Two wheels good!

Well laden bicycles are a common feature on the roads of many countries. But in some they are put to educational use.

Well laden bicycles are a common feature on the roads of many countries. But in some they are put to educational use.

As someone who is a keen cyclist, I am seldom surprised when I hear of the accomplishments that can be achieved by individuals riding on two wheels. However, when these achievements impact positively upon the educational experiences of children I am always pleased to read reports from the press or hear about these from colleagues.

I recall a couple of years ago hearing an interesting presentation given by two members of the academic staff from the Faculty of Education at the University of West of England in Bristol, at which they described the support provided in the development of a library in rural Zimbabwe. Through various donations and fund raising events, these colleagues have regularly sent shipments of books to the country where volunteers have catalogued them and organised a library for the benefit of local people. Amongst the thousands of volumes that have crossed from the UK to Africa are many children’s books that are being used by both schools and individual children.

There is a challenge in rural Zimbabwe with regards to accessing a library, so this intrepid team have come up with an innovative solution. By providing a bicycle and panniers to the library, they have ensured that books can be delivered on a regular basis to outlying schools. A volunteer simply loads the panniers with books requested by children or schools, cycles to the venue and exchanges these for those delivered on a previous occasion. The schools and children get their books, the library has satisfied customers, the volunteer gets some exercise and everyone benefits. What could be better?

I was reminded of this situation by an article in this week’s Times Educational Supplement written by Adi Bloom. This describes how a project managed by the Agastya Education Foundation is supporting government schools in eight Indian States. Fifty nine motorcycles have been equipped with mobile laboratories containing science experiments which teachers can use with their pupils. These motorcycles, ridden by skilled pilots are able to weave their way along tracks and rough roads to ensure that science is delivered to the doors of schools where facilities are generally very poor. This superb initiative has been shortlisted for a prize from the World Innovation Summit for Education. I hope that we may hear more about their successes in the coming months.

Both of these projects demonstrate the determination that individuals have, to ensure that children who live in difficult circumstances or remote locations gain access to meaningful education. Such schemes require co-ordination and dedication, but above all they are dependent upon individuals with imagination and the drive to start projects that may at first appear unusual. Without such people there would still be children in Zimbabwe with very little access to books, and others in India unable to conduct the kind of experiments that may enthuse the next generation of scientists.

The next time  I am on my bicycle pedalling around the lanes of Northamptonshire, I will think of those committed librarians who are delivering knowledge and enthusiasm to children in remote schools. I have never had a two wheeled vehicle powered by an engine, far preferring to use my own legs to propel me forwards (even if rather slowly these days!)but I will similarly reflect upon the potential for scientific development in rural India being supported through the Agastya Education Foundation. Children are being included in learning as a result of the actions taken in these two countries. Those creative individuals who have developed these schemes provide a lesson to all of us by demonstrating that many obstacles can be overcome with determination and in these instances – the help of two wheels!

 

A goat is an asset, but a girl is a liability!

A much needed organisation promoting inclusion in India

A much needed organisation promoting inclusion in India

 

Home Page of Educate Girls  (click on this link for further information)

One of the most interesting aspects of working in the area of inclusive education is that the opportunities for learning and understanding a range of complex situations are immense. Whilst most of the students I work with on the MA programme in Bangalore are concerned for the education of children with special educational needs, many exhibit a much broader understanding of those conditions that either support inclusion or lead to isolation and exclusion from education.

Teaching and researching in the field of education in the UK inevitably means that I spend a great deal of my time working with well-educated and highly intelligent, articulate women. Schools in my country are dependent upon a professional and dedicated work force made up largely of women, and in many subjects in schools the performance of girls exceeds that of their male peers. This has not always been the case, and it took many years of campaigning and determination on the part of liberal minded educators to ensure that girls in schools receive opportunities commensurate to those of their male classmates.

In India, when visiting schools, particularly those addressing the needs of primary aged children, I am always aware of the predominantly female teaching profession that is characteristic of these establishments. Here, teachers are seen very much to be part of a caring profession and as women have generally been the care providers in homes, this responsibility has been passed on to the classroom. Female teachers carry the bulk of responsibility in most of the schools I have visited in India, and accept and perform their duties with enthusiasm and a commendable commitment to their students. Yet many of these women are exceptional in respect of their personal and professional experiences and the opportunities that they have had, to become learners.

