Donald is not an easy boy to like, but still we must try to include him!

It's difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

It’s difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

Dear Mr and Mrs Trump,

It is with great sadness that I find it necessary once again to write to you regarding both the academic performance and the conduct of your son Donald. I am sorry to say that in recent weeks he has failed to provide any evidence of progress in most areas of the school curriculum, and his behaviour has become an increasing cause of embarrassment to the school.

I am fairly certain that much of what follows in this letter will come as little surprise to yourselves, particularly as together we have monitored Donald’s idiosyncrasies over an extended period of time, and I am sure that like us, you recognise that he gives the impression of living much of his life in a fantasy world, which of late has resulted in the most alarming delusions of grandeur. Indeed, in a recent conversation with the school’s careers teacher he even made the preposterous suggestion that he thought he might stand next year for the post of head boy. Whilst we would not wish to deter any of our students from standing for such a prestigious post in school, and indeed we are proud of our democratic traditions, I have to say I find it hard to believe that any of our students, who have a reputation for intelligence and fair play would be likely to support Donald in seeking such a position.

The difficulties which Donald presents in school are many, but I feel obliged to draw your attention to a few specific issues brought to my notice by some of his teachers.

Mr Clarke, our excellent head of history has this term been addressing a syllabus that recalls the early settlement of our post-Colombian nation. This most exciting and informative topic is always popular with students who are eager to trace their own origins and explore the possibility that they may have ancestral roots from many parts of Europe, South America, the Caribbean or elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately Donald, who appears to believe that he is of pure “white American” extraction, caused some consternation in the class by suggesting that his classmates Michael Beaumont and Elizabeth Burns may not be authentic American citizens and should be considered for repatriation to France and Scotland respectively. When Mr Clarke ventured to suggest that the name Trump was thought to be of Germanic origin from the term “trumpe” indicating the player of a drum, Donald resorted to his usual strategy of threatening to begin litigation against his teacher. Incidentally I still have thirty badly written letters purporting to be from Donald’s legal representatives on my desk.

Sadly, I can report similar issues from his Geography teacher Miss Grainger, who is in despair over the fact that whilst Donald claims to have a personal connection to young ladies who are the holders of dubious titles such as Miss Venezuela, Miss Panama, Miss Sweden, and Miss Dominican Republic, he was unable to locate any of these nations in his atlas. Miss Grainer is of the opinion that Donald needs to get out a little more. Unfortunately he appears to have little inclination to find out much about the world around him, declaring an aversion to “foreign” and a reluctance to engage with those beyond a small and equally insular coterie.

In citizenship lessons, I’m afraid Donald fares no better. Earlier this week his class were asked to write an essay on the significance today of those magnificent words from Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. I am sure you know them well, but let me just remind you:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Donald took a novel approach to this task by producing an extensive list of exclusion clauses. I won’t trouble you with the detail, particularly as his reasoning was at best flawed and some might well say deranged. However, it would appear that Donald sees no place in the “Land of the Free” for those of the Muslim faith, journalists with disabilities, Mexicans, gay couples or others who may be in dire straits and currently sleeping on the streets of our cities. Furthermore, the recent expressions of ignorance that have poured from his mouth have even disappointed his English pen friend Boris who has announced the cancellation of an intended visit to our school in fear that he might feel obliged to soundly box Donald’s ears.

Despite our continued efforts to accommodate his eccentricities, Donald remains isolated from most of his peers in school and appears to have aligned himself with a particularly disreputable and unsavoury group of youths who congregate outside of the school gate using offensive language, much of which is directed towards other students as they leave the premises. Whilst many of the staff here see Donald as a hapless buffoon, rather in the nature of Homer Simpson, I’m afraid I take a rather less charitable view and see him as being more in the vein of Rasputin or Cruella DeVil.

I trust you will recognise that we have gone the extra mile in tolerating Donald’s bizarre nature. We have been flexible in the administration of our no animals in school policy, allowing him to bring his pet gerbil to class each day; though we still fail to see the reason why he insists on wearing this poor creature on his head. We have made every effort to address the fact that he has difficulty making friends, but sadly his abusive use of social media has made those more respectful students wary of being associated with him.

