Sponteneity; an important part of the learning process

This is a classroom that children appreciate

This is a classroom that children appreciate

When I arrived at the university this morning I ran into a retired head teacher colleague who I have known for more than 20 years. She is clearly enjoying retirement, having shed the responsibilities of school leadership with its associated stresses, though she remains committed to education, largely through supervising students on their school teaching practices. A meeting to discuss such work was the very reason that she was in the university today.

As is invariably the case when long established colleagues meet after having not seen each other for some time we began to reminisce on our earlier days teaching in schools. Angela, in common with many head teachers in the UK suggested that life in schools today is much more challenging than in previous years, and she clearly has no regrets about having taken retirement.

A particular memory that we share is of a brief course we ran for children from our two respective schools which looked at the life cycles and habitats of creatures living in local woodlands. This involved a couple of field trips during which we encouraged pupils, many of whom were described as having special educational needs, to delve through leaf litter in search of a range of invertebrates and other creatures and to use pooters, hand magnifiers and other simple apparatus to explore the exciting variety of life beneath the trees. I particularly recall that whilst the pupils showed little by the way of inhibitions, Angela was somewhat squeamish about handling earth worms, spiders, beetles, slugs, centipedes and a whole range of what she would certainly have described as “creepy crawlies!” None the less, she recognised the value in these experiences and joined in with the enthusiasm one would expect from a consummate professional.

The memories of these shared lessons made us both smile and recall specific individuals and the learning that had taken place. We particularly discussed individual pupils who struggled in the confines of the classroom, but demonstrated enthusiasm and interest in learning in this different environment. As we recalled these lessons we both felt that we had provided a tremendous platform for learning, but these memories also raised other issues, with which neither of us feel terribly comfortable. Whilst the lessons we conducted were well planned, with a good range of follow up activities in the classroom and well defined learning outcomes and assessment criteria, there was a good deal of spontaneity and flexibility in the work we pursued. As we worked in the woodlands the children often came up with ideas that were tangential to our lesson plans and we were able to follow new paths that led to increased learning. Some of this did not appear within the course objectives and at times bore little resemblance to the original intentions of the lesson, but none the less children learned, enjoyed the experience and in later years often recalled their visits to the woods.

I recall one particular lesson in which we were looking at the variety of trees in Wakerley Woods by identifying leaves and looking at bark patterns, when a pupil found a patch of toadstools at the base of a tree. This created a new interest amongst many of the children who went hunting similar examples of fungi, comparing them for shape, colour and location. For a significant part of the lesson the original objectives were set aside and the lesson content was determined by our pupils. As a result of this there was a breadth of learning and new experiences that we had not anticipated. We were eventually able to return to the original task of tree identification, but agreed that the diversion had been worthwhile and provided an important opportunity for learning.

“I suspect that this approach to teaching and learning may be less favourably looked upon today,” commented Angela. “If it isn’t in the lesson plan or the assessment schedule, in many schools it wouldn’t be encouraged. Furthermore, I fear that in today’s target driven and sanitised education world, behaviours such as this might have had us labelled as irresponsible and failing teachers.”

It is only a couple of years since Angela retired as head teacher; her experience of headship is much more recent than mine. I fear that what she had to say may be an indication of the narrow minded interpretation of what schools should be about that has been engendered by our political masters in recent years. Deviation from lesson plans and a prescribed curriculum is no longer encouraged, and learning that is controlled rather than spontaneous is the order of the day. Many teachers in school express similar views to those put forward by Angela, a fact that I find very disturbing.

I like to think that if Angela and I were in a similar position today we would react as teachers in exactly the same way that we did twenty years ago. I am sure that both of us still believe that learning comes from guided exploration, and that this needs to be encouraged in our children. However, I do worry that for many young teachers entering the profession, the pressures to ensure that a narrowly defined set of learning criteria are achieved, and that these should be addressed through a rigid definition of teaching styles, may limit the opportunity for creativity.

There are many imaginative teachers in our schools who rail against the imposition of pseudo-scientific and managerial approaches to teaching. Just as everything else in education eventually comes back into vogue, I am (almost) sure, and certainly hopeful that in the future they will have their day.

Making progress demands a good deal of respect.

 

Stopping individuals from writing will not stop others from thinking

Stopping individuals from writing will not stop others from thinking

I like to think that I am an advocate of free speech. I am therefore appalled when I hear reports of the extreme efforts to which individuals, organisations, or even governments will go to suppress the ideas expressed by others. However, I also believe that there are issues of respect at stake here, and whilst I have no qualms about the use of biting satire, or scathing written or verbal attacks mounted against oppressive regimes or injustice, I believe that this is more effective when conducted in a thoughtful and polite manner.

