This paper discusses the possibilities and challenges of the ‘We teach together!’ method for participatory instruction in higher education. The method was piloted by the authors in the Eötvös Loránd University Bárczi Gusztáv Faculty of Special Needs Education. It included seminars taught jointly by academic instructors – disabled and non-disabled people with an academic background – and participatory co-instructors – wheelchair users, a person diagnosed with ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ (ADHD), and a person with a learning disability. The inclusive seminars helped complement the learned knowledge of the academics with the experiential knowledge of the co-instructors.
To introduce the ‘We teach together!’ method, we first need to clarify our terminology. In our teaching practice, we choose, carefully and constantly, to revise our language to avoid reifying existing power dynamics. We identify as ‘participatory co-instructors’ disabled people who draw upon their lived experiences of disability to help reconsider special needs teacher education in a process of co-production with academics. We refer to our disabled colleagues as ‘co-instructors’ or ‘participatory co-instructors’ rather than ‘experts by experience’ because academics often misunderstand and misinterpret the latter, reducing the participation of ‘experts by experience’ to a mere presence of a disabled person in the classroom. In addition, respecting the preferences of our participatory colleagues, we use identity-first language (Andrews et al., 2019).
The ‘We teach together!’ method has its roots in the emancipatory and participatory paradigm espoused by Critical Disability Studies – an interdisciplinary approach to examining disability as a complex cultural and societal phenomenon that draws on sociology, economics, legal studies, education studies and other related fields (Goodley, 2017; Jakab et al., 2014; Shakespeare, 2006). Traditional academic practice has tended to create an ableist environment that hinders the participation of disabled people (Brown & Leigh, 2020; Lindsay & Fuentes, 2022). In recent decades, disability studies scholars have argued that the active involvement of those subjected to research generates more valid questions and results, as well as better and more socially just practice (Csillag, 2019; Mercer, 2002).
However, a review of recent international literature on participatory higher education suggests insufficient engagement with issues of diversity that go beyond the student population (Brooman et al., 2014; Fazekas, 2019; McLeod, 2011; Seale, 2010; Svendby, 2020). Moreover, the articles exploring diversity among teachers emphasise the emancipatory approach of disabled academics (Flamich, 2017; Hoffmann, 2017; Loványi, 2020; Pritchard, 2010) and the barriers that they encounter (Brown & Leigh, 2018; Mellifont et al., 2019; Williams & Mavin, 2013). Some articles explore participatory teaching and learning but are more interested in the involvement of students in the learning process (Ciobanu, 2018; Fernando & Marikar, 2017). The participatory teaching model that involves disabled non-academics as co-instructors has so far been applied in two European universities (Klauß et al., 2008; Koenig and Buchner, 2009).
Our research fills some of these gaps by adding qualitative data about participatory teaching and by promoting the participatory method in higher education. The ‘insider’ knowledge and disabled people’s lived experience add value to the work of non-disabled professionals (French & Swain, 1997). They also affirm the principles of self-determination that underpin research and advocacy on independent living. Yet, the voices of disabled people remain unheard in teacher education. This is particularly problematic in the context of special needs education, as the non-disabled professionals should not – and cannot – replace disabled peoples’ own expertise when it comes to supporting learners with impairments.
In addition to enriching research and education, the participatory method might also help meet the obligations imposed on higher education by international disability rights legislation. In 2007, Hungary was among the first countries to ratify the UN Convention in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD sets out a number of obligations based on the principle of ‘Nothing about us without us’ (Charlton, 2000) and the ideas of independent living. As stipulated in Articles 19 and 24 of the CRPD, disabled persons shall be provided with the opportunities and resources to be active, self-determined participants in all questions regarding their lives. This entails the rights to (co-produce) inclusive education and inclusive workplaces at all levels and in all sectors, including higher education.
In Hungary, children and youth with special educational needs are entitled to attend inclusive or special kindergartens, primary schools, and secondary schools. More than two-thirds of them are enrolled in inclusive programmes where students are taught by mainstream teachers, while their individual development plans are developed and implemented by a team of special and mainstream teachers. A third of students, predominantly children and youth with intellectual disabilities and those with autism and multiple impairments, learn in special educational settings with the support of special needs teachers (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2018). Therefore, the role of special teachers is crucial in the lives of children with special educational needs. Their experience with the ‘We teach together!’ method during their training is intended to support the inclusion of students with special educational needs within the confines of the existing education system in Hungary.