Reading through what I have written about Donald in this letter, I suspect that what I have to say next may come as something of a surprise. I am sure that there are many schools in this district who would be throwing in the towel at this point, who would be saying enough is enough, and this boy must go. However, this is not our way at the Harriet Tubman Academy, where we pride ourselves on being an inclusive school. Here we have a philosophy of opening our doors to all students, regardless of need or ability. I must admit at a staff meeting yesterday we spent a considerable time revisiting our school principles, but after some debate we have now amended all of our school documentation, and to the declaration that stated that “we welcome all pupils regardless of their race, religion, colour, socio-economic status or sexuality” we have added a clause indicating that “we even do our very best for bigots!”

I do hope that you and your family, including Donald, enjoy a very happy and peaceful Christmas holiday, and that he may return in the new year with a renewed enthusiasm for learning. If you could encourage him to make a single new year’s resolution, might I suggest that keeping his mouth shut whenever something offensive comes into his mind might be a good start.

Yours sincerely

A. Lincoln

School Principal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uniformity may look smart, but it covers up a series of flaws.

Sir Ken Robinson. will his words of wisdom be heard?

Sir Ken Robinson. will his words of wisdom be heard?

Debates about the virtues or disadvantages of school uniform have been a feature of education for years. Debates about the uniformity of education systems across the world are less common. That sounds like some form of conundrum, so let me explain.

Wherever one travels in the world, in visiting schools certain factors appear common. Whilst the organisation of individual classrooms may vary, basically they consist of a teacher, possibly with the assistance of one or more other adults, and children sitting either in rows, or grouped around tables. Information is generally delivered by an adult from the front of the classroom, and the dominant means of exchanging information is through the spoken or written word. This is a tried and tested process that has been shown to have achieved a degree of success over many centuries, so why would we expect to do anything differently?

There are other aspects of education that indicate an international uniformity, but which are beginning to be challenged in some quarters. Amongst one of the most intelligent and provocative sources of this challenge, comes from the educationalist and writer Sir Ken Robinson who currently lives and works in Los Angeles, USA. Robinson, who was born in Liverpool in the UK, has held a number of academic posts including that of Professor of Education at Warwick University. He is also author of several thought provoking books, including “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” written with his colleague Lou Aronica; a text that I would like to see featured on the reading list of any course designed for the training of teachers.

Sir Ken Robinson has described what he sees as the misguided and outmoded hierarchy of subjects that is a uniform feature of education throughout the world. At the top of this hierarchy is mathematics, language and sciences, beneath which comes the humanities and lingering at the bottom of the pile, the creative arts. This curriculum diet, designed to meet the needs of a largely industrial society, he suggests is out of date, and out of touch with the likely future needs of our societies. Furthermore, the rigid imposition of this list of subjects by apparent importance is turning increasing numbers of students away from education. The suppression of individual creativity is, in Robinson’s view, a dangerous approach that may well lead to increased disaffection and the disenfranchisement of significant numbers of individuals.

An article published today (May 10th) in TES Connect under the heading “Sir Ken Robinson: The education system is a dangerous myth”, provides a platform for Robinson to once again express those concerns that many of us share, but which are generally swept aside by politicians and education administrators. Yet in expressing his ideas, Robinson is highlighting issues that I hear emphasised by teachers in schools on a regular basis, though they are often reluctant to speak their minds for fear of being seen as out of line with the current narrowly focused standards agenda. A powerful argument put forward by Robinson states that:-

“Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Human beings are highly curious; from the moment they’re born, children have a voracious appetite for learning. For many, that appetite is dulled as they go through school. Keeping it alive is the key to transforming education”.

Furthermore he believes that in schools today:-

“most efforts are focused on raising standards through more competition and accountability.”

There are he suggests great dangers in pursuing this approach, both in terms of the limited impact that the generation of increased competition and accountability has on improving the education system as a whole, but also because:-

“they often compound the very problems they claim to be solving, such as the alarming drop-out rates, the levels of stress and depression – even suicide – among students and their teachers, the falling value of a university degree, the rocketing cost of getting one and the rising levels of unemployment among graduates and non-graduates alike”.

