Why are we here?

Blackboard outside of school in Jayanagar, Bangalore inviting applicants for pupils from marginalised groups under the RTE

Blackboard outside of school in Jayanagar, Bangalore inviting applicants for pupils from marginalised groups under the RTE

It’s a long way from Northamptonshire to Bangalore, a journey that I have made many times and one that lately I have shared with my colleagues Mary and her husband Tom and with John. Is the journey valid and worthwhile? This is a question I have often asked as I have wandered aimlessly around Dubai airport in transit from Birmingham, or whilst attempting to shrug off the jet lag during the first days after arrival. However, it takes only a little time until as a result of the kindness of friends and colleagues, a sort of confidence is aroused and I am reaffirmed in my appreciation of why we are here.

I suppose that in common with many other teachers I have always believed in education as a means of empowerment. In my own experience education has been a source of liberty, providing me with opportunities that were denied to earlier generations of my family. Education has to be a vehicle through which learners, many of whom have been marginalised or disenfranchised and others who have become disaffected can gain the confidence they require to participate fully within their communities. Without such a purpose its objectives are often contrived around policy agendas and are therefore likely to be sadly limited. For some this notion of education as empowerment is clearly easier to comprehend or to achieve than it is for others, but the challenge of engaging those who have traditionally been viewed as difficult to reach has always been part of the thrill of teaching. The empowerment of teachers is equally important. Teachers who feel that they are respected and have their professionalism recognised are more likely to maintain their commitment to their pupils. When they believe that they are being sidelined and their experience and expertise devalued, they too become disaffected.

I remember many years ago reading the late Nate Gage’s inspiring book The Scientific Basis of the Art of Teaching (1978). In this work Gage suggests that whilst effective teaching is systematic, organised and carefully planned in a scientific manner, it fails to inspire unless it is touched with artistry. Gage called upon teachers to look to research to inform their practice and observed that it is impossible to devise a single system that is likely to address the needs of all pupils. Teachers need to make decisions which are sometimes based upon instinct, to take risks and be inventive in the way they present their materials. Herein lies the creativity and the artistry of teaching. Nate Gage wrote his text more than 30 years ago, yet it would still resonate with many teachers today.

Sadly, politicians and legislators in England, having adopted a narrow and prescriptive view of education have done much to limit the creativity of teachers. In situations where teachers are required to work to formulae with an emphasis placed upon the measurement of a limited range of learning outcomes and where views of teaching approaches are restricted, artistry is diminished. A pseudo-science of education such as has emerged in recent years and which sees the purpose of teaching in only limited utilitarian terms has left many creative teachers feeling despondent and demoralised.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Both here in India, and at home in England I see teachers who have risen above the current trends and continue to exhibit exactly the kind of artistry that Nate Gage called for. Many of those teachers who have given a career commitment to finding ways to support young people who defy conventional teaching approaches have recognised that creative teaching is essential if progress is to be made. They innovate and shape their teaching environment in a manner that ensures that every pupil has access to learning. They do this, of course, by recognising that not all pupils learn from the same approach and indeed not all of them need to learn the same things. In some instances it takes courage to put your head above the parapet. Thank goodness that we continue to have courageous teachers.

As part of the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore teachers are required to design an intervention for use with a pupil or group of pupils, to put it into place and then evaluate its effectiveness. They are systematic in their approach, rigorous in planning and thorough in their assessment of the intervention. Yet what shines through in so much of their work is the creative ways in which they have thought about issues and designed their approaches. Even on occasions when the intervention has not been as successful as they may have wished, they are able to find positivity from pupil responses and participation, and reward from the relationships they have established with each individual. Such is their enthusiasm that our own resolve as tutors on the course is heightened and helps us to increase our endeavours, as we continue to work in partnership with students, teachers and children who are so committed to the art of teaching. This really is why we are here.

One last note from today. Whilst walking the backstreets of Jayanagar yesterday we came across a blackboard outside a school which makes a statement about the Right to Education Act (RTE) and the recent requirement that all schools accept onto their roll pupils with special educational needs or from disadvantaged groups (see photograph at the top of this page). For those readers who may be unaware, this Act has provoked a certain controversy as it expects that all schools, state and private, enrol pupils who may not formerly have been part of the school’s population. Written on the board is this year’s quota and an invitation to potential applicants to be made before February 8th. The board intriges me. What does it suggest I wonder? A new found commitment to children or their reduction to a set of numbers designed to limit the impact of the Act? Only time will tell. Your insights may well be better than mine. – All observations welcomed, after all this is partly why we are here.