Supportive education

I am on LinkedIn. I subscribe to two groups Special Education Needs and Inclusive Education. I don’t like the terms special education, special needs, inclusive education, exceptionalities etc. I know what they mean but I also know what they really mean. However well-intentioned the advocacy is these words ultimately result in the separation of us and them; the perpetuation of the other and never really changes the status quo (read the organisation of power). What should be firmly ingrained as perfectly normal (read natural) is replaced by the vagaries of transient goodwill and a reliance on a small group of extraordinarily committed people.

If my words bother you I should tell you that I worked in education support among other things creating an inclusive education programme at a school for 19 years plus I was a high school dropout stroke failure with unrecognised learning disabilities. So at least I am entitled to an opinion.

The term that I support and that doesn’t perturb me is Supportive Education.

At the school where I worked we created and developed the inclusion programme. We spoke to many people who had the same hopes and visions for education as we did. We were giving a workshop to educational psychologists and teachers at Stellenbosch University. At the end of the presentation one of the teachers who worked in an impoverished rural setting came to us and said that she understood exactly what we had said. I asked her to clarify what she meant and she said that she could do supportive education under a tree if that’s all there was. Yes she said resources were needed but the principles allowed it to be undertaken anywhere using state and community resources that were available.

So I want to touch on three points.

  • What’s in a name
  • Intelligence versus ability
  • Asymmetrical relationships

When we first started the programme we called it Special Needs then we called it Inclusive although some called it Integration, those who said we were not really doing Inclusion, then we called it Inclusive & Supportive then we called it Developmental and now we call it Supportive education, well at least I do.

After a short while of dealing with the needs of the “special needs” kids it became obvious that there were and always had been kids at the school who would have benefitted from the provision of support.

So why is the choice of words important? The words we use reveal the way that we construct reality through human discourse. Language and the use of language are related to power and constructs of socio-economic-political reality. Language can obscure and obfuscate positions of power influence and control; can obscure the freedom and the right to make choices and demand rights in a litany of words of conventional wisdom.

The question then is what reality, what values do we want, and what values do we choose? Do the words supportive education reflect a desirable reality?

  • If we want all kids to be valued and respected irrespective of their differences then we shouldn’t speak of special needs.
  • If we know that everybody needs support in one form or another we should not speak of either special needs or inclusive education.
  • If every child is entitled to normal belonging then we should not speak of either integration or inclusion.
  • If we wish to not create that person which is ‘other’ in any way we should only speak of loving teaching and supporting ‘all the kids in our school’ all of whom have a right to be there irrespective of their abilities.
  • I know of no person who does not need support in their lives. In the school context the issue is to identify what specific support children need.

That to me is a good descriptive reality and a truth. It is a truth that does not discriminate against some people or sections of a population. It does not isolate or segregate one group over another by words such as normal, winners, special, disabled, exceptional etc. It does not create a psycho-social dialectic of us and not us.

If kids with all abilities are at the school we are going to have to look critically at concepts like intelligence and success.

The concept of intelligence (including the IQ) as it is used in the mainstream has always been questionable to say the least. Intelligence if not transparently linked to the interests of a value based context is indefinable objectively. So what is the problem with intelligence? It is measured outside of a real living human context, by way of (narrow time constrained rigid little tests) focusses on specific aptitude, ignores capacity to learn and is used as a gateway of control. Those who have it are granted access to specific paths of education, training and development, specific statuses and specific places in society, and very definite levels of worth, value and belonging. Is the medical doctor intrinsically more valuable, more intelligent or more worthy than the teacher? Is the accountant intrinsically more valuable, more intelligent or more worthy than the carpet layer? Obviously not, why then is it the prevailing reality in human society?

As opposed to a unitary, static, (see Feuerstein for dynamic assessment of intelligence) narrow measure of intelligence I prefer to conceive of a continuum of ability with respect to any person, any task in any context as the only inclusive way of understanding what people can or cannot do and at what level of ability their doing is done. This means that there is an unlimited array of possible abilities (intelligences) across an endless array of human endeavours. A nuclear physicist who can barely cook has a poor ability at cooking. A man who can’t read but can strip a car engine, repair it and re-assemble it with no formal training has an exceptional ability, maybe even a genius at working with car engines even though he may not measure 149 plus on the WAIS-IV

Every single human being alive has abilities of some form or another. What excites me is the discovery and nurturing of abilities at any level. Some human beings have exceptionally strong abilities and some have weaker abilities; most of us have ordinary abilities. The key is to remove all gateways, narrow non-contextual IQ’s, which prevent us from finding and valuing ability in apparently ordinary people.