In stating at the outset of this posting that many of the teachers who attend the MA in Special and Inclusive Education course in Bangalore have a broad understanding of factors that impact on inclusion, I had in mind a number of conversations that I have had with an excellent student who recently graduated from the course. The research conducted by Pooja for her final dissertation was focused upon the challenges that exist for many girls in India who wish to obtain an education but face many obstacles in achieving their ambition. I am delighted to say that Pooja is intending to continue her studies in this area as she commences on a journey that should enable her to graduate in a few years with a PhD.

Whilst there are many obstacles to inclusion in India, those which are inhibiting the education of girls, particularly in rural areas and in poorer communities, appear particularly difficult to address. There are still dominant beliefs about the place of women as child carers and home makers in some parts of Indian society that frustrate girls who wish to pursue their studies. The conversations I have had with Pooja and with other friends and colleagues in India, has encouraged me to explore this issue further, and in the course of my investigations I have stumbled upon a number of remarkable organisations and individuals who are attempting to address this matter.

Educate Girls was founded in 2007 as an organisation specifically aiming to increase the enrolment of girls into schools. They have recruited and trained teams of young women who work in communities to raise awareness of educational opportunities, to explain the benefits of schooling and to encourage families to send their girls to school. These teams, known as Team Balika (Community Volunteers) are comprised mainly of 18 – 25 year olds, who have undergone training and have a commitment to work with schools and village communities to promote their cause. Under the inspirational leadership of Safeena Husain, a formidable tour de force, they have made significant progress since their early days and have been responsible for the enrolment of more than 80,000 girls into schools.

The work of this organisation is much needed, with an estimated 3 million girls out of school in India. Even when girls do attend school it is believed that out of every 100 girls in rural India only one reaches class 12.

Recently Educate Girls was one of four recipients of the 2015 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship receiving a $1.25 million, three-year investment to enable them to continue and expand their work. The video clip below provides an introduction to the excellent work that this organisation is doing. It shows both the magnitude of the problem, and the enthusiasm of those who are working for a more inclusive approach to education. Early in the film it is suggested that in some parts of India it is still perceived that “A goat is an asset, but a girl is a liability!” Those who are working hard to challenge such a view, whether it be through activism or research, are making a significant contribution to the development of more inclusive schools.

THE VIDEO BELOW SHOWS SOME OF THE EXCELLENT WORK OF EDUCATE GIRLS

 

 

Progress halted, but we must believe that this is only a temporary situation

It will take many years for Nepal to recover from this terrible situation.

It will take many years for Nepal to recover from this terrible situation.

In October 2013, along with my colleagues Jayashree and Johnson, I attended the Asian Federation on Intellectual Disabilities (AFID) conference held in Delhi, Northern India. This was the second time that I had attended an AFID conference, having previously presented a paper at this event when it was held in Singapore. Whilst many conferences follow a set pattern of researchers presenting papers to other researchers, the AFID conference is quite unique in that it provides a platform for people with learning disabilities and other special educational needs, who are encouraged and supported to present their own ideas and issues to the gathered audience. This blend of academic papers and personal life experience stories makes for a stimulating few days in which researchers, parents, administrators and people with learning disabilities share a platform, participate together in social activities and learn from each other.

These conferences are attended by delegates from many Asian countries. Individuals from Japan share their ideas with others from Sri Lanka and Korea, whilst those from India discuss current developments with others from Malaysia and Afghanistan. Issues of inclusion are debated and there is an atmosphere of shared respect and willingness to learn. The conference takes place every two years and unfortunately I am not able to attend this year’s gathering in Sri Lanka.

It was whilst looking through the published proceedings from the Delhi conference in an effort to find some information for one of my Indian students, that I came across a report given at this meeting by Sachidanand Shrivastava from the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities (NAID) in Nepal, an organisation founded in 1981 to support people with learning disabilities and their families. Mr Shrivastava spoke with great passion and pride about the achievements of this organisation across a country which faces many geographical, demographic and social challenges. He described the commitment of individuals who were attempting to develop facilities and provide resources and training in 23 districts of the country. Many of these are remote and require innovative approaches to the provision of support and great dedication on the part of those professionals and volunteers prepared to work there. There are certainly many children in Nepal who are being afforded an opportunity to receive an education as a result of the interventions of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities.

