Seeing Otherwise: An inclusive pedagogical approach for migrant students

Authors: Professor Lani Florian and Dr Diana Murdoch

The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 underlines the importance of inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all learners by 2030. In Europe, the 2018 the Brussels Declaration defined inclusive education as,

‘…the right to safe, quality education and learning throughout life ….that requires particular attention be given to those in vulnerable situations, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, those in remote rural areas, ethnic minorities, the poor, women and girls, migrants, refugees, and displaced persons whether as a result of conflict or natural disaster’.

This definition draws particular attention to groups who find themselves in situations which make them vulnerable to social and educational exclusion. While migrants are amongst these groups, it is important to acknowledge the families and young people arriving to find a new home are not a single group. They may be identified as migrants, but this is only one marker of their identity: a fact recognised in the words of the European Report in 2013, on newly arrived migrant students (NAMS).

‘Identification of [newly arrived migrant students] NAMS as a specific target group in education is not a prerequisite for having a good and comprehensive integration policy. Often NAMS fall into a broader category of students with immigrant background or students with a different mother tongue.’

How then should schools and teachers develop policies and practices to support the education of a diverse group of learners, alongside, and as part of, the education of other young people in schools? The European Report went on to address this question:

‘The analysis shows that universal and loosely targeted education mechanisms aimed at supporting all underachieving students or immigrant students are often more inclusive and beneficial for NAMS in particular. Countries focusing on the development of comprehensive educational support systems addressing all kinds of individual needs contribute to the development of more inclusive education systems for NAMS in the long-run than those focusing on the targeted measures for NAMS (PPMI 2013).’

This is not to suggest, of course, that educational systems and schools are not required to have knowledge and understanding of the vulnerabilities of young migrants, and policies and practices in place to support and develop their educational opportunities. It indicates, rather, that inclusive educational systems, which have a vision, ethos and practice of support for all students, are more likely to create a teaching, learning and social environment in which young migrant students can feel supported, valued and where they can develop a sense of belonging to a community of their peers.

An inclusive pedagogical approach:

While the UN statement in the Brussels Declaration gives a clear definition of inclusive education, it remains broad in terms of how schools and teachers may develop policies and practices which create the sort of ‘safe, quality’ educational environments, in which all learners may be supported to make the most of the opportunities that are available, without the marginalisation or limitation of some.

An inclusive pedagogical approach assumes that teachers will encounter a wide diversity between children and young people in every classroom. The challenge faced by teachers is how to adopt pedagogical approaches that foster the inclusion of all children in the life and learning of the classroom in ways that do not stigmatise or mark some learners out as different (Florian & Black-Hawkins, 2011). Rather than asking teachers to provide something additional or different for some children, the approach asks teachers to consider how to extend what is available to everybody, so that all learners can participate on equal terms. This is essential because while differentiated approaches to accommodate individual differences between learners are needed, the ways that these approaches are implemented can create problems. Differentiation must facilitate participation in learning, with careful attention to avoid reproducing exclusion by setting different expectations for different learners. If learners have anything in common, it is the fact that each and every student is unique and teachers will routinely encounter diversity among learners. Following this logic, inclusion in education implies that diversity is viewed as a resource for teaching and barriers faced by learners as opportunities for teaching, rather than deficits.

Inclusive pedagogy for migrant students:

An inclusive pedagogy is consistent with insights about how people learn. Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey (2018) drew six key lessons from recent work on the science of learning that consider human difference and variability as a norm, and human development as malleable and not fixed. Thus what schools and teachers do matters, and makes a difference to learning. While teachers may on occasion express their own inadequacy in teaching learners with a diversity of needs, studies of teacher knowledge affirm the notion that teachers are capable of teaching all learners, though this may require a challenge to personal and professional assumptions (e.g. Black-Hawkins & Florian, 2012; Loughran, 2010).

Teaching and learning is social, emotional and academic and the human relationships and collaborations are essential, not just between teachers, but between learners and between teachers and learners, in the recognition that children actively construct knowledge based on their experiences, relationships, and social contexts. Teachers can then see themselves as capable of teaching a diversity of learners, drawing on their social, emotional and academic experience and interactions with learners and with other teachers.

Of course, teaching and learning bring their own struggles, challenges and difficulties, and not all learning and teaching experiences are productive and positive (Murdoch, et al., 2020). Learning and teaching are iterative activities and call for a recognition of the possibility of ‘seeing otherwise’. Such an outlook can create transformative opportunities for teachers and learners, whereby a ‘problem’ within a learner is seen more as an opportunity to grow and develop as a teacher; or where the idea of what is possible is not limited by negative ideas, but is open to possibility or surprise. Teachers themselves must be open to recognising that all learners bring their unique outlook, experiences and knowledge to the learning community, as a rich resource to be shared amongst all, to create a community of the classroom and school.

Negative attitudes can emerge from amongst other learners, other teachers or even parents and these can act strongly against these transformative approaches. These attitudes may reflect racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic antipathies. Young people themselves can react adversely at the injustices they see in the classroom or in the school, or when they come up against teaching and learning that is too difficult and where they do not feel their voices are heard, or that they receive recognition or support (Murdoch, et al., 2020). The importance of the human relationships are critical to creating the sense of belonging, which enables every learner to feel valued. Inclusive pedagogical approaches can create an atmosphere in which all young people in the classroom are listened to, included and valued in the community of learners. Such an approach will enable learners, in all their human diversity, to grow and flourish, within a community of support and possibility.



Black-Hawkins, K. & Florian, L. (2012). Classroom teachers’ craft knowledge of their inclusive practice. Teachers and Teaching 18(5), 567-584.

Darling-Hammond, L. & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving school climate to support student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Florian, L. & Black-Hawkins, K. (2011). Exploring inclusive pedagogy. British Educational Research Journal, 37(5), pp.813–828.

Loughran, J. (2010). What expert teachers do: Enhancing professional knowledge for classroom practice. London: Routledge.

Murdoch, D. C., English, A.R., Hintz, A. & Tyson, K. 2020. Feeling Heard: Inclusive Education, Transformative Learning, and Productive Struggle. Educational theory, 70(5), pp.653–679.

Public Policy and Management Institute (PPMI). (2013, January). Study on educational support for newly arrived migrant children. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. doi:10:2766/41204

UNESCO. (2018). Global Education Meeting, Brussels Declaration, document ED-2018/GEM/1. Accessed 01 April 2021


Published 3 May 2021