I returned from the Netherlands this week after my invitation to attend and discuss inclusive education. The school boards I met with were interested in working toward more inclusive models of education. Many students are educated in the “regular” school; however, at some point, they still come to a decision that they can no longer educate the child and he/she needs to go to a special class or school. I visited a few schools on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of the Welcoming Conference for their 400 teachers. The opening address was given by trend-watcher Ruud Veltenaar in Dutch. Unfortunately, I do not speak Dutch, but his website provides the key ideas and can be translated to English. Despite the language barrier, I felt his commitment and energy, particularly in his website name: “Stop Stealing Dreams”. His thinking around changes in education is that we can no longer teach as we once did; we must move in to the practice of individualized learning. In order for students to learn willingly, we must continue to unleash their passion(s). Thinking back to my visits to the schools, I realize this is happening in some spaces, but not all. Very much like we see in Ontario.
I visited one school with a class for gifted students. I listened to the teacher talk about how it was important for her children to be in this class because they learned quickly and were bored of the “regular” curriculum. The students spent 20% of their time on the curriculum and the other 80% learning what they wanted to learn. “But wait!”, I thought when I was in the class – math was still happening; she just extended the questions; science was happening; history; geography. So the curricular areas were still addressed; the difference was the students were just engaged. This insightful teacher had 18 students all working on different things at different levels – eagerly, with focus. This teacher was given the opportunity to get her students working in areas that were meaningful to them.
What would happen if all of our students could be engaged in meaningful learning?
Perhaps, some behavioral issues would disappear. You might be inclined to think: well, that’s because the students are gifted; but, I also visited another school that had students working in three groups that would equate to our primary (grades 1-3), junior (grades 4-6), and intermediate (grades 7-8) levels. There was a marvelous space not unlike the concept of open classrooms/pods/quads of the 1970s, but with a very big difference. Instead of one teacher, there were two or three. One was always involved with instruction with a group of students who were in a more enclosed area with a door and windows so that they could focus on the instruction. The principal told me that, in this way, they can work with the children at their levels and differentiate as they do not all have to be the same age in the instruction period; they are from the group and learning what they need. Outside of this classroom were large areas with tables, chairs, conversation areas, open spaces and an open door to the playground for any learning or work that needed to be done outside of the instruction. The other teachers would float around seeing how students were doing. The students were all engaged in the process. The principal told me that the idea is that the children focus on what they will learn and become more independent in their own skills. If they feel they need to go outside and run around, they do. That is part of the learning of the whole child and how to self-regulate. To say the least, I saw a lot of engaged learners.
When I spoke to the teachers and addressed their questions, it was clear that just as children are the same around the world, so too are teachers. Their questions and concerns around barriers to inclusion were the same as in Canada. Their concern for the children and doing right by them was so obvious. I gave the same message I do to all teachers – our mindset needs to change. We must believe that all children belong, and truly believe that we can teach them. In terms of equity, we need to think differently in every country in our global community. When students with disabilities are educated in inclusive classrooms, they are more likely to continue in education, get a job, and be valued members of their community. We must stop denying them a better life. Be the change that matters in the lives of our children.
Written by Jacqueline Specht.
If it is to be, it is up to me.– In the words of Ruud