I remember at the time of hearing Sachidanand Shrivastava being impressed by the enthusiasm with which he presented his report, and wondering at the often difficult circumstances in which he and his colleagues were working. Having stumbled again upon this report whilst looking for something quite different in the AFID conference proceedings, I found myself thinking about this dedicated professional and his colleagues, and wondering what their circumstances must be now.

The devastating earthquakes that have destroyed so many lives and so much of the infrastructure in Nepal over the past month, has brought the country sharply into focus. This remote region, a favoured destination for mountaineers and wealthy tourists has suffered the most horrendous trauma, leaving its population in fear and despair. As with any such natural disaster, those who have suffered the greatest losses are the most vulnerable within the country. Television images of destroyed towns and villages, with people living in tents and queuing for basic necessities such as food and water, provide a graphic reminder of the destructive power of nature and its impact upon the lives of the victims of this terrible event.

Inevitably I found myself wondering about the fate of Sachidanand Shrivastava and his colleagues. Whatever their situation it is probable that much of the effort that they have made over so many years, to provide facilities and improve the lives of people with disabilities, will have been destroyed. It will obviously take many years to restore Nepal to the situation that existed prior to the earthquakes that so cruelly struck this region. I suspect that it will be a long time before the good work of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities is once again supporting vulnerable individuals and their families. However, having met Sachidanand Shrivastava I am convinced that even as I write this blog, he will be formulating a plan to continue the work to which he has been so committed over many years. At present it must seem that normality will never be restored, but we must have faith in the fortitude of individuals who will rebuild Nepalese society over the coming years.

I do hope that Sachidanand Shrivastava and his colleagues are safe, and that I will have an opportunity to hear more about the work of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities in Nepal in the future.

Filling my lungs

“Sometimes all I need
Is the air that I breathe
And to love you”

Written by Albert Hammond and  Mike Hazlewood,  and performed by The Hollies

 

Taste that good, clean Northamptonshire country air!

Taste that good, clean Northamptonshire country air!

 

A few days away from this blog has been necessitated by events. Arriving home from India at the weekend, exhausted and afflicted with the all too familiar “Bangalore Bark,” (a persistent cough that seems to have the sole function of extracating two weeks of city gunge from my suffering respiratory system!), my priority was to catch up with my family, and seek some domestic tranquility. The greatest challenge of working away from home for extended periods is certainly being away from loved ones – skype is good, but it has its limitations.

Living in a location surrounded by fields and trees, one of the first things I inevitably notice and appreciate when returning home from working in traffic choked polluted cities, is the good clean air. It arrives in my lungs as a welcome tonic and has an immediate rejuvenating effect. If I could bottle the good clean Northamptonshire country air, and carry it with me on my travels, it would be well worth the cost of excess baggage.The relative quiet of the countryside, disturbed only by birdsong and the wind in the trees is certainly a boon, but it is the rich quality of the air that I appreciate most. Ten minutes of deep breathing in the garden can result in a most pleasant intoxication.

Back on familiar territory, I have the opportunity to reflect on the hospitality and friendship of colleagues and students with whom I have had the privilege to work over the past few weeks in Bangalore. Whilst their lives and experiences differ greatly from my own, we have engaged in a common purpose, and share in the same ambitions of creating improved learning opportunities for children and teachers. As has been the case on all my previous visits, I have returned home with new learning and continue to make slow progress towards understanding the complex challenges that my Indian friends face in their day to day teaching lives. Their persistence and determination to do well for their students, fills me with admiration.

I look forward to returning to Bangalore to work with these respected colleagues in September, and to sharing again in this educational journey. I wonder how much easier their work might be if they could breathe some of this lovely Northamptonshire air? I’ll take a can or two with me on my next trip!

Tempestuous teaching!

This may be exaggerating Johnson's teaching experience yesterday (with apologies to the actor Greg Hicks) but at times he certainly having to fight the elements.