As far as teacher training is concerned, most Hungarian higher education institutions, including the ones that offer different types of pedagogical training, joined the Bologna system in 2005, after the Act 139 of 2005 on Higher Education came into force. In accordance with the public education system, these two-step degree programmes enable future teachers to work at kindergartens, primary schools, secondary schools, or special educational settings (Chrappán et al., 2014; Borkach, 2013). Despite the momentous reforms, the special needs teacher Bachelor programme is still organised separately from the mainstream teacher training. It has a long tradition, rooted in the beginning of the 20th century. Special needs teachers and therapists first attended a completely independent college (Csányi, 1996) that later joined the Eötvös Loránd University as the Bárczi Gusztáv Faculty of Special Needs Education. During the first year of their studies, students are offered basic courses in pedagogy, psychology, anatomy, and social sciences. From the second year, they are obliged to select one or two specialisations, some of which are also offered by other Hungarian higher education institutions. Our faculty also has two Master’s programmes, but it is not a mandatory requirement to have a Master’s degree in order to work in a special educational setting. As a further step in the development of ‘We teach together!’ method, our intention is to introduce inclusive courses in all Hungarian higher education institutions that offer special needs teacher training.
2. The Pillars of the ‘We Teach Together!’ Method
We organised our first inclusive seminar at the Eötvös Loránd University in the spring semester of 2016, after a field visit in Vienna, where our colleagues Oliver Koenig, Michelle Proyer, and Gertraud Kremsner introduced us to their model of participatory teaching. Inspired by their experiences, we started the pilot seminar by inviting several co-instructors to engage on a voluntary basis. After presenting the results at an internal conference, the method received extensive support from the Dean and the Directors of two institutes of the Faculty of Special Needs Education.
Consequently, since the autumn semester of 2016, the participatory co-instructors have been working on temporary contracts and have been paid for their involvement. They acquired a formal status of ‘guest teachers’ and have been receiving a wage based on the number of hours they have taught. Although this must be considered as a step towards the equalisation of co-working roles, involvement under temporary contracts creates precarity that needs to be addressed in the future. Currently, we conduct several inclusive seminars at our faculty. They are all based on three common pillars: the co-teaching model, the project-based approach, and the use of info-communication technology. Upon request, the seminars can also be accompanied by supervision (Cserti-Szauer et al., 2022).
2.1 The Framework of the Inclusive Seminars
Participatory teaching means that disabled and non-disabled instructors work together during the whole process of designing and implementing a seminar, including its planning, delivery, and evaluating the students’ work. Although a clear definition of roles, tasks, and competencies is important, team members are not required to accomplish the same tasks and the same amount of work at every stage of the process. However, we encourage team members to get involved in all phases of the work. It is important to gradually introduce new forms of cooperation and to identify and utilise the strengths of each team member.
By allowing enough time for preparation, especially in the initial phase, lesson plans can be developed together. The roles and tasks of the instructors and co-instructors in each activity should be agreed in advance. If possible, the team should consist of members who have already worked together. If this is not possible, more careful preparation is needed. It is useful for all instructors and co-instructors to attend several well-functioning inclusive seminars conducted by experienced teams before introducing the method in detail. It is also worth developing an ‘entry protocol’, because having an impairment or belonging to a marginalised group does not in itself qualify a person to participate in teaching activities.
There are usually one or two participatory co-instructors involved in a seminar. The method encourages students’ autonomy and active participation, but care must be taken to provide the participatory co-instructors with opportunities to speak and express themselves. The seminars are project-based – the co-instructors usually have a significant role in both planning and realising the projects, as students are asked to collaborate with a disabled person during the design and implementation phases. The project design entails the students co-creating a work plan with the co-instructor. Students present their projects during a ‘project party’ at the end of the semester. They have the opportunity to self-evaluate their own work and give their peers feedback. In this process, we always emphasise the impressions and experiences of the co-instructors.
