Fuzzy thinking across time zones!

Jist accept defeat - you're just not going back to sleep!

Just accept defeat – you’re  not going back to sleep!

 

3.00 am and I’m wide awake. After turning around under the duvet for half an hour, trying not to wake Sara, I decide that I have no hope of getting back to sleep. Abandoning a warm bed I tiptoe to the study having decided that I might as well work if I can’t sleep. Bramble, our small black cat who usually does the night shift curled on a chair in the study, is not happily disturbed, she gives me a look of disdain but quickly manages to tuck her head beneath her tail and pretend this isn’t happening. She slips back into the arms of Morpheus in a manner that makes me envious.

Jet lag is the inevitable consequence of long haul travel, but I have learned that it takes a few nights like this until my body clock returns to normal. No point fighting it, just accept the situation and move on. I know that any attempt to return to slumber will be ultimately futile. Sorry Bramble but you’ve got company until breakfast! Looking from my study window I can see the glistening of a hard frost on the road and a lawn still covered in snow. How different a sight from the last few days in Bangalore? I suspect that some of my friends in India have never known sub-zero temperatures, and may even recoil from the thought of experiencing an English winter. Right now I can understand why the warmer climes of India have an attraction.

The first few days back in England in addition to the readjustment to the time zone, also provides a period of reflection on what has been learned over the past couple of weeks. As always, I come back enthused by the commitment of  colleagues and students who are often working under difficult circumstances in India. However, it is equally possible to be daunted by the mere drop in the ocean that our work there constitutes in terms of instigating change. When fatigue takes over it is easier to see the difficulties ahead rather than to review the many positive outcomes of our work.  I am constantly reminded that every journey starts with a single step, and that unless that first stride is taken then nothing happens, and this enables me to continue thinking about the road ahead.

I am fortunate indeed in working with colleagues whose dedication to the MA course we run in Bangalore and the work we do with teachers, is more than equal to my own. I am also mindful of the fact that the time for change in respect of special and inclusive education in India is here now. Debates around the Right to Education Act mean that there is a far greater focus upon the causes of exclusion, and the responsibility of schools to challenge these, than there has ever been in the past. The teachers I meet are all keen to confront the difficulties of including children from maginalised groups that are being perpetually highlighted in the media, and to prove that they are equal to the task. I already hear of the difference they are making in their schools, and the changes they are promoting amongst their colleagues. Theirs are the stories that give us the energy to keep moving forward.

In the near future I am sure I will be hearing many reports of the leadership that our students in Bangalore are providing in the creation of more inclusive and supportive schools. It is this thought that will assist me as I try to shake of the jet lag and get on with my work.

3.45 am. In a couple of hours it will be time to get myself moving and prepare for another day!

 

Interpretation is without a doubt the most critical part of reading

Raj ghat Samadhi the memorial in Delhi that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation. A moving place where respectful crowds stand in silence.

Raj Ghat Samadhi the memorial in Delhi that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. A moving place where respectful crowds stand in silence.

January 30th this year marked the 67th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by the Hindu fundamentalist Nathuram Godse, as he walked from Birla House in Delhi to conduct a prayer meeting. This savage act plunged a nation into mourning and is commemorated today by supporters of Gandhi’s stance on non-violence and social activism across India and the wider world. As is usual, the date provoked comments on Gandhi’s legacy in several Indian papers this year, and my attention was particularly drawn to one in the Hindu, written by Varghese K. George under the heading Gita, Gandhi and Godse (Hindu Jan 30th 2015).

The article is interesting for constructing an argument that both Gandhi and Godse had been opposed to British rule in India. They had also shared the same Hindu faith and were profoundly influenced by the contents of the Bhagavad Gita, which was written at some point between 400 BCE and 400 CE. In his article, George stresses the point that many great leaders and campaigners, including Gandhi, and Martin Luther King junior, and he might equally have added Aung San Suu Kyi, have been driven by a religious conviction that shaped their view of the world, and in particular their beliefs in both social justice and the means by which this might be achieved. He then goes on to discuss the fact that Godse whilst profoundly influenced by the words of the Bhagavad Gita, gave this text an interpretation that was so far removed from that of Gandhi’s that he became a murderer, whilst Gandhi died a martyr.

