Balmy Nights and Dosa Delights

Good food, good company and a cooling roof fan

Good food, good company and a cooling roof fan

In all the years that I have been visiting Bangalore I have never experienced heat such as that which is singeing the city at present. I associate a hot sticky atmosphere with some of the times I have spent in Chennai, where the humidity means that it is normal to be drenched in sweat, but the Bangalore climate is generally less oppressive.

This week, by mid-morning the temperatures are usually in the high thirty’s and I find myself grateful for the air conditioning in the room where we teach. It is noticeable that some students have taken a strategic view of the situation and locate themselves where the full blast of cold air can be encouraged to sweep across them. I usually find air conditioning somewhat oppressive as it dries the atmosphere causing my throat to tighten after a long period of teaching, but during this visit I have come to see it as a blessing. However, with the entire city seeking solace from the AC machines, the Bangalore power suppliers are unable to cope with demand. The resulting power cuts, which have been frequent in recent days shut down the cooling systems, meaning that once again we swelter in the heavy atmosphere.

Night time is a challenge. I cannot sleep with the air conditioning blasting in the room. It is noisy and the constant drying of the air leaves me dehydrated. Switch it off and the heat takes over. Most nights I lie on top of the bed, waking several times to drink water and seek the comforts of a rub down with a towel. Such mild discomforts are, of course, a minor price to play when measured against the work with which it is a privilege to engage here in India.

My good friend Sumathi tells me that when the climate becomes so oppressive in her house, she takes a sheet, soaks it in water, wrings it out, and hangs it across an open window. This has a significant impact in cooling the room. It sounds like a positive intervention, but I suspect that if I try it here, the hotel management may well be less than pleased.

It was in the company of Sumathi and her husband Ravi, along with Pooja and Darshan that we ate last night at one of the four MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms) that grace this city, MTR 1924. These simple, but delightful emporia, which as the date suggests, have operated for the best part of a century, serve some of the finest dosa to be found anywhere. I had previously eaten at MTR near the Lal Bagh, and it was a great experience to be taken to this different outlet in Jayanagar. It was clearly Sumathi and Ravi’s intention that we should try as much of the menu, which offers a vast range of South Indian cuisine, as we could possibly manage. As a consequence the table was soon adorned with masala dosa, rava dosa, neer dosa, bhath, plain dosa and assorted chutneys. A feast for the eyes, the stomach and the soul. Good company, good food, good conversation, and all under the breeze of efficient roof fans – what more could one wish from an evening after a busy day of teaching. Indian hospitality is always warm and welcome, the weather here is hot, but something that simply has to be accepted.

Not waving but drowning?

All at sea - becalmed or awiting a storm?

All at sea – becalmed or awaiting a storm?

 Definitions of coasting:

To slide down an incline through the effect of gravity.

To move without use of propelling power.

To act or move aimlessly or with little effort.
New terms appear within the education lexicon quite frequently. They soon enter into common parlance and are distributed liberally through the media, in meetings or at the school gate. Sometimes the new word or expression, after a period of short term fostering enters into the adoptive language of the education profession, but others are rejected or simply go out of fashion.

The latest term that has tripped indelicately from the lips of the UK Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, and has grabbed the attention of the media is “coasting.” This morning on the radio, I listened to Mrs Morgan being interviewed about this term and reached the conclusion that, articulate as she undoubtedly is, the process of adequately defining “coasting,” as used in an educational context, remains a work in progress. I do of course appreciate that obfuscation is an essential part of any politician’s armour, and understand that a person who holds such a post of responsibility as that in the possession of Nicky Morgan, needs to err on the side of caution. However, a discussion with two other colleagues who I met on arrival at the university this morning, confirmed that I was not the only one left wondering about the lack of clarity applied to this latest fashionable term. This morning’s radio interview was far from enlightening.

