Everyone remembers

Opportunities to learn exist in every interaction.

Opportunities to learn exist in every interaction.

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a colleague about why we originally entered the teaching profession. Not surprisingly, we found that there were a number of common factors that had shaped our choices and led us along this pathway during our formative years. Both of us had experiences as teenagers of working with various youth groups in which we had taken leadership or instruction roles. Similarly, we had both seen the teaching profession as providing an opportunity to participate in a worthwhile activity that could prove beneficial to others, whilst enabling us to continue our own learning. As I feel sure is common, amongst teachers who come together to discuss teaching issues at any time, we expressed our dissatisfaction with various developments in educational policy and its management, but both of us agreed that we would not have chosen any other profession, and that we continued to enjoy our respective roles.

Whilst we were able to find parallels in our earlier lives that had led us to select teaching over other professional pathways, the factor that had probably had a greater impact upon us than any other, was the influence of specific teachers who had shaped our thinking and inspired us to learn. Much of our reminiscence centred upon individuals who had galvanized our interest in their subject and motivated us to ever greater enthusiasm for exploring opportunities for learning. Both of us felt that the decisions we had made to become teachers were heavily influenced by our experiences in the lessons conducted by these individuals, and that to some extent our own approaches in the classroom had been guided by their example.

Two particular teachers often come to mind when I recall the best experiences I had at school. I am sure that it is no coincidence that my love of literature and a continuing passion for history were both shaped by teachers for whom I had the greatest respect. What interests me greatly as I recall these two characters however, is that they were in many ways distinctly different in their approach and in the way in which we regarded them as students.

The English teacher who instilled in me an insatiable appetite for reading and taught me to appreciate some of the world’s great literature, could be unpredictable in his moods and was certainly perceived as a hard taskmaster. His interpretation of our work could often appear hyper-critical, and his standards were always high. However, he gave us considerable freedom to express our ideas, to argue our point of view and to challenge the perceived wisdom of the day. I cannot recall him ever telling us the meaning of a passage of prose, a poem or a section from a play, this was not his style. He expected us to question everything, make up our own minds and then defend our position and interpretation of a text. This was not an approach appreciated by everyone, and I am sure that other students have a less than fond memory of his lessons. From my own perspective, this was an ideal way to learn. It taught me to think critically, to question everything and to have the conviction to express my own ideas. As a result of this teacher’s influence I cannot imagine ever travelling without a book, and it is thanks to him that I have explored and continue to seek out the literature produced by great writers from all around the world, and find in their words the inspiration for much of what I do in life.

By contrast, but equally important was a history teacher who clearly believed that simply teaching to the requirements  of the examination was an affront to his professionalism. Officially for our A levels we studied British social and economic history from 1800 – 1939, but in reality we were given an eclectic range of opportunities and explored a much more varied historical diet. Studying history, he told us, was about understanding the present, through our appreciation of the events and actions of the past that have shaped our society. He therefore encouraged us to read well beyond the limited textbooks provided for our course. His lessons often appeared tangential to the syllabus, and should any one of his students show the least interest in a topic, no matter how far from the central theme of the set curriculum, he would feed this enthusiasm and facilitate opportunities for learning. I recall that some of my schoolmates were horrified that we wandered so often from the examination pathway. Yet despite this aberration (or possibly because of it) we succeeded in passing with good grades and many of us with an enduring enthusiasm for the subject.

A few years ago, because of a shortage of teacher availability in English schools, a government advertising campaign was organised under the slogan – “everyone remembers a good teacher!” (I know that you can probably recall a few who were less than good as well- but hopefully these were a minority). My colleague and I certainly owe much to teachers who inspired us. I believe they did so not only through their commitment to their subject, but also because they wanted to create independent learners who would have the ability to relate to others and to engage in a critical analysis of their world. I suspect that if you take a moment to reflect, that you too will remember teachers whose actions may have influenced not only your interest in a subject, but also your approach to life.

 

In the best schools, inclusion and quality go hand in hand.

Quality and inclusion - synonymous rather than incompatible

Quality and inclusion – synonymous rather than incompatible

A recent article written by Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth the Director at Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies, Amritsar, India and published in the Eurasia Review (February 16th), raises a number of interesting issues related to the challenges of implementing the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). Whilst several of the points made in the article have received a fairly wide-spread airing in the media, a particular focus within Dr Singh Kainth’s piece has of yet received a great deal of attention within an Indian context.

Dr Singh Kainth discusses what he describes as two different dimensions of education, those of inclusivity and quality and proceeds to discuss some elements of the relationship between the two. Sadly, much of his article is focused upon other, well-rehearsed discussions about resourcing and teacher training, leaving only limited space to consider a potentially more interesting series of issues. It was Dr Singh Kainth’s assertion that:-

“it is important to understand the difference between quality education as well as (sic) inclusive education”.

that grasped my attention in this particular article. I was already familiar with some of his work published in academic journals and know that Dr Singh Kainth has demonstrated a commitment to investigating the implementation of inclusive practices in schools. I was therefore somewhat surprised to see the terms “quality education” and “inclusive education” separated in this manner.