George makes a very articulate and well-reasoned case within his article for a debate about the place of religious doctrine in the politics of today’s largely secular societies. He points out that the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been very pointed in his presentation of copies of the Gita to a number of world leaders, including President Barak Obama, and the Japanese Emperor Akihito. This he suggests, may well have angered some of the Indian population in what has been firmly established by the 1950 constitution as a secular state. India is in fact home to representatives of all the world’s major religions, and it has been argued that the secular nature of the state has been an important factor in the retention of social accord since independence in 1947.

This is certainly an interesting debate, but reading this from a teacher’s perspective, of even greater interest is the discussion within this article of the interpretation of religious texts and the ways in which these are conveyed to others. Gandhi’s reading of the Gita was undoubtedly influenced by his contact with other religious texts, including the Christian Bible and the Moslem Quran, both of which he found to have passages that greatly moved him. Writing in From Yeravanda Mandir, Gandhi stated that in his opinion “All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect and liable to error.” However, he also believed that these great religious texts called upon adherents to their faith to treat all men with respect and to abhor violence.

Gandhi’s interpretation clearly did not sit well with Nathurum Godse and his colleagues, who chose to justify their appalling actions through reference to religion. It was in part, Gandhi’s respect for the rights of India’s Moslem’s to assert their opinions and choices that so incensed Godse and many others of similar extreme views. As a result of this a terrible crime was committed and both men lost their lives. Within his article, Varghese K. George makes the important point, that whilst leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King junior have used religious books to justify their non-violence, so have many despots of the past used the same texts to support their actions of mass killing through crusades, Jihad and “holy wars” against those who hold a different set of beliefs. As George emphasises at the conclusion of his piece, it is all about our reading of the text rather than simply the words contained on the page.

The Hindu article struck a chord with me as I was leaving Bangalore, having over the past two weeks enjoyed the company of Hindus, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and secularists all working together in various situations. At no time did I feel greatly distanced from these individuals, or the views that shape the ways in which they behave, despite not personally subscribing to their religious beliefs. Yet I read increasingly in the media and hear repeatedly on the radio that men are killing each other and inflicting their distorted view of the world and are justifying this mayhem by reference to scripture. Such behaviour is an affront to education which surely must have as a major aim the promotion of respect and tolerance. Those who are most directly involved in acts of violence are for the most part not educated men, and those who lead them choose to use their own education as a means of controlling others for their personal ends rather than working towards a better society for all.  As teachers there must be an imperative upon us to assist children to interpret religion as providing a set of guiding principles aimed at creating a more just and caring society. If we do not believe that religion has a part to play in challenging violence and aggression, then it should have no place in our schools.

Postscript:

Nathuram Godse and his co-conspirator Narayan Apte were both hanged on November 15th 1949 for their part in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. I am quite sure that the decision to execute these two men would have been opposed by Gandhi, who would have seen violence as playing no part in the implementation of justice.

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From heat and dust to a warm log fire

Education has the potential to bring out the best in both the teacher and the learner.

Education has the potential to bring out the best in both the teacher and the learner.

Visiting India regularly to work with colleagues and students is one of the greatest privileges experienced in my career. I have been coming here for so many years now, that I feel that whilst working here I am always in the company of good companions. Each visit brings new learning and renewed acquaintance with friends and colleagues for whom I have a great respect, and because of this I look forward to these trips with anticipation and enthusiasm. This latest venture to Bangalore has been no different, with an opportunity to share ideas with teachers and students who are committed to their work and immensely creative in their daily lives.