From what we could glean from an admittedly brief radio interview, it would appear that over the next couple of years, school inspectors will be asked to identify those schools that may be judged to be successful, but are seen to have taken their foot off the accelerator and have begun to ‘coast’ with little perceived purpose. Such schools will presumably be told to hoist sail, unfurl the spinnaker and seek more favourable winds. Though when asked about the consequences of being found ‘coasting’, the admiral of the educational fleet appeared less than certain. Asked what actions might be taken to encourage such schools to stop “coasting,” she appeared to flounder, and sounded almost surprised by the question.

The Oxford English dictionary certainly appears to indicate that “coasting” is a nautical term. Therefore, somewhat perplexed by this situation I sought the advice of a colleague who I know to be an enthusiastic and accomplished sailor. I must emphasise that he is not involved in education in schools, and indeed had not heard this morning’s interview. However, he was able to inform me that in his vocabulary, coasting is sometimes an essential part of the sailor’s strategy. From time to time he tells me, it is necessary to ease back a little and to take stock of the progress made. Such a period then enables the skipper of a vessel to make choices about the correct setting of sails and to check the direction of travel. For this seasoned adventurer, who has twice crossed the Atlantic in a ridiculously small boat (by my limited reckoning) unscathed, coasting is seen as an essential process and a positive action.

I can imagine that there are many head teachers, who having successfully steered their school through choppy educational waters, achieved good academic and social outcomes and gained the respect of their local community, must relish the idea that they can ‘coast’ for a brief time as they asses their current position and make plans for the immediate future. In the words of my sailor colleague, a failure to take this kind of action sometimes results in the ship running aground.

As ever, I will be interested to see the new advice given to inspectors of schools, and the ways in which this is interpreted over the coming months. It will be equally educative to see the consequences faced by any schools that are deemed to be “coasting”. Might we witness use of the cat o’ nine tails? Will school governors be keel hauled? Might head teachers be forced to walk the plank? Possibly not, though I suspect that someone is dreaming of an appropriate admonition for mutinous teachers even as we speak.

In the meantime, when next out on my bicycle rather than occasionally freewheeling down the hills, I will try to increase my cadence, just in case there is a Morganite lurking in the bushes!

 

Captain Morgan, notorious 17th-century Welsh pirate and privateer, scourge of the Caribbean

 

Teaching – surely more than a matter of subject knowledge.

Well qualified teachers have the ability to sort out challenges

Well qualified teachers have the ability to sort out challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone remembers

Opportunities to learn exist in every interaction.

Opportunities to learn exist in every interaction.

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a colleague about why we originally entered the teaching profession. Not surprisingly, we found that there were a number of common factors that had shaped our choices and led us along this pathway during our formative years. Both of us had experiences as teenagers of working with various youth groups in which we had taken leadership or instruction roles. Similarly, we had both seen the teaching profession as providing an opportunity to participate in a worthwhile activity that could prove beneficial to others, whilst enabling us to continue our own learning. As I feel sure is common, amongst teachers who come together to discuss teaching issues at any time, we expressed our dissatisfaction with various developments in educational policy and its management, but both of us agreed that we would not have chosen any other profession, and that we continued to enjoy our respective roles.

Whilst we were able to find parallels in our earlier lives that had led us to select teaching over other professional pathways, the factor that had probably had a greater impact upon us than any other, was the influence of specific teachers who had shaped our thinking and inspired us to learn. Much of our reminiscence centred upon individuals who had galvanized our interest in their subject and motivated us to ever greater enthusiasm for exploring opportunities for learning. Both of us felt that the decisions we had made to become teachers were heavily influenced by our experiences in the lessons conducted by these individuals, and that to some extent our own approaches in the classroom had been guided by their example.

Two particular teachers often come to mind when I recall the best experiences I had at school. I am sure that it is no coincidence that my love of literature and a continuing passion for history were both shaped by teachers for whom I had the greatest respect. What interests me greatly as I recall these two characters however, is that they were in many ways distinctly different in their approach and in the way in which we regarded them as students.

