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 .

Take pride in your learning, no matter what form it may take

The learning of this lady spinning on the charka that and her husband the weaver produced cotton cloth of high quality used to make a kurta which I wore whilst teaching MA students in Bangalore. An interesting link between different kinds of learning.

The learning of this lady spinning on the charka and that of her husband the weaver, produced cotton cloth of high quality used to make a kurta which I wore whilst teaching MA students in Bangalore. An interesting link between different kinds of learning.

Once again I am inspired to write on the basis of  comments posted in response to this blog. Having written a brief piece titled “So then, which of us is an educated man?” Posted on February 9th,  I was delighted to receive comments from individuals who come from the very fishing village featured in my writing. Clement Lopez, an activist for fishermen’s rights and the protection of the coastal area expressed his own views on the need to establish respect between individuals of differing experiences and education and Jenet the daughter of a fisherman from Kerala sent a reply that stated:-

“I never found our fishermen’s knowledge and skill in their traditional occupation as appreciable since I used to develop a feeling that anyone’s informal learning through experience and necessity will make them a skilled worker. But later on , when I was aspiring in getting more degrees in my particular field I realized the fact that to become a master in that field we must be able to apply the learned knowledge “.

I have never, to my knowledge met  either Clement or Jenet and was pleased to receive their comments and to know that my words had encouraged them to think about learning within their own community. I was particularly interested in the juxtaposition that Jenet makes between the learning associated with occupation and her own more formal education. Jenet is clearly taking the opportunity to gain qualifications and to develop her own skills and knowledge as a means of moving forward in her career. I get the impression that she is a thoughtful young woman who is likely to succeed in her chosen area. Reading her comments encouraged me to reflect further upon this balance between formal academic education and that associated with occupational practice and experience.

On Sunday in Northampton I attended a graduation ceremony. This long established rite of passage sees many, largely young, scholars who have studied hard over an intensive period of time, reap the rewards of their endeavours. As they walk across the stage to be shaken by the hand of the Chancellor of the University and receive their degrees as a mark of their earnest endeavours, their families and friends demonstrate their pride with generous applause.  I too felt a warm glow of satisfaction as two of my PhD students, wearing the formal gowns and Tudor bonnets of their newly acquired status were awarded certificates of recognition for the completion of their research and defence of a thesis. This long established and highly traditional ritual is a time for celebration, and for many the commencement of a new journey into employment or further study.

After the formal ceremony the flashing of cameras, warm embrace and handshakes of congratulation and occasional tears of joy (or possibly relief!) are a feature of the milling crowds before they disperse to various parties or make their journeys home. This is a joyous event and one in which I always find immense pleasure.

For those who demonstrate their learning in less regulated circumstances I suspect that celebration comes in other guises. For the craftsman the pride gained through the production of a beautiful artefact, possibly a piece of furniture or a well turned pot and likewise for the cook who prepares a dish for her customers or family, the farmer who brings his crops to harvest, or indeed the fisherman who sees his family feasting on his catch, their reward may be equally satisfying as the award of a degree or diploma. Learning should be celebrated no matter how it is manifest.

Graduation is a day of pride. Quite rightly we celebrate the learning of our students and hope that they will embark upon careers that are fulfilling and of benefit to society.  But it was the final words of Jenet’s posting that led me to reflect upon the nature of such pride and the need to ensure that we celebrate and appreciate learning in all its many forms. Jenet wrote:-

“Yes, our fishermen are masters of [the] sea who apply the right knowledge at the right time, with no kind of formal education and limited access to the modern technology in fishing. Now, I feel proud that I’m the daughter of a learned (fisher)man! Thank you that you made us to feel proud”.

Master of the Sea – now there’s an idea for an interesting degree course!

