Demolishing obstacles, an important task for inclusive educators!

 

Perhaps Ganesha can assist us all as we confront the monolith that is education bureaucracy!

Perhaps Ganesha can assist us all as we confront the monolith that is education bureaucracy!

To adherents of the Hindu faith, the elephant headed God Ganesha, sometimes referred to as Ganapati, is regarded as the remover of obstacles. Because of this association, whilst I know very little about the Hindu religion, whenever I see representations of Ganesha I tend to think of him as a conveyor of optimism. In a country that despite its late twentieth century surge in economic growth, continues to face many socio-economic challenges, the need for optimism and people who are prepared to challenge difficulties is paramount. Sadly, I meet a good number of Indians for whom the obstacles to achieving a satisfactory life, or one in which they can affect change, seem too great.

There are fortunately, a number of exceptions to this generalisation, one of whom is my good friend Savitha Ravi. A few years ago, when I first met Savitha and her family, she was embarking on a mission to create a school to which all children, regardless of need or ability would be welcomed. Although her vision was clear, she was in no doubt about the financial, intellectual and bureaucratic obstacles that would be in her way. Yet right from the start I felt that this was a lady on a mission and that she would find the means to circumvent or charge full tilt at anything that got in her way.

Savitha started small, with a few very young children in limited space, but her optimism and determination soon attracted colleagues who wanted to support her, and parents eager to send children to her school. Today Pramiti school in Bangalore is an inclusive establishment housed in two pleasingly aesthetic buildings, and catering for the needs of more than sixty children. The name of the school is taken from the Sanskrit language and means “right conception”. Right from the start of her venture Savitha conceived of a school that would be committed to social justice, inclusion and equity. Whenever I am in Bangalore, I try to make the time to meet with Savitha and if possible visit the school.

This week I had an opportunity to spend a morning with children in classes at Pramiti, and to follow this by joining in a discussion with teachers and other staff about the work of the school, and the latest set of hurdles that they are attempting to cross. Whenever a difficulty was identified in the conversation, Savitha and her longer established colleagues immediately turned these into opportunities to find new ways of addressing challenges. Creative thinking has always been a part of the armoury of Pramiti and has served the children and staff well now for several years.

Listening to the conversation, and contributing what little I could in my role as friend of Savitha and her staff, and a member of the School Board, it seemed to me that the challenges they faced fell into two categories. The first of these relates to the well-rehearsed anxieties expressed by some parents, who when selecting a school for their child, are alarmed by the possibility that those children with special educational needs might detract from the learning of their offspring. Savitha deals with such a situation calmly, but firmly, by making clear the philosophy of the school and pointing to the many achievements and successes of pupils. There is now competition for places in the school and many of the earlier perceptions that an inclusive school would not be able to address the needs of such a range of children have largely been confronted and overcome.

The second challenge is much more pervasive as I witnessed on this latest visit that coincided with a visit from the Block School Inspector. I often feel that the British gave India a bureaucratic system of administration, but the Indians have since developed this into a fine art! Discussing the paperwork and regulations with Savitha, that is imposed by various official bodies, I became acutely aware that this poses a far greater challenge to the school staff than any pedagogical related issues.

All I can do is sympathise with Savitha, whose creative mind struggles to tolerate the procedural nonsense that slows the progress she could otherwise make. Whilst efficient management systems and standardised procedures have their place, when they obstruct the kind of creative thinking and development that benefits children and families, they are of little value and need to be confronted. Working in a university environment where committees dominate and expand at an alarming pace, and appear to have as a major objective the stifling of creativity and generation of flummery, I am only too familiar with the challenges to be overcome.

Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of Savitha’s book, because whilst she is ever conscious of the walls that are built before her, she always believes that these can be knocked down. She sees what is right for the children, staff and families in her school and steers a course with their needs always at the forefront of her mind. Such determination is not only commendable, but also serves as a lesson to us all as we take a deep breath and face the next round of committee decisions and bureaucratic clap-trap, which is intent on stifling progress towards greater inclusion. I am told that intoning the Ganapati mantra may assist in the process and even help me retain my cool. Perhaps I will give it a try!

Om Gang Ganapataye Namaha.

Om Shree Vigneswara Namaha.

 

Active learning – it isn’t easy, but it’s fun!

Johnson encourages a group of students and visitors as they plan a series of lessons about rivers, and ensure access to these lessons for all learners.

Johnson encourages a group of students and visitors as they plan a series of lessons about rivers, and ensure access to these lessons for all learners.

