The Tesserae of Knowledge Project - Promoting inclusive practice in Cyprus
Building on the work of academics and educators who promoted inclusive education ideas through the work of people with disabilities, the ‘Tesserae of Knowledge’ project (Psifides Gnosis in Greek) focused on research aimed at collecting, digitising and disseminating material produced by people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses. The material was employed to conduct research aiming to improve curriculum development and teaching approaches. The material is central in teacher education seminars, in which participants 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’ was funded by the University of Cyprus, and began in 2011. It grew into a network of teacher educators, student-teachers, people with disabilities, academics and other individuals interested in disability issues. The project’s 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 was 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 was digitised and published on a website that was widely disseminated. It has been used in studies seeking to identify the value of employing such material in the school curriculum (see website for references). The aforementioned studies aimed to deconstruct the life stories and items of people with disabilities. They also aimed to facilitate 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.
Given the marginalisation of people with disabilities and the absence of local disability-related literature or forums where the experiences of Cypriot people with disabilities could be shared, this endeavour was important because it sought to identify and disseminate these experiences. Thus, a challenging part of the project was the data collection (via personal interviews and collection of published or unpublished material) and the preparation of digital portfolios of people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses. These portfolios comprised short biographies and items produced by the people with disabilities (for instance, poems, literature, speeches, works of art, documentaries, videos, songs, interviews published in the press, photos and other publications) or material produced as a result of their participation in the project (for instance, interviews). 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 are able to make the case that they are active members of the community and that their voices need to be heard, listened to and appreciated.
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 conceptualised as active members of society who can lead a fulfilling life, given that society removes all the barriers to their participation (social model). The feminist approach to disability emphasises the value of disabled people’s personal experience, and the need to take it into consideration in any political or other decisions (Thomas, 1999). Unfortunately, the media promotes the medical model of disability and 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 they are convinced that their ‘placement’ in the mainstream school is more about their socialisation than their 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 voice should be central in disability-related issues (e.g. policy development, educational curricula, etc.), so that prevalent stereotypes about disability are not perpetuated.
The digital portfolios were created after an ‘investigation’ about the person of interest. The search entailed looking for material on the internet, 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 material was 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 right 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;
- criticism of non-disabled people about their reactions to disability.
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.
The website 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 conducted 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 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.
The material collected for the project could be used for curriculum development, both at the micro and macro level. In particular, the material could be used in different curriculum subjects, to serve different objectives, either as key material or as a secondary source. 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 Lenia Takoushi’s poems (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 can also be used for teaching grammatical concepts, different types of texts, and concepts related to music, art and sports.
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, they designed and implemented an intervention programme that aimed at changing the attitudes of adult students towards the ‘Other’. Their findings suggest that changes in attitudes are possible, provided that traditional teaching methods and materials are enriched with alternative materials that represent typically under-represented groups of people, and also that the teaching methods adopted 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 students 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 their stereotypes about disability issues and think of new approaches to discuss disability with their students. 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, the use of disabled people’s material in delivering the national curriculum, increased confidence in discussing disability-related
The next steps for the project include the enrichment of digital portfolios and the development of a search tool for teachers (to help them locate the material they are looking for easily and quickly). The project continues to be central in professional development seminars and in 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.
The ‘Tesserae of Knowledge’ project could be characterised as a research project used as a tool for teachers’ initial education and continuing professional development. The most important and challenging features of the project 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 that can be incorporated 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.
Assistant Professor (Inclusive Education)
Department of Education
University of Cyprus