A teachable moment
“Is this going to be on the exam?” At some point in every term, one of my students will ask this time-honoured question. I find it quite sad. What I hear is, “Can you please help me avoid learning anything unnecessary?”
Do these students have an underdeveloped appreciation for education? Perhaps they see it as a transactional sequence: Pay tuition, get the courses. Pass the exams, get a degree. Show your degree, get a job. I understand this. Education does, after all, have economic purposes. Efficiency in completing a program and obtaining a job is therefore desirable.
There is more to life, however, than economics. Education is also an opportunity to develop more fully as a person. It is about reaching one’s potential as a human being not just intellectually, but also socially. In a healthy classroom, students discover that people are different, sometimes disagreeably so, and that despite these differences, they still matter.
You’d think that no one would disagree with this, but in New Brunswick, diversity in the classroom has actually become contentious. For many years, the province has mandated the full inclusion of children with disabilities into the education system. The latest iteration, “Policy 322: Inclusive Education,” has been in place since September 2013. It insists on a common learning environment for all students, especially from kindergarten to grade eight. It requires teachers to prepare personalized learning plans when “strategies beyond robust instruction are required” or where behavioural supports are needed for a student.
The policy does allow a school to vary the common learning environment when it does not meet the needs of a student. This might mean private tutoring, for instance.
The goals of the policy are laudable. They’re based on the premise that every student can learn, and that education should be universal, individualized, flexible, respectful and accessible. In principle, New Brunswick students move from grade to grade based on their individual capabilities. This allows all students to progress with their age group, which is important for social development.
Yet, in practice, these goals are difficult to achieve. The demands placed on teachers are enormous. Specialized district staff help teachers develop individual learning plans but, at the moment, there is only one such specialist for every 220 students. Classroom teachers have therefore been expected to take up the slack. But even if they have the necessary energy and time, they often lack the training to deal with students at either end of the academic bell-curve.
Not everyone is happy with the results. Students who are gifted and talented have lost the accelerated and intensive classes that were previously available in some elementary and middle schools. Advanced classes are now only available in grades 11 and 12. Students who require accommodations for disabilities are also facing barriers, because schools lack the resources to deliver the necessary learning plans. And students with behavioural disabilities have, in some cases, been all but excluded from the education system.
Unfortunately, the finger is being pointed at students with disabilities. This is a mistake. What the general public might not realize is that many students with disabilities fall into the “gifted and talented” category.
In addition, some students with behavioural difficulties do not have disabilities, but are instead dealing with family situations beyond their capacity to cope. The idea that people with disabilities are the source of the problem is the product of backwards thinking. It requires that we define the “problem” far too narrowly as the need to optimize the efficiency of education for unexceptional students. It also requires that we ignore the contributions that people with disabilities make to society.
Giving all students the richness of an inclusive classroom experience requires us to commit fully to the decision. Inclusive classrooms are worth the effort. Yes, full inclusion can come with a significant price tag. But it also makes us richer.
Prof. Cameron Graham
Canadian Abilities Foundation