Tesserae of Knowledge: A project leading to inclusive curriculum development in Cyprus
The ‘Tesserae of Knowledge’ project (Psifides Gnosis in Greek) builds on the work of academics and educators who promoted inclusive education ideas through the work of people with disabilities. It focuses on research aimed at collecting, digitising and disseminating material produced by people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses. The material is central in professional development courses and seminars, in which teachers have the opportunity to develop the necessary knowledge, attitudes and skills to create small-scale projects aimed at (re)constructing the concept of disability at school.
‘Tesserae of Knowledge’ began in 2011 and is funded by the University of Cyprus. The project webpage disseminates important material promoting the art and voices of people with disabilities and informs the network’s members about other disability-related issues, such as seminars, conferences and research publications.
The project’s main aim is to identify people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses who live in Cyprus and in Greece (which is geographically and linguistically close to Cyprus), whose biographies and work could be used to promote inclusive education values. The material collected is digitised and published on a website that is widely disseminated. It has been used in studies seeking to identify the value of employing such material in the school curriculum (refer to website for references). The aforementioned studies aim to deconstruct the life stories and items of people with disabilities. They also aim to help in-service teachers and student-teachers to realise the connections between the material collected in the project and its potential in developing positive attitudes towards disability in everyday teaching practice.
The project rationale relies on the principle that society can form a realistic idea about people with disabilities through their work and views, rather than through non-disabled people’s beliefs about disability. The literature suggests that non-disabled people often hold stereotypes about disability. For example, many non-disabled people believe that people with disabilities are passive, pity themselves, and only need money in order to receive treatment. However, the majority of people with disabilities participate actively in social life, and wish to be employed, have a family, make decisions about their lives and enjoy their rights in a society that does not pity them, but supports them to have access to all activities.
The project adopts an inclusive education ideology and takes on board the ideas developed in disability studies. In this context, people with disabilities are not considered as people with a ‘problem’ (medical model). Rather, they are seen as active members of society who can lead a fulfilling life, given that society removes all barriers to their participation (social model). The feminist approach to disability emphasises the value of disabled people’s personal experience and the need to consider it in any political or other decisions (Thomas, 1999).
Unfortunately, the media promotes the medical model of disability. It presents people with disabilities as passive people in need, people who suffer, and who need financial support through charity. In Cyprus, teachers often adopt these ideas and believe that the ‘placement’ of learners with disabilities in mainstream schools is more about socialisation than education (Symeonidou and Phtiaka, 2009; 2014). Moreover, the national curriculum and school textbooks marginalise the profiles, identities and experiences of people with disabilities (Symeonidou and Mavrou, 2014). Activists with disabilities (Campbell and Oliver, 1996; Peters, Gabel and Symeonidou, 2009) have long argued that their voices should be central in disability-related issues (e.g. policy development, educational curricula, etc.), so that prevalent stereotypes about disability are not perpetuated.
The ‘Tesserae of Knowledge’ project began in 2011, thanks to funding from the University of Cyprus. It continues its educational and social contribution to date.
What steps were taken in this process?
The digital portfolios were created after an ‘investigation’ about the person of interest. The investigation entailed looking for online material, printed material, CDs and DVDs. In most cases, interviews were conducted, while other available interviews were collected (e.g. interviews published in the press or shown on television). After all the relevant information and materials were collected, a brief biography of the person was written, and decisions made about the way the material was produced in the digital portfolio. The person of interest was aware of the project from the start and provided their informed consent for the material to be uploaded to the website.
The material collected was analysed in terms of its:
- relevance to the person’s life in the given culture;
- potential to be used in the national curriculum (i.e. in which subject, units, goals, age range, etc.).
The content of the material raises issues related to disability, such as: disabled people’s anger at being segregated, marginalised and discriminated against, learning to live with the pain of a chronic illness, family reactions to acquired disability, etc.
Part of the material is about issues that are not related to disability, but can be equally useful, such as values (e.g. love, honesty, freedom), social and political issues, issues related to the country of origin (e.g. the landscape of Cyprus and Greece), and nature.
Who worked on and sustained the development? What key partnerships had to be established?
Numerous people contributed to the project’s development and sustainability, under the guidance of the project co-ordinator. A number of postgraduate students contributed by collecting materials and conducting interviews with people with disabilities. Research assistants helped in building the project website, digitising and uploading the material and periodically updating the website. They also contributed by developing the online search tool that facilitates teachers in their search for materials that are relevant to the curriculum.
Over the years, key partnerships were established with schools and teachers who participated in professional development seminars and action research projects and used the materials in their teaching.
The project website is a key project outcome. It hosts the digital portfolios of 27 people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses (16 men and 11 women) from Cyprus and Greece. The material includes videos, works of art, poems, interviews, invitations, posters and so on.
The network members are mainly teachers, student-teachers, parents and people with disabilities. A significant number of seminars were held in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Cyprus. The seminars introduced teachers to the key ideas related to inclusive education (e.g. valuing diversity, respecting rights, etc.) and disability studies (medical and social model, feminist approaches to disability, etc.). They also addressed the material’s potential to be used as part of the curriculum.
The search tool is another key outcome. Several teachers who participated in the project’s professional development programmes expressed a wish to navigate through the archival material quickly and effectively. In response, a search tool was developed to help them locate material of interest using keywords about subject, thematic area, type of document, and class level. A list of thematic areas was also developed, which complements the search tool.