The influence upon this current line of thinking comes from news today that a second Bangladeshi blogger, Washiqur Rahman, who wrote under the pseudonym Kutshit Hasher Chhana (Ugly Duckling), has been murdered for apparently expressing views that were found offensive by an extreme minority. This is the second reported murder of an independent writer in Bangladesh in recent weeks, Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy having been killed in similar circumstances.

Such crimes against individuals who are committed to free speech and the right to express their views to a wider public are clearly appalling, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. I am, of course aware that critical writers and satirists from Jonathan Swift, through Nikolai Gogol and Anthony Burgess to Flann O’Brien have often caused offense to some whilst entertaining and educating others. Fortunately, all of these have now been acknowledged as fine writers who did a service to their communities by challenging cant and hypocrisy in a way that was accessible to a broad readership.

I am not suggesting that either Washiqur Rahman or Avijit Roy were writers who will be held in the same esteem as Swift or Gogol, though I am probably not best placed to make this judgement, but the principle of being able to express critical views and to make these available to a readership is exactly the same, regardless of literary ability.

In reading the reports related to these dreadful and ultimately pointless crimes, I was struck by an expression used in a couple of them to describe the victims. The term “progressive free thinker” has emerged as a descriptor attached to both of these bloggers by several journalist. When I thought about this term I found I had little difficulty with the notion of being a free thinker. It seems to me that both of these writers held a belief that the right to express thoughts on paper (or over the internet) should be sacrosanct; a sentiment with which I am generally in accord. There are, of course laws to protect individuals from material that may be seen as libellous, and if writers are prepared to put their views into the public domain they should take the time to ensure that their comments are justified, and that they have the evidence to support any assertions made. It is also my personal belief that efforts should be made to moderate language and to be respectful. The perpetrators of injustice are never comfortable when attacked by writers who use language that is balanced and arguments that are based upon evidence and logic.

Having little difficulty with the term “free thinker”, I do find myself wondering more about the use of the word “progressive.” Making progress implies that there is an end goal in mind, and that it is possible to measure the distance travelled towards attaining this goal. The difficulty comes when the goal is unclear, or when individuals or groups are working towards vastly differing goals, or wish to impose their own goal upon others. I suspect that the thugs who murdered Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy have their own view of the “progress” that they would wish society to make, and that it differs radically from that which the murdered writers would have advocated. The term “progressive” is one of those that has been apprehended by individuals and organisations throughout history to imply that they have the interests of the majority in mind. However, it remains a word that is seldom discussed and often used by journalists in a throw away manner.

What is clear is that the murder of any individual for holding views that challenge the sensibilities of others is a despicable and unjustified crime. If individuals or groups are truly committed to being “progressive,” they would better serve those who they claim to represent by engaging in open debate and listening to the opinions of others. This demands a more inclusive attitude than appears currently to be available or desirable to those who would wish to silence others. Such an approach may lead to greater understanding and ultimately to increased respect and tolerance – now that really would be progress! I suspect that those who murdered these two Bangladeshi bloggers are far more interested in halting progress than in seeing changes implemented to which they are opposed.

 

Perhaps it is the system that should be examined!

A perilous way to climb to the highest grades, and not one to be condoned!

A perilous way to climb to the highest grades, and not one to be condoned!

I share an office with a colleague who is an enthusiastic rock climber. In my younger days I too enjoyed the challenges that came with scaling the vertiginous cliffs of the mountains in Wales, The Lake District or Scotland, though in recent years I have been less inclined to seek the thrills of dangling above empty spaces; though the quiet of the mountain landscape still holds great appeal. You might then think that we would admire the chutzpah of individuals clinging to a sheer wall and shimmying along narrow ledges fifty feet above the ground. But yesterday we stared in disbelief at images that were being beamed around the world from Bihar State in India, not a region normally associated with mountaineering.

Under headlines such as “ 300  Arrested Over Bihar Exam Cheating Scandal,” (Indian Express) and “Bihar Exam Cheaters Inspired by Bollywood” (Times of India) pictures such as that above, have been shown, of parents grappling their way up the steep walls of school buildings and passing the answers to examination questions to their awaiting offspring through windows. Other reports suggest that parents have propelled the answers concealed in paper aeroplanes through open windows. (This seems highly unlikely as anyone who has ever tried to achieve accuracy with a paper aeroplane will attest). This is examination cheating on a mass scale. Arrests have been made (some news reports say as many as 900) and the inquest into the demise of the Indian examination system has begun.

