Let’s value the freedom to respond.

 

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

“To become self-aware, people must be allowed to hear a plurality of opinions and then make up their own minds. They must be allowed to say, write and publish whatever they want. Freedom of expression is the most basic, but fundamental, right. Without it, human beings are reduced to automatons.”

MA Jian (Chinese author of Red Dust, and The Noodle Maker)

 

In writing a blog, one of the most interesting and at times amusing elements of the process is the unpredictability of the responses posted by readers. Posting a reply to any article makes a demand upon the thoughts and the time of the respondent, and such efforts should therefore always be treated with respect. Reading the responses can often be an educative process, with comments made that provide an interesting interpretation upon the issues raised in the original article, and ideas that expand or elaborate upon a focus of debate.

As might be expected, there are regular respondents who have engaged in this arms-length form of conversation, and have contributed useful and interesting ideas and experiences with other readers with whom they have never met, but feel able to share their thoughts. A specific example of this was the informative range of responses to Dancing together to the same inclusive tune posted on November 12th 2014. In this article I referred to a student in Bangalore exploring elements of dance for children with special educational needs, and the dearth of literature related to this subject. Within days, several respondents had posted information that they hoped would be of help, and as a result of this I know that the student concerned has gained useful knowledge, and has also had some personal contact and shared ideas with a dance teacher several thousands of miles from her home. It was in the hope of provoking an interchange such as this, and establishing connections between committed individuals that I began writing this blog.

Whilst there are regular respondents to these pages, it is always interesting to see a posted reply from someone previously unknown. When this happens I find myself wondering what it was that provoked them into writing about this specific topic or on this particular occasion. Did they stumble upon the article by chance, or do they read the blog regularly but have never previously felt the need to respond? Thus it is you see, that as the writer of a blog intended to promote dialogue, my own curiosity is aroused by those who reply.

There are, however, other readers who also give me cause for thought, and possibly even a little concern. From time to time I receive emails from individuals who have read an article and wish to comment but feel unable to do so in the  public domain of a blog. I was looking back over some of these mails a week or so ago and wondering about the sentiments and emotions that they express and the situations in which the correspondents live or work. These emails tend to fall into two categories, the first of which I intend to dismiss fairly quickly, and the second to which I will devote more space.

Category one consists of emails from individuals who have  taken exception to either the comments that I have made or my interpretation of the issues discussed. An example of this relates to the article Thank you for a letter of appreciation posted on July 16th 2014 in which I commented favourably upon the actions of Rachel Tomlinson the head teacher at a school in  Lancashire in the UK. This lady had written to all of her pupils thanking them for their hard work over the course of an academic year, and emphasising that she was proud of all of their personal achievements, even where their academic attainment may not have been outstanding. This head teacher’s actions had impressed me as an example of someone prepared to stand by her beliefs that education should be valued as a holistic process, rather than simply one of jumping through academic hoops. Clearly some readers disagreed, which of course they were perfectly entitled to do. However, rather than posting their responses on the blog they chose to send emails directly to me casting various aspersions upon my personage rather than commenting upon the ideas that I had presented. Fortunately this happens quite rarely and my response has always been to reply politely, suggesting that they share their opinions openly by posting a response in order that others may join in the debate. Strangely enough, they have thus far declined my invitation.

The second category of email correspondents differs considerably from the first. This comprises individuals who want to comment on an article, but feel unable to do so on what they regard to be a public platform that could leave them exposed. Typically they write to me to share a personal experience, often in the school in which they work, that exemplifies an issue that I have raised as an area of concern. For example in responding by email to You can’t hit the middle of the target every time (February 10th 2015) a teacher told me of her own anxieties about the ways in which the perceived failure of children in her school to achieve certain academic targets was being used to label them as “remedial pupils,” and that if they were not seen to make significant improvements they were being recommended for removal from the school. In her email to me this teacher commented:-

“I thought for a long time about whether I could put this reply on your blog, but in the end I decided that if someone recognised me and told the school principal it would lead to trouble. I just wanted to say what I feel, so sent you this mail because I didn’t feel I could put my ideas out there on the internet.”

Obviously, when I receive mails of this nature I send a reply assuring the sender that I will not post any identifying details on these pages. (I sent this posting to the lady quoted above and have her consent to use this passage on condition that her identity remains confidential).

