Glittering Prizes?

Prize or portent?

Prize or portent?

Yesterday evening, a colleague from the university was returning to her old school on a mission. I happened to meet her as we were both walking to the carpark at the end of another busy day, and it was during this brief perambulation that she disclosed her apprehensions about the evening ahead. It appears that several months ago she received an invitation from her alma mater to present the prizes at the school’s annual celebration of the achievements of its pupils. At the time, she told me, this seemed like a good idea. Indeed she was flattered by the wording of the invitation stating that as a distinguished alumnus of the school, a well-respected historian and author of a number of key texts, they would be honoured if she would accept their invitation. However, as the moment drew ever nearer she began to wonder why she had ever agreed to this request. She had had recurring visions of staring down from the stage at the gathered masses, who would neither recognise her as anyone of significance or have any desire to be captivated by her words of wisdom. “I am sure”, she suggested, “that if it were Adele, or Wayne Rooney standing before them they would hang on every word.” I suspect that she has interpreted the situation quite accurately, and that neither bursting into song, nor heading a ball into the fourth row will be likely to retrieve the situation for her.

I must confess that I had imagined that prize giving events at schools had probably been confined to history some time ago. As I drove home I found myself sympathising with my colleague’s dilemma, and then smiling with some relief as I remembered that the ugly 1960’s school building that I had myself attended was in the recent past demolished to make way for a housing estate, and therefore no longer exists. This adds certainty to the unlikeliness of ever receiving such a daunting invitation to a similar event.

It was later yesterday evening when my mind returned to the conversation with my colleague that I found myself wondering how the event to which she had so nobly committed was proceeding. As I pondered her situation I began to realise that there are a number of items here at my home that have a close affinity to school prize giving evenings. Thinking about these mementos I began to imagine what they might have meant to the recipient of prizes at the time when they were awarded.

On a wall in our hallway hangs a dark wooden display frame which holds a number of medallions awarded to members of my family for perfect school attendance. Covering dates from 1912 to 1918 these Gloucester Education Committee awards were won by my grandfather and his siblings and were presented to encourage all children and parents in the city to value educational opportunity, and ensure that they were punctual and punctilious in their attendance. An earlier award of a book titled “The Bravest Gentleman in France” is inscribed “Gloucester Education Committee, Linden Road Council School, presented to Henry Terrett for efficiency and regular attendance during the school year ending October 31st 1910. School open 417 times, attended 417,” it is signed by P. Barrett Cooke, Sec. Whenever I open this book I cannot help thinking of the irony that my Uncle Harry received a prize, the title of which may well have returned to his mind as six years later he fought for survival amongst the mud and death that surrounded him at the Battle of the Somme.

Not all of the school prizes within my possession are of so personal a nature. A number of years ago in Norfolk, browsing a second hand book shop (the only form of shopping that seems truly to have any real purpose!) I came across a beautiful leather bound, though slightly foxed, 1934 edition of the Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke, for which I gladly parted with a five pound note. Though slightly the worse for wear, this book has one of the finest bindings of the many that cover the walls of my study. It is, however, the inscription inside the cover of this tome that gives me cause to reflect on the journey it has made to come into my possession. Written in copperplate within the cover are the words “Lancaster Rural Grammar School. This book is presented to J. Jackson for having contributed the best speech at the Whersell Society Prize Debate on Saturday February 27th 1937. J.H. Shackleton-Bailey D.D. Head Master.” J. Jackson remains a mystery to me; I wonder what the motion for debate might have been? It is apparent that like me, he had a love of words and of poetry. I wonder what became of him, and when this volume passed from his hands and those of his family to find its place alongside so many others far less distinguished, on the shelves of a shop in Norfolk?

In case you are wondering, yes I too received a couple of school prizes, though for a pastime far less cerebral than a contribution to debate. Mine were awarded for performance on the rugby field, and I remember the somewhat awkward feelings I experienced in mounting the stage to shake hands with a long forgotten alumnus of the school before he handed over a copy of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, which I notice now on the shelf above my desk.

Perhaps the task being undertaken by my colleague at her old school last night may have triggered her own memories of prizes received as well as given. I am in little doubt that she too will have one or two adorning the shelves of her home.

Not waving but drowning?

All at sea - becalmed or awiting a storm?

All at sea – becalmed or awaiting a storm?

 Definitions of coasting:

To slide down an incline through the effect of gravity.

To move without use of propelling power.

