New beginnings

New students eager to lear

New students eager to learn

It seems hard to believe that yesterday we began teaching a fourth cohort of students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore. Twenty enthusiastic individuals gathered somewhat apprehensively at the Brindavan Education Trust in Jayanagar, all eager but understandably uncertain about the road ahead.

I never underestimate the tremendous sacrifices that many of our students make in order to study for a higher degree. In addition to making a financial commitment, they have to reorganise their home and working patterns in order to study, and often organise child care and make other arrangements to enable them to attend classes. In Bangalore this dedication to professional development is often intensified by the challenge of working, studying and writing in ways that may be considerably different from those experienced in an Indian context. I am full of admiration for the students who join us on this journey and look forward to working with this new group of twenty professionals. Today’s new students give us every reason to believe that they are going to be an excellent group and will progress steadily through the course.

DSC00104

As with any course of this nature it has taken many years to reach a point where we are confident of the sustainability of the work. Discussions about the possibilities of bringing a university accredited course to promote inclusive approaches to teaching and learning began as early as 2003, and it has required the determined endeavours of colleagues in Bangalore to succeed in this mission. The commitment of colleagues who have worked on course development, recruitment, the devising of curriculum content and the securing of India specific resources is a tribute to the vision that they have of creating a more just and inclusive society in India and beyond. Without their persistence, often against major obstacles, this exciting venture would never have been launched.

Last week we met with some of our students who graduated with their MA in Special and Inclusive Education in April. From the perspective of course tutors this was a reaffirming experience as they talked about the work they are doing now, and the ways in which they are applying learning from the course. Latha and Rekha talked passionately about their work in ensuring that the schools where they are principals adopt an inclusive approach, welcoming children with a wide range of needs and abilities. Champa described a new project in which she is engaged, working with street children and those who are homeless and rejected by their families. Four of our students, Pooja, Elsie, Sulata and Sumathi have developed their hunger for inquiry to the extent that they will be commencing studies towards a PhD with us over the next few weeks. Each of them is keen to pursue research that will make a difference to the lives of excluded or marginalised young people in India.

It is the stories told by our students that inspire us and encourage us to return and to find new ways of improving the MA course and challenging thinking about inclusive education. The memories of an informal discussion in the home of a friend in Jayanagar, and the subsequent efforts made by colleagues here in Bangalore to turn a dream into a reality are something to be valued. The professionalism of the tutors with whom I am fortunate to work on this programme will ensure that students continue to have a positive learning experience and that its future sustainability will be secured. I look forward with anticipation of another exciting day working with teachers and students today in Bangalore.

Hungry to learn but starved of opportunity.

Kerala - a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

Kerala – a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

In The hands of Gandhiji, the hunger strike was often a potent weapon, and one that he used  to highlight the injustices created by British officialdom during the Quit India campaign. In addition, he and many other satyagrahi deployed this very personal and potentially fatal tactic during times of community sectarian violence in order to bring parties to a greater sense of personal responsibility. Many have been the debates about this extreme tactic, and not all have endorsed the hunger strike as a legitimate means of protest. It was undoubtedly a powerful tool when deployed by Gandhi, in part because of the reverence with which he was held by much of the Indian population at the time. In the hands of others, including for instance the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in England, or Palestinians protesting the Israeli occupation of their lands, success has been at best limited. The ten nationalist hunger strikers who died in prison in Ireland in 1981 also had little impact on change  because they commanded the respect of only part of their community, and as a result of their real or perceived association with violence perpetrated during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

The difficult history of hunger strikes is one that I still find challenging in terms of understanding its legitimacy as a form of protest. It undoubtedly takes a passion and commitment on the part of the individual that is not to be found amongst the average protester, but at times it can also appear as a selfish act which impacts as much upon loved ones as it does upon those who are the intended focus of demands. Gandhi, who was a great man, and shrewd politician but not a saint, was only too well aware of the importance of his persona as a critical part of his protest.

It was then with some disquiet that I read an account in today’s Indian Express newspaper of a group of children who have commenced a hunger strike in Mamalakkandam, in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. These young people attend the government high school in their small remote town, the next nearest equivalent school being 30 kilometres away. Their school was upgraded to high school status only last year, an important move that should create better education and employment opportunities for young people from the local community. However, having proudly announced the opening of this important new establishment, the government have failed to provide any teaching staff to ensure  the promised education. Bricks and mortor alone cannot afford an education, but do provide useful photo opportunities for politicians.

With the support of parents groups and other locals, a group of students protested at the district educational offices at Kothamangalam earlier in the week, but it appears that their not unreasonable demands that their school requires teachers, fell on deaf ears. As a result of this lack of positive response, the student body have intensified their protests, and two students have taken the desperate measure of commencing a hunger strike in the hope that this may spur the authorities into action.

On reading the news report I found myself experiencing a very mixed set of reactions. I certainly feel the need to commend the students and parents of Mamalakkandam for demanding their rights to a quality education, thereby enhancing their future prospects and potentially the prosperity of the community. Kerala has long prided itself on being the most educationally advanced state of India, even boasting almost 100% literacy across the region, but it seems to me that situations such as this says much about the state of a nation that is being heralded for its speed of development and economic power. As in most parts of the world which lay claim to advanced “development” there is evidence that whilst some individuals benefit from increased wealth, others get pushed further towards the margins of society. If education has a role to play, which as a teacher I most certainly believe to be true, it must be supported at all levels and for the benefit of all people.