The reasons for a slight rising of my eyebrows on this matter, relate to a concern that I have long felt that there are still significant numbers of teachers and education administrators who seem to believe that the creation of a school that is inclusive will result in a lessening of the quality of education provided. This, despite the fact that well managed inclusive schools achieve consistently good outcomes, both academic and social, and are able to demonstrate benefits for children of all needs and abilities. However, I am aware that many teachers and parents remain to be convinced by this argument, despite empirical evidence that shows the positive impact of more inclusive approaches to schooling.

When I listen to, and work with teachers in schools that have succeeded in creating an environment conducive to the learning of a diverse school population, there are a number of interesting points that they consistently make. Not least amongst these is the fact that having to address a broader range of learning needs in their students, has made them better teachers. In inclusive classrooms teachers have to think about the needs of their students on several levels, they adjust their teaching accordingly and ensure that lessons are well differentiated, based upon innovative assessment that informs teaching, and find range of means to afford access to learners. One of the most interesting observations that I often hear from such teachers is that in planning for children who are having difficulties with learning, they often devise approaches that they find benefits those students who do not experience such problems. One young teacher recently told me about how she spent quite a lot of time preparing work for a boy in her class who was struggling with long division in her maths lessons. As she was doing this she thought it was a lot of effort to make for one child. However, when she used the materials with him, she found that several other children were interested and wanted to use these resources. Their own performance improved and she realised that the ways in which she had thought about this lesson impacted upon more than the one boy for whom she had prepared the materials.

In the same school another teacher explained to me how she enjoys having the opportunity to encourage her most able learners to work with those who are struggling. Her reasoning was that the able pupils have to think differently about the work when they are explaining it to others, and that it makes them more reflective about their own learning. She also observed that their own understanding increases and they achieve more as learners.

Much is written about the social benefits of inclusion, but concerns are still voiced about the potential lowering of standards and dilution of quality in schools. The teachers with whom I have opportunities to work, and who are most thoughtful and perceptive about teaching children of diverse needs, demonstrate that in addition to social achievements, academic attainment can also be raised in these schools.

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth is doing much to promote the development of inclusive schools in his region of India. I do hope that he continues to write on this subject and that he may find an outlet which provides a greater opportunity to discuss the relationship between inclusion and quality, and to provide us with examples from an Indian context.

 

Familiar challenges identified in Hong Kong

Teachers in Hong Kong are working hard to create inclusive schools - but is Hong Kong in general ready for these?

Teachers in Hong Kong are working hard to create inclusive schools – but is Hong Kong in general ready for these?

A few years ago I had an opportunity to spend time working in Hong Kong, when I was awarded the Marden Fellowship as Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education, in the New Territories District of the Special Administrative Region. During my time there, and on subsequent visits, I made many friends and good colleagues who were working at the Institute of Education and in schools. My time was spent working on research and writing projects with Professor Chris Forlin who was at that time a substantive member of the academic staff, teaching on post-graduate courses, and doing consultancy for various government agencies and schools. 2007 – 2008 was an interesting time to be in Hong Kong as discussions about the development of more inclusive schools was high on the education agenda, and opportunities to debate the interpretation of inclusive schooling within a Chinese context were plentiful.

It is seven years since I last visited Hong Kong and I have no doubt that much will have changed during that time. I must admit that as several former colleagues from the area are no longer working there, I have to a great extent failed to keep abreast of educational developments in the region. Whenever Hong Kong makes the international news, as it did most recently through the extensive pro-democracy demonstrations that brought this non-stop district to a grinding halt, I have endeavoured to play catch up with what is happening in the education field. However, the news reports around schools in Hong Kong are usually quite bland, with little focus upon the progress being made to address diversity in classrooms.

Today, an article in the on-line edition of the most popular English language newspaper in the area, The South China Morning Post (23rd February, 2015), did come to my attention. Under a banner headline Special Needs Students: More Support Needed in Hong Kong Schools. Robin Cheung a retired school principal wrote about his concerns that whilst teachers in schools have shown considerable commitment towards inclusion, progress is being impeded by a lack of adequate resourcing and poor access to training for teachers.

These are issues that have been raised in many parts of the world and are certainly not exclusive to Hong Kong. Mr Cheung, in bringing attention to these apparent deficiencies is echoing concerns that I hear every day here in my own country. However, he develops his argument further by suggesting that the consequences of a failure to provide adequate support has resulted in some children receiving worse provision than that which they were previously afforded in segregated special schools. Describing the ways in which many schools operate, he states that:-

“They also resort to class streaming and put most special educational needs students together to minimise the disruptive and dragging effects on other students. It seems they are running a school within a school, but without the abundant resources enjoyed by the former special schools”.