Long road to justice

From the coast of Kerala to international recognition

From the coast of Kerala to international recognition

Sara and I recently went to the cinema to see the Nelson Mandela “bio-pic” Long Walk to Freedom. I first read the book of the same title when it was published in 1996 and found great inspiration from the account of Mandela’s life and more especially from his humanity. The film is very powerful with wonderful performances from all the cast, but in particular the two leading actors Idris Elba as Nelson and Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. The depiction of the violence inflicted on individuals because of the colour of their skin was harrowing, but the way in which Mandela and his associates managed to rise above this and maintain their dignity I found moving beyond words.

When I originally read the book upon which this film was based a particular passage stood out for me. I made a note of this and have often returned to it for the message it conveys about the empowering nature of education. Mandela states that:

“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another”.

The ability of education to improve lives is something in which I believe implicitly. Throughout my career as a teacher I have seen individuals whose lives have been transformed by the opportunities that education has provided. One such example is a colleague now working as a tutor on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Programme in Bangalore.

Johnson was born and grew up in a fishing village near Trivandrum in Kerala, one of the poorest communities in that state. Through his own endeavours and with the support of teachers in that community he succeeded in gaining an education through his school years and demonstrated his ability as an intelligent and effective learner. Following his schooling he went on to train as a teacher and work in schools, and a few years later took the initiative to find the MA programme at the University of Northampton. Arriving in England, largely naïve about western culture but eager to learn, he studied hard for a year to gain his MA degree in education. Teaching him was easy. He soaked up knowledge and questioned everything. Such was his enthusiasm and determination to learn that he was encouraged to enrol as a PhD student and I was fortunate enough to supervise him through to completion of his research and the award of the doctorate. The thesis that he wrote for his PhD has recently been published as a book, the cover of which appears at the head of this brief article.

After a period of post-doctoral work here in Northampton, Johnson returned to Kerala to work with the community from which he originally came, in order to support teachers and encourage more children to benefit from schooling. His own experiences serve as an example to children and their parents in the fishing villages who are beginning to understand that they too may progress to a more comfortable life if they engage with education. Johnson also now works alongside myself and other tutors as a valued colleague as we teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education in Bangalore. He can provide first hand insights into the experiences of excluded children in India in a way that I can never achieve.

I checked with Johnson to be sure that he is happy with what I have written about him here. He is rightly proud of his achievements and continues to make a significant contribution to his community and beyond.  But what I have written here is not simply penned to extol the personal virtues of a single student, but rather to illustrate the transformative power that an inclusive education can have. Many young people in Johnson’s community have been written off as unlikely to gain a great deal from formal schooling. Within his village school attendance is erratic and the resources available for supporting education are minimal. Yet with the right encouragement and the provision of opportunities Johnson has already reimbursed through his actions the faith placed in him by teachers.

It is unlikely that Johnson will ever become the president of a great nation – though I wouldn’t entirely rule this out. But as Mandela states “it is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another”. This is certainly true for Johnson.

Empowerment comes with the provision of opportunity. This in turn comes from the creation of an education system that espouses principles of inclusion and justice. There remains a long road to travel before freedom is achieved for all, and it will need many good teachers to ensure that those who are currently marginalised are able to even begin the journey.

 

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!

 

Vendors of Dignity

Pride in presentation is a feature of the stall holders of Jayanagar

Pride in presentation is a feature of the stall holders of Jayanagar

Trade begins early on the streets of Jayanagar. A short walk from our accommodation not long after dawn takes me along a bustling highway to the Banashankari Temple where lazing dogs commune in the dusty compound whilst early morning worshippers pay homage to the deities. The delicate scent of sandalwood permeates the air and small devotional lamps burn at the temple entrance. Already it is warm, though a group of small wizened men sit huddled under a ragged collection of cloths retrieving the mobility of their stiffened limbs from another cold night in the open. Continuing along the road beneath the towering pillars of the yet to function metro, a concrete monolith that scars the skyline and casts an ominous shadow over the temple grounds, I weave my path between motionless sleepers on the street and traders hurrying to market, many carrying their burden of wares balanced confidently on their heads. Walking anywhere here is fraught with potential mishaps from broken paving slabs, potholes and marauding dogs to low slung cables and wires crisscrossing the uneven pathway.

