What can we learn in one minute fifty seven seconds?



One minute and fifty seven seconds – not much out of a busy day, and certainly very little time to do justice to the experiences of a seven year old child.

I can remember a couple of occasions in my life when I thrilled to the experience of being on the sea in a relatively small boat. One of these trips, out of Brixham harbour in Devon, on flat calm waters was to catch blue and silver mackerel, which made a fine supper during a brief family holiday. Many years later, as an adult, a far more exciting journey was experienced from the Isle of May in the Scottish Firth of Forth returning to the mainland following a week living on that quiet and desolate nature reserve. On this particular journey huge waves crashed across the boat as it pitched and rolled through the white crested peaks and troughs of a savage sea. However, as the skipper of the vessel manoeuvred a familiar pathway with apparent nonchalance back to the safety of the tiny port of Anstruther, where we knew warmth and shelter awaited, I was neither fearful for my safety and that of my family, nor apprehensive of what lay ahead.

How different then were my experiences from those of seven year old Malak who features in the first of a series of “unfairy tales” recently launched by UNICEF. These short animations combine the power of art and music to convey a simple but harrowing message about the plight of children fleeing Syria in search of a safe haven where they will not be shot at, bombed, or forced from their homes. Sadly, this is a story with which we are all now so familiar. So, will a simple animated film make any difference?

This was a question I asked myself this morning having watched “Malak and the Boat”, and I am still unsure that I have an answer. The title “Unfairy Tale” applied to these short animations is a subtle play on words. As children many of us are brought up with fairy tales; fables that often become ingrained within our national and cultural identities. Those of the brothers Grimm, or Hans-Christian Anderson, or Perrault have become classics of literature, much loved stories with which we became familiar in our early years. The play on words in the title of these brief animations, with an emphasis upon how “unfair” life can be for so many children and their families is an apt juxtaposition for a series of short films that convey a desperate message. (As a matter of fact, many traditional fairy stories have sinister undertones which have in some instances terrified rather than entertained the children to whom they were read.)

UNICEF’s “unfairy tales” are beautifully made and compelling. They are also short enough to hold the attention of even those who live busy lives and claim to have little time to think. But I am still unsure whether they are likely to have the impact that their producers intend. I find myself asking, who will see these films? They came easily to my attention because I am well connected to media outlets and newsfeeds that consider children’s rights, but I am unaware of them having been placed in a position of prominence beyond these. Are UNICEF therefore releasing these films only in the direction of those individuals and organisations that have already demonstrated concern? If this is the case, can they possibly hope to have an impact?

Whilst conveying the brutality that is a part of the daily lives of so many children and expressing a message that we all need to hear, I wonder if these carefully crafted works of art can possibly change the attitudes and approaches of governments, organisations or individuals who for so long now have been confronted with the horrifying images of children in distress washed up, and not always alive, on the beaches of Europe? Many of these destitute children appear to have simply become a daily feature of our television news programmes and have often been relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers. Can the efforts of UNICEF in producing these films possibly have any effect?

We have already seen that attitudes towards the ever growing population of refugees fleeing war torn countries have been conveyed in words of sympathy, empathy, and sorrow, but of late these emotions have been more frequently transposed by fear, hatred and resentment. But as the images of suffering have become a nightly feature of our television screens I would suggest that the most common reaction has now become one of indifference. Will yet one more bold and impassioned approach to gaining understanding, such as this from UNICEF change any of this?

These are the imponderables that I found myself addressing this morning as I began my comfortable journey to work. I have no answer, and indeed I suspect there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, we must applaud those who are making bold efforts to keep the plight of desperate refugees to the forefront of our minds. The UNICEF films may, or may not make a difference, but at least as an organisation they are taking affirmative action, both through this media and their actions on the ground, to support those who are suffering as a result of the carnage inflicted upon Syria.

I post “Malak and the Boat” here for you to see for yourself. It will take a whole one minute and fifty seven seconds from your busy schedule today to watch this film, and even longer if you then decide to send it to a friend. Perhaps after watching you can help me to find answers to some of the troubling questions I have asked above. If so, I would like to hear what these are.