Whilst India is a place where I feel comfortable and for which I hold more than a little affinity, it could never be home, and today I begin the long journey by road, air and rail to return to my family and the familiar surroundings of Northamptonshire. The wonders of modern technology do of course, mean that whilst here I can stay in touch by text, or email and better still by skype. These important daily contacts with home are anticipated with relish and on the odd occasions when communication systems fail this is a source of disappointment and frustration.

Travelling west tomorrow means that my departure and arrival will, unless there are delays, see me leave India and arrive home on the same day. I was thinking about this last night when reading an account of merchants from the East India company who reported that a hundred years ago in 1814, the voyage from England to India via the Cape of Good Hope took at least six months. I somehow don’t believe that the University of Northampton would tolerate a six month journey to do two weeks teaching, followed by six months return passage! How much different are conditions now from those days of travel under sail, and written letters that might take six months or longer to reach home?

Having arrived in India to teach and to learn from my students and colleagues, I can reflect on so much that is similar in our education systems and so much more that is different. But amidst all this, a shared purpose of working to improve the education of children who are so often excluded from learning opportunities, gives us common ground and a firm foundation upon which we can build.

I am at that point in my visit when I am counting down the hours to departure, not with any sorrow for the time I have spent here these last few weeks with such good friends and colleagues, but simply in anticipation of being in the company of my family where I belong. Last night my conversation with Sara focused partly upon the sub-zero temperatures and fall of snow that I can anticipate awaiting my arrival – a warm log fire and woolly jumper sounds like the order of the day.

So having packed my bags and as I await a taxi to the airport I must say goodbye and thank you, to all my friends who have afforded me such excellent hospitality here in Bangalore. I value your creativity and friendship and look forward to keeping in touch and to returning to enjoy your company in a few months time.

 

Demolishing obstacles, an important task for inclusive educators!

 

Perhaps Ganesha can assist us all as we confront the monolith that is education bureaucracy!

Perhaps Ganesha can assist us all as we confront the monolith that is education bureaucracy!

To adherents of the Hindu faith, the elephant headed God Ganesha, sometimes referred to as Ganapati, is regarded as the remover of obstacles. Because of this association, whilst I know very little about the Hindu religion, whenever I see representations of Ganesha I tend to think of him as a conveyor of optimism. In a country that despite its late twentieth century surge in economic growth, continues to face many socio-economic challenges, the need for optimism and people who are prepared to challenge difficulties is paramount. Sadly, I meet a good number of Indians for whom the obstacles to achieving a satisfactory life, or one in which they can affect change, seem too great.

There are fortunately, a number of exceptions to this generalisation, one of whom is my good friend Savitha Ravi. A few years ago, when I first met Savitha and her family, she was embarking on a mission to create a school to which all children, regardless of need or ability would be welcomed. Although her vision was clear, she was in no doubt about the financial, intellectual and bureaucratic obstacles that would be in her way. Yet right from the start I felt that this was a lady on a mission and that she would find the means to circumvent or charge full tilt at anything that got in her way.

Savitha started small, with a few very young children in limited space, but her optimism and determination soon attracted colleagues who wanted to support her, and parents eager to send children to her school. Today Pramiti school in Bangalore is an inclusive establishment housed in two pleasingly aesthetic buildings, and catering for the needs of more than sixty children. The name of the school is taken from the Sanskrit language and means “right conception”. Right from the start of her venture Savitha conceived of a school that would be committed to social justice, inclusion and equity. Whenever I am in Bangalore, I try to make the time to meet with Savitha and if possible visit the school.

This week I had an opportunity to spend a morning with children in classes at Pramiti, and to follow this by joining in a discussion with teachers and other staff about the work of the school, and the latest set of hurdles that they are attempting to cross. Whenever a difficulty was identified in the conversation, Savitha and her longer established colleagues immediately turned these into opportunities to find new ways of addressing challenges. Creative thinking has always been a part of the armoury of Pramiti and has served the children and staff well now for several years.

