A learning bridge between Europe and Asia that needs to be maintained.

Let's not turn our backs on the opportunities we have to learn from other cultures at a time when they need us most.

Let’s not turn our backs on the opportunities we have to learn from other cultures at a time when they need us most.

I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Istanbul. I had been looking forward to this trip for some time, having wanted to visit this ancient city that straddles Europe and Asia for many years. The history of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, renowned for its architecture, philosophy and art has fascinated me for years, and I can now say that having visited, it more than satisfied my curiosity and expectations.

Whilst Istanbul is now a busy cosmopolitan city like many others in Europe, it succeeds in presenting in a most accessible manner the history of the past millennium and longer. From the Egyptian obelisk of 1500 BCE and the Theodosian Walls of the fifth century, through to the conquest of Mehmet II in 1453 and the architectural wonders created by Mimar Sinan during the mid 16th century, there is so much here to learn and to try to understand. In addition to the artefacts which are excellently presented in the several museums and the Topkapi Palace, the very streets of Istanbul present a historical face to the interested visitor. Views across the Bosphorous, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara are dominated by a skyline of the domes and minarets of countless mosques and the crumbling relics of ancient fortifications. I have to confess that despite my earlier reading about the city, whilst walking the hilly streets, I found myself often contemplating the significant ignorance that I still have in respect of much that I was seeing.

From this short visit to Istanbul I will retain many happy memories and will long remember many of the fascinating sights and sites of the city. However, my visit was also tinged with an element of sadness which came from talking to kindly people who currently fear for their livelihoods and face an uncertain future. Without exception the people who we met during this brief visit were friendly and welcoming, and it was evident that they wanted to make us feel comfortable within their great historic city. Yet it was particularly disturbing to hear them talking of the falling numbers of visitors and the financial difficulties caused as a result of groups and individuals who are choosing to no longer visit the region.

The cause of this calamity is obvious. The close proximity of Turkey to a war ravaged Syria and the crisis of refugees on the country’s border has brought little by the way of positive publicity to the country. Furthermore, a number of terrorist attacks in both the capital city Ankara, and recently in Istanbul have dominated news reports and leave many would be tourists contemplating whether it is safe to travel. Indeed, during the time of our visit two terrorist incidents in and near Ankara claimed a number of lives.

The fear of terrorism is likely to impact upon many parts of the world in this way. This weekend on my return to England I read in the Guardian newspaper of the efforts being made by the people of Paris, to attract visitors back to that beautiful city following the recent terrorist incidents that devastated the French nation. It is however, important to remember that the vast majority of days in Paris, as in Istanbul pass quietly and without incident. It is even more important to recognise that the people who inhabit these cities, as elsewhere in the world are good, honest and hospitable. There is nothing that the narrow minded terrorists would like more than to stifle the economies of our major cities by driving people away; a situation which we must never allow to happen.

In Istanbul, probably more than anywhere I have previously visited, the close relationship between two of the world’s major religions is in evidence. Mosques created from churches following the 1453 conquest have in many instances retained and respected earlier Christian features. Nowhere is this more in evidence than at the Hagia Sophia where magnificent tesserae depict features from the life of Christ in the form of mosaics. The population of Istanbul is almost exclusively Muslim, and within the traditions of that faith are making every effort to ensure that all visitors to the city feel comfortable and safe. If as tourists we choose now to turn away from this city and many others like it around the world, we will be deserting kind and decent people and handing a tacit victory to those who would deny opportunities to all who wish to learn from other cultures and beliefs. Istanbul, just like Paris, Berlin, London and many other of the world’s great cities has faced threats and violence on many occasions throughout history, but the spirit and determination of good people has always prevailed. An all too brief series of encounters with friendly people in Istanbul over the past week has reassured me that this city and its population will undoubtedly defeat those who would wish them harm.

If the chance arises for you to visit the magnificent city of Istanbul do grasp the opportunity. You will be rewarded by a wonderful encounter with history and culture and through the warmth of the friendly people who inhabit the city.

The bazaar's of Istanbul have been a feature on the major trading routes between Europe and Asia for thousands of years. They remain dependent upon visitors to the city in order to ply their trade.

The bazaar’s of Istanbul have been a feature on the major trading routes between Europe and Asia for thousands of years. They remain dependent upon visitors to the city in order to ply their trade.

