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Linking Research and Training in Internationalization of Teacher Education with the PEERS Program: Issues, Case Studies and Perspectives

Edited By Jean-Luc Gilles

The PEERS program proposes international exchanges adapted to the context of teacher training institutions wishing to take advantage of internationalization in order to link training, research, and practice. PEERS is based on the completion of Research and Innovation (R&I) projects during the academic year, during which international groups of professors and students from teacher training partner institutions collaborate remotely as well as during two placements of one week. For the students, the PEERS program aims to develop competencies in distance collaboration with the help of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), the management of intercultural groups, and the continuous improvement of their activities through reflective thinking and the spirit of research. For the professors the PEERS program aims to better link research and training, to reinforce their skills in the management of international research projects and to foster opportunities for international publications.

The aim of this collective book is to give an overview of the Issues, case studies and perspectives of the PEERS program. The first section entitled "Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges for the Internationalization of Teacher Training in a Globalized, Multicultural, and Connected World", focuses on the foundations and general features of PEERS projects, as well as the context of globalization in the intercultural and connected world in which it is situated.

The second section, "Case Studies and Lessons Learned from the PEERS Project in Southern Countries" constitutes a series of chapters presenting case studies on PEERS projects focused on innovation and cooperation in the developing world. The third section, "Results of Research-Oriented PEERS Projects," considers the results from PEERS projects that have enabled the implementation of theoretical and practical educational research, generally taking the form of small-case research studies or innovations in the design of teaching units. Finally, in the conclusion we propose to present the key points of the three sections that make up this book "Linking Research and Training in Internationalization of Teacher Education with the PEERS Program: Issues, Case Studies and Perspectives".

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Chapter 10: The Shared Experiences of International Special Educators (Zachary Walker / Rachel Sermier Dessemontet / Chantal Tieche Christinat)

Zachary Walker*, Rachel Sermier Dessemontet** and Chantal Tieche Christinat**

* National Institute of Education, Singapore

** University of Teacher Education of State of Vaud, Lausanne, Switzerland

Chapter 10: The Shared Experiences of International Special Educators


Although teaching is often tailored to local contexts, teachers can benefit from collaboration with colleagues in other countries through exposure to innovative ideas and best practices in settings outside their own context. This PEERS collaboration involved three students from the Master’s program in special needs education (SNE) at the State of Vaud University of Teacher Education and three students from the Master’s program in SNE at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore. The participants planned and conducted small-scale research studies while being supervised by one professor from each university. In this chapter, the goals and proceedings of international work in special education will be described as well as the outcomes of this specific PEERS project from student and faculty perspectives.

1. Global Education and International Experience

One of the existing challenges for higher education is to internationalize its programs and to make students more globally competent (Childress, 2009; Gacel-Avila, 2005; Rodriguez, 2011). Although teaching is often tailored to local contexts, international collaboration can be important for educators as they grow professionally through exposure to innovative ideas and best practices in other settings. Increased globalization requires←177 | 178→ that education leaders establish programs promoting the understanding of global problems and country-specific interventions so that educators around the world can address transnational problems and share solutions (Engstrom & Jones, 2007). Fortunately, the PEERS program recognizes the need to study and to witness education “on the ground” in other contexts and in other countries.

Although much of the existing research on international experiences focuses on general educators, the benefits of teaching and learning abroad are important for all educators. A special educator works with and advocates for students who are often on the fringes of the educational system or left out altogether. Populations of learners who need advocates for social and educational inclusion contain, but are not limited to, students with disabilities, students without access to education due to conflict, and students excluded from educational access because of their gender, religion, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. The individuals who work with marginalized populations can profit greatly from international field experiences and collaboration because the experiences provide learning opportunities that may not be available in their local context.

