Problematizing the Nigerian Curriculum for Inclusion
By Abass Bolaji Isiaka
The role of education in promoting social inclusion and cohesion in socially and culturally diverse societies has been at the forefront of policy debates for some time. As enshrined in the Salamanca Agreement of 1994, not only have developed countries in North America, Europe and Australasia incorporated the ideas of inclusion within their national education frameworks, but countries in the developing world have also expressed considerable interest and even adopted ‘inclusive education’ as a core principle of schooling. This has been in response to powerful advocacy from multilateral and bilateral agencies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID).
Nonetheless, the notion of inclusive education is highly contested and ambivalent. It is a term that finds its roots in rejection of the terms ‘integration’ and Special Educational Needs. Although many practitioners might see the terms as interchangeable, a considerable value significance is attached to the notion of inclusion. This is partly because inclusion has been constructed to have a more embracing and universalist meaning; it does not set boundaries between different areas of ‘vulnerability’. Inclusion is also said to have a more systemic and social meaning, in that it is about restructuring ‘mainstream’ schools to accommodate all learners. Integration meanwhile focuses on assimilating the individual child to the education system, without the system itself adapting to accommodate the learner. Nigeria adopted the policy of inclusion as an off-shoot of Special Education in 2008, and since then no significant effort has been directed towards its implementation, owing in part to the perennial problems of access and quality.
The inclusion of children with disabilities
One such example of how this rhetorical policy commitment has not yet translated into practice is in the case of Nigerian children with disabilities, who continue to face a multitude of challenges, including widespread stigma and discrimination. This includes the cultural belief that children born with disabilities are afflicted by an evil spirit or demon, which can lead to mothers being encouraged to commit infanticide or face ostracism. A lack of materials and facilities for providing education to young people with disabilities is a further obstacle. Public secondary schools in Southwest Nigeria attempting to improve inclusive practices face a dearth of certified special education teachers and essential resources such as hearing aids, Braille materials and other adaptive technologies. In addition, students with visual impairments in mainstream classes in Lagos lack specialised support and supplementary instruction, leaving them reliant on the goodwill of their peers for assistance. Inside the classroom and beyond, social and institutional obstacles limit the educational prospects of children with disabilities in Nigeria and pose challenges to parents who wish to support their children’s ambitions.
Inclusion, the curriculum and pedagogy
Another important aspect of promoting inclusion lies in addressing the curriculum as a whole. This requires looking at its evolution over time: beginning with mainstream curriculum and pedagogy, special curriculum and pedagogy, and the latest and distinct project of inclusive curriculum and pedagogy. Frequently, questions are raised as to whether one curriculum can fit all, hinged on evidence that certain groups of learners, such as children with severe learning difficulties, have distinctive group characteristics, and so require a different curriculum. Arguably, it doesn’t always follow that such learners need a different curriculum, but the legacy of special education and associated myths has led us to believe ordinary good teaching is not enough. For an inclusive curriculum to thrive, it is not simply special techniques that are needed, but instead patience and sensitivity in how it is delivered to different learners.
In Nigeria, as everywhere, exclusion and inclusion operate via the curriculum itself. Indeed, based on my experience as a special needs teacher in the country, many teachers seem to neglect examination of the intricacies of diversity and zones of exclusion within and beyond the classroom, because the curriculum never encourages them to do so. In reality, difficulties in learning do not occur in a vacuum, they arise due to students failing to meet the requirements of a given curriculum. Here, it is evident that there is a missing link between the learner and the learning opportunities. When a child fails in the eyes of a given system, we must consider whether the issue lies with the child, or with the curriculum and its delivery. This explains the central difference between the concept of inclusion and earlier notion of integration. Inclusion upholds that schools and society must adapt to the diversity of learners they serve, rather than learners having to fit with the unchanged curriculum and society.
In some Nigerian private schools, differentiation has emerged as a pedagogic response to making learning more accessible to pupils with a diverse range of abilities and learning styles. However, this approach has been flawed as it limits and labels learners by ‘sorting’ them into categories of more or less able. Elsewhere, the unproblematised acceptance of fixed or inherent ability has been succeeded by the learning without limit approach, underpinned by a more optimistic of view of human educability. Another way of thinking about inclusive curriculum is to focus on the recognition of learners as active agents whose perspectives, values and characteristics should inform the curriculum and not vice versa. Pedagogy should also be connective such that it successfully links individual learners and their ways of learning with the curriculum and wider community.
The polysemous nature of inclusion requires a strong advocatory approach which recognises the commonalities and differences between learners, and acknowledges that setting cut-off points and exceptions weakens the principle of inclusion and justifies old and new forms of segregation. For the policy of inclusion to thrive in Nigerian educational reform, an appropriate national inclusive framework will be necessary. There is also a need for strong political will and financial commitment from governmental bodies at all levels if children with disabilities are to have a participatory and meaningful experience in mainstream schools.
On the face of it, global discussion of inclusive education is something of a theoretical vacuum due to its lack of critical engagement with the realities of education and schools, in contrast to all that was promised earlier by the ‘big picture’ of inclusion. This vacuum is evident in postmodern writings on inclusion and the pragmatic watering-down of the underlying idealism of inclusion. I would argue that inclusive education needs to be reconstructed as a ‘grand project’, engaging with differences by propagating it in the light of knowledge, experiences and learning accumulated during the last two and half decades in order to gain consensus and support from students and their families, teachers and schools. In other words, inclusive education must be part of broader social policy and it must contend with the prevailing attitudes that expose children and parents to discrimination and bullying. Teachers and schools in Nigeria must be empowered to foster positive attitudes and to support those who are victims of stigmatization.