“This is a different way of learning to that which we have usually experienced”. This was a comment from a visitor yesterday to a session on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore. It was one of many that we received of this ilk, and came from an enthusiastic young teacher who was curious to find out whether the things she had heard about the course were true.

As tutors on the course we are firm believers in the notion that you learn most when you put ideas into action. Hence the pattern of a typical session comprises some input by a tutor, followed by a little discussion and debate, then a practical activity in which we attempt to put an idea into practice in a simulated school situation, before coming together for more input and a questioning of what has been learned.

During some of our modules we have an open day during which we open the doors to visitors who are curious about the course. Yesterday nineteen such individuals passed through the doors, many choosing to spend the whole day with us (they had probably heard about the quality of the lunch provided), whilst a few stayed for just a couple of hours. A morning activity was focused upon lesson planning and recognising how the varying individual needs of pupils can be addressed within whole class situations. Students developed innovative ideas for providing effective learning for pupils with a wide range of needs in mathematics lessons focused on measurement, geography lessons about rivers, and science activities investigating insects.

One of our students Sathyasree commented on social media that:

The activity was a real challenge! but yet a lot of learning outcomes and better understanding in creating a lesson plan to meet each individual need.

The assertion of challenge is one that I like. After all, as we keep reminding all of our students, at the end of this course of study you obtain a master’s degree, this needs to be earned!

Our ambition in developing this course was that the students who complete the degree would have become critical thinkers, challenging many of the ideas that have been a part of teaching and learning for many years. We believe that inclusive schools will be achieved through the leadership of individuals who are able to see the strengths brought to the learning situation by all pupils, and who have the skills and confidence to adjust their teaching accordingly. This requires the ability to critique current existing approaches to classroom management and teaching approaches, to become more reflective as professionals, and then to apply ideas in the classroom. We have been very fortunate in having students coming on to this course over the past four years, who respond positively to this challenge. These are certainly education activists. whose leadership will make a significant difference to education here in India.

We know that not all of the visitors who attended the sessions yesterday will become students on this course. Though we would obviously make them most welcome if they did. For some, the challenges of joining a venture such as this are too great at this time, and maybe even into the future. We are not critical of these colleagues, who come from a range of circumstances and teaching backgrounds; we are simply grateful that they have shown an interest in the work of our students and the ways in which we try to support and encourage them in this venture.

Today we will continue to look at the ways in which we may develop inclusive classrooms. In particular we will explore the management of group work that encourages pupil learning at many levels. Theories around jigsawing and envoying as techniques for the facilitation of group work will be explored, but the greatest learning will take place when the students are actively engaged in developing these methods in our simulated classroom groups.

Whilst most of our students tell us that this is a way of working that differs greatly from their previous experiences, they also make it clear that that they feel confident in both the theoretical aspects of the course and the application of ideas into real classrooms. The evidence for this comes from those students who were the very first to attend and complete this Bangalore based course. Each time we arrive in the city they are eager to meet with us and tell us about the changes that they are bringing about in their classrooms, and the benefits that they see for their pupils.

As she was leaving today, one of our visitors commented that.

This was a very challenging way of learning today – but it was great fun!

If everyone involved in this programme leaves with the message that learning should be an enjoyable experience for all concerned, then hopefully we are getting something right.

Back together on Republic Day

Singing the National Anthem before another day or shared learning in Bangalore

Singing the National Anthem before another day of shared learning in Bangalore

Yesterday was Republic Day in India, an occasion that honours the date in 1950 on which the Constitution of India came into effect. Across the city flags can be seen flying proudly as an assertion of the country’s independence. Today also marked the first day of teaching for our third cohort of MA students, as they commenced the second module of their course. Appropriately the day started with a dignified singing of the National Anthem by our students and Indian tutors, as Mary and I watched on in respectful silence. Unfortunately The Brindavan Education Trust where we teach lacks a flag pole; I must have a word with the management to see if we can make amends for next year.

As they entered the teaching room this morning the students greeted each other and their tutors with warmth and enthusiasm, clearly glad to be returning to what promises to be a busy, but enjoyable week. The focus of the module to be taught will be largely built around applying inclusive planning, assessment and teaching approaches in classrooms, and within five minutes of the first session of the day it was evident that everyone had returned with new ideas, and questions that they wanted to explore.

The second module on this course always appears more relaxed than the first, when students arrive not knowing each other and unsure about what to expect. Many have been familiar with professional development, and even degree courses, which are taught using somewhat staid didactic approaches, where they have been expected to sit in silence and take copious notes. For some, the first few sessions can be something of a surprise, even slightly daunting,  as they find themselves engaged in active learning through a variety of problem solving tasks and debates that demand that they take a leadership role in their own learning. However, they soon relax, and begin to enjoy a situation in which they question their own beliefs and practices, and devise new approaches to understanding the challenges of inclusion.

