Independent learning - A new paradigm

Posted: 
15 November 2013

Rory Cobb, Principal Officer (Inclusive Education) at RNIB, reflects on the inclusion of children with vision impairment and asks whether it's time to rethink the support they receive.

Looking back over more than 30 years of working in the field of vision impairment education, it's obvious that our understanding of inclusion has changed a great deal in that time. In particular, we now understand that the social dimension of learning is just as important as providing access to the curriculum. Strategies that might initially appear effective in helping children to learn can easily prove self-defeating if they make them feel and appear different from their peers. In the past we might have said this was all part of 'coming to terms' with disability, but this is really just describing a problem rather than addressing it.

This changing view is reflected in the newly developed concept of habilitation, which promotes a holistic approach to maximising children's independence and emotional wellbeing in all aspects of their lives. It also fits with a growing commitment to including disabled children in decisions about their lives. It seems strange now to think back to a time when support was done to children rather than with them, but social norms change and we can all be surprised by things we said and did in the past. Plus there is lots of evidence that we are not getting it right yet!

Technology revolution and digital resources

Alongside these societal developments there has been a complete revolution in technology, from the days of clunky desktops to the ubiquitous tablets and smart phones of today. The internet dominates our work and our leisure time in ways that would have seemed inconceivable to an earlier generation. Increasingly accessibility is being built into devices rather than needing to be added on as an extra and taught as a specialist skill. RNIB views the technology advances of the last few years as a crucial enabler for blind and partially sighted learners of all ages.

Another aspect of the modern world is the growing availability of digital resources. This has led to the creation of Load2Learn, an online database of downloadable resources in accessible formats for print disabled learners. The service was only launched in 2012 but already has 6000 users who have downloaded 19,000 items this year already. While much of this content is being converted by adults into a student's preferred format, an increasing proportion is going straight to learners themselves so they can choose how they want to read it on their own devices.

Putting all of these changes together and stirring the Equality Act into the mix, one might expect the support that blind and partially sighted children receive in school to bear no resemblance to that of 30 years ago. Yet one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the assumption that you need to be supported by an adult in order to learn effectively. RNIB has long argued that direct support should be kept to a minimum and that effective forward planning should make much of it unnecessary.

While some direct support is clearly essential for safety and educational reasons, we suspect that much of it results from an unwillingness to challenge the received wisdom that this is just how inclusion has always been.

A new paradigm?

RNIB thinks it is time to re-examine the principles and practices of inclusion with a view to designing a new paradigm - one where human support is seen as the exception rather than the rule, to be argued for rather than opted out of - and children are taught the skills to be self-reliant in their learning. What we want to avoid is a situation where children become dependent on support and then struggle to manage without it when they leave school. This isn't about cutting jobs and leaving children without the services they deserve; it's about redirecting support to teach them the skills they need to succeed in adult life.

We recently held a conference on independent learning attended by over 100 people, which suggests we are not alone in believing it's time for a change in how we think about mainstream inclusion for blind and partially sighted learners.