The English teacher who instilled in me an insatiable appetite for reading and taught me to appreciate some of the world’s great literature, could be unpredictable in his moods and was certainly perceived as a hard taskmaster. His interpretation of our work could often appear hyper-critical, and his standards were always high. However, he gave us considerable freedom to express our ideas, to argue our point of view and to challenge the perceived wisdom of the day. I cannot recall him ever telling us the meaning of a passage of prose, a poem or a section from a play, this was not his style. He expected us to question everything, make up our own minds and then defend our position and interpretation of a text. This was not an approach appreciated by everyone, and I am sure that other students have a less than fond memory of his lessons. From my own perspective, this was an ideal way to learn. It taught me to think critically, to question everything and to have the conviction to express my own ideas. As a result of this teacher’s influence I cannot imagine ever travelling without a book, and it is thanks to him that I have explored and continue to seek out the literature produced by great writers from all around the world, and find in their words the inspiration for much of what I do in life.

By contrast, but equally important was a history teacher who clearly believed that simply teaching to the requirements  of the examination was an affront to his professionalism. Officially for our A levels we studied British social and economic history from 1800 – 1939, but in reality we were given an eclectic range of opportunities and explored a much more varied historical diet. Studying history, he told us, was about understanding the present, through our appreciation of the events and actions of the past that have shaped our society. He therefore encouraged us to read well beyond the limited textbooks provided for our course. His lessons often appeared tangential to the syllabus, and should any one of his students show the least interest in a topic, no matter how far from the central theme of the set curriculum, he would feed this enthusiasm and facilitate opportunities for learning. I recall that some of my schoolmates were horrified that we wandered so often from the examination pathway. Yet despite this aberration (or possibly because of it) we succeeded in passing with good grades and many of us with an enduring enthusiasm for the subject.

A few years ago, because of a shortage of teacher availability in English schools, a government advertising campaign was organised under the slogan – “everyone remembers a good teacher!” (I know that you can probably recall a few who were less than good as well- but hopefully these were a minority). My colleague and I certainly owe much to teachers who inspired us. I believe they did so not only through their commitment to their subject, but also because they wanted to create independent learners who would have the ability to relate to others and to engage in a critical analysis of their world. I suspect that if you take a moment to reflect, that you too will remember teachers whose actions may have influenced not only your interest in a subject, but also your approach to life.

 

When looking for solutions to national problems, consult the students

 

Vegatables of this quality can improve the health of everyone, but it takes school students to make them available to all

Vegetables of this quality can improve the health of everyone, but it takes school students to make them available to all

Whilst India has developed rapidly in recent years, and a period of relative  economic buoyancy has brought benefits to many within the population, the many daunting challenges that remain within the country are all too evident. High levels of pollution, traffic congestion, poor infrastructure and a vast number of people living in poverty all continue to blight the country and challenge progress. At times these difficulties appear overwhelming, and as is always the case, the majority of people look to those in positions of authority to bring about improvements. The ministers of successive governments of all political persuasions have made bold speeches promising to deliver radical change, but behind closed doors I suspect that many of them would admit that they have failed to find satisfactory solutions.

Perhaps the expectations surrounding politicians and their ability to manage change are too great. Whilst they look for solutions on a national and global level, this possibly means that they are too far removed from the local situations that require attention. It may also be that those in high office have become so imbued in their ways of working that they are no longer able to maintain the kind of creative thinking that can have an impact on the lives of the populous. Whilst the answers to major problems may not come easily, perhaps there are other individuals or groups who can bring progress.

This thought came to mind yesterday as I read an article in the Mumbai edition of the Hindu, under the headline Mumbai students offer solutions to global problems. This reported a competition held under the banner of Happy India, which encouraged school students to identify some of the most significant problems they thought their country faced, and invited them to come up with the means to address these. I was not really surprised that they rose to this challenge with great enthusiasm and have already put into place a number of initiatives that are improving the lives of people in their cities.

A group of students from Podar International School in Mumbai recognised that many people living in the poorest conditions in the city, were unable to provide their families with the kind of nutrition that could improve their health and lifestyles. Seeking a solution that would enable them to change this situation, they came up with a novel business initiative in which they purchased vegetables from a wholesale market, and then sold half these to affluent customers at a price that enabled them to make a profit. They then used the profit to subsidise the sale of vegetables to people living in the poorest communities in the city at half the normal market price for good quality vegetables.