The respondents who fall into this category of individuals keen to engage in debate but wary of doing so in a public arena, may well be justified in their apprehensions. Whilst I believe that education should play an important role in fostering democratic principles, and should aim to teach respect for a range of opinions and perspectives, I am aware that my views do not necessarily strike a chord with everyone. Sadly the ability to express an opinion with an assurance that this will be debated in a civil and courteous manner is not always possible. Indeed such a situation remains beyond the reach of many teachers and others even today, and may be seen as a significant impediment to the promotion of those democratic principles of education that many of us hold dear.

Education since before the days of Socrates has been a process of sharing ideas and gaining knowledge through discourse and dialogue. The opportunities that exist to enhance this exchange of ideas have greatly increased in this digital age. Those who wish to restrict the scope for learning that comes with such debate, are obviously fearful of the widening of the possibilities provided through democratic processes. Whilst some readers remain apprehensive in respect of posting their ideas, they are clearly engaged in the discussion of their thoughts in other less public ways.

To those of you who feel able to post responses on these pages, I say celebrate the freedom that education has afforded you. To those who feel more constrained, I hope you may find other ways of joining the debate with those of us who will respect your opinions. And to those who may still feel the need to take a more oppositional position, I hope that you too may gather the courage to share your opinions, in order that debate may take place upon a more democratic platform than that which you have currently chosen to endorse .

Revisiting our values as teachers

Michael Fielding. An inspirational teacher who has well established values that guide his approach to teaching and to live

Michael Fielding. An inspirational teacher who has well established values that guide his approach to teaching and to life

Yesterday I wrote About the research student conference held at the University of Northampton for two days. The students quite rightly, took centre stage throughout this event, but I was also impressed by their selection of keynote speakers who came and shared their considerable experience as researchers with the gathered assembly. Whilst these conferences understandably tend to be dominated by discussions of research methods and findings, a presentation on Friday that challenged us all to consider our values as educators and researchers was greatly appreciated.

Michael Fielding has been one of the leading thinkers, researchers and writers in the area of democratic education for many years. Speaking with great authority and good humour Michael urged us all to think of the place of children in our society. More especially he challenged us to ensure that as researchers we respect the insights that children can give into their lives and experiences, and to consider how we involve them in the research process. In a wide ranging presentation Michael Fielding reminded us of the work of some great thinkers in respect of this area including the American philosophers John Dewey and Lawrence Kohlberg.

The training of teachers and researchers in the UK has changed considerably over the years. Today the focus in teacher training is upon the technocratic aspects of classroom management, curriculum planning and assessment, all of course essential components of the teacher’s skills. In previous times, including when both Michael Fielding and I trained as teachers at the same college of education in Bristol, there was an emphasis upon the four specific disciplines of psychology, philosophy, sociology and the history of education. The work of John Dewey, Lawrence Kohlberg, Jean Piaget and Emile Durkheim featured strongly in our training as teachers and their emphasis upon the establishment of strong principles and values was seen as central to those who wished to work in schools.

Michael Fielding’s excellent presentation brought back memories of my days at Redland College in Bristol, and in particular I recalled with great affection those tutors who instilled in both of us a commitment to upholding democratic principles in learning. The focus upon listening to children and respecting their ideas and opinions was central to this training, but of equal importance was the challenge to examine our own position as teachers. As Michael reminded us, teachers are often in positions of power, and have the responsibility to use this wisely for the advantage of their students. The ways in which we communicate with students and the messages that we convey through our demeanour, are critical factors in ensuring that their self-esteem is enhanced and that they become increasingly effective learners.

During a break at the conference Michael and I reminisced about our days in Bristol. Though he was there some five or six years earlier than myself, the ethos of the college had remained unchanged and we were taught by the same tutors. Students were challenged to think independently and to question their own beliefs and interpretation of the world. This sometimes meant that we were placed in the uncomfortable position of questioning our own experiences of school and the ways in which we constructed our image of what it meant to be a teacher.  Throughout this process the ways in which we would relate to our students, whether these be children in schools, or adults in universities later in our lives was central to discussion and debate. The notion of the teacher as one who serves the student as they seek an education has resonance in many cultures and I immediately think of the example of Rabindranath Tagore when recalling these debates. I remember the occasion when we were encouraged to write a code of principles by which we would work in an effort to ensure the wellbeing of our students. These remain as one of the few documents I have retained from those Bristol days and I often refer to them. A few of the noted statements we recorded at that time include:-

  • Recognise that many of your pupils/students are much cleverer than you – respect their autonomy, support rather than hinder their ideas and development
  • If a pupil/student asks you for help, never refuse. Even if this seems outside of your usual role or what is expected of you.
  • Do those things that make a difference and rail against those that obstruct      justice.
  • Never stop learning or providing opportunities for others to do so

There are many more such statements on the records that I keep from those formative days at the outset of my career. I suspect that many politicians and educational administrators who are now responsible for the development of education policy would feel uncomfortable with such an emphasis upon questioning teacher values. Sadly I believe that this would be equally true of many teachers. Today’s leaders appear more concerned with achieving academic results than instilling principles of democracy.