This behaviour is clearly scandalous, but it is suggested by some reporters that it is not uncommon and has been taking place over many years. Understandably, the majority of journalists reporting this outrage have expressed their opinions in terms of disgust and horror, in many instances they are unsure about who is at greatest fault, the parents, the students, the teachers or the school authorities? However, a few reports have made an effort to understand how this bizarre situation has emerged in a nation so determined to demonstrate educational excellence.

Amongst all the anguished wringing of hands that has typically characterised the reporting of this incident in the press, there have been a few efforts made to understand the causes of this problem. One of the more thoughtful commentators to publish his thoughts is Sanjay Kumar, himself a Bihari, who is currently a Fellow at Harvard University in the USA (NDTV 23rd March).  Kumar reports that cheating has been endemic in the Indian education system over many years, and that this results from the extreme pressure put on students to achieve high standards, despite often receiving poor quality teaching in under resourced schools. The blame for this situation he suggests, should be distributed amongst a host of interested parties.

Firstly, he is critical of an education system that is wholly focused upon academic attainment, but fails to provide well trained teachers capable of delivering the excellence that is sought. In part, this comes from an education administration that perpetuates inequality, with wealthy families sending their children to private schools that are well equipped, and where the nation’s best teachers at to be found. Those attending government schools by contrast, often work with poorly trained teachers and limited facilities, but are expected to compete with their more fortunate peers. Much sought after places in further and higher education are at a premium and these students already start at a disadvantage, the temptation to find ways around the examination process is therefore considerable.

In an examination driven education system, where teachers and schools are judged on their performance, Kumar suspects that corruption is inevitable. Schools are being run as businesses, advertising their quality according to examination results and determined to do all in their power to ensure that these remain as a focal point that enables them to sell places to parents. This, he believes, is unsustainable.

“The teachers will have to be responsible and understand the fact that education is not a business. This is the backbone of our progress and prosperity. They are building the future of the society and thus should be committed to the role they are supposed to play”.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the education system given by Sanjay Kumar relates to the attitudes of parents. Reflecting on his own school days in Katihar, a city in the same  Bihar State, Kumar recalls that in his school day:-

“Parents were never bothered about the quality of education, but were only concerned about the output and their expectations of us”.

Having made this comment Sanjay Kumar proposes that change will come only when parents take more responsibility and become directly involved in the activities of the school. He believes that many parents feel that the responsibility for passing examinations lies entirely with children and their teachers. Parents need to support their children, rather than simply applying pressure and expressing anger and disappointment when they do not attain the highest grades.

Whilst Kumar condemns the actions reported in the Indian press, he states that:-

“Many students who have gone through this type of education process including myself could well empathize with the circumstances which lead students to get into cheating.”

Cheating of any kind is wrong and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms. But Sanjay Kumar is right to suggest that conditions need to change if such behaviours are to be avoided. Let us hope that the adverse publicity given to state education authorities in recent days leads to positive action that improves the lot of teachers, students and parents.

Incidentally, the rope handling skills of some of the pictured erstwhile mountaineers are quite appalling. I would refer them to the excellent British Mountaineering Council guidelines on safe management of belays!

Educating ourselves in order to understand the lives of others.

 

Let's not give up on the world's poorest children

Let’s not give up on the world’s poorest children

“Education is a fundamental right and the basis for progress in every country. Parents need information about health and nutrition if they are to give their children the start in life they deserve. Prosperous countries depend on skilled and educated workers. The challenges of conquering poverty, combatting climate change and achieving truly sustainable development in the coming decades compel us to work together. With partnership, leadership and wise investments in education, we can transform individual lives, national economies and our world.”             

 BAN KI-MOON, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL

This week could prove to be important in the lives of many of the world’s poorest children. I have written several times on this blog about the Education for All goals, established to improve the lives of children and families around the world. At times I have discussed the alarming statistics, such as those contained in the 2014 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report, that suggests that whilst progress has been made, this is at an alarmingly slow rate. Too many children continue to live in poverty, have no opportunity to go to school and are subjected to hunger, violence and a lack of adequate health care.

In New York in the coming days, representatives of United Nations member governments will be coming together to discuss the updating and future monitoring of the EFA goals. National governments are being asked to identify their own priorities and the actions they plan to take towards implementing change. High on the agenda is the development of universal education and  an assurance that all children have an opportunity to learn and acquire the skills, knowledge and understanding to contribute to the lives of their families and countries.