The method is flexible. It is possible to work in pairs or in small groups, and participation can take place at different levels and as part of different tasks. This makes the framework easily adaptable to other courses.
2.2 Evaluation and Supervision
The classroom collaboration is only a small part of the whole teaching and learning process. The method involves plenty of opportunities for additional involvement and communication with people who have experienced multiple disadvantages and serious trauma. To provide additional support with possible conflicts or difficulties arising from such experiences, we organise participatory supervision for the teaching teams, where a supervisor is working with the instructors in a group or individually.
We also provide an opportunity for reflection to the instructors after each class, and we recommend keeping a ‘reflection diary’ on a shared online platform, so that everyone can contribute. All instructors are expected to participate in the student evaluation and the evaluation does not only reflect on academic content, but also on skills – for example, related to cooperating with participatory co-instructors. Students are also enabled to evaluate the instructors as well as themselves.
We found that participation in a teaching role in higher education can have a significant impact on disabled people’ lives and their families. As an example, when one of our colleagues started engaging with the ideas around self-determination and the Independent Living Movement, he decided to leave his job in a special day-care centre for people with learning disabilities and undertake more work in the field of participatory teaching at the university. We interpret this change as part of a process of empowerment. Regular meetings for discussing personal plans related to employment can also be useful to further strengthen the participants’ self-determination.
2.3 Challenges in the Academic Environment
Some of the activities expected of university researchers and instructors have been challenging for the participatory team. While our method dictates that all stages of the research and teaching process – including planning, implementation, publication, and instruction – should be jointly shaped, not all of them have been equally accessible to all of the team members. In addition to persistent architectural and communication barriers, it is important to mention that traditional academic practice itself creates considerable structural barriers for some disabled people.
English-language skills can also present a similar barrier. In the participatory team, we work with people who use wheelchairs, have learning disabilities, autism, ADHD, or high support needs. Not everyone has the English-language competences required for full participation. To address this barrier, we disseminate our results on different platforms (e.g. academic journals, specialised outlets, social media) and at different language levels (e.g. academic writing, plain language, easy read). We have already produced several joint publications in Hungarian, as well as some in English (Sándor et al., in press, 2018; Katona et al., 2018; Rékasi et al., 2021). The publications we are most proud of are those in which our participatory colleagues share their experiences, orally or in writing, in Hungarian or English, with the academic world or mainstream communities (Futár, 2018; Oravecz, 2019; Surányi, 2019; Csángó, 2020).
3. Methodological Context
3.1 Aims and Research Questions
The exploratory research presented in this paper aimed to generate systematic knowledge of the ‘We teach together!’ method, so that other universities could adapt it to their own courses. In particular, we wanted to examine the participatory method’s application in the training of special needs teachers. Our specific research questions were: What are the benefits and challenges of applying the participatory method for the academic instructors, participatory co-instructors, and students? What levels of inclusion are achieved? What are the roles in an inclusive teaching team? And how can the method be adapted and applied in other teacher training faculties? Due to the nationwide COVID-19 quarantine announced in March 2020 in Hungary, only the first five sessions of the inclusive seminar could be carried out on site at the university. The second half of the seminar was held remotely via the Microsoft Teams platform. This prompted us to formulate an additional research question: How can the participatory method be used in online educational settings?
3.2 Research Design
Our question-driven qualitative research (Creswell, 2007) examined actors with relevant experience in the field of participatory teaching, either as academic instructors, as participatory co-instructors, or as students. The research was not aiming to generate generalisable results. We used convenience sampling (Etikan et al., 2016), based on the expertise within our team.
Participatory co-instructors usually join the team ‘organically’ when we start working together on research projects or teaching. The instructor team of the seminar explored here was diverse in terms of age, gender, and disability identity, but not in terms of ethnicity. People with experience in self-advocacy and public speaking have been more likely to join this type of work. Therefore, certain groups have remained underrepresented – in particular, we have not yet been able to include people residing in different types of institutions, as well as people living in the rural areas of Hungary.