Uniformity is not the answer when it comes to providing an effective approach to education. Even the most inexperienced teacher will tell you that all children are individuals, with different interests, aspirations, aptitudes and abilities. This should surely be a source of inspiration to any teacher, and should also tell us that a “0ne-size fits all” approach to teaching is nothing more than nonsense. If we continue in our attempts to mould all children in the same way, then it is inevitable that a significant number will lose interest,  fail, rebel, drop-out or simply ignore the systems put in place. Whilst all children most certainly need to become proficient in mathematics and language, we also must celebrate those who achieve in creative arts, physical education or any of those other subjects that are currently further down the food chain in our schools.

Nineteenth century thinking still persists in our education systems all around the world, despite the fact that we live in societies that are changing at a pace unprecedented in our history. It is clear that if we entrust the development of education to our current political leaders, we are likely to supress the creativity and enthusiasm for learning that is inherent in all children. Whilst I can express my own frustration with this situation, I cannot hope to do so with the eloquence of Sir Ken Robinson, and therefore conclude this piece with a further quotation from his article published today.

“If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardisation and conformity, which suppresses individuality, imagination and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does”.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HEAR AN INSPIRATIONAL PRESENTATION FROM SIR KEN ROBINSON, CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW

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.

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.

Everyone remembers

Opportunities to learn exist in every interaction.

Opportunities to learn exist in every interaction.

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a colleague about why we originally entered the teaching profession. Not surprisingly, we found that there were a number of common factors that had shaped our choices and led us along this pathway during our formative years. Both of us had experiences as teenagers of working with various youth groups in which we had taken leadership or instruction roles. Similarly, we had both seen the teaching profession as providing an opportunity to participate in a worthwhile activity that could prove beneficial to others, whilst enabling us to continue our own learning. As I feel sure is common, amongst teachers who come together to discuss teaching issues at any time, we expressed our dissatisfaction with various developments in educational policy and its management, but both of us agreed that we would not have chosen any other profession, and that we continued to enjoy our respective roles.

Whilst we were able to find parallels in our earlier lives that had led us to select teaching over other professional pathways, the factor that had probably had a greater impact upon us than any other, was the influence of specific teachers who had shaped our thinking and inspired us to learn. Much of our reminiscence centred upon individuals who had galvanized our interest in their subject and motivated us to ever greater enthusiasm for exploring opportunities for learning. Both of us felt that the decisions we had made to become teachers were heavily influenced by our experiences in the lessons conducted by these individuals, and that to some extent our own approaches in the classroom had been guided by their example.

Two particular teachers often come to mind when I recall the best experiences I had at school. I am sure that it is no coincidence that my love of literature and a continuing passion for history were both shaped by teachers for whom I had the greatest respect. What interests me greatly as I recall these two characters however, is that they were in many ways distinctly different in their approach and in the way in which we regarded them as students.

The English teacher who instilled in me an insatiable appetite for reading and taught me to appreciate some of the world’s great literature, could be unpredictable in his moods and was certainly perceived as a hard taskmaster. His interpretation of our work could often appear hyper-critical, and his standards were always high. However, he gave us considerable freedom to express our ideas, to argue our point of view and to challenge the perceived wisdom of the day. I cannot recall him ever telling us the meaning of a passage of prose, a poem or a section from a play, this was not his style. He expected us to question everything, make up our own minds and then defend our position and interpretation of a text. This was not an approach appreciated by everyone, and I am sure that other students have a less than fond memory of his lessons. From my own perspective, this was an ideal way to learn. It taught me to think critically, to question everything and to have the conviction to express my own ideas. As a result of this teacher’s influence I cannot imagine ever travelling without a book, and it is thanks to him that I have explored and continue to seek out the literature produced by great writers from all around the world, and find in their words the inspiration for much of what I do in life.

By contrast, but equally important was a history teacher who clearly believed that simply teaching to the requirements  of the examination was an affront to his professionalism. Officially for our A levels we studied British social and economic history from 1800 – 1939, but in reality we were given an eclectic range of opportunities and explored a much more varied historical diet. Studying history, he told us, was about understanding the present, through our appreciation of the events and actions of the past that have shaped our society. He therefore encouraged us to read well beyond the limited textbooks provided for our course. His lessons often appeared tangential to the syllabus, and should any one of his students show the least interest in a topic, no matter how far from the central theme of the set curriculum, he would feed this enthusiasm and facilitate opportunities for learning. I recall that some of my schoolmates were horrified that we wandered so often from the examination pathway. Yet despite this aberration (or possibly because of it) we succeeded in passing with good grades and many of us with an enduring enthusiasm for the subject.

