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!

 

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.

“We were told…”

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Generalisations and stereotypical labelling can be the bane of a teacher’s life. I can guarantee that any teacher reading this blog will be able to recall expressions used about children that whilst having no evidence base have become part of the folklore of education. I can personally recall many of these, some of which I found particularly irksome – “gypsy traveller children always have poor school attendance records,”“boys with ADHD are always going to be trouble in class.” I’m sure that you could add your own equally irritating examples to these. The saddest feature of such expressions is that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies when teachers or others begin to believe them and adjust their expectations accordingly.

Recently, my good friend Savitha Ravi an outstanding school principal from Bangalore sent me a link to a video recording (see below) which reminded me of a number of occasions when I was a head teacher and parents would tell me of the predictions made about their children. A typical example can be related from the parents of one of my former pupils, a young lady with Down’s syndrome, whom I often meet in the local town. They recall how when she was just two years old they were told by a senior medical officer that their daughter would probably never talk, and that she would most certainly need an intensive level of care for the rest of her life. Having been given this professional information they went home and prepared to adjust their lives to ensure that the necessary high levels of provision would be in place for the remainder of their daughter’s years.

Looking back on this these highly committed parents are now able to smile and reflect on how they, and their daughter have proven the professionals to be wrong. Their daughter is now married, has successfully managed a job and lives a largely independent life with her husband (about whom similar predictions were made) about a hundred miles from her parents. When discussing this situation they recall the many stresses that they have experienced as parents and particularly those which they feel were caused by well-meaning but sometimes ill-informed professionals.

The story of these parents is not so different from many others whom I have known and who often use the expression “we were told that…” in recalling their experiences. “We were told that he would never walk,” – “we were told that children like Dean are impossible to toilet train.” Some of you will have heard similar tales beginning with the expression “we were told…” without a doubt.

Whilst I am not being critical of my professional colleagues who may have used such expressions in the past, after all they are probably basing their predictions upon many years of experience, I am concerned that the potential for lowering expectations can have a detrimental impact upon the education of children. It takes a confident and determined parent to confront such a diagnosis and to defy the wisdom of the professional or challenge their assertions.  One such parent Kristine Barnett is portrayed in the video clip forwarded to me by Savitha.

Kristine is the mother of Jacob who at an early age was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. When Jacob was still an infant she was told that her son might never be able to speak and might never be able to tie his shoelaces. She describes how when she was given this prognosis she was “completely devastated” and that it was “pretty scary.”  She recalls that when told these things “I believed them. They were my doctors and therapists and people that we trusted.”  During the interview seen in the video she never challenges the professionalism of any of the medics or teachers with whom she dealt, but what she does demonstrate is a confidence in her personal intuition as a parent and her profound belief in her right to choose a path for Jacob. Kristine describes the decisions she made to take Jacob away from the specialist schooling that was being provided for him and to give him opportunities alongside “typically developing” children. She goes on to tell a tale of her son flourishing and revealing an extraordinary gift for scientific thinking, and an ability to learn abstract concepts and apply these in ways that other much older individuals never manage.

Jacob, at the age of fifteen, is working alongside well established scientists in Toronto and has demonstrated the potential to become a leading physicist and researcher. In the video we see that he is an engaging young man who is certainly articulate and very focused upon his scientific studies. I must confess that when he talks about quantum physics he leaves me well behind in terms of my understanding. At the end of the interview Jacob tries to reassure listeners that mathematics and science is really quite simple and that “anyone can do it.” He certainly demonstrates a belief in himself that is much greater than many predicted for him.

I am not, of course suggesting that every child given a diagnosis of autism is a potential genius. What does concern me is that for so many parents expectations are lowered at a very early stage of their child’s development. Professionals do have to err on the side of caution and we should accept that raising false expectations may be as damaging as predicting low attainment. However, it takes an exceptionally strong parent like Kristine to challenge the authority of the professionals and to provide an alternative view of the world for their child with special educational needs.

The video (to which there is a link below) provides a much better analysis of the challenges faced by Kristine and the accomplishments of Jacob than I could possibly achieve in this short blog. Sadly, I have no doubt that I will continue to hear parents using the expression “we were told…” but hopefully I will also find more who have chosen to raise their own expectations and prove the professionals wrong.

http://www.waldorftoday.com/2014/03/this-mother-tore-off-labels-and-nurtured-her-son%E2%80%99s-hidden-genius/