Poonam, one of the students involved in this initiative commented:

“I got this idea as I used to walk past a slum while going to school. I saw that the people there were very lethargic. For them, eating was only meant to fill their stomachs. They have no concept of nutrition, because they cannot afford nutritious food. So we came up with a cross-subsidised model to provide cheap and good quality vegetables to them,”

In another example of enterprise, students from Ryan International School developed a system to use waste plastic, of which there is certainly no shortage in India, to repair potholes in roads. They have since taken this initiative forward and have gained local authority consent to experiment with the construction of a thirty metre length of experimental road using the technique they have developed.

In providing local solutions to problems that are pervasive across India, these enterprising students will have learned much. Not only have they been required to produce business plans and experiment with design and production, but they will also undoubtedly have discussed social issues, the reasons why problems such as those confronted persist, and what their responsibilities to their local communities might be.

It may also be that there is an educational opportunity to be grasped by politicians here. Whilst the impact of the initiatives taken by these students may be small in scale, and there will undoubtedly be issues surrounding sustainability, it is clear that they have both the understanding and desire to bring about change. If there are lessons to be learned from this competition on the part of the students, I suggest that there may equally be a justification for politicians to discuss how the enterprise of students such as these may be harnessed.

It has always seemed to me, that even in a democracy, the ability of politicians to bring about sustainable change is impeded by party politics and factional interests. The young people who have set an example in Mumbai, and elsewhere in India, are currently untainted by narrow minded politics, and have demonstrated how local understanding when embraced within an educational context can yield positive outcomes. I hope that if any of these young people become politicians in the future, they will remember the value of lessons learned through the Happy India competition.

From heat and dust to a warm log fire

Education has the potential to bring out the best in both the teacher and the learner.

Education has the potential to bring out the best in both the teacher and the learner.

Visiting India regularly to work with colleagues and students is one of the greatest privileges experienced in my career. I have been coming here for so many years now, that I feel that whilst working here I am always in the company of good companions. Each visit brings new learning and renewed acquaintance with friends and colleagues for whom I have a great respect, and because of this I look forward to these trips with anticipation and enthusiasm. This latest venture to Bangalore has been no different, with an opportunity to share ideas with teachers and students who are committed to their work and immensely creative in their daily lives.

Whilst India is a place where I feel comfortable and for which I hold more than a little affinity, it could never be home, and today I begin the long journey by road, air and rail to return to my family and the familiar surroundings of Northamptonshire. The wonders of modern technology do of course, mean that whilst here I can stay in touch by text, or email and better still by skype. These important daily contacts with home are anticipated with relish and on the odd occasions when communication systems fail this is a source of disappointment and frustration.

Travelling west tomorrow means that my departure and arrival will, unless there are delays, see me leave India and arrive home on the same day. I was thinking about this last night when reading an account of merchants from the East India company who reported that a hundred years ago in 1814, the voyage from England to India via the Cape of Good Hope took at least six months. I somehow don’t believe that the University of Northampton would tolerate a six month journey to do two weeks teaching, followed by six months return passage! How much different are conditions now from those days of travel under sail, and written letters that might take six months or longer to reach home?

Having arrived in India to teach and to learn from my students and colleagues, I can reflect on so much that is similar in our education systems and so much more that is different. But amidst all this, a shared purpose of working to improve the education of children who are so often excluded from learning opportunities, gives us common ground and a firm foundation upon which we can build.

I am at that point in my visit when I am counting down the hours to departure, not with any sorrow for the time I have spent here these last few weeks with such good friends and colleagues, but simply in anticipation of being in the company of my family where I belong. Last night my conversation with Sara focused partly upon the sub-zero temperatures and fall of snow that I can anticipate awaiting my arrival – a warm log fire and woolly jumper sounds like the order of the day.

