An article I wrote for UNESCO Futures of Education Initiative on systemic benchmarks required for effective inclusive education.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the need for, and to initiate dialogue about, a set of foundational questions that the Indian educational system must answer before designing and implementing practical educational models to positively affect the greatest number of students. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan has mandated inclusive education already, but many teachers across the country have expressed misgivings about their skills to teach inclusive classes. The current education system doesn’t always benefit students with cognitive or physical difficulties.
To build an inclusive system, foundational questions must be rigorously and tightly defined. What is the purpose of education? What is the measurable definition of literacy? What is the minimum we expect our students to have learned after eight years in school? A simple question like ‘What is education?’ can yield multiple responses. This disconnect creates a problem for the next question, ‘Who is education for?’ Is it only for academic achievers?
Inclusive education is not just physically including socio-economically diverse or disabled demographics into the existing academic classroom. We must ask: What is inclusion, and what does it look like? Who can be included in an academic classroom? What continuum of services need to be offered? What type of support systems do teachers and students need for successful inclusion? What staffing and training needs must be met? What does pedagogy, discipline and assessment look like for students with disabilities? Would they be held to the same intractable standard as all students? Who are the stakeholders? And most importantly, what benefit does inclusive education offer to each of these stakeholder groups? This last question is paramount in creating buy-in for inclusive education, without which we will never see widespread implementation and acceptance.
In the essay, I am referring to publicly funded education (funded by tax monies) – government schools. Privately funded schools are naturally exclusive, as is their prerogative.
There are some truths that have to be crisply defined for the benefit of every stakeholder in the ecosystem. When we leave fundamental axioms unexpressed, it lends itself to various interpretations and implementations, which leads to a dilution of standards and rigor. It is my vision that these points will be included in the national education policy document to lend legitimacy and gravitas to the inclusive education work being done at the grassroots level, in classrooms.
What is education?
In the Indian context, education seems to imply academics. While the government has mandated education for all, this stance immediately makes it exclusive, rather than inclusive. Does the government mean for EVERY student to be academically inclined? Is there a plan for students who cannot master academics? What about students with Down’s syndrome or intellectual disabilities? What educational path does the government have for them?
My take: Education is any learning that takes us forward to college, job or independence. When I share this with others, people usually like to add aspects like soft skills, personality development or confidence etc. While all the ideas are true and valuable, they are all part of the original single sentence, and its three paths. This definition has to be clearly stated in the master education plan, in order to ensure that EVERY student, academically inclined or not, is represented in the system.
Who is school for?
If education is academics, then the current system is designed for the college-bound student, or for those able to graduate high school. Does the government mean to exclude other school-aged students from the educational system? What about the large number of students who do not go on to college, but need job skills and independent living skills? Does the education system take into consideration the needs of such students in designing the continuum of services?
My take: Education is for EVERYBODY, every child between 5 and 15 years of age, at least. Which means the government needs to plan for different kinds of students, not just the college-bound. Development of an alternate life skills syllabus and assessment system for students with intellectual disabilities, along the lines of NCERT or CBSE, etc should be developed, to ensure that foundational academics and life skills are imparted in a formal and rigorous manner. There is little justification to subject every student to an academic exam.
What is the purpose of education/school?
If the education system caters mostly to the college-bound, then what is the purpose of schooling for remainder of the population?
My take: Foundational literacy, numeracy, oracy, life skills. With this as the basis, students who struggle with hard core academics have a solid and useful curriculum to take them forward in life. Struggling students would certainly benefit from, and should have access to, Science, Social Studies, typing and other subjects. However the focus should be on the above mentioned areas. A thoughtful functional curriculum should be created for students who need this framework. It serves nobody to try to jam a square peg into a round hole.
Are benchmarks for foundational literacy defined? What is the minimum we expect from our students after eight years in school?
College-bound students and graduating high-schoolers have a well-defined syllabus they need to master. Students not on track to graduate high school should also spend their school career productively. They should make at least minimal progress year after year. School is not a baby-sitting service. Learning of all kinds should be happening for every student.
My take: Every student should show progress from the year before, in academics and life skills. Graduating students, college-bound or not, should be able to read the newspaper, write at an 8th grade level, know arithmetic and cash Math, and communicate adequately (understand and be understood) by the time they leave our sphere of influence. Special education teachers should be empowered to define individualized levels of proficiency for students with cognitive disabilities to graduate from the school system.
How, and who, would decide which student would require an alternate curriculum stream? And at what age would this decision be made? Now we are getting deeper into the design of a truly inclusive system. I have raised several more questions earlier in this essay as well. However, we need to first address the four major points to create an inclusive system, before we can discuss the details of inclusive education. It is hard to be inclusive in the classroom, when the system makes large numbers of students feel like unwelcome misfits.
Looking forward three decades, I would love to see clarity and coherence in the system, where every teacher knows the goal, where every student has a place in school, where struggling students are taught vocational skills with the same rigor as college-bound students are taught physics, where students with disabilities are taught life skills with the same urgency as the college-bound students are taught test-taking skills, and where every student gets a purposeful education. This can only happen when the questions raised here are discussed by all the stake-holders and crafted into a holistic plan to create a well-defined and equitable inclusive system.
An inclusive educational system has to precede an inclusive classroom.