Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs

Publication Details

The purpose of this review is to outline international trends in the education of students with special educational needs, with the aim of informing the Ministry of Education’s current review of special education.

Author(s): David Mitchell PhD, College of Education, University of Canterbury, for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

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Chapter 2: Paradigms of special education needs

3During its history, the broad field of special education has been the site of quite different paradigms, or models, which posit certain relationships between individuals with disabilities and their environments. This chapter will examine the three most dominant paradigms: the psycho-medical paradigm, the socio-political paradigm and the organisational paradigm. While most countries have a mix of all three underlying their educational provisions for SWSEN, the preponderant paradigm remains the psycho-medical model, which still retains its adherents even when other paradigms that place an emphasis on the environment have gained traction in recent years.

2.1 Psycho-medical Paradigm

Until recently, special education has been dominated by a psycho-medical paradigm, which focuses on the assumption that deficits are located within individual students (Clark et al., 1995). Historically, this paradigm has been the most widespread and has been used in both the diagnosis and educational treatment of children with disabilities. As noted by Ackerman et al. (2002), in this model students receive a medical diagnosis based on their psychological and/or physical impairments across selected domains and both strengths and weakness are identified for education and training. Those with similar diagnoses and functional levels are grouped together for instructional purposes. This model is problematic for several reasons, according to Christensen (1996). Firstly, it leads to the attribution of student failure to a defect or inadequacy within the individual, thus masking the role that highly constraining educational systems play in creating failure. Secondly, it wrongly suggests homogeneity within various diagnostic categories. Thirdly, many students enrolled in special education do not manifest demonstrable pathologies. Fourthly, as we shall see later in this report, studies show that instruction based on categories is generally not effective.

2.2 Socio-political Paradigm

In contrast to the psycho-medical paradigm, several writers regard disability as a socio-political construct, which focuses on structural inequalities at the macro-social level being reproduced at the institutional level (Christensen, 1996; Clark, et al., 1995; Skidmore, 2002; Skrtic et al., 1996). Some writers are critical of this socio-political perspective, however, blaming it and its derivatives for what they consider to be an unscientific approach to special education (see Heward, 2003; Kauffman, 1999; Kavale & Mostert, 2003; and Sasso, 2001).

An interesting variant of the socio-political paradigm is a socio-cultural view presented by Danesco (1997) on the basis of her examination of international studies of parental beliefs about the nature and causation of childhood disabilities and about treatment and intervention. These studies revealed a commonly held duality of beliefs, with many parents in some cultures simultaneously holding both biomedical and socio-cultural views, the latter derived from magical, religious, supernatural, or metaphysical beliefs. Among the socio-cultural views is the belief espoused by cultural groups that adhere to the idea of reincarnation, where a disability is perceived as a condition affecting a present life but not necessarily the preceding or following lives. This duality of beliefs leads parents to pursue both formal biomedical help and support from informal networks, including eliciting the help of folk healers, performing religious rituals and changing their own behaviours to atone for past transgressions. Danesco argued that professionals need to identify where their and parents’ beliefs are convergent, divergent, or in conflict, and to develop strategies to deal with these circumstances.

Danesco’s argument is echoed by Kalyanpur et al. (2000), who contended that the equity and advocacy expectations embedded in mandates for parent participation in special education decision-making processes may well be in conflict with the values held by many families from culturally diverse backgrounds. This is particularly so in the case of those who do not share beliefs in the primacy of participatory democracy, individual rights and freedom of choice. Instead of equity, some cultures may believe that inequality is a right and proper principle; instead of asserting individual rights, some cultures emphasise social obligations; instead of valuing choice, some cultures accept the primacy of ascribed roles. It is therefore incumbent on professionals that they develop an awareness of their own cultural and ethical values and understand that these may not be universally shared.

2.3 Organisational Paradigm

To these two paradigms, Clark et al. (1995) have added a third, an organisational paradigm, which they have identified in the writings of scholars such as Ainscow (1995) and Lipsky & Gartner (1999). In this newly-emerged paradigm, special education is seen as the consequence of inadequacies in mainstream schools and, consequently, ways should be found to make them more capable of responding to student diversity. Disabilities are perceived as a function of the interaction between individual students and their physical, social and psychological environments. Instructional techniques and learning opportunities should be structured to compensate for environmental deficiencies to ensure that children learn and achieve skills of adaptive living. This can be achieved through such means as schools implementing findings from research into effective teaching, operating as problem-solving organisations, and supporting teachers through the change process.

While recognising that their own work has largely been based on many of the assumptions of the organisational paradigm, Clark et al. have come to have some concerns with certain aspects of it. These include the difficulty in bringing about even minor changes in schools, given their ‘actual complexity and messiness’, and an apparently absolutist position lurking beneath the paradigm. While their own research shows that in individual schools it is possible to identify one of the three paradigms as being dominant (i.e., held by the powerful members of staff, especially principals), subordinate perspectives invariably co-exist among less powerful members of staff (i.e., teachers) and have to be taken into account by policy analysts.

2.4 Summary

  1. During its history, the broad field of special education has been the site of quite different paradigms, or models, which posit certain relationships between individuals with disabilities and their environments.
  2. This chapter examined the three most dominant paradigms:
  3. the psycho-medical paradigm, which focuses on the assumption that deficits are located within individual students,
  4. the socio-political paradigm, which focuses on structural inequalities at the macro-social level being reproduced at the institutional level, and
  5. the organisational paradigm, in which special education is seen as the consequence of inadequacies in mainstream schools.
  6. While most countries have a mix of paradigms underlying their educational provisions for SWSEN, the preponderant paradigm remains the psycho-medical model, which still retains its adherents even when other paradigms that place an emphasis on the environment have gained traction in recent years.

Footnote

  1.  This section draws heavily from Mitchell (2004a and 2004b)