Whilst empathising with the students and wishing them every success with their protests and legitimate demands, I do however have a number of concerns. Acts of protest should never be undertaken lightly, and where they involved putting the health, and possibly even the lives of children at risk, we must become alarmed. The courage of the students, the desperation of the parents, and the demands of a community must surely be acknowledged and respected by anyone who claims to see education as a universal right. A failure to act on the part of government education officers could not only result in personal tragedy for the young hunger strikers and their families, but would also be an act of injustice perpetrated against a whole community, and would destroy the credibility of the State Government and the image of Kerala as a focus for educational excellence in India.

The outcomes of this situation could have implications well beyond Mamalakkandam. The response of education administrators will say much with regards to the way in which they perceive their responsibilities. Along with many others, I will be following this story with hopes of a happy outcome.

Disputation: an essential part of teaching and learning.

Teachers engaged in friendly debate and sometimes letting me express an opinion too!

Teachers engaged in friendly debate and sometimes letting me express an opinion too!

I enjoy working with groups of teachers. They are generally eager learners, keen participants in activities and tasks, and ready to discuss issues related to their practice or the lives of children. In India many of the teachers whom I meet thrive on debate and whenever I am engaged in sessions with them Amartya Sen’s entertaining and profound book “The Argumentative Indian” comes to mind.

Yesterday morning I worked with such a group of enthusiastic teachers in the HSR District of Bangalore (I’m not sure why it’s called HSR, perhaps someone could enlighten me?) As is often the case in these situations, the session started with a high level of decorum and a respectful silence that often makes me slightly uneasy. The reverential respect afforded to “The Sage on The Stage” (an expression I first heard here in Bangalore and have never encountered outside of India), is so different from what might be expected in a similar situation in Europe. I always feel that it is important to get a class of teachers or children actively involved in a lesson as soon as possible. Therefore, a few deliberately provocative statements (some of which I did not subscribe to myself) were used to encourage a more lively response. Once this was achieved I felt that the session was more truly under way.

As is typical of these school based professional development sessions here in India, it did not take long to reaffirm Sen’s belief that Indians love nothing more than disputation as a friendly, if somewhat heated debate emerged. I must confess to being the guilty party in having lit the fuse for this minor spat. In an attempt to provide an example of children who are currently being denied opportunities for appropriate schooling in India, I presented figures related to those of migrant families, many from the poorest states of India, such as Bihar who can often be seen on the building sites of Bangalore. Many of these children speak neither English or Kannada, and a significant number spend their lives moving from site to site, living in tented villages and never attending school. Within half a mile of the school where I was working I had passed just such a community and watched children making a playground from heaps of sand, cement and rubble as their parents began a day’s labour to lay drainage pipes. These children, I suggested, are trapped in a cycle of poverty, living in dangerous conditions, with little health care and excluded from much of society. Expanding my point and expressing an opinion I stated that whilst education alone could not solve the difficulties faced by these children, teachers and education administrators have some responsibility to ensure that they are included in the education system.

I found general consensus in the room, with nodding heads and affirmative expressions. Several teachers in the room made positive suggestions regarding the actions that could be taken to improve the lot of the children under consideration. However, it was the response from one young lady that took me a little by surprise and caused a certain friction in the room. Her theory was that by putting these children into formal education we may be raising their expectations and those of their families in a way that is unrealistic and destined to fail. Furthermore, might we be denying such children an opportunity to learn all of the life and survival skills they need, and which will hold them in good stead as they lead their future lives on the building sites of India?

I was not surprised that at this point a certain cacophony of objections were raised around the class as the sixteen gathered teachers expressed at least twenty opinions! Having decided that discretion was the better part of valour (or was it pure cowardice?) I was content at this time to adopt the role of an observer from the fringes and to let the argument run its course.

When the time seemed right (and I felt safe) to intervene. I drew the debate to a temporary halt, summarised what I felt to be the many facets of a complex issue and having expressed my own opinion about what I had heard, moved on with the session. However, I have been reflecting on this interesting discussion ever since its conclusion.

For those of us who seem to have been immersed in debating, researching and teaching about inclusion and children’s rights for a long time now, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we can reach consensus on the need to provide access to schooling. However, I do believe that the originator of today’s contestation did have some valid points to make. The life experiences of a child who lives on a building site must be considered and respected by those who would provide formal education. His or her culture and expectations and those of their family are likely to differ greatly from their peers. The ways in which we value these experiences will inevitably shape the ways in which children respond to teaching and learning.

Time was limited otherwise I would have welcomed an opportunity to discuss this issue with greater depth and breadth. The one conclusion that we did reach, and upon which we were all agreed, was that inclusion is far more about changing schools and teaching, and reshaping the ideas of educational policy makers, than it is about changing children.

 

Sharing learning with a wider world

We are always delighted when our students return to share their experience with current cohorts. When they share their learning with a wider audience we are thrilled!

