Empathy not blame – a critical component of change

Dr Feng Yan. Based at the University in Shaoxing, Feng Yan works tirelessly for the promotion of inclusive education in China

Dr Feng Yan. Based at the University in Shaoxing, Feng Yan works tirelessly for the promotion of inclusive education in China

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Far more important than the words that I have been posting on this blog are the responses that have been made by others. Whilst I have endeavoured to raise issues and promote debate around the definition of inclusion, the nature of learning and what we value in education, it has been the replies from a broad range of individuals that have encouraged the further development of ideas.

One of the themes that has been raised on several occasions is that of attitudes as an obstacle to the development of inclusive schooling, and in particular those negative views that we sometimes experience from school principals and others in positions of management and administration. A couple of days ago Savitha Ravi, the principal at Pramiti School in Bangalore wrote of the experiences of the parents of a child with special educational needs:-

“The Parents went to a school in their locality and were turned away. The principal said that they stopped taking children with special needs because they stopped getting admissions from typically developing children”.

On the same day, Radha a teacher at The Valley School stated:-

“What I seem to be hearing time and again is that children even with mild difficulties or who learn differently should not be a part of the mainstream setup”.

Let’s be clear here, though both of these examples come from Karnataka State in India I could just as easily have provided similar quotations from colleagues in other countries, including my own.

Why is it that when some teachers and schools have embraced the idea of creating schools that are welcoming and more inclusive in their teaching approaches, others remain so resistant? Is this simply an entrenched negativity towards children who are in some way “different” from what we have come to see as the norm, or are there other underlying factors?

There is one thing of which I am sure and that is, if those of us who advocate change in our education systems simply keep pointing a finger of blame, we are not going to make progress and are far more likely to alienate those who are resistant. We need to be motivators rather than critics if we are to make progress in this difficult task. We need to begin by accepting that ignorance and fear are common factors that have always been to the forefront of discriminatory practices against minorities or marginalised groups and that our role as educators is to challenge these two characteristics rather than attacking those who are ignorant or fearful. Furthermore, we need to examine some of the cultural issues that may need to be addressed if we are to support teachers in making progress.

A few years ago I had a brilliant PhD student from China. Feng Yan, who adopted the name Mary whilst in England (the belief that Anglophone people do not readily remember Asian names is sadly all too true), conducted research into the motivations of teachers in respect of working with pupils with special educational needs. Following successful completion of her doctoral studies Feng Yan published a book based upon her thesis- “Teacher Career Motivation and Professional Development in Special and Inclusive Education in China*. In this scholarly text she examines the professional construction of the image of teachers within Chinese culture. In particular she is concerned to discuss the ways in which young people with disabilities or special educational needs, and the teachers who choose to work with them are portrayed. Feng Yan suggests that inclusive education is a western concept that will take time to be accepted in Chinese society. She also suggests that factors such as a changing social climate and the move towards a more competitive market driven economy may be inhibitors in respect of making progress at anything other than a pedestrian pace. Drawing upon her research sample Feng Yan says of teachers:-

“They identified that special and inclusive education provision was currently challenged by insufficient resources, limited support from all levels coupled with the impact of an intensified market economy on inclusive practices. The less positive attitudes towards special and inclusive education were also evident from their self-evaluation and assessment in respect of their lack of competence and confidence in teaching children with SEN either in special or mainstream schools.”

Feng Yan illustrates here an important issue that we must not avoid. Chinese society, in common with other Asian countries including India is developing fast as an economic super power ready to compete on an international market led stage. Because of this educational priorities have been focused upon the development of a more literate, technologically able workforce equipped to meet the needs of a western style competitive market. The impact upon schooling has been to concentrate upon the professional development of teachers to ensure that they can prepare a generation of high flyers ready to adapt to an increasingly competitive working environment. This has created a teaching profession that is highly skilled in addressing the needs of the most able students and those seen as likely to make a contribution to the economic advancement of the state.

This is, of course a major obstacle to the development of inclusive schooling within China and elsewhere in Asian countries. Convincing policy makers of the valuable contribution that individuals with disabilities or special educational needs can make remains a challenge. Those of us from wealthy western countries need to be aware that changing the opportunities for marginalised learners will not be achieved by bludgeoning teachers into accepting change. Within her book Feng Yan provides a direct quotation from an interview with a teacher in a mainstream school.

“I don’t think we can provide inclusive education in China at present. Children with difficulties are only physically integrated. No support is available in their academic studies. If they catch up, they catch up, or they are excluded. Teachers don’t care. Who can afford to care for them when you have another 60 students waiting to be supported? We are not to blame, are we? They [children with difficulties] are different anyhow. How can I possibly address the needs of all?”

