Indian colleagues, leading the research agenda

Researchers experienced and novice work together to develop an understanding of educational issues.

Researchers experienced and novice work together to develop an understanding of educational issues.

 

In recent months an exciting new venture for our work in promoting inclusive education in Bangalore, has been the development of a small cohort of research students who are registered to study for a PhD with the University of Northampton. These are, for the most part, students who have completed their MA programme with us in Bangalore and have already produced work of exceptional quality for their postgraduate dissertations. Indeed, some of their work has been published in reputable research journals and their investigations have attracted interest beyond India. These enthusiastic investigators have been busy of late generating formal research proposals and submitting these for the scrutiny of university committees that oversee research quality and ensure ethical practice.

For those of us involved in supervising the work of these students and providing an appropriate training programme, both during our visits to Bangalore and at a distance, this development brings new opportunities and challenges. It has always been our intention to support colleagues in the promotion of a new generation of skilled researchers who can assist in moving inclusive education forward in this part of India and we are delighted to have recruited colleagues of such outstanding quality. However, we are also aware of the currently limited opportunities that exist for these colleagues to become fully immersed in an education research culture such as that which exists in the UK and much of Europe. We are though, fully committed to the process of assisting our students to change this situation, and have every confidence in their abilities to play a leadership role in the near future.

I have been thinking about these challenges over the past couple of days, my attention having been drawn to an article written in an Indian financial magazine called Mint, by Anurag Behar who is from the Azim Premji Foundation. Under the headline Researching Education, Behar argues that there should be both an increase in educational research in India, and a realignment of focus to ensure that we can gain greater insights into both the role and effectiveness of the teacher, and a deeper understanding of education in a social context. The article is clearly written for a lay audience, but makes a number of astute observations about the current lack of understanding of education provision in the country and the ways in which it may promote positive social and economic change.

A number of expressions in this interesting piece of journalism provide evidence of the thoughtful approach adopted by Anurag Behar. At one point he suggests a specific role for educational research when he states that:-

“with experience and rigorous reflection, one can arrive at relevant (let’s call them) operating principles that can help in flexibly responding to multiple contexts and situations. Given our dynamic social reality, even these need constant critical interrogation”.

He then goes on to suggest some quite specific questions, listing some of what he sees as being current priorities:-

“how can the capacity of our 8.5 million teachers, who have a full-time job, be improved within the constraints and diversity of our education system and social reality? How does community engagement with schools become effective? How can schools foster constitutional values? How should schools be governed, recognizing fully that simplistic, industrial-mindset governance mechanisms are not only ineffective but also harmful to good education? How do we deal with the rot in the pre-service teacher education system?”

As I read Behar’s short article, I wondered how many colleagues working within schools and universities in India would agree with the arguments he puts forward. Those of us who endeavour to keep abreast of educational research in India, are often frustrated by the apparent belief that large scale surveys are the only means of providing useful data. Such work requires significant funding which is not available to either the practitioner researcher, or to many who would wish to engage with the kinds of questions that Anurag Behar would have prioritised. The value of smaller scale studies focused upon the specifics of pedagogy and classroom management is largely denied by those in positions of authority and power in the Indian education system. In concluding his article he suggests that:-

“Research in education must focus on the real and important issues within education. This requires educators themselves to become adept at asking and answering research questions, rigorously and systematically. If educators take responsibility for research, it will definitely cause a quiet revolution in education research and education itself”.

I find myself totally in agreement with this last statement, and hope that Behar’s views may be heeded by those who oversee educational research in India. Our young enthusiastic researchers in Bangalore have already proven themselves, along with many of their peers who have completed small scale research for a post graduate qualification. They have developed research skills and utilised these as they have investigated the realities of classroom life, and the challenges faced by teachers, students and families. Their commitment to the promotion of change and the development of a more equitable society is one of the most important stimuli that encourages myself and my colleagues in our work in Bangalore. In reading the article from Anurag Behar I am heartened to see that others are recognising the importance of fostering a research culture that is clearly focused upon schools, teachers, children and families. Such arguments further justify the work being undertaken by our excellent students and will, I hope encourage them towards ever greater achievements.