We are always delighted when our students return to share their experience with current cohorts. When they share their learning with a wider audience we are thrilled!

Devising research questions is not as easy a task as it may sound. Yesterday on the MA programme here in Bangalore a group of enthusiastic students set about the task of identifying topics and research questions that will inform their dissertations. The dissertation is a major piece of work on the course, and for most it represents the largest volume of writing they have ever had to complete. You may then understand why there is always a little apprehension at this stage of the course.

Such mild anxieties, whilst understandable, will soon be overcome by this group of students who have remained focused and worked hard throughout the course, and have shown themselves more than equal to every task they have approached. I am confident that by the end of this week they will all have identified a clear set of questions that will inform their small-scale projects and lead to some interesting research.

One of the major challenges for students working on this course is the limited range of research literature available to them that has been conducted within an Indian context. Often they find themselves referring to European, Australasian or American literature and having to consider its appropriateness in terms of the socio-economic and cultural conditions that are found here in India. This is a challenge that they approach thoughtfully as reflected in much of their writing.

From the beginning, when we started the course with our first cohort we emphasised to our students that they had an opportunity to contribute significantly to the Indian literature in the field of special and inclusive education. I think at first they believed that papers in academic journals and chapters in books were written only by those working in universities with many years of experience. We have encouraged them to understand that there is in fact a huge gap in the literature related to the application of teaching and learning approaches for children from marginalised groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities in India.

We recognise that not all of our students in Bangalore will want to embark upon a path of writing papers, submitting these to the rigour of the journal peer review process, with the inevitable possibility of rejection, and finding the time necessary for amendments and rewriting. But we have been greatly heartened by the response to our suggestion that they can indeed make an important contribution to the literature.

Over the next month, several of our students from our first cohort and one from the third will see their work in print in two different peer reviewed journals – Support for Learning, and Good Autism Practice. We are, or course, immensely proud of their achievements and this concrete evidence of their expertise and hard work. I am confident that many of our students will play a leading role in the promotion of inclusive practice here in India, and optimistic that we will see more of their research and writing in print in the near future.

Whilst the MA course here in Bangalore does not set out with an expectation that all students will become published researchers and authors in the field, it is good to think that others embarking on this journey will be able to refer to the literature generated by those who went before them. It may seem to many that their contribution to research and the literature is small, but every journey begins with a single step and these excellent students have in fact taken a giant stride.

Never too late to learn!

Learning: a shared experience

Learning: a shared experience

A short article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper here in the UK reports the sad death of a school pupil in the Nigerian city of Kano. Whenever a school student dies it is a cause for grieving, but perhaps on this occasion the reason to be saddened is rather different than it might have been with others on the school role. The demise of this pupil may not have come as a shock as it might well have done with other students, though he will undoubtedly be missed by his classmates.

Mohammud Modibbo, the student in question, was described by his teacher Abdulkarim Ibrahim as an “easy going and jovial learner”, whose dream of going to university was sadly not to be realised. He recalled how this keen student was “very attentive, and asked questions when he didn’t understand.” He was seen by this teacher as an excellent student who had the potential to progress much further with his studies.

Mohammud Modibbo was clearly a model student, but perhaps what made him stand out from others in his class was his age. You see, this latecomer to school has died at the age of 94 years, having begun his primary schooling in his mid 80s. He was clearly not a typical secondary school student; had he been a fifteen year old, I suspect his demise would not have been reported in the international press. His thwarted ambition to gain university entrance is a matter for some regret, though we should take many positives from this otherwise sad story.

The most heartening aspect of this news report is a recognition that one is never too old to learn. Our current obsession, at least here in western countries, with age related norms and expectations that learners travel a journey at a similar pace, is given the lie by stories such as these. The fact that a primary school was willing to enrol a pupil aged eighty years plus, is both commendable and spirited. Even more remarkable is that this gentleman, whose life experiences were clearly significant, was willing to enter school and learn beside pupils who might well have been his great grandchildren. I am sure that many of his fellow pupils will have benefited from the wisdom and sagacity that he brought to school. Both the school teachers and Mohammud Modibbo should be applauded for this positive and inclusive attitude to learning.

If there is a truly sad aspect to this story, it must be that Mohammud had to wait for so many years to be given the opportunity to become a school pupil. I have no doubt that he will have learned much throughout his life, and that this will have enabled him to contribute greatly to the learning of his far younger classmates. He clearly grasped the opportunity to engage in formal learning with alacrity, and relished the opportunity to accept new challenges and greater insights into the world.

The article reports that acceptance of more senior citizens into schools is not uncommon in several African nations. A great-great- grandmother by the name of Priscilla Sitienei reportedly enrolled in primary school in Kenya at the age of 90 years. I have no doubt that there are other such stories to be told not only from Africa, but elsewhere in the world.

These students, and the schools who have opened their doors to them provide us with inspiring stories of inclusive approaches to education. There is much that we can all learn from the teachers who have welcomed these mature students.

Perhaps when my grandchildren begin school I might be permitted to re-enrol alongside them in order to gain all the exciting learning that I missed first time around!