- AT Education
The extraordinary world
Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix working. Andres Tapia
Every teacher should have at least a chance to visit and observe two kinds of schools: special schools where all learners have massive learning difficulties because of neurological disorders in conjunction with social-emotional difficulties and specialized schools where most of the learners are selected based on the previous year's success or entrance exams. The first impression might be that these two represent two different worlds of education sectors, and on the surface, it's right. However, the deeper you dive into both worlds, the more similarities you will find in individuals' needs and motives. You might ask how it's so? One place is packed with someone highly motivated and skilled at least in one area, and then we have souls struggling with social-emotional or neurological issues daily. What on earth do they then have in common? Pretty much the same as each one of us when we talk about motivation to function:
Firstly, everyone has the motivation to be active in the areas of their interests.
Secondly, individuals are keen to belong to a more extensive community in the ways which suit them best and feel comfortable.
Thirdly, while learning and yielding new skills, it's crucial to feel a sense of manageability to see and use recently discovered capabilities.
This model is most known as a self-determination theory that explains and creates a framework for understanding motivation and aspects that drive human behavior. In a nutshell, human needs to feel to have control over the processes that they do. However, feeling control alone is not enough, and it needs alongside visible proof of making progress which is the most satisfying feeling in the world (Clear, 2018). From this point of view, we can agree that educators' main job is to create a positive learning environment where students have more space and freedom to show their uniqueness while practicing how to learn and only after that to focus on the subject. Therefore, it would be fascinating to make a study where elite school teachers swap with their counterparts from the most unwanted school in the region to see how educators can adapt and how their used approaches will impact new environments. It can be easily assumed that it's easier to work in an environment where most students are highly motivated because the motivation for learning is already there. However, the reality is that in both environments finding and keeping up with the motivation is both demanding and needs a lot of skills from the educator.
The next time you attend a school or a classroom, you can do an easy quality check by asking students if they feel safe in school and find it interesting even coming to school when it's mandatory for them. Students who do not think that their needs are covered will lose their motivation at some point, no matter how strong their motivation was initially. So when students say they are coming to school because they are forced, I try to flip the situation and ask for suggestions about improving and making school more enjoyable. Not forgetting to mention that they are entirely right about the mandatory attendance at school, except if they fulfill their compulsory education in an alternative way. These conversations have delivered helpful information about students' interests, which I have used in my learning materials.
Unfortunately, too many classes and schools haven't engaged this approach where students are more in the middle of the action and can affect it. However, I need to say that I also understand that point of view at some level. One of the main reasons is a colossal clash of interests between the comprehensive school Basic Education Core Curriculum and over-emphasized high school importance without mentioning the matriculation exams' overwhelmed presence while applying for universities. Too many conversations circle around separating soft and hard skills or learning skills and academic skills from each other. It is absurd that we even need to talk about it in the 21st century, where information is available for everyone, and the only right way is to emphasize and promote skills that make us more humane. A humane and more holistic approach in most areas and fields is the key to a brighter tomorrow. You just need to read a couple of articles about climate crises, and it is much easier to agree about the importance of humanity and empathy. However, learning skills and practicing them in a safe and guided environment are still privileges that some of us can receive, so let's keep this in mind when the next time you think about the purpose of education. I recommend you to check Alibaba's owner, Jack Ma's, thoughts about teaching soft skills and their importance in the future.
The very special environment
Right now, I'm back again on one of the most contradictory grounds that you can find in the Finnish education field: a special school. The main reason is a years-long conversation about whether students with special needs should be taught in general schools and classes. While working in a school which was specialized in maths and sports, which is another hot potato in Finnish education being so-called the elite school because of a chance to have admissions and so choose the best students, I remember vividly that moment when the school leadership informed that from next academic year the school would have a special class. Naturally, the new arrangement brought up different emotions and reactions from the staff, like "Why does the school want to have a special class?" or "Who will be forced to teach that class?". However, the school leaderboard handled the situation well. It explained the reasons repeatedly, while not forgetting to mention that "THE CLASS" will be part of the school like any other, and students will attend general classes like anyone else. After seven years, it is great to see that excellent work has been done and "THE CLASS" has melted down in the system, and the school community has benefited from being more heterosis than before. This example has a good end, but unfortunately, there are still many schools where special classes are seen as something weird and even not wanted.
Even though I am proud that my skills are seen to be high enough to work in a special school, I still want to see most schools like mine disappear from the education scene. The main reason is the well-being of the students who cannot go to their local schools. (In Finland, we have a model where students automatically attend their nearest school) These students mostly don't have a chance to build and connect to their local networks because our school is far away from their neighbors. That phenomenon increases loneliness and anxiety. Even special schools offer a safe and friendly environment; the student body includes individuals with social-emotional struggles and even aggression. These kinds of individuals who accuse others of being now worthy or promoting violent behavior are taking a lot of time from others and, at the same time, spread negative feelings, which harms others' self-esteem. Based on my own estimation and experience, I would say that even 80 percent of our students would benefit more from attending a local school with an open-minded atmosphere and a learning environment based on a social constructivist approach, a foundation of inclusion. Successful transformation needs from schools acceptance that every individual cannot learn or need to learn everything taught in schools. What comes to individuals who need more regulated and structured environments, we need to remember that closing them from society is not an option. We need to keep improving structures that allow everyone to operate and practice life skills to be as close to the community as possible. A great example is "Preparatory education for work and independent living" (TELMA) - training programs offered by vocational colleges here in Finland.
