Appreciating the individuality of children

 

Whilst respecting individuality, everyone was encouraged to share in the learning of the group

Whilst respecting individuality, everyone was encouraged to share in the learning of the group

 

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

In most societies individuality is something we value. In my own country eccentricity has often been revered and those who are seen as slightly off-beat become regarded as “National Treasures”. I think here for example of the endearments heaped upon the Irish comedian Spike Milligan or the turbaned poet and performer Edith Sitwell whose extravangent costume and gesture were for many years parodied but never truly equalled. People either love or loathe these unconventional individuals, but to ignore their oddity is not a real option.

In some more collectivist societies, such as China, the place of the individual is less assured, and conformity tends to be the order of the day. I think that I would personally have some difficulty in living in a country which was intent on encouraging uniformity in so many aspects of life.

Whilst respecting and applauding individuality in many situations, in schools the child who stands out from the others is often perceived to be a problem. The term special educational needs says much about the fact that we see some children as being different from their peers, and in educational terms, different often equates to problematic. However, whatever the language used, we should at least be thankful that many of the children now labelled as a consequence of their individuality are within our education system, whereas in the past many would have been denied access to schooling. As the poet John Donne tells us, we may consider it necessary from time to time to focus upon the individual, but if we do so by looking at his needs as being separate from those of his peers, we are in danger of diminishing the whole. This is certainly the case of many children within our education education system.

Planning for the individual needs of a learner in the classroom in a manner that does not cause problems for the child, either by emphasising his difficulties or distancing him from his peers can be problematic. In many of the world’s administrations individual education plans have been adopted as a means of ensuring that a pupil’s needs are met. However, this is an approach that is often characterised by shortcomings and some of these were explored with students on our MA programme here in Bangalore today.

Tim Loreman and his colleagues have provided a helpful analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of individual education plans, and not for the first time we found ourselves drawing upon his ideas. Our students spent a considerable time in an effort to design their “perfect” individual education plan, working in groups and drawing upon their own experiences as well as using the course materials provided. Each of the three groups then presented their ideas to the class and made suggestions for further changes and amendments. Such was their enthusiasm for this task that we had to drive them away from their tables in order to have lunch.

There is always a fine line between planning to address the individual needs of a child and emphasising his differences, thereby possibly lowering expectations. This was an issue that we considered today. And whilst we did not necessarily reach a consensus, the quality of contributions from our students made a significant impact upon all of our learning. I have no doubt that most of us left today’s session with differing views in terms of defining the efficacy of planning for the individual needs of pupils. However, the learning was as much about the process as it was about producing the “perfect” individual education plan. The thought that went into today’s session was more critical to our learning than the end product and leads me to believe that there is no lack of commitment towards improving education for all children. Celebrating individuality is something we should all be pleased to do.

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!

Establishing principles before embarking on practice.

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Examinations appear to rule education systems across the world. Not only do they dominate, but they are largely limited to an unimaginative written format that often fails to assess what they claim. Many of the assessment methods adopted in schools today do little to encourage learning, and some are a major obstacle to providing more inclusive approaches to teaching. This theme was to the forefront of our minds today, as our latest group of students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education here in Bangalore, got to grips with considering the relationship between assessment and the provision of an equitable education system.

Assessment is obviously an important part of the teaching and learning process and the summative measures used at the end of a period of teaching can be useful in providing an overview of attainment and progress. However, when schools use only these summative approaches they miss an opportunity to really understand what is happening in the classroom and in the learning experienced by children. With this in mind today, Jayashree, Mary and Johnson have each challenged the thinking of our students, presenting them with ideas and encouraging them to debate principles of assessment alongside the mechanics of how this can be applied.

A series of activities based around those principles of assessment articulated by, amongst others Tim Loreman, Joanne Deppeler and David Harvey, enabled our student colleagues to reflect on their own practices and those of their colleagues. As an observer of part of this session, on my return from visiting a school across the city, I was immediately impressed by the way in which well-established assumptions and ingrained practices were being challenged. Having been given the space to think and debate issues in a supportive environment, our students were soon developing innovative ideas of how the assessment procedures in their schools might change to become more inclusive. As they presented their ideas to their classmates it was easy to see that they have a high commitment to developing their own practice and experimenting with approaches which they hope will benefit both pupils and teachers.