The concept of learning by doing is far from new, Socrates in the fourth century BC encouraged the development of critical thinking through questioning and challenging the issues of the day. Our students on this course adopt this approach, and in so doing recognise that they are already in possession of tremendous knowledge and understanding, and are therefore able to utilise this as we examine notions of what it means to be inclusive, and how to foster more equitable approaches to teaching and learning.

By the end of yesterday’s sessions our thoughtful and highly motivated students were already back into the routine of disputation, questioning, challenging and expressing their opinions that has come to characterise this course. These teachers are all superb reflective practitioners, who are able to take ideas and quickly translate them into classroom solutions for the benefits of their pupils in schools and colleges. Their commitment to learning is a tremendous motivating factor for those of us fortunate enough to be their tutors.

Article 21A of the Constitution of India states that:-

“The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine”.

In 2009 the Right To Free and Compulsory Education Act was passed with an intention that this constitutional clause should become reality. Much work needs to be done before this is achieved, and these students will certainly have a major part to play. As tutors we have every confidence that they will make a significant difference to the lives of children who have for too long been marginalised.

If these students are representative of India as a whole, then the Republic is in good hands.

In taking offence it is perhaps not a good idea to adopt the behaviours of the offender

 

Ill-chosen words easily provoke a reaction. Sadly this is often give in equally ill-chosen terms

Ill-chosen words easily provoke a reaction. Sadly this is often give in equally ill-chosen terms

I’m quite sure that over the years we have all said things that we have later come to regret. It does seem that sometimes words come out of our mouths before our brains have processed the stupidity of what we are saying. This most certainly appears to have been the case with Goa’s Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar at the ‘We Care Film Festival’ on disability issues held in Panaji, Goa this week.

It could be argued that politicians who are in positions of public responsibility, and are therefore called upon to make speeches with some frequency, should be well versed in the art of diplomatic expression, but it is evident that on this occasion Mr Parsekar got things horribly wrong. He is certainly now paying the price, having been negatively featured in articles in the Times of India (January 21st) the Herald in Goa (22nd January) and the Hindustan Times (same date) to name but a few newspapers.

The offending words of this hapless gentleman, spoken at a festival in which the lives and accomplishments of people with disabilities were being celebrated were as follows:-

“There are some brothers and sisters in the society, who are born with certain disabilities. God forgets to give them certain things. That is negligence on the part of God and for that the child has to suffer for his entire life.”

It has long been understood that if you wish to avoid controversy in speech making, amongst the subjects you avoid are personal identities and religion. When I say long understood, I think this applies to the majority of us who are from time to time asked to speak in public, though the adage unfortunately appears to have eluded Mr Parsekar. Hopefully he is now much wiser after the event, but sadly the damage has been done.

Understandably, the film festival organisers, the well-respected Disability Rights Association of Goa (DRAG) were swift to condemn the Chief Minister’s comments, and I am sure that they now regret having tendered to him an invitation to this event. I am quite certain that he will not be high on their invitation list in the future.

The Chief Minister’s words were not only crass, but also showed a complete lack of understanding of the lives of disabled people and their families. Whether you are of any organised faith or none, the pre-scientific nonsense of his statement is similar to those latter day assumptions that disabled people were cursed, inflicted with a sign of punishment or possessed of demons that were common in the dark ages, and should have been confined to the history books many years ago. Mr Parsekar has clearly failed to recognise that disability is just one factor that contributes to human diversity, and as such should be respected in the same way that we should appreciate people from other historically marginalised groups. Having read reports of his speech, I am sure that Mr Parsekar will now be stating that he was misinterpreted in what he said, but he certainly miscalculated badly, and has understandably caused a level of offence that I suspect will have seriously damaged his political career.

There is another aspect of this situation caused by Mr Parsekar’s ignorance and misinterpretation that I personally find similarly disturbing. Just as the Chief Minister’s behaviour should be viewed as unacceptable, I also found some of the responses to his words equally obnoxious. On the Times of India website, an opportunity provided for readers to comment on his speech has certainly attracted a great deal of vitriol. Like many of these commentators, I would wish to wholly condemn the statement made by Mr Parsekar, unlike some of them, I see no value in doing this in equally offensive language. I’m sure that many of the comments made in the heat of the moment were as poorly considered as the Chief Minister’s own words. Ironically, many of those who condemn him as being discriminatory towards people with disabilities choose to describe him in terms which if used in relation to those they believe they are defending, would cause both hurt and offence.