Perhaps I am getting old, but it does seem to me that time spent on discussing these and other values was well spent. Having read much of Michael Fielding’s work and seeing the great respect in which he is held by colleagues and former students, I am sure that he has lived by such a principled philosophy. Democracy in education will only thrive when people like Michael Fielding are listened to and enabled to take a lead.

One of Michael Fielding's many excellent publications.

One of Michael Fielding’s many excellent publications.

 

Departure

Inclusive teaching for the benefit of all

Inclusive teaching for the benefit of all

“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.”

― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

At this time I am looking forward to getting home. To see my family and to return to home comforts. By keeping busy whilst away I manage to fend off any semblance of home sickness, but I am never the less eager to journey west. But as ever, the leaving of India and the many friends who are here is tinged with sadness. This is a country and a people of whom I have grown increasingly fond.

For a brief time we came together here in Bangalore, tutors and students, teachers and learners working together on a common theme. And before too long we will join together again, united in an effort to understand what we can about teaching and learning and working for a more just and equitable education landscape. Our determination to challenge the exclusion and marginalisation of any child remains as strong as ever.

It is the privilege of my involvement in this work and knowing that I am in the company of such committed colleagues that always makes the journey worthwhile. Jayashree and Johnson, our two Indian tutors demonstrate the professionalism that enables our teaching here to succeed. At times there are anxieties and frustrations when progress appears too slow, but these are more than compensated by the determined focus of students and friends upon the eventual goal of an inclusive education system and a more accepting society. The steps we take in this direction are small, but the alternative is to remain motionless and inert.

During the past days we have discussed and debated, argued and disputed, puzzled over many challenging problems and sought together to find solutions and develop more inclusive approaches to learning. We have shared in laughter and thrived on friendship and above all we have respected and listened to the many different routes that each of has taken towards greater understanding.

So it is that we will return in ever greater anticipation of what might be accomplished . April and September will see a reunion of tutors and students tackling the issues of how we can better commit our schools to the inclusive agenda. India is a country of exciting opportunities and will undoubtedly become a leading example to many other nations as a democratic society committed to improvements in the lives of all its citizens. This will not happen overnight, but is certain to be the destiny of this diverse and complex nation.

But for now the sweet sorrow of parting must give way to a period of reflection. At the outset of this blog I suggested that “perhaps there will be new learning along the way and then maybe I will persist”. This was a new venture and one upon which I embarked with some apprehension and more than a little sceptisism. Having given it a try I am grateful for the observations posted in response to my comments and heartened that so many people around the world have shown interest in the issues discussed. So whilst I will probably not post every day on this site I will endeavour to maintain the conversation.

Thank you to everyone who has made the effort to read these daily reports, and particularly to those of you who have taken the time to post a comment. I hope that some day we may meet and continue our dialogue face to face. For those of you who  have expressed an interest in the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme taught in Bangalore, I would be delighted to hear from you directly, either on this blog  or via email – Richard.Rose@northampton.ac.uk

We will be starting a new cohort of students in September 2014 and I would be delighted should you wish to join us on this journey. If you choose to do so, I know that at times the road will seem hard, but I am equally confident that the experience will be one that is enriching and worthwhile. Stay in touch with this page for more reflections on the exploration of teaching and learning to create an  inclusive society in which we all live and learn together in mutual respect and with dignity.

Once again we will brave the road from Jayanagar to Bangalore airport!

 

Sharing an agenda for inclusion

Republic Day 2014. One of India’s many great virtues is that since gaining independence in 1947 it has maintained a commitment to democratic principles. There have, of course, been occasions when this democracy has developed cracks and has appeared vulnerable but the majority of people here have a well-developed sense of justice that has sustained the systems fostered by Nehru, Patel, Rajagopalachari and other early leaders of the free nation.

Having said this, nothing is perfect. Gross inequalities continue to dominate this society, just as they do others across the globe, including my own. Whole communities remain marginalized as a result of poverty, disability, culture and caste, and inclusion remains a distant dream for many. What role can education play in effecting change? Is the burden so great that we as teachers, can have no impact upon redressing the inequalities that persist?

