By Ruth Isaacson
My personal interest in the structure of the bridging class emanates from my own experience as a teacher of these classes for five years at King David Junior School Linksfield, in Johannesburg, Gauteng.
Iwas always delighted when a pupil who had started out underperforming was ready to integrate into a mainstream class. I felt sure that as the teacher I must have impacted this progress, but I lacked the perceptual or academic framework to understand the process of supporting the underperforming pupil or what constructs had helped to close the knowledge gaps.
Whilst studying for a degree and engaging with the work of educational theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Bourdieu, Bernstein and Shulman,1 the pedagogical practices I used in the bridging class started to link to more conceptual understanding. As part of the requirement to complete this degree, I was required to submit a research report. I chose to investigate the pedagogical practices of teachers in our bridging classes at King David Junior School Linksfield.
Closing the gaps
We run these classes in the junior school because there are always children who start school with skills that may not be sufficiently consolidated for school-entry requirements. This means they may not be quite ready for mainstream, but they do not necessarily need to be placed in a remedial school.
Unfortunately, there is a stark reality for many learners with a disability, as the Department of Basic Education describes it in the Education White Paper 6 – Special needs education: building an inclusive education and training system:2 “[They] have fallen outside of the system or have been mainstreamed by default.” The executive summary of this white paper also states: “The curriculum and education system as a whole have generally failed to respond to the diverse needs of the learner population, resulting in massive numbers of drop-outs, push outs and failures.”3
Learners at King David Junior School Linksfield who need this extra support are grouped together in a class not exceeding 15 in number. They follow the same curriculum as the rest of the school, but at a slower pace, which means that the three cornerstones of educational practice – curriculum, pedagogy and evaluation – are adapted by teachers to suit the needs of the group. Accommodating this is not a lowering of standards of a high-quality curriculum. The underlying mindset here is that whilst learners need to meet certain criteria, the school supports learners to fulfil these criteria.
Trust and teamwork
Of key importance to the success of this programme is the relationship and level of communication between parents and teachers. There is increasing evidence that indicates that if parents and teachers work to form a partnership, this reassures and validates the child.4 Teamwork is likely to result if all three parties put in their best effort to improve performance.
This relationship of trust is built on regular, honest and open communication. We have found that a bridging class policy is useful, and it becomes contractual. A recent psycho-educational assessment is required before a placement in the bridging class can be secured. There is also an expectation that recommendations from therapists and teachers will follow. This assessment is a form of screening, because the school does not run a remedial programme and cannot accept learners who need to attend a remedial school. We are, however, mindful of the expense and dearth of good remedial schools. In our experience, when learners do have access to an authentic remedial programme, they can often reintegrate successfully into mainstream classes. When a learner is accepted into the bridging class, the teachers will obtain co-lateral information from their previous school, and learners are expected to continue their external therapies.
A great deal of literature has been generated on the issue of inclusion as a concept of social justice, and that every child deserves to participate in a mainstream programme. A lecturer at University of Hong Kong, Peter Westwood,5 raises some of the challenges to teachers trying to attend to the needs of learningimpaired students in a mainstream class. He poses a question around the fairness of grading. For example, should the same “norm” be applied to the student who is learning impaired? Westwood argues that adaptations are easy if you get well-away from the realities of a full-size class.6 This is where a bridging class can potentially play a role.
The bridging class is structured in a way that offers the support of inclusion practices in a community of learners who are experiencing moderate learning difficulties. Westwood suggests that the assessment component of inclusion requires a flexible approach towards simplifying the task; shortening the task; allowing longer time; dictating to a scribe; allowing a different format (i.e. illustrations/scrapbook rather than an essay); enlarging the print; using more variety in question types; providing prompts; oral questioning; no penalty for poor spelling or writing; allowing a laptop; ensuring all students understand the requirements before the test begins; and allowing an anxious pupil to write in another environment (e.g. a social worker’s office). It must be said, however, that although adaptions and accommodations need to be made, the content of the curriculum must remain intellectually challenging. We can only justify the existence of this class if it is set up as a bridge into mainstream classes.
