Inclusive education is a hot topic that is becoming increasingly prominent in the debate around taking Indian education forward. It is a deeply nuanced topic that requires a delicate approach with regards to discussion and implementation. However, it is unfortunately widely misunderstood and oversimplified. To properly understand inclusive education, we spoke to Padma Shastry, the Founder and Director of Samam Vidya, an organisation whose mission is to empower teachers by giving them the expertise and support necessary to educate every student in their classes. They specialise in special education, with a focus on creating inclusive classrooms.
Ms. Shastry was originally a Civil Engineer but switched to Education after volunteering at her children’s school in the USA, where she was working with students who were struggling academically. Following her volunteering experience, she became dedicated to pursuing a career in Education, obtaining her Master’s in Special Education from Santa Clara University in California and working in the USA’s public-school system for many years. Afterwards, she moved back to India and set up Samam Vidya as a teacher education and resource centre, as she felt, in her words, “I could help teachers become comfortable teaching heterogenous classrooms. Teachers in private schools tend to teach a very homogenous group in terms of socio-economic grouping and cognitive ability levels. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009, however, has added some heterogeneity in student demographics”.
Defining Inclusive Education
When asked to define what inclusive education meant to her, Ms. Shastry elaborated, “Inclusive education is the inclusion of students of all kinds of diversities in the classroom, be it gender equality, socio-economic heterogeneity, religion, language, culture. The classroom should reflect society. Inclusion does not solely refer to physical inclusion”.
“Everybody in the classroom should be making progress, which is when inclusion is actually useful. A student who is in the classroom but is not an active participant is not included. The student should be learning, and that learning should be useful to the student. We should not do inclusion for the sake of inclusion. Universal progress alongside visible diversity is the ideal scenario. Progress need not be hitting the grade-level benchmarks universally, but at the very least, there should be some sign of general progress from the baseline”.
“In India, both extreme exclusion and extreme inclusion exist. Both are unhealthy for several reasons. Teachers should not be scared the moment they hear the word disability and say they cannot handle it. On the other hand, forcing inclusion can damage the concept’s credibility, losing buy-in from those working in mainstream education. This is a problem in the USA too, where the concept of inclusive education is more than 30 years old. Poor inclusion harms both the teachers and the students and is useful to no one”.
“Inclusion has to be done carefully. There are certain criteria that have to be kept in mind when deciding how and if we include children. Including children whose cognitive levels are significantly different from the class average would not be productive for anyone. Up to around the 5th or 6th grade, including everyone in the classroom is a must to ensure everyone learns fundamental life and academic skills”.
“Beyond that, however, academics become more abstract and it’s not always a good use of a student’s time to sit in an algebra class if a child has a severe cognitive impairment. Such a child should be learning useful life skills instead that prepare them for independent life”.
Doing Inclusive Education Properly
There are several important factors to consider before deciding whether to include students in a classroom, which Ms. Shastry went into detail about; “When we talk about academic inclusion, the cognitive level is all that matters. A severe orthopaedic impairment may or may not imply a cognitive impairment. It is important to understand whether the impairment is cognitive in nature, regardless of its severity. A student with a severe orthopaedic impairment only can and should be in an age-appropriate academic class. In the absence of cognitive disability, accommodating other disabilities is mostly a matter of resources and infrastructure”.
“Another factor to consider when deciding whether to include special needs students in a classroom is their medical condition. Students with typical cognitive levels can possess medical conditions that make inclusion difficult. The key thing to look out for with regards to such students is the stability of their medical condition. If a student’s medical condition is an unstable one that needs to be closely managed, inclusion is difficult and should not be done, as the teacher will struggle to teach a classroom and look after such a child at the same time, which is unproductive. In such cases, it is better to temporarily remove such students from the mainstream classroom until their medical condition improves and can be managed. Until such a time, such students can be taught separately until they are ready to be included again. The mainstream classroom is the default setting for an inclusive classroom. Segregation should be minimal, temporary and resorted to only when it is needed”.
“Another factor to consider is behaviour. Students with socially inappropriate or dangerous behaviour cannot be included in a mainstream classroom. Teachers would only end up putting their efforts into controlling their distracted students, preventing them from teaching. In such cases, it is necessary to remove such children from the class and attempt to modify their behaviour. Once they are socialised appropriately, they can be included again. This can happen with any and all kinds of students, regardless of their cognitive level. Inclusion cannot be successful with such behaviour in the class”.
“That being said, these are considerations to doing inclusion correctly, not excuses to exclude. All interventions should be temporary and the ultimate objective should be to get the child back into the mainstream classroom, if the child is cognitively capable. To accomplish this, there needs to be fluid boundaries of entry and re-entry to the classroom, which our education system currently does not possess. Therefore, academic inclusion should be done delicately keeping in mind cognitive, behavioural and physical impairments”.