The research was conducted in the spring semester of 2019/2020 academic year, and the topic of the course was ‘The historical aspects of disability and special needs education’. This is a 15-hour long, obligatory seminar provided during the first year of the teacher training in the Faculty of Special Needs Education. In the spring semester of 2019/2020, 17 students attended the seminar. It was organised by an inclusive teaching team of two academic instructors (also leaders of the research project) and three participatory co-instructors.
In terms of data collection methods, we used structured observation (Darlington & Scott, 2002; Sanger, 1996) and a questionnaire (Guest et al., 2013) targeted at the students. Three independently observing colleagues – a professional instructor, a participatory co-instructor, and a former student – were present at all ten sessions of the seminar. After every session, the three observers and the seminar instructors conducted a focus group interview to discuss the observations. The students’ questionnaire was open-ended and included one main question: ‘What are your reflections on the participatory method?’
The audio-recordings of the focus group interviews were transcribed and anonymised. These transcripts, together with the written notes of the independent observers and the answers to the students’ questionnaire, constituted the textual data of our research. We processed the data drawing on qualitative content analysis (Mayring, 2000) – we applied an interpretative, inductive category building informed by our research questions and analytical framework.
3.3 Research Ethics
The project can be framed as participatory research (Kuper et al., 2021) and inclusive research (Walmsley et al., 2018) because the researchers were also instructors in the seminar. In addition, we developed and discussed the research questions, methods, and findings with our co-instructors. We are aware that this level of involvement has potentially introduced a bias in our research, but we also consider involvement as a fundamental and constitutive element of qualitative research. According to Haraway (1988), research knowledge is always situated and connected to researchers’ personal characteristics. Therefore, instead of striving for an ultimately unattainable objectivity, it is better to recognise and reflect on the value of situated knowledges. Moreover, as Critical Disability Studies scholars, we are continuously engaged in self-reflective work. Our primary goal is not to prove the validity of our method, but to highlight its contextually specific articulations and challenges.
The research was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Eötvös Loránd University Faculty of Education and Psychology (approval number 2019/385). All persons involved in the research signed an agreement after learning about the objectives and research methods. The students had the possibility to choose a different seminar that was not observed, but all of them decided to participate. We assured them that the research would have no negative effect on their grades and that it was conducted only for scientific purposes. We also provided them with the opportunity to withdraw from participation during the semester.
This section presents the results of our research. Our analysis is based on the transcripts of the focus group interviews, the written notes of the independent observers, and the written feedback collected from the students via the students’ questionnaire.
4.1 Findings from the Observations
4.1.1 Benefits of the Method
The first task is to build the students’ trust in the approach and the method, since the secondary school environment they come from rarely requires active participation. This task is further complicated by the fact that the traditional university environment itself is not interactive – in the case of introductory courses, hundreds of students participate in the lectures, which makes it difficult to move away from the approach that relies on a one-way transfer of knowledge. We found out that it might be helpful to reflect on the pedagogical frameworks and methods at the very beginning of the course and continuously thereafter, to enable the students to understand and accept the different approach to learning. It is also valuable with regard to educating future teachers who would benefit from developing their methodological reflexivity. Participants who had already attended inclusive seminars in the previous semester were better able to settle into the course in terms of both its content and form. They were visibly less anxious and more enthusiastic about the classes.
The participatory method also suggests choosing a setting that does not imply subordination but partnership and supports self-determination. Moveable tables and chairs that can be arranged in a circle help the participants see each other. As there were often several wheelchair users in the classroom, working in a larger space and with a smaller number of students were important for engagement. We also incorporated technology in our classes by using online platforms such as Wordwall that helped make reflection exercises interactive and enhanced the students’ motivation.
During implementation, it was mainly the observers who emphasised the importance of co-producing the learning experience. The presentation of theoretical knowledge was always accompanied by a sharing of personal experience to deepen understanding. The observers also noted that, during the first few lessons, we did not provide critical feedback when somebody used language that was not in line with the perspective of Critical Disability Studies (e.g. using terms that glorified the experts). Our approach was to reflect on these ideas throughout the semester, either individually or through discussions with each other. A number of videos and texts were used to facilitate this process. We felt that it was important, especially at the beginning of the process, to avoid making the participants feel guilty about having prejudiced or simplistic views about disabled people or other oppressed groups. Instead, we tried to work together towards adopting gradually a more critical approach.
