“What a child can do in co-operation today he can do alone tomorrow.”
Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)
The great Belarussian psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky developed a social theory of learning through which he suggested that the most effective way of gaining understanding was through the development of a collaborative community of learners. These communities he stated should be founded on “student-student and expert-student collaboration on real world problems or tasks that build on each person’s language, skills, and experience shaped by each individual’s culture.” In making this statement Vygotsky recognised that everyone in such a community brings their own experiences, expertise and interpretations of the world with them, and so long as they are prepared to share, they can foster knowledge, and understanding. Such an approach does, of course, require trust and a preparedness to accept joint ownership and responsibility for learning if it is to succeed. It also requires an environment conducive to learning and supportive of all participants.
Over the past few weeks I have been privileged to be a part of such community; one that has been truly inclusive, where opinions, ideas and experiences have been treated with mutual respect, and where every participant has been eager to learn and share their knowledge. The absence of ego and commitment to collaboration has been such, that it was possible to participate in a relaxed but focused atmosphere, from which I believe all students and tutors benefited. A particular pleasure for myself has been to observe the ways in which the confidence of students who initially joined the course with a certain reticence, and indeed perhaps too much deference to their tutors, has grown to a point where they recognise the important contribution they can make to all of our learning.
Within Bangalore there exists a group of dedicated teaching professionals who are now working more closely together to develop a much more inclusive teaching environment. They are sharing their knowledge, developing teaching approaches and strategies in schools and most importantly, applying learning that they have gained from each other. It is particularly rewarding for those of us who work as tutors on the MA programme, to see the leadership role that each of these individuals has adopted.
It is important that we recognise that there continues to be many teachers, and not only in Bangalore or India, who are fearful of the notion of a more inclusive education system. In India many teachers and indeed school principals perceive the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act as a challenge to their more previously comfortable educational existence. It would be easy for those of us who have worked together in Bangalore over a number of years to be critical, or to condemn these teachers as dinosaurs within the education system. However, if we adopt this attitude we will achieve little and are far more likely to alienate colleagues and further slow the progress that can be made. On Saturday at the annual Brindavan Education Seminar I was particularly moved when listening to eminent colleagues, including Dr Jayanthi Narayan and Mrs Krishnaswami, as they recalled a life time of commitment to the inclusion agenda in the country. They reminded me of colleagues here in the UK who maintained a similar focus throughout their professional lifetimes, in order to ensure a greater understanding by teachers of what can be achieved with children previously thought of as ineducable. The great achievements of these pioneers in the field came through example, by the adoption of supportive and inclusive teaching that recognised that we do not all start from the same baseline or begin with the same vision for children.
Whilst one of the greatest pleasures of working with colleagues in Bangalore is the recognition of the dedication they have towards improving the lives of children, regardless of their needs or abilities, their social and economic background, caste, culture or religion, I recognise that the real challenge lies in working with those who have not yet made this level of commitment. Over yet another excellent lunch at the Saturday seminar, a teacher from one of the local government schools commented to me that, “the teachers who really need to be here today never come.” She is probably right, but perhaps the questions we should be asking are not so much about their lack of commitment, but more about how we can make the first move to support them to become more willing to engage. There is always a danger that we believe that our way of looking at the world is the only way and that others should come and join us. Perhaps we need to find ways to meet them half way along the road and to collaborate more closely with them, – then perhaps we can prove Vygotsky’s theory, that what we learn in collaboration today will lead ultimately to greater confidence and independence. If we ignore this significant number of teachers who are yet to be convinced by the inclusion agenda, are we not in danger of ourselves becoming exclusive?