There are about 18,000 students with special needs in mainstream schools today – about 4% of the total school population (Lim, 2016). To cater to the needs of these students, the Ministry of Education has been working closely with the National Institute of Education (NIE) to prepare teachers to work more effectively with a diverse population of students.
While the increasing initiatives rolled out by the government is testament of Singapore’s move and commitment towards the integration and support of students with special needs within mainstream education, an NIE researcher feels that to become a more inclusive society, greater attention needs to be paid to the “heartware” of inclusion, especially within teacher education.
Shifting Existing Perceptions
“If one sees schools as microcosms of society, then one could say that how inclusive a society is might depend – to a large extent – on how inclusive schools are and the capacities of teachers to consciously help their students learn and practise the values, attitudes and skills to include diverse individuals, especially their peers with disabilities,“ explains Dr Thana Thaver, a Senior Lecturer from the Early Childhood & Special Needs Education Academic Group.
Therein lies the rub, according to Thana. In examining the attitudes of pre-service teachers at NIE towards persons with disabilities and the inclusion of students with special needs in mainstream classrooms, she found ambivalent attitudes that bordered on the negative.
It wasn’t because these student-teachers lacked empathy.
“This ambivalence, discomfort and stereotypic perceptions are probably due to their lack of knowledge and contact with people with disability in their growing up years aside from the fact that most of them had little or no training in special needs,” Thana says. These attitudes, she adds, are not particular to Singapore teachers. In fact, they are still prevalent and cut across different cultural contexts and countries at different stages of inclusion.
This inspired her to explore how to change these negative mind-sets through the creation of a disability awareness course in NIE.
“If one sees schools as microcosms of society, then one could say that how inclusive a society is might depend – to a large extent – on how inclusive schools are and the capacities of teachers to consciously help their students learn and practise the values, attitudes and skills to include diverse individuals, especially their peers with disabilities.”
– Thana Thaver, Early Childhood & Special Needs Education Academic Group, NIE
Nurturing the “Heartware”
“In our review of literature on how to nurture more inclusive attitudes, we found that there were no particular sets of strategies that were actually efficacious in changing the attitudes of teachers towards people with disabilities or inclusive education,” Thana shares.
In the history of training in special needs at NIE, there was a tendency to adopt a “technicist-approach” which focused primarily on remediating the “deficits” of children with disabilities.
“This, in essence, means that you approach someone with disabilities as not ‘normal’, and regard the learning and behavioural problems as primarily residing within the person,” says Thana. “The focus in this approach is to remediate these ‘deficits’ and ‘normalize’ the person so that he or she can function in a mainstream setting.”
Adopting a deficit-based approach in teacher education without a concomitant examination of how our settings, pedagogies and beliefs contribute to disability may have a pernicious effect on the perceptions and expectations of people with disabilities of our pre-service teachers who already possess less than positive attitudes towards people with disabilities and see them as different and less capable, she adds.
Thus, Thana and her team sees the need to adopt a pedagogy that helps student teachers to see possibilities, value “differences” and understand the implications of discriminatory practices not just on the lives of people with disabilities but also on the fibre of society; a paradigm which included the nurturing of heartware instead of merely the software of skills and strategies so that new ways of being and new practices could emerge.
The Intervention: A Disability Awareness Course
“We invited (students) to look within, critically reflect on their own attitudes, beliefs and assumptions about people with disabilities, and how disability had been construed in Singapore.”
– Thana, on the disability awareness course she conducts at NIE
In this course, Thana and her team utilized a more invitational, “facilitative” pedagogy which sought to take the pre-service teachers on a learning journey of self-reflection and personal discovery of the experience of disability in Singapore. It started with positioning the teachers to learn about disability.
“We invited them to look within, critically reflect on their own attitudes, beliefs and assumptions about people with disabilities, and how disability had been construed in Singapore,” shares Thana.
As part of this journey, the pre-service teachers went into the community to investigate, through interviews, how inclusive Singapore was as a society for people with disabilities.
“Through this fieldwork component and critical deconstruction, they realized the particular positions our society had taken towards disability, the consequences of these positions, and how their own beliefs and attitudes had been shaped by societal worldviews in the absence of contact with people with disabilities,” Thana adds.
“As this deconstruction and dissonance (arising from perceptions being confronted) occur, it was important to facilitate the reconstruction of their perspectives and to lead them to reflect more deeply on the possibilities, challenges and benefits of inclusion.”
Videos with positive portrayals of people with disabilities leading “normal” lives and fulfilling their dreams of getting jobs of their liking through a circle of support were also shown.
In this process, Thana hopes to reshape her students’ pre-conceived notions of people with disabilities; to appreciate that they (people with disabilities) are people who have dreams and aspirations just as we do, and can achieve more than what is stereotypically expected of them.
To Thana’s amazement, she found that the course was effective in shifting attitudes on both the personal and professional levels despite the short duration.
On a personal level, the pre-service teachers reported greater acceptance and sensitivity towards people with disabilities. On the professional level, there was a slight shift in their stance from that of ambivalence and negativity to one of greater willingness to accept and play an active role in including students with disabilities in their classrooms. They also expressed a desire to be better equipped in knowledge and skills to help students with special needs.
Reading the reflections of the pre-service teachers helped Thana to further understand the reservations and negative attitudes towards inclusive education expressed.
“Their feelings and fears are understandable and to be expected,” explains Thana. “They echo what is found in the literature; where there is resistance, it actually stems from these main issues: lack of knowledge, lack of experience and training, and an inadequate support system.”
Ultimately, however, Thana believes that the path towards inclusion must be forged from within, from a heart transformed. In her interviews with teachers who had been nominated by their Principals as working successfully with students with special needs, she discovered that it was their heart – their core beliefs – that enabled them to surmount the challenges they faced and commit to being a teacher whose calling was to educate all.
“As this deconstruction and dissonance (arising from perceptions being confronted) occur, it was important to facilitate the reconstruction of their perspectives and to lead (pre-service teachers) to reflect more deeply on the possibilities, challenges and benefits of inclusion.”
Finding Inclusiveness Within
Teachers typically experience a variety of unsettling emotions when working with students with special needs, Thana acknowledges. It is important that one honours these emotions, and reflect on their sources of these emotions.
It is through this understanding and honest appraisal that one can begin to work oneself out of this “pit” of dissonance. Learning to be inclusive involves accepting yourself and where you are in your journey, she adds.
“You’re a person-teacher, not just a teacher-person. Whatever you are as a person is what you are as a teacher. Your ‘doing’ emanates from your ‘being’. If you are caring, inclusive and loving as a person, you will become caring, inclusive and loving as a teacher.”
Thana recognizes that there will always be challenges when working with students with special needs. Her advice to these teachers is to “encounter” the person at a deeper level.
“When you can see the student who is being difficult or challenging as a person with emotions and wounded just like you and I, you will begin to feel for that person, desire the best for him or her” she says. “That’s when the heart expands and the change begins.”
Lim, J. Q. (2016, 11 August). Rising number of students with special needs in mainstream schools. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/rising-number-of-students/3033364.html