Listening to the conversation, and contributing what little I could in my role as friend of Savitha and her staff, and a member of the School Board, it seemed to me that the challenges they faced fell into two categories. The first of these relates to the well-rehearsed anxieties expressed by some parents, who when selecting a school for their child, are alarmed by the possibility that those children with special educational needs might detract from the learning of their offspring. Savitha deals with such a situation calmly, but firmly, by making clear the philosophy of the school and pointing to the many achievements and successes of pupils. There is now competition for places in the school and many of the earlier perceptions that an inclusive school would not be able to address the needs of such a range of children have largely been confronted and overcome.

The second challenge is much more pervasive as I witnessed on this latest visit that coincided with a visit from the Block School Inspector. I often feel that the British gave India a bureaucratic system of administration, but the Indians have since developed this into a fine art! Discussing the paperwork and regulations with Savitha, that is imposed by various official bodies, I became acutely aware that this poses a far greater challenge to the school staff than any pedagogical related issues.

All I can do is sympathise with Savitha, whose creative mind struggles to tolerate the procedural nonsense that slows the progress she could otherwise make. Whilst efficient management systems and standardised procedures have their place, when they obstruct the kind of creative thinking and development that benefits children and families, they are of little value and need to be confronted. Working in a university environment where committees dominate and expand at an alarming pace, and appear to have as a major objective the stifling of creativity and generation of flummery, I am only too familiar with the challenges to be overcome.

Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of Savitha’s book, because whilst she is ever conscious of the walls that are built before her, she always believes that these can be knocked down. She sees what is right for the children, staff and families in her school and steers a course with their needs always at the forefront of her mind. Such determination is not only commendable, but also serves as a lesson to us all as we take a deep breath and face the next round of committee decisions and bureaucratic clap-trap, which is intent on stifling progress towards greater inclusion. I am told that intoning the Ganapati mantra may assist in the process and even help me retain my cool. Perhaps I will give it a try!

Om Gang Ganapataye Namaha.

Om Shree Vigneswara Namaha.

 

Active learning – it isn’t easy, but it’s fun!

Johnson encourages a group of students and visitors as they plan a series of lessons about rivers, and ensure access to these lessons for all learners.

Johnson encourages a group of students and visitors as they plan a series of lessons about rivers, and ensure access to these lessons for all learners.

“This is a different way of learning to that which we have usually experienced”. This was a comment from a visitor yesterday to a session on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore. It was one of many that we received of this ilk, and came from an enthusiastic young teacher who was curious to find out whether the things she had heard about the course were true.

As tutors on the course we are firm believers in the notion that you learn most when you put ideas into action. Hence the pattern of a typical session comprises some input by a tutor, followed by a little discussion and debate, then a practical activity in which we attempt to put an idea into practice in a simulated school situation, before coming together for more input and a questioning of what has been learned.

During some of our modules we have an open day during which we open the doors to visitors who are curious about the course. Yesterday nineteen such individuals passed through the doors, many choosing to spend the whole day with us (they had probably heard about the quality of the lunch provided), whilst a few stayed for just a couple of hours. A morning activity was focused upon lesson planning and recognising how the varying individual needs of pupils can be addressed within whole class situations. Students developed innovative ideas for providing effective learning for pupils with a wide range of needs in mathematics lessons focused on measurement, geography lessons about rivers, and science activities investigating insects.

One of our students Sathyasree commented on social media that:

The activity was a real challenge! but yet a lot of learning outcomes and better understanding in creating a lesson plan to meet each individual need.

The assertion of challenge is one that I like. After all, as we keep reminding all of our students, at the end of this course of study you obtain a master’s degree, this needs to be earned!