Not all of the comments posted fall into this category, some, particularly those from individuals with personal stories of the impact of disabilities to report, provide insights into a much more real world, and in so doing make appropriate observations. These include responses from people with disabilities, an example of which is a posting that explains clearly the discrimination experienced by many individuals and concludes by saying:

“I am happy to find many right thinking people coming out strongly against this obnoxious remark. My request to all my countrymen to treat us as equals, we are human beings and have right to be treated so”.

The person making this comment, whilst clearly deeply hurt by the Chief Minister’s comments, managed to frame his response by putting forward a series of reasoned remarks without recourse to abusive language.

Reasoned debate around the lives of people with disabilities is important, but only if it directly involves these individuals in the discourse. Proponents in the debate need to moderate their language and ensure that they argue from a well-informed standpoint. It is certainly evident that in this sad affair, neither Mr Parsekar, nor some of those who have commented on his unacceptable words have chosen to take a path of moderation or sufficiently informed themselves to make a valid contribution.

 

 

Philosophy and practice, both essential for change

Which came first, the philosophy or the practice?

Which came first, the philosophy or the practice?

A few days ago, the Hindu newspaper (Jan 20th 2015) here in Bangalore carried an interesting article about the education of first generation learners. Written by Anurag Behar, the Vice Chancellor of Azim Premji University in the city, the article considered why there are still many obstacles in the way of children from disadvantaged groups obtaining an education. In particular the author of this piece presented many of the well rehearsed arguments concerning negative teacher attitudes, lack of professional knowledge and poor resourcing. Whilst there was nothing that could be denied in the article, neither was there anything new. Or at least, this was what I was thinking until I reached the final paragraph which appeared under the sub-heading Philosophy of Education.

I have returned to this part of the article and read it several times since it was first published on Tuesday, because whereas the greater part of the arguments presented were somewhat staid, this final paragraph made a very interesting observation which assisted me as I was thinking about some of the work we are doing with students in Bangalore this week. Anurag Behar begins by apologising for introducing the term “philosophy” into a newspaper article, fearing that many readers may detect the commencement of a highbrow discussion more readily associated with academia than with the mass media. I suspect that he is right, and if the whole article had been entitled Philosophy of Education he may well have lost some readers. However, he then goes on to state that:

“Given the processes of learning, the nature of education and its purposes, philosophy and practice are inseparable.”

Anurag Behar is quite right to say that the mention of philosophy in a newspaper article is unusual. He is equally right in asserting the critical relationship between philosophy and practice in efforts to developing more inclusive approaches to inclusion. The Oxford English dictionary offers several definitions of philosophy, one of which positions it as:

A  theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour”

Attitudes are often cited as critical in the development of inclusive schools. A belief in the rights of all children to access learning and a recognition that all children can learn has been an important starting point in the development of inclusive schools. In my experience the majority of leaders in the field of inclusive education, individuals I have looked up to over many years, such as Mrs Krishnaswamy here in this city,  have a commitment to fairness and equality based not necessarily upon the ideas of an established philosopher or school of thought, but rather upon a personal philosophy that is opposed to injustice and exclusion.

Working with teachers in Bangalore whenever the challenges of creating more inclusive schools and classrooms are discussed, negative attitudes and behaviours are declared to be an obstacle. This is a pattern repeated in other parts of the world, including the UK. I am sure that many of those teachers and school principals who are obstructing progress towards inclusion would see themselves as fair minded, caring and professional, yet they see no reason to make provision for children who have been marginalised and denied their rights to fair schooling. Even when they do recognise that these excluded children have rights, they do not see that they have a responsibility to uphold them or make appropriate adjustments in their professional lives.

It was the inseparability of philosophy from practice that interested me most in Anurag Behar’s article. How, I wondered can we change the behaviours and individual philosophies of those who refuse to support inclusion? As is argued by Anurag Behar, I believe that the answer may lie in ensuring that we look at philosophy in tandem with practice.

If we can show through our practice as teachers the benefits that come from inclusive teaching, we will take others who are currently dissenting from inclusion along with us. We know that the teacher who differentiates effectively to ensure access to learning for the child with learning difficulties, in so doing benefits the whole class. We have long recognised that children who share their classrooms with others from different socio-economic groups, or religions or cultures have greater opportunities to become respectful citizens. We are aware that teachers who learn the skills of inclusive assessment and planning become more reflective and considerate practitioners. Teachers who work in an inclusive manner and promote inclusive practice, such as those I am privileged to work with here in India, are leading the way. Their practice is already influencing change in schools and thereby changing the philosophy of some of their less confident colleagues.