This may be exaggerating Johnson’s teaching experience yesterday (with apologies to the actor Greg Hicks) but at times he was certainly having to fight the elements.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

                        (Shakespeare – King  Lear)

I had the better part of the day for teaching here in Bangalore yesterday. Spending the morning engaged in lively debate over various models of interpreting behaviour with an enthusiastic and reflective group of students. Biological, psychological and social models were discussed, with the various merits of each interpretation being related to children known to the group. Arguments about the applicability of teaching approaches were high on the agenda, and a profound discussion of attachment led to some high level critical thinking. Our students participated willingly in all of the activities we had prepared, questioned their own beliefs and those of others and postulated theories and ideas in relation to their various classroom situations. This was quite literally the calm before the storm.

After another delectable lunch, Johnson took the reins and began the afternoon session by showing a video-recording of a classroom in Kerala, in a Malayalam media school. His session was well prepared with a series of questions and tasks and he had been looking forward to a vibrant lesson. He could not possibly have anticipated exactly how exciting it would become. No sooner had he begun this process than the heavens opened and rains lashed against the windows of the classroom. I should perhaps explain that we teach on the fourth floor of a building with windows on all four sides of the room. It can be noisy on a quiet day – but this was not a quiet day!

Heavy rain is not unusual in Bangalore, but what then followed was unprecedented in our experience of teaching here. Within minutes sizeable hail stones were cracking against the glass, the wind had picked up to gale force, and the eucalyptus trees behind the screen being used by Johnson, were threatening to smash their way through the windows. Johnson continued manfully, with the determination of Captain Oates going forth into the teeth of the blizzard, he raised the volume of both the video and his voice in a determined effort not to be defeated. In response to Johnson’s strategy the tempest grew fiercer building into a crescendo of rage as if to spite his every effort.

As Johnson continued, we noticed water seeping through windows, and before long two willing ladies appeared up the stairs with cloths, mops and buckets and with great gusto began to address the deluge that was fast building around Johnson’s feet. As a small lake developed in the classroom, Johnson waded forth, set on his mission and not to be distracted. I must confess to seeing an element of the old silent movie comedies in the session as with the determination that befits a seasoned professional Johnson ploughed on with increased resolve.

Fortunately the video had been concluded when the power cut arrived, and as I would have expected, ignoring this adversity Johnson fought his way stoically to his conclusion. Bravo man, what a sterling effort! The students I am sure were as full of admiration for this intrepid performance as myself. Furthermore they maintained their high level of performance and continued to complete the tasks set with gusto.

One of the saddest features of yesterday’s furious storm was the number of mature trees we encountered felled across the roads of the city in the evening. Today’s Hindu newspaper reports that more than 90 trees came down. Travel became an arduous process, and what should have taken fifteen minutes involved a journey of more than an hour. I would like to think that these wonderful giants of the city would be replaced with new planting, but I suspect that this may not be the case, as too many motorists, – these are now the dominant species in Bangalore, – see trees as taking the valuable space that could be given over to tarmac and new potholes.

We are hoping for quieter weather today as students begin to consider the assessed elements of the module. However, just in case things deteriorate further we will be armed with buckets and sponges and plenty more of Johnson’s fortitude!

Appreciating context; a first step towards respectful teaching?

Come and visit my school. You'll have seen nothing quite like it in England.

Come and visit my school. You’ll have seen nothing quite like it in England.

I have always believed that in teaching an understanding of context is important. I think that to some extent this belief was instilled in me during my first year of teaching when I worked in a school located in a coal mining area of England. It was soon apparent that the life experiences of people in this community, and therefore the children in the school were very different from my own. If I was to work in this school, I needed to gain some understanding.

I still find it difficult to imagine the dangers faced by the men who went every day, miles underground to toil in the heat, noise and dust of the coal seams. Mine was a very comfortable life and profession by comparison to theirs. I soon came to appreciate that with mining came a distinct culture and pride, built upon a close knit community that experienced similar dangers, and had bonded through times of hardship, pit accidents, respiratory disease and a common identity. To be a miner was to wear a badge of honour, and those outside of the immediate pit community could not easily gain access. But alongside a shared adversity, the local miners amongst whom we briefly lived had forged a positive life through the miner’s welfare clubs, a significant commitment to charitable work, and the rightly acclaimed music of the brass bands, a well-respected feature of many British mining communities. I still find it difficult to watch Mark Herman’s film Brassed Off without the occasional tear coming to my eye.