What we assess, how we do this and how the information from assessment is used were all questions considered. The formative processes of using assessment information and alternatives to simplistic pen and paper approaches found favour with all the class, and the examples they provided of how this might be further developed were greatly appreciated by all involved. The concept of assesment as a celebration of learning may not have been debated by teachers everywhere, but here in Bangalore was discussed with considerable flair and enthusiasm. As I listened to what our students had to say and the ideas that they articulated so effectively, I appreciated that I was probably learning as much in this class as any of the them. The importance of starting from a set of principles, rather than simply following established assessment practices was an important part of the message that everyone took away from today’s sessions. If this applies to assessment, then surely it is equally critical in all other aspects of what we do in schools.

This is a theme that we will revisit later in the week on this course, as we consider the role of children in the assessment of their own learning, and in appraising the teaching that they receive. With such reflective teachers, the delivery of this module is proving to be a real pleasure and I am sure that we will all continue to learn from each other.

As I sit here writing, awaiting the latest downpour of rain that is most certainly on its way, I cannot help but think that if all teachers were given more opportunities and time to reflect upon the practices in their schools, it would be far easier to establish a more inclusive education system. This freedom, of course, is unlikely to happen and therefore we will continue to be dependent upon the professional commitment of small groups of teachers, such as these to ensure that progress will eventually be made.

 

Playing conkers in Bangalore

MA students learning to be children again in Bangalore.

MA students learning to be children again in Bangalore.

The Bangalore rains are threatening to wash us away. Tonight we travelled across the city from the Cantonment area to Jayanagar driven by one of our student colleagues in a torrential downpour. The lightning cracked the heavens and thunder beat around our ears as Asha negotiated her way along roads that ran like mountain streams. Crazy auto-rickshaw drivers created bow waves through water that threatened to engulf their cabs and motorcyclists appeared to accept that the water would be rising to their kneees. Caution is not within the nature of the average road user here in Bangalore. If the English truly are obsessed with the weather we will have plenty to talk about for months to come.

All this came at the end of a day which saw the commencement of their studies for a new group of MA students. In great anticipation we awaited their arrival this morning and gradually each entered the classrooms appearing slightly apprehensive as any scholar might be on the first day of school. However, in no time they had settled and were enthusiastically engaged in a range of activities to which they responded brilliantly. Before long they were debating those obstacles to creating inclusive learning systems that they each face in their day to day work. It was soon apparent that this is going to be another excellent cohort of students.

When we start these courses, as tutors we are always keen to put our students at ease, and we seek out those activities that may enable our newcomers to smile and relax. Today, amongst the surprises we had arranged was the opportunity to play a game that has been enjoyed seasonally each autumn by English school children for many years. In September English children have traditionally sought out the fruit of horse chestnut trees, affectionately known as conkers, in order to play a game. These hard, shiny brown seeds, some as big as a ping-pong ball are threaded onto a length of string and children engage in friendly combat by attempting to break the conker of their opponent. The conker is swung in an arc in an effort to strike that of the opponent who must hold their own still until the attempt is completed.  Not surprisingly, our Indian students knew nothing of this tradition, so today, having come prepared, we taught them the finer arts of the game.

This was, of course, just a way of getting the students to know each other and to relax. A simple diversion in the midst of their more serious studies. But I also feel that it is good for all of us to experience every now and then, what it is to be childlike once more. Children learn through playing games and having fun. In the case of a game of conkers, they learn motor skills, taking turns and how to win or lose with good grace. As our students today discovered, there is more skill in this game than may have initially met the eye.

Throughout their studies we will hope to work with these new students in ways that engage them and make them smile. After all, when there is joy in learning it encourages the student to ask for more. So as well as the serious business of examining teaching styles and the relationship between educational policies and practices that we did for most of today, we will continue to seek ways to enable our student colleagues to experience the fun that promotes learning. Tomorrow the pleasure of learning will continue and we can hardly wait.

IF YOU REMAIN BEMUSED BY THE GAME OF CONKERS, THE LINK BELOW MIGHT BE MORE ENLIGHTENING!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GaGw73LijM

 

 

A red-letter day in Bangalore

 

Our second cohort students listen intently to the dissertation presentations from the initial group. Their time will come very soon.