The notion of segregation within a mainstream school is certainly not new. The designation of classes for children with special educational needs, thus separating them from their peers for all academic purposes, is a model that has been seen in many countries, including my own over many years. The rationale behind this exclusive action appears to be the potential disruption attributed to children with special educational needs, an example of stereotyping if ever I saw one! This, Mr Cheung rightly observes, was never the purpose of inclusive education and is a clear indication of a failure to administer policy with the commitment needed to ensure success. The arguments rehearsed in this Hong Kong article have certainly been aired on many previous occasions, but a number of more interesting points are also made.

Mr Cheung suggests that whilst there are problems for schools where a commitment to inclusion is stated, but not easily attained, there is a need to look at the situation in a more holistic manner. Adjustments to the curriculum are needed, rather than believing that children can be made to fit that which exists, and this he states is not simply a task for the schools alone:-

“…rather than just keeping such students in schools and maintaining a semblance of order and learning, these students need help to develop into self-sufficient, productive citizens, but the curriculum design, pedagogical innovation, assessment and life and career planning involved are far beyond the capability of any individual schools. Their concerns just highlight the inadequacies of the present system”.

A more holistic approach to developing inclusive societies that place a greater emphasis upon a broader range of skills, knowledge and understanding is seen as an important pre-requisite to enabling schools to address a broad range of learning needs. In making this assertion Mr Cheung is certainly expressing a concern that is felt by increasing numbers of teachers. If we truly believe in the development of inclusive schools, surely we must ensure that the rest of society works with us in order to understand what it is that all children can do. In this way we will be able to support them in making a valuable, and hopefully valued contribution to their communities.

The news from Hong Kong may not be earth shattering, but it does serve as a reminder that schools alone do not have the answers to creatng a more equitable society.

Let’s value the freedom to respond.

 

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

“To become self-aware, people must be allowed to hear a plurality of opinions and then make up their own minds. They must be allowed to say, write and publish whatever they want. Freedom of expression is the most basic, but fundamental, right. Without it, human beings are reduced to automatons.”

MA Jian (Chinese author of Red Dust, and The Noodle Maker)

 

In writing a blog, one of the most interesting and at times amusing elements of the process is the unpredictability of the responses posted by readers. Posting a reply to any article makes a demand upon the thoughts and the time of the respondent, and such efforts should therefore always be treated with respect. Reading the responses can often be an educative process, with comments made that provide an interesting interpretation upon the issues raised in the original article, and ideas that expand or elaborate upon a focus of debate.

As might be expected, there are regular respondents who have engaged in this arms-length form of conversation, and have contributed useful and interesting ideas and experiences with other readers with whom they have never met, but feel able to share their thoughts. A specific example of this was the informative range of responses to Dancing together to the same inclusive tune posted on November 12th 2014. In this article I referred to a student in Bangalore exploring elements of dance for children with special educational needs, and the dearth of literature related to this subject. Within days, several respondents had posted information that they hoped would be of help, and as a result of this I know that the student concerned has gained useful knowledge, and has also had some personal contact and shared ideas with a dance teacher several thousands of miles from her home. It was in the hope of provoking an interchange such as this, and establishing connections between committed individuals that I began writing this blog.

Whilst there are regular respondents to these pages, it is always interesting to see a posted reply from someone previously unknown. When this happens I find myself wondering what it was that provoked them into writing about this specific topic or on this particular occasion. Did they stumble upon the article by chance, or do they read the blog regularly but have never previously felt the need to respond? Thus it is you see, that as the writer of a blog intended to promote dialogue, my own curiosity is aroused by those who reply.

There are, however, other readers who also give me cause for thought, and possibly even a little concern. From time to time I receive emails from individuals who have read an article and wish to comment but feel unable to do so in the  public domain of a blog. I was looking back over some of these mails a week or so ago and wondering about the sentiments and emotions that they express and the situations in which the correspondents live or work. These emails tend to fall into two categories, the first of which I intend to dismiss fairly quickly, and the second to which I will devote more space.

Category one consists of emails from individuals who have  taken exception to either the comments that I have made or my interpretation of the issues discussed. An example of this relates to the article Thank you for a letter of appreciation posted on July 16th 2014 in which I commented favourably upon the actions of Rachel Tomlinson the head teacher at a school in  Lancashire in the UK. This lady had written to all of her pupils thanking them for their hard work over the course of an academic year, and emphasising that she was proud of all of their personal achievements, even where their academic attainment may not have been outstanding. This head teacher’s actions had impressed me as an example of someone prepared to stand by her beliefs that education should be valued as a holistic process, rather than simply one of jumping through academic hoops. Clearly some readers disagreed, which of course they were perfectly entitled to do. However, rather than posting their responses on the blog they chose to send emails directly to me casting various aspersions upon my personage rather than commenting upon the ideas that I had presented. Fortunately this happens quite rarely and my response has always been to reply politely, suggesting that they share their opinions openly by posting a response in order that others may join in the debate. Strangely enough, they have thus far declined my invitation.