So having packed my bags and as I await a taxi to the airport I must say goodbye and thank you, to all my friends who have afforded me such excellent hospitality here in Bangalore. I value your creativity and friendship and look forward to keeping in touch and to returning to enjoy your company in a few months time.

 

Active learning – it isn’t easy, but it’s fun!

Johnson encourages a group of students and visitors as they plan a series of lessons about rivers, and ensure access to these lessons for all learners.

Johnson encourages a group of students and visitors as they plan a series of lessons about rivers, and ensure access to these lessons for all learners.

“This is a different way of learning to that which we have usually experienced”. This was a comment from a visitor yesterday to a session on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore. It was one of many that we received of this ilk, and came from an enthusiastic young teacher who was curious to find out whether the things she had heard about the course were true.

As tutors on the course we are firm believers in the notion that you learn most when you put ideas into action. Hence the pattern of a typical session comprises some input by a tutor, followed by a little discussion and debate, then a practical activity in which we attempt to put an idea into practice in a simulated school situation, before coming together for more input and a questioning of what has been learned.

During some of our modules we have an open day during which we open the doors to visitors who are curious about the course. Yesterday nineteen such individuals passed through the doors, many choosing to spend the whole day with us (they had probably heard about the quality of the lunch provided), whilst a few stayed for just a couple of hours. A morning activity was focused upon lesson planning and recognising how the varying individual needs of pupils can be addressed within whole class situations. Students developed innovative ideas for providing effective learning for pupils with a wide range of needs in mathematics lessons focused on measurement, geography lessons about rivers, and science activities investigating insects.

One of our students Sathyasree commented on social media that:

The activity was a real challenge! but yet a lot of learning outcomes and better understanding in creating a lesson plan to meet each individual need.

The assertion of challenge is one that I like. After all, as we keep reminding all of our students, at the end of this course of study you obtain a master’s degree, this needs to be earned!

Our ambition in developing this course was that the students who complete the degree would have become critical thinkers, challenging many of the ideas that have been a part of teaching and learning for many years. We believe that inclusive schools will be achieved through the leadership of individuals who are able to see the strengths brought to the learning situation by all pupils, and who have the skills and confidence to adjust their teaching accordingly. This requires the ability to critique current existing approaches to classroom management and teaching approaches, to become more reflective as professionals, and then to apply ideas in the classroom. We have been very fortunate in having students coming on to this course over the past four years, who respond positively to this challenge. These are certainly education activists. whose leadership will make a significant difference to education here in India.

We know that not all of the visitors who attended the sessions yesterday will become students on this course. Though we would obviously make them most welcome if they did. For some, the challenges of joining a venture such as this are too great at this time, and maybe even into the future. We are not critical of these colleagues, who come from a range of circumstances and teaching backgrounds; we are simply grateful that they have shown an interest in the work of our students and the ways in which we try to support and encourage them in this venture.

Today we will continue to look at the ways in which we may develop inclusive classrooms. In particular we will explore the management of group work that encourages pupil learning at many levels. Theories around jigsawing and envoying as techniques for the facilitation of group work will be explored, but the greatest learning will take place when the students are actively engaged in developing these methods in our simulated classroom groups.

Whilst most of our students tell us that this is a way of working that differs greatly from their previous experiences, they also make it clear that that they feel confident in both the theoretical aspects of the course and the application of ideas into real classrooms. The evidence for this comes from those students who were the very first to attend and complete this Bangalore based course. Each time we arrive in the city they are eager to meet with us and tell us about the changes that they are bringing about in their classrooms, and the benefits that they see for their pupils.

As she was leaving today, one of our visitors commented that.

This was a very challenging way of learning today – but it was great fun!

If everyone involved in this programme leaves with the message that learning should be an enjoyable experience for all concerned, then hopefully we are getting something right.

Learning through spontaneous combustion.

Let's put some of the hot air back into teaching!

Let’s put some of the hot air back into teaching!

