The definition of the word ‘inclusive’ as captured in the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development (SDG) 4 largely refers to an education system designed for all types of learners, including those with disabilities. This could refer to learners with physical disabilities that affect learners’ mobility or capacity. It could also refer to a learning disability – a neurological disorder – resulting from a difference in the way a person’s brain is ‘wired’. A recent publication released by UNESCO New Delhi provides a relatively comprehensive overview of the key challenges we face today to make education ‘inclusive’.
I would like to focus here on a group of children who are traditionally the ‘forgotten’ ones when discussing inclusive education. I am referring to children who have one or more of the four Ds – dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and dysgraphia. Approximately 15 per cent of people have dyslexia. This means we have approximately one billion people globally who have dyslexia — this is an optimist projection, not taking into consideration the other three types of learning differences. It is a number that must be considered seriously if we really want to accomplish SDG-4 and leave no child behind.
Approximately 15 per cent of the population or one billion people globally have dyslexia. (Photo: Getty Images)
Learning differences are unlike other better-known disabilities. These cannot be seen or are visible to the eye; we can call children with learning differences the ‘Unseen Seen’. When we say that one is a ‘difference learner’, what it means is that one’s brains are wired in such a manner that learning happens differently. This means trying to teach these children the standard way — which may work for other children — just does not work for children with learning differences. This has been proven without any doubt by the latest research from brain sciences.
An important fact about these children is that a majority of them have higher than average intelligence — again backed by scientific research. It is a waste of human talent when opportunities are not given to these children to show their strengths and potential contribution to society.
In fact, what happens is the opposite. Many of these children drop out of schools because of low performance, demotivation, and exclusion. Teachers say that these children are lazy, not motivated, and some teachers even go to the extent of saying that such children are just stupid. I should know this because that's exactly what my son’s teacher said about him when he was in Grade 4. He was diagnosed as severely dyslexic when he was 8 years old.
A study titled Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century, conducted by the British government in 2008, highlights some sobering statistics. The proportion of inmates in British prisons who had some form of learning disability/difference was higher than the average of any other group. In fact, in one particular prison, the number was a staggering 75 per cent of the prison population.
So how do we work towards developing an education system that is inclusive in nature?
Providing support to the children with learning differences is now well-researched, but used only in some countries. Interventions in mainstream schools has been limited and primarily involves providing additional support in the form of special teachers, who take the children out of the classroom for special lessons. These have been found to have limited success for the following reasons.
First, most children are not supportive of this approach since it separates them from the general student population, thereby making them feel stigmatised and less capable than the other students. Second, using the same curriculum and pedagogical tools with more personalised attention does not address the fundamental problem of the learning process that differentiates these children from others.
Children with learning differences have been shown to thrive in an interactive, multi-sensory learning environment. Therefore, to ensure inclusive education, we must design our education systems to accommodate the differing needs of children with learning differences.
First, it is necessary to have content that has been designed in a manner that can be accessed by these learners. The content might need to be the same, but the approach used in delivering the content can be different in order to fit the medium most suitable for the learner.
Some approaches are more visual, while some are more text-driven, while others are more audio-led. The digital medium allows this flexibility. Curriculums can be designed in a multi-modal manner, such that a combination of audio, visual, games, experience, interactive and self-paced learning assessments is a necessary condition in our education systems and in the learning experience of these learners. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) offers a new and novel approach to curriculum design that will not only benefit difference learners but all the students.
Second, we need teachers who are trained such that they can provide the same level of attention and style of teaching as required by students according to their neurobiological diversities. Teachers will be the backbone of our education systems for the near future. Therefore, we must provide teachers training in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) for them to understand, empathise and address the need of difference learners, and to not classify them immediately as lazy, slow or dim-witted.
Irrespective of the intervention(s) used, costs are involved. However, as the report by the British government indicates, the benefits far outweigh the costs of such interventions. In many ways, countries really have no choice but to begin exploring the appropriate interventions required. If they ignore this group of students, any hope of achieving SDG-4 will surely be missed. How can we achieve full literacy if we continue to use the wrong tool for a relatively large set of children?
Last but not least, not addressing the needs of the one in 10 children will not only prevent countries from achieving the SDG-4 but also the SDG-10, which calls for reducing inequality within and among countries. How can we reduce inequality if the education system discriminates a large segment of the population who are neurobiologically different from the majority and who learn differently? SDG-10 and SDG-4 call for immediate action on helping the Unseen Seen become the Seen.