The second category of email correspondents differs considerably from the first. This comprises individuals who want to comment on an article, but feel unable to do so on what they regard to be a public platform that could leave them exposed. Typically they write to me to share a personal experience, often in the school in which they work, that exemplifies an issue that I have raised as an area of concern. For example in responding by email to You can’t hit the middle of the target every time (February 10th 2015) a teacher told me of her own anxieties about the ways in which the perceived failure of children in her school to achieve certain academic targets was being used to label them as “remedial pupils,” and that if they were not seen to make significant improvements they were being recommended for removal from the school. In her email to me this teacher commented:-

“I thought for a long time about whether I could put this reply on your blog, but in the end I decided that if someone recognised me and told the school principal it would lead to trouble. I just wanted to say what I feel, so sent you this mail because I didn’t feel I could put my ideas out there on the internet.”

Obviously, when I receive mails of this nature I send a reply assuring the sender that I will not post any identifying details on these pages. (I sent this posting to the lady quoted above and have her consent to use this passage on condition that her identity remains confidential).

The respondents who fall into this category of individuals keen to engage in debate but wary of doing so in a public arena, may well be justified in their apprehensions. Whilst I believe that education should play an important role in fostering democratic principles, and should aim to teach respect for a range of opinions and perspectives, I am aware that my views do not necessarily strike a chord with everyone. Sadly the ability to express an opinion with an assurance that this will be debated in a civil and courteous manner is not always possible. Indeed such a situation remains beyond the reach of many teachers and others even today, and may be seen as a significant impediment to the promotion of those democratic principles of education that many of us hold dear.

Education since before the days of Socrates has been a process of sharing ideas and gaining knowledge through discourse and dialogue. The opportunities that exist to enhance this exchange of ideas have greatly increased in this digital age. Those who wish to restrict the scope for learning that comes with such debate, are obviously fearful of the widening of the possibilities provided through democratic processes. Whilst some readers remain apprehensive in respect of posting their ideas, they are clearly engaged in the discussion of their thoughts in other less public ways.

To those of you who feel able to post responses on these pages, I say celebrate the freedom that education has afforded you. To those who feel more constrained, I hope you may find other ways of joining the debate with those of us who will respect your opinions. And to those who may still feel the need to take a more oppositional position, I hope that you too may gather the courage to share your opinions, in order that debate may take place upon a more democratic platform than that which you have currently chosen to endorse .

The birth of an elephant may be straightforward by comparison!

Mother and child are both doing well

Mother and child are both doing well

The gestation period for elephants is approximately 22 months, the incubation of a PhD takes considerably longer. I am not conversant with the actual birth process and delivery of elephant calves, but I do know that there are often complications associated with the final production of a thesis! This may possibly seem like a slightly bizarre start to this particular article, I therefore owe you an explanation.

In recent years I have been very fortunate in working with and supervising a number of excellent research students. They are all hard working committed individuals, passionate about their research, eager to explore ideas and a joy to have as students and colleagues. Over a period of between three and five years, depending on whether they are full time or part time students, they beaver away with great diligence, reading and criticising the literature, designing research instruments, collecting and analysing data and writing various papers and then that final Behemoth of a document the research thesis. For most of them this is by far the largest piece of writing upon which they have embarked, and for some it will remain as the most considerable tome they ever produce.

You would imagine that as they approach the end of this arduous process that the final handing in of their thesis and the last preparation for examination by viva voce would come as a blessed relief. However, over the years I have noted that the final months leading up to the delivery of this significant document is a source of angst and prevarication for so many PhD students. Over the past few weeks I have once again been subjected to those anxieties and apprehensions that may more readily be associated with a mother to be. The conversation usually goes something like this.

Supervisor: “I’ve read the final (probably tenth!) draft of your thesis, all you need to do now is get it bound and hand it in. Well done.”

Supervisor: (a week later) “Where’s the thesis? Have you had it printed yet?”

PhD student: “I just wanted to add a few more paragraphs in chapter three, it’ll be done by the end of the week”.

Supervisor: (yet another week later) “I don’t seem to have a copy of the thesis yet.”

PhD student: (somewhat sheepishly) I reread chapter 4 and felt that it needed a little reorganisation.”

The student has now been in labour for several weeks and it looks like we are heading for a forceps delivery!

There is, of course, a serious point amidst all of this banter. The PhD has always been seen as a rite of passage, an apprenticeship model whereby the student presents their credentials as a bona fide researcher. Understandably therefore they want to deliver the perfect specimen of a thesis, one where the examiners will struggle to find any minor blemish and which will sail through the viva voce examination totally unhindered.