Education alone cannot address the ills of the world. Natural disaster, conflict and political instability are all factors that impact upon the potential for improving children’s lives. However, without education the task is so much greater. A new publication from UNESCO, Sustainable Development Begins with Education: How education can contribute to the proposed post-2015 goals, provides both interesting statistics, and evidence for the ways in which the provision of education can impact upon a vast range of issues. These include the rights of women, environmental stability and climate change, economic well-being and poverty reduction, all of which are so dependent upon an educated population to ensure progress.

It is, of course easy to become cynical and to sink into despair when considering the state of the world, and the apparent indifference often shown to such overarching issues. However, if change is to occur, we must surely begin by educating ourselves about the current situation and the impact upon the lives of those who either receive an inadequate education, or no education at all. Whilst many of the  EFA goals have not been achieved, we should acknowledge the tremendous commitment made by some governments, non-governmental organisations and dedicated individuals that have resulted in positive change for many children.

A few days ago a colleague proposed that the setting of new post 2015 goals would have little impact and that some countries will sign up to these with no intention of effecting change. In ten years time, he suggested, the same countries will be in the same decrepit state or even worse.  He may be right, but the alternative is simply to ignore the challenges, claim that this is not our responsibility and to remain in ignorance of what needs to be done.

Change through education begins when we educate ourselves, and recognise the significance of the difficulties faced by many of the world’s children. It must obviously not stop at that point, but unless we equip ourselves with this level of knowledge we remain unaware of the starting point for change and less likely to work towards improving the lives of those in the greatest need. There is a great danger in believing that the situation experienced by the poorest people in the world has little to do with us in our state of relative comfort. However, history shows that conflict that begins in those states where people are dispossessed or feel that they are oppressed by corrupt and uncaring regimes, quickly spread and impact upon the lives of those much further afield.

To suggest that this is not our problem is both disingenuous and naïve. If you also believe that educating yourself about the challenges faced by children living in poverty and without adequate education is important, you might take a few minutes to read the latest UNESCO document, and to watch the brief attached video recording.

Click on the link here to read the UNESCO document

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT BEGINS WITH EDUCATION

 

Click below to see a video made to publicise this issue

 

Who decides what you should know?

 

Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

The well respected Pakistan newspaper Dawn reports that yesterday the blogging platform WordPress was blocked (23rd March 2015), and those who wished to either publish their own words, or to read those of others posted on blogs, were thwarted in their efforts. The same newspaper has previously commented (February 8th 2015), on the fact that the media channel YouTube remains inaccessible within the country. A spokesman for the Pakistani government has suggested that there is content on the media channel that may be seen as either blasphemous or in other ways offensive, and that the people of Pakistan need protection from such material. I am aware from friends and students that similar restrictions exist in China and in several other parts of the world, and that this is a particular source of frustration to those who have spent time in the west, and have found such media to be a useful source of debate and information.

It is probably true to say that the use of media channels such as YouTube requires a certain amount of discrimination on the part of the user. There is (in my opinion) an awful lot of material available on these outlets that is insignificant, trivial and in some instances offensive, but should this necessarily be made unavailable. I suspect that my interpretation of triviality may be someone else’s notion of high culture, and why should my opinion be any more valid than theirs?

As is often the case with newspaper items, some of the comments posted in response to an article are almost as interesting as the original (no disrespect intended to the unnamed journalist who posted this particular piece in Dawn). In response to the article on WordPress censorship, one correspondent replied:-

By blocking WordPress and YouTube the govt. has deprived its citizens of knowledge, of education, of a basic right the constitution of Pakistan gives us.

This commentator makes a valid point. When used appropriately both WordPress (which is incidentally the platform upon which this blog is based) and YouTube can act as useful educational tools. I have on several occasions used film from YouTube for teaching purposes both here in the UK, and when teaching in other parts of the world. Similarly, I have posted items on this blog with the specific intent of enabling students to continue debating issues discussed in class, and know that others have used it for the same purpose. Does this therefore mean that there should be no censorship of materials posted on the internet?

This is far from a straightforward matter. Censorship when appropriately applied is designed to protect those who are potentially vulnerable or suggestible from potentially harmful influences. The British Board of Film Classification was established in 1912 as an independent body to classify films and give them a rating of suitability to a broad range of audiences. There is a general consensus that this organisation does a good job in ensuring that materials that are unsuitable for children, are classified in such a way that parents are aware, and cinemas restrict access to young viewers. Similarly, most computer systems have safety mechanisms whereby parents and schools can inhibit access to programmes and materials that may be deemed unstable for children. The notion of protecting the young and vulnerable is certainly one with which I have no problem.

