I can always depend upon Savitha Ravi to post thoughtful responses on this blog. A few days ago I wrote a piece with the title Sharing the expertise (February 20th) in which I suggested that we need all teachers to establish skills, knowledge and understanding in order that they may feel confident in working in classrooms with a diverse range of needs. At present I argued, schools tend to be too dependent upon special educators who are quite rightly recognised for their expertise but can have only a limited impact in the way that schools are organised.
Savitha responded by expressing a concern that very few courses for training teachers in India have sufficient focus on special educational needs issues. She stated:-
“I’ve spoken to heads of training institutes to include such modules, may be if we can make this happen, it will definitely help more teachers feel confident and equipped to work with any child”.
I believe that Savitha is quite right in identifying training as a key factor in promoting teacher confidence and thereby supporting the development of inclusion. However, I suggest that we need to think carefully about what form such training may take.
There appears to be two current approaches to providing teachers with the skills and knowledge that will enable them to be effective in addressing a range of learning needs. The first aims to supply teachers with detailed knowledge of specific diagnosed needs such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The premise being that an understanding of the causes of the learning difficulties associated with children with these labels will make it easier to equip teachers with the means to plan to meet their needs. A second approach, and one that is certainly in vogue in the UK is to encourage teachers to develop skills of planning and differentiation in teaching and assessment in order that all learners can be accommodate in classrooms. The theory being that effective teaching can address the needs of all pupils.
Are these two approaches exclusive or can they both make a contribution to the way in which we promote inclusive education? My personal experience of teaching students on post-graduate courses in the UK and those undertaking the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme in Bangalore* leads me to make a few observations.
Many of the teachers who attend these master’s degree courses are those who have already established a commitment to working with children who experience difficulties with learning. Some join the course with several years of experience and considerable expertise in addressing the needs of individuals with specific diagnoses. Others have become frustrated by the challenges they face day to day in their teaching and are seeking the means to gain confidence and competence in addressing these difficulties. On the MA programmes in which I am involved we tend to focus upon the principles of inclusive teaching, effective planning for diverse learning needs, differentiated instruction and the development of inclusive learning partnerships with families and other agencies. Teachers on the course respond well to this approach, but I wonder if to some extent they do so because of their previous study of specific “conditions”?
It would be ridiculous to deny that some of the expertise that these teachers have acquired does not support their commitment to working in inclusive learning environments. For example, I work with students who have undergone extensive training in teaching children on the autism spectrum and are well versed in the use of visual structure and the development of personalised learning environments. Similarly students who have completed courses on the use of multi-sensory teaching approaches with children labelled as dyslexic have acquired an understanding and commitment that has proven advantages in their teaching.
We know that many of the innovations that have emerged from special education, such as the use of augmentative systems of communication or the development and implementation of alternative modes of accreditation, can be used effectively in inclusive classrooms. So does this have an implication for the ways in which we train teachers?
I think it probably does. I also believe that the way we approach this training is important. Teachers need to be provided with the principles of developing inclusive classrooms and to have an understanding of how we plan to address the needs of whole classes of diverse learners. This surely will provide the foundations of good inclusive teaching. But I have learned from my students that at this point it may well be appropriate to examine some of those specific pedagogical approaches that have been developed for pupils with special educational needs, and to see how they may be utilised in inclusive classrooms. However, it is most important at this point to recommend that those approaches traditionally used with pupils with a specific diagnosis such as dyslexia, may also be applicable to other learners. I am not convinced that there is a particular approach for children with dyslexia or autism spectrum disorders that is only to be used with those who have such a diagnosis. But I am sure that the detailed attention that those teachers who have shown a commitment to these pupils has assisted in the development of effective teaching.
Savitha has given me food for thought (thank you Savitha). The secret now is to ensure that this leads to a balanced teaching diet. I have a feeling that there remains much to be debated on this issue. I am far from reaching a conclusion on these matters. It is likely that I will return to this topic very soon, but I still need help in clarifying my thoughts. What do you think?
A couple of readers of this blog recently contacted me through the University of Northampton to ask about the MA programme in Bangalore. We are now recruiting for a cohort to start in September 2014. Details can be obtained by contacting Jayashree Rajanahally firstname.lastname@example.org If you do join I look forward to debating these issues with you face to face.