Our ambition in developing this course was that the students who complete the degree would have become critical thinkers, challenging many of the ideas that have been a part of teaching and learning for many years. We believe that inclusive schools will be achieved through the leadership of individuals who are able to see the strengths brought to the learning situation by all pupils, and who have the skills and confidence to adjust their teaching accordingly. This requires the ability to critique current existing approaches to classroom management and teaching approaches, to become more reflective as professionals, and then to apply ideas in the classroom. We have been very fortunate in having students coming on to this course over the past four years, who respond positively to this challenge. These are certainly education activists. whose leadership will make a significant difference to education here in India.

We know that not all of the visitors who attended the sessions yesterday will become students on this course. Though we would obviously make them most welcome if they did. For some, the challenges of joining a venture such as this are too great at this time, and maybe even into the future. We are not critical of these colleagues, who come from a range of circumstances and teaching backgrounds; we are simply grateful that they have shown an interest in the work of our students and the ways in which we try to support and encourage them in this venture.

Today we will continue to look at the ways in which we may develop inclusive classrooms. In particular we will explore the management of group work that encourages pupil learning at many levels. Theories around jigsawing and envoying as techniques for the facilitation of group work will be explored, but the greatest learning will take place when the students are actively engaged in developing these methods in our simulated classroom groups.

Whilst most of our students tell us that this is a way of working that differs greatly from their previous experiences, they also make it clear that that they feel confident in both the theoretical aspects of the course and the application of ideas into real classrooms. The evidence for this comes from those students who were the very first to attend and complete this Bangalore based course. Each time we arrive in the city they are eager to meet with us and tell us about the changes that they are bringing about in their classrooms, and the benefits that they see for their pupils.

As she was leaving today, one of our visitors commented that.

This was a very challenging way of learning today – but it was great fun!

If everyone involved in this programme leaves with the message that learning should be an enjoyable experience for all concerned, then hopefully we are getting something right.

Back together on Republic Day

Singing the National Anthem before another day or shared learning in Bangalore

Singing the National Anthem before another day of shared learning in Bangalore

Yesterday was Republic Day in India, an occasion that honours the date in 1950 on which the Constitution of India came into effect. Across the city flags can be seen flying proudly as an assertion of the country’s independence. Today also marked the first day of teaching for our third cohort of MA students, as they commenced the second module of their course. Appropriately the day started with a dignified singing of the National Anthem by our students and Indian tutors, as Mary and I watched on in respectful silence. Unfortunately The Brindavan Education Trust where we teach lacks a flag pole; I must have a word with the management to see if we can make amends for next year.

As they entered the teaching room this morning the students greeted each other and their tutors with warmth and enthusiasm, clearly glad to be returning to what promises to be a busy, but enjoyable week. The focus of the module to be taught will be largely built around applying inclusive planning, assessment and teaching approaches in classrooms, and within five minutes of the first session of the day it was evident that everyone had returned with new ideas, and questions that they wanted to explore.

The second module on this course always appears more relaxed than the first, when students arrive not knowing each other and unsure about what to expect. Many have been familiar with professional development, and even degree courses, which are taught using somewhat staid didactic approaches, where they have been expected to sit in silence and take copious notes. For some, the first few sessions can be something of a surprise, even slightly daunting,  as they find themselves engaged in active learning through a variety of problem solving tasks and debates that demand that they take a leadership role in their own learning. However, they soon relax, and begin to enjoy a situation in which they question their own beliefs and practices, and devise new approaches to understanding the challenges of inclusion.

The concept of learning by doing is far from new, Socrates in the fourth century BC encouraged the development of critical thinking through questioning and challenging the issues of the day. Our students on this course adopt this approach, and in so doing recognise that they are already in possession of tremendous knowledge and understanding, and are therefore able to utilise this as we examine notions of what it means to be inclusive, and how to foster more equitable approaches to teaching and learning.

By the end of yesterday’s sessions our thoughtful and highly motivated students were already back into the routine of disputation, questioning, challenging and expressing their opinions that has come to characterise this course. These teachers are all superb reflective practitioners, who are able to take ideas and quickly translate them into classroom solutions for the benefits of their pupils in schools and colleges. Their commitment to learning is a tremendous motivating factor for those of us fortunate enough to be their tutors.