Yesterday I described how I had been taken to task by one of my students for too long a sequence of gloomy pieces posted on this blog. She urged me to write something positive about education in order to redress the balance and to demonstrate that I still retained an optimistic perception of the future for teachers. Feeling suitably chastened I wrote yesterday’s piece “Reasons to be cheerful!” I have not seen my student critic today, but I hope that this latest writing has restored her faith in me as someone who believes in the ability of teachers to rise above the pressures and deliver quality teaching to their pupils.

I was pleased to see that “Reasons to be cheerful!” had encouraged one posting providing another example of a positive experience during a visit to a school. Saneeya a Kenyan student who has spent a while in English schools wrote about her time observing a teacher and was clearly excited by what she witnessed.

“It was a lovely sunny day, and so the Year 4 teacher decided to conduct the Art lesson outside in the school yard. Students took their crayons and art materials and sat outside in the sunshine discussing, debating and then drawing their versions of ‘A Village in Africa’. I will never forget that lesson, because it illustrated to me the spontaneous, yet wonderful combination of teaching whilst enabling children to make the most of a lovely day.”

On reading Saneeya’s comments one word stood out for me in relation to something I have always valued in teaching. Spontaneous is a term that I seldom hear used today from teachers in English schools, yet spontaneity always seemed to me to be an important factor in the teaching and learning process. Seizing the moment or grasping the opportunity can often lead to exciting learning experiences and should be welcomed by schools. As I was reflecting on Saneeya’s comments two particular events from my own days teaching in schools occurred to me.

In the midst of a lesson in my classroom in Somerset back in the 1970s one of my pupils suddenly let out an excited yell – “look Mr Rose, look at the balloon”. Sure enough glancing through the window I just caught a glimpse of a hot air balloon passing low over the school roof. Within minutes every child and member of the school staff was on the school field staring over a fence into farmland, where the balloon was making a rather bumpy landing. The excitement of the children (and most of the staff) was tremendous. For the next half an hour we all watched as the crew of the balloon man handled it to the ground and packed it into the back of a trailer that had arrived as we watched. The next day one of our teachers, a very creative Australian character, organised balloon building for the whole school. A day was spent with what seemed like acres of coloured tissue paper and glue, working to the teacher’s pattern until by mid-afternoon we had a fine armada of craft ready to launch. Hair dryers at the ready the balloons were carefully filled with hot air and released, forming a spectacular flotilla over nearby roofs and away in the direction of Frome town.

What did the children learn that day? I suppose we could have analysed every part of the day as contributing to their knowledge of science, technology, history (I’m sure somebody mentioned the Montgolfier Brothers), art, mathematics and English. When I think of it now I can see that there were opportunities for addressing each of those subjects during the day. In truth I don’t remember any of us thinking in those terms. What we were doing was enjoying a learning experience together and building upon the spontaneity of the occasion.

A few years later, when in the role of head teacher, I recall a time when snow had fallen steadily for several days and the school field lay beneath a cold white blanket. I was in my office when a teacher new to the school knocked at my door. “I wonder, she asked, if it would be OK for me to take my class on to the field to build a snowman.” How sad I thought that she feels the need to come and ask. “Wait a moment,” I said “let me grab my coat and I’ll come and join you.” Within the next hour every class had their own snowman looking in the classroom windows. It’s not every year that we get enough snow to take advantage of  a learning opportunity like this.

Spontaneity for the combustion of learning – long may it last!

Have you had a spontaneous learning or teaching moment? Is so, why not share it with others by posting a response to this blog?

I’ve posted one of mine just below.

It was January 2013 and no-one was around. So Professor Rose (on the pretence that he was on a learning mission) crept into the garden and built a snowman to surprise his wife when she returned from shopping!

It was January 2013 and no-one was around. So Professor Rose (on the pretence that he was on a learning mission) crept into the garden and built a snowman to surprise his wife when she returned from shopping!

Reasons to be cheerful!

 

This teacher at the BBMP Public School in West Bangalore was full of fun as a consequence of which her class loved learning.

This teacher at the BBMP Public School in West Bangalore was full of fun as a consequence of which her class loved learning.