This teacher sums up the major challenges faced in promoting inclusive practice in many countries. Large classes, poor resources, teachers who feel that they lack the confidence or competence to move forward. Pointing a finger of blame will not help, but neither will inactivity or resignation. Feng Yan is continuing to work for the promotion of inclusive education in China. She is battling against considerable odds, but has recognised that she needs to understand the perspectives of teachers under pressure and offer support rather than criticism.

If we are to change attitudes we must do so by enabling teachers to feel valued and to recognise that even small changes in their teaching approach may make a significant difference.

*Yan, F. (2010) Teacher Career Motivation and Professional Development in Special and Inclusive Education in China. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers


8 thoughts on “Empathy not blame – a critical component of change

  1. Richard, I think you hit the nail on the head with the notion that “ignorance and fear are common factors.” As you have said, I don’t think we can combat fear by blaming and finger pointing (although this is often very tempting and sometimes I confess I lapse into this, at least in my mind). When I am scared of something – anything – I need someone who has been there before to show me how it is done and to guide and support me. That’s how the fear goes away. So, I think that’s how we should approach educators who are scared of including. We can show them how it is done and be there to support as they dip their toes in the water.

  2. Hi Tim,
    I agree that we need to take teachers along with us. I personally find the best starting point is to examine current practices to see where the green shoots of inclusion may already exist.

  3. ‘Negative attitude’ is often cited as the predominant barrier in inclusive education. This premise also helps to fulfil a very important function in our special education community- it comforts us and intellectualize tensions that exist in the field today. My experiences  in inclusive education also validate your point – putting the blame on  ‘negative attitudes ‘and ‘pressurizing’ school management and staff does not really promote inclusive education. On the contrary, it increases the resistance ,friction and conflict.
    If we are willing to dig a little deeper, we will realise that parts of ‘negative attitudes’ are a result of certain faulty assumptions underlying inclusive education. One such assumption is that we ,the special educators are  ‘inclusion experts’ who have to to train and guide ‘novice’ regular school management and staff. There is no doubt that most  special educators can talk the talk but how many have walked the talk?If we enter a school premise with an arsenal of theoretical but  impractical concepts and techniques , we should not be surprised when we are greeted with a troop that is all set and ready to defend its territory. 
    There are no outright experts in inclusive education today and very few who can serve as models. What we need to do is to enter schools ,not as ‘experts’ but  as ‘partners’ -who pool in their respective effective practices and ideas to reorganize and create an inclusive school . And yes, starting with identification of existing inclusive practices is an effective ice breaker as well as motivator! These are purely personal views based on my experiences in the education field.

  4. Hi Kanwal,
    There are some very shrewd observations in your posting here. I totally agree that if we simply assume an experts model we are likely to both deny the skills that even many resistant teachers have and also alienate those who we would seek to change. The nature of partnership is important and I will discuss this on the blog over the next few days. Very good to have your opinion here. Do keep joining the debate

  5. Dr. Feng Yan’s observations on the Chinese culture w.r,t the inclusive education in China makes me think on a few lines..
    1. I had read sometime back that Chinese parents are particular that their children do extremely well in academics and will give whatever support that is needed to make that happen..
    2. China is known to be the highest populated country in the world, followed at its heels closely, by India.. They are also fast racing towards a high economic growth – quoting Dr. Yan from this post, ‘Chinese society, in common with other Asian countries including India is developing fast as an economic super power ready to compete on an international market led stage. Because of this educational priorities have been focused upon the development of a more literate, technologically able workforce equipped to meet the needs of a western style competitive market..’..
    Given this, the focus is more likely to be harnessing the potential of the ‘able’children to meet that growth..
    3. The situation in India is changing in its own way, slow but steady.. There is a lot of awareness in the area of Special Education Needs.. While there is still denial on the part of many a parent, in coming to reality with the needs of their child in the event of the child having special needs, they are looking at options to support the child, in their own way.. Though when people say “You are doing a noble service”, when I tell them I am a special educator, it seems as though their reaction is out of sympathy for the children.. I actually cringe every time I hear this phrase ‘Noble service’.. Equally making me wonder whether the term ‘Special Educator’ itself is creating the differential and not inclusion 🙂
    Perhaps with the valuable work that is being done by Dr. Yan, the situation in China will progress at a good pace in inclusive schooling, sooner than later..

    • Malathy,I share your thoughts and feelings especially about special education creating the differential and not inclusion! Great to hear others voice similar thoughts and concerns ! Kanwal

      • Hi Kanwal, sharing thoughts and ideas is the most important part of this blog. Hopefully my words can act simply as a catalyst for more profound thoughts from those who read.

    • Hi Malathy,
      Dr Feng Yan’s work is indeed important, not least because, as you say, the rush to economic growth is being built around able school leavers which leaves those with special educational needs more marginalised than ever. I suspect that making change in China will take far longer than in India where there is a greater commitment to democracy and human rights.

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