Seeking for perfection in any aspect of learning is something to be applauded. A dogged unwillingness to part with a piece of work that has formed a significant part of your life, is therefore to be expected. I have far less worry about those learners who have periods of self-doubt than I do with those who are filled with confidence and appear quite blasé about the whole procedure. Self doubt has always seemed to me to be an important part of learning.

As teachers we need to learn how to manage all kinds of students; the confident and the apprehensive, the anxious and those who are possessed of a sometimes less than convincing bravado. It is our responsibility to nurture our students towards an outcome that is satisfactory to both the learner and the teacher.

So it is that I await  the delivery of two theses. As I don the robes of a PhD midwife I am full of anticipation for the conversations that may await me. Whilst I am confident that the period of gestation is now at an end and that a healthy delivery is imminent, we all know too well that predicting delivery dates is far from an exact science.

Education and business can be uncomfortable bed fellows

 

How can we be sure of the motivations of those who see education as a business opportunity.

How can we be sure of the motivations of those who see education as a business opportunity.

Dr Kishore Singh who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, recently expressed his concern that universal access to education is in danger of being inhibited because of current proposals being considered in a number of African nations. Government authorities in several of these countries have recently been considering the delegation of fundamental education services to the private sector, in what Dr Singh perceives to be an effort to reduce spending on education.

Dr Singh, who has a background in law, is well versed in the challenges of working towards the achievement of the rights of all children to receive an education, having held a post of responsibility for overseeing the right to education at UNESCO for many years. He has been involved in a number of campaigns in this area, and has been recognised for being outspoken on issues such as the eradication of corporal punishment, and violence towards children. His experience and knowledge is such that we should be prepared to listen attentively when he expresses his concern that children are in danger of being denied learning opportunities because of poor governance.

Whilst expressing his apprehensions about current developments in Africa, Dr Singh was also aware of similar moves elsewhere in the world. The actions identified by this United Nations expert as being of concern, include those of  the Society of Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan and the Independent Schools Federation of India, who have recently challenged India’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), by suggesting that it violates their autonomy and places a strain upon their resources. There is, of course, an element of genuine concern in such arguments. In countries that are challenged by difficult socio-economic circumstances, where making progress in the provision of education is always going to be accompanied by tensions. However, as Dr Singh states:

“Education is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do; it is an inalienable right of every child. Provision of basic education free of costs is a core obligation of States.”

Why should Dr Kishore Singh be concerned? If the private sector is willing to provide education for children, shouldn’t the state be encouraged to support such an initiative? It is certainly true to say that there are many excellent private schools, some run by NGOs, others by charitable trusts and even some by wealthy philanthropists, which are doing excellent work in this field. I am sure that Dr Singh recognises this, but he is right to express his apprehensions.

In particular there are concerns that once the state abdicates responsibility for the education of its children, it loses control of the ability to ensure that the quality of schooling is high, and that the curriculum and other procedures are fit for purpose. Where things go wrong, if the state has no oversight and no available sanctions, there is little opportunity for redress. There must also be questions asked about the motivations of those who choose to develop private educational institutions. There are many instances where such schools have been run purely on business lines, with a focus upon making profit, and others where they have been seen as the means of promoting a doctrine which may not always be in the interests of the children or communities which they claim to support. In countries where private schooling sits comfortably alongside that provided by the state, there are well established elements of quality assurance and control, overseen by national governments, to which all schools must adhere. Where such procedures are ignored, this can lead to major injustices and the exclusion of significant elements of the population from schooling.

Where schools are managed in order to make a profit, they are usually dependent upon contributions from the wealthiest sections of society. The children of affluent families tend to be warmly welcomed by the management of these schools, those who come from more marginalised backgrounds less so. When these schools have endeavoured to provide for a proportion of children from poorer communities, or those who have been excluded because of disability or special educational needs, they have often been faced with opposition from those parents who believe that this will be to the detriment of their children.  In talking about the importance of providing parental choice, the managers and owners of these establishments are almost invariably considering the right to choice of only a small and largely advantaged section of the population.

It may, of course, be the case that Dr Kishore Singh’s anxieties are ill-founded. It could be the case that a beneficent and selfless organisation takes responsibility for schooling in a state, and is prepared to accept the guidance of a democratically elected government with regards to how provision for all children can be achieved. Sadly, I think that in expressing his concerns, Dr Singh is right in suggesting that the forfeiting of responsibility for ensuring that all children have access to education is a measure of the lack of commitment to equity and inclusion on the part of some governments.

Ensuring that Education for All becomes a reality was never going to be easy. It will be made even harder if governments fail to accept that it is their responsibility to effect change that will benefit all children.

 

Testing times?

 

Too late, I'm already disturbed!

Too late,
I’m already disturbed!

