Lesson learned from the SAALED congress 2011 – From inclusion to belonging: the language of learning

By Victoria Graf

Over 600 delegates to the 2011 Congress of the South African Association for Learning and Educational Differences (SAALED) in Cape town had the rare opportunity recently to learn from South African and international experts, individuals with special educational needs, parents, educators, school choirs, a film maker and one of south africa’s most prominent authors, Chris van Wyk, about how to create more inclusive schools.

The Congress, which was themed ‘From Inclusion to Belonging: The Language of Learning’, centred around the many challenges faced by schools in South Africa. Using the context of the South African Constitution of 1998, the Department of Education White Paper 6 of 2001 and research on achievement levels in South Africa, the presenters at the Congress provided the delegates with many lessons to take back to their schools, both in South Africa and abroad.

The benefits of inclusive schools

It was clear from the Congress that the benefits of inclusive schools impact not only the learners who may have been excluded from an appropriate education but all learners in the school. This was exemplified at a presentation by a school Principal from Cape Town, and also at two independent schools I visited prior to the Congress – St Stithians Boys’ College in Johannesburg and Herzlia United Schools in Cape Town.

A graduate of each of these schools addressed the Congress delegates, explaining how schools can work towards establishing a community and culture where all learners learn from each other and share a sense of belonging. These young speakers highlighted how essential it is for school Heads and Principals to have a clear vision of inclusion in order for the school to be able to achieve this goal.

Challenging assumptions and expectations

The Congress presenters also challenged the assumptions and expectations that many educators have about learners with special educational needs. Whether the presenters were talking about learners with Down syndrome, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or those who are blind, the research and examples of practice were clear that, given the appropriate instruction, these learners – especially those with Down syndrome or those who are visually challenged – could be successfully educated in mainstream classes.

The Congress presentations also reminded delegates of the importance of addressing the various barriers that may impede the success of all learners. While barriers may be systemic, societal, pedagogical or intrinsic, many learners face significant challenges in terms of their working memory. We were also reminded how important it is for educators to develop the memory strategies utilised by learners with ADHD, dyslexia and Down syndrome as they solve problems or perform a task. There are many other lessons that delegates are taking back to schools and universities, including the importance of developing academic language for all learners. The most essential lesson, however, is that we are all working towards a more inclusive society by creating schools where all learners feel valued, can be successful and have a sense of belonging.

Victoria Graf is Director of the Special Education Programme at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. She is on a sabbatical investigating inclusive education from a global perspective. One of her recent publications with Terese Jimenez is Education for All: Critical Issues in the Education of Children and Youth with Disabilities, ( Jossey-Bass 2008).

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Category: Winter 2011

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