The participants involved in this PEERS collaboration were all graduate students pursuing their Master’s degree in special education. Rhee and Honeycutt Sigler (2010) studied the keys to developing leadership ability in graduate students and emphasized the importance of field experiences as a tool in leadership development. Graduate students learn through comparative educational experiences and are able to develop a more critical eye as they begin to influence both policy and practice (Burke, 2001). Another advantage of collaborative experiences for graduate students in special education is the opportunity to work with colleagues. Friend (2000) reports:

Virtually every treatise on inclusive practices, whether conceptual, anecdotal, qualitative, or quantitative, concludes that inclusion’s success in large part relies on collaboration among staff members and with parents and others, and that failures can typically be traced to shortcomings in the collaborative dimension of the services to students (p. 130).←178 | 179→

In other words, students, parents, and the community cannot train teachers as though their profession involved only knowledge, while considering the presence of others as a negligible factor (Loreman, 2010). Involving all stakeholders in the education of students is effective and important in creating an inclusive environment. Positive outcomes for students participating in international experiences include a more focused approached to academic work as well as intellectual and personal growth (Bates, 1997; Carlson & Widaman, 1988; Hadis, 2005; Willard-Holt, 2001).

In addition to the collaborative benefits, the value of international experiences has been explored by researchers across disciplines (e.g., Alfaro & Quezada, 2010; Engstrom & Jones, 2007; Pence & Macgillivray, 2008), and has been found to lead to both personal growth and a professional perspective (Cannon & Arnold, 1998; Knouse & Fontenot, 2008; Narayanan, Olk, & Fukami, 2010; Taylor, 1985, 1988). Active engagement with others from different cultures leads to an expanded worldview and, ultimately, makes one a more flexible and compassionate teacher (Willard-Holt, 2001). As special educators, compassion is central to our profession, and international experiences that are comprehensively planned, carefully delivered, and thoroughly supervised can provide opportunities for this powerful personal and professional growth. International collaborations and experiences help special educators to develop a deeper understanding of inclusive education (Faulconer, 2003; Singal, 2005), greater compassion and flexibility within their practice (Van Hoof & Verbeeten, 2005), and a more self-reflective practice (Darling-Hammond, LaPointe, Meyerson, Orr, & Cohen, 2007). Especially important to special educators may be the understanding that comes from exploring the idea of education as a form of social justice – an idea best understood when experienced. Participants in this PEERS project were exposed to educational systems that were different from their own. In order to understand the differences in special education for the participants better, it was important for them first to understand a brief history of educational policies and practices in both Switzerland and Singapore.←179 | 180→

2. Special Needs Education in Switzerland

Switzerland is a federal state composed of 26 provinces. The provinces are responsible for the organization of SNE, as well as general education, which falls under their sole jurisdiction. This leads to a marked heterogeneity in the policies and practices of the provinces, and each one has its own history in the development of SNE. Nevertheless, in Switzerland, SNE has grown at the margin of the general education system, as is the case in most European countries and North America (Armstrong, 2002; Chauvière & Plaisance, 2003). The first special schools in Switzerland were created during the 19th century (European Agency for SNE (EADSNE), 2014). During the 1960s, Federal Invalidity Insurance played a central role in SNE (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, 2007). Indeed, it financed the education of pupils with disabilities in special schools. However, these measures were provided only to children with intellectual, physical, or sensorial disability, language impairment, and severe behavioral disorder. Children with milder disabilities (learning disabilities and behavioral problems) were schooled in mainstream classrooms, mostly in special classes.

In 2008, a complete reorganization of special education took place. The funding and organizing of SNE for children with disabilities were transferred entirely from Federal Invalidity Insurance to the provinces (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, 2007). Thus SNE became an integral part of the Swiss education system. Several cantons have entered into an agreement that binds them to promote more inclusive practices, in accordance with the Swiss Federal Act on Equal Rights for People with Disabilities (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, 2007). This represents a challenge for most of the cantons as Switzerland is one of the most diverse countries in Western Europe (European Agency for Development in SNE (EADSNE), 2010). Currently, some provinces have implemented inclusive education for children with disabilities but others still school most of these students in separate settings. As of 2008, the proportion of pupils schooled in separate settings ranged from 2 % in the province of Tessin to 9 % in the province of Bâle Campagne (Sermier Dessemontet, 2012).←180 | 181→

