Philosophy and practice, both essential for change

Which came first, the philosophy or the practice?

Which came first, the philosophy or the practice?

A few days ago, the Hindu newspaper (Jan 20th 2015) here in Bangalore carried an interesting article about the education of first generation learners. Written by Anurag Behar, the Vice Chancellor of Azim Premji University in the city, the article considered why there are still many obstacles in the way of children from disadvantaged groups obtaining an education. In particular the author of this piece presented many of the well rehearsed arguments concerning negative teacher attitudes, lack of professional knowledge and poor resourcing. Whilst there was nothing that could be denied in the article, neither was there anything new. Or at least, this was what I was thinking until I reached the final paragraph which appeared under the sub-heading Philosophy of Education.

I have returned to this part of the article and read it several times since it was first published on Tuesday, because whereas the greater part of the arguments presented were somewhat staid, this final paragraph made a very interesting observation which assisted me as I was thinking about some of the work we are doing with students in Bangalore this week. Anurag Behar begins by apologising for introducing the term “philosophy” into a newspaper article, fearing that many readers may detect the commencement of a highbrow discussion more readily associated with academia than with the mass media. I suspect that he is right, and if the whole article had been entitled Philosophy of Education he may well have lost some readers. However, he then goes on to state that:

“Given the processes of learning, the nature of education and its purposes, philosophy and practice are inseparable.”

Anurag Behar is quite right to say that the mention of philosophy in a newspaper article is unusual. He is equally right in asserting the critical relationship between philosophy and practice in efforts to developing more inclusive approaches to inclusion. The Oxford English dictionary offers several definitions of philosophy, one of which positions it as:

A  theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour”

Attitudes are often cited as critical in the development of inclusive schools. A belief in the rights of all children to access learning and a recognition that all children can learn has been an important starting point in the development of inclusive schools. In my experience the majority of leaders in the field of inclusive education, individuals I have looked up to over many years, such as Mrs Krishnaswamy here in this city,  have a commitment to fairness and equality based not necessarily upon the ideas of an established philosopher or school of thought, but rather upon a personal philosophy that is opposed to injustice and exclusion.

Working with teachers in Bangalore whenever the challenges of creating more inclusive schools and classrooms are discussed, negative attitudes and behaviours are declared to be an obstacle. This is a pattern repeated in other parts of the world, including the UK. I am sure that many of those teachers and school principals who are obstructing progress towards inclusion would see themselves as fair minded, caring and professional, yet they see no reason to make provision for children who have been marginalised and denied their rights to fair schooling. Even when they do recognise that these excluded children have rights, they do not see that they have a responsibility to uphold them or make appropriate adjustments in their professional lives.

It was the inseparability of philosophy from practice that interested me most in Anurag Behar’s article. How, I wondered can we change the behaviours and individual philosophies of those who refuse to support inclusion? As is argued by Anurag Behar, I believe that the answer may lie in ensuring that we look at philosophy in tandem with practice.

If we can show through our practice as teachers the benefits that come from inclusive teaching, we will take others who are currently dissenting from inclusion along with us. We know that the teacher who differentiates effectively to ensure access to learning for the child with learning difficulties, in so doing benefits the whole class. We have long recognised that children who share their classrooms with others from different socio-economic groups, or religions or cultures have greater opportunities to become respectful citizens. We are aware that teachers who learn the skills of inclusive assessment and planning become more reflective and considerate practitioners. Teachers who work in an inclusive manner and promote inclusive practice, such as those I am privileged to work with here in India, are leading the way. Their practice is already influencing change in schools and thereby changing the philosophy of some of their less confident colleagues.

In my opinion the newspaper article provides an important statement in its recognition of this clear link between philosophy and practice. In the UK we have this old conundrum that children have argued about for years, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

It matters not whether the promotion of inclusion comes first from a deep seated philosophy, or emerges primarily from a greater understanding of practice. However, both philosophy and practice need to play their part if we are to attain the goal of more inclusive schools.

Incidentally, which did come first, the chicken or the egg?

Who should feel the shame?

