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Uncertainty as a Foundation for Change

by Srikala Naraian - 2015

This commentary notes the oppositional traditions that inform polarized perspectives on disability and schooling, and raises the question of the significance of such divisions for schools and for preparing teachers.

When the heady rush of plumbing a theoretical machinery to explain inequities in schooling fades, the task that remains stubbornly intractable yet enduring, is to offer a convincing description of how lofty ideals may be translated within inevitably flawed material and discursive contexts. Within the field of disability studies in education (DSE), as in other traditions that seek socially just pedagogy, this task has sometimes been characterized as an issue of relevance (Danforth & Gabel, 2006). In what ways can scholarly bodies of work, in this case DSE, remain relevant to the world of schools, teachers, students and their families? Certainly, relevance is established by pointing out how schools should carry out their everyday business—for example, how a disability studies-informed approach can change normative perceptions of learning and achievement. But it may also require showing how the core tenets of such scholarship can interlock with existing priorities, practices, and processes within schools in order to accomplish such change. The former is exemplified when we urge educators to monitor assumptions of learning within their own and others’ practices, and in that process accomplish a disruption of existing norms. It is the latter kind of research, however, that has been largely unavailable, and which has continued to perpetuate allegations of irrelevance of DSE scholarship. It is also this kind of research, as I argue in this essay, that calls for greater risk-taking and which affords scope for innovation in our work as scholars and teacher educators.

For more than a decade, a growing number of scholars, many of whom work within a disability studies tradition, have questioned the assumptions underlying mainstream practices in the education of students with disabilities (Brantlinger, 2006; Gabel, 2005; Slee, 2011; Ware, 2010). Not only have they repudiated the notion of disability as deficit, they have also actively worked to restore the significance of the narratives of students with disabilities and their families to the process of schooling (Biklen, 2005). This initiative has emerged from a recognition of the historical disconnect between typical professional responses to disability and the perspectives of families for whom disability is a complex, multifaceted experience rather than simply a social category (Berube, 1996). Not surprisingly, scholars have questioned the epistemological and organizational foundations of traditional special education and the culture of standardization within schooling in general (Skrtic, 1999). These recognitions have inevitably entailed methodological approaches that privilege interpretivist and qualitative research designs rather than positivist methodology (Ferguson & Ferguson, 1995; Gallagher, 2004). This body of work also generally espouses views of human development and learning that are constructivist rather than behaviorist in orientation. Collectively, these positions place disability studies-informed educational scholars at significant odds with their mainstream special education counterparts.

Still, the polarized nature of the relations between these traditions may have little significance for schools, which are increasingly being driven by mandates for the precise measurement and subsequent sorting of students to achieve maximum efficiency in the use of public resources. This situation of course implies that novice teachers, bearing commitments to inclusive schooling, must inevitably encounter conflicting priorities that will undoubtedly influence their decision-making. As teacher educators and researchers, then, on what basis can we claim strict adherence to a single ideological position? By doing so, we simply transfer to our students the challenging task of bridging polarities that appears insurmountable within our own research. From there, it is a small step to then categorize teachers as either unable to resist objectifying discourses or as adopting positions that seem contrary to the social justice orientation of their programs of preparation (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006). Recognizing this complexity in our work as teacher educators, some of us resort to the language of “tactics” to help our students engage with flawed schooling contexts while retaining their egalitarian ideals. We might do so somewhat uncomfortably, however, nagged by the doubt that this remains a theoretically weak approach; some of us may even worry that it reinforces the “theory–practice divide.” Our collective task, therefore, may be to situate such work—of tactics, of negotiating across differences—within a theorized practice that can accomplish several important objectives: It should not compromise goals of equity and social justice; it must be responsive to imperfect educational contexts and it should afford the conditions for risk-taking and innovative practice.

I find myself grappling with these issues as I explore the relations between competing perspectives not just in New York, but also in other parts of the world where interest in inclusive education is moving rapidly from policy rhetoric to implementation struggles. For instance, as a visiting professor at a European institution of higher education, I have been invited to support the development of a course on autism within a program on inclusive education. So, over the past few months, I have been trying to understand the process by which we make decisions about how to engage with perspectives diametrically opposed to our own. In our current project, faculty with competing orientations to meanings of autism (i.e., disability as part of human variation versus disability as deficit), are collaborating to develop a single course on autism. We are in the very initial stages of this work, but the complexity of it has not escaped anyone. As we deliberate on the course description, the texts to be used, the intended audience of the course, and so on, we find ourselves bargaining, conceding, and insisting, but all the while recognizing that there cannot be two competing courses (which, by the way, continues to exist in some large institutions).