To act or move aimlessly or with little effort.
New terms appear within the education lexicon quite frequently. They soon enter into common parlance and are distributed liberally through the media, in meetings or at the school gate. Sometimes the new word or expression, after a period of short term fostering enters into the adoptive language of the education profession, but others are rejected or simply go out of fashion.

The latest term that has tripped indelicately from the lips of the UK Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, and has grabbed the attention of the media is “coasting.” This morning on the radio, I listened to Mrs Morgan being interviewed about this term and reached the conclusion that, articulate as she undoubtedly is, the process of adequately defining “coasting,” as used in an educational context, remains a work in progress. I do of course appreciate that obfuscation is an essential part of any politician’s armour, and understand that a person who holds such a post of responsibility as that in the possession of Nicky Morgan, needs to err on the side of caution. However, a discussion with two other colleagues who I met on arrival at the university this morning, confirmed that I was not the only one left wondering about the lack of clarity applied to this latest fashionable term. This morning’s radio interview was far from enlightening.

From what we could glean from an admittedly brief radio interview, it would appear that over the next couple of years, school inspectors will be asked to identify those schools that may be judged to be successful, but are seen to have taken their foot off the accelerator and have begun to ‘coast’ with little perceived purpose. Such schools will presumably be told to hoist sail, unfurl the spinnaker and seek more favourable winds. Though when asked about the consequences of being found ‘coasting’, the admiral of the educational fleet appeared less than certain. Asked what actions might be taken to encourage such schools to stop “coasting,” she appeared to flounder, and sounded almost surprised by the question.

The Oxford English dictionary certainly appears to indicate that “coasting” is a nautical term. Therefore, somewhat perplexed by this situation I sought the advice of a colleague who I know to be an enthusiastic and accomplished sailor. I must emphasise that he is not involved in education in schools, and indeed had not heard this morning’s interview. However, he was able to inform me that in his vocabulary, coasting is sometimes an essential part of the sailor’s strategy. From time to time he tells me, it is necessary to ease back a little and to take stock of the progress made. Such a period then enables the skipper of a vessel to make choices about the correct setting of sails and to check the direction of travel. For this seasoned adventurer, who has twice crossed the Atlantic in a ridiculously small boat (by my limited reckoning) unscathed, coasting is seen as an essential process and a positive action.

I can imagine that there are many head teachers, who having successfully steered their school through choppy educational waters, achieved good academic and social outcomes and gained the respect of their local community, must relish the idea that they can ‘coast’ for a brief time as they asses their current position and make plans for the immediate future. In the words of my sailor colleague, a failure to take this kind of action sometimes results in the ship running aground.

As ever, I will be interested to see the new advice given to inspectors of schools, and the ways in which this is interpreted over the coming months. It will be equally educative to see the consequences faced by any schools that are deemed to be “coasting”. Might we witness use of the cat o’ nine tails? Will school governors be keel hauled? Might head teachers be forced to walk the plank? Possibly not, though I suspect that someone is dreaming of an appropriate admonition for mutinous teachers even as we speak.

In the meantime, when next out on my bicycle rather than occasionally freewheeling down the hills, I will try to increase my cadence, just in case there is a Morganite lurking in the bushes!

 

Captain Morgan, notorious 17th-century Welsh pirate and privateer, scourge of the Caribbean

 

Observe to learn

There is so much to be learned when watching a teacher at work

There is so much to be learned when watching a teacher at work

I believe it to be a great privilege to spend time in a classroom watching a good teacher at work. When in this situation I often find myself thinking about the approaches that the particular teacher being observed is using, sometimes commenting to myself that “I wouldn’t have done it like that,” or “I wish I had thought about doing things that way.” I suspect that as teachers we all tend to be critical of the performances of our peers, but hopefully our critical reflections are for the most part positive and as much focused upon ourselves as on those we observe.

So it was that today I spent time in two separate classes observing a couple of student teachers working with primary school aged students, all of whom had been assessed as having a range of special educational needs. In such situations I always feel that it is important to put the student at ease, a friendly smile and cheery hello can only go so far towards relieving the inevitable tensions felt, but not to give either would be churlish.

After watching each lesson it was a pleasure to discuss what had been observed and to listen to these excellent young colleagues as they talked with great enthusiasm about what they had learned during their brief placement in the school. Both articulated their experiences in a thoughtful manner, describing their many successes with the students, and asking questions about the few difficulties they have experienced along the way. Getting to grips with new forms of assessment, the use of augmentative systems of communication and school approaches to behaviour management had clearly presented a challenge. But these two tyros were clearly equal to the task and saw each new experience as an opportunity to learn.