Article 21A of the Constitution of India states that:-

“The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine”.

In 2009 the Right To Free and Compulsory Education Act was passed with an intention that this constitutional clause should become reality. Much work needs to be done before this is achieved, and these students will certainly have a major part to play. As tutors we have every confidence that they will make a significant difference to the lives of children who have for too long been marginalised.

If these students are representative of India as a whole, then the Republic is in good hands.

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?

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.

The curse of the blank screen

Staring at a blank screen. Will inspiration ever arrive?

Staring at a blank screen. Will inspiration ever arrive?

“The last thing we discover in composing a work is what to put down first.”

Blaise Pascal, (1623-1662) The Mind on Fire:

 

“I’m really struggling here, I don’t know how to get started.” This was the opening gambit from a student here in Bangalore yesterday on our MA programme in special and inclusive education. A task had been set to write a brief justification for a research project as part of the preparation for producing a dissertation, as the final and major part of the work on this course.

Immediately the session focus shifted towards addressing “writer’s block,” that dreaded, and all too familiar situation in which the writer assumes a blank expression staring at an even more terrifying blank screen. In years gone by, of course, it would have been a pristine white sheet of paper that instilled such fear, but in general today this has given way to a computer screen. There seemed to be an assumption on the part of some students that their tutors don’t suffer the same malaise, but in reality this is a situation with which we are all too familiar.

George Orwell, whose wonderful essay “Why I write”, has always inspired me to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), once compared writing to a form of madness saying, “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” For the professional author there may be many motivations to write, in addition to making a living, Orwell suggests that an inflated ego or a creative enthusiasm may be amongst these. I suppose for many students the demon which he invokes may well be a tutor, who appears obsessed with timetables and deadlines.

Writers have differing responses to this pervasive condition that is termed “writer’s block.” The award winning English novelist Hilary Mantel takes an approach that I could never advocate for my students when she suggests:-

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem”

I’m sure the advice is well meant Miss Mantel, but please remember, if you are a student, you have hand in dates and deadlines to address. Imagine, if your “writer’s block” is severe and you follow the well-meaning author’s advice you could be walking for days, the water in your bath will go cold and you will become wrinkly, eating too many pies will make you obese, but worst still, your actions will not remove your anxiously waiting tutors from the scene!

So what can practically be done? I am sure there is no simple cure that can be adopted by everyone. I once heard from a colleague who told me that if he could not start writing he composed Limericks, mainly with one or other of his colleagues names somewhere in the rhyme. Apparently he once wrote one about me, but its content was so rude he never showed me! Another friend would write an angry letter to a newspaper about a particular article that had incensed him, though he never did get around to posting them. Both of these well respected writers, had discovered a system that worked for them, the miracle cure for which we are all searching.

Neither of these methods would work for me. Personally, when this dreaded curse arrives, which it does with alarming regularity, I try to think back to a recent event, or something I have read and simply write a brief report about what amused me or fascinated me, or indeed enraged me on the day (sometimes these therapeutic ramblings end up appearing on these blog pages).

Matters are not helped by today’s technology. I picture the scene in any student’s or academic’s home. They sit enthusiastically in front of the screen with every good intention but don’t know where to start, the words fail to flow and the mind goes blank. Despite all best intentions emails are checked and answered, a website that may (but probably won’t), prove helpful is checked. Before long half an hour has passed and the first word has still eluded the essay. The solution is simple, switch the computer off and go for coffee, when you return it is bound to be easier.

Do you really think so? In the half hour spent over coffee ten more emails have arrived and the vicious technological hamster wheel of prevarication continues! The writing gets no easier, so after a further half hour wasted, and knowing that you can’t take on more caffeine, you go and bathe the cat! (actually this is not a tactic to be recommended, cat’s notoriously hate water, and have sharp claws).