In my opinion the newspaper article provides an important statement in its recognition of this clear link between philosophy and practice. In the UK we have this old conundrum that children have argued about for years, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

It matters not whether the promotion of inclusion comes first from a deep seated philosophy, or emerges primarily from a greater understanding of practice. However, both philosophy and practice need to play their part if we are to attain the goal of more inclusive schools.

Incidentally, which did come first, the chicken or the egg?

Crossing the final hurdle

Tutors should always be available to offer support and advice as students approach the final hurdle of the MA dissertation.

Tutors should always be available to offer support and advice as students approach the final hurdle of the MA dissertation.

All that stands between you and a Master of Arts Degree in Special and Inclusive Education now is the dissertation. I have heard myself saying this a few times over the past few days as our dedicated and hardworking students enter the final straight towards gaining their degrees. If the degree was awarded solely on the grounds of commitment towards children we could make the award today. But it is rather more complicated than that.

The good news is that this week we are working here in Bangalore with our second cohort of students on this programme. The third cohort will be with us again next Monday and we are already attracting potential candidates for the fourth group. Today each one of our students can look to the achievements of our first cohort who have completed their studies and gained their degrees.

This final hurdle, the dissertation, inevitably seems larger than those that have gone before, but we are confident that we have a group of students working with us who will stay the course. Our work with them to date has already provided plenty of evidence that they have the professional skills and attitudes to succeed. Conducting a piece of original research in the area of inclusive education affords opportunities for these dedicated individuals to extend their own learning to new levels and become leading professionals in the field.

Just as with the first group of students, these colleagues are not only developing new ideas, but are putting these into practice in their classrooms. Their expectations of all learners have risen and they are questioning and challenging pre-conceived ideas about children who have previously been seen as “problems” in their schools.

Mary is an excellent tutor, always there to allay the worries of students as they progress through the course.

Mary is an excellent tutor, always there to allay the worries of students as they progress through the course.

Each time we come here to Bangalore we are met by students eager to tell us of the impact that their work is having. New child friendly approaches to assessment, changes in lesson planning, developments in individual education plans and differentiated learning have all been identified as progress made in schools. As this current group prepare their dissertation topics, examining the research methods they will use and discussing the samples with which we will work, we grow ever more excited by their ideas and focus.

The impact of dance on children’s well-being in a special school, the effects  of the 25% quota under the Right to Education Act in two contrasting schools, inclusion in a Montessori environment, parental attitudes towards children with special educational needs, and the impact of participation in a running club on the self-esteem of children with disabilities gives just a brief flavour of the variety of research interests being pursued. The students on this course are surely at the cutting edge of developments in this field here in South India.

As the numbers completing this course increase we will have a strong community of teachers all working towards a more equitable approach to teaching and learning. Keeping them together and maintaining the momentum will be a critical part of ensuring that all of their hard work benefits the maximum number of children. Already we have students who are preparing for further research as PhD students either with us in Northampton or in Indian universities. Their research will undoubtedly add considerably to the increasing efforts to make inclusion a reality within this country.

For those of us fortunate enough to teach on this course, the prospect of having a fine group of alumni who will assume leadership roles in promoting inclusive schooling, is one that we cherish. I am sure that in years to come we will be celebrating further successes achieved by both these colleagues and the children who they teach. They may be slightly apprehensive about their dissertations at present, but we have every faith in their ability and motivation to succeed.

If you think you are up to the challenge and want to join the course, we are recruiting now for September 2015. Do get in touch.

The curse of the blank screen

Staring at a blank screen. Will inspiration ever arrive?

Staring at a blank screen. Will inspiration ever arrive?

“The last thing we discover in composing a work is what to put down first.”

Blaise Pascal, (1623-1662) The Mind on Fire:

 

“I’m really struggling here, I don’t know how to get started.” This was the opening gambit from a student here in Bangalore yesterday on our MA programme in special and inclusive education. A task had been set to write a brief justification for a research project as part of the preparation for producing a dissertation, as the final and major part of the work on this course.

Immediately the session focus shifted towards addressing “writer’s block,” that dreaded, and all too familiar situation in which the writer assumes a blank expression staring at an even more terrifying blank screen. In years gone by, of course, it would have been a pristine white sheet of paper that instilled such fear, but in general today this has given way to a computer screen. There seemed to be an assumption on the part of some students that their tutors don’t suffer the same malaise, but in reality this is a situation with which we are all too familiar.