We witnessed the benefits of using this method in higher education, although further evidence may be needed to demonstrate clearly the qualitative change that it generated. Otherwise, some people might object that the method is not ‘cost-effective’ because too many teachers work with too few students (Niemczyk & Rónay, 2022).
4.1.2 Challenges of the Method
The composition of the instructors’ team should be carefully considered at the outset. One of our colleagues self-identified as living with Williams syndrome and learning disabilities, while the other disabled people in the team were wheelchair users. This colleague felt disadvantaged because he was working with people he found intellectually more capable.
A difficulty can arise if participatory co-instructors cannot attend all classes. On many occasions, our colleagues were hindered by environmental barriers such as the lack of personal assistance services and/or accessible transport. This shows clearly that the method cannot be considered in isolation from the macro-social context of its implementation. In present-day Hungary, this context does not provide the services that are needed to lead a self-determined life. Thus, our findings are consistent with the report of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the implementation of the CRPD in Hungary that found ‘systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities to … live independently and be included in the community’ (UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2019: II. 6).
We also observed that a two- or three-teacher model is best suited to the 15-hour time frame of the seminar, because when more than three teachers were involved, the time for sharing personal experiences and opinions became insufficient. In particular, a smaller teaching team enabled deeper involvement in the preparatory stages. Moreover, the presence of several co-instructors requires adapting to multiple needs, which might be very difficult to manage while taking into account all the other elements of the method. In essence, the approach is labour-intensive.
4.1.3 Benefits and Challenges of Online Provision
The transition to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for everyone and required a high degree of flexibility. This greatly frustrated one of our colleagues, who was only able to join the second online meeting via an audio call. The method requires both considerable effort and assistance, which created significant limitations to its online implementation. Another technical and accessibility difficulty was that the speech of our colleague is difficult to understand, which made communication in the online space even more challenging. He is less proactive in a group than those members who speak at an average speed, which further impeded his online participation. In this case, not only the technical challenges, but also the online mode of teaching became an obstacle to implementation of our method.
4.2. Findings from the Students’ Questionnaire
4.2.1 Benefits of the Method
Twelve out of 17 students responded to the open question ‘What are your reflections on the participatory method?’ We did not have the opportunity to conduct traditional face-to-face interviews – this question was forwarded to the students through their e-learning platform and their answers added to the verbal feedback they provided during the last online session. The vast majority of the students had a positive experience of the course, which is in line with our previous experience. For many, this was their first opportunity to meet disabled adults. Although the course was Disability Studies oriented, some said that communicating with disabled people enabled them to get deeper knowledge of special needs education as well. The students also highlighted the awareness-raising power of the method:
Many people come to the faculty with a witting or unwitting prejudice against disabled people. Participatory education points out that they are persons of equal worth and we can learn a lot from their perspectives about Disability Studies, or the history of disability, with their help. So, I think it’s a wonderful way to educate people, because on one hand we get used to the idea that we’re all the same, and on the other hand we can learn a lot with their help. (first-year student)
This quote also highlights the reversal of power (‘we can learn a lot … with their help’) as an essential element of learning. The students come to learn how to teach disabled people and do not expect to be taught by disabled co-instructors. The objects of the intervention become its subjects, which teaches the students an important participatory lesson and raises their awareness of disabled people’s self-determination.
The most frequent comment was about credibility. The students felt that the ‘Nothing about us without us’ principle, often invoked by their university teachers in various courses, came closer to realisation when using this method. They also recognised that it would help them respect the self-determination of disabled people in their future work. During the seminar, the co-instructors recounted several situations in which they had experienced paternalist treatment by professionals. By analysing the power relations structuring these situations and by explaining that the role of the professional is to support, but not to act and think for the disabled person, we enabled the students to embrace a critical approach to special needs education. Through these real-life examples, we also introduced some concepts developed by the Independent Living Movement, such as dignity of risk (Perske, 1972), self-determination and personal assistance (Ratzka, 1988), and interdependency (Wendell, 1996).