The blanket censoring of WordPress and YouTube is a different matter. Those who have made decisions to restrict the availability of these media outlets have not been discriminating in terms of protecting the young and vulnerable, but have rather made a decision that nobody should have access. This surely conveys a message that the censors do not feel that the general populous has either the ability or the right to make up their own minds. Adults are being treated as children, and regarded as incapable of making informed decisions.

I have no difficulty with control that is designed to protect the individual. It is a good idea to enforce laws that mean for example, that in England everybody must drive on the left hand side of the road, or to ensure that alcohol is not sold to children. These are laws with good intent and a deal of common sense. However, I am unsure about who the censorship of media outlets is designed to protect. It seems to me that most adults are quite capable of policing the media for themselves. If an item comes on to the television that I dislike I can change channels or switch off the set. If I disagree with the sentiments or political association of a newspaper or magazine, I choose not to purchase them.

The students with whom I work are intelligent and discriminating individuals. In my experience they make good use of media such as WordPress and YouTube as yet another source of information to be used alongside the other, more traditional sources such as books and academic journals. But maybe here is the nub of the issue. Censorship is not about the platform upon which information is conveyed, but about the power of the messages that may be contained within. After all, throughout history that wonderful, though relatively low tech product the book, has been subjected to censorship or outright banning in many countries, including my own.

I do hope that my friends in Pakistan may have an opportunity to share these thoughts today.

 

Ulysses  by James Joyce, published in France in 1922, banned in UK and USA until 1930s

Doctor Zhivago  by Boris Pasternak, banned in Russia until 1988

The Diary of Anne Frank  by Anne Frank, remains banned in Lebanon

Lolita  by Vladimir Nabikov, published in 1955 then banned in UK until 1959

Wild Swans by Jung Chang, remains banned in China

This man’s education could be put to better use!

 

This is a well written document, presumably produced by someone who has received an education but would prefer to keep others in ignorance. What is to be gained?

This is a well written document, presumably produced by someone who has received an education but would prefer to keep others in ignorance. What is to be gained?

 

It requires an educated person to construct a document, which takes account of good grammar and spelling. It is an even greater achievement to do so in what may be the writer’s second or even third language. Generally speaking when an individual has attained this level of proficiency it is, at least in part, because they have received the support of a teacher.

The above image of a document was given to me this morning by a friend from Pakistan. It had been pushed under the door of an acquaintance in Karachi who has had a long standing commitment to the education of children in that city. As an advocate of education this person has always treated children as individuals deserving of an education, regardless of their nationality, religion, class, gender or caste. This is an attitude that many of us would see as being founded upon human rights and social justice; qualities that we expect to see in educated people, but it would appear that others disagree.

Leaving aside for the moment the rather obtuse sentiments expressed in this leaflet, one of the first things that struck me about it was that it is quite well written. The English language has been used to good effect (even if this is being applied for  nefarious purposes), with reasonable grammar and consistent spelling. It most certainly could not have been written by someone who had not received a formal education. I am making an assumption here that the first language of the writer is not English and that they are more likely to be familiar with Urdu,  Sindhi or possibly Pashtun, and that English could well be their second or third language. I am also interested to note that they have made a decision to write this text in English, presumably in the belief that it is a communication aimed at  other educated individuals.

Having read this embittered diatribe I find myself wondering what is to be gained by denying educational opportunities to others, similar to those that the author has clearly experienced in the past. If he (it is almost certainly a man) wishes to challenge the introduction of western cultural values, he is of course quite entitled to do so. There are many debates taking place regularly around the world about the loss of national and regional identity, and these are often stimulating and well informed. I most certainly support those individuals who believe that the protection of local languages, the preservation of regional heritage and arts, and the fair representation of national histories should be given a priority. Like many others who have engaged in the debate, I have a concern that the English language has become too dominant and is a force for restricting the opportunities of those who are unable to receive tuition in its use. Though I presume that this latter issue is of no concern to the writer of this misconceived missive.

Attempts to stifle debate are usually made by those who feel that they are losing the argument. They betray the insecurities and inadequacies of the author. The messages conveyed in this text are intended to frighten, and to deny the rights of others to have their voices heard. I would suggest that anonymously pushing this leaflet under the doors of individuals who are committed to ensuring that children receive a well balanced liberal education is likely to have the opposite effect. Copies of this narrow minded text are already being circulated and held up as an example of the misrepresentation of the tenets of Islam, and a misguided action by an ill-informed, ignorant and faceless individual.