If context is important in shaping  lives and attitudes within communities, then it is surely necessary that we as teachers try to gain an understanding of the experiences of those we teach. This is a major challenge for those of us who come from the UK to teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme in Bangalore. Whilst it is fair to say that having worked here over the past fifteen years I find that there is much that teachers in England and India have in common, and that I see similar aspirations for children in the families I meet, I am always conscious that there are phenomena here that I don’t fully understand. I am sure that a lifetime here as an outsider would not be enough to enable a full understanding of the complexities of this context.

The modules that we deliver here have been developed in close partnership with our Indian colleagues who work with us on this course. We have worked hard to ensure that each session is relevant to teachers working in Indian schools and have gathered resources and teaching materials developed by Indian teachers working in a range of schools in Bangalore and beyond. None the less there are still issues arise during teaching or the assessment of student’s work that require careful consideration, analysis and discussion with our Indian colleagues in order to ensure that we are able to fully interpret a range of situations.

I have become increasingly concerned that there are professional educators, many from well-respected universities who are working outside of their own countries with very little regard for local traditions, beliefs and culture. This came to mind yesterday as I read about the introduction of an assessment procedure, commonly used in western countries for the assessment classroom management procedures, to schools in a northern Indian state. No effort had been made to modify the instrument being used, or even to discuss its relevance with local teachers or education administrators. It would appear that an assumption was made that because this procedure had been developed by “experts” in school management in a distinguished institution, that it should be suitable for use anywhere in the world. I am reliably informed that the two academics who delivered training in the use of this assessment tool had not previously visited India, and had certainly not spent time in schools. I assume that someone in this north Indian state had paid for the services provided, and maybe too they are in part culpable for not investigating the appropriateness of the materials on offer.

The creation of cultural dissonance increases with globalisation, and the imposition of a set of values previously alien to those particularly in countries of socio-economic disadvantage, who are working hard to improve the lives of children may well be a future source of tension. Internationalisation in education brings with it great opportunities for shared learning and understanding, but the right conditions must be created in order to ensure that the advantages gained are of benefit to all parties. Establishing a partnership of equals and challenging imperialistic models of benefice is essential. Taking the time and effort to get to know something of a country, its culture, influences and the aspirations of its people should be a requirement of anyone embarking upon such work.

Celebration follows all the hard work

Activity and debate. Active learning is alive and well in Bangalore.

Activity and debate. Active learning is alive and well in Bangalore.

Some of our students here in Bangalore are still high on the celebrations of their graduation last week. I have met several of them since and it is obvious that the occasion meant a great deal to them, as it did to their tutors, and they continue to savour the moment when they were awarded their degrees. This is just as it should be and I hope they continue to wear the aura of success for some time.

In conversation with one of our recent graduates this week, she told me:-

“When we first started on the course, for a few days I thought, why do we keep debating and analysing everything? Why don’t the tutors simply tell us what to do? It took us a while to adjust to a new way of learning, but now we realise how much more effective this approach has been. I now find myself questioning everything I do as a teacher in order to improve my practice. I also find myself reading more and wanting to know more about children and teaching.”

Such conversations are always reassuring, because whenever we embark upon teaching a new group of students we have our own apprehensions about how they might react to our approach. We spend the first few sessions closely observing our students for any positive signs in the hope that they are coming together as a group, and that they are prepared to challenge their own practices as teachers. So far, whilst teaching in Bangalore it has taken no more than a couple of days for our groups to become cohesive and to feel comfortable in debate and willing to engage in critical discussion about classrooms.

Watching from the side-lines yesterday as John and Johnson worked on a practical task with our third cohort of students, I was particularly interested to see how they moved around the room, sharing ideas with others and discussing aspects of behaviour management with children. Something that we have observed in all three of our cohorts to date, is that they do not form cliques or have a tendency to sit in the same place during sessions. Their movement is much more fluid than this and they seem content to work with any colleague during the activities that we present. This contrasts greatly with our experience of teaching in England, where students appear to seek the security of familiar working partners and are sometime loathe to explore ideas with someone less well known.