Today on India’s Republic day the words of one of the founding fathers of modern India’s democratic principles continue to have relevance to the situation here.

“My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organise; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality.”

Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

Ambedkar himself knew what it was to experience oppression and disadvantage. The fact that he is now revered as a major influence upon post-independence democracy here in India, is a tribute to the fact that an individual can rise from the more down trodden echelons of society to have an impact upon a whole nation. Despite its many challenges Indian democracy remains an example of what can be achieved with the determination of people committed to its cause.

Marginalisation and oppression still exist here, as elsewhere across the world. If this situation is to change we would do well to heed the words of Ambedkar and his call to us to educate, agitate and organise. But such actions require clear thinking leaders who are prepared to take selfless action for the benefit of others. Today a group of individuals who have already devoted much of their lives to supporting the development of education for change came together to provide leadership and to contribute a tiny first movement that hopefully may develop into a greater force for change over the years to come.

Representatives from Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu came together today to constitute a forum for support of the development of inclusive education. These individuals whose collective experience of working with disadvantaged, disabled and marginalised children over many years have given a commitment to work together in support of teachers and parents. Amongst the group were experienced teachers, parents and social activists whose influence has already been seen to have an impact upon the lives of children and their families. Today they formulated plans for ensuring that those teachers and parents who often find themselves working in isolation gain greater support as they endeavour to create a more inclusive education system in the country.

As an observer at this gathering I felt honoured to be present at the beginning of something which I feel may well develop into a significant vehicle for furthering the cause of inclusion. These are individuals who are most certainly prepared to educate, agitate and organise. I have no doubt that they will face many obstacles along the way, but I look forward to seeing them confront the challenges ahead and feel certain that they will contribute to the development of a more just society similar to that which Ambedkar and the other founding fathers of the republic originally envisaged.

So on this Indian Republic Day – India Inclusive Education Forum – Jai Hind

जय हिंद

Could do better!

 

The school principles produced by one of our student groups

The school principles produced by one of our student groups

 

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Sign hanging in the office of Albert Einstein at Princeton University

I wonder if I am the only person who ever has days like this? As I sat today observing my good colleagues Mary and Jayashree working with students I was in awe of their knowledge and enthusiasm. Furthermore I was stunned by the quality of information and the depth of perception coming from our students. Why, I asked myself, does it seem that everyone in this room is far cleverer than me?

Today’s topic was assessment in inclusive classrooms, an area guaranteed to provoke strong feelings and one which we hoped our course participants would debate with vigour. We were not disappointed. Indeed their thoughtful critical responses indicated the many frustrations and challenges that they experience with regards to assessment in their professional lives.

Semantics are important and this is apparent whenever issues of the assessment of learners are discussed. Assessment for learning, or assessment of learning? Assessment of the pupil or assessment by the pupil? So many complexities to explore and no wonder that this is a subject that gets teachers so animated. Writers such as Dylan Wiliam and my colleague Knut Roar Engh have emphasised the holistic nature of effective assessment and have encouraged teachers to see this as an embedded part of the teaching process rather than an addendum to the main activity. Yet it would appear that many schools still place an emphasis upon assessment as a summative process with little regard for how it may shape teaching and celebrate the accomplishments of pupils.

Inclusion is essentially a democratic process that recognises the rights of individuals and marginalised groups and celebrates diversity. For assessment to support this process it too must adopt democratic principles. Where it becomes an activity solely undertaken by teachers and school managers and remains focused upon narrow academic outcomes it acts as a barrier to the inclusion agenda. For this reason Mary and Jayashree in their sessions today emphasised the need to place the pupils’ interpretation of their own learning at the centre of the assessment process and conveyed the message that we start from the strengths of the learner. Working in inclusive teams was emphasised and respect for families reinforced with consideration given to how assessment information is conveyed with empathy.

Within very little time our students, many of whom work in schools with a “traditional” view of assessment were voicing their opinions and demonstrating their innovative ideas for how assessment might inform the development of inclusive teaching and learning. The means by which assessment might provide us within insights into the impact of the teaching environment and a shift of focus to provide a consideration of the assessment of teaching styles, were just two of the ideas keenly contested today. Arguments were plentiful and the debate fierce, but all in good humour and deftly refereed by tutors!

The ideas emerging from the discussions and workshop activities of students today were highly original and creative. Now I think I understand, the reason everyone in this room seems cleverer than me, it’s simple really – they are!

Ah well, in the words of Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. – (Samuel Beckett – Worstword Ho 1984)