Depending on the province, how SNE is delivered may also be different depending on the students’ age. During their very early years, children with disabilities benefit from early childhood intervention. Interventions are mostly family based, with early intervention specialists coming to the child’s home (European Agency for Development in SNE [EADSNE], 2014). Beginning in kindergarten, special education is provided either in special schools, special classes, or in general education classrooms, depending on the severity of the pupils’ disabilities, and on the degree of inclusion of each province. Generally in Switzerland, there are special schools for pupils with intellectual disability, physical disabilities, severe behavioral disorders, autism spectrum disorder, hearing, and speech or visual impairments. There are also special classes in mainstream schools for pupils with learning disabilities and behavioral problems. These classes have a reduced number of students who often have an adapted or reduced curriculum (European Agency for Development in SNE [EADSNE], 2014). Regarding SNE for pupils included in general education classrooms, teaching and learning consist of a set number of support hours from a special education teacher and therapists during the week, depending on the pupils’ needs. When ordinary individual measures available locally from the school’s resources are insufficient to meet the children’s needs, enhanced individual measures are provided. These measures are characterized by a longer duration, stronger intensity, and more specialized professionals, and are supposed to have a significant impact on pupils’ lives (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, 2007).

3. Special Needs Education in Singapore

As in Switzerland, the Singapore educational system has gone through many changes in the last 50 years as the country has evolved. Initially, education was essentially the provision of basic literacy for the masses. By the early 1980s, Singapore had grown significantly and students of←181 | 182→ different abilities and aptitudes were placed in different school settings based on their perceived aptitudes. Schools were separated into two main categories and those categories still exist today. Mainstream schools, focusing on education for typically developing students, fall under the direct purview of the Ministry of Education (MOE). Special schools, for students with varying disabilities, are primarily managed by voluntary welfare organizations (VWO) supported by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) and MOE.

In 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong began to emphasize the need for individuals with disabilities to become a greater part of society (Embassy of the Republic of Singapore: Tokyo, 2004). Several measures were introduced to provide better support for students with SEN studying in mainstream classrooms. These measures included further support for students with special needs across all educational settings, including mainstream schools (Ministry of Education, 2004). Students with mild special needs (including dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) could be placed in special schools, and 10 % of existing mainstream teachers are now trained in special needs (TSN) via MOE professional development (MOE, 2017). The shift in focus to inclusive policies also included the creation of allied educators (learning and behavioral support) (AED/LBS) to support the students with mild special needs who had begun studying in mainstream schools. These policies led to an increased awareness about “inclusive education” in Singapore.

These measures may have led to awareness but they did not necessarily lead to the acceptance of individuals with disabilities in the classroom (Walker, 2016). Singaporean schools are still working to find a balance between supporting students with special needs in mainstream schools and placing students with disabilities in special schools. The AED/LBS educators and teachers at special schools are currently trained in different programs at NIE and many mainstream teachers still struggle to accept students with special needs in their classes due to a lack of understanding about how to differentiate instruction and manage behavior (Nonis, 2006). Many mainstream schools have one AED/LBS for hundreds of students, and there are cases where schools do not have←182 | 183→ an AED/LBS at all. In these cases, students with special needs receive no extra support from a professional trained in special needs. Unfortunately, in Singapore, special educators can be overworked trying to reach as many students as possible and many students with special needs still end up not receiving services.

4. Description of the SNE PEERS Project

For this particular PEERS project, three students on the Master’s program in SNE at the State of Vaud University of Teacher Education (HEP Vaud) and three students of the program in SNE of the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore were selected to participate. The participants involved in this project worked as special education teachers at least 3 days per week in addition to their roles as students. For this collaborative project, participants planned and collaboratively conducted a small-scale research project on a common topic under the supervision of one professor of each university. For the Swiss participants this project was part of the research class of their Master program. For the Singaporean participants this research provided the research foundation for their Master’s thesis.

In November 2012, three students of the NIE volunteered to participate in the PEERS project. They were consulted on the topic that interested them for their thesis. Three general topics were identified as their areas of interest: number sense among children with intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorders, and serving students with multiple and severe disabilities. Once these topics were identified, three Swiss students interested in collaborating with a Singaporean partner were identified and recruited.

