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7 Lessons Colombia can Learn from Canada’s Experience in Inclusive Education

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #17

By Gloria Sierra

17.GloriaSierra3.jpgLast October, I had the privilege of visiting New Brunswick (NB) to see how an inclusive education system works in practice. It has undoubtedly been the most fulfilling experience I’ve had in my training as a teacher. The insights from that trip expanded my vision of inclusive education and I identified some powerful ideas to change the educational system in Colombia.

1. Community education in NB is an idea that involves all stakeholders and recognizes the school as a key element in building a better life for everyone in each locality. There you can read phrases like “Together everything is possible” on the school walls. In Colombia we need to build that sense of community, to understand that through the collaborative work of the different actors we can transform the education system into one that offers real guarantees of education for all.

2. In NB, they have gone beyond the vision of inclusive education as a ‘favour’. They understand it as a right for all, a responsibility across the system as a whole. Colombia must understand education for all children from a rights perspective. Fulfilling it requires coordinated work amongst all the sectors responsible for improving the living conditions of citizens.

3. Diversity is the engine of inclusion but inclusion is not just about providing services to categorized groups. It is the everlasting and dedicated task of understanding and responding to the diverse expectations, profiles, conditions and capabilities of children. This broader perspective recognizes diversity in all classrooms and calls on teachers’ commitment to work creatively, using diversified strategies. Understanding inclusion as something that benefits all students is the starting point in a peace-building society.

4. When children have learning challenges, it is the teachers who need support. In NB the needs of children are assessed but the response is a support system for the teacher. It is understood that teachers have challenges to teach and an entire strategy of pedagogical support is available for teachers to do their jobs well. To me this is a new approach because in Colombia the support is targeted at specific students, which reinforces the idea that it is the student who has problems, not the teacher. Undoubtedly, our educational service should be organized differently.

17.GloriaSierra25. Inclusion is part of the educational system’s DNA and not a separate proposal. NB has a unified vision of education, which aims to make real progress towards guaranteeing the right to equal access to quality education for all. In countries like mine, people tend to think of inclusion as a separate “project” that seeks to benefit only a few. This narrow definition sows the idea that you have to make extra efforts for the benefit of a few and hinders the system’s mobilization.

6. It is clear that developing an inclusive education system requires political will, leadership and teachers with high ethical commitment to make decisions and take actions so that no child is left without opportunities to study. Nevertheless, investment should not be aimed just at them. There are excellent teachers who take up the challenge here and there, but the continuous training of all personnel increases institutional capacity to respond to the classrooms’ challenges. In Colombia training tends to be focused only on teachers who report children with special needs in their class and this limits the responsibility to only a few. We must understand that all teachers are responsible for all students.

7. Children are more important than the curriculum. One simple idea that we need to understand in Colombia: the contents cannot be more important than people. Of course, it is a journey that has taken people in NB about 30 years –and there may be things yet to improve- but it is a wonderful example that a school for everyone is possible. This is why I will share these ideas with my colleagues and students. And I hope to keep learning from Canada’s experience so as to promote changes in the Colombian educational system.

17.GloriaSierra1Gloria Sierra is a Colombian teacher and promoter of inclusive education, teaching in the Faculty of Education at the Autonomous University of Bucaramanga, Colombia.