No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
John Donne (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)
In most societies individuality is something we value. In my own country eccentricity has often been revered and those who are seen as slightly off-beat become regarded as “National Treasures”. I think here for example of the endearments heaped upon the Irish comedian Spike Milligan or the turbaned poet and performer Edith Sitwell whose extravangent costume and gesture were for many years parodied but never truly equalled. People either love or loathe these unconventional individuals, but to ignore their oddity is not a real option.
In some more collectivist societies, such as China, the place of the individual is less assured, and conformity tends to be the order of the day. I think that I would personally have some difficulty in living in a country which was intent on encouraging uniformity in so many aspects of life.
Whilst respecting and applauding individuality in many situations, in schools the child who stands out from the others is often perceived to be a problem. The term special educational needs says much about the fact that we see some children as being different from their peers, and in educational terms, different often equates to problematic. However, whatever the language used, we should at least be thankful that many of the children now labelled as a consequence of their individuality are within our education system, whereas in the past many would have been denied access to schooling. As the poet John Donne tells us, we may consider it necessary from time to time to focus upon the individual, but if we do so by looking at his needs as being separate from those of his peers, we are in danger of diminishing the whole. This is certainly the case of many children within our education education system.
Planning for the individual needs of a learner in the classroom in a manner that does not cause problems for the child, either by emphasising his difficulties or distancing him from his peers can be problematic. In many of the world’s administrations individual education plans have been adopted as a means of ensuring that a pupil’s needs are met. However, this is an approach that is often characterised by shortcomings and some of these were explored with students on our MA programme here in Bangalore today.
Tim Loreman and his colleagues have provided a helpful analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of individual education plans, and not for the first time we found ourselves drawing upon his ideas. Our students spent a considerable time in an effort to design their “perfect” individual education plan, working in groups and drawing upon their own experiences as well as using the course materials provided. Each of the three groups then presented their ideas to the class and made suggestions for further changes and amendments. Such was their enthusiasm for this task that we had to drive them away from their tables in order to have lunch.
There is always a fine line between planning to address the individual needs of a child and emphasising his differences, thereby possibly lowering expectations. This was an issue that we considered today. And whilst we did not necessarily reach a consensus, the quality of contributions from our students made a significant impact upon all of our learning. I have no doubt that most of us left today’s session with differing views in terms of defining the efficacy of planning for the individual needs of pupils. However, the learning was as much about the process as it was about producing the “perfect” individual education plan. The thought that went into today’s session was more critical to our learning than the end product and leads me to believe that there is no lack of commitment towards improving education for all children. Celebrating individuality is something we should all be pleased to do.