I am going to begin with a simple grammar lesson in English, which is approximately at the level of class 2, although we might come upon it at earlier or later stages of our education. Of course, every child knows the concept of one and many long before the grammar is learnt. The singular word pencil has the plural pencils, apple has apples and so on. The common word game of supplying the plurals can go on for hours, and the exceptions, like child–children, are often delivered with a great flourish by the English teacher, who hears a student in the class give the plural as childs or, sometimes, childrens.

My focus here is not on the spelling or structure of plural nouns, but the implicit assumption that the plural word represents the sum of the individual words. For instance, ten beads come from the addition of ten single beads. Even if the beads are of different colours and sizes, we would be right in saying ten beads if they added up to ten. We would also say one book and many books or even thirty books. When the students’ notebooks are collected by the class monitor, there could be a pile of thirty books. But consider a situation where we have the following books on the teacher’s table: one set with ten copies of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and another set with one book each by William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, James Joyce, Isabel Allende, Somerset Maugham, Bertrand Russell, P G Wodehouse, Jane Austen and Hans Christian Anderson. We would be right, of course, in saying that there are two sets of ten books on the table. But you will admit that the plural word books for the latter set tends to cloak the variety in the books. This collection is significantly different from the ten copies of one book or the thirty notebooks of the children. When we add up ones, we do get a total that can be checked and verified. But there is a taxonomic factor of note in an addition of very similar things or of diverse things with individual characteristics.

There are two reasons for our dissatisfaction with the same label books for these three sets of books. If one were stranded on the proverbial desert island, there is no question about which of the three sets of books one would hypothetically choose to have. Effectively, the criterion for the category system is different, although seemingly alike. So we have to examine the parameters we select for classification.

There is another factor in operation here. I think I must have thought it up myself (as I have not read about this anywhere). I have chosen to give it a name: the law of the ‘proximal-distal effect in perception’. Let me elaborate on this law. The more familiar we are with a set of objects, the more clearly we distinguish the fine differences among them. The farther we are from them in distance or familiarity, the more easily we see the similarities among the units that constitute a group. For a group of objects at a distance, we find a single label quite acceptable. When faced with somewhat similar objects in a group, we are quick to note the differences. This makes cognitive common sense, of course. Consider, for example, the skill of identifying tiffin boxes, casseroles, lids and serving spoons after a potluck dinner. Women often have an unerring sense in such matters. This finely honed skill can be interesting when applied to people. We would, for instance, point out the ways in which the six-year-old triplets growing up in our neighbourhood can be distinguished from each other, or the minute details of how four sisters in our extended family are different and how one can tell them apart. At the same time, we are easily persuaded to characterize the Chinese as hard-working or North Americans as extrovert, never mind that their numbers run into millions and that we may be generalizing from a very small sample, like n = 3.

This preamble about grammar and category systems or taxonomy leads us straight to the theme at hand: the world of children and their relationships. Almost everyone here would have spent some time with a group of children. We will be the first to admit that looking after ten children in a group is different from the sum of looking after ten children individually. The important difference is the dynamics of group interaction. Both the physics and the chemistry of group interaction combine to constitute a unique social science. Surely all of us here immediately understand what is being discussed—and yet it would be difficult for us to find a book on this social science in any library. A group of children of the same age are also qualitatively different from a group of children of different ages. Anyone who has worked with mixed-age groups or vertical grouping would vouch for this. See how many variations of the plural we have here!

Extrapolating the example of the sets of books to groups of children, we can begin to see what schools and teachers expect and why the school’s taxonomy goes counter to the individual child’s progress. The most common category used in the grouping of children is their age. The assumption is that chronology is justification enough for teaching the same lessons to them, at the same pace and in the same way. Individual styles of learning and current levels of mastery are not even considered. The classroom transaction is aimed at a mythical average level, which some in the class might find difficult and others tedious and repetitive. The immediate rewards learners can expect are for the speed of learning and the ability to produce the right answer on command.

A high-tension wire of competition is strung up inside the class and its role justified as motivation for children to do well on the assigned tasks. It never works that way. Children who have missed a connecting word or concept could feel lost and confused and would still be decoding the page for some clues. The fact that a couple of their classmates have already received a pat of approval from the teacher does NOT motivate them to progress. They may need more time to gain the confidence that the topic is within their reach.

The classroom setting should enable all children to do their best—and in the way they choose. Children enjoy challenging themselves to complete a difficult task well, or a moderately complex task fast, much more than just doing better than a class fellow. The singular child in a plural classroom deserves to be recognized as an individual. The Activity-Based Learning (ABL) methodology recently introduced in the schools of Tamil Nadu has been a step in the right direction. It has succeeded in bringing more children rushing into school as energetically and enthusiastically as they generally run out of school after the last bell!

At the same time, one must recognize that a collective effort supplies its own energy and even a child who has not understood the teacher does catch on, almost effortlessly, when a classmate explains it. It is a singularly good observation that a plural environment is most productive for learning!

One can say a great deal about category systems in use. Children with disabilities or special needs seem to be a category in the school administration. So if the school has built a ramp, it chooses to flaunt itself as disabled-friendly. There are other forms of disability that would require special provisions, but most school administrations choose to ignore them. Children with special needs do not necessarily learn best if, as a group, they are always isolated from the rest of the children. For different subjects and activities, they could be shifted around to the mainstream classes in the school, with great advantage to all the students. It requires flexibility and imagination on the part of the school administrators to manage the different combinations competently. In the Rajkumari Amrit Kaur Children’s Centre in Lady Irwin College, we had a separate section for children with special needs (mild and moderate), but we kept moving individual children or small groups to the mainstream classes whenever they could fit in comfortably for specific activities.

An English teacher with a penchant for puns labelled children with special needs as ‘past imperfect, present continuous and future tense’! While this may sound smart, I feel that the teacher should train herself to move away from the prejudice reflected in these puns on grammatical categories and treat these children as persons with their own traits and preferences, strengths and weaknesses. The focus has to be on the present, the now. As a wise person said, ‘You can’t change the past, but you can ruin the present by worrying about the future’!

We should be a bit wary of a perfect solution to any problem, because equations change and children grow up. In other words, the absolute knowledge of what has worked once is less important than the willingness to negotiate a suitable solution at each point. Take the concept of inclusion, for instance. Many of us want it, campaign for it, advocate it and follow it. This has been a welcome trend for the past twenty years or so.

In my view, inclusion should begin in the heart. It is not done only by sharing classroom or playground space, although this should definitely be tried. Sometimes, there could be practical problems. However, treating the child as a person and a friend and adjusting to her special needs is real inclusion. It is also important for the teacher to treat the child as a child first, rather than to focus on the disability. It is my observation that volunteers who try to help with visually handicapped children tend to be sympathetic, kind and rather earnest, instead of being friendly, lighthearted and responding with a sense of humour. What these children need is what all children need: fun, fellowship and opportunities to learn new things.

Accepting diversity, supporting individual initiative, adopting a variety of methods for discussion, teaching and theatre activities—all these fall under the larger label of plurality. Add to this a feeling of connectedness to different peoples, languages and religions; to plants and animals; to the land and sea and sky; to the sun, moon and stars. There is no greater satisfaction for us—as teachers, special educators, social workers or activists, managers or administrators—than this feeling of being connected to each other, to everything in the environment and to the cosmos.