I am pleased that the writer of this sad text has  gained some benefits from his education. He has obviously acquired the skills of expression, even if he lacks the individuality and critical thinking that could make him into a more interesting author. The threats contained within this document will be abhorrent to the vast majority of people in Pakistan. I hope that the purveyor of this sick note, full of despicable hatred, may find the time to reflect on the efforts made by his teachers on his behalf. They clearly did a good job in terms of his English language abilities. I also hope that if he has children they may experience an education that is truly inclusive, and promotes understanding, respect and tolerance. The kind of education that I imagine most of the schools targeted by this leaflet are determined to provide. Long may they thrive.

 

How much courage does it take to be a teacher?

Standing Up for Schools - supporting those who have no power to support themselves

Standing Up for Schools – supporting those who have no power to support themselves

There were times when I was teaching in school when I would get home exhausted, and at times frustrated as a result of something that happened during the day. However, I never truly felt like throwing in the towel and finding some other way of making a living. I knew the that for every bad day I had at school, there would be fifty or more good ones, and that I could never wish for a better job than that of being a teacher.

Whilst I had the occasional bad day at school I never experienced anything like the stress or the horrors that Ali Khan has faced. An article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper (17th March), written by Louise Tickle described how, after hearing an explosion, Ali Khan arrived at the school where he taught in Charbagh Pakistan to find it destroyed. The Pakistan Taliban, determined to show their opposition to education and their overwhelming commitment to ignorance, had blown up the school, believing that they could terrorise the local population sufficiently to prevent them sending their children to receive an education. I can well imagine that parents in that area must have experienced many sleepless nights, wondering whether to be cowed by this dreadful act, or to stand in opposition to the murderous bullies.

The Taliban could not have reckoned with the determination of Ali Khan and his colleagues. All fifty two of the teachers from that school returned to work, setting up classes by sharing with another school and operating a shift system. Many of the children and families returned immediately for lesson, others took longer, understandably apprehensive of what might happen. Ali Khan stated that he did have worries himself about returning to work, but then decided:-

“I was born a teacher, and I will die in the profession because of my passion for educating children.”

The courage of teachers like Ali Khan is incredible, and fortunately the majority of us who have the privilege to work in education will never have to confront such situations. However, Ali Khan’s story is sadly far from unique. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) report that schools in seventy countries came under assault between 2009 and 2014. It is hard to imagine the courage required by teachers and children to continue in education in such circumstances. I am not sure that I could be this brave.

This coming June the Norwegian Government will being leading a move to afford schools the same status as hospitals, as sacrosanct spaces during periods of armed conflict. This initiative is receiving support from many other agencies working for child protection and children’s rights. The United Nations special envoy on global education, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is also joining this campaign, and has asked governments around the world to make a commitment to changing the current situation.

For those of us who work in comfortable educational situations it is difficult to conceive of what we can do from our positions of privilege. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack recognises this dilemma, but believes that the weight of public opinion could be important in exerting the pressure required to ensure that governments back the proposed changes to current legislation. To this end they have launched a petition under the banner, Stand Up for School. This declares:-

“We, the world’s youth, teachers, parents and global citizens appeal to our governments to keep their promise, made at the United Nations in 2000, to ensure all out-of-school children gain their right to education before the end of 2015.

We are standing up to bring an end to the barriers preventing girls and boys from going to school, including forced work and early marriage, conflict and attacks on schools, exploitation and discrimination. All children deserve the opportunity to learn and achieve their potential”.

I am quite sure that Ali Khan will be hoping that such sentiments result in action.

The petition can be found at:-

http://www.aworldatschool.org/upforschool

 

The responsible education researcher

 

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

 

Whilst working last week with colleagues from both the UK and Brazil I often found myself thinking that whilst we work in very different countries and have contrasting cultural backgrounds, there is much that we have in common with respect to the educational issues that we face. Everyone in attendance at this research focused event was committed to promoting more inclusive education and the establishment of social justice, and we all face similar challenges in achieving our objectives.

Listening to the presentations given at this three day workshop and more especially during conversations with researchers from both countries, it was evident that the usual anxieties about inadequately prepared teaching staff, poor resourcing and low expectations of students as obstacles to inclusion, formed the basis of discussion. Similarly, the disparity between urban and rural educational opportunities and the impact of economic difficulties was apparent in many of the sessions we shared. At times I found myself reflecting on the fact that these are recurrent themes that I have heard not only in the UK and Brazil, but during recent visits to China, India, Georgia and Ireland. I have no doubt that similar frustrations would be raised in most of the world.