Two of my doctoral students today quite independently told me that they had been reading this blog and had observations to make. The first commented on yesterday’s piece (Life on the Education Production Line. 17th March) telling me that it’s not only schools that have become obsessed with targets and paperwork. The university, she informed me, is just the same. I hope that she is not blaming me!

The second student commented that the over the last few days my writings had been rather gloomy, consisting largely of forebodings of a “coming educational dystopia,” (I rather like that expression – the wording not the implications that is, so I’ve used it verbatim here). I tried to reassure her that I remain at heart an optimist, though she seemed unconvinced. “I like it”, she said “when you write about the good things you see in education, like the piece on World Book Day. If you carry on like this we are all going to sink into a trough of depression. Why not write something to cheer us all up?” Well, maybe she had a point, so here goes.

Visiting schools and seeing teachers in action often equates to taking a tonic. If it works for me, maybe it will for you too. So taking up the challenge let me tell you about a school I visited a while ago with my colleague Mary.

The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (BBMP) Public School is located in the Srirampuram district of West Bangalore. This is an area with an unfortunate reputation, many of the district’s inhabitants live in poor quality housing in badly maintained streets and the reported crime rate is high. Walking around the area one is immediately confronted by all of the familiar characteristics of poverty and could quite easily understand if the people living here had chosen to turn their backs on a society that seems to have neglected their needs. But the BBMP school is beginning to make changes here and if the example of the teachers we saw working there can be followed then things are bound to improve.

The Bangalore edition of The Times of India quoted a good friend and colleague Vijaya Mahadevan who works for the Brindavan Education Trust in supporting teachers in the school. Vijaya says of the pupils:-

“They come from difficult, unpleasant backgrounds. Sometimes we have to counsel them to make them happy. If they cry in the morning while coming to school, by afternoon they forget the sorrow back home. They love the atmosphere here and parents have also been encouraging,”

We had been told about the school before we visited, just as we had been advised about the area in which it is located. But nothing could have fully prepared us for the morning we spent in classes at the BBMP school.

We were greeted at the school gates by a group of excited, smiling pupils eager to show us into their classrooms. The school principal and staff proudly led us on a tour of every classroom, introducing us to enthusiastic teachers and a cacophonous welcome from children, all wanting to shout hello and greet us in their well-practiced English. During the morning we observed teachers working with minimal resources, compensated by boundless energy and a determination to give every child an exciting learning experience. Classes of 60 children all wanted to show us their books, sing to us familiar English songs and generally overwhelm us with their enthusiasm for learning.

This school is a haven for children whose circumstances are often grim, but who are being afforded an opportunity to learn and eventually to make better life chances for themselves and their families. The teachers at the BBMP School demonstrate all that is noble in the teaching profession. Their compassion, dedication, attention to individuality and determination to make the most of what few resources they have for the benefit of every child represents the fine ideals with which most of us entered the profession. Visiting this school was both memorable and inspiring and I hope to have further opportunities to return.

Writing this and recalling that visit has certainly reinforced my belief in what education can achieve. I hope that my research student also find this suitably cheering. I will say no more but urge you to look at the smiles on the faces of both teachers and children in these pictures in order to be assured that there is much that is right in this part of the world.

The smiling faces of happy learners. School is the highlight of their day - just as it should be.

The smiling faces of happy learners. School is the highlight of their day – just as it should be.

The children are keen to share their work with Mary, and rightly proud of what they have achieved.

The children are keen to share their work with Mary, and rightly proud of what they have achieved.

When Vijaya Mahadevan visits the classroom everyone knows she is there to support and praise the work of teachers and children, thereby assisting in the development of the school.

When Vijaya Mahadevan visits the classroom everyone knows she is there to support and praise the work of teachers and children, thereby assisting in the development of the school.

Many thanks to all of the children and staff at BBMP School and to Vijaya for always wearing a smile!

Life on the education production line.

 

Is there a teacher somewhere under all this paperwork?

Is there a teacher somewhere under all this paperwork?

“One cannot walk through an assembly factory and not feel that one is in  Hell.”