Click on the image below to watch “Malak and the Boat”


Let’s try to recapture some of the magic of childhood

Congratulations to Evelyn Glennie - awarded the Polar Prize for Music

Congratulations to Evelyn Glennie – awarded the Polar Prize for Music

Dame Evelyn Glennie is a wonderful percussionist. I have been fortunate to see her perform on several occasions. One of the most memorable of these performances was as soloist for James Macmillan’s Veni Veni Emmanuel at the the Derngate Concert Hall in Northampton. She must be amongst the most vibrant and enthusiastic performers to ever grace the concert platform. I was therefore delighted this morning to hear on the radio that she had been awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize.

Evelyn Glennie has often asserted that she is a musician who does not want to be “pigeon holed” or labelled according to the music she plays. Equally at home with a full orchestra playing pieces written by classical composers, or with a small avant-garde group accompanying the Icelandic performer Bjork, she is an adventurous musician who is always looking for opportunities to do something new.

Just as she does not wish to see perceptions of her musicianship limited, she is equally adamant that she does not want to be labelled as a deaf musician. This despite the fact that she has been profoundly deaf since she was twelve years old. Glennie feels the music at least as well as most of us can hear it.

“There’s no such thing as total deafness,” she told a reporter on BBC radio this morning. “If the body can feel, that is a form of hearing. Sound is vibration, that’s what it is.”

I have heard her make similar suggestions on several occasions before, but it was something else she said this morning that caught my attention. Evelyn Glennie is approaching her fiftieth birthday and was asked by the interviewer to reflect on how she felt about this in the context of her distinguished musical career. Her immediate response was to say that she still felt like a child. When asked to elaborate on this comment, she stated that she felt that she could still view her music and experiences of the world with the same enthusiasm and pleasure that we associate with children.

What a wonderfully life affirming statement I thought. Here is an eminent professional who clearly values the sense of awe and wonder that children experience with each new discovery. Evelyn Glennie in making this claim reinforces the importance of respecting the ways in which children view the world, and the excitement that they gain from learning. Her comment this morning made me smile above my muesli! It also made me wonder whether we all ought to make a little more effort to try and recapture some of the magic of our youth and channel it into the work we do today.

I am not suggesting that we become childish, which I see as being distinctly different from being child like. The first implies a level of immaturity that we should make every effort to leave behind, the second a state that we should perhaps try to recapture.

As I write this I am seated at Heathrow airport awaiting a flight to Brazil. It occurs to me that I have a recording of Evelyn Glennie on my phone and that I have an opportunity to listen to this and celebrate this wonderful musician and her achievements during the long trip ahead. I must also make a note to myself to ensure that I work towards achieving a more childlike state!


You can listen to Evelyn Glennie perform Rhythmic Caprice by Leigh Howard Stevens  by watching the link below



Broadening the learning horizon could well have benefits.

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

In recent years it seems that everywhere I travel education has been reduced to a set of attainment targets. Furthermore the focus of education often appears to have been confined to a narrow and predictable channel around mathematics and science. The social sciences and arts appear less significant in the minds of many politicians and policy makers and achievements by children in these areas can easily pass unnoticed. But maybe now I am beginning to detect a small amount of challenge to this narrow view of the curriculum.

Yesterday was a day of contrasts in terms of the education related media reports that I accessed. On the morning Radio 4 Today Programme the BBC,  in one of those items that always seem to appear as “fillers” between more weighty debate, once again cited a politician (so many have done this that they all blur into one) who wishes that our schools in the UK could be more like those in Shanghai, Singapore or Korea. Leaving aside the fact that these learned politicos appear to have failed to recognise that the cultures of these countries are significantly different from our own, it is clear that the obsession with the education system in these nations is based solely upon educational attainment in mathematics and science. There is no doubt that any scrutiny of academic outcomes in these subjects reveals that China, Korea and Singapore are performing at a high level, but at what cost?