Of all the issues of concern, one that certainly troubles me most was highlighted in an excellent paper given by Marli Vizim, who is committed to working with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in São Paulo State. Clearly influenced by the work of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, Marli describes how she has tried to work with whole communities, and in particular the leaders of these groups, in an effort to foster positive attitudes to schooling, and increased opportunities for children. In particular she has demonstrated the importance of gaining the support of community leaders in order to get children previously seen as ineducable into schools. The passion with which Marli speaks and her willingness to engage in discussion and debate was encouraging and heartening. The fervency that she feels for her work is something that cannot fail to touch anyone who has a social conscience and wishes to see the lives of children and their families improved.

In a discussion group comprising colleagues from both Brazil and the UK it was easier to find similarities in our areas of concern than differences. As Marli indicated the increasing gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in Brazil, so did colleagues from the UK provide examples of a similar concern in our own country. Several of us were also able to relate this worrying trend to work we have done in other parts of the world. Whilst I have seen this increasing distance created between the wealthy and poor in India, other colleagues spoke eloquently about the same situation seen in Colombia and elsewhere in the world. Working through an interpreter always has the risk of ideas being confused during translation, but there was no doubting the level of concern and frustration with regards to current provision made for children from poorer sections of society being expressed in these sessions.

The authors of the 2014 UNESCO Global Report on the Education for All Goals, discussed previously on this blog (Feb 4th 2014), were careful to emphasise the progress that has been made towards achieving universal primary education. However, it is clear from the report that one of the greatest obstacles to making effective progress is poverty. Whilst the poverty that we see in the UK is nowhere near as widespread and pervasive as that seen in many poorer countries, this does not justify a denial of the damaging impact that it has on families. Listening to Marli speaking about the continuous struggle that some of the families face in the areas where she works, emphasised the potential for social unrest that is ever present, and could worsen if the needs of the most disenfranchised members of society are not addressed.

During my brief visit to Brazil it was apparent, just as it is here in the UK or when I work in Ireland or India, that there are many businesses and individuals that are thriving and creating considerable wealth. The economies of these countries have clearly benefited from the evident entrepreneurship and hard work of these individuals and their employees. However, just as the opportunities for the most educated and socially well connected people in these countries have increased, so have the difficulties faced by the poorest communities multiplied.

Fortunately researchers such as Marli, who recognise that they have a responsibility beyond investigating the communities with which they are involved, are having an impact. The results from her research indicate that expectations are being raised and demands for improved educational opportunities made in the areas where she works. Slowly this action is  bringing about change, and hopefully the lives of the families to whom she has made a commitment will improve.

The responsible educational researcher is one who recognises, that unless their investigation focuses upon improvements in the educational opportunities for children, families and teachers, it is probably of limited value.

 

 

Nothing lost, and much gained in translation

Marcelos on the left enabling  Niall to make himself undertood to our Portuguese colleagues

Marcelos on the left enabling Niall to make himself undertood to our Portuguese colleagues

As a watery light began to announce this morning’s dawn, I made my way along the straight road that leads towards the centre of São Carlos. My destination was the Catedral de São Carlos Borromeu, with its canary yellow dome, said to have been modelled on that of St Peter’s in Rome, though of course on a much smaller scale.

Despite leaden skies and a morning not yet fully formed, it would be impossible not to be impressed by the modern stained glass windows that are the most striking feature of this building. Beneath the dome a blue and yellow encirclement of abstract glass softens the rather austere white walls. But most surprising is the movement captured in larger windows that depict street scenes, with representations of men and women apparently walking across the glass. A further panel reveals a fisherman casting his hopeful nets all created in a vivid blue.

In medieval days of course, the stained glass windows served an important function of displaying biblical stories to a largely illiterate congregation. These wonderful works of art would remind viewers of their duty, their Christian heritage and their mortality. The need for interpretation to those who had limited skills in reading, was clear at this time, and there are parallels with experiences at our workshop for early career researchers today.

When researchers from two different countries and cultures come together there are always likely to be challenges, and amongst the greatest of these is that of language. Fortunately, just as in previous times the Christian masses had the assistance of stained glass, over the past three days we have had an excellent interpreter. Marcelos has demonstrated consummate professionalism in acting as a bridge between those colleagues whose only language is Portuguese, and others who have only English. His patience and good humour has enabled our work to flow freely and has ensured understanding and a sharing of ideas.

Language was no barrier to enthusiastic researchers

Language was no barrier to enthusiastic researchers

The dissemination of knowledge is an essential part of the educational research process and today we had fine examples of how researchers have shared their investigations with different groups. David Preece placed an emphasis upon effective communication with the families of children on the autism spectrum, whilst Aila Narene Dahwache Criado Rocha demonstrated principles of communication between health workers and educators. Niall Devlin fascinated the audience with his analysis of how educational psychologists relate to children, and Marli Vizim described the importance of respectful work with people living in some of the poorer communities of São Paolo State.