In December 2012 and January 2013 the participants were paired according to shared research interests, and began corresponding with each other. The participants began communicating via social media and email to become familiar with their areas of personal and professional interest.←183 | 184→ The participants were instructed to form a common research question and work on the corresponding literature review. Communication was easy and they began to get to know each other quickly, but choosing a specific topic and research question seemed more difficult. Based on the faculty supervisors’ experience teaching research methodologies, this phase takes time and requires scholarly reading. Most students experience several changes of mind during the process. Doing it collaboratively at a distance and in a second language proved to make the process even more complicated. After 2 months of discussion, two of the groups had not yet stabilized their specific topic and could not begin a review of the literature.

In February 2013, the participants from HEP Vaud and their supervisor came to Singapore for a 1-week visit. The week consisted of visits to the schools of their partners, and two work sessions in order to plan their small-scale research. It was required that they specify the research question, research design, and method of data collection. At the end of the working sessions the specific topics of the small case studies were established for the three groups and first drafts of research questions were formulated. The first pair of participants decided to conduct a small-scale research project on number sense among children with intellectual disability (ID) or language impairments. The second group planned to investigate the use of complementary and alternative therapies by parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. The third pair decided to explore the effectiveness of dolphin therapy for children with multiple and severe handicaps. During this week, the participants did not have enough time to plan their research design and method of data collection. However, working sessions during the visit seemed to enable a more effective collaboration online during the following weeks. Participants exchanged literature via email and planned their research design and data collection method. The participants were able to specify the details of the study through communication that took place in March and April of 2013.

In May 2013, the participants collected data for their study. In the first project, standardized mathematical tests were conducted with children with ID by the Singaporean participant and with children with←184 | 185→ language impairments by the Swiss participant. In the second project, a survey on the use of complementary and alternative therapies was administered to parents of children with autism spectrum disorders schooled in special schools. In the third project, the Singaporean participant collected data on the sensorial profile of children with multiple and severe handicaps, and videotaped a dolphin therapy session with them while his Swiss counterpart helped to review literature and provide feedback.

In June 2013, the participants from the NIE and their supervisor visited the participants of the HEP-Vaud for 1 week. The visit consisted of visits to special schools and two work sessions. By the time this visit took place, participants had completed data collection. They had afternoon working sessions so they could work on the analysis of the collected data and on the presentation of their results.

During August and September 2013 the participants continued to analyze their data, draft their study results, and collaborate on reflections about the research process. Participants were instructed to submit a completed 15-page draft of their final manuscript for review. During October of 2013, the faculty supervisors involved in the project reviewed the research papers and provided feedback. In November 2013, participants submitted their final version of a 15-page research paper as well as a 2–3-page reflective paper.

5. Full Reflections

The reflections of the participants provided insight into their experiences in the PEERS project. Both the Swiss and the Singaporean participants found the collaboration extremely valuable and useful for their personal and professional growth. Especially important from the participants’ perspective was the growth they experienced in three distinct ways: understanding scientific research, personal reflections on cultural norms, and professional understanding during school visits.←185 | 186→

5.1 Scientific Research

The quality of the research reports written by the participants involved in this PEERS collaboration indicates that they attained the goals set for their program. The faculty mentors concluded that participating in this project was an appropriate alternative to a typical graduate class on research. Involvement in the PEERS project provided an effective initiation into the research process for the Swiss participants while allowing the Singaporean participants to put their research skills into practice. Indeed, they worked together to complete a systematic search of literature, to write a synthetic but comprehensive review of the literature, to formulate precise research questions, to select an appropriate research design and method of data collection, and to analyze their results. It is important to note that the faculty supervisors supported the participants in each of these steps, as if the participants were in the actual research class. The professor systematically gave them formative feedback on the output of each step. Participants indicated that they found the process valuable.

“Participation was a scientifically rich experience” – Isabelle, Manon, and Katya, Switzerland.

“The research has given me the chance to look deeper into the area of numeracy and children with special needs from a different cultural context” – Janice, Singapore.