Teachers in English schools have become accustomed to being observed as they work. Sometimes this is characterised by the creation of a supportive environment in which peers with a genuine commitment to their own professional development share ideas and reflect in a positive manner upon the performance of a colleague. At other times the experience lacks the supportive conditions that we as teachers claim to value so much in education; as for example when a school inspection is in place and teachers are scored rather like performing skaters on an icy rink.

I was once told by an inspector colleague, a good man and experienced educator, that teachers can learn much by being observed. I remember my repost was along the lines that it is equally important that we as observers, are prepared to learn from what we see. Furthermore, I suggested, the real value of the observation is only to be achieved when we engage in a professional dialogue with the observed teacher, and make the effort to understand the reasoning behind their actions, and the context in which we operate. Observations that are simplistically used to make judgements and do not form the basis of professional dialogue have little real value in education.

Each observation this morning lasted about forty minutes and was certainly an informative and enjoyable experience. The real learning, both from my perspective as the observer, and hopefully for the young student teachers, took place in the half hour discussions that we shared when the lessons were over.

As ever, my morning visit to school was an uplifting experience. Seeing children enjoying activities under the guidance of committed professionals in an atmosphere conducive to encouraging learning, ensured that my working day got off to a good start. So thank you to the two young teachers for the privilege of seeing you at work, and to the school which afforded hospitality to myself and continues to inspire both new teachers and students.

 

P.S. To my literary friends, I wish you a belated happy Bloomsday! If it seemed like a long day, reflect upon Joyce’s interpretation of the working week:-

“All Moanday, Tearsday, Wailsday, Thumpsday, Frightday and Shatterday” (Finnegan’s Wake)

If yours was really that bad, I suggest you go into your local school and (after gaining consent) watch a teacher at work – hopefully this will brighten your day!

More things in common than might be expected

 

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Working with teachers in their own environment has a very different feel from that experienced when running courses at the university or on neutral territory. Being familiar with the surroundings and comfortable with each other, often means that those tentative minutes of beginning a training session are dispensed with, and teachers quickly become relaxed. Thus was the situation at Vydehi school today in the Whitefields district of Bangalore where I had been invited to conduct a session by Anita, one of our MA students here in the city. However, an interesting dimension of today’s training was that it brought together teachers from a special school alongside those from mainstream with a specific focus on creating an inclusive learning environment. This situation raised a number of questions in my mind about the expectations that teachers from these two respective establishments might have, and the ways in which they might interpret inclusive schooling. Would the special school teachers feel that they had a monopoly of expertise in respect of children with special educational needs? Would the mainstream teachers see these children as a problem? The session was approached by examining a model of assessment and planning to create opportunities for children to learn together in one classroom. Examples were presented from schools where these approaches had succeeded, and discussions of pupil “deficits” avoided. My idea was to provide examples that could encourage and enable children of all needs and abilities to learn within the same lessons. An emphasis was placed upon the proposition that within the same lesson children could be given many learning opportunities, and they do not in fact all need to learn the same thing, or work at the same pace.

It is always interesting trying to gauge the reaction of a group when addressing what I know to be, for many teachers, a series of challenging concepts. Nodding heads and smiles are always a good sign, furrowed brows and folded arms can be slightly worrying, a firm shaking of heads and reddening faces are disturbing to say the least. I recall one occasion when an audience member sitting immediately in front of me, at the outset of a session opened to its full width a broadsheet newspaper, thus concealing himself from me, and vice versa. This all before I had uttered a word.  I must confess that this rather pointed protest made me smile at the time, and I believe I saw the man behind the newsprint as ripe for conversion. Many of his surrounding colleagues objected to his behaviour, forcing him to lower his newspaper. In a way I was disappointed, having calculated that he would be unable to maintain his pose for more than a few minutes before his arms tired and he was forced to retreat. Fortunately today, there were far more smiles and nodding heads than otherwise, and nobody undertook any form of protest. Most reassuring was that teachers from both the mainstream and special schools appeared to be in accord with the principles that I was merrily espousing.