Each of these presenters demonstrated an important feature of good educational research, that of ensuring that children teachers and families are not simply the subject of our investigations, but are accepted as partners at each stage of the process. This was a theme evident throughout the day, as participants in this workshop made ambitious plans for further work over the coming months and years. Although these researchers are at an early stage of their careers, it is already evident that they have a determination to conduct investigations that will be of benefit to others and move the inclusion agenda forward.

A coming together of colleagues in São Carlos has proven to be a great success. In the initial stages there was apparent nervousness, apprehension about the route ahead and the challenges of working in two languages. But just as the cathedral stained glass windows gradually increased the intensity of the light within the building this morning, so have the last few days seen an increase in confidence and an awakening of ideas.

I am sure that several working relationships and a number of long term friendships will have been established during three days of working together in São Carlos. I am equally confident that educational research aimed at improving the lives of children and families is safe in the hands of these early career researchers with whom I have been privileged to work this week.

Many thanks to all for your hard work and collaboration during this brief visit.

São Carlos cathedral on a wet early morning

São Carlos cathedral on a wet early morning

 

 

 

 

 

Autonomous learners must be given the space to develop ideas.

Active learning. An enthusiastic group able to learn together outside on a warm Brazilian day.

Active learning. An enthusiastic group able to learn together outside on a warm Brazilian day.

A pair of great kiskadees have built their unkempt nest atop an electricity post outside of the hotel where I am trying to get some sleep in São Carlos. These are beautifully marked birds (as you can see below), but their grating calls, resembling a rusty hinge badly in need of oil appear to be in conflict with their colourful plumage. They serve as a dawn alarm clock, and early call to action here in Brazil.

Gathering a group of educators together for a few days, discussing opportunities for establishing partnerships for researching inclusive schooling, requires a great deal of thought. In particular achieving a balance between formal teaching activities, presentation of papers and a more informal sharing of ideas is not always easy. Today our gathered assembly have had a mixed economy of activities and it appears to have worked well.

Whilst it is important to ensure that all of these early career researchers have an opportunity to disseminate their research in formal sessions, this is not always the best means of encouraging an exchange of ideas. It would appear that our Brazilian colleagues, in common with the English contingent are pleasingly polite. We all listen to each other and then make appreciative comments, but may be less willing to engage in critical debate for fear of being misunderstood. Given some of the linguistic challenges we face this might actually be a genuine concern.

The quality of paper presentations has been good, but in my opinion the most dynamic learning opportunities were in evidence during less structured sessions. This morning, operating in pairs and then in small groups our colleagues worked together to identify research priorities and exchange their views and interpretations of a range of educational situations. Differing opinions were voiced in the safety of small groups, where there is the security to make critical comments. Ideas were exchanged, debated and in some cases discarded, and as an observer on the periphery of this activity I witnessed a tremendous sharing of learning.

A respectful sharing ideas helps to generate ideas for further collaboration

A respectful sharing of ideas helps to generate ideas for further collaboration

 

This way of working does not, of course, find favour with all teachers. Those who are less confident find it difficult to relinquish control, and to release the agenda to the most important people present, in this case the early career researchers. Here is a fine example of learning as a shared activity in which those who are supposedly the learners, have much in which to instruct the teachers. In this situation it is good to stand back and listen and to be prepared to have one’s own ideas challenged.

This approach is, of course, far easier with adults than it might be with children, but is an important aspect of teaching and learning as a democratic process. Knowing when to exert some influence and when to release learners from this control, is an important skill which we see in the most effective teachers. Sadly there are some who appear unwilling or unable to take this step and remain determined to maintain possession of the learning agenda. When working with children this is of course, at times important, but when working with able adults the teacher who wishes to apply control is in danger of destroying the creativity of the individuals involved.

Amizade e de colaboração

Amizade e de colaboração

 

Giving a degree of freedom to our researcher colleagues today resulted in an exciting and creative melee of ideas, that have now begun to shape nicely into plans for action. Autonomous adults who have already proven themselves to be effective learners, do not want to be pushed into a particular way of learning, or to have a dominant perspective from a teacher paraded before them. The adults here in  São Carlos sharing their experiences, have demonstrated that in informal learning situations they are confident in presenting their own perspectives and critically engaging with ideas.

As I left the classroom for lunch today, four disreputable black vultures had stationed themselves on the roof of the building opposite. They will be disappointed if they are awaiting carrion from today’s sessions!