And the prize for having green eyes goes to…

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And the prize for having green eyes goes to…

Education 0

Returning to the beginning for just a minute; after all the parental lobbying, meetings, discussions and arguments one day the staff were informed that the school was now an inclusive school. This immediately evoked an intense reaction from teachers and parents.

Amongst many objections we heard the following….

This is a school for normal children, these new kids will be rejected by the normal kids, they will never integrate into our school as they have poor social skills, they will frighten my child, they must be taught and remain in their Special Schools, my normal child’s progress will be jeopardised by having these special needs kids in the same class, the teachers will no longer have time for the normal kids and their grades will suffer, parents will pull their kids out of the school in droves,  and most importantly; I teach normal kids, it is not my job to teach kids who can’t do mainstream normal work, I was not trained for this…it is not fair to the normal children to treat others differently.

A great deal of effort was put into staff training and development for the inclusion programme. I tried to share my personal (disastrous) experiences of school and learning in an attempt to open the minds of the teachers to the idea of seeing the differences between learners, recognising that for some it is much more difficult to navigate school for reasons other than laziness and hopefully inculcating the principle of educating each according to their needs.

Why did I think this exercise might succeed? Because I was a real person to the staff they knew me and would find it more difficult to not naturally empathise; it is sometimes more difficult to shut off your feelings to someone you have a relationship with.

Now these were principled people; going into teaching as a career was by definition a choice of immense principle. The majority of teachers I worked with, crossed paths with and even strongly disagreed with were exceptional people worthy of respect not simply because of their selfless commitment and sacrifice but because they were people who thought about complex things carefully.

I have mentioned the case of the blind girl before but I want to use it to make a point here. One year we took in a child with only 10% vision in her left eye.

At the end of term on the last day the kids would run in a cross-country race. It was not a serious competition for most although some super fit athletic kids produced remarkable times for the race. For most it was just a chance to get out of class have a slowish run up into the mountain forest enjoying being with friends. Pam, with only 10% vision in her left eye came to the sports teacher in charge of the cross-country and asked him how she was required to dress for the race and at what time she had to be at the starting line.

Well, Pandora had entered the building and was carrying her box which she was trying to hold closed, without success.

Opinions were divided along three lines.

  1. This was a serious sporting event, a race and could not be trivialised by having a blind girl run. The cross-country was for normal kids and it would not be fair to them if she ran
  2. .It is insane outrageous and irresponsible to even contemplate allowing a virtually blind child to run a cross-country let alone run straight in a race on flat ground.
  3. The child is a child like any other and should be allowed to run the cross country so that she too can experience the fun of running with friends in a beautiful (fragrant, warm) setting; normal socialising and interaction; the building blocks of psycho-social development.

It was decided by those who had the power to decide that Pam could run, but an urgent meeting was called by those opposed to her running to point out the obvious; Pam couldn’t crawl, walk or run the cross-country course because she was blind!

Now let’s do an exercise. Let’s pretend that there is no differentiation between sighted and unsighted kids, each has every right to participate in all activities, and in fact we all want them (all kids) to participate. Let’s have a brain-storming session to find ways in which Pam with only 10% vision in her left eye could safely run and enjoy the cross-country; a bit of lateral thinking courtesy of Edward De Bono.

Edward de Bono – The Father of Lateral Thinking and Creativity

Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, Edward De Bono

Put aside conventional wisdom, pre-conceived notions, remove all boundaries, boxes and labels, leave values and notions of right and wrong at the door; kick into crazy idea gear, jump into free-fall imagination. Some of the staff chose to do this exercise; not all.

These are some of the ideas they came up with.

  1. Change the venue of the cross-country to a large, flat open area.
  2. Let Pam run in a padded Michelin man suit so that if she fell she would be protected from injury.
  3. Find sighted kids who would like to run with Pam taking turns to hold her hand as they ran.
  4. Let Pam and guide helpers start the race towards the back of the runners.
  5. Get a guide dog who likes cross-country for Pam to hold onto.
  6. Find a mini SONAR device that Pam can wear that would alert her to obstacles in her path.
  7. Let Pam walk the course aided.
  8. Let six strong boys run the race carrying Pam in an open-sided litter while she did press-ups to experience breathlessness like the boys carrying her and the others running the race.

A variation on option three was deemed to be the best. So the proposal was put to Pam and then to some kids; many of them volunteered to run with Pam holding her hand. Pam was just delighted, firstly to be able to run and secondly to have the attention of so many kids.

As Pam and entourage crossed the finish line the earth’s core shook in outrage at the audacity of it all. In actual fact it was just a mild shudder to slough off some accumulated dust from excessive sitting around and worrying too much about unimportant things for far too long.

There were other aspects of the life of the school where the issue of fairness raised its head.

After the cross–country episode most teachers understood and accepted that some kids required special responses to their circumstances, responses that deviated from the normal; she’s blind for God’s sake! This was perceived to be a relatively harmless accommodation. When it came to formal learning requirements there was less preparedness to deviate from the normal practices.