Towards the end of the session I became slightly concerned that they had all reached saturation point in respect of the information received and the ideas discussed. However, Anita suggested one final activity to end the event, and I was happy to comply. Teachers from both schools worked together in groups to plan a lesson in one of the formats presented during the session. They were asked to demonstrate how they might ensure that the needs of children from both of their schools could be incorporated into the lesson and their needs met. I was not surprised to find that these professionals rose to this challenge admirably and that they soon settled into devising differentiated approaches, and the implementation of resources that would support inclusive learning. When they presented back their ideas it was clear that they had identified a means of planning whereby all children could work together in an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

Whilst the teachers in today’s session are used to working in very different situations, it was evident that they have far more in common than they do differences. It became clear during the morning that these enthusiastic teachers also recognised that this was equally true of the children with whom they work.

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.

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!

Broadening the learning horizon could well have benefits.

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

In recent years it seems that everywhere I travel education has been reduced to a set of attainment targets. Furthermore the focus of education often appears to have been confined to a narrow and predictable channel around mathematics and science. The social sciences and arts appear less significant in the minds of many politicians and policy makers and achievements by children in these areas can easily pass unnoticed. But maybe now I am beginning to detect a small amount of challenge to this narrow view of the curriculum.

Yesterday was a day of contrasts in terms of the education related media reports that I accessed. On the morning Radio 4 Today Programme the BBC,  in one of those items that always seem to appear as “fillers” between more weighty debate, once again cited a politician (so many have done this that they all blur into one) who wishes that our schools in the UK could be more like those in Shanghai, Singapore or Korea. Leaving aside the fact that these learned politicos appear to have failed to recognise that the cultures of these countries are significantly different from our own, it is clear that the obsession with the education system in these nations is based solely upon educational attainment in mathematics and science. There is no doubt that any scrutiny of academic outcomes in these subjects reveals that China, Korea and Singapore are performing at a high level, but at what cost?

Research conducted into childhood stress and anxiety levels, published in a number of authoritative journals indicates that Chinese students report some of the highest stress levels in the world, and exhibit acute symptoms that include heightened anxiety, despair and feelings of anger towards their peers. Similar reports from Korea suggest that increased levels of bullying and an appallingly high incidence of child suicides may be directly correlated to pressure to do well in academic subjects. Every parent wants their child to do well in school, and it is right that teachers should have high expectations of their students. But perhaps this can be achieved through methods that don’t simply involve cramming for examinations, and might be better managed if greater credence was given to wider aspects of the curriculum.

Once again I found myself feeling somewhat cross that the BBC had resorted to lazy journalism in presenting an item comparing UK education to that elsewhere in the world. However, by contrast it was a news item from Asia that made me think that perhaps there is the potential for a backlash against this simplistic appraisal of the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik writing in the education supplement of the Deccan Herald from South India begins his article under the title “The need for reviving liberal education”  (Deccan Herald March 5th 2015) by depicting a typical scenario in which an adult asks a child how they are getting on in school. The child answers by giving his grades in maths and science, but says nothing of other subjects and certainly does not mention whether or not he enjoys schools. The adult is satisfied that he has received a reply that indicates satisfactory attainment in these two dominant subjects, therefore all must be well in this child’s education.

I should state before going any further that the use of the term “liberal” in Mr Koushik’s article will have already raised the hackles of at least one reader of this blog, who has had occasion to use this term as a derogation of my articles in his own writing in the past, but I make no apologies and neither should the journalist who within his feature makes a number of acute observations about the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik constructs an eloquent argument for giving greater value to the teaching of literature, the social sciences and art. With regards to the teaching of literature he states that:-

“literature is the study of life. By studying literature, we learn what it means to be human. Literature also teaches us about how powerful language can be. By studying the use of language in literature, we learn how to use the subtleties of the language to our advantage. So, literature helps us in shaping and moulding our character”. 

He goes on to advocate a broadening of our approach to the social sciences by saying:-

“When we study the social sciences, we are studying how people put their societies together and we are looking at the impacts of their decisions about how their societies should be run. By studying these things, we are becoming better informed about how societies should be put together and the intricacies involved in them”.

At no point does Krishnan Koushik deny the importance of the sciences and mathematics, but he makes a good case for ensuring that we provide children with a more holistic appreciation of the world in which they live and for which they will soon assume greater responsibility. Referring to previously revered, but sadly now more often ignored, educators of the past, including Johann Pestalozzi, David Thoreau, Francis Parker, John Dewey and Maria Montessori, Koushik makes a case for recognising the individuality of each child and provided them with a broad range of learning opportunities in which they can find their own passions and strengths. One particular phrase in his article stands out:-

 “Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning”.