When I did a short internship at a chronic psychiatric facility in Bulawayo I came upon a human being with an exceptional ability. Jenny was 18 years old although her body contorted with spasticity was the size of at most a five year old child. She spent her days in a small cot with high sides to protect her from falling. At birth Jenny experienced cerebral anoxia with subsequent damage to her brain resulting in catastrophic mental retardation, epilepsy, and cerebral palsy. Jenny had virtually no self-care abilities except one that I could see for myself; the ability to communicate through noise and movement that she was hungry and thirsty or needed to be touched. Given that she had no word language this was a critically important and well developed ability, in this case a genius ability.

So when we supported kids at the school our expectations were very very high and took no account of the child’s apparent abilities, that is to say, whatever the child’s abilities (actual level of development) were our expectations for application, and hard work and success were high. We worked towards generating capability (potential level of development). That does not mean that we pushed all children to attain regular externally assessed exit milestones; that again misses the point of inclusive education and reverts back to the winners and losers hegemony.

The child’s confidence emerged because we identified the child’s liquorice allsorts, applied technical interventions to increase or compensate for skills and supported the children who were open and receptive primarily because the relationships between the adults and the children were real, authentic, and more symmetrical and allowed each party to hold on to their power and be themselves safely.

Which brings me to my last point about asymmetrical relationships between teacher and the kids.

Paulo Freire argued  that “education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously students and teachers” Freire wants us to think in terms a teacher who learns and a learner who teaches – as the basic roles of classroom participation.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that teachers do not possess the power. That is a given. Some teachers are content to have the power; it makes them feel more in control, more secure and safer, the enforcement of which allows them to be better teachers as they see it.

Other teachers realise that they have the power but are aiming for an alternative goal; they want the opportunity to make the children feel safe enough, valued and respected enough (whatever their level of ability) to open their hearts, their minds and their creativity to the teaching and learning process and in so doing experience themselves as powerful, in control and competent participants equally responsible for their learning and development.

Some teachers bring kids to a point where they have acquired knowledge to meet the normative requirements of school, work and career progress. Other teachers aim at doing the same but additionally work at creating opportunities for the kids to identify and develop their capacities and themselves as human beings in general and not just as subject learners.

To achieve this requires amongst many other things a change in the nature of the relationship between teacher and learner, adult and child. First there must be a relationship and secondly it needs to move away from the traditional asymmetric to more a symmetrical one.

In building a relationship with the kids that is based on a more symmetrical foundation teachers will,

  • Find themselves involved in things that traditionally are not the role of teachers
  • Find themselves more exposed as persons and will need to feel more secure in themselves as a consequence
  • Find themselves not protected emotionally by the role and boundary called teacher.
  • Reveal more of themselves to the kids because they are seeking to reach goals that are based on the presence of genuine human encounter
  • Learn that kids although younger in years and experience can be teachers whilst teachers can be learners and will be humble and inspired by this.
  • Learn that the experiences and opinions of kids can be powerful and useful and will feel humility and inspiration in that realisation.
  • Be able to earn the kids’ respect because of engagement rather than power.
  • Learn that there is more than one way to skin a cat
  • Find that the kids have more power which means more responsibility which means more accountability in that they are more in control of their actions and thoughts, they are not passively responding to instructions
  • Will find that they need on-going structured support from parents, principals, school governing bodies, counsellors, remedial teachers, universities etc
  • Will realise that teachers need additional training especially whilst they are still at university and before they start formally teaching to be equipped to identify, understand and support the needs of kids with any abilities in their mixed ability classrooms.

In conclusion let me pose a few questions out loud.

Is your child getting the support she needs to develop as a person whatever her range of abilities from home and from her school?

Are you clear about the implications of the words you use generally and with regards to education specifically? Is the school where your child is also clear?

Do you create opportunities for emergence and encourage your child’s full range of abilities whatever they are? Does the school your child attends do the same?

Does your child and her teacher have a mutually respectful reciprocally learning relationship with each other? Do you?

Where and how does the really important learning take place…the stuff that defines and fills our souls? What is the really important learning?