The education department refers to it as removing barriers to learning. Let’s take a before and after approach to help make this notion clearer.

Before, a child with documented fine-motor problems, who struggled to write quickly, would never finish any tests. The child was always marked as if he had completed the test and thus lost precious marks not because he didn’t know the work but because he simply didn’t finish the entire test. The child either failed or received a low mark. The school report indicated again that the child was underachieving and must try harder to get the marks they were capable of getting.

That’s the relatively positive version. The child gets his report sees the poor marks and feels like shit. No matter how hard I learn I always get marks like this. The school and the parents are dismayed with the performance.

After, a child with documented fine motor problems never finishes any test because they simply cannot write fast enough. The principle of diversity, the assortments of liquorice, is well understood and entrenched in the psyche and ethos of the school and the teachers’ hearts and minds. It is recognised as unfair to expect a child with fine motor problems to perform like a child without fine motor problems. There are two options; extend the test time for those kids who need more time or reduce the number of questions in the test. Option two will jeopardise the child’s overall performance as the same work will not have been tested which will be required for standardised exit tests.

The child gets extra time, completes the test and receives a mark commensurate with his ability not with his writing speed. (I also strongly favour open book exams that test analytical ability, planning, interpretation and other higher order skills rather than simply testing memory retention as is done in some closed book exams; as a matter of principle I oppose conspiracy education practices.

And that ultimately is the point. What is it that we want to teach and what is it that we want to measure? We want to teach as many skills as possible; cognitive, emotional, critical thinking and social skills.

We want to measure the child’s ability; a true measure of the actual ability not just adjunct skills that don’t reflect ability. In some instances even when barriers have been removed the child’s ability may yield a poor mark. This may mean that the child would benefit from learning support to increase capacity to achieve in that subject or in certain circumstances the child may require an alternative path and educational goals to ensure success and independence in later life. However, barriers to learning will have been recognised and compensated for precisely to allow for the emergence of a true reflection of actual ability to master the demands of school.

Seeing and responding to each child’s needs as reflected in their psycho-educational profile is simple common sense; teach each according to his way; a biblical injunction no less. Surely the unfairness is to not do so. Why is this point so hard to understand? Is it because of a winners and losers mentality to life and learning?

In an attempt to challenge this mentality I lobbied along with others to change the nature of the annual prize giving evening. Traditionally, (sometimes a burdensome word) prizes in the form of certificates and cups were awarded to those who excelled in the usual standard “tests” of school. The majority of the kids sat in the bleachers watching a small proportion of kids receive warm and lavish praise in part for the coincidences of their biology and neurology. They may as well have awarded prizes for having green eyes or blonde hair. After all isn’t life from a biological perspective a genetic lottery?

Now some will counter crossly that over time as prize giving evolved it was not only ability and achievement that was recognised and rewarded but effort too; even if there were no prodigious achievements produced by that effort. I would argue that this represented a negative recognition (a backdoor affirmation of the educational hegemony) and still largely ignored abilities that were invisible to normal school life, those that were deemed irrelevant to school.

The mere use of the name prize giving undermined the principle and the shift I was trying to achieve. Some get prizes and some don’t. It should be about identification, recognition, nurturing and celebration and that means everybody.

In an honest attempt to execute this idea, some of the schools chose to ensure that every child was called to the stage. Each received an award for being a kind person, for a sporting achievement or for playing the guitar as examples.

In our school the honest attempt was a gathering of all achievements related to children who were to receive awards anyway. So Jack would be called to the stage to receive his prize for being on this committee, doing this thing, achieving that thing. There was also a formal acknowledgement of effort irrespective of actual results…this was a large conceptual shift… but one that still must be viewed with caution.

In short, a once a year prize giving contriving to include others is still way off track and is still a prize giving; a rose by any other name.

“But there will always be winners and losers!” Thanks Barry! I’m not arguing with that. I am deeply pleased, aggressively so when the Boks beat the All Blacks and the Wallabies and England and Wales…you know what I mean. The issue is far more important than winning it is about the fundamentals of  a just, democratic and civilized society. It’s the reason why in some countries teachers, social workers and nurses are paid rubbish salaries. It is a perversion, a distortion of values of what is really important.


Which of these places is more important or valuable?

The identification, recognition, nurturing and celebration should occur all the time, preferably in the classroom every day. But then again the issue is not just that; the issue is to make this process, identification, recognition, nurturing and celebration, one of the principle structural goals of education along with the goal of passing required tests and exams; the development of the whole person who can also pass tests and exams.

The crucible of this endeavour is the class; this makes the teacher the king and the class the kingdom.

It is insufficient to have a policy of inclusion that pays lip service to the real needs of children. The kudos that the school derives from being inclusive is counterbalanced by the ethical and moral requirement to understand the needs of the children and safeguard their future.

Model Says She Won ‘Genetic Lottery

 TED: Ideas worth spreading