Today we will welcome visitors to the course. Individuals who think they may wish to join our new intake of students but wish to see just what we are like. I know that they will receive a warm welcome from our students and will soon detect the friendly atmosphere that they have created. We do not let these visitors sit on the periphery of the group, but rather engage them fully in the day’s debates and activities. Hopefully by doing this alongside friendly well established colleagues they will soon feel at ease and get a flavour of the ways in which we work.

We have been fortunate that those students who have chosen to join this course since it began in 2012 have without exception been full of enthusiasm, eager to learn and willing to become a part of a group committed to debate and practical learning. I am sure that amongst our visitors today there will be others who can also make a significant contribution to the promotion of more inclusive teaching and learning here in South India. I look forward to sharing in their celebrations as they graduate in the not too distant future.

Why is it that sometimes I behave badly?

John challenges students about their behaviour

John challenges students about their behaviour

Whenever we hear of behaviour being discussed in schools, it is almost always in the context of “difficult children”. Asking teachers about those pupils who they have most difficulty managing and they will inevitably name someone, usually a boy, who they describe as a behaviour problem. There is therefore always the potential when delivering a course with the words “social emotional and behavioural difficulties in the title, that some colleagues will attend in expectation of solutions and a quick fix for their behaviour management issues.

This week, students attending the MA is Special and Inclusive Education here in Bangalore, are considering aspects of the social and emotional needs of children, which inevitably means that there will be some debate around behaviour. But being a masters level course, this week is not about “tips for teachers,” though we hope that along the journey they will reflect on what they discuss and have ideas and strategies to apply in their classrooms.

My colleague John Visser began yesterday’s session by challenging our students to reflect upon their own behaviours. When and why do they behave badly? What are the consequences of this poor behaviour? And who is affected by the outcomes? More importantly, how de we feel and react when children behave like this in our classrooms?

Throughout the week we hope that students will consider not only the nature of what is seen as unacceptable behaviour, but will also look at causal effects, helping children to understand their own emotions and social interactions. This will be managed through a series of activities through which our students will examine theoretical perspectives in practical terms.

Whist yesterday’s session started quietly, as participants came to terms that their own behaviours were being placed under the microscope, they soon warmed up an began to express their own feelings and experiences. Every bit as important as as the input from tutors is the jousting between students and the built in time for reflection.

It is already obvious that this is going to be a lively and enjoyable week. I have no doubt that there will be conflicting views expressed and strong opinions upheld. But this is all part of the cut and thrust of studying on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) we have an open day for visitors interested in the course. Why not come along and meet us?

New beginnings

Writing biographical information of a new found friend. A different and interesting challenge

The quality of our students in Bangalore is such that we look forward to their continued study with us.

I am sure that tutors the world over who teach on post graduate degree courses would agree, that from fairly early on in the teaching process, some students stand out as potential candidates to study at doctoral level. Having taught on master’s level degree courses over a number of years, I can recall many occasions when I have had conversations with individuals regarding the possibility that they might further their studies, and continue whilst they had “study momentum”, to the next level. Whilst some respond positively, there are others who just wish to obtain their degrees and finish their studies after a prolonged period of self-sacrifice, and absence from their families, hobbies or other domestic arrangements. I fully appreciate this and would never coerce anyone into several more years of study unless they genuinely wanted to take this leap.

When working in England I have generally been delighted when a good and enthusiastic student expresses a desire to register for PhD. It is particularly heartening when they wish to do so because of the experiences they have had working on a course in which I have played a small part. There is no denying that I always feel an immense sense of pride when a few years later they walk onto a stage to receive their doctorates. However, when we started the MA in special and inclusive education programme in Bangalore, I had not really anticipated the level of interest that we might have here for doctoral level study.

I can honestly report that the quality of work we have received from students in our Bangalore cohorts has been very high. Their independence as researchers and their commitment to study has been exemplary. They respond positively to criticism and advice, and they have been a joy to teach. As our first cohort commenced work on research for their final dissertations some of them began to discuss amongst themselves the possibility of furthering their studies. This initial murmur eventually got louder until a few actually made the plunge to ask about continuing their development as researchers.

What motivates them to take this bold step to an even higher level of study I wonder? We are always honest with students about the significant endeavour that will be involved. In conversation with those who have now made a commitment and made applications for doctoral level study, it is evident that it is not the prospect of an academic career that has focused the minds of most, but rather a genuine desire to investigate aspects of their work, and the children and families they support. In so doing they hope to gain greater understanding of how the lives of others might be improved, and the ways in which the education services provided here in India can become more inclusive.