A constant ethics of care
The bridging class teachers at our school unanimously agreed that creating a culture of care is fundamental to the learning of all children, but particularly those who are emotionally or academically at risk. Our Grade 2 bridging class teacher said, “Learners need to be made to feel comfortable making mistakes.” She added, “I try not to make a big deal of it. I’ll call them aside and help them understand, let them redo it, just so that they feel confident to try.” Writer and academic Nel Noddings7 “vigorously argued that caring in this affective sense is not simply and adjunct or aid to the achievement of cognitive goals. Rather, it is central to teaching and should be consciously adopted as a moral basis for practice in classrooms and school.”
Jennifer Nias,8 author of an essay entitled Primary Teaching as Culture of Care, points out that for many learners, school is the only safe place where they experience consistent care and feel valued by adults whose lives are not chaotic and/or fraught with problems. Often in our bridging classes, there are children who are not as academically challenged as some of their peers in mainstream, but because of anxiety – which may be as a result of hostility and/or instability at home – they find it difficult to concentrate, and need the emotional support of a smaller, quieter, less competitive environment. Nias supports this approach. She believes “that children who feel secure in an adult’s affection can concentrate on learning”. As my colleague put it, when I asked her what kind of environment supports a child with barriers to learning: “Nurturing, safe. You have to build up their confidence, you have to make them feel that they can do things; that they can do it, because in their heads, they can’t, and that’s this environment of just nurturing, encouraging. You have to love them.”
Tending to the teachers, too
Bridging class teachers also need professional and emotional support. They need to be able to consult with remedial therapists or educational psychologists. Working collaboratively with colleagues and specialists provides mutual support. Our bridging class teachers invite remedial therapists to observe and give them advice on how best to work with individual learners. Working with learners and parents in this context can be wearying and, at times, when a learner does not seem to be making much progress, it is hard not to take it personally. We encourage teachers to upgrade their skills and attend courses – not only because it equips them with new skills, but also because it provides support, as teachers network with colleagues who work in a similar field.
A shared responsibility
As a community school with a religious, traditional ethos, we are cognisant of the importance of a relationship that supports the individual child and family. Our bridging classes are a unique form of inclusion in that they operate within a mainstream school and maintain high standards, but support the learners within a safe framework. In many ways, I believe King David Junior School Linksfield’s bridging classes fulfil many aspects of the powerful definition of inclusion educationalist, Michael Giangreco, quoted by Inge van de Putte and Elisabeth de Schauwer:9 “Inclusion speaks about all students, not just those with disabilities; it describes special education as a process, not as a place; it speaks of the rights of students; it describes students, both with and without disabilities, as being a shared responsibility for all schools and educators; and finally, it describes school as a place of community; and a place from which community can be created.”
1. See, for example:https://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/Portals/0/PDF%20reviews%20and%20summaries/Peda
gogy%202013%20Westbrook%20report.pdf?ver=2014-04-24-121331-867 and https://books.google.co.za/books?id=jfm1cVAC03QC&redir_esc=y.
2. See: http://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Legislation/ White%20paper/Education%20%20White%20Paper%206.pdf?ver=2008-03-05-104651-000.
4. See, for example: http://neatoday.org/2014/01/03/how-teachers-and-parentswork-together-for-student-success-2/.
5. Westwood, P. (2001) “Differentiation as a Strategy for Inclusive Classroom Practice: Some Difficulties Identified”, Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 6(1), pp. 5–11, Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19404150109546651.
9. Noddings, N. (1984) Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. California: University of California Press.
10. Nias, J. (1999) “Primary Teaching as a Culture of Care.” In Prosser, J. (ed.) School Culture. London: SAGE.
11. Van de Putte, I. and De Schauwer, E. (2013) “Becoming a Different Teacher:Teacher’s Perspective on Inclusive Education”, Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/294263922_Becoming_a_different_teacher_Teachers’_perspective_on_inclusive_education.
Category: Spring 2016