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.