George Orwell, whose wonderful essay “Why I write”, has always inspired me to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), once compared writing to a form of madness saying, “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” For the professional author there may be many motivations to write, in addition to making a living, Orwell suggests that an inflated ego or a creative enthusiasm may be amongst these. I suppose for many students the demon which he invokes may well be a tutor, who appears obsessed with timetables and deadlines.

Writers have differing responses to this pervasive condition that is termed “writer’s block.” The award winning English novelist Hilary Mantel takes an approach that I could never advocate for my students when she suggests:-

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem”

I’m sure the advice is well meant Miss Mantel, but please remember, if you are a student, you have hand in dates and deadlines to address. Imagine, if your “writer’s block” is severe and you follow the well-meaning author’s advice you could be walking for days, the water in your bath will go cold and you will become wrinkly, eating too many pies will make you obese, but worst still, your actions will not remove your anxiously waiting tutors from the scene!

So what can practically be done? I am sure there is no simple cure that can be adopted by everyone. I once heard from a colleague who told me that if he could not start writing he composed Limericks, mainly with one or other of his colleagues names somewhere in the rhyme. Apparently he once wrote one about me, but its content was so rude he never showed me! Another friend would write an angry letter to a newspaper about a particular article that had incensed him, though he never did get around to posting them. Both of these well respected writers, had discovered a system that worked for them, the miracle cure for which we are all searching.

Neither of these methods would work for me. Personally, when this dreaded curse arrives, which it does with alarming regularity, I try to think back to a recent event, or something I have read and simply write a brief report about what amused me or fascinated me, or indeed enraged me on the day (sometimes these therapeutic ramblings end up appearing on these blog pages).

Matters are not helped by today’s technology. I picture the scene in any student’s or academic’s home. They sit enthusiastically in front of the screen with every good intention but don’t know where to start, the words fail to flow and the mind goes blank. Despite all best intentions emails are checked and answered, a website that may (but probably won’t), prove helpful is checked. Before long half an hour has passed and the first word has still eluded the essay. The solution is simple, switch the computer off and go for coffee, when you return it is bound to be easier.

Do you really think so? In the half hour spent over coffee ten more emails have arrived and the vicious technological hamster wheel of prevarication continues! The writing gets no easier, so after a further half hour wasted, and knowing that you can’t take on more caffeine, you go and bathe the cat! (actually this is not a tactic to be recommended, cat’s notoriously hate water, and have sharp claws).

I do sincerely have sympathy for those who find themselves in this all too familiar situation. I also have my own pet theories as well as my means of addressing the problem described above. I would suggest that writing is as much a physical activity as it is neurological. Nobody of any intelligence takes up running for the first time today in the belief that they can run a marathon tomorrow. The same applies to writing. So it is that I say to my students, get into training by writing something every day. Start with something short a Haiku or a shopping list, progress to a full page and gradually work up to a sustained effort of maybe a couple of hours.

As with any other exercise, it gets easier with practice and time. The greatest danger is to believe that you can’t write, when the fact of the matter is that you don’t write.

Ok, I’m off for coffee – as soon as I’ve checked my emails!

Celebrating a sharing of cultural influences

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

When visiting the Valley School as a guest of my good friend Satish, trading a little teaching for the quiet and comfort of a forest life, I am always pleased to find myself amongst creative people. The Valley acts as a magnet to artists, musicians, dancers and poets and my stay this time coincided with that of a Dutch musician and sculptor who was giving some remediation to a work he installed in the grounds a few years ago. Also in attendance were an English story teller, who entertained a willing audience beneath the stars late into an evening, and two classical Indian percussionist who were working with groups of enthusiastic children.

The Valley school staff are committed to celebrating and disseminating the art and culture of India as well as exposing their pupils and the adult community to that from elsewhere in the world. Whenever I walk through the extensive arboreal grounds of the Valley there is evidence of the work of local and tribal artists, potters and sculptors. This sits comfortably alongside the work of children and staff from the school community and that produced by visiting artisans.

The regional variations of tribal art, examples of which can be found on the walls of this environment are a fascination that I have acquired in recent years. At home, a beautiful black and white depiction of birds in a forest, skillfully produced by a Madhubani artist from Bihar hangs in our lounge. My interest in these works meant that I was particularly delighted following my session at the CISCE conference for  school principals, to be presented with a Pithora painting by a tribal artist Rathya Najroo Shekla Bhai from Gujarat.

There is a childlike quality to this work which may understandably be categorised as naive. Yet the picture tells a clear and moving story, depicting life in a tribal community entered through the gateway at the foot of the picture. Here are portrayals of people, animals, birds and activities that typify and shape the culture of these distinctive and dignified people. All of this is surrounded by an intricate border formed by a filigree of patterns and shapes.

