Dealing with disability in education. The link is easily made with the Dutch phenomenon ‘passend onderwijs’, tailored education for children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.
Petra Engelbrecht is Professor of Educational Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University and previously Dean at the Potchefstroom Campus of North West University, South Africa. A South African in heart and soul, humble Christian and raised under apartheid. From that context she is an advocate of human rights, as found in the constitution of South Africa: education is a basic human right.
Dealing with disability in education. The link is easily made with the Dutch phenomenon ‘passend onderwijs’, tailored education for children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. That is why Petra is visiting us. To answer the question: ‘How do you view the Dutch tailored education approach in the light of your view on and experience with inclusion?’ From her cultural background (post-1994 South Africa) Petra Engelbrecht, with a compassionate heart for people in general and children in particular, specializes in ‘inclusive education’. Petra participates in research into inclusive education in countries such as Malawi and Guatemala.
Petra begins her story with a personal experience as a starting point for her view on inclusive education. Years ago she looked after the son of a friend for one day. A boy with Down syndrome. The moment she watched this boy play with one of her Labradors, she did not see a child with a disability, but a ‘beautiful person’ with abilities. In his play with the dog, the boy showed some fascinating things, things she had not seen before. Petra did not need to worry about the pretty flower beds in her garden, or the unsafe swimming pool. These worries subordinated to the wonderful and new aspects she and her dog had discovered in this boy. A wonderful example of learning together, instead of alongside each other.
Inclusive education is an ideal for Petra at which she looks in the context of development: as a ‘never-ending-process’, on its way to an ideal vision called ‘inclusion’.
To her, tailored education is a step on the way to inclusive education. Petra has no judgment on whether this is a right or a wrong development. It is culturally determined in the given context of a country. Underlying motives for inclusive education could be economical and idealistic. In Malawi, for instance, it is necessary to provide education to ‘all children’, because of the travelling distance for these people in a country where infrastructure and mobility are not comparable to that in a western society such as ours. The distances and other factors force children with a disability to be taught in mainstream education.
Referring to her experience with her dog and the boy, Petra says that inclusive education is about a change in thinking by teachers, parents and legislator: think no longer in a deficit, medical model, but think from a developmental context.
Labelling children is so deeply rooted in the Netherlands, to see what they cannot do and what must get better or be corrected. Like weeds, that attitude is hard to eradicate. For some schools a decade would go past. In South Africa, the term ‘orthopedagogy’ has not been spoken of for years. Pedagogy is the umbrella term for it all. Things are not viewed from a medical perspective, but from a developmental perspective.
Of course we wonder which country she thinks provides inclusive education in the right way. And what ‘inclusive’ says about the Dutch system.With anticipation we wait for her answer. It stays quiet for a moment. Carefully Petra formulates her answer: ‘I see wonderful examples of inclusive education not in a particular country, but in particular schools.’
Petra emphasizes that it is about a uniform, sustained vision of a complete school team, including competent authority and parents. It is important to explore what tailored education means for a specific school, with specific parents, with specific children, in a specific part of the country. It is important that the foundation that underpins the vision of tailored education is discussed by a school team. The starting point for inclusive education (‘passend onderwijs’, or tailored education, in the Netherlands) is the teacher him/herself. The question each teacher must ask him/herself is: ‘Who am I?’ In the laboratory setting of the staff room wonderful grand ideals are expressed which are sometimes hard or even impossible to realize in the everyday practice. As a teacher you then stand in your class and sigh: ‘But how do I do that with these children at this school with these parents?’ According to Petra, tailored education is therefore a whole team’s search as a ‘never-ending-process’ from a deeply rooted, collectively sustained ideal that finds its origin in ‘a heart for each child’. Is the class teacher’s real concern, from passion and conviction, to see each child as a ‘beautiful person’?! That is where it starts. Any friction would cause a crucial crack in the foundation of the ‘tailored education’ structure. Slowly this crack would grow into a disastrous fracture which makes the ‘tailored education’ structure collapse. Even then, it is better to turn around before all is completely lost. Mark time, look deeply into the eyes of each other and express what tailored education actually means for everyone personally.
And don’t forget the pupils! A head teacher recently told me full of enthusiasm that he had asked some pupils about their opinion and view on what tailored education means for them. He received some surprising answers. Answers that opened up new perspectives.
Petra puts her finger on the question whether tailored education is a completely new, different approach or whether it is a continuation of the old. A fascinating reflective question which is easily answered from behind a desk.
And now you, the teacher. Chosen for this profession because of your passion for children. Where do you stand on this? Are you still thinking in the old paradigm of 10 or 15 years ago in which we labelled children with what was wrong? Do you look at children from a disorder perspective? What is your world view, your perception of people and children? Do you approach children specifically as individuals? Yes, of course children are individuals, who want and need their educational needs to be met. But humans are also social beings. How do you make use of that? Do you let pupils learn apart from each other or do you let pupils learn together? Learning from and with each other?
You must acknowledge that when you interact with other people you can learn so much from each other. The effect of this learning is greater and becomes more deeply rooted when you also have a learning and inquisitive attitude. I would grant exactly that to every teacher: an inquisitive attitude with a view to every possibility.
Petra conducts research in six countries into what it is that makes teachers be ready for inclusive education. In this context she mentions the concept of self-efficacy. It involves a degree of confidence of the teacher in his or her own ability to successfully influence their environment. All too often I come across this confidence being violated by all the commotion around tailored education. Let us not be affected by that, but practise our profession with pride.
One of the participants mentions that there is no ‘guidebook for Christian pedagogy’ and that ‘we urgently need to write one’. I glance at the Bible opened up in front of me: isn’t this the guidebook we are looking for? Back to the Source. At the start of the morning we read about the body with the different body parts which really need each other. We encouraged each other to look at children with love, seeing them the way Jesus saw them, when He let the children come unto Him as an example for the adults standing around Him. Are we a long way from that, perhaps? Or do you manage to make the paradigm shift to what a child needs to be able to develop?
Do not view this writing as high-flown fantasy, but as sensible idealistic perspective. While listening to Petra, I thought: in that case we are not doing too badly in the Netherlands. Despite all our struggles nationally, wonderful examples can be seen locally and at individual schools, where I see teachers provide tailored education out of passion and love within the circumstances. One of those wonderful examples I witnessed this week: a girl with a hearing disability who had an interpreter translating the teacher’s lesson into sign language. Quite an investment, one of those interpreters, but for this intelligent girl an investment of vital importance! Priceless!
Let us keep telling each other these examples. As wonderful examples in the context of tailored education. Far away from complaining of what is impossible. See opportunities, look for them, find them and apply them. Out of love and passion for children!
And… vergeet nie die ouers nie! Don’t forget the parents!