I am simultaneously trying to examine the moves we make to formalize each step and thereby better understand our collective effort.  At present, I have no way of accessing why collaborators on the other side of the paradigmatic divide may choose to concede one point, or remain adamant on another. From my own end, I am seeking spaces—cracks and crevices, nooks, and edges—where I can insert the perspective that I perceive as being in danger of disappearing. Such a space may lie in the weight of an assignment or in the selection of course readings. It may be adding a course objective that complicates another without seeming to overturn it. It may be choosing which words to take out and which ones to insert. I may, for example, decide to let the “diagnosis” of autism remain in a course objective, knowing that the historical evolution of such “diagnosis” will also be examined and thereby offer a space for complicating the medical model of disability. Each effort to insert my professional perspective can only be accomplished through a form of “double vision” (Rosaldo, 1993)—I have to know how my counterpart is thinking, and then frame my writing such that it can seem to blend with her perspective, while simultaneously confirming the perspective that I think is missing. Yes, it is hard. It took me an hour to develop a four-sentence course description.

What is lost and what is gained? It is hard to answer this question (other than the fact that clearly it seems to take time), and the reply may be contingent on the motivations that each collaborator brings to the table. I personally find the space of such collaboration heady and always an opportunity to take risks. It is also true that the many improvisations in struggles across difference are always situated within local discursive contexts (Holland, Lachiotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998). It is especially easier, therefore, to take risks when colleagues on your own “side,” like those at the institution who invited me (and with whom I share a discourse of disability that suits my scholarly agenda), are equally committed to supporting the process (and my efforts) and willing to leave open how such a course might eventually emerge. We do not know with any certainty how, after collaborating on the course syllabus, we will actually teach the course. But both parties have committed to teaching it together rather than separately within the course. This means that our differing perspectives must in some unpredictable, likely unplanned way, flow into and out of one another such that students taking the course leave with a unified notion of supporting students with autism. Just as importantly, we will not know how we might have transformed ourselves as teacher educators.

Can ambiguity and uncertainty serve as foundations for planned educational change? The commitment to reforming schools requires an investment in schools as they currently are in the hope of accomplishing new forms of schooling. Such work is premised on embracing a posture that eschews certainty for ambivalence, where “nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned” (Anzaldua, 1987, p. 101). The language of counterstorytelling, disrupting, resistance, and transgression, while generative in many ways, does not for me capture the uncertainty that remains fundamental to carrying out this kind of work. No doubt, it is a dangerous exercise to leave oneself open to transformation while working across ideological positions. Yet that is what our students (pre- and in-service teachers) will inevitably do as they enter present-day schooling contexts and negotiate with priorities, claims, and goals that compete with their own commitments to socially just pedagogy. Establishing the relevance of my own teacher education practice requires that I acknowledge this process and articulate how teachers not only work within and against school systems, but also how they transform them. Such transformative work lies in mining the ambiguous spaces that result when negotiating across differences; it is the creativity spawned by uncertainty that holds the key to their (and my) competence as educators striving for socially just practices in schools.


Achinstein, B., & Ogawa, R. T. (2006). (In)fidelity: What the resistance of new teachers reveals about professional principles and prescriptive educational policies. Harvard Educational Review, 76(1), 30–64

Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands, La Frontera: The new mestiza. 3rd edition. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Berube, M. (1996). Life as we know it: A father, a family and an exceptional child. London, England: Vintage.

Biklen, D. (2005). Autism and the myth of the person alone. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Brantlinger, E. (2006). Who benefits from special education? Remediating (fixing) other people’s children. Mahwah, MJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Danforth, S., & Gabel, S. (2006). Vital questions facing disability studies in education. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Ferguson, P. M., & Ferguson, D. L. (1995). The interpretivist view of special education and disability: Deconstructing the conventional knowledge tradition. In T. M. Skrtic (Ed.), Disability and democracy: Reconstructing (special) education for postmodernity (pp. 104–121). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Gabel, S. (2005). Introduction: Disability studies in education. In S. Gabel (Ed.), Disability studies in education: Readings in theory and method (pp. 1–20). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Gallagher, D. (2004). Entering the conversation: The debate behind the debates in special education. In D. J. Gallagher (Ed.), Challenging orthodoxy in special education: Dissenting voices (pp. 3–26). Denver, CO: Love Publishing.

Holland, D., Lachiotte, Jr., W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rosaldo, R. (1993). Culture and Truth: The remaking of social analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Skrtic, T. (Ed.) (1995). Disability and democracy: Reconstructing (special) education for postmodernity. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Slee, R. (2011). The irregular school: Exclusion, schooling and inclusive education. London, England: Routledge.

Ware, L. (2010). Disability studies in education. In S. Tozer, B. P. Gallegos, A. Henry, M. B. Greiner, & P. G. Price (Eds.), Handbook of research in the social foundations of education (pp. 244–260). New York, NY: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 10, 2015, p. 1-6
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18084, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:17:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Srikala Naraian
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    SRIKALA NARAIAN is an Associate Professor in the Secondary and Elementary Inclusive Education Program in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College. She locates herself in the disability studies tradition and is interested in researching processes of inclusive education, teacher preparation for inclusive education and the education of students with significant disabilities. She has offered professional development to teachers in New York City schools on inclusive practices. Additionally, she has prepared teachers for inclusive education in international contexts, particularly in Iceland and in India. She has published widely in many journals including International Journal of Inclusive Education, Teachers College Record, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Curriculum Inquiry, and Teacher Education and Special Education.
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