The idea of decreasing special classes and schools is not new in Finland, like I mentioned previously. The movement was started under the names of inclusion and integration, which have the right motive and vision. However, the transformation has not been smooth, mainly because of the school's cultural readiness to become a school for everyone, led by the municipality's different approaches. As Sonia Lempinen mentioned in her dissertation, "Parental and municipal school choice in the case of children receiving support." the myth of Finnish equal basic education has been on a dividing point for years. Although we do not have private schools in Finland yet, her research brought up diversified municipality policies that enhance segregation or, on the other hand, offer an opportunity to build a culture where everyone is welcomed to their local school. Finland is known for its equality and minor differences between different parts of the country regarding education, but the unwanted trend continues to grow. Social media has not helped either because inclusion has received hits and scratches because of the circulating opinions about the bad decisions related to the whole idea about inclusion. Unfortunately, most of them have misunderstood what inclusion means and how it can be achieved.
Other reasons that have been stated why the inclusive approach has not taken wind under its wings include the lack of resources, renewed Core Curriculum, and three-tier support to a new support network model for students. Each brought-up point has its value and justified criticism. The negative talking will never end because we will always find something that could be done better. Have you ever heard of or seen any model that has enough resources or doesn't have any improvement aspects? That's why I see that the most significant barrier to encouraging an inclusive approach is not money or a too flyaway curriculum but the stance of school communities that see more pitfalls than opportunities from more heterogeneous environments.
I recently heard Patrick "Pata" Degerman's story about his trip that first seemed impossible. He and his friend planned to conquer one of the mountains located in Antarctica. After many years of designing and developing different strategies to manage the whole project, they finally topped the mountain and named it Mt. Sisu in 1997. The main lesson was that if we follow old routines and habits, we will never create better ways to handle the situation or improve it. The message is clear "If you don't do anything. nothing will happen." That's why I understand policy-makers and school leaders and their partly frustration when the first solution is thought to be more money. However, many researchers show that the most influential aspect of students' well-being and learning process is the teacher, and everything else comes then. So why on earth are we downgrading the power of the teacher in this situation? The more heterogeneous the student body and polarization are, the more extensive the workload is. Still, at the same time, collaborative working methods and developing school leadership are relatively new phenomenons in Finland. Mainly because teachers are used to working alone, and when they gained enough experience working in the classroom, they were promoted to the leadership role. Can we find the needed power from our own communities to reconstruct the structures that promote shared knowledge and, most importantly, a responsible and transparent visioned leadership approach? I believe that the answer lies somewhere here, and of course, resources play a role in accomplishing this goal, but it cannot be the first factor we are looking for. Too many educators are getting too low wages compared to the work, but it is hard to change as far schools are funded by tax money, but let's talk about this topic later. It is still great to see that you can find schools around Finland that have shifted their approaches and tried new ways of running the school, proving that we are not that far away from making every school for every individual!
The checklist for a start making your classroom, unit, or school community more unified
Creating a narrative story - "A lot depends on the way you tell it." Every successful and unsuccessful individual, team, or organization has the same goal: to achieve set goals in the best possible way. Still, the difference-maker is habits, shared purpose, and a clear vision of the story to be lived out. Usually, creating a clear vision is the first step to put everyone on the same page with the expectations and create a framework for advancing intermediate stages while working towards the vision. The vision alone is not enough and needs a narrative story to connect and assimilate people to see their importance in the process. The main job of the narrative is to inspire employees, attract and excite other stakeholders.
For example, it is not enough at the school level to say that "We want to provide high-quality education," which is a legitimate goal. Still, it does not give deeper meaning or ground to take ownership and bond to the team or organization. Instead, "We want to provide education to help our future generations develop and empower social environments where each individual is seen as a potential dealbreaker for creating innovations." would be more meaningful. This message added to the vision that promotes 21centry skills, hard work, and the importance of soft skills is easier to communicate with the strategy and, most importantly, embodies wanted working culture.
Using proper communication flows in the right situations.
The following communication flows are predominantly known and used in organizations but can be adjusted in the classroom and extend the understanding of communication.
Downward - Communication that flows from a higher level in an organization to a lower level is downward communication. Some structures or ways of working come from principals to teachers or teachers to students that need to be followed.
Upward - Communication that flows to a higher level in an organization is called upward communication. Giving students more control of their learning promotes this mostly wanted communication flow.
Horizontal - Communication that takes place between peers or colleagues. In both cases, teacher to teacher or student to student is one of the most critical communication flows when we want to magnify effective learning or develop new working ways.
Diagonal - Communication that takes place between teachers and students of other workgroups. Co-teaching or mixing whole grade level offers better chances to students to find the adult they trust.
External - Communication that takes place between schools and external groups such as therapists, doctors, or other services.
School is a social organization where students, teachers, administrators, parents, and service personnel interact daily. Yet Finnish school is widely known for its equality members of each group have different expectations from functioning and behaving perspectives. Unquestionably, relationships in such communities vary and are situationally dependent. Without understanding those relationships and the ways of communication, it's hard to function most productively. Effective communication makes it possible to understand the expectations of each situation and creates a culture where everyone feels safe to ask questions or bring their ideas up. Even equality in the workplaces should be a default basis, and hierarchy as a word is starting to be unpopular. Nevertheless, we still need to keep in mind that we need to have a hierarchy of responsibilities. For example, teachers have more responsibility and obligation than students to follow the Core Curriculum or create a learning culture where everyone can receive needed support. On the other hand, school leadership should enhance the working culture where individuals can bring their personalities while also following and implementing the school's vision.