Our second cohort students listen intently to the dissertation presentations from the initial group. Their time will come very soon.

‘Red-letter day’:- a day that is pleasantly noteworthy or memorable.

 Today was a  special day for those of us working on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education here in Bangalore. Students from both of our first two cohorts were brought together for a celebration of achievement and a sharing of experiences. For those of us teaching on the course the day felt like the culmination of a long journey which began many years ago. I am sure that it felt very similar to our first group of students, because today they arrived at the Brindavan Centre clutching their dissertations, the final study based upon an individually constructed research project that marks the last piece of assessed work on the course.

The joy (and possibly relief) expressed on the faces of this group lit up the room and will hopefully be an inspiration to those students just beginning their dissertation studies and also to those new colleagues who will be joining the course from several parts of India on Monday. For those of us who work as tutors on the course, this was certainly a red-letter day and one that I will personally remember for a long time to come.

The range of research topics conducted by the students submitting their dissertations was extensive and certainly interesting. They included an evaluation of a course designed to enable young people with a range of special educational needs to enter the retail industry in Chennai, through the awareness of speech, language and communication needs amongst English language teachers, a study of the school lives of adopted children and an interrogation of maternal expectations with regards to the academic achievements of boys and girls in urban Bangalore. All provide insights into the expectations and provision made for children and young people who have at various times been denied full access to learning.

Pooja from cohort 1 shares the findings of her research with the group

Pooja from cohort 1 shares the findings of her research with the group

We know that at times many of our students will have fought to overcome difficulties whist completing work for their dissertations. The path of research seldom runs completely smoothly and I am sure that at times some will have wondered why they ever commenced this difficult journey. But these are teachers of great resolve. They have shown a determination and tenacity, motivated largely by a desire to improve the lives of children, that has seen them through to a successful conclusion.

I am sure that for many of the students who attended yesterday, the handing in of a dissertation must have felt like the final act of a demanding two year period of study. However, talking with them about the impact that the course has had on their lives, and just as importantly, the changes they are making in their schools and professional practices, I believe that their studies will continue to have influence well into the future. Listening to their stories about plans they have implemented to ensure greater access to the curriculum, or better systems for teaching and learning and more equitable approaches to assessment enabled tutors to reflect upon the significance of the studies that these consummate professionals have undertaken.

As tutors on the course we are able to provide input and shape the development of the MA curriculum, but it is the students working hard towards a qualification and putting their learning to good use in schools who are the real harbingers of change. We are certainly proud to be associated with such an outstanding group of professionals and look forward to bringing them back together each year in Bangalore to hear more about the many successes that we know they will achieve. This was indeed a red-letter day for all of us.

Shuba from group 2 and Champa from group 1 share their experiences over a meal - food seems to feature highly on this course!

Shuba from group 2 and Champa from group 1 share their experiences over a meal – food seems to feature highly on this course!

 

Friends who inspire and lead in the promotion of inclusion in Bangalore

This students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education in Bangalore are coming to the end of their studies. This course would never have been developed without the inspiration of two outstanding Indian teachers

These students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education in Bangalore are coming to the end of their studies. This course would never have been developed without the inspiration of two outstanding Indian teachers

Two people more than any others are responsible for my being here in Bangalore. Both have been a constant source of encouragement and friendship in my work here and in my efforts to understand more about the country.

As is often the case in life, a chance meeting with an individual, in this instance at a conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA in 1996, was instrumental in promoting discussions and debate that led to a first visit to India. The American conference was a great disappointment as it largely comprised of self-congratulatory education policy makers and school principals who believed that they had discovered the answer to providing quality schooling, though few were doing so for all children in their areas. Whilst they all seemed to have the answers, I was never clear about what the questions were. At various times during the conference I noted an Indian gentleman would confront the speakers, often on matters related to values and the principles of understanding the teacher and student relationship. These questions often challenged my own thinking, but seemed to be brushed aside by many of the conference delegates. I suppose that if you are secure in the belief that you have all of the answers – even if you don’t know what the questions are, you have no further need for either thinking or discussion.