Research conducted into childhood stress and anxiety levels, published in a number of authoritative journals indicates that Chinese students report some of the highest stress levels in the world, and exhibit acute symptoms that include heightened anxiety, despair and feelings of anger towards their peers. Similar reports from Korea suggest that increased levels of bullying and an appallingly high incidence of child suicides may be directly correlated to pressure to do well in academic subjects. Every parent wants their child to do well in school, and it is right that teachers should have high expectations of their students. But perhaps this can be achieved through methods that don’t simply involve cramming for examinations, and might be better managed if greater credence was given to wider aspects of the curriculum.

Once again I found myself feeling somewhat cross that the BBC had resorted to lazy journalism in presenting an item comparing UK education to that elsewhere in the world. However, by contrast it was a news item from Asia that made me think that perhaps there is the potential for a backlash against this simplistic appraisal of the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik writing in the education supplement of the Deccan Herald from South India begins his article under the title “The need for reviving liberal education”  (Deccan Herald March 5th 2015) by depicting a typical scenario in which an adult asks a child how they are getting on in school. The child answers by giving his grades in maths and science, but says nothing of other subjects and certainly does not mention whether or not he enjoys schools. The adult is satisfied that he has received a reply that indicates satisfactory attainment in these two dominant subjects, therefore all must be well in this child’s education.

I should state before going any further that the use of the term “liberal” in Mr Koushik’s article will have already raised the hackles of at least one reader of this blog, who has had occasion to use this term as a derogation of my articles in his own writing in the past, but I make no apologies and neither should the journalist who within his feature makes a number of acute observations about the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik constructs an eloquent argument for giving greater value to the teaching of literature, the social sciences and art. With regards to the teaching of literature he states that:-

“literature is the study of life. By studying literature, we learn what it means to be human. Literature also teaches us about how powerful language can be. By studying the use of language in literature, we learn how to use the subtleties of the language to our advantage. So, literature helps us in shaping and moulding our character”. 

He goes on to advocate a broadening of our approach to the social sciences by saying:-

“When we study the social sciences, we are studying how people put their societies together and we are looking at the impacts of their decisions about how their societies should be run. By studying these things, we are becoming better informed about how societies should be put together and the intricacies involved in them”.

At no point does Krishnan Koushik deny the importance of the sciences and mathematics, but he makes a good case for ensuring that we provide children with a more holistic appreciation of the world in which they live and for which they will soon assume greater responsibility. Referring to previously revered, but sadly now more often ignored, educators of the past, including Johann Pestalozzi, David Thoreau, Francis Parker, John Dewey and Maria Montessori, Koushik makes a case for recognising the individuality of each child and provided them with a broad range of learning opportunities in which they can find their own passions and strengths. One particular phrase in his article stands out:-

 “Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning”.

Krishnan Koushik’s article is one of several that I have noted in the media from several parts of the world recently. It would appear that concerns are being increasingly expressed about the narrowing focus of education and in particular the marginalisation of all but a few curriculum subjects. The issues surrounding this debate are complex and I believe that many of those who advocate a focus upon science and maths, even at a cost to other subjects, often do so with a genuine concern for the needs of children. The majority of teachers with whom I converse have been expressing their concerns about the narrowing of curriculum priorities. Sadly, many of them are fearful of expressing their opinions or participating in the debate.

If you disagree with the sentiments expressed by Krishnan Koushik or the ways in which I have portrayed these in this blog, do feel free to post a reply. Healthy debate can help us all to learn and understand other’s points of view. Alternatively, if you have been incensed by the liberality of the views expressed you could try to relax by reading a good novel, visiting your local art gallery, exploring the nature of your immediate hinterland, going to the theatre or listening to Mozart or Abida Parveen. Whilst doing so you might consider how future generations will be encouraged to value and appreciate these experiences.

Finding a voice beyond words

The Japanese Nobel Prize winning writer Kenzaburō Ōe with his son Hikari.

The Japanese Nobel Prize winning writer Kenzaburō Ōe with his son Hikari.

It was only three years ago that I discovered the writings of the Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe. I first read his novel Nip The Buds; Shoot the Kids. This is an angry book that tells the tale of a group of outcast boys evacuated from an institution during wartime, who undertake an ultimately doomed attempt to live an autonomous existence in a remote mountain region. The tale seethes with indignation, the author’s fury standing out from the page as he presents his story of the ways in which the young men at the centre of events are despised and misinterpreted by members of the local community. I must admit that I found the book quite shocking when I read it, yet I was also intrigued by what could have motivated Ōe to write in such terms.

