From mentoring to a dialog among equals

How an online course on inclusive blended learning inspires teachers and improves their digital skills

Margarita Bocharova
Учитель биологии проверяет работу учеников
20 June 2022

Inna Zhilevskaya is a biology teacher with 27 years of experience. “During all these years at the school, there has not been a single situation that would prompt me to question the fact that this is where I am supposed to be,” she says. Inna enjoys her job, but in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been new challenges such as complete isolation from students and colleagues, irregular hours, technical issues during online lessons and an abundance of new digital learning tools. One way for a biology teacher from the town of Ridder to get up to speed was an intensive online course on inclusive blended learning, supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Kazakhstan.

Inna speaks with warmth about her place of work — Lyceum School No. 1. She says the children are “very active in learning and social life.”

Учитель биологии в школе-лицее №1. Риддер, Казахстан.
Biology teacher Irina Zhilevskaya in the biology classroom at Lyceum School No. 1. Ridder, Kazakhstan.

"What else do I find appealing about the lyceum? You know, people work hard and are willing to help each other,” she continues. The team’s methodological support helped Inna Vladimirovna find her way with every student including those with special educational needs (SEN).

Zhilevskaya’s record lists working with children with autism, dyslexia, cerebral palsy and other disabilities. Some children study at home, while others come to the school.

“All of them attended regular classes, without being included in any special groups. I though that is what inclusion was back then,” Inna recalls her work at Secondary School No. 16. She learned not to focus on the peculiarities of her students and to be sympathetic to the objective difficulties they face in their studies.

Ирина Жилевская проводит занятие с учеником
Irina Zhilevskaya during a lesson with her student Georgy Shunin at Lyceum School No.1. Ridder, Kazakhstan.

Another valuable lesson Inna drew when, several years ago, schools in the republic began to practice dividing students into groups within one class, depending on their academic performance.

“No matter how many times I have tried it, I just can’t accept this approach. Children’s psychological comfort is disturbed, children are very aware of this and feel it, so I don’t like this at all. I use this [approach] but work with mixed groups,” Zhilevskaya shares her pedagogical experience.

Participating in an online course on inclusive blended learning has broadened the arsenal of methods of engaging children in the learning process, Inna Vladimirovna notes.

Ирина Жилевская на уроке биологии с учениками
Irina Zilevskaya during a biology lesson with students from Lyceum School #1. Ridder, Kazakhstan.

The 3-day course for teachers of primary and secondary general education schools on the basic concepts of inclusion was developed by the Astana Hub International Technopark with the support of UNICEF. Classes for teachers were held on the Kazakhstani educational platform

Apart from theoretical knowledge, Inna Vladimirovna and her colleagues all over Kazakhstan were instructed on the best practices of working with children with OOP, as well as a wide range of digital educational tools for blended learning. From November 2021 to March 2022, more than 11,000 teachers from 11 regions of the country participated in the online course.

“I think the volume of materials offered was quite optimal. I liked the quality of the videos. [The trainers] were well-spoken, had pleasant voices, and good tempo,” Zhilevskaya describes her impressions of the course.

She is particularly pleased with the freedom of determining their own pace of learning the materials and the possibility to alternate between different forms of activities during the course. “From a pedagogical point of view, this is a highly efficient practice,” says Inna Vladimirovna. As a result, almost 80% of the teachers who had registered for the online course successfully completed the training. The number of Kazakhstani teachers who assessed their knowledge of inclusive education as “excellent” has tripled.

Zhilevskaya confidently states: “A great benefit [of the online course] is that my understanding of equal opportunities for every child and person has expanded. I really had the notion that inclusion is just the involvement of children with disabilities (physical, mental) in the general environment, supporting their socialization. Now Inna Vladimirovna understands that the concept of “inclusion” is not limited to this but also means “understanding between people of different ages, generations, social statuses, levels of education, and financial resources.

Ученики делают задание во время урока
Irina Zhilevskaya’s students are working on an assignment during a lesson. Ridder, Kazakhstan.

Inna Vladimirovna has widely discussed these nuances with her colleagues, as the online course has provided this opportunity. “Online communication with other educators is a huge plus of these courses. People shared what was going on in their schools. [Teachers] were different: those with small groups of children [with SEN] in their classes and those who had a lot of them,” the teacher says. She recalls one particularly emotional discussion about stereotypes: how varied the perception of inclusive learning of children with and without disabilities is.

Today, Inna Vladimirovna has only one SEN student — a boy with cerebral palsy who studies at home and, despite some difficulties with verbal expression, “has achieved a decent progress.” Zhilevskaya admits that after the online course she thought about the need to correct the established mode of their relationship: “I became interested in introducing something new into our lessons, some nuances that change my behavior, my attitude in an attempt to move from the position of a dominating mentor to a kind of dialogue, using other techniques and methods.”

Such platforms as Zoom, Google Classroom, LearningApps, as well as several domestic solutions are now in the pedagogue’s digital toolkit.

Ирина Жилевская у себя дома.
Irina Zhilevskaya at home. Ridder, Kazakhstan.

“I learned a lot of advanced things for myself as a user. Now that we have resumed offline learning, it is possible not to work on the platforms directly, but download the materials to use it [in class],” notes Inna Vladimirovna. Mastering new online tools, she admits, has not only raised her self-esteem. She also finds it truly inspiring. “Ideas start coming to me, you know? It’s like a breath of fresh air,” shares the teacher.

Inna wishes that as many teachers as possible would get the opportunity to take an online course on inclusive blended learning. She believes this is the only way for groups of like-minded people to emerge in the teaching community and in separate schools. Groups that will be creating an inclusive environment and helping each other in the process. Zhilevskaya no longer doubts the need for such work.

“In society, you have to pay attention to the details that divide people and find ways to bring parents, educators, and children together,” she emphasizes.