W.H. Auden

I am inclined to think that I was one of a fortunate generation of school teachers. Throughout my career in schools I generally enjoyed teaching and found the whole process immensely satisfying. That doesn’t mean that I never experienced days when everything seemed to be out of kilter, with the end of the day coming as a blessed relief. But in general I always felt privileged to be engaged in something I enjoyed, felt fully committed to doing and gave me opportunities to work with interesting similarly motivated people. I suppose that like most teachers I encountered some children who were more difficult to like than others, but generally I found that time spent in class whilst undoubtedly demanding was a great pleasure and the pupils I taught were fun to be with.

My passion for teaching has not diminished, though now most of my work is with post-graduate students and serving teachers who are attending classes by choice, rather than being there because they have to be. Whilst there are obvious differences between teaching children and adults, many of the features are the same. Enthusiasm, love of the subject, a sense of humour and an ability to communicate are all essential characteristics of the successful teacher.

Whilst not suggesting that I lived through a “golden age” of teaching, I am convinced that teachers in English schools today are far less likely to be as enthusiastic about their current situation. This belief was reinforced over the weekend in an article written by John Harris in the colour supplement of The Guardian. Being married to a primary school teacher I am acutely aware of the long hours of lesson preparation, marking and paperwork that occupies every evening and a large portion of weekends, but Harris’ article has confirmed many of my worst fears for the profession I love.

At the outset of his article the journalist introduces us to a drama teacher who has given 22 years of service to a secondary school in the south west of England. Harris, clearly inspired and impressed by this teacher, describes a lesson she taught called “The Terrible Fate of Humpty Dumpty” whereby her class are encouraged to think about issues of bullying and enabled through team work to enact a scene that teaches them about morality and justice. The teacher tells him about the many school performances that she has produced in the past, some featuring more than 100 pupils. Ambitious productions such as Guys and Dolls and the Wizard of Oz built upon the enthusiasm of not only the pupils, but also the 30 or so staff who supported her in this venture. Sadly, she reports, such activities have become a thing of the past. In a relentless drive to establish a  curriculum aimed at hitting targets and achieving high marks in examinations drama has become marginalised as a subject. Teachers who would in the past have so willingly given time to support dramatic productions are under such pressure to manage their paperwork and achieve targets that they no longer have the energy to do so. This committed drama teacher has had enough, she is leaving and all of her experience and expertise is going with her. Harris is clearly perplexed as he reports her words:-

“Teaching’s been my life.” She wells up. “I’ve loved it and got so much from it. But I don’t want to be here any more.”

The saddest aspect of this article is that this teacher is just one of many interviewed by John Harris. All report that they are disenchanted with a profession to which they have always felt committed. They describe their working lives as being driven by targets and paperwork, much of which appears designed simply to satisfy an oppressive inspection regime, that devalues their professionalism and instils fear into their colleagues. Those subjects that at one time were regarded as both enriching and essential in providing a balanced education are now described by politicians as “soft options” and seen almost as an irrelevance in the educational process. This message of “irrelevance” is passed on to the teachers who have previously demonstrated a passion for these subjects.

When I was working as a head teacher it was always apparent to me that teachers who enjoyed their work and felt confident that they were appreciated, were effective at teaching children. Teachers have always worked hard, but in the past they did so because they believed in what they were being asked to do and recognised that their endeavours had positive benefits for children. Furthermore, they were praised for their efforts and respected for their dedication. I am convinced that the professionalism demonstrated by teachers in the past was no less evident than that expected of those in schools today. However I do not believe that high levels of dedication can be enforced by legislation or political interference.

John Harris’ article is appropriately titled “Inside the A* Factory.” The implication being that the purpose of schools has been reduced to one focused upon the production of A star students within a narrow range of subjects. Factory workers have always made an important contribution to the economy of our country. In the past their labours were clearly distinguishable from those of teachers. Both factory workers and teachers play an vital role, but until recently the borders between the two have seldom been blurred.

Are we witnessing the destruction of an education system through the systematic demoralisation of teachers? There are many who believe that this could be the end product of the current dominant doctrinaire approach.