A few years ago, because of a shortage of teacher availability in English schools, a government advertising campaign was organised under the slogan – “everyone remembers a good teacher!” (I know that you can probably recall a few who were less than good as well- but hopefully these were a minority). My colleague and I certainly owe much to teachers who inspired us. I believe they did so not only through their commitment to their subject, but also because they wanted to create independent learners who would have the ability to relate to others and to engage in a critical analysis of their world. I suspect that if you take a moment to reflect, that you too will remember teachers whose actions may have influenced not only your interest in a subject, but also your approach to life.

 

Whose curriculum is this?

 

Is this really the kind of "resource" we want to see children handling in schools?

Is this really the kind of “resource” we want to see children handling in schools?

Shortly after the introduction of the English National Curriculum in 1989, I was fortunate to be selected as part of a group  charged with the responsibility of providing guidance and materials, to ensure that the content of this new framework was accessible for pupils with special educational needs. I often reflect upon this formative time in my career, when I worked alongside a dynamic team of colleagues from whom I learned much, sharing our experiences and given the privileged position of time to debate curriculum issues, and explore a range of pedagogical initiatives. From our base in Cambridge we had opportunities to work in schools in many parts of the country as we developed and trialled resources and approaches to differentiated learning and providing access for pupils with diverse needs.

In a highly charged atmosphere, where at times professional differences and tensions came to the surface (though enduring friendships were made), we often disputed ideas and argued about curriculum priorities and children’s needs. As a team committed to improving education for children who were often marginalised, I believe that all of us anticipated that the curriculum would continue to change and recognised that priorities would shift according to national requirements and political whims. We also felt that such debate was a healthy process within any education system that exists within a democratic country.

I still uphold a strong belief, that in order to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all learners, it is critical to keep the content of the curriculum and the ways in which it is delivered to the forefront of our thinking in schools. There will always be differences of opinion with regards to whether greater emphasis should be given to one subject over another, or about the place of the arts or sciences in the education of children, but yesterday I read a news item which felt more like an excerpt from science fiction rather than the product of a serious educational discussion. Sadly, having probed the report further I find that what I had hoped was some strange form of fantasy, is in fact a chilling account of a discussion currently taking place in South Carolina in the USA.

A proposal currently being considered within South Carolina would see December 15th each year celebrated as Second Amendment Awareness day. For any reader who is unaware, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms. This, unsurprisingly has been a source of considerable debate within the United States for many years, with both pro-gun lobbies and those who would like to see the abolition of this right, locked in fierce arguments. Yet it is not simply this altercation between factions holding polarised views that caught my attention yesterday, but rather a suggestion that amendments should be made to the State school curriculum to ensure that all children are taught about their rights to bear arms and the handling of guns.

Chuck Scott from the Gun Rack Range, in Aiken, South Carolina states that:

“The earlier kids learn to be safe and have proper instruction the safer they’re going to be and the less accidents they’re going to have.”

He further stated that:-

“Kids need to know what it’s about and why it’s so important and that’s what sets us apart from other countries.”

The article reporting this latest potential curriculum initiative on WRDW News (Sunday, December 28th, 2014), tells us that “In 2010, 15,576 children and teenagers were injured by firearms across the country, (USA), guns kill twice as many children and young people than cancer.”

Mr Scott is of course right, if people are to be encouraged to carry lethal weapons, then it is to be hoped that they are taught how to handle these safely. I am sure that members of the armed forces and police officers undertaken stringent training in this regard as part of their professional development. However, this proposed addition to the curriculum is not advocated for those for whom it could legitimately be argued must be appropriately trained for when they may be called upon to use firearms, but for children, the majority of whom will hopefully never have such a need.

Clearly, as I am not an American citizen I can express an opinion of this situation only as an outsider with limited experience of the context. There are nonetheless, several issues here that give me cause to question the appropriateness of this proposal. Firstly, according to Mr Scott the National Rifle Association (who describe themselves on their website as  “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization”), will develop the curriculum to be applied in schools. I find it strange that such an important and presumably controversial educational initiative should be placed in the hands of an organisation that sits outside of the usual educational legislative process. Are democratically appointed education policy makers in South Carolina prepared to abdicate their legislative responsibilities to an unelected interest group? If so, it seems to me that this could be a dangerous precedent and may open the floodgates for other interest groups to exert pressure for change.

