Education is a special need


The teacher as a lighthouse
The teacher as a lighthouse

I just came back from spending a few days with Yaacov Hecht  and had the chance to get inspired by his vision and energy. In his book, Democratic Education: A Beginning of a Story, he described himself as “dyslectic and dysgraphic with average academic capabilities”. He writes: “When I began first grade, it became evident to me that I could not learn to read and write”.

How can he be a leading visionary in education if he doesn’t read or write adequately?  It is maybe – surely? – that he transformed his “special needs” into “special skills”.

Hecht recounts:  “How could it be, I asked myself, that in some areas I was strong and successful, while in others – the ones most important to my parents and my school – I was a total failure?” Yaacov is not the only one to raise the question. Many of our early school leavers are facing the same dilemma although they don’t have the energy, courage, or confidence to take this “disability” a step further and manage, in the words of Hecht, “to feel connected with true goals”.

How can we ensure that all youth have the ability to connect with their true goals and be recognised and valued for their true skills? This is a question that goes far beyond the technological debate that turns around how adaptive and individualised learning can be.

Let’s assume that education is not only a basic need – recognised as such in the Declaration of Human Rights – but a special need. This means that all individuals – starting with youth – should be defined by the special needs, and correlatively by the special skills they have.

Usually, special needs education is defined as education that responds to the needs of people with disabilities. What if special needs education was in fact just what education should aim to be?

I want to share with you another unique initiative that I developed with – among others – Spanish illustrator and writer Miguel Gallardo. We designed an innovative platform to inspire Spanish-speaking (to start with) teachers – Aulas Creativas (Creative Classrooms). And Miguel shares an experience that looks very much like Yaacov’s.

Miguel starts with a question: How can we see the uniqueness of everyone? To understand how he answers this question, we must speak of his life experience. Miguel’s daughter Maria has autism spectrum disorder. She just turned 18. He said that Maria was the one that definitively opened his imagination and made him learn and understand without pre-established rules or guidelines. Suddenly he had to find new ways to communicate with her through drawings and other unconventional languages. In this transformation process, he learned how to be and see others in a different way. You should absolutely discover Miguel’s work and especially his documentaries: Maria’s Journey and Specialists’ Academy .

What do Yaacov and Miguel ask us? To recognise, in the classroom, the uniqueness of each student.  This means looking at them in a different way, helping them to identify their true goals, and getting connected to them.

But Hecht takes us a step further. Talking of learning spaces, he talks about the forest as the only place where he truly learned.I felt like an explorer discovering new countries. The ducks fascinated me. Through a process that I could not then understand, I found myself checking and searching books to find out more about the birds. For the first time in my life I was looking in a book of my own free will”. Hecht is inviting us on a longer journey, following the path very well described by Roger Hart in his inspiring “Children participation” book. Roger writes: “It is ironic that the electronic media are enabling children to have greater understanding of the earth and of global environmental issues at a time when they have little everyday spontaneous contact with the natural world”.

Both Roger’s and Yaacov’s statements lead me to discuss another visionary, Andoni Canela, one of the most brilliant nature photographers, who also contributes to Aulas Creativas”. Andoni spent a year “looking for ducks” with his son Unai, showing us that non formal education is also about seeking new learning paths.

In this new learning context, the teachers and all community members must see themselves as mentors. Hecht suggests a tool: “rotations”, i.e. inviting youth into a classroom to create a circle everyday where a different group member would be an advisor, thus presenting the entire class with the challenge of leading and being led, each time by someone else.

Rotations may be a much more powerful concept than the “flipped classroom” as this innovation stems directly from young people’s special needs and enables every student to look at oneself and others in a different way.

Where do the teachers stand on this innovative mentoring vision?

Gallardo designed a special workshop  within Aulas Creativas to help teachers “rise to the moon, see the world better and look at ourselves better”. He says: “Most of the time, our imagination and creativity muscles get activated when we look at situations and persons from a different point of view”.

In one of these workshops, a teacher drew a mental map where he represented himself as a “lighthouse”.  A teacher-lighthouse is an aid to navigation among the many obstacles a youth will find in his way.

Both the rotations and the moon perspective design a new learning space where the teacher focuses on each student’s special needs and special skills.

The classroom could then be the place where every student says like Miguel’s daughter, Maria: “I am unique like everyone else”.

A very special need indeed…




2 Responses to “ “Education is a special need”

  1. Albert Sangrà says:

    Hi, Pierre-Antoine, let me congratulate you for this inspiring blog. I think it will be very useful for all those who devote most of their lives to education, as you are doing.

    You have all my support in this adventure: best wishes!!!


  2. Katerina Zourou says:

    Hello Pierre-Antoine, I just discovered your very inspiring blog, congratulations for this initiative. Thnanks also for your contribution to the JRC’s workshop on OER for school education I will have a look later today.

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