Heat, humidity and virtuosity

 

An evening with some of India's finest musicians gives welcome respite from a busy schedule

An evening with some of India’s finest musicians gives welcome respite from a busy schedule

It felt like standing before an open over door. That is my recollection of first arrival in Chennai in the year 2000. Though we soon came to realise that it was probably the humidity more than the heat that quickly became oppressive. I have returned to the eastern coastal city several times since then, and still I find the sticky atmosphere to be at times uncomfortable. So with Bangalore in the grip of a heatwave, I had anticipated my brief visit to Chennai with mixed emotions. Excited by the opportunity to work with new colleagues and students, I was none the less, not looking forward to a climate that is challenging to those of us from northern climes.

In reality the day was well planned to avoid the worst of the oppressive heat and humidity. Picked up by the driver of an air conditioned car very early in the morning and deposited at the door of an equally comfortable airport, I boarded my flight for the short journey across the country. It was not until my arrival in the city that fronts the Bay of Bengal that I was in a position of having to confront the heat. A short walk across the airport car park confirmed what I had known all along and within a minute I was drenched in sweat.

Fortunately, much of the ensuing day was spent in doors in meetings with colleagues from Tamil Nadu Open University and the National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Multiple Disabilities (NIEPMD), and later in the day teaching a group of undergraduate students. Apart from a brief period of planting a palm sapling in the coastal grounds of the NIEPMD, the day was largely spent under cover.

A feature of the day was the time spent with teachers and therapeutic professionals who were working with children with a range of complex needs and disabilities. Their enthusiasm and commitment to the children and their eagerness to discuss the work that they were doing, reinforced my long held belief that India has many consummate professionals dedicated to ensuring that children, often from the poorest communities, receive a good education. Sadly, there are still many young people here, and particularly those with disabilities, that continue to be denied access to such facilities. However, time spent with colleagues today was affirming in providing an opportunity to see their determination to change this situation.

Arriving towards midnight back in Bangalore, the air was still balmy, though nowhere near as steamy as that in the city left behind. Teaching here is always tiring because of the heat and noise that are an ever present feature, but even in a heatwave, the high thirtys of Bangalore are easier to manage than the furnace of Chennai.

After seven days of teaching and with only one remaining before we return to England, it was good last night to attend a concert which forms part of the 78th Ramanavami Music Festival that runs throughout April in Bangalore. Pravin Godkhindi who plays bansuri flute and Kumaresh Rajagopalan on violin are two of India’s most accomplished classical musicians, and were here accompanied by outstanding percussionists and a tanpura player. The virtuosity of the musicians and their skills of improvisation made for a memorable occasion. Equally impressive was the obvious joy that they gained from their interactions with each other and the audience. At the end of another hectic day, it was a great pleasure to be able to relax and absorb the atmosphere that pervaded an auditorium filled with enthusiastic music lovers of all ages.

Whilst the conditions here can often make teaching difficult, the fact that we work with such excellent students and colleagues and have the opportunity to engage with local culture is a privilege that we should never underestimate.

Rowing boats and navigating a safe passage

Look carefully. There's some serious learning going on here!

Look carefully. There’s some serious learning going on here!

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream!

         (Traditional Children’s rhyme)

Between teaching two cohorts of students and running a training day for our research students here in Bangalore, we like to make the most effective use of our time. This sometimes means providing training sessions in either the schools where our students work, or in those of colleagues who provide support to our work here in the city. We are dependent upon the goodwill of so many friends in Bangalore and we are therefore always pleased to be able to give something back in kind to them and their schools.

Thus it was that yesterday a group of teachers and parents found themselves seated on the floor, rocking to and fro, whilst chanting the children’s rhyme that appears at the top of this posting. Later in the morning, the same group were playing a simple traditional Indian game of hop and catch, though restricted space somewhat limited the scope of this particular escapade.

