Disputation as a fruitful source of learning in Bangalore

The debates are fierce but good humoured amongst the students here in Bangalore

The debates are fierce but good humoured amongst the students here in Bangalore

A few years ago, in an effort to try and understand a little more about Indian culture and the historical context that has shaped the development of the country, I read The Argumentative Indian. This excellent collection of essays from the Indian economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen provides great insights into the Indian psyche and opens debates around the ways in which the country has been perceived by western writers over many years. The book draws upon an extensive range of sources from the teachings of the great emperors Akbar and Ashoka, extracts from The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, and references to the work of the film maker Satyajit Ray. For anyone who wishes to understand the cultural influences that have shaped both India and to an extent the wider world, this book is of tremendous value.

Central to Sen’s theories regarding the unique nature of India is his suggestion that within the country there is a long held commitment to public debate and intellectual pluralism. This, he proposes has come to characterise the ways in which Indians express their ideas and challenge outside influences. There is nothing more that Indians like than a really good argument.

My experiences here certainly reinforce this view of Sen’s. Whenever Indian teachers gather to examine their practice and consider their education system this is likely to develop into an argument. Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying here. This is not an ill-tempered row or shouting match, but a well phrased, often heated, but fundamentally good natured exchange of views. Just as Socrates advocated that the learner should question everything (the unexamined life is not worth living), Indian teachers believe that consensus will only be gained through disputation.

I have become used to this approach and nowadays I know what to expect. I was therefore able to predict with great confidence how some of today’s workshop sessions on the MA course here would go. This morning, following some input from myself on the nature of the curriculum and how it can either support or inhibit the development of inclusive schools, I set our students a task. Using sets of cards they were asked to place these in order of what they believed should be curricular priorities for children of all needs and abilities in schools. Working in two teams each set about the task with vigour and enthusiasm and yes, you guessed, within minutes a lively argument had commenced. Opinions were expressed and challenged, ideas and counter reasoning applied, the volume increased and the hand and head gestures grew ever more extravagant. But everyone smiled and eventually each team had ordered the cards and established their justification for the sequence provided.

Now came the real argument. Each group was asked to present their curriculum priorities and justify this to their peers from the other team. A new, and always light hearted, though seriously considered debate ensued. Major issues, such as the importance of local languages in an inclusive curriculum and the emphasis upon social learning within “academic” subjects were aired and an intellectualised  discussion of critical issues was enjoyed by all.

A similar pattern emerged this afternoon as students got to grips with classroom planning for diversity. These skilled and experienced practitioners tackled problems related to class size and poor resourcing, taking these in their stride as they defined differentiated activities to support learners of diverse needs.

I am often told that the norm within teaching here in India is an over reliance upon talk and chalk. Even in universities dispute is discouraged and tutors remain unchallenged, If this is the case then I feel sorry for those teachers who have missed an opportunity to learn so much from the sharp thinking and well-constructed arguments that emerge in situations such as those we have experienced today. Amartya Sen is one of the great intellectuals of our time, he was born in Santiniketan, where the great educationalist Rabindranath Tagore founded his school and university. Tagore’s philosophy expounded the virtues of a curious mind that explored and questioned everything. Sen values this approach and clearly recognises that Indians learn best when allowed to express themselves as our students have today. I personally believe that this is not true only of learners in this wonderful country, but of those who are prepared to learn by challenging ideas anywhere in the world.

Tomorrow is another day and, I anticipate, several more debates will inform our learning. Such are the foundations of learning about inclusive education in Bangalore, and I believe we are all the better for it. Now I think I’ll just take myself off and find a quiet space for a little while!