Ignorance

This weekend an article in The Guardian newspaper caught my attention and gave me cause to despair about the ground we still have to cover in working towards a more just and inclusive society. Writing under a banner headline “What my autistic brother has taught me about fear, ignorance and shame,” the journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett describes how she was recently accosted by her boss who declared that he was fearful for the safety of his daughter when her brother who has been diagnosed as having autism, was present with her in the same playground. Rhiannon described her feelings of hurt and anger when realising that through ignorance of her brother’s needs, this man felt it necessary to express his anxieties about a young man who is completely innocent of any ill-feelings towards others.

The journalist continues her article by describing the negative experiences of others who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, including Faruk Ali, a young man who was allegedly beaten by two police officers on the grounds that he was behaving in a suspicious manner outside of his home, and Josh a teenager who was handcuffed and forcibly removed from a public swimming pool when he didn’t understand what was required of him. Rhiannon ponders on what might be done to improve this situation. This might she suggests, include the training of police officers in order that they are sensitised to the needs of individuals who are perceived as different, whether this be as a result of their autism or other issues. But then, as she rightly states, this is not simply a matter of training police officers, it is much more about addressing the ignorance that is commonly encountered in many sections of the public.

Sadly this article and its subject matter came as no surprise when I read it yesterday. I recall when I was a head teacher numerous occasions when parents reported similar experiences to me. They recounted times when individuals had demonstrated fear, misunderstanding and ignorance about their children in a whole range of situations. Often this would be shown by simple acts of avoidance, such as crossing the road to prevent contact or moving their own children away in playgrounds or the park. At other times this might extend to making comments, such as the parent who reported to me that a woman had removed her children from a local stream where they were feeding bread to ducks with a very audible “let’s move further along the bank away from the nasty boy!” This particular parent of a child with Down syndrome told me that she had wanted to push this woman into the stream, but instead she just stood there and cried.

Fortunately, for every act born out of ignorance, such as those described in the Guardian article or that reported to me by a parent, there are others which show the kindness and consideration of people who may not always understand but want to ensure that they are demonstrating their decency. I recall for example the young man who on seeing me dealing with a pupil having an epileptic seizure on a school trip immediately came across and took off his coat to wrap around him, asking what else he might do to help. Or the lady who seeing me struggle, got off a train in a railway station to assist me to board with a student who had limited mobility. In my memory these simple acts of kindness far outweigh those negative experiences I have had when out with children, but maybe this is because as a teacher I was not so often placed in the situation that parents and carers face on a daily basis.

Whatever the extent of the problems that emanate from the lack of understanding of others, there is clearly an issue here that needs to be confronted. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett finished her Guardian article with this paragraph:-

“There was something else I felt that day, alongside the anger and the hurt from being told that my brother appeared dangerous. It was shame. Illogical and unwarranted shame. Shame that he and by extension we were different from the other ones and that that difference caused them discomfort. I never want to feel that way again, and nor should anyone else.”

Of all the issues that Rhiannon reported in her article it was the assertion that she felt shame that I found most distressing. What had she done to deserve feelings such as this? Far from feeling shame, I believe she should take pride in the fact that by using her skills as a journalist and demonstrating her simple humanity as a sibling, she is bringing this issue to the attention of a wider public. Furthermore, rather than simply accepting the effects of ignorance she is taking direct action on behalf of others who may feel less confident to confront the bigotry and thoughtlessness that they have experienced.

Ignorance and fear are often founded upon lack of familiarity. It is still a fact that many children go through their schooling with hardly any contact with others who are described as having disabilities or special educational needs. Where do they have an opportunity to gain an understanding of the great diversity and individuality which exists within our populations? It is to be hoped that as more children attend schools that are inclusive in nature and provide opportunities for a celebration and appreciation of such diversity, the ignorance that leads to such negative attitudes will lessen. Whilst it is unlikely that we will ever fully remove the discrimination towards individuals who appear different from ourselves, it may just be that the ways in which we educate our children and organise our schools can make a significant contribution towards the eradication of prejudice and ignorance.

A link to an on-line version of Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s Guardian article is given below.

What my autistic brother has taught me about fear, ignorance and shame