Krishnan Koushik’s article is one of several that I have noted in the media from several parts of the world recently. It would appear that concerns are being increasingly expressed about the narrowing focus of education and in particular the marginalisation of all but a few curriculum subjects. The issues surrounding this debate are complex and I believe that many of those who advocate a focus upon science and maths, even at a cost to other subjects, often do so with a genuine concern for the needs of children. The majority of teachers with whom I converse have been expressing their concerns about the narrowing of curriculum priorities. Sadly, many of them are fearful of expressing their opinions or participating in the debate.

If you disagree with the sentiments expressed by Krishnan Koushik or the ways in which I have portrayed these in this blog, do feel free to post a reply. Healthy debate can help us all to learn and understand other’s points of view. Alternatively, if you have been incensed by the liberality of the views expressed you could try to relax by reading a good novel, visiting your local art gallery, exploring the nature of your immediate hinterland, going to the theatre or listening to Mozart or Abida Parveen. Whilst doing so you might consider how future generations will be encouraged to value and appreciate these experiences.

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

Quality and inclusion - synonymous rather than incompatible

Quality and inclusion – synonymous rather than incompatible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Testing times?

 

Too late, I'm already disturbed!

Too late,
I’m already disturbed!

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

The article informs readers that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the final hurdle

Tutors should always be available to offer support and advice as students approach the final hurdle of the MA dissertation.

Tutors should always be available to offer support and advice as students approach the final hurdle of the MA dissertation.

All that stands between you and a Master of Arts Degree in Special and Inclusive Education now is the dissertation. I have heard myself saying this a few times over the past few days as our dedicated and hardworking students enter the final straight towards gaining their degrees. If the degree was awarded solely on the grounds of commitment towards children we could make the award today. But it is rather more complicated than that.

The good news is that this week we are working here in Bangalore with our second cohort of students on this programme. The third cohort will be with us again next Monday and we are already attracting potential candidates for the fourth group. Today each one of our students can look to the achievements of our first cohort who have completed their studies and gained their degrees.

This final hurdle, the dissertation, inevitably seems larger than those that have gone before, but we are confident that we have a group of students working with us who will stay the course. Our work with them to date has already provided plenty of evidence that they have the professional skills and attitudes to succeed. Conducting a piece of original research in the area of inclusive education affords opportunities for these dedicated individuals to extend their own learning to new levels and become leading professionals in the field.

Just as with the first group of students, these colleagues are not only developing new ideas, but are putting these into practice in their classrooms. Their expectations of all learners have risen and they are questioning and challenging pre-conceived ideas about children who have previously been seen as “problems” in their schools.

Mary is an excellent tutor, always there to allay the worries of students as they progress through the course.

Mary is an excellent tutor, always there to allay the worries of students as they progress through the course.

Each time we come here to Bangalore we are met by students eager to tell us of the impact that their work is having. New child friendly approaches to assessment, changes in lesson planning, developments in individual education plans and differentiated learning have all been identified as progress made in schools. As this current group prepare their dissertation topics, examining the research methods they will use and discussing the samples with which we will work, we grow ever more excited by their ideas and focus.

The impact of dance on children’s well-being in a special school, the effects  of the 25% quota under the Right to Education Act in two contrasting schools, inclusion in a Montessori environment, parental attitudes towards children with special educational needs, and the impact of participation in a running club on the self-esteem of children with disabilities gives just a brief flavour of the variety of research interests being pursued. The students on this course are surely at the cutting edge of developments in this field here in South India.

As the numbers completing this course increase we will have a strong community of teachers all working towards a more equitable approach to teaching and learning. Keeping them together and maintaining the momentum will be a critical part of ensuring that all of their hard work benefits the maximum number of children. Already we have students who are preparing for further research as PhD students either with us in Northampton or in Indian universities. Their research will undoubtedly add considerably to the increasing efforts to make inclusion a reality within this country.

For those of us fortunate enough to teach on this course, the prospect of having a fine group of alumni who will assume leadership roles in promoting inclusive schooling, is one that we cherish. I am sure that in years to come we will be celebrating further successes achieved by both these colleagues and the children who they teach. They may be slightly apprehensive about their dissertations at present, but we have every faith in their ability and motivation to succeed.

If you think you are up to the challenge and want to join the course, we are recruiting now for September 2015. Do get in touch.