A friend in India emailed me this morning to bring to my attention a development that is being hailed as a major breakthrough in the education of children with learning disabilities. An article in the Times of India, written by Yagnesh Mehta under the headline Quick test to identify learning disability among children, implies an impending innovation, which it is suggested will enhance the educational opportunities of a significant number of children. Why is it then that having read the article a couple of times I feel more apprehension than elation?

The article informs readers that:

“Rudresh Vyas, head of psychology department at MTB Arts College, has received a grant of Rs 13 lakh from the University Grants Commission (UGC) to develop the screening test. He will work on the project for the next three years and after successful tests of the model it will be introduced for use by teachers.”

At a surface level I suppose we should all be grateful if the development of a new procedure enables teachers to provide the support for children that may enable them to be more effective learners. But I find myself somewhat disturbed by the implications that are suggested in this article. Maybe this is simply a matter of poor expression within the news report that is doing Dr Vyas a great disservice; I certainly hope that this is the case, because if my interpretation of this article is right, then it raises a number of serious questions.

In the first place, I am concerned for the implication that this “screening test” has not yet been developed, and indeed it is suggested that it is three years away from a state of preparedness, but already it is being seen as a useful tool to be used by teachers. “Successful tests of the model” are apparently assured. This does seem to imply that the results of the test’s developments and the outcomes of any field trials are already anticipated. This, in my experience, is not the usual way in which valid research is conducted. The development of any legitimate instrument would normally go through extensive piloting and field work and only then, if the results proved positive, would such a test be seen as worthy of introduction. If this normal procedure is not seen as necessary, why has Rs 13  lakh (£13,600) been provided for development?

This is clearly a concern, but I have a far greater apprehension about the report and its potential impact upon students. Dr Vyas is reported as saying that:

“With this test a child will be screened within 15 minutes. Currently, there are tests available which require three to four hours. This test will be easy since it will be computerized and shows results in seconds. The test will be available in three languages — Gujarati, Hindi and English”.

I find it hard to imagine that a fifteen minute screening test can possibly have the efficacy that is suggested in this article. However, I am even more concerned that within the period of fifteen minutes it will soon be possible to apply a label to children that will have immense impact upon the rest of their educational lives and possibly beyond.

I have no doubt that the motivations behind the development of this test are honourable. However, a procedure that is likely to result in the labelling of a child as having a learning difficulty, whilst possibly leading to the provision of additional support, is equally destined to single this learner out as potentially problematic and to result in a lowering of expectations. Do we really need more tests that simply tell us about the potential difficulties that children might have with learning? Might we not be better investing Rs 13 lakh on the professional development of teachers in order to assist them in adopting more inclusive approaches to teaching and managing their classrooms.

I wish Dr Vyas well as he works on the development of yet another screening test aimed at identifying learning difficulties in children. I do hope that if it comes to fruition, teachers who are tempted to use this test will recognise that their own professional understanding of children has a part to play in identifying their needs. I also hope that they may choose to examine their own teaching practices alongside the needs of individual children, in order to provide opportunities for them to demonstrate what they can do, rather than simply listing those aspects of learning with which they may have difficulties.

Who is capable?

Meant to protect children's rights - but not always easy to interpret.

Meant to protect children’s rights – but not always easy to interpret.

I spent a significant part of yesterday afternoon attempting, with somewhat limited success, to engage a group of undergraduate students in a debate about the capabilities of children. I say with limited success, though of course it is always difficult to know what individuals are thinking and I should not presume that a reluctance to actively participate on the part of some students meant that they were not contemplating the issues at hand. Nonetheless, I suspect that some of the concepts related to notions of capability were seen as quite challenging to a few of my young audience. This is not really surprising as it may be seen as a form of abstraction that has challenged academics and policy makers over many years.

The source of the intended debate was Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This important document, which first saw the light of day in 1989, has provided the foundation of much of the work conducted by activists and researchers, who have been concerned to work for improvements in the educational and social conditions of children in the years since its publication. In yesterday’s session with undergraduates I was particularly concerned to examine the ways in which the conditions of children from vulnerable groups have changed in recent years, and how their own potential roles as advocates for children could make a positive contribution in this area. I was also keen to stress the important role that children can play as self-advocates, particularly when supported by the kind of empathetic professionals that I hope this group of undergraduates might become.

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that:

Parties shall assure to the child who is capable if forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

As with every article from the convention this clause is designed to afford protection to children and to ensure that due consideration is given to their opinions and desires. In that sense, it is hard to fault the intentions of the statement. However, it is the expression “who is capable” buried within the article that I wanted to discuss in more detail with yesterday’s group of students.

Whilst Article 12 undoubtedly has noble intentions, and it is quite right that the age and maturity of a child should be taken into consideration when involving children in decision making, I have concerns that in some instances the lack of a clear definition of “capability” could be the source of some difficulty. The questions that I raised in yesterday’s session, and indeed have discussed on many occasions with colleagues working in the area of inclusive education, were those such as; who assesses the capabilities of a child, and are there dangers that a child who has been given a label such as autistic spectrum disorder, may never be regarded as capable? Is there a possibility that the notion of capability could be used as a method of control, with assumptions that certain members of the population, who happen to have been given a specific diagnosis, could not possibly be capable of making their own choices or decisions?