Some students felt that the course provided them with a unique opportunity to get acquainted with life stories in addition to academic knowledge, as no other seminars at the university are designed and delivered together with participatory co-instructors. Our lessons were also seen as a way to engage in constructive debate and open communication with the others, as well as in critical thinking. Last but not least, the students assessed the course as supporting them to access knowledge in an enjoyable way. They perceived it as teaching them to assume responsibility and as helping them to practise collaboration.
4.2.2 Challenges of the Method
From the students’ point of view, the method had many advantages, but the latter were sometimes associated with challenges. The free form of learning, the requirement for autonomous working, the attendant responsibility, and the expectation to cooperate with the group were experienced by some as complications:
The whole experience is ruined by my group. It was hard to work with them as they didn’t care … with one exception. (first-year student)
Some students also felt that there were too many participants in the course, as up to five instructors worked together. Some suggested that not all instructors were given equal attention and space to express themselves. There was a shared experience of difficulty in achieving open communication, especially initially, owing to fears and prejudices about disability. There were students who reported being ‘worried’ about the co-instructors because the latter were perceived as bringing an essentially sad, traumatic experience to the seminar:
It’s a bit difficult to talk to co-instructors about the issues that affect them, because disability is a fundamentally sad thing in their lives (especially for someone with an acquired injury), even if they have the most positive attitude. If I tried to put myself in their shoes, I wouldn’t be able to do that. (first-year student)
This statement may be taken as evidence that the student has not yet understood that to interpret disability as a personal tragedy has been an essential contributor to the oppression of disabled people (Goodley, 2017). At the same time, the students were worried that the co-instructors would be traumatised by telling their life story. However, all co-instructors had experience in self-advocacy and in sharing their personal narratives. Academic instructors also supported participatory teachers’ preparation and assessed whether the co-instructors were ready for the task before the course. Reflecting on this discrepancy, we came to the conclusion that we should make the preparation process more transparent for the students so that they do not feel uncomfortable. Notably, the students who had previously taken such introductory courses in Disability Studies were able to better relate to our seminar.
4.2.3 Benefits and Challenges of Online Provision
Students reported that the experience would not be the same without personal meetings, and compared to other courses, they thought that this class suffered the most from the transition to online learning. Despite such difficulties, we think that our method can be implemented in distance education, but it would require an even greater preparation and reliable technological infrastructure to operate at the appropriate level. It is also important to ensure that the instructors and the students are provided with adequate equipment and to develop their skills for working with both the hardware and the software. However, since communication and our method cannot be made fully accessible even under the best technological conditions, we would not recommend organising inclusive seminars in a fully online mode.
4.3 Findings from the Focus Group Interviews
4.3.1 Levels of Participation
Inclusiveness can be understood as a spectrum in which different levels of participation can be distinguished (Katona et al., 2018). By ‘levels of participation’ we mean the tasks in which the person is involved, as well as the depth of involvement in each task. Co-teaching is by far the most visible and obvious one, but there are numerous other tasks with relevance to participation in education. In our inclusive seminars, we have observed a process of co-instructors taking over more and more responsibilities from academic instructors. This road may lead them to become emancipatory educators, which is the most empowered form of work on this continuum of inclusivity and participation.
Usually, the initial step is the one in which the co-instructors are the least involved. In the case of the inclusive seminars discussed in this article, the main framework and guidelines of the course were created by the academic instructors, according to the rules of the university. However, each instance of the seminar was then customised, and in this process the co-instructors were always involved. For the specific course analysed here, we developed a teaching plan before each session in discussion with our co-instructors. At this stage, their involvement varied in intensity. Experienced co-instructors took more initiative, whereas less experienced ones ceded more responsibility to academic teachers. Co-instructors also decided what they would share about their personal experiences with the students.
Our current practice is to draft only a general plan to provide space for the spontaneous development of the stories shared on the spot, as well as to adapt to the students’ situations, conditions, and interests. However, for beginner participatory co-instructors’ groups it may be useful to set out the tasks and roles in more detail. We also found out that changes should not be made to the plan at short notice and without discussion in the team. New tasks should be explicitly assigned to specific members of the team, and everyone should know what their responsibilities are. This would help avoid a situation in which instructors find themselves unprepared in front of the students.