A second factor within this report that I found particularly interesting was Mr Scott’s notion that the right to bear arms is “what sets us apart from other countries.” I am sure that for many of us who live in these “other countries”, when we think about what is good about that nation, the carrying of guns comes a long way down the list (if indeed it appears at all!). Is this really what Mr Scott and his friends would wish to single out as a distinguishing feature of his proud nation? I suspect that there are many other citizens of his country who may feel less than comfortable with this suggestion.

I am aware that within the United States of America, there are many who in challenging the proliferation and greater sophistication of publically held weapons are held up to ridicule and abuse. Should you doubt this to be the case, you might be interested to follow the stream of vitriol aimed at Cliff Schecter, an American journalist who wrote an article titled “Learning Nothing? The Gun Battle Since Newtown 14.12.14) http://linkis.com/XmsjA . In this article he provides a chilling list of eighty eight education establishments where students and teachers have been killed or maimed in gun incidents in recent years. As of yesterday, 365 responses to his article (many of which are abusive in nature to say the least) had been posted, the majority suggesting that his attitude is unpatriotic and misguided.

There is no doubt that all children in schools need to be taught about the dangers surrounding firearms. But perhaps if these potentially lethal devices were not so prevalent in society there might be opportunities to address other means of creating a safe, just and more equitable world within the school curriculum. It does seem to me that the Second Amendment that is so treasured by some individuals has done little to inspire confidence that children in schools may remain safe from harm. Personally, I believe that those who carry guns pose a greater threat to the safety of children than those who choose not to do so.

 

 

The English Language, virtue or tyranny?

 

he Tower of Babel, as depicted by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1529 - 1565). Biblical tradition has this as the source of the World's languages.

The Tower of Babel, as depicted by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1529 – 1565). Biblical tradition has this as the source of the World’s languages.

Proficiency in understanding and using language is one of the keys to learning. Anyone who has ever spent much time in a country where they are lacking the basic skills of communication in the local language, will have realised that they are in a position of significant disadvantage. It is therefore understandable that issues surrounding the medium of instruction and the languages to be taught in schools should be a regular focus of debate. For much of the time contentions around the teaching of languages simmers beneath the surface of educational disputation, but occasionally it boils over into an effervescent tumult of dissension.

In India a current altercation that is keeping both policy makers and teachers exercised is being built around which languages should receive a place of prominence in the curriculum. A number of establishments formerly known as ‘central schools’, but which today are referred to as ‘Kendriya Vidyalaya schools,’ were originally founded to educate children of Indian Defence Services personnel families. A recent directive from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to remove the teaching of German from these schools and to replace this with instruction in Sanskrit has met with considerable opposition. The documentation presented by CBSE lacks transparency, but it would appear that at least one motivation for this action is to instil a greater appreciation of Indian culture in the pupils attending these schools.

Sanskrit is an important foundation language which has provided much of the vocabulary and grammar to be found in Indo-Aryan, Munda and Dravidian languages and therefore a great influence upon many of those spoken in modern India; (it also has, to my untutored eye, a most elegant written script संस्कृतम्). As with other ‘root languages,’ such as Latin or Ancient Greek in Europe, it is important that an understanding of these sources, and their influence upon our learning and culture is maintained. However, the current debate in India is not so much about the importance of etymology, but rather one of the utility of languages as taught in today’s schools. The replacement of a modern language, in this instance German, with one that is seen largely as being archaic, has raised more than a few eyebrows.

For most of us viewing this debate from the outside, there is a tendency to see this as little more than the proverbial ‘storm in a teacup’, yet beneath the surface there are significant issues that should perhaps demand our attention. The relationship between language and identify is an important one as has been demonstrated in many parts of the world. As an example of this, I need not look far from home. In Wales in the first half of the twentieth century, the Welsh language was taught only in a few regions of the principality, but national pride and a resurgence in seeking to understand cultural heritage resulted in a policy that has led to all schools in the country now teaching the language and a re-emergence of its domination in several parts of the country. For many Welshman this has become a source of national pride, and anyone attending a Wales versus England rugby match will attest to the conviction of Welsh speakers in this regard. As a regular visitor to the Republic of Ireland, I seldom hear the Irish language spoken, though it remains a requirement that all primary school teachers can demonstrate proficiency in the language, and it is a core feature of the school curriculum. This is a prime example of defending ‘national culture’,  with very few people anticipating that Irish will replace English as the lingua franca of the nation.  Sadly, other languages of the British Isles, such as Kernowek, once commonly spoken in Cornwall remain obscure and largely unknown even to the residents of the areas in which they may once have flourished.