Blanket misguided assessments have been made about groups of people throughout history, simply on the basis of their shared characteristics. At one time women were denied opportunities to vote because it was assumed that they were not able to understand the highbrow issues of politics, they were similarly denied opportunities to train as doctors or hold positions of high office in certain professions. These discriminatory views have, quite rightly been challenged and laws changed to ensure greater equality of opportunity. In the past, terms like “ineducable” were applied to many children who had learning difficulties and in some circumstances they were locked away from society, supposedly for their own good. In these examples it is apparent that those in positions of authority failed to recognise the competence of individuals and their capabilities in respect of making decisions affecting their lives.

It is certainly true that all of us are likely to have limited capabilities in respect of some aspects of our lives, and in such situations we may well be dependent upon the expertise of others when it comes to making decisions. But most of the time we are treated with respect, encouraged to assert our independence and to express our opinions in relation to matters that affect us. When we are not afforded this level of respect, we quite rightly feel affronted or patronised and may well rebel against those who we see as denying our rights.

It must therefore be of concern that in an effort to discuss the capabilities of children, as was the situation yesterday, we often find that in describing individuals it is easier to talk about what they can’t do rather than to emphasise what they can. Asked to consider how children might be encouraged to engage in making decisions about their education or care, the responses from yesterday’s participants often began with a description of the child’s difficulties or perceived deficits. It appears to be easier to see obstacles than to consider the ways in which these may be overcome.

I am a great supporter of UNICEF and in particular the campaigns that they have initiated to ensure that the rights of children are recognised and upheld. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been in place now for twenty six years and has had a significant impact upon the development of both international initiatives and national policies. However, a failure to fully debate the nature of capability continues to provide a plausible exclusion clause for those who for a variety of reasons would prefer not to consult children about their needs and wishes. So long as this remains the case I appear destined to try to deconstruct notions of capability – even with the occasional group of recalcitrant students!

You can’t hit the middle of the target every time

 

It's not possible to hit the middle of the target everytime, but that shouldn't discourage us from trying.

It’s not possible to hit the middle of the target every time, but that shouldn’t discourage us from trying.

I had a brief conversation yesterday with a lady who works in one of the many offices in the university, and also happens to be the mother of a child who attends a local special school. As we both waited patiently in a queue, for a paper cup of the tepid brown substance that passes itself off in the guise of coffee, served in the university canteen, we fell into a casual conversation.

“How’s Adam (not his real name) getting on these days?” I enquired.

“He’s fine thanks,” replied Adam’s mum, “he’s doing really well at school.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I saw him recently when I visited the school, he seemed to be very happy,” I suggested.

“Oh yes, he’s really well settled,” she responded, “and making excellent progress. They set new targets for him every month and he always achieves all of them.”

Leaving the scene, gripping my purchased container of dark sludge (why do I go back for more of this unpalatable concoction?), and having made polite goodbyes, I pondered on this conversation and admit to feeling slightly troubled. It was certainly good to hear that Adam is happy and settled in school, but there is something about the target setting process that leaves me wondering.

Target setting, it seems to me, is far from being an exact science. No matter how well we know a child, there are always so many personal variables that can impact upon the ability to learn. Progress is seldom measurable in a smooth line, but tends to form a profile of humps and hollows affected by mood, health, disposition, motivation and several other factors. The use of individual education plans and more recently in the UK “learning passports” (I still await the introduction of learning visas to enable me to access geography!) has served to focus teacher attentions upon the needs of individual pupils, and to consider how these may be met in the melee of the classroom. (Though I do worry that they also tend to dwell upon learning deficits rather than pupil strengths – but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.)  The individual education plan invariably identifies targets which it is hoped the child will achieve as a step towards greater attainment and achievement. But from where do these targets emerge? Are they simply drawn from the ether, or is there a more systematic approach to their identification?

Quite rightly, teachers will tell me that they take considerable time when planning for individual pupil needs, and that an important part of this approach is the identification of learning targets. In the best practice, teachers, parents, pupils and other professionals work together to ensure that they are in agreement and have identified targets that are meaningful and well-focused. Despite this attention to detail, target setting remains an inexact process, and one that in my experience can be as much a source of frustration as it is an aid to teaching and learning.

The very fact that Adam “always achieves his target,” makes me question the veracity of this process. In most other situations a target is something at which the marksman aims, knowing that despite his skill and best endeavours it will not always be hit. Does the fact that Adam always hits the mark mean that he is truly making outstanding progress, or might it be that the target is too easily achieved? What does the target actually mean to Adam? Or for that matter to his parents or teachers?