“Social inclusion, however, is a must for everybody, starting from a 3-year-old pre-schooler to a 20-year-old university student. Students can learn so much from interacting with one another. Neurotypical students and cognitively-impaired students need to interact on-campus and learn how to live with one another and function in the world. Special needs students cannot be taught in an artificial custom environment and suddenly sprung into the world at the age of 18 or 20. The real world is not customised for their comfort and that is something they have to learn by interacting with their peers in society”.
“Their peers have to learn from them as well. People with disabilities exist and they are all around us and they enrich our lives in their own ways. This needs to start from school, which is a microcosm of society. If we can start with inclusion and exposure in school, that will transfer to society”.
Making a Difference with Samam Vidya
How does Samam Vidya aim to make a difference in this space? Ms. Shastry explains, “Samam Vidya was founded in 2015. We are a team of 3 similarly educated people. Supriya Hoskeri has a Master’s in Educational Leadership and Counselling Psychology from Santa Clara University. She runs a lot of workshops pertaining to Mindfulness and behaviour, among other topics. Prabha Cheruvalath has a Master’s in Special Education from Santa Clara University like me. All of us previously worked in the USA. Currently, Supriya and I are based out of Bengaluru”.
“The inclusion of students with disabilities in mainstream classes is a long-term goal of Samam Vidya. The name ‘Samam Vidya’ itself comes from that desire; the word ‘Samam’ means ‘equal’, and ‘Vidya’ means ‘education’. Samam Vidya’s current operations are largely based around workshops aimed at helping teachers identify and help teach students with disabilities in the classroom, as well as how to include them more artfully”.
“We conduct workshops for teachers in various schools and NGOs on inclusive education. Our work mostly happens with mainstream schools and teachers, because that is where we want inclusion to happen. We also help teachers with their professional development and devise workshops tailored to our clients’ needs. Our activities are vast and varied and we do what we can to help adults in the field of education. However, the focus remains on special needs and inclusive education. We have worked with over 5000 teachers all over the country, ranging from small towns to remote areas in the Northeast”.
“Samam Vidya’s growth has been steady. Our philosophy takes time to explain and digest. The teachers who eventually buy in to that philosophy have demonstrated their ability to make changes to the way they teach in the classroom and have come to embody our philosophy. However, change at the level of the classroom does not always stick. Sometimes, the teacher can lose their motivation and they revert to old habits. For that reason, our eventual aim is to engender systemic change to sustain an inclusive model. To that end, we are trying to work with school administrators”.
“We also work with parents on occasion, due to the amount of pressure they can put on the education system. This is mainly due to their focus on their children getting high marks as opposed to learning, which we try to get them to focus on instead. If a teacher tries to change and prioritise learning over scoring marks, they can meet resistance from parents. With enough external pressure, teachers can end up reverting to their old methods”.
Teachers at a Samam Vidya workshop
Samam Vidya’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Samam Vidya’s operations have not been impacted too badly by the COVID-19 pandemic, as Ms. Shastry clarifies, “Despite the impact of COVID-19, we have managed quite well. Previously, Prabha would help out on the back-end with regards to development work and take on the odd project. Now, due to Zoom becoming ubiquitous, she is now able to conduct workshops from the USA. Supriya and I used to conduct in-person workshops in India, but now we are doing online workshops, which I am not entirely satisfied with to be honest”.
“Teaching is a contact sport! It is a relationship-oriented profession that requires a physical presence. Teaching online is doable but unsatisfying. However, the fact that we are working with teachers as opposed to students makes it somewhat easier. However, even with adults it is not entirely satisfying. This is because we have several exercises in our workshops where we model how we behave with and teach children. This is difficult to demonstrate effectively in an online session”.
“Scaling up our current operations is difficult. Instead, our aim is to keep running our current operations smoothly and continue to help raise awareness of inclusive education”.
A Samam Vidya workshop in progress
Redefining Indian Education
“The NEP is a huge step in the right direction. However, my concern is that it is just a policy. How effectively will it be enforced? What are the timelines regarding enforcement? Who will be accountable and at what cost? We need answers to these questions”.
Asked for her own thoughts on how she would approach taking Indian education forward, Ms. Shastry responded thoughtfully, “My first priority would be to define what education is. Many in India still believe that education is academics and nothing else. The NEP has talked about vocational education and the importance of holistic learning in many paragraphs. However, the absence of a definition of what education is ensures that Indians will continue to unnecessarily conflate success in academics with a successful education and nothing else, which is sad”.
“It is important to define what education means for every student. I personally believe that education is any learning that takes us forward in life. Following that, it is important to define your goals. At the end of 10 years of schooling, where do you want your child to be? What are your desired objectives from education? Not every student ends up at university. University is merely one among several goals that a student can chase. Students can opt to start their careers right after school through vocational education, which is a perfectly legitimate option”.
“As for students with significant cognitive impairments, their goal would be an independent livelihood. School ultimately prepares one for independence in life through a variety of ways, and independence is a desire shared by all students, including those with cognitive impairments. Without goals and a purpose, students will aimlessly float through the education system, and that is not good”.