Determined to pursue this issue further I turned to a later novel Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and also began to investigate more about this extraordinary writer. This second novel is no less powerful than the first. It tells the tale of K who lives in Tokyo with his wife and three children. The eldest of these three, in his late teens, is a young man with a learning disability. K and his wife, throughout the book wrestle with coming to terms with the changing nature of their son’s difficulties, and in particular the fact that he at times becomes aggressive towards others and appears increasingly difficult to manage. The book is full of complexities, not the least of which is K’s attempt to make sense of his son’s world through the poetry of William Blake.

These are intensely personal novels and it was with very little surprise that I discovered that in real life Kenzaburō Ōe is the father of a son  who has limited language and motor skills, and an inability to express his emotions clearly and is therefore often described as being on the autism spectrum. This acutely personal experience explains the intensity with which he is able to write about the complexities of family life in Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and the difficulties of identity associated with his characters in Nip The Buds; Shoot the Kids.

Many parents of children with disabilities can articulate the challenges that they have faced in bringing up their sons or daughters. Often they will speak of the ways in which their children are seen as “different” and even “difficult.” But few have the skills of a Nobel prize winning author with which to express their experiences and emotions. Kenzaburō Ōe’s novels provide a unique insight into the complex relationship between a father and his son. Yet there is one more angle to this family saga that makes this situation extraordinary.

Kenzaburō Ōe’s son, born in 1963 is now a well-respected composer. Hikari Ōe showed an interest in music when he was very young and his parents arranged tuition for him with a piano teacher named Kumiko Tamura. Hikari, who was unable to express his emotions in words soon began to do so through musical composition. He demonstrated a prodigious talent and is now rightly regarded as a fine composer mainly of chamber music. The Japanese-French pianist Akiko Ebi has championed Ōe’s work through a number of her recordings and concert recitals and his music has gained in popularity. In September, 1994, Hikari Ōe  won the Japan Academy Award prize for music for the film score for  “Shizuka na Seikatsu” (A Quiet Life) directed by Juzo Itami. On accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, Kenzaburō Ōe reflected on how writing had enabled him to confront many challenges in his life and spoke movingly about how Hikari uses music in a similar way to portray what he described as “the voice of a crying and dark soul.”

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, declared as such by the United Nations General Assembly in 2008, to highlight the need to improve the lives of children and adults diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. There are many events going on around the world today to recognise this occasion and many people working hard as parents, carers, teachers or in other capacities to support those who have been diagnosed with autism. Raising awareness is important if we are to create a more tolerant and inclusive society. So as my small gesture towards World Autism Awareness Day I leave you with an opportunity to listen to three short pieces, Adagio in D Minor for Flute and Piano, Grief Number 3 for Piano and Nocturne 2 for Flute and Piano composed by  Hikari Ōe. Click on the link below and you will also see a photograph of the composer as a young man with his father and mother, and at work at the piano.

Apparently Hikari Ōe continues to have only limited speech, but I believe that he has certainly found his voice.

Music by Hikari Ōe

Celebrating the sweet sounds of inclusive teaching

A great musician, in part gifted to us by a great teacher

A great musician, in part gifted to us by a great teacher

When I am writing I need quiet. There are some tasks I can perform with background noise or with music playing gently in the background, but if I am trying to write I need an atmosphere as silent as I can achieve. In this regard I am fortunate in living in a tranquil and beautiful part of the countryside surrounded by fields and trees and where for most of the time the only noise is that which emanates from the weather or the local wildlife.

Yesterday was spent in my study at home writing the text for part of a research proposal that I have been working on with colleagues. Virtually the whole day, save for a couple of phone calls that were a necessary interruption was spent in silence. I like it this way and the silence is of my own choosing. However, I have become increasingly aware over the years of working like this that after a prolonged period of tranquillity I often need to break the silence either with music or conversation. Whilst I like the focus that comes with a quiet room I would not cope well with leading the life of a Trappist monk.