Within minutes I arrive at the first of the vendors. Piles of hairy coconuts are arranged in haphazard fashion along the roadside verges surrounded by groups of men closing deals, loading their purchases into sacks and heaving these into the backs of small vans. The quantities purchased suggest that these essential ingredients of local cuisine are destined for the many restaurants and hotels of Jayanagar. A little further along the road and an elaborately painted lorry is being unloaded, its cargo consisting entirely of cauliflowers being neatly arranged along the road’s edge and already attracting critical customers who scrutinise them and offer judgements. Broad round rush and reed baskets of custard apples are being slid along the pathway by an elderly lady bent double over the task and wheezing with the efforts of her exertions. Work begins early for these people here in Bangalore.

Many of the stalls here feature single vegetable commodities. A five metre long pile of red skinned onions, a barrow containing only garlic and another with a tangle of bhindi stand side by side their proprietors already engaged in brisk trade. Piles of green herbs fill the air with a confusion of aromas, first one dominates and then another takes control as I walk amongst the customers who are examining wares for texture and freshness.

Covered market, Jayanagar

Covered market, Jayanagar

 

A covered market slows my progress as a few narrow passages, these often obstructed by people, boxes and the detritus of discarded sub-standard vegetables wind between heaps of fruit and other fresh produce. A man is dwarfed by the pile of ginger behind which he squats and a woman, giving me the characteristic Indian shake of the head and a friendly namaskar indicates a row of neatly arranged courgettes bidding me buy.

Back outside rows of barrows provide a forum for flower sellers with their carefully constructed garlands of vermillion, yellows, blues and greens. Customers mill around the brightly coloured stalls as one of the vendors fends off an over eager cow, keen to make a meal of his display. All is bustle, light hearted chatter, hand waving negotiation, head shaking and trade.

Amongst what is seeming chaos to those unfamiliar with this scene, I am struck by the immense pride that vendors take in the management of their stalls. Vegetables are neatly regimented in orderly lines and pyramids. Garlands are lovingly arranged in a manner carefully calculated to display their colours to best advantage. Stall holders delicately shift and order fruit and vegetables, eager to ensure that customers are able to evaluate their best features. These are no wealthy business men and women but are rather drawn from the poorer communities of the city. Many have pushed their barrows considerable distances arriving early to gain an advantageous pitch and a position from which they can be most easily viewed. Most are spindly limbed, short in stature and stronger than men twice their size.

These are vendors with great dignity. They take so obvious a pride in their work and a delight when customers or even mere observers such as myself, take an interest in their labours. There is so much here to be admired as these noble people exhibit and barter their goods. How, I wonder, might education have impacted their lives? More especially, how much value do we place upon the knowledge, the skills and the craft that they present to the discerning eye? Here I see individuals with great understanding and a collective of traders whose combined knowledge is a source of almost certainly underestimated value.

I suspect that the majority of the vendors working here have had little more than what we would regard as a rudimentary education. Maybe with increased opportunities some of these individuals would be working in vastly different situations. Education can be a means of liberation, but if we restrict our interpretation of its nature it could equally be limiting and create false values within our communities. I would like to propose that the service that these traders on the streets of Jayanagar give to the people of the local community is every bit equal to that of the software engineers and call centre managers who work in locations not too distant from here.

In the scene I have witnessed this morning, one that is replicated in towns, villages and cities across India and much of the wider world, I see people working with pride and dignity who use their learning for the support of their families and in order to provide an essential service to their community. These may not be educated people in the eyes of those who manage national education policies and systems, but surely we should celebrate the understanding that they demonstrate which is beyond that held by those of us who bear the labels associated with a formal education. I hope to return here many times to show my respect for these hard working dignified people who exhibit their learning through an expert plying of their trade.

The aroma of these herbs hangs in the air across the whole area of the market

The aroma of these herbs hangs in the air across the whole area of the market