Our visiting Fulbright professor Christopher Zirkle from Ohio State University discusses inclusion in vocational special needs education with Sini Bask, a senior lecturer in vocational special needs teacher education. The need for a more inclusive every day approach with a plea for a more inclusive use of language are among the themes conversed.
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Life long learning in vocational education
Sini Bask: Today our topic is special need education in vocational education and specifically inclusion within vocational education. I’m Sini Bask, and I work here at Haaga-Helia in special needs teacher education, and here with me I have Christopher Sergel from Ohio State University. Welcome, Chris.
Christopher Zirkle: Thank you.
Sini Bask: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Christopher Zirkle: Certainly. I work at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. It’s a major research institution and we have about seventy thousand students. This is my 38th year in education, I have worked at Ohio State for 21 years and before that, I was a middle school and high school vocational teacher and principal. So, vocational education has been my whole professional life.
Sini Bask: Okay. Well, today we are going to talk about special needs and inclusion in vocational education. In Finland, inclusion has been the key word for a long time now. So, supposedly, every student in vocational education and in all the levels of education is entitled to the support that they need in order to learn new things. How about in the United States?
Christopher Zirkle: Well, there is a legislative act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was signed into law in 1990, and it’s been amended and reauthorized a couple of times since then. That provides the same opportunities for students with documented disabilities, as those, who do not have a disability. So, the same educational opportunities for everyone, regardless of their disability status.
Sini Bask: It sounds like the idea, or the ideology behind vocational special needs education is the same in these two countries, but there was a report by the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC), a recent report, where they kind of concluded, that it isn’t really as inclusive, as it could be or as it should be. For example, in Finland we maintain these two parallel systems of vocational education. One for students in general, and one for students or people, who have severe challenges in their learning, and who need intensified special needs teaching in their vocational education.
Also the process of deciding who needs, or who is entitled to special needs support or special support in the vocational education centres or colleges requires a formal decision and a process, and they have to be recorded or documented in a digital system, which means that you have to somehow identify the support needs and name them, and then write it down in order to get the extra funding, or the additional resources for giving the support. How about in the US, how is the process of deciding who needs, and is entitled to, support?
Christopher Zirkle: It’s very similar to what you described. If a teacher believes that a young person may have a need of some services, they can request a meeting and there can be a review, that would involve perhaps an administrator and a special needs coordinator and perhaps a teacher, to take a look at the student’s classroom performance and maybe have some classroom observations or some assessment tests to determine, if they are eligible for services. And just as you mentioned, there’s a plan that is devised, that’s kept electronically and it follows the student throughout their educational life, up until age 21, that defines what services that student should be provided.
Sini Bask: In Finland it seems, that it’s quite similar. The ways to try to identify and recognize the students’ needs. However, in their report, the Centre of Evaluation found, that in real life, for example the competencies of vocational teachers to identify and find the students and give them the support that they need still need to be reinforced. Also, they found that between the levels of education there are gaps, where we kind of lose the information that we need, so it’s not fluent between the different levels of education. But in the US, it’s a bit different, when a student for example goes from vocational college to the university.
Christopher Zirkle: Well, they are still entitled to services if they want them, up until age 21. What we find, as students get older, they aren’t perhaps as interested, they don’t want the services, they don’t maybe want the negative perceptions that come along with receiving some of those services. That’s a struggle we actually have at lower grade levels as well, that students don’t always like to be identified as being provided services.
Sini Bask: That sounds about the same as here. So, whenever they have the chance to say “I don’t need it”, they are quite happy to say it, even though the needs really don’t disappear. As you grow older, you usually need the support all your life, more or less, every time we study something. So, in paper all sounds quite inclusive and quite good, but how about the reality in the vocational colleges in Ohio?
Christopher Zirkle: Well, I think true, on paper it looks good, in reality we could use more resources, both financially and in personnel to provide, improve levels of services to students. And one of the issues that we’ve run into especially in our vocational programs is to provide some of these services, the students have to be pulled out of their vocational classroom or their laboratory, and that creates problems for the vocational teacher, because the student then may get behind in their vocational program. The students don’t always like it, because they want to spend their time in the vocational program. So, while it’s perhaps good, that they are getting some services they need, it in reality creates other difficulties for the student. So, we don’t really have the resources to have a special needs resource person in the laboratories at all times with the students. They have to be pulled out and perhaps taken in small groups or individually for tutoring or other assistance, and that doesn’t always work in the best way.
Sini Bask: The Evaluation Centre also concluded, that co-teaching in the vocational laboratories, or even in workplaces, should be developed, because that’s one of the weak points of the system in Finland. That the teachers still don’t do it enough, even though it’s been emphasized for quite a while now.
Well, if we could create an inclusive, perfect world for a vocational education student, what would you change, if you could change anything?
Christopher Zirkle: Well, I think having those financial and personnel resources would help, because that is a definite deficit that we have. We don’t have in all schools the ability to provide the level of services that students need. And I guess also I would like to see our society work on overcoming the stigma, that if you need special services, you are somehow different or less than, than anyone else. So, getting rid of that negative perception would go a long way as well.
Sini Bask: I think, if I could change anything, I would change the way people talk and think about these things and the concepts, and the language and the terms that we use. We still talk about special needs, we talk about special needs students, even special students, special needs teachers and special teachers and special education. Everything is really special. But in a perfect world for me, as these concepts and the language also kind of define the way we think about the world and look at other people, I would change the language. And for me, in a perfect, inclusive world, everyone, every student would be special, and every teacher special enough and competent enough to help every student and give them the support that they need.
Christopher Zirkle: And how can you make that become a reality?
Sini Bask: Well, that’s a good question, but I believe that the best way to change the world and the way that people think, is through education. So that the world would be inclusive for everybody.
Christopher Zirkle: Well, I would certainly agree with that.
Sini Bask: It’s been great having you here, Chris. Thank you for the talk.
Christopher Zirkle: Thank you very much.