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.