So it was yesterday that after around eight hours of quiet writing time I needed to break the silence and immerse myself in the world of sound. With the house still empty – Sara at yet another school staff meeting, I selected a CD, turned on the music and relaxed into an armchair. My choice of music today was James MacMillan’s Veni Veni Emmanuel. MacMillan is a Scottish Composer whose compositions have been played and recorded by many of the world’s leading orchestras. Much of his music such as Seven Last Words from the Cross and his interpretation of the St John Passion has a sacred theme and can invoke a meditative atmosphere. Passages from Veni Veni Emmanuel can certainly have this impact, but as a piece written for percussion and orchestra it is often bold and loud, and after a day of silence this suited my purpose.

As I sat listening to and enjoying the music it was inevitable that as well as reflecting on this beautiful composition and the exciting tones of the opening passages, my thoughts turned to the solo percussionist featured in the recording. In particular I found myself thinking about the nature of silence and the joy of music. The reason for this juxtaposition of sound and silence was intensified by knowing that the percussionist whose virtuoso performance I was hearing is herself profoundly deaf.

I have had the great privilege of seeing Evelyn Glennie perform live on a number of occasions. Diminutive of stature, invariably barefoot on the stage, her presence and command of the orchestra immediately demands respect. When I first saw her performing Veni Veni Emmanuel at the Derngate Concert hall in Northampton I was immediately gripped by the energy of her playing and the subtle changes of mood created throughout the performance. On subsequent occasions I have been equally entranced by her enthusiasm tempered by great control and the mastery of her instruments.

When interviewed about her musicianship it is inevitable that before long the subject of Evelyn Glennie’ deafness emerges. She often uses these occasions to encourage  deaf children and more particularly their teachers to try and get involved in some aspect of music. Of her own situation she states:-

“I just happen to be a musician who happens to be deaf, who happens to play percussion, who happens to have brown hair, and so on!”

In an interview first published in Modern Drummer in 1989 she paid tribute to a particular teacher who had faith in her ability and encouraged her to experiment as a musician. In this interview she said

“Ron Forbes was a sensitive person and he had a great deal of patience with me,”

She described how he taught her to tune the timpani she was learning to play by telling her to place her hands flat on a wall to feel the vibrations that the tuned interval of the instrument created.

“I could feel the vibrations in my hands and lower parts of my legs, so I got the pitch that way. I can also put my fingertips on the edge and feel it that way. There are countless ways of really hearing a particular instrument.”

This teacher was clearly significant in Evelyn Glennie’s life and in particular her development as a musician. Mr Forbes probably saw deafness as an obstacle to creating music, but not one to which he was willing to yield. Here then is a fine example of inclusive teaching that possibly transformed the life of an individual student. Yet more than this, I would suggest that his commitment as a teacher has enabled his pupil to bring a great gift to those of us who enjoy music. In transforming one life he has touched the lives of millions.

So in saying thank you to Evelyn Glennie for many hours of enjoyable listening, I would also like to thank Mr Ron Forbes for a career as an inclusive teacher. If you want to hear the results of his determined and supportive teaching click on the link below.

Those of you who watched the opening ceremony of the London Olympics will already have seen Evelyn Glennie perform. But just in case you missed this do enjoy this brief extract here.



Long haul learning


A meeting of minds. Different experiences and mutual respect

A meeting of minds. Different experiences and mutual respect


Bjork Mutual Core

Long haul flights are tedious and economy seating far from comfortable, though the Emirates cabin crew are excellent and work hard to provide service with a smile. The tedium is such that I invariably find the need to scroll through the many entertainment channels that are a great relief from the tedium that exists between the period when cabin crew demonstrate the safety procedures on the plane, and serve us with excessively packaged meals. Despite, or maybe because of the many hundreds of films on offer I still have difficulties making an informed  choice. But on the recent Dubai to Birmingham leg of the journey home from Bangalore I struck lucky.

