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?