There are however, important matters here that rightly exercise the minds of educators. Two in particular have come to mind whilst following the Sanskrit or German debate. The first may be seen as the Anglicisation of the modern world. Today we witness a situation whereby the English language has come to dominate the worlds of business, academia and modern media. I am always conscious that as a native English speaker with a relatively good command of the language, I am at an advantage in many situations. I notice this particularly when working with professional colleagues, who are undoubtedly intellectually adept and highly educated, but may struggle to work as effectively as they would wish in English, when it is their second, third, or even fourth language. As English speakers we make few concessions to those who we expect to learn our mother tongue, and seldom make the effort to meet them half way. This situation has resulted in a significant part of the world’s population being at least placed at a disadvantage, and in some instances excluded from major activities that many of us take for granted.

A second concern must be for those children and teachers working in communities where English is rarely spoken and who learn for the most part in their local language. It has become evident that the availability of high quality teaching resources in these languages is often limited. There are far greater profits to be made through the production of teaching materials in English than in a language such as, for example, Telugu in India or Xhosa in South Africa. Language has become a vehicle for social mobility, or conversely for the limiting of opportunity. Just as in terms of material comfort the gap between those who are wealthy and those who are poor can be seen to be increasing, so is the disparity between the Anglophones and those who depend upon local language becoming a tool of oppression.

I can, of course understand why in India, as in other parts of the world, parents strive to secure places for their children in English media schools. As a parent myself, I am aware of the immense linguistic advantage that my children and grandchildren have being brought up in England. But I am also saddened by the fact that local languages, so often rich in history and literature, are in some instances being devalued. The choices being made by education policy makers are important, and I can see the tensions that exist in making decisions that affect the lives of so many learners. I suspect that the demand for German language (if ever this existed in the first place) in India is likely to decline. But it would be reassuring to think that greater educational value could be given to those beautiful languages such as Kannada, Tamil or Marathi that are still used by majorities in Indian states.

I will possibly return to this issue, but leave you today with this thought. If a child could learn to speak English, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish, he would be able to communicate efficiently with more than fifty percent of the world’s population.

 

Seeking greater balance in learning for all students

Maintaining relationships and working co-operatively are more important aspects of learning than have been recognised in some schools

Maintaining relationships and working co-operatively are more important aspects of learning than have been recognised in some schools

 

In India, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has recently instructed schools to appoint “life skills trainers,” having decided that the provision of a wholly academic curriculum may not be serving students well, and that important aspects of their holistic development may currently be insufficiently addressed. This decision apparently follows revelations that whilst many students leave school with good examination results, and are able to demonstrate effective skills in mathematics, reading and language that all employers value, there are many who lack the most fundamental abilities of being able to relate effectively to others, or to respond to tasks requiring team work or the acceptance of responsibility.

For many teachers, and I suspect particularly for those who have spent a significant part of their careers attempting to support children described as having special educational needs, the suggestion that we should prioritise social development alongside academic learning will not be anything new. But sadly it appears that there are some teachers who continue to regard their role simply as filling children with subject knowledge and cramming them to pass examinations.

Before I am (yet again) accused of being an unreformed child of the sixties, a touchy feely liberal, let me say that I am wholly in accord with the idea that we should encourage children to strive for academic excellence. Indeed, it would seem hypocritical for those of us who have spent a significant part of our lives as students, working towards various pieces of paper to affirm our “academic credentials,” and have subsequently made a career out of supporting others to do the same, to deny the importance of this route. However, I suspect that like me, you have met numerous “well educated,” highly qualified individuals who seem to lack the social and emotional abilities to function effectively within the workplace, or wider society. How well are students served if we enable them to gain high level qualifications but fail to enable them to work with these efficiently because of their social ineptitudes?

In many ways, the formal recognition by the CBSE of the necessity to deliver social education is to be welcomed. The acknowledgement of the need to ensure that all students leave school having developed skills related to effective communication, empathy and interpersonal relationships; three of the areas seen as currently in deficit, will hopefully enable teachers to become more aware of the importance of a curriculum that is much broader than that on offer in many Indian schools. I do, however have some concerns about the current proposals and how the changes in schools may be managed.