Inevitably I found myself drawn to this would be interrogator of ideas and sought him out for further debate. I soon discovered that this interesting character, Satish Inamdar, came from an educational tradition and background far removed from my own, but from which I was sure I could learn. Satish, who is the Director of the Valley School near Bangalore has since that day been a good friend. I have spent many happy days in the company of his family and interacting with teachers at the Valley School, and Sara and I have been very pleased to welcome Satish and his family into our home in England.

Dr Satish Inamdar, a good friend and a great encouragement of my efforts to learn about India

Dr Satish Inamdar, a good friend and a great encouragement of my efforts to learn about India

It was through Satish’s initiative that Sara and I found ourselves at the Valley School in 2000 when I was asked to provide input at a conference that he organised for teachers from across the area. It was at this event, which had a focus on understanding children’s rights and the importance of providing inclusive learning environments that Satish introduced me to the second great influence on the opportunities I have been privileged to enjoy here in India.

Jayashree Rajanahally was one of the driving forces behind the Valley conference and also organised a number of interactions with teachers during my visit in 2000. Her commitment to inclusion and her focus upon providing support for otherwise neglected children immediately commanded my attention and has continued to inspire my work. I have been fortunate to work with Jayashree and her colleagues at the Brindavan Centre here in Bangalore ever since that first meeting. In 2003 we worked together on the early plans for what has since become the MA in Special and Inclusive Education that we teach here with other colleagues from India and the UK.

Jayashree Rajanahally the leading influence behind the MA in Special and Inclusive Education in Bangalore

Jayashree Rajanahally the leading influence behind the MA in Special and Inclusive Education in Bangalore

Without the inspiration and commitment of these two good friends, the current provision that we are working together to sustain in Bangalore would never have been started. They remain as essential forces driving forward ideas and working for education in the area, and provide me with a great deal of inspiration whenever I am here working in India. If the promotion of inclusion in Bangalore is to be sustained, it will be largely dependent upon the leadership of Jayashree and Satish and others with their level of commitment.

Satish and Jayashree are great colleagues and both, along with their families have become good friends of Sara and myself. They are two unique and very different characters who have many shared beliefs, though they take radically different approaches towards the development of a more equitable education system. The tensions between their ideas can be a positive influence upon the development of inclusive education in Bangalore. If they were to work together there is no limit to what might be achieved. They continue to be a vital source of advice whenever I am working on projects in India and it is their vision that has enabled progress in the training of teachers who work with children with special educational needs to be made.

A continuous life cycle of learning

Our first cohort of students are now nearing completion of their MA studies

Our first cohort of students are now nearing completion of their MA studies

Continuity is so much a part of sustaining a successful course here in Bangalore. We are in a delightful period at present of having a cohort of students who are just handing in their final dissertations, a group undertaking research methods training ready to begin work for their dissertations, and another group who will begin their first module on Monday. This progression and engagment with students at different stages along the route  towards the MA in Special and Inclusive Education is particularly rewarding for tutors.

The period of gestation leading up to the beginning of this course was long. It started with a meeting of colleagues and friends in a Bangalore coffee shop, with a simple discussion about the need to provide more training for teachers in respect of children who were being marginalised within the education system. As  a result of these initial informal discussions we progressed to providing professional development for teachers in schools in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and gradually gained the confidence to move towards an accredited course. Having established the courage to move forward towards a more clearly defined proposal, it took two years of planning through more formal meetings and university committees in order to reach a point where we could recruit our first cohort of students.

Earlier this week I had delivered into my hands the first ever completed dissertation written by one of our initial intake of students. I must confess I had not expected to feel so emotional as I did at this moment. Seeing the fruition of the commitment and dedication of my hard working colleagues and students in this tangible form was a moment to treasure.

In the sessions this week, students addressing issues and approaches related to educational research that are new to their experience, have demonstrated confidence and professionalism. When I think back to the apprehensions that many of them had expressed at the outset of the course, taught in a manner so different from their previous experiences, I feel a genuine thrill for the progress they have made. Each day they arrive in the classroom prepared to question and challenge, debate and participate with great gusto and expertise. The workshops activities we provide are grasped with enthusiasm making our lives as tutors so much easier.

