Biklen & Burke Article

Presuming Competence

Authors: Douglas Biklen and Jamie Burke


The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

All children in Canada have the right to have a safe, ordered and inclusive environment for learning

Bilken, D., & Burke, J. (2006). Presuming Competence. Equity & Excellence in Education, 39:2. 166-175.

-According to Biklen and Burke (2006), to presume competence of a disabled child we need to step outside conventional theory and practice (167)

-In our school system common practice has been to regard delays or perceived deficits in language as evidence of intellectual impairment… According to the article, 75% of students diagnosed with autism are classified as retarded.  (166)

-Students “become” mentally retarded on the basis of their performance on intelligence tests and adaptive behaviour scales.  (167)

-Once labeled students are routinely expected to prove that they can benefit from inclusive, academic instruction in order to be maintained in the regular classroom often with supportive and specialized services (167)

-Segregation equals a distinction of lesser ability (172)

-The presumption of competence does not require the teacher’s ability to prove its existence or validity in advance, rather it is a stance, and outlook, a framework for educational engagement. (168)

Presuming Competence leads to the following corollaries:

-There needs to be a strong commitment to inclusive education that expects student agency.  All students to be seen as members of the classroom with equal rights to assistance and participation.

-Teachers to make students feel as comfortable in their environment as possible. Seek specialist advice to ensure needs of students are met in the inclusive classroom.

-Encourage students to share thoughts on how the school culture and school practices, including peer-to-peer styles if interaction can be adapted to enable more democratic participation.

-This article makes us question what is a normal classroom should look like…We have to remember that things change over time.  There is a shift within particular historical/cultural moments; and individual teachers, students, researchers, parents and others can have a part in the reshaping.


1. On your table you will find a stack of post it notes and a pen

2. Assign a recorder to write down the answers/ideas for the following questions:

i. what are the POSITIVE EFFECTS of labels?

ii. what are the HARMFUL EFFECTS of labels?

3. Stick your notes under the appropriate heading on the white board


• Qualifies students for an IEP – extra

• Helps child, parents and teacher
understand and cope with condition

• Diagnosis of a disability allows for
entitlement of special accommodations
and opportunities


• Stigma attached to label

• Segregates children from their peers

• Low self esteem

• Lower expectations – sets student up
for failure

• People see the label and not the child

• Diagnostic labels can be unreliable

• Even unofficial labels can be harmful


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