Although there were differences in the type of interventions and equipment available in Singapore and Switzerland, the exposure to different treatments opened the eyes of the participants to interventions of which they were not aware prior to the collaboration. In the project on the effects of dolphin therapy it was impossible for the Swiss student to collect data as dolphin therapy was not being used either in her professional context, or anywhere else in Switzerland. Despite this, she was taken in by the novelty of the topic and her Singaporean counterpart found her questioning important for his own clarification.

“I was very interested in the topic, because I would never have had the opportunity to work on it without this partnership with the NIE” Manon, Switzerland←186 | 187→

“We approached the topic from each other’s perspectives. By doing this, there were certain points that I never thought of and that gave me better understanding and clarity about the research topic” – Izad, Singapore

5.2 Culture

While cultural myopia, in itself, is rarely intentional, in order for all educators to avoid seeing things through an ethnocentric lens it is important to make a deliberate effort to engage in international experiences. The participants from both Singapore and Switzerland recognized the value in the international collaboration as it helped to shine a light on their own cultural norms as well as those of their partners.

“We liked to discover the richness of the different cultures in Singapore […] In this project we collaborated with persons from each of the three majority cultural groups […] confronted with the different cultures, we learned to respect different social codes, for example not looking at some men in the eye when talking, or not refusing a proposition too directly” – Isabelle, Manon, and Katya, Switzerland.

These lessons are particularly important because educational inequities towards children from foreign nationalities are an issue in the Swiss educational system (Swiss Center for the Coordination of Educational Research, 2010). Unfortunately, students from foreign nationalities are overrepresented in special education classes (Lischer, 2007), as is the case in several countries (Zhang & Katsiyannis, 2002). Not seeing cultural differences, or assuming that education is culturally neutral, is problematic when teaching students with culturally diverse backgrounds because it can lead special education teachers to see deficits or inappropriate behaviors rather than differences (Gay, 2002). Being conscious that European-American middle-class cultural codes or values are a variant and not a universal norm, is one of the important aspects of culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2002). However, the value of the collaboration did not just affect the Swiss participants. The Singaporean participants were also stretched by the cultural differences.←187 | 188→

“The collaboration widened my perspectives on the research topic and special education in general by interacting and collaborating with someone from a different culture and educational system. This project gave me the opportunity to learn about things that are beyond academic publications and it has definitely been a rewarding experience” – Janice, Singapore

5.3 Schools

Although the visits were short, participants still found that touring schools in their colleagues’ country had an impact. During the school visits in Singapore, the participants could see for themselves that the trend towards inclusion is not restricted to Switzerland but is an international trend that is also important in Singapore. They could witness interesting practices at the school and professional level.

“This collaboration allowed us to open our eyes on what is done in other countries in the world in education and pedagogy for children with special educational needs. Sometimes we admired the equipment and means used in the special schools we visited and it inspired us for our professional practice ” – Isabelle, Manon, and Katya, Switzerland

“I was impressed by the projects developed to include children and adults with special needs in schools and in the community” – Isabelle, Switzerland

I was surprised to see the importance given to including pupils with special needs in the school I visited” – Katya, Switzerland

The Singaporean students also found it important that they actually saw at first hand the similarities and differences instead of only reading about them in a journal article or hearing about them in a class lecture. As Singapore is a small island, the opportunities to visit schools in different countries is limited as is collaboration with international colleagues.

“The insights that I had were truly enlightening and made me feel that there was so much out there in the world, with new things to learn for my development as an individual and as an educator […] my partner and I were eager to share about the school we are teaching in and the students that we teach. The beautiful part about our conversations was that we were always very amazed by what each other has been doing in school and that increased our curiosity and eagerness to visit←188 | 189→ one another’s work environment to really experience what had been shared. It has given me the chance to not only make comparisons but also learn from the different education/welfare system of Singapore and Switzerland better in the area of special needs. Often, we read journal articles of how the education system of a certain country is without truly understanding it. Thus, the visit to the three schools was an extremely enriching experience as it was experiential and it gave me an idea of what the Swiss education system is like” – Izad, Singapore.