The appointment of a “life skills trainer,” whilst emphasising the importance of this commitment, may be a counterproductive approach to addressing the issue. Just as the history teacher teaches history, and the Hindi teacher focuses upon the provision of a language, will it become the case that the life skills trainer is the only teacher in a school responsible for improving the social and emotional skills of the students? Surely this is an area of such importance that all teachers should assume responsibility for ensuring that their students develop the necessary social competences to be able to function effectively both within and beyond the classroom environment?

There are, of course, parallels here with the role in many schools of the special educator. It is laudable to ensure that there is someone in school with the knowledge, skills and motivation to co-ordinate work in support of students with learning difficulties, but if this encourages all other teachers to abdicate their responsibilities in this area, it may have the opposite effect to that intended. It will be important to monitor the work of the life skills trainers over the coming years, but even more critical to consider how all teachers develop those attitudinal and pedagogical approaches that encourage the social development of their students.

The stance adopted by the CBSE has excellent intentions and should certainly be welcomed. This may well be an important step towards the provision of a more inclusive curriculum. As with all policy initiatives of this type, the movement from sound motivation to positive impact will present an interesting challenge for all schools.

 

What can we do to enable children to understand humanity?

Teachers - surely much more than purveyors  of knowledge?

Teachers – surely much more than purveyors of knowledge?

Incidents of violence against teachers in schools in England are rare. This is why the recent fatal stabbing of a teacher, Ann Maguire in a school in Leeds was particularly shocking. Mrs Maguire, in her 40th year as a teacher was about to retire from the profession after a long and distinguished career of service. Quite rightly the expressions of grief, incredulity and anger from her colleagues, students and the general public dominated the media for several days. The perpetrator of the crime, one of her pupils, is currently under arrest and awaiting trial.

I had more or less promised myself that I wouldn’t write on this topic, not wishing to join the immediate, and understandable outpouring of rage that followed the event. It is hard to be rational in the face of such an outrage and far too many intemperate words have already been written. Lynch mob mentality appears rife at times like this and it is difficult to make a reasoned contribution to the inevitable debates that surround such an incident. So it was that I decided not to join in the discussion on this media. That was until I read two short pieces in the New Statesman (2nd – 8th May edition 2014) that in their expressions of sympathy identified a number of important points that should encourage us to ask questions about the purpose of schooling and the status of teachers.

The articles within the magazine are brief, but clearly intended to promote consideration beyond the immediate reactions that have dominated the media when reporting this tragedy to date. The specific expression that prompted me to rethink my decision about writing on this matter came from the New Statesman editorial,  which quoted a student from the school where Ann Maguire taught who stated “she taught me humanity.” This, I felt was a particularly poignant  assertion that revealed an understanding on the part of this student that education has a fundamental purpose that is much more than the transmission of subject knowledge. How perceptive, I thought of a young person to see beyond the everyday flotsam and jetsam that washes around the prescribed lessons in school and identify a more fundamental aspect of the role of the teacher. I was especially drawn to the idea that this student has identified an outcome of her interaction with a teacher on a profound level, that has instilled learning which does not feature in any written school curriculum or assessment documentation. To be taught humanity seems to me to be a most rewarding outcome of the education process.

Peter Wilby, in his column in the aforementioned edition of the magazine describes other superlatives applied to Ann Maguire from those who knew her. However, it was his assertion that the ideological stance adopted by certain factions of the media that should be of concern in relation to this tragic event than held my attention. The image of teachers portrayed in some quarters says Wilby, is of individuals who, “enslaved by left wing ideology instruct children in atheism and immorality, tolerate low standards and don’t work hard enough.” He goes on to say that there are many who will look to see where they may apportion blame for this terrible one-off incident – ”permissive liberal values, welfare benefits, violent video games, social media  and the abolition of corporal punishment,” are all likely causes to be identified over the coming months.

There may well be another equally significant, or even greater factor in this situation that contributed to this horrendous crime, suggests Wilby. This he describes as the “routine denigration of teachers”. Politicians and much of the media, he states have made a significant contribution to the undermining of respect for teachers within UK society. Those who continue to show contempt for the teaching profession would do well to listen to the voices of others who knew, and now pay tribute to teachers such as Ann Maguire In so doing they may gain insights into the dedication that is to be found in almost every classroom in the land.