 

Broadening our minds

School displays demonstrate how children are gaining knowledge of history, geography and so much more. Model of the ill-fated Titanic from a primary school

School displays demonstrate how children are gaining knowledge of history, geography and so much more. Model of the ill-fated Titanic from a primary school

Whenever I visit schools I try to spend a little time looking at the colourful displays that usually adorn the walls and corridors. These often provide an opportunity to demonstrate the talents and learning of children, exhibiting works of art, writing or mathematical accomplishments and informing visitors about the learning and experiences of students. Teachers and other staff in schools invest time in ensuring that this work is carefully presented, and just like the students who have produced this work they take immense pride in the artefacts that decorate the school environment.

A couple of years ago I visited a primary school in Ireland and enjoyed a brief perusal of a colourful display depicting early Egyptian history. Carefully constructed collages of Egyptian murals with representations of the jackal-headed Anubis and bird headed Horus, and hand written hieroglyphs covered a wall, whilst models of the great pyramids and of the mummies of pharaohs were arranged and informatively labelled on a table. It was evident that the pupils who had constructed these offerings had been encouraged to use their imaginations whilst learning about a significant civilization through a study of history and geography. As is invariably the case, I found much to admire in the work of the children and the skills of those teachers and other school staff who had offered their support and guidance to these young learners. Similar displays depicting  history, geography, literature and much more from both near at home and distant lands is to be found in most schools.

When I was a child much of my learning about distant places and people was gained either through reading or television documentaries. I remember a phase of reading anything I could obtain that would inform me about the Romans and supplementing my understanding of their influence with visits to the city museum in Gloucester where there was a good collection of artefacts and information. My knowledge of ancient Egypt was largely garnered from similar sources, reinforced by television programmes that included an account of the life of Howard Carter and his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and an excellent series presented by the archaeologist John Romer. As a schoolboy  I could never have imagined that in the future I would visit countries other than my own, where I could stand within some of the finest examples of Roman architecture such as the Colosseum in Rome or the amphitheatre at Autun. International travel was, generally speaking not within the remit of school children from my area, and I believed, in common with most of my friends, that my knowledge and understanding of the wider world was always likely to be obtained through reading or the media.

It is partly through reflection upon my early second hand encounters with history and geography that I find myself thinking about how my life has changed, and the great privilege that I have experienced in being able to visit many countries around the world. Furthermore, often through my work, I have been able to meet people and make friends in these countries, and have worked closely with many valued colleagues whose cultural experiences of the world differ greatly from my own. A common factor in every country that I have visited is a patriotic pride that people have in their national heritage, landscape and history. They invariably take great pleasure in showing visitors the geographical, natural and architectural features of their localities, knowing that I am enthusiastic to learn about both the people of a country and the landscape and culture that has shaped their lives.  It is this enthusiasm and pride that has enabled me to wonder at sites such as the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the frozen landscapes of Lapland, the Caravaggio paintings in the cathedral at Valetta, the sulphur baths of Tbilisi and the botanical gardens of Singapore. It is also, in part, through these experiences that I have been eager to reciprocate this hospitality and ensure that visitors to England have similar experiences whilst they are here.

Whilst we can and must, continue to learn from reading and the use of various media, there is no substitute for first-hand experiences of places and people. Travel provides unique opportunities to engage with cultures, climate and religions that differ from our own. The traveller who is prepared to learn from such experiences has the chance to gain greater understanding of those conditions and beliefs that emphasise the ways in which we may differ from people elsewhere, but more especially those basic human characteristics that bind us together. There is a commonly held belief that travel broadens the mind. This is true only if we are prepared to open our minds and to travel respectfully and with a willingness to learn about the lives of those who live in the places we choose to visit.

As I write this today I am conscious of the fact that many of the opportunities for learning through travel that I had only ever dreamt of as a child, but which have at times become open to me, may now be closing for most people. Countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan and Libya which are the cradle of many great civilizations, magnificent countryside and a rich cultural history are now seen as dangerous and off-limits to most travellers. As a result of this those people living in these countries who have become economically dependent upon tourism are suffering. Equally devastating is the fact that the inhabitants of those countries, and individuals from outside who would wish to visit, are deprived of an opportunity to learn from each other, to make friendships and to understand how much we all have in common.