A Gujerati tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

A Gujarati Pithora tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

In enjoying this work and others like it I am aware of how this, and similar tribal art from around the world has influenced that of European artists. The Russian painter Marc Chagall projects a similar naivety in his depiction of animals such as the donkey in his painting “L’Ane Vert” (the Green Donkey) as is achieved in the creation of camels and horses in the Gujarati picture. The tiger in Rousseau’s famous “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is not so far removed in his simplicity from those magnificent felines at the gates of this work.  Other artists, including Picasso and Matisse were openly influenced by tribal patterns and motifs and could see the underlying spirit of their apparent simplicity and the importance of the stories that they tell.

Just in case you should believe that artistic influences have travelled in only one direction, it is evident in the works of many of today’s Indian painters that they have drawn inspiration from the west. Jaii Deolalkar a talented artist who also works at the Valley spoke to me of her association with the works of Paul Klee, which is evident in a series of her paintings produced in recent years. Her works are untitled, enabling the viewer to see what they may in her art. Her work below with its furious reds and ochres and a depth of field created by brush strokes and shadows, demonstrates how the work of modern Europeans has shaped the thinking of an artist here in Bangalore.

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

This sharing of artistic styles and traditions must surely play a part in helping those of us who are devoid of creative talent, to understand the cultural influences and interpretations of those who have such gifts. The children who learn in this environment are certainly placed in a position of advantage.

IF YOU CLICK ON THE PICTURES THEY WILL ENLARGE

Are we clear about what we are assessing?

 

In some schools this remains the dominant form of assessment

In some schools this remains the dominant form of assessment

Providing fair access and accommodation for all students in conducting assessments and in examination situations is clearly a topic of critical importance to students, teachers and parents and one that needs to be regularly revisited. This is not simply a case of seeing how access can be provided, but also requires an understanding of what is to be assessed and why. In my experience, when teachers talk about making reasonable accommodations they are usually concerned with how examination arrangements can be changed rather than giving much thought to the questions of the purpose of the assessment to be applied.

It was with a degree of apprehension that I agreed a couple of days ago to make a presentation on developing assessment for learning to promote more inclusive practices, to a gathering of school principals and other teachers at the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) conference in Bangalore. CISCE is an official body with responsibility for overseeing the examination system for a large number of schools, and has a responsibility making judgements about which students are entitled to receive accommodations. At the beginning of the day I was unsure of how my views on the lack of equal opportunities which has plagued examination systems for so many years would be received. A couple of trusted colleagues had told me to anticipate some opposition, so my plan was to ensure I had identified escape routes that would enable me to get out of the building relatively unscathed.

As things turned out, any misgivings I may have had were quickly dissipated by the warmth of reception I was given and the positive responses from my audience. It immediately became clear that when I suggested that students may play a part in self-assessment, and that they should additionally have opportunities to evaluate the teaching that they received, there was a good deal of agreement in the auditorium. Similarly when I gave examples of how written examinations may obstruct the ability of some students to demonstrate their learning I noted a general nodding of heads and was pleased to see that even the psychologists, many of whom have a major role in assessment appeared to see the point.

Two further presentations from Dr Neena David and Ms Navaz Hormusjee confirmed that CISCE are sincere in their commitment to defining more equitable access arrangements, and that there are already good examples of the application of more inclusive assessment approaches in schools. Whilst there was a certain harmony achieved between our three presentations, without a doubt the most constructive part of the event came in the form of a question and answer session with a thoughtful and lively series of questions and comments from participants which certainly challenged those of us sitting on a panel.

Many issues were discussed, but the most animated debate concerned the ways in which students who struggle with reading and writing should be enabled to exhibit their understanding and knowledge. There was a general consensus that a significant number of students have acquired good subject knowledge, and have a command of all the issues required by the examination. However some of these students are invariably destined to fail an examination that makes demands upon their use of the written word. If the requirements of a history examination are to assess a student’s understanding of historical events and concepts, should he be prevented from showing his prowess in this area as a result of an examination dependent upon the skills of writing? Would an oral examination be appropriate in this situation, and might this not better enable the student to demonstrate his historical knowledge?