5.4 Challenges

There were, of course, various challenges in conducting collaborative small-scale research studies in two different countries. The first relates to the official directive of the State of Vaud that forbids participants from the University of Teacher Education from collecting data on pupils out of their current professional context. This was a major hindrance in the collaborative planning and conduct of the study. For the Singaporean participants, receiving authorization to collect data outside their professional context was also difficult. The participants all collected data at the schools where they worked. In the project on number sense it prevented the Swiss and Singaporean participants from using the same instruments and comparing their results

“My professional context did not allow me to align myself on my partner’s method. My pupils were younger and had a different diagnosis” – Isabelle, Switzerland

Although the Swiss participants progressed greatly throughout the project and viewed the reliance on English as a benefit, their initial level of proficiency in English was a hindrance to efficient communication on research in the beginning. Progressively, they made significant progress acquiring the scientific lexicon in our field. Being able to read and understand English articles is important in research because the best scientific journals in the field of special education are published in English. Reading and writing in English will be a useful skill for the participants when they complete the literature review for their thesis. Moreover, mastering English is also strength for Swiss special education teachers. In the French-speaking provinces of Switzerland, English has←189 | 190→ recently become part of the curriculum from primary level. Although language was a barrier in certain cases, the Swiss participants also found participation in the PEERS project a benefit to their own improvement in the English language compared to taking a traditional research class.

“Thanks to the participation in this project, we were able to improve our level in English. Indeed, we trained it by communicating with our partners, but also by reading scientific articles in English” – Isabelle, Manon, and Katya, Switzerland.

However, the Swiss students’ level of writing did not progress enough for them to write their research reports collaboratively with their partners in English, as was initially planned. The Singaporean participants wrote their reports in English, and the Swiss participants in French. This prevented a final common presentation and discussion of the results by all the participants in the PEERS project, which is regrettable.

6. Conclusions

Gacel-Avila (2005) states:

One of the basic and fundamental functions of a university should be the fostering of global consciousness among students, to make them understand the relation of interdependence between people and societies, to develop in students an understanding of their own and other cultures and respect for pluralism (p. 123).

The State of Vaud University of Teacher Education is “aware of the impact of national and international projects on the quality of training, as well as on professional practice, the University of Teacher Education has a dynamic politics of collaboration and exchange […] It therefore develops relations with several partners in education in Switzerland and in the world” (Haute Ecole Pédagogique, 2014). The NIE in Singapore “endeavors to pursue tie-ups with reputable international educational and commercial organizations with the objective of cultivating mutually beneficial partnerships. Through memoranda of understanding and←190 | 191→ agreements, the Institute’s network of collaborations spans the globe. The linkages with our valued partners create a great many opportunities for dynamic and fruitful exchanges of knowledge and collaborative teaching and research activities, which ultimately contributes to raising the quality of teacher education” (National Institute of Education, 2017).

As both universities clearly support and promote international collaborations, this project focusing on special educators was a priority. Both universities realize that experiencing, reflecting and learning should not be confined within one building or one campus (Phillion, Malewski, Sharma, & Wang, 2009). It is important that special educators at every level take advantage of opportunities to learn and grow personally and professionally in international environments. Participants should not only understand policy and practice in their own settings but also appreciate how other areas of education are affected by global policy in an increasingly interdependent world. Although challenges do exist, international collaboration and research projects can provide a perspective that is invaluable as we advocate and work on behalf of all learners. Although the research itself was important, participants and supervisors agreed that the biggest benefit of the program was the collaboration between cultures.

The ability to see schools and approaches differently was extremely valuable if not exactly quantifiable. There are lessons to be learned through these collaborations, which stimulate curiosity and allow for innovative practice within local contexts. Although the research projects were important for comparative purposes, the sharing of ideas and possibilities for SNE was even more beneficial.

The PEERS project is an example of one partnership that directly benefits the participants and students with special needs in Switzerland and Singapore. Programs like the PEERS project insure that our students studying special education have the opportunity to continue to grow both personally and professionally. When participants bring this knowledge back to their colleagues and into their classrooms, the benefits of a program like this become exponential for the participants, the students, and the communities they serve.←191 | 192→ ←192 | 193→