The labels of “expertism”

terracotta sculpture at the Valley School near Bangalore. A shared expertise here perhaps?

Terracotta sculpture at the Valley School near Bangalore. A shared expertise here perhaps?

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes that can be made, in a narrow field.”

Niels Bohr


Let me begin with an apology for using the ugly, and probably made up word “expertism”. Some newly created words seem to me to be ok, though I’m not convinced by this one.  Now that I am back in England my thoughts quickly return to educational issues here. This is in part a result of the many interactions I have with students and teachers and also influenced by my reading of various academic papers and attention to the media. Inevitably, so soon after a visit to India I find myself making comparisons with what I have seen there and my experiences at home, and yesterday, following a conversation with one of my PhD students I was considering the way in which we use titles that indicate some form of expertise and the impact this might have in schools.

In England the role of the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) has become a requirement in schools. This individual teacher assumes overall responsibility for managing procedures associated with all children with special educational needs within the school. This may include carrying out assessments, developing individual education plans, advising teachers and collaboration with parents and other professionals. Similar roles can be seen elsewhere. In Ireland for example Learning Support Teachers and Resource Teachers work with pupils who are experiencing difficulties, often in situations where pupils are withdrawn from classes and provide advice to their teachers on the development of appropriate learning strategies. In India the term “Special Educator” is applied to a teacher with expertise in learning difficulties who may work either in a school or in a support centre as an expert deviser of education programmes and interventions. Each of these roles tends to be occupied by professionals with a commitment to learners who may well have been rejected by others or at least are perceived as presenting difficulties for teachers in mainstream classroom situations.

There is no doubting the need for expert teachers of this nature. Many children who are described as having special educational needs or disabilities require careful intervention and additional support if they are to make progress in school. Others who possibly come from situations of poverty or from families where the mother tongue is not that of the language of instruction, will need teachers with understanding and empathy as well as some distinctive pedagogical skills. The teachers who fulfil these specialist roles are generally dedicated, skilled and knowledgeable individuals who make a significant difference to the lives of learners with difficulties. However, I do have concerns that there is another side to this situation.

How easy is it for teachers to abdicate their responsibilities to these expert teachers, rather than developing their own skills? Generally speaking the specialist teacher will have a limited time working with a child who is struggling, and often this will be away from the main classroom. Sadly, I have heard it said by teachers in several countries, including my own, that the child with special educational needs is a problem and is the responsibility of the specialist teacher. Where this situation is allowed to persist the pressures on the special educator increase and for the majority of the time, when the pupil is being taught by the non-specialist, they receive less than adequate support. In extreme situations these children become resented and further marginalised from the class.

So, what is the alternative? Maybe we need to rethink the role of the specialist. Is it not possible that teachers require support as much as, or even more than the pupil with special educational needs? I would suggest that we need to provide every teacher with a basic level of understanding of the teaching approaches, assessment procedures and classroom management skills that are conducive to ensuring that all children are effectively supported in learning in mainstream classrooms. Only then will teachers accept their responsibility for all learners and feel confident in their abilities to do so. At the moment many teachers are apprehensive and doubting of their own ability to succeed with a small number of pupils. This has led to a culture of “expertism” where the responsibility for pupils who have difficulties is invested in only a few specialists. The intentions of legislation such as the Code of Practice for Special Educational Needs in England, or the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act in India are honourable, but the practicalities of implementation remain a challenge. This will continue to be the case until we support all teachers in developing the skills, knowledge and understanding that ensure that they too feel that they have sufficient expertise to succeed with all children. Let’s consider realigning the role of the specialist to one focused upon supporting and skilling every teacher as well as continuing to lead by example in the ways in which they support learners. In this way perhaps every teacher will become an expert.