Two different inclusions

Under popular culture’s obsession with a naive inclusion, everything is O.K.
– Stanley Crouch

The Supreme Court’s recent decision that prayer in public institutions – specifically at a council meeting in Saguenay, Quebec – shouldn’t be allowed provides an interesting entry point for a discussion of inclusion, a hot topic in New Brunswick, especially as it relates to public schools. At first glance, someone might be moved to question how the two could possibly relate to one another. Prayer at a council meeting segues into a discussion of inclusion in schools? Understandably, it seems like a stretch to want to talk about the two things in the same breath.

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A story on the Supreme Court’s decision piqued my interest when it used the word “inclusion” in reference to factors which determined the justices’ conclusions. Needless to say, inclusion here means something quite different from inclusion when employed in an educational context. The fact that the same word can be used in such radically different situations points to the problematic quality of such terms when they are used as if their meaning is crystal clear. In fact, as the radically different contexts suggest, definitions and their implications can serve as profound examples of the commonly expressed truth that “the devil is in the details”.

When it comes to the issue of prayer, the view of the Supreme Court seems fairly straightforward to me. While the article notes that our constitution, unlike that of the U.S.A., makes no specific mention of the separation of church and state, the principle of ensuring that PUBLIC institutions are inclusive suggests that favouring a religious stance over an expressed irreligious or atheistic one, has the potential to make someone in the latter category feel left out or uncomfortable. And the solution to this dilemma (let’s leave any discussion of how much of a dilemma really exists to another day) is so simple: before this decision, identifiably Christian prayers were said before council meetings; from this point forward, they won’t be said. Case closed.

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When the word “inclusion” is used in reference to education, on the other hand, it just isn’t that simple. Inclusion has become both a stated policy and a guiding principle in education in the New Brunswick school system. To speak publicly, in a negative way, about the policy is anathema for teachers. If anyone is fool enough to do so, an abrupt rebuke is likely to follow. Having worked in the system at a time when current inclusion policies were being developed but had not been implemented to the degree to which they are now, I have limited experience with the impact such policies have had to the present moment. Based upon discussions I’ve had with former colleagues who are working amidst the current inclusive environment, however, it sounds as though the challenges are many, to put it mildly.

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Just so no one reading this thinks I am someone deserving of one of those afore-mentioned rebukes, I am not writing to voice my opposition to inclusion in schools. As Canadians, we have many things of which we are rightly proud and I would like to think that our capacity for welcoming diversity within our communities is among the most highly regarded. Creating an inclusive society is on a par with any other element which might come to mind when envisioning the best Canada we can imagine.

But, in schools, inclusion isn’t on a par with the Supreme Court’s decision. In the latter case, a judgement is rendered and from that day forth, no prayers in council chambers ensures that one and all are “included” in such sessions. Unfortunately, in our rush to achieve inclusive schools, we employ a similarly narrow view. The prohibition that governs commentary on inclusion prevents anything resembling assessment of its effectiveness from occurring.

When I’ve tried to bring this subject up with people who are proponents of current practice, I am commonly confronted with the assertion: “Inclusion is working”. Considering our penchant for researching everything in education before we allow that it even exists, I am surprised on the one hand that such views are offered without qualification. On the other hand, the defense of inclusion as a principle has become ideological; hence, no time can be allowed for any opinion that questions the central article of faith, namely, that inclusion of all students in common classrooms without consideration for differences of any kind is an absolute good.

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In the case of a classroom, though, what does it mean to say that “inclusion is working”? Do we assemble students in classrooms with nothing more than the express purpose of gathering them together without consideration being given to anything beyond their age and grade level (assuming grade levels exist)? Most people, I’m guessing, would think that what is being learned and the environment in which learning is, hopefully, going to take place would be at least as important.

Perhaps the core of the problem with inclusion in reality – as opposed to inclusion in theory – lies with the either/or mentality that is so prevalent in this age of oversimplification. I’ve been privy to conversations where someone tries to raise a concern regarding a personal experience with inclusive classrooms only to be shut down before the concern can be adequately outlined. This is a siege mentality that imagines the issue exclusively in the framework of “you’re either with me or against me”.

Surely there is room for some honest examination of the impact inclusion is having on classrooms. Good teachers speak of more time being spent in raw classroom management than is spent on actual instruction. And even as I say that, I know that I could easily be assailed by someone who would question my formulation of a classroom as a place where instruction occurs: “we facilitate; we don’t instruct”, or something along those lines.

Even that, though, helps support my point. Classrooms are dynamic places and inclusion is just one element of that dynamic, albeit an important one. Focusing on just one element to the exclusion of all others costs all concerned. If improving schools is our highest aspiration, we need to recognize the true complexity of the inclusion model. If our PROOF that “inclusion is working” is simply that everyone is now in similar class groupings, we end up serving no one well.


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