Maybe this seems a little familiar to you. Maybe you recognize a variation of this phrase. That wouldn’t surprise me. The phrase “presume competence” has been around the education world in relation to disability inclusion for quite some time.
The most succinct definition of this concept comes from Douglas Biklen, Dean of the School of Education at Syracuse University. Biklen is also faculty in Disability Studies, and the Senior Researcher at the Institute on Communication and Inclusion. Biklen explains that, “to presume competence is to assume that a child has intellectual ability…and assume the child wants to learn and assert him or herself in the world. To not presume competence is to assume that some individuals cannot learn, develop, or participate in the world. Presuming competence is…a framework that says: approach each child as wanting to be fully included, wanting acceptance and appreciation, wanting to learn, wanting to be heard, wanting to contribute.”
And while I agree wholeheartedly with Biklen’s definition, I think we need to take this a step further. I think we must go further than assuming a person has intellectual ability – after all, you know what they say about assuming…
I believe that we need to EXPECT COMPETENCE.
Now here’s the thing. I’m a grammar nerd. I LOVE WORDS. I genuinely like to dig into the meanings and subtle differences in understanding that can be created based on word choice. And I like to tease apart the subtle differences in semantics.
My issue: I don’t think the phrase “presume competence” is strong enough. I think that too many people confuse or even conflate (combine two or more texts, ideas, etc. into one) the words assume and presume. I believe that too many people actually miss the layer of expectation inherent in presuming.
Assume - to take as granted or true
Presume - to expect with confidence; to suppose to be true without proof
Something distinct happens when we have an expectation rather than simply assuming something will happen. It is for this reason that I chose to be overt in my word choice for this series (that; and I really like my choice of “P is to Prepare”).
I think an example or two can help to make this clearer.
If I assume that my class of fifteen four-year-olds can all learn, I will likely approach each day with a positive attitude and a desire for creating exciting, dynamic and meaningful learning experiences. Sounds terrific, right?
But when I EXPECT that each of those fifteen four-year-olds will learn; I change the game. I will work toward creating the exciting, dynamic and meaningful learning experiences that will bring out the best in each of those students.
If I assume that all of my sixth graders can learn the prayers of the Torah service, I will expose them to appropriate and meaningful materials and learning experiences that will help them to achieve that goal.
But when I EXPECT that each of those sixth graders will learn the prayers of the Torah service, I will accept nothing less – and I'll work to find the ways to excite, support and guide each of them to reach their full potential.
I suppose that you could argue that I’m splitting hairs. But I don’t think so. I think that our beliefs and interactions with one another shift when we EXPECT competence. It's active rather than passive, and I think that might just be the key. There are, sadly, plenty of educators and professionals who assume that students, particularly those with complex or highly involved disabilities, can’t learn. Or that they can’t learn more. Or that they know best what a student should learn and therefore limit exposure to curriculum in some way. This is so very unfortunate.
When we have expectations – for our students and for ourselves – we do the best that we can to meet them. Everyone wins.
Biklen concludes, “By presuming competence, [by expecting competence] educators place the burden on themselves to come up with ever more creative, innovative ways for individuals to learn. The question is no longer who can be included or who can learn, but how can we achieve inclusive education.”
Yes. This. Absolutely this.
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I’d love if you would share some of the specific ways that you expect competence.