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The expansiveness, generosity and creativity of ‘special education’

What is magical about special education is the understanding that every child has their own pace

Every child deserves to find the particular joys education can unlock for them.
Every child deserves to find the particular joys education can unlock for them. (iStockphoto)

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I have a lot of education in my life currently. At work, I am reading, watching and listening to complex accounts of women thinking about the education they fought for, the education they got or didn’t get. I just finished reading Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions—a novel about a girl in pre-independence Zimbabwe who gets the education she wants only because her brother dies. And what that education means as a teenager in a deeply sexist, colonised country. I am navigating the somewhat baffling entry of my children into the school system. I am considering going back to studying. I am watching my nephews prepare for serious school exams.

One of the things I now realise about school is that we weren’t taught how to study. Most of my education consisted of classrooms in which teachers recited lessons, varying only in their capacity for rhythm. The recitals could be droning or they could be songs. They were mostly well-intentioned but the older we got, the more dreary the teaching got. The fag end of my education consisted of taking notes of dull lectures (in my bachelor’s) and dodging psychopaths who should legally not be allowed in education (during my master’s in journalism). There were a handful of teachers who were exceptions, of course. Those who actually taught us to think through a problem. Those who taught us to understand that there was an arc in learning everything. Those who taught us to seek connections. I remember all their names and even the particular lessons they taught.

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Here I don’t mean the Oh Captain, My Captain kind of life-lessons-giving teachers (I had many of those who are responsible for all the success and happiness in my life). I mean, really basic things about grammar, math and history. I had a year of being obsessed with organic chemistry purely because it made sense. Because the teacher made it all hang together. And that kind of learning experience was rare.

My school life, like yours, had its share of jerks also. A teacher who threw a tiffin box at me when I asked her what the word “puzzle” meant (she was conducting a dictation test. I was six). The teacher who said in the first week of the year that no one in the whole class of 50 understood math or ever would since we were not science students (I was 17. My father offered to beat him up once when I spotted the teacher in a public place, an offer I didn’t take up but cherish eternally).

I mention these two kinds of teachers because I want to make clear that the personality of the teachers is not what I am thinking of here. I am just saying I was not a great student most of my school life. I was periodically very earnest and very hard-working but only occasionally effective. Partly, I am told by friends who are great students, it is about knowing how to write exams. Some of my rank-getting friends, I have seen them with my own eyes, flipping through books in a thoughtful way and just absolutely acing the exams. They explain with the mystical air of water diviners in a drought, “I knew what will come in the paper.” You know what will come in the paper? What! Now I believe that they know. I have tried to apply my adult canniness to exams and failed. I am canny but not in that way. If there are 10 chapters, I study all of them. I don’t know what to “leave out”.

What I had working for me was a good memory and a great ability to organise my material. I drew visual summaries, I wrote little maps of chapters, I tested myself. I followed my mother around asking her to test me. This, I knew somehow intuitively, and it also made me “feel” like I was working hard (nothing more dispiriting than studying hours and hours and hours for class XI math exams and being confronted in the hall by the possibility that horrible Mr Thomas was right). I had many classmates who simply didn’t know how to plan and organise their study. And no one seemed to think that was something they needed help with.

What I am saying is that in the classroom, I remember very little learning and I remember very little conversation about how to study. Instead, we were all sent for tuitions. We were all given books of sample examinations. We were mocked, punished, terrorised and blackmailed. Our books, basketballs, guitars, friends, phones were locked away.

These days, as I think of a future which includes studying, I feel full of excitement. I know so much more about how to study or what works for me. I am an adult picking my pleasures and my poisons.

Most importantly, I have seen a little bit of the great minds at work in India and around the world thinking through education for children with disabilities. The expansiveness, generosity and creativity of “special ed” is what the whole world needs. Not the Hunger Games model where you are fighting for your life and the life of your community. In special ed, you may learn through doing, through touch, through songs. You represent what you have learnt by drawing, by speaking or sign language or using your favourite toy. When special ed works, your teacher learns who you are and you learn. What I find most magical about special ed is the understanding that every child has their own pace.

What a world it would be if we could take as much time as we need to learn things. Every child deserves it. Every child deserves to find the particular joys education can unlock for them. Sometimes it is poetry, sometimes it is organic chemistry.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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