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.


11 thoughts on “Disputation: an essential part of teaching and learning.

  1. Hi Richard, after multiple attempts to write a coherent comment on this post of yours, I’ve given up. You are right when you say that “the life experiences of a child who lives on a building site must be considered and respected by those who would provide formal education,” however I would enquire what parameters fall within the realm of ‘consideration’? I believe very, very firmly that children must be supported and encouraged no matter how ‘realistic’ we (cynical and hardened adults) may deem their aspirations to be, no matter what their backgrounds, no matter what the familial economic status. My own experience as a teacher has shown me that adults and children alike, live up or down (as the case may be) to their teachers’ and mentors’ expectations of them.

    • Hi Saneeya, Yes, you are quite right that teacher expectations are everything. But let’s be a little cautious before we jump to conclusions. Teachers develop their expectations on the basis of their own life experiences. They have often been influenced by their own educational benefits – though sadly many continue to see education in very narrow terms, and I would suggest that some teachers are educated only in a narrow sense of the word. I wonder what the educational experiences of the labourers I see working the building sites here in Bangalore were? Have they had an opportunity to see the benefits of schooling, or does it remain something alien to their experience? What do they make of those of us who are “educated” in the formal sense of the word? Do they aspire to be “like us” or do they see us as strangers from a different domain?
      I have just returned from my early morning walk around the backstreets of Jayanagar. At one point I came across a row of four makeshift huts, surrounded by piles of rubbish – home to some migrant building workers. Squatting amongst the detritus was a girl of I would think six years old, she was cooking breakfast for her family over an open fire. She has learning that most six year olds do not have, and most will never gain. Perhaps we need to start with questions about how we build upon her learning before we take her into a strange learning environment.
      We absolutely must get children like this into schools, but we must also work with their families to ensure that they see the benefits of schooling and trust us not to rob them of their children and future bread winners.

      • Hi Richard, I see your point and absolutely agree. However, my issue still remains with what we define as ‘expectations’ for these children. Yes I we cannot approach the process with the view of seeking to suddenly and entirely stop the children from supporting their families in the manner that they do, whether by domestic chores such as cooking, looking after siblings, or tending to the family land; however at the same time we should not alter our expectations for these children such that they do not have the same opportunities for learning and progression and other educational experiences as children from the ‘more privileged backgrounds’ who are in the same class or school as them. Of course I would concede the situation would be slightly altered if these classrooms are geographically located in socio-economically challenged areas where the entire school demographic would be different. My argument is that teachers should not have different expectations of children within the same classroom simply based on their socio-economic backgrounds.

        • Hi Saneeya,
          I certainly agree with your last point, and I am definitely not saying that these children should not go to school. My concewrns are that we should ensure we build upon the learning they gain from their situation – just as we would with other children from backgrounds that are nearer to our own, and that we should be listening to the concerns of their families.

  2. Richard, during lunch time today, Sunil and I talked about the same issue – how do we provide an education to first generation learners / learners who must start earning quite early in their lives, tangible to them. The normal course of education seems so disconnected to their own lives. I worked closely with an NGO that tries to impart education to the children of construction workers. A common refrain from the parents at this school is, how will this education help my son help me lay bricks, build wall etc when he is 18?
    Some years ago, we had a volunteer at Brindavan from Switzerland. She explained their system, where children are exposed to many ‘kinds of education’ quite early; one of them being training in a vocational area from Grade 8. And the choice of continuing with more formal education like a undergrad degree later at the age of 20!

    • Hi Rajini,
      You hit upon a key factor here, we must learn to work with parents and educated families as a whole. The points that you and Saneeya make are very perceptive and both of you point to the need for an alternative form of education. I suspect that simply putting some of these children into local schools and giving them exposure to the normal curriculum might breed resentment. I suspect that some of the children I see have well advanced mathematical skills gained through practical application, they have excellent survival skills, spatial awareness and domestic learning. If we are prepared to learn from them we may be able to assist them towards a better life.

      • Hi Rajni,
        Thank you for sharing the information about schooling in Switzerland which I previously had no idea about. I think you make very relevant points about the education of those no matter which socio-economic groups they may come from. As Richard rightly maintains, it is our responsibility as teachers and educationists to ensure that we teach children the skills they need. And I would also add that at the same time, we should continue to have high expectations and show these children that we believe that they will succeed no matter where their life journey may take them.

  3. Namaste!
    Richard I have had a very varied background not only in terms of what education system I have gone through but also the varied subjects I have studied in school college and universities.
    I have been saying from the time I first finished high school “Education is the biggest leveler of social, societal, financial and economic inequalities.” But it is very hard for lot of parents to even give basic education to their children due to financial problems. Higher education is totally out of reach for these children. There are also lot of other issues which do not let children to pursue education like family responsibilities and so on. A 9 year old girl did not go to school even tough she was enrolled in a village school in UP as she had to take care of her siblings when her mother was out working in the field during harvesting.
    I was telling Rajani Maam if education was expensive then try illiteracy……….. that will be more expensive. Here we have to understand that most people can not even think what education will do to the individual, family and to the society.
    The story goes on. I will tell you a success story when you have the time.

    • Some good points here Sunil. Perhaps the more education we have, the greater the opportunities we have to make choices – about what education we need!

  4. HSR District of Bangalore (I’m not sure why it’s called HSR, perhaps someone could enlighten me?)
    HSR layout as it is called stands for Hosur Sharjapur Road Layout. It was developed by the Bangalore development authority. As the layout is situated between Hosur road and Sharjapur road it is called so.

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