INCLUSION IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD
By William Powell
The word "inclusion" has stirred considerable controversy in educational circles in the United States and Great Britain. Proponents hold that greater inclusivity in schools yields more effective pedagogy, greater student self esteem and ultimately a more humane and democratic society. Critics, on the other hand, charge that "inclusionists" would throw the baby out with the bath water, and that inclusion has become an over simplified panacea for complex problems which has been regularly exploited by opportunistic school administrators in order to cut costs and balance budgets.
We would argue that the central problem in the previous paragraph is not "inclusion" per se, but rather the quality of much of the professional debate that has surrounded it.
In the early 1970's, social psychologist Irving Janis (1971) developed a theory of premature agreement in group problem solving. Labeled Groupthink, Janis' theory holds that in some circumstances the subconscious desire for group cohesion may be stronger than the perceived need for critical evaluation. This can result in premature group agreement with disastrous consequences. Groupthink has been used to explain and interpret such group conclusions as the launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle and President Kennedy's decision to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs debacle.
While the consequences have not been as immediate or as dramatic as the decisions on the Challenger or Bay of Pigs, the long term effect of Groupthink on the educational reform movement may be even more tragic. In an effort to achieve or maintain professional cohesion (often in a highly critical and media-hostile environment) educators have tended to reach premature agreement on complex issues. When we embraced the "new math", algorithmic skill and drill practice received our scorn and contempt. When we converted to a "whole language" approach to the teaching of reading, phonics came to be perceived as old-fashioned, mechanistic, intellectually empty, and, at the hyperbolic extreme, a teacher-centered pedagogy that systematically destroyed in children the love of literature.
Again, the problem is neither whole language or phonics. We have all known children who have flourished in both approaches and who have developed a love of literature. The problem is with the quality of the controversy.
The danger of Groupthink is that it provides -albeit temporarily—the illusion of panacea, that one size really does fit all. Obviously, in education one size does not fit all, just as one methodology does not meet the needs of all students or one structure or philosophy suit all schools. Once the false panacea has been exposed, it is scorned as yet another faddish failure and the self-confidence and credibility of our profession are further undermined.
Special education has not been immune to such Groupthink and we have seen our favorite (or least favorite) theories endorsed (or attacked) with a degree of militancy that virtually assured that the ensuing debate would generate more heat than light.
We recognize that the word "inclusion" is controversial and that in some circumstances it has been grossly misused in order to cut costs by disbanding effective special educational programs and "dumping" exceptional children into the regular classroom. In other situations, inclusion has been dogmatically accepted as the only "correct" model and all children have been uncritically subjected to it. The sad consequence is often that a special needs youngster has been added to an already over-crowded classroom without providing the teacher with support (material or human) or any professional training. The resulting frustration on the part of teachers, parents, and exceptional children reverberates through our current professional literature.
So why prepare a manual to assist international schools to become more inclusive if the topic is so controversial?
The answer, we believe, is in distinguishing between a philosophical orientation and the design mechanics of a particular service delivery model (withdrawal, resource room, immersion, sheltered immersion etc.)
Our philosophical orientation is that as a starting point all children belong. The exceptional child does not need to earn the right to belong. It is a subtle but significant distinction which we believe has a profound social, emotional and psychological impact upon learning and success in school. We will argue that a sense of being included is a prerequisite for successful school achievement for all students. However, we will also argue that such a sense of belonging can be fostered through a multitude of pedagogical approaches and service delivery systems.
No single strategy, structure or service delivery model has a monopoly on providing that all important sense of membership. Exceptional children are by definition an incredibly diverse group with complex and challenging needs. No single approach could hope to be effective with all. In fact, such an argument for a monolithic approach would, in our minds, suggest Janis' Groupthink or worse, the cynical manipulation of research.
With that stated, it is important to add that there are strategies that do actively promote inclusion while other behaviors alienate and undermine students' self esteem. It is the purpose of this manual to look at both the theory and practice of creating more inclusive classrooms.
While there are very few certainties in the realm of education, we believe that there are some guiding principles that can be flexibly incorporated into the construction of a supportive and integrated learning community. The chapters that follow are based upon six assumptions:
1. All children can, do and will learn (not always what and when we would like!).
2. Effective teachers can teach most children.
3. The teacher is the most important architect of a child's learning environment.
4. Diversity enriches.
5. Strategies that define and comprise good teaching are applicable to all children
6. A professional partnership is exponentially more effective (and more satisfying) than
the sum of its parts.
We believe that these principles define a path towards creating an inclusive learning community. They speak of a journey, not a destination.
Sometimes, during a teacher training workshop, a participant will ask us: "Isn't there an appropriate time for pull-out?" or "Should everyone always be included?" We would hope that the answers are by this point obvious. Inclusion, as we are using the term, is a vital philosophical commitment of a caring learning community to the education of a diverse group of children. Inclusion can take a multitude of shapes and forms and has situation specific flexibility as its hallmark. However, inclusion is not a panacea. It is not a simple paint-by-number recipe. Nor, on the other hand, is it a four letter word!
The various chapters that comprise this work were circulated to practicing teachers in international schools in Africa prior to publication in an effort to solicit feedback and criticism that could be used to make this book easily accessible and user-friendly. The most surprising response we received had to do with our treatment of effective instructional practices for exceptional children. Several teachers wrote, "These ideas aren't just for LD or ESL students. They are grounded in learning theory and work wonders with all kids. Good teaching is, after all, good teaching".
We wholeheartedly agree. More than anything else, good teaching is the way to meet the needs of exceptional children and as such it is the heart and soul of the inclusive classroom. If this work helps to contribute towards identifying such effective practice, its purpose will have been served.
Janis, I. L. (1971, November). Groupthink. Psychology Today, pp.43-46.