Our second group have made good progress and now we await a third cohort

Our second group have made good progress and now we await a third cohort

As our first cohort comes to the end of their formal studies on this course we are already aware of the difference they are making in their schools. As they report the changes they have made in their classrooms, and the impact they are having on the lives of children and their families, we become increasingly convinced that we have colleagues here who will be important leaders in the development of inclusive education in India. Some will return to their classrooms and apply learning for the benefit of children, others will assume leadership roles as school principals and will hopefully be able to steer their schools towards more inclusive ways of working. At least one student has already decided to continue her studies with us and to conduct research for a PhD.

Wherever their paths may take them it is our intention to keep them together as alumni of the university and to share in their anticipated accomplishments in the years to come. I look forward to Monday and meeting our new group as they begin this journey.

A Montessori led route to inclusion?

 

Sumathi Ravindranath, MA student and Head of a Montessori House of Children, a thoughtful lady and committed teacher.

Sumathi Ravindranath, MA student and Head of a Montessori House of Children, a thoughtful lady and committed teacher.

A Couple of days ago I mentioned that during discussions with students here in Bangalore the name of Dr Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) came to the fore. This is hardly surprising as the influence of the eminent Italian educator here in India is significant, and many of our students work in, or have had association with Montessori schools. On reading that day’s blog, Professor Tim Loreman from Canada, a regular respondent, expressed some interest in the relationship between Montessorian theory and the development of inclusion,

Montessori first visited India in 1939 at the invitation of the Theosophical Society in Chennai. She and her son Mario settled in Chennai for a while and began the process of training teachers and fostering their philosophy based upon the creation of nurturing learning environments. Such an environment was first created here in India in a school in Kodaikanal, a hill station in the Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu and in the years that followed the influence of Montessori’s ideas spread across much of the country.

Tim having asked about the relationship between this philosophy and the promotion of inclusive learning prompted me to discuss this issue further with one of our enthusiastic students Sumathi Ravindranath. Sumathi is an experienced teacher and Montessorian who runs her own Montessori House of Children school here in Bangalore. I asked her whether she believed that there was a close relationship between Montessori’s philosophy and inclusion and here are a few of the things she told me.

‘I think that in a Montessori school the child feels that it is his or her space, there is a sense of absolute freedom and independence, though there is in-built structure. The child experiences a sense of self-esteem – I can do something, I can experience what it is to learn. The whole principle of freedom, independence and responsibility is what makes a child function better in a Montessori environment.’

I asked Sumathi whether her school was unique, or did she believe that Montessori schools in general are more inclusive, to which she replied:-

‘I think Montessori schools are inclusive to a certain extent, but not completely. There needs to be an awareness here in India, though Montessori is practiced a lot more in India, but I don’t think inclusive practices are adopted, even in the Montessori schools. My school, yes I think is unique because I strongly believe that opportunity needs to be given to all children. And I feel, Montessori started her work with special needs children, so if it worked then, it should work for anybody.’

Clearly Sumathi has a commitment to inclusion, and has made great efforts to welcome all children into her school. She suggests that her training within a Montessorian philosophy has contributed greatly to her personal commitment to inclusion. However, she acknowledges that not all Montessori schools are perhaps so committed to this inclusive approach. Whether it is therefore possible to argue that the Montessori philosophy is one that fosters inclusion, I am not sure. What I do know is that I have met many Montessori trained teachers here in India who seem to be open to ideas for the promotion of social justice, equity and inclusion. Perhaps there is something about being trained as a Montessori teacher that creates an openness and willlingness to learn.

Maria Montessori herself suggested that:-

“Education should no longer be mostly imparting knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potential.”

This seems to resonate with most teachers who feel a commitment towards achieving a more inclusive education system.

The language used by Sumathi is similar to that used on a daily basis by advocates of inclusion, with a focus on the development of pupil self-esteem, independence and an expectation that children can learn when given appropriate support. I am sure that if there were more teachers like Sumathi in schools, whether Montessori trained or otherwise, the path to greater inclusion would be more comfortably negotiated.

Perhaps there are some Montessorians reading this blog who would like to comment.

Dr Maria Montessori, whose influence remains significant in India.

Dr Maria Montessori, whose influence remains significant in India.