This issue is, of course, far from straightforward and demands a consideration of whether this student might be given an unfair advantage over his peers. What level of reading difficulty should a student have before such arrangements are allowed? Who would make this judgement? Under what conditions should such an examination be conducted? As I would expect from a group of dedicated professionals who have made the effort to attend such an event, there were many positive suggestions and no lack of commitment towards finding a solution. Beginning discussions on these issues may be as important as reaching conclusions.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of today’s discussion was the supportive nature of the responses from colleagues who have some authority in issuing guidance in this area. They not only listened, but also engaged positively with the debate, noting suggestions and discussing how changes could be made. With such complex matters under consideration it was always going to be difficult to come up with answers that would suit all parties. But the willingness to share ideas and listen to a range of opinions was certainly an indication that much may be achieved.

At the end of the event there were many positive comments being made by departing delegates, some of whom approached me to tell me of the actions that they are already taking towards ensuring that pupil self-assessment and the use of formative approaches were becoming a feature of their schools. On the evidence of today’s sessions there are increasing numbers of teachers here in Bangalore who are willing to share their ideas and work towards a more inclusive approach to planning, teaching and assessment in their schools. I will observe future developments keenly.

Travelling hopefully

Prepare for a life of English luxury in Bangalore!

Prepare for a life of English luxury in Bangalore!

If riding a bicycle, moving relatively slowly through the countryside under one’s own power, with an opportunity to appreciate the landscape and enjoy the air, is one of the most civilized forms of transport, then flying long haul economy class must be one of the least.

The cabin crew on board the flight work hard to satisfy their customers, answering the sound of bells, often summoning them to petulant and unfriendly passengers, who believe that it is their right to command attention and make demands. Ever smiling and willing these overworked individuals tread the gangways, pushing trollies with hardly an inch to spare or carrying various items to impatient travellers who appear to see them as their own individual galley slaves. By the end of yesterday’s flight they looked like exhausted teachers who had finally lost control of a class who refused to do up seat belts, remain in their seats or put armrests down. Why are so many passengers intent on making life difficult for these hard working cabin crews?

The long flights from Birmingham to Dubai and thence on to Bangalore are a tiring, but necessary part of teaching on the MA programme. Personally, I find the balancing act that has to be delicately managed with an over packaged meal on a flimsy tray, a particularly irksome feature of this kind of travel. Alongside this, and in stark contrast with riding a bicycle, the view is often restricted to the passenger in the next seat or a small screen on the back of the seat eighteen inches in front of my face. However, I am not complaining, because the opportunity to visit India in order to work with colleagues and students is an immensely rewarding one.

Arriving in Bangalore, even when exhausted after a long journey and the negotiation of the paperwork and customs requirements for entering the country; this time an ebola screening form and heat detecting cameras was added to procedures; it appears that my senses are heightened and my powers of observation raised. I am used to the garish and often obtuse advertising ever present on hoardings in the city, and last night, even whilst watching the motions of a carousel in hopeful anticipation of the arrival of my luggage; my eye was drawn to one such electronic advertising feature. Here in the arrivals hall, clearly located to attract the attention of passengers who may be anticipating a more permanent stay in the city, was the display placed at the head of this blog posting.

I must admit that this bright red advert brought a smile to my face for several reasons. Firstly, the bold assertion that “Charm is a Statement Made in Silence,” does not resonate easily with my impression of a city where the hustle and perpetual motion of traffic with constantly blaring horns is the norm. Who, I wondered, would enforce the silence that is so confidently acclaimed? Far more than this, however, my amusement was intensified by the planning of “Villas with an English Accent”. This Englishness was, of course further heightened by the image of Charlie Chaplin, great comedic star of the silent movie era; a form of cinema which operated on a level considerably different from that promoted through Bollywood.

Reading the words on this board, I found myself thinking of the supreme irony of advertising English style homes here in India. How fascinating I thought, in 1947, after a long struggle the Indian people were (quite rightly) glad to see the back of the British. Now it would appear that they want to emulate our life style by living in mock English homes! Incidentally, I am not aware of anyone who has lived in an English villa since the Romans left Britain, but that is a mere aside. What, I wondered is the attraction of this type of housing development? I find it hard to believe that a bill board at Heathrow airport would carry an advert in an attempt to sell Indian style homes. Even if they were portrayed as the Palaces of the Maharajas I doubt that anyone would believe the hype!

Here then is yet another Indian conundrum, one of the many that I will encounter over the next fortnight for sure. In a country where we are told the economy is booming and India is asserting its identity, why is there a lack of confidence in designing, building and advertising housing which might proudly announce an Indian national identity?

Leaving the airport and heading into the Bangalore city night I felt very privileged to be returning here to work. I know that over the coming two weeks myself, my colleagues and our students will be working hard together. Great learning opportunities will present themselves to all of us. I also know that I will continue in my optimistic, though ultimately hapless venture, to solve the many puzzles that India continues to present. Such joy!