Although taking part as an instructor in the seminar is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, it is the most public activity and the one which creates the image of participation. A recurring theme during the interviews was that the main framework of the seminar was determined by the academic instructors, while the co-instructors just ‘joined in’. So, for example, the elaboration of the theoretical frameworks, the moderation of discussions, and the assignment of tasks were overwhelmingly identified as led by the academic instructors, while the co-instructors were regarded as adding their lived experience to each part. The co-instructors were content with the security of working alongside academic teachers, who were expected to provide the scaffolding of the course.
The overreliance on academics may relieve the co-instructors of some of the responsibilities of teaching but our team has tried to counter this tendency. The reluctance to assume responsibility may be traced to the difficulties in realising disabled people’s self-determination in the context of various subsystems affected by state paternalism, including education, healthcare, social services, and supported employment (Mladenov & Petri, 2019; Richardson et al., 2020). In our experience, co-instructors first have to unlearn that tasks will always be carried out for them instead of with them or by them. We do not rush this process but provide a supportive environment and the possibility of peer empowerment. On one occasion, our co-instructors prepared for a class on their own, and this definitely helped them to take on a greater role.
Another important theme in the interviews was the initiation and frequency of comments. While at the beginning of the semester the co-instructors initiated fewer contributions, this became more frequent in later sessions, with an increasing number of spontaneous reflections on the students’ ideas. This may suggest that the method is capable of enhancing self-determination. However, in addition to the frequency of speaking, it is also necessary to pay attention to its content. Moreover, it may be difficult to draw conclusions that go beyond inferences about verbal ability from the frequency of comments. We have discussed these issues in our previous research on people with high support needs by utilising the theory of meaningful participation, which is based on an individual assessment of the subjective significance of a given activity for a given person (Sándor, 2021).
In the interviews, the administrative and organisational aspects of the course were clearly identified as academic instructors’ responsibility. This could partly be explained by the fact that these instructors have access to the administrative platforms used by the university – the co-instructors’ experience is less relevant in this sense. This function of the academic instructors is also recognised as self-evident by the students, who currently turn mostly to them for administrative and organisation-related issues.
4.3.2 Roles in an Inclusive Teaching Team
We consider the different but equal roles as a basic principle of the ‘We teach together!’ method, which might be illustrated by the well-known cake metaphor of inclusive research. To bake a cake, different ingredients (e.g. flour, eggs, sugar, decorations) are needed, and all of them are equally important. Although they have different functions, they all contribute to the overall result (Nind, 2008; Nind & Vinha, 2012). The strength of the multi-teacher model is that the instructors complement each other by working in partnership.
When reflecting on their experiences, the participants in the interviews identified some of the characteristics of the typical roles within an inclusive teaching team. Below, we have organised these characteristics under specific headings intended to capture their most significant features: the manager, the moderator, the scientist, the comedian, the secretary, the ‘star’, and the wise. This taxonomy can be considered as a first attempt to interpret the different aspects of the teachers’ roles in an inclusive teaching team.
The manager: Although the method strives for equality, the question of leadership was inevitably recurring during the interviews. For a team to be able to cooperate effectively, it is necessary to have someone who coordinates the work, while respecting democratic principles. This role was mostly associated with the academic instructors and manifested primarily in the management of the planning process, as well as in the building of the team.
The moderator: This role was specifically linked to the conduct of classes, as the seminars needed structure. Although the activity of moderation was also primarily perceived as being performed by the academic instructors, it was occasionally recognised that the participatory co-instructors were also involved in this – for example, when moderating the presentations of student projects.
The scientist: By ‘scientist’, we mean that, when performing this role, the person adds their acquired expertise to the content. Since this was basically a course on the history of disability, it included ideas from social history, special needs education, and Disability Studies. The co-instructors, with whom we have been working for many years, have acquired academic knowledge on the subject, in addition to their personal experience. Furthermore, some of our co-instructors have academic qualifications (e.g. in the areas of economic and historical studies) and have been encouraged to draw on this knowledge. Thus, although the role of the scientist was more often attributed to the academic instructors, it was also associated with the contributions of the participatory co-instructors.