The project’s dissemination as a means towards inclusive curriculum development is also a key outcome. Numerous presentations, seminars and workshops on the project reached university students, schools, teachers and audiences in local and international conferences. Making the project visible to all education stakeholders helped in implementing innovative inclusive practices at university and school level.
What impact/added value did they provide? To which stakeholder groups?
The material collected for the project was used for curriculum development, both at the micro and macro level. In particular, the material was used in different curriculum subjects, to serve different objectives, either as key material or as a secondary source (Symeonidou, 2018; Symeonidou and Loizou, 2018). The project website provides suggestions for using the material in teaching practice. The digital portfolios can be useful for different purposes. For example:
- A number of poems by Lenia Takoushi (a female poet with multiple sclerosis) are concerned with the process of learning to live with the pain caused by a chronic illness.
- The writings of Michalis Demosthenous (a male paraplegic activist) are useful because of their critical stance towards non-disabled people for the way they understand disability in medical and charity terms.
- Music by Stelios Pissis (a male composer with muscular dystrophy) is important for its musical quality and the values/messages it conveys (e.g. friendship, love, honesty, etc.).
The material was also used for teaching grammatical concepts, different types of texts, and concepts related to music, art and sports.
The digital portfolios are a valuable resource for those interested in the field, particularly for teachers who wish to address the social oppression experienced by people with disabilities, often linked with the stereotype that they are passive people, in need of medical care and charity. Through the digital portfolios, people with disabilities can make the case that they are active members of the community and that their voices need to be heard, listened to and appreciated.
From 2011 to date, the project has run a number of activities. These include professional development programmes for teachers, school-based seminars, school-based interventions addressed to teachers and students, lectures, publications, presentations in local and international conferences, and presentations in committees of the Ministry of Education and the Cyprus Pedagogical Institute. The material is also employed in undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Cyprus, as part of teaching and as the basis for students’ assignments. Numerous teachers have participated in seminars or professional development programmes. Through short lectures, discussions about the material and support at school level, teachers have the opportunity to fully understand the perceptions, wishes and experiences of people with disabilities. Eventually, they develop the necessary knowledge, attitudes and skills to enable them to develop small-scale projects aimed at (re)constructing the concept of disability at school. The project’s activities can be found in the timeline of events on the project website.
The material collected for the project was central to studies conducted in Cyprus, focusing on students and teachers.
One such study explored the potential to integrate autobiographical work emphasising personal experiences of exclusion and marginalisation into the Greek literature curriculum followed in Greek-Cypriot schools (Symeonidou and Damianidou, 2013). Given the difficulties encountered in Cyprus in promoting changes in attitude towards diversity, the authors discussed the autobiographical poems of the disabled Turkish-Cypriot poet Orkun Bozkurt. The aim was to strengthen efforts to foster citizenship education in Cyprus. One aspect of the study involved analysing and comparing Bozkurt’s poems with those traditionally employed in the Greek literature curriculum. By taking this analysis as a baseline, the authors designed and implemented an intervention programme that aimed to change adult students’ attitudes towards the ‘other’. Their findings suggest that changes in attitudes are possible. This is provided that traditional teaching methods and materials are enriched with alternative materials that represent typically under-represented groups of people, and that the teaching methods encourage active involvement and critical thinking among students.
Another study related to the project (Chrysostomou and Symeonidou, 2017) entailed a research action conducted in a primary school. A professional development programme was developed with the contribution of the teachers who participated in the research. The programme aimed to facilitate teachers to map the difficulties they encounter when they are working with their pupils on disability-related issues (e.g. attitudes towards children and adults with disabilities, disabled people’s rights, disabled people’s views about social inequalities). Disabled people’s material (e.g. interviews, published work, etc.) was used to help teachers confront stereotypes about disability issues and think of new approaches to discuss disability with their pupils. The participants co-operated with the researchers to develop the research process (modes of interaction with the researcher, studying the material, etc.), and the methods agreed were informal discussions with the teachers, classroom observation, interviews, lesson plans and researchers’ diaries. The findings suggest that incorporating disabled people’s material into teacher professional development programmes for disability and inclusion is a promising approach that could lead to a series of positive outcomes. These possible outcomes include teachers’ understanding of disability as a social rather than a medical issue, increased confidence in discussing disability-related issues, and the use of disabled people’s material in delivering the national curriculum.
The project will continue to grow and reach as many people with disabilities and education stakeholders as possible.
The next steps for the project include enriching the digital portfolios. The project continues to be central in professional development seminars and initial teacher education courses. Other studies focusing on students, teachers and student-teachers will be conducted in the near future, using the material and the ideas of inclusive education and disability studies as a starting point.
‘Tesserae of Knowledge’ can be characterised as a research project used as a tool for teachers’ initial education and continuing professional development. The project’s most important and challenging features are:
- its long-term nature;
- its relevance to the local culture;
- the possibility it offers for student-teachers to be involved in different ways;
- its use as a vehicle to build networks with teachers and equip them with material they can incorporate into their teaching.
This is a project that requires a continuous search for people with disabilities whose material can be useful, a commitment to widening the network of teachers who are introduced to it, and a commitment to involving student-teachers in a meaningful way.
The Inclusive Education Research Lab, located on the old campus at the University of Cyprus, helps to sustain the project. The Lab houses significant material gathered during the project (for instance, material which was developed by people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses, autobiographies, poems, music, works of art, short films, newsletters, assistive technology devices, children’s literature books and educational material for various subjects of the curriculum). It is an educational and research facility for disability-related activities (for instance, teachers’ professional development and awareness-raising programmes addressed to children and adults).