I do sincerely have sympathy for those who find themselves in this all too familiar situation. I also have my own pet theories as well as my means of addressing the problem described above. I would suggest that writing is as much a physical activity as it is neurological. Nobody of any intelligence takes up running for the first time today in the belief that they can run a marathon tomorrow. The same applies to writing. So it is that I say to my students, get into training by writing something every day. Start with something short a Haiku or a shopping list, progress to a full page and gradually work up to a sustained effort of maybe a couple of hours.

As with any other exercise, it gets easier with practice and time. The greatest danger is to believe that you can’t write, when the fact of the matter is that you don’t write.

Ok, I’m off for coffee – as soon as I’ve checked my emails!

Celebrating a sharing of cultural influences

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

When visiting the Valley School as a guest of my good friend Satish, trading a little teaching for the quiet and comfort of a forest life, I am always pleased to find myself amongst creative people. The Valley acts as a magnet to artists, musicians, dancers and poets and my stay this time coincided with that of a Dutch musician and sculptor who was giving some remediation to a work he installed in the grounds a few years ago. Also in attendance were an English story teller, who entertained a willing audience beneath the stars late into an evening, and two classical Indian percussionist who were working with groups of enthusiastic children.

The Valley school staff are committed to celebrating and disseminating the art and culture of India as well as exposing their pupils and the adult community to that from elsewhere in the world. Whenever I walk through the extensive arboreal grounds of the Valley there is evidence of the work of local and tribal artists, potters and sculptors. This sits comfortably alongside the work of children and staff from the school community and that produced by visiting artisans.

The regional variations of tribal art, examples of which can be found on the walls of this environment are a fascination that I have acquired in recent years. At home, a beautiful black and white depiction of birds in a forest, skillfully produced by a Madhubani artist from Bihar hangs in our lounge. My interest in these works meant that I was particularly delighted following my session at the CISCE conference for  school principals, to be presented with a Pithora painting by a tribal artist Rathya Najroo Shekla Bhai from Gujarat.

There is a childlike quality to this work which may understandably be categorised as naive. Yet the picture tells a clear and moving story, depicting life in a tribal community entered through the gateway at the foot of the picture. Here are portrayals of people, animals, birds and activities that typify and shape the culture of these distinctive and dignified people. All of this is surrounded by an intricate border formed by a filigree of patterns and shapes.

A Gujerati tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

A Gujarati Pithora tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

In enjoying this work and others like it I am aware of how this, and similar tribal art from around the world has influenced that of European artists. The Russian painter Marc Chagall projects a similar naivety in his depiction of animals such as the donkey in his painting “L’Ane Vert” (the Green Donkey) as is achieved in the creation of camels and horses in the Gujarati picture. The tiger in Rousseau’s famous “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is not so far removed in his simplicity from those magnificent felines at the gates of this work.  Other artists, including Picasso and Matisse were openly influenced by tribal patterns and motifs and could see the underlying spirit of their apparent simplicity and the importance of the stories that they tell.

Just in case you should believe that artistic influences have travelled in only one direction, it is evident in the works of many of today’s Indian painters that they have drawn inspiration from the west. Jaii Deolalkar a talented artist who also works at the Valley spoke to me of her association with the works of Paul Klee, which is evident in a series of her paintings produced in recent years. Her works are untitled, enabling the viewer to see what they may in her art. Her work below with its furious reds and ochres and a depth of field created by brush strokes and shadows, demonstrates how the work of modern Europeans has shaped the thinking of an artist here in Bangalore.

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

This sharing of artistic styles and traditions must surely play a part in helping those of us who are devoid of creative talent, to understand the cultural influences and interpretations of those who have such gifts. The children who learn in this environment are certainly placed in a position of advantage.

IF YOU CLICK ON THE PICTURES THEY WILL ENLARGE