The comedian: The multi-teacher model tends to create a positive atmosphere due to its enhanced interactivity. The frequent dialogues were identified in the interviews as enabling all the members of the team to make jokes, including by using self-irony and by teasing each other. That said, our findings suggest that the participatory co-instructors were using these opportunities for making fun more often than academic instructors. Of note here is that the roles of the scientist and the comedian can create obvious power dynamics that should be avoided, so the whole team has been very cautious to keep them in balance. We have tried to make sure that every member has been recognised as a source of both knowledge and entertainment in order to create a respectful and safe learning environment.
The secretary: The secretaries are responsible for organisational and administrative tasks, which are usually undertaken by the academic instructors, but participatory co-instructors also take over relevant tasks, like the roll call. Most of these tasks require a lot of background work, as also noted by the participants in our interviews.
The ‘star’: This role is associated with the ‘spotlight’, popularity and centrality. It was most often attributed to the participatory co-instructors in the team, which was recognised as strengthening their self-determination. On their behalf, the students acknowledged as a privilege to receive the information first-hand, from people with lived experience. As already noted, transforming the objects of care into agents of knowledge is an important prerequisite for inclusion and independent living.
The wise: The role of the wise is characterised by displaying a lot of experience, which can come either from involvement or from the practice of cooperation. Although the insider knowledge and self-determination of the participatory co-instructors was leading the comments under this category, sometimes the academic instructors were also associated with it in relation to certain aspects of their own lives.
This paper presented the principles and content of the ‘We teach together!’ method for participatory instruction, which helps enhance the participation for disabled co-instructors in academia. We first described the method as designed and implemented together with people who use wheelchairs, live with learning disabilities, or experience ADHD. We emphasised the links between the ‘We teach together!’ method, Critical Disability Studies, and the participatory paradigm. We then discussed the experiences revealed by a qualitative study exploring the method.
Our research includes systematically collected knowledge about the method that makes it accessible and adaptable to other universities. It is based on an exploratory study including structured observations, students’ questionnaire, and focus group interviews. The study was informed by the participatory paradigm and involved academic instructors, participatory co-instructors, and students with relevant knowledge and experience of the method.
Our main finding in terms of the method’s benefits is that ‘We teach together!’ facilitates a unique opportunity for co-production of knowledge. The inclusive seminars provided a safe space in which the students and the disabled adults could meet and cooperate, often for the first time. This opportunity shaped the students’ self-reported attitudes, and, we believe and hope, strengthened their future commitment to inclusion and disabled people’s self-determination.
As far as the challenges of the method are concerned, the instructors assessed the implementation as extremely time- and planning-intensive, which in many cases extended beyond the working hours. This makes the availability of supervision essential. The method would also benefit from increasing the level of involvement and inclusion of the participatory co-instructors. This would additionally enhance their self-determination, but requires more financial, social, and human resources to support the process in academia and other sub-systems of community-based services. From a different but related perspective, the students emphasised the complex and responsible nature of the teamwork, as well as the difficulty of managing conflicts within their project teams.
Our research also distinguished several teacher roles in the inclusive team that we identified as the manager, the moderator, the scientist, the comedian, the secretary, the ‘star’, and the wise. We characterised, briefly, each of these roles, but a more precise identification requires further research extending towards contexts that differ from the traditional classroom education. Additional research is also needed on the application of the method with graduate students and postgraduate courses.
The method could also be adapted for application outside of the field of special needs teachers’ training. Based on the results of this research, we have developed criteria that could help such adaptations. Our guidelines include general methodological suggestions, planning advice, seminar framing, teaching aids, and evaluation recommendations. Only part of this information has been presented here –additional materials are currently in the process of being translated into English.
To conclude, we are confident that the ‘We teach together!’ method strengthens disabled persons’ self-determination and independent living in both academia and local communities by introducing novel opportunities for disabled people’s participation in education. This is in line with the ‘Nothing about us without us’ principle, which the CRPD (ratified by Hungary in 2007) considers essential for achieving disabled people’s rights.