It is, of course, in the interest of those who would wish to limit education, and to deny individuals the chance to engage in social, intellectual and cultural exchange of ideas, to create a situation where travel is restricted. I do believe, however, that such an attitude cannot prevail. It is too late for those who would wish to roll back the years. Friendships and professional associations have been made and are strong enough to endure. The desire to work and spend time together that has become a feature of internationalisation over the past half century has become embedded in the lives of many people. Artificial boundaries have been challenged, and I am sure that the desire to learn from others, to experience their cultures, to understand their beliefs and share their experiences will play an important role in the defeat of ignorance and insularity. I hope that it will not be too long before normal educational opportunities through travel and interaction are resumed.

 

 

Teaching – surely more than a matter of subject knowledge.

Well qualified teachers have the ability to sort out challenges

Well qualified teachers have the ability to sort out challenges

I recently read an interesting and well researched paper written by a historian who I have known for a number of years. The paper examines the development of comprehensive schooling in England in the 1970s during a period when many grammar schools were closed or amalgamated with secondary schools in which students had followed a less academic curriculum. This was a controversial national policy decision and the debates surrounding this period are very well documented and discussed in this paper.

The historian concerned is held in high regard amongst his peers and his expertise has been sought by a number of august organisations and institutions. As an eminent historian his credentials are unquestionable. But would he be able to communicate his knowledge effectively to others? How would students who may be less interested in his subject expertise than he is, respond to him as a teacher?

I ask these questions because currently here in England a debate rages about whether it is necessary for teachers working in our state schools to have qualifications that accredit their skills, understanding, and expertise as teachers. There is a school of thought (though how much thought has actually been applied isn’t specified), that so long as an individual has sufficient subject expertise, they should be able to teach. In other words, my friend the historian, who has a PhD in his subject and is acknowledged as an authority in his discipline, should be allowed to enter the classroom as a teacher without any further qualification.

I am quite sure that there are individuals who in many respect are naturally gifted teachers. I am however, aware that my friend would be horrified at the thought that he might be confronted with a class of thirty children of varying aptitudes and needs, and asked to teach them about the Tudor kings of England, the English civil war (which incidentally wasn’t very civil), or the signing of Magna Carta. When I recently discussed this possibility with him, he expressed the view that such a situation would give him nightmares, not so much about his own lack of expertise, but more about the likelihood that the children before him might get a less than satisfactory learning experience. Furthermore, he stated that whilst he hopes that the teachers who are currently working with his sons have good subject knowledge, he also expects that they should have good classroom management skills, an understanding of pedagogy, and an appreciation of those factors that promote or inhibit learning.

I suspect that those politicians who are proposing changes which would increase the numbers of unqualified teachers in schools, have reduced the idea of education to a simple list of subjects, rather than recognising that teaching requires much more than advanced knowledge in a specific area. I recall that as a newly qualified teacher I was grateful for those approaches to classroom management, forming effective relationships with children and families, understanding processes of assessment and learning and differentiated teaching that had been instilled in me by my tutors. I also quickly came to realise that continuing to study how children acquire language, understanding aspects of mental health and self-esteem, and those influences that lead to children being labelled as having special educational needs, enabled me to become a more effective teacher, and to better serve my students. Whilst I have always believed that subject knowledge is critical for effective teaching, I also regard the ability to communicate this knowledge effectively and to understand alternative approaches that should be considered when children are struggling to learn as crucial parts of the armoury of a professional teacher.

Children in our schools deserve to be taught by the best available teachers. Teachers themselves need to have their pedagogical skills recognised and endorsed. I know that I have always appreciated the professionalism of teachers who taught me in the past, just as I have immense regard for those who enthused my sons in their school days. A failure to recognise those aspects of teaching that enable classrooms to operate effectively, and all students to access learning at a level commensurate to their needs, is an insult to those committed teachers who continue to seek to ensure that all children receive a first class education.

Fortunately my friend the historian recognises the nonsense that is being spoken by those politicians who have failed to see the necessity to provide a well-qualified teaching profession. He recalls a time from history when few teachers were qualified, and many children denied their right to formal education. He suggests that those who do not see the necessity to have a well trained teaching profession return to their history books, and if possible read these with the guidance of an enthusiastic teacher.

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.