When Björk met Attenborough struck me as a most unlikely title. I was immediately intrigued to know how and why Channel 4 television had brought together the Icelandic singer and songwriter  Björk Guðmundsdóttir, generally regarded as an inventive and somewhat avant garde, or possibly even eccentric musician, with Sir David Attenborough, naturalist, author and broadcaster, oft referred to as a national treasure (very British expression this) and pillar of the establishment. Indian readers may well be as familiar with his brother Sir Richard Attenborough, director of the blockbusting film Gandhi as with the younger David. I couldn’t resist and had to watch; a very good decision as it turned out.

Early in the programme, Björk explains to Attenborough how as a child on her long walks to and from school in Iceland she would pass the time by singing. She also revealed how much the natural beauty of Iceland influenced her love of music and the ways in which she now interprets sound. Björk’s intellect shines throughout the programme and the affection that she and Attenborough clearly share for each other provides the viewer with a comfortable feeling that there is tremendous respect across generations.

Much of this documentary was filmed at the magnificent natural history museum in London, a building and collection of artefacts well known to Attenborough and which Björk describes as “epic.” During the course of their conversation it soon emerges that each of the leading characters in this film have an immense respect for the work of the other. More revealing is the fact that Attenborough is clearly well versed in Björk’s music and has considered the significant vocal range and tone of her voice, whilst the musician is more than able to hold her own in a discussion of the natural world. I suspect that this is a side of both their characters than many, including myself, had never previously considered. Particularly memorable is their discussion of the formation of crystals and the mathematical patterns that these involve which can be closely related to the development of music.

The documentary is built around Björk’s exploration of the natural world to provide the inspiration for an innovative piece of music that she has titled “Biophilia”. This involves the use of newly invented instruments and the production of tones that closely mimic those of the sounds with which both Björk and Attenborough have become familiar through their exploration of nature. In the eventual production of the music Attenborough, in a voice that has become so recognisable to viewers of his many wildlife documentaries, is to be a narrator who will bring together the various pieces of music created by Björk and her collaborating musicians.

Why am I writing about this documentary on what is ostensibly a blog focused upon education? Well, a number of points during the dialogue between Björk and David Attenborough struck me as particularly interesting. When describing the music at one point Attenborough states that “with Biophilia comes a restless curiosity”. Here he is referring to the investigative nature of the music but he could equally be describing his own drive for understanding and that which has characterised the experimentation of Björk. At another point he suggests that “for music to be rewarding it does require thought; it does require work” but indicates quite clearly that for him the efforts are worthwhile, rewarding and educative.

Before watching this documentary I would have imagined that the worlds of Attenborough and Björk were poles apart , but what struck me when watching this programme was the great regard that they clearly had for each other and for their learning. I suppose for many teachers the learning most associated with David Attenborough would be described as formal and establishment, whereas Björk may have been seen as having departed from the traditional pathways into a more experimental mode. But their respect for each other seemed to me to give a most positive and reassuring message. Each recognised the authority of the other in respect of their obvious areas of expertise, but neither assumed superiority for their own learning. Furthermore the film depicts the importance of recognising that learning takes many forms and that we may come to understanding in very individualistic ways. This is something that as teachers we would do well to remember. What was on offer in this film was the bringing together of two different cultures, approaches to learning and education but in a manner where both presenters were prepared to share an experience and learn together.

At a time when many of our politicians and policy makers are attempting to define education in narrow terms and are creating systems that value conformity to a shallow interpretation of what is to be valued in learning, encounters such as this between two intelligent and open minded individuals has much to teach us. Attempts to impose restrictive teaching approaches based upon an outdated interpretation of pedagogy will not serve all learners well. The bringing together of contrasting ideas and cultural understanding is more likely to enable us to find common ground than to divide us. This will only happen if we enter into such dialogue with respect and a willingness to learn from those whose experiences are greatly different from our own.

For many years to come generations will admire the natural history films of David Attenborough. They will also marvel at the inventiveness of the music of Bjork. For now I am happy to have learned a little from both of them.

The link at the top of this page  (IN BLUE TYPE) will take you to a performance of Mutual Core by Björk in which she attempts to relate the effect of the movement of tectonic plates through music. As Attenborough says, for real appreciation this challenging approach to music requires thought, but I hope like me you enjoy the experience.