I’m all for aspirational teaching, and for planning that gives teachers and learners a clear direction of travel. I also believe that teachers work incredibly hard to ensure that they provide the best approaches possible to meeting the needs of their pupils. However I find myself questioning whether we necessarily understand the complexities of the systems we have put into place. It is quite easy to develop a process, get it operational and then simply go through the motions of applying this every time. We have been using individual education plans and setting targets for several decades, is it perhaps time to pause and consider whether we have got this process right? Work related to the efficacy of target setting is, to say the least, limited.

There has long been a debate about whether teaching is a science, a craft or an art, Nate Gage wrote very lucidly on this subject thirty years and more ago. Personally, I think that the finest teachers draw on elements of all three of these. This in itself may be why the concept of target setting is likely to remain a somewhat flawed, if necessary concept.

Now then, where did I put my darts?

A film that helps to keep a dream alive

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I remember many years ago I read Coretta Scott King’s account of life with her husband, Martin Luther King Junior. I recall at the time thinking how hard it must have been, living as a wife and mother to the children of a man who was constantly living under death threats and intimidation. As a man of principle and conviction, King led a non-violent movement fighting against injustice and seeking to secure a better future for an oppressed people, who looked to him to stand up against the racist cowards and bullies, wielding power in the southern states of the USA. Whilst leading the civil rights movement and campaigning for the freedom of black people and other oppressed minorities in America, King committed himself and his followers to non-violent direct action. But as had earlier been the case in a similar approach adopted in India by Gandhi, he and his fellow protesters were often confronted by opponents who saw physical force rather than debate as the means of stating their position.

I have on many occasions listened to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, made in 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. I particularly remember hearing a recording of this being played at Coventry Cathedral during a visit a couple of years ago. It never fails to stir emotions and to make one think of the situation in which it was delivered. I suppose it is one of the most quoted speeches of the twentieth century. However, it is the quote from the great man presented at the head of this page, that has always seemed to me to most accurately sum up his life:

            “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve”.

Last night Sara and I visited a local cinema to see the film Selma, released this week in the UK. This powerful drama tells the story of the marches led by Martin Luther King Junior from Selma to the Alabama state capital Montgomery in 1965. At times I found myself struggling to watch this vivid depiction of the events of those dark days in American history, as scenes were enacted in which unarmed men, women and children were attacked, wounded and in some instances killed by men who regarded themselves as law abiding citizens of the southern states. The film’s director, Ava DuVernay, cannot be accused of over emphasising the level of violence for effect, but still I found myself wanting to turn away from the screen as the appalling assaults were so vividly portrayed.

The film has masterful performances from all the cast, but particularly from David Oyelowo who plays King, Carmen Ejogo his wife Coretta, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth as the bigoted and somewhat sinister Governor George Wallace, and as with all good films of this nature I found myself immersed in the story line and emotionally drawn in right from the start. Even knowing of the historical events depicted and having read the accounts of the marches as reported by writers such as Clayborne Carson who was close to the King family, I was unable to relax for more than a few moments at a time throughout the film.

Whilst I suspect many other film goers from my own generation will be very well aware of the civil rights struggles led by Martin Luther King Junior, there may well be a younger audience for whom the horrors of this time, perpetrated in a country proud of its constitution and democratic values,  will be a source of shock and disbelief. I certainly hope so, because to simply write this off as a historical account would be to fail to appreciate the important messages within the film.

Two specific themes within this drama seem to me to have been particularly well addressed and might easily have been passed over in a more superficial telling of the story. The first concerned the personal anxieties and doubts of Coretta Scott King, as she feared for the life of her husband and family, and the tensions she experienced in balancing what she saw as her duty to a cause and these more personal responsibilities. Within the depiction of this complex and loyal woman, superbly portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, there was a perpetual nervous frisson that penetrated the film, and conveyed the message that within any struggle for justice, personal sacrifices are inevitable. Sadly, the worst fears of Coretta Scott King were eventually realised in April 1968 when her husband was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39 years.

Equally evocative is a second theme, that of the duty of action, which is referred to several times in the film. The point is strongly made by Martin Luther King Junior and several other leaders, that whilst those who oppress their fellow men and women are guilty of an unacceptable evil, others who simply stand by, refusing to speak out or take action are equally culpable of perpetuating crimes against the oppressed. Throughout the film it appears that a silent majority, including many who were in positions of power and authority, believed that the civil rights campaigners had a just cause, but lacked the moral courage to speak out or stand with them as they were being abused and denigrated. Standing next to Martin Luther King Junior must often have been an uncomfortable place to be, but as he himself said:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

I can’t help thinking that whilst this film is set within an historical context, the messages that it contains are as important today as they have ever been.

The film link below will enable you to hear the famous “I have a dream.” speech delivered by Martin Luther King Junior in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.