Having seen the level of motivation that characterises our Indian students, I find the prospect of working with some of them, as they hone their research skills and conduct empirical studies into aspects of inclusion, both exciting and daunting. Exciting because I know of their commitment and enthusiasm, and believe that they will produce studies of outstanding quality. Daunting because I know that I will need to be on my mettle to keep up with these consummate professionals, as they gain further in their confidence as researchers and thinkers.

Much that is good has emerged from the MA course here in Bangalore. The levels of learning have been high for students and tutors alike. We have evidence of new learning being applied in classrooms and changing the lives of children, families and teachers. We have developed networks, forged friendships and established collegial relationships that will endure and continue to impact upon professional lives. Building a community of researchers and practitioners here in South India, all of whom have the intention of moving the inclusive education agenda forward, should be reason enough to continue working with friends and colleagues in this part of the world. As one of our students stated at the recent graduation ceremony; “I see today not so much as the end of a period of study, but more of a new beginning for teachers and children.”

Amen to that!

More things in common than might be expected

 

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Working with teachers in their own environment has a very different feel from that experienced when running courses at the university or on neutral territory. Being familiar with the surroundings and comfortable with each other, often means that those tentative minutes of beginning a training session are dispensed with, and teachers quickly become relaxed. Thus was the situation at Vydehi school today in the Whitefields district of Bangalore where I had been invited to conduct a session by Anita, one of our MA students here in the city. However, an interesting dimension of today’s training was that it brought together teachers from a special school alongside those from mainstream with a specific focus on creating an inclusive learning environment. This situation raised a number of questions in my mind about the expectations that teachers from these two respective establishments might have, and the ways in which they might interpret inclusive schooling. Would the special school teachers feel that they had a monopoly of expertise in respect of children with special educational needs? Would the mainstream teachers see these children as a problem? The session was approached by examining a model of assessment and planning to create opportunities for children to learn together in one classroom. Examples were presented from schools where these approaches had succeeded, and discussions of pupil “deficits” avoided. My idea was to provide examples that could encourage and enable children of all needs and abilities to learn within the same lessons. An emphasis was placed upon the proposition that within the same lesson children could be given many learning opportunities, and they do not in fact all need to learn the same thing, or work at the same pace.

It is always interesting trying to gauge the reaction of a group when addressing what I know to be, for many teachers, a series of challenging concepts. Nodding heads and smiles are always a good sign, furrowed brows and folded arms can be slightly worrying, a firm shaking of heads and reddening faces are disturbing to say the least. I recall one occasion when an audience member sitting immediately in front of me, at the outset of a session opened to its full width a broadsheet newspaper, thus concealing himself from me, and vice versa. This all before I had uttered a word.  I must confess that this rather pointed protest made me smile at the time, and I believe I saw the man behind the newsprint as ripe for conversion. Many of his surrounding colleagues objected to his behaviour, forcing him to lower his newspaper. In a way I was disappointed, having calculated that he would be unable to maintain his pose for more than a few minutes before his arms tired and he was forced to retreat. Fortunately today, there were far more smiles and nodding heads than otherwise, and nobody undertook any form of protest. Most reassuring was that teachers from both the mainstream and special schools appeared to be in accord with the principles that I was merrily espousing.

Towards the end of the session I became slightly concerned that they had all reached saturation point in respect of the information received and the ideas discussed. However, Anita suggested one final activity to end the event, and I was happy to comply. Teachers from both schools worked together in groups to plan a lesson in one of the formats presented during the session. They were asked to demonstrate how they might ensure that the needs of children from both of their schools could be incorporated into the lesson and their needs met. I was not surprised to find that these professionals rose to this challenge admirably and that they soon settled into devising differentiated approaches, and the implementation of resources that would support inclusive learning. When they presented back their ideas it was clear that they had identified a means of planning whereby all children could work together in an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

Whilst the teachers in today’s session are used to working in very different situations, it was evident that they have far more in common than they do differences. It became clear during the morning that these enthusiastic teachers also recognised that this was equally true of the children with whom they work.