Can there be a greater testimony to a teacher than the tribute paid by a student who recognises that “she taught me humanity” ? Perhaps as teachers we have been complicit in the portrayal of education as a means of filling children full of facts that they can then regurgitate for an examination. Maybe the time has come to return to debates about the broader purpose of education. Certainly we want children to become knowledgeable effective problem solvers, who are literate and numerate, and have an understanding of geography, history and science, but perhaps we need to pay greater attention to the ways in which they may consider and apply their learning and the ways in which they are enabled to interpret their humanity.

Having stated that I would not write about this subject, and spent a day pondering on whether to post this piece, I hope that what I may have done is move beyond the initial tragic story and raised a few questions that many teachers appear frightened to address. The articles in the New Statesman identify a number of significant areas of concern with regards to the ways in which teachers are currently presented. Sadly many of those committed professionals have become cowed and fearful of putting their heads above the parapet to challenge current politically driven educational dogma. There is a danger that adopting a position of silence may be seen as providing assent to those who continue to spin the line that our classrooms are out of control.

Bring a friend to school

Working together on planning a lesson is a great way to get to know each other and make friends

Working together on planning a lesson is a great way to get to know each other and make friends

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Mahatma Gandhi

 

When we have something that we think is good, why wouldn’t we want to share it with our friends?

I have always had an ambition that our students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme in Bangalore will become leaders for change across India. This may sound like a tall order, but if you met our students it would be a bold move to tell them otherwise. As an Englishman I am ever conscious of the impact upon change an individual in India may have. But I am also a realist. If these dedicated individuals are to bring about change they will need friends.

Today we had an open day on the course. Our students were invited to bring a friend or colleague to the day’s sessions to get a taste of the work they are doing. The hope is that the enthusiasm of our committed students infects these visitors and that they may then join them in the cause. This approach is not without risk. Our students have got to know and trust each other, they discuss and debate all ideas with a passion and have learned to work in a critical, though supportive environment. Would our visitors today be shocked at the frankness of exchange? How would they fit within a well-established group? Having spent so long talking about how we create the conditions for inclusion I have to say I was confident that our friends would be welcomed.

The morning session considered how the curriculum models we had discussed in module 1 could be practically applied for individual pupils with a range of needs. Our established students have been working in groups and we spread our visitors amongst them. No quarter was taken, they joined in as if they were themselves course members. Our students were magnificent, ensuring that their new friends were fully briefed and engaged in the activities. In their turn our visitors rose to the challenge and we were soon into the familiar territory of critical debate. Together they planned lessons, and devised assessments for pupils across a range of needs. They looked not only at the academic needs of children but also addressed their social, moral and spiritual needs and their place in developing skills, attitudes and understanding within the school curriculum. At the end of the morning they revisited their school principles and assessed their own progress in living up to these standards. They have become self-critical, but also quietly pleased with the ways in which they are able to apply learning.

Handing over to Mary for the afternoon session I knew that they would maintain the momentum of the morning’s work. Another delicious lunch, far from slowing our students down seemed to give them renewed energy. Mary’s session on multi-sensory teaching provided a well-balanced blend of theory and practice and drew upon her own experiences as well as those of members of the group. Ideas were developed and shared and examples of potential application of techniques emerged. Shared activity resulted in effective learning as all worked together towards solving problems and implementing solutions. New learning was applied and personal achievements celebrated.

Both our regular group and their friends left happy at the end of the day. Hopefully our leaders have found new supporters who will share the journey towards creating more inclusive schools here in India. With enthusiasm such as this they can hardly fail.

As an aside: walking along the lane outside the Brindavan Trust building I met a cow. Nothing unusual in this, (for those of you unfamiliar with India, cows are a regular feature of Indian city streets). As the cow approached me in friendly fashion I suddenly realised that it had red horns! Red – a sign of danger (most of the world), or of good luck (China) or of mourning (South Africa). None of these it would appear. The Indian festival of Sankranthi, a celebration of harvest has just finished and the painting of horns is all part of the celebration. So, the next time I meet a cow with red horns I will know what to discuss with her. That is always assuming she speaks English!

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