal, additional practice
  • Cooperative learning




Alternative Teaching

 LA Leuven fig 5


  • When some pupils need revision or enrichment of learning
  • To evaluate



  • Pre-teaching
  • Revision of previous learning
  • Newcomers
  • To accommodate particular expertise of teachers



Team Work

LA Leuven fig 5


  • To model collaborative engagement (teachers working together /  interaction)
  • To emphasise equality between teachers
  • Each teacher brings particular expertise


  • If teachers work well together
  • For new subjects, broader themes

(Source:  School of Education, California State University, Chico)


We concluded that each approach has its merits.  Decisions about strategies will depend on the characteristics and needs of pupils, the curriculum, the subject matter, practical classroom considerations and teacher preference. 

Themes addressed in a roundtable discussion with teacher educators from UCLL:

  • Why co-teaching? 
  • Co-teaching in the teacher education curriculum at UCLL. Theory underlying this approach
  • The preparation of host teachers for co-teaching
  • Student teachers’ views on co-teaching
  • If co-teaching can enable student teachers to become more inclusive teachers

In that discussion and in further engagements with teacher educators and during a school visit, we noted that, at UCLL:

  • Student teachers are introduced to co-teaching concepts and practices from the beginning of their courses.
  • In various bachelor degree programmes, particularly after their first year in the programme, student teachers are encouraged to co-teach, i.e. to plan, teach and evaluate together during school placement for classroom practice.
  • In the Advanced Bachelor Degree programme [Special Educational Needs], student teachers are required to co-teach in pairs throughout a four-week placement in schools located in communities designated as socio-economically ‘disadvantaged’.  This strategy is designed to enable future teachers to become more attuned and responsive to the wide diversity of learners in mainstream classrooms, and thus to facilitate fuller participation in learning by all children.
  • At a later stage in that degree programme [Special Educational Needs], students bring their advanced special education knowledge to the mainstream classroom and are encouraged to co-teach with the mainstream teacher, thereby sharing respective expertise.
  • Mainstream class teachers who frequently host UCLL student teachers for school practice, report that co-teaching with the host teacher provides for significantly better learning for student teachers and their pupils.
  • Teacher educators at UCLL frequently model co-teaching.

1. Co-Teaching and Continuing Professional Development

  • In Flanders, continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers is encouraged but not mandated.  At UCLL, co-teaching is promoted as an effective means of CPD. Teacher educators shared with us their experience of developing ‘professional learning communities’ in schools in which experienced teachers had chosen to co-teach.  

They highlighted:

-          ‘The value of engaging in co-teaching from the outset of one’s teaching career, as a means of CPD’

-          ‘The importance of ‘choice’ in decisions about employing such an approach.  As trust between partners is paramount, teachers should be given freedom in terms of opting for co-teaching and choosing teacher partners.  Factors such as teacher personality, as well as working and teaching styles matter’.

-          ‘That school climate also matters.  It is helpful if school principals support and encourage the strategy, rather than seek to impose it’.

-          ‘That co-teaching is most likely to be employed by experienced teachers when it is promoted as a means of developing more inclusive classroom practice’.


2. Co-Teaching and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

The theory of Universal Design for Learning has recently been introduced to teacher education programmes at UCLL.  It is based on the principle that:

Diversity in classrooms is the norm.  Therefore, teachers should think and plan accordingly. 

Student teachers at UCLL are encouraged to plan lessons for classroom practice in accordance with the UDL framework, i.e., to provide Multiple Means of:

  • Representation of knowledge (options for perception, language, mathematical expression, symbols, comprehension)
  • Action and expression (options for physical action, expression and communication)
  • Engagement (options for recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence, self-regulation)

The theory of UDL is indisputable.  However, the project team members concurred that the important matter of how beginning teachers might learn to enact it remains an issueWithout adequate support, efforts to incorporate the framework in planning and subsequent practice may simply exacerbate the challenges involved in learning to teach.   As student teachers invariably report:  ‘You need to know your children first’; You need good class management skills’; ‘You need experience. . .’.

Our conclusion:  Student teachers could learn to employ valuable UDL principles in practice by co-teaching with host teachers during school experience.

3. Poverty and Education

(Co-teaching to Combat Educational Disadvantage)

“1 in 8 children (approx.) in Belgium living in poverty - i.e. potentially 2 – 3 children in every classroom”*

There is valuable research underway at UCLL which seeks to target the education system’s well-documented role as a potential instrument of social reproduction.  The team of teacher educators / researchers undertaking these studies shared details with us of their dual approach, which involves targeting both teacher educators and student teachers.  In presenting the stark statistic above*, the research team explained that the focus of their work is the ‘hidden curriculum’ in teacher education.  As this may be communicated in the first instance, via potentially middle-class perspectives of teacher educators, their research has provided both teacher educators and future teachers with opportunity to engage in community-based activities (i.e. in local homes) in conjunction with ‘t lampeke’  - a Leuven-based non-profit, community outreach organisation that aims to combat poverty.

While acknowledging the value of this initiative, the project team concluded that enlightened, committed teachers may be no less challenged by the prospect of engaging effectively in inclusive classroom practice.  We reiterate our belief therefore, that such teacher development opportunities should ideally be complemented by school-based responses, e.g., via provision for, and encouragement of co-teaching:

  • Two teachers see more than one.
  • Two teachers can learn more via shared reflection on children’s learning in classrooms.
  • Two teachers working in partnership will potentially reach all children more effectively.

LA Leuven Group Shot 2