If having read the above you are wondering what this has to do with the professional development provided to a school staff and parents, I probably owe you an explanation. Latha, who was one of the first students here in Bangalore to graduate from the MA programme, had asked that we visit her school to work with parents and colleagues to consider how early educational experiences can help children to become confident learners. We were more than happy to oblige, and suggesting that formalisation of education is being increasingly imposed upon children at an ever younger age, we decided to demonstrate the value of informal learning and to explore the uses of play.

Great fun was had by all as they experienced the kind of activities that we would hope all parents enjoy with their children. This was accompanied by more serious discussion about early years learning, the promotion of healthy child development and the importance of providing secure relationships between children, and for children and adults. We examined in some detail the many learning opportunities that exist outside of the classroom, and the importance of acknowledging that children learn much from people who are not formally designated as teachers. By the end of the day we had all reflected upon a unique learning experience, and promised to go away and encourage the children and adults in our lives to learn by being more playful.

Today was rather more formal, though also involved a number of enjoyable learning experiences. My good friend Savitha, who has been so supportive of our work in Bangalore, and is a fine example of someone committed to running an inclusive school, invited me to assist her staff in developing inclusive classroom planning strategies. Knowing of the great enthusiasm always exhibited by the staff of Pramiti school, it was easy to facilitate a range of practical tasks focused upon the children with whom they work.

Both of these days were not only rewarding, but were important to those of us who come here to offer the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme. Having rowed boats across very smooth waters, and navigated a route through classroom planning, we will now hoist sail and sally forth to work with our next group of students.

The teachers at Pri. .miti School are amongst the most inclusive I have ever met. Not just in India, but anywhere

The teachers at Primiti School are amongst the most inclusive I have ever met. Not just in India, but anywhere

Staying focused as we approach the finishing line.

Everyone assumes a role as we learn together on the MA programme

Everyone assumes a role as we learn together on the MA programme

Supporting our MA students in Bangalore as they work on the preparation of their dissertations is always interesting and at times challenging. At present we are working with a very enthusiastic and able group who have generated excellent research proposals and piloted one of their data collection instruments. At this stage of their progress they come back to us with many questions and a few anxieties about aspects of their piloting that maybe didn’t run as smoothly as might have been wished for. At the moment our job is not simply to give answers, but to give them opportunities to find solutions.

As part of the proceedings we encourage these neophyte researchers to bring their issues to sessions in order that we can help them to think these through, and learn about managing their projects. This invariably leads to lively debates and results in a stimulating learning environment from which we all benefit. Today was no exception.

This afternoon started with one of our students showing a brief clip of video recording of her work with parents of children from a village community near where she is based. Many of these adults are parents of first generation learners and our student wishes to gain data from them to inform her research, which is examining the effectiveness of the school provision made for their children. This is an exciting project which demonstrates the commitment and impact that some of our students are having in fostering more inclusive learning opportunities.

In order to gain the data that she requires this keen researcher is planning to use focus groups, but like many at this stage of her research development, she is apprehensive and has questions about how best this should be managed. What are the difficulties in collecting data from parents who cannot read and write? How do I manage a group when they don’t follow the conventions of taking turns to speak? These and other similar concerns were brought to the table. So this afternoon, much of the time was spent in role play, with students taking  the part of participants, researchers, recorders and observers. Everyone took the role they were playing seriously, and the action was followed by a lively discussion, with an exchange of ideas and suggestions that helped in the development of a set of principles for focus group management. Hopefully our student feels more confident and many of her questions will have been addressed. I look forward to her reprting back after the next stage of data collection.

Sessions such as these, led largely by the students themselves, and often involving friendly banter and laughter, can only be conducted when they feel at ease with each other, respecting their classmates and demonstrating a willingness to share ideas. I am sure that as these students begin the last leg of their journey towards achieving their MA degrees they are forming friendships that will endure, and have gained new skills and knowledge that they will take forward for the benefit of the children and teachers with whom they work.

Days like today reinforce the fact that it is a privilege to work together with such committed professionals.

 

 

It sometimes takes extraordinary courage to be a teacher

 

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

Dr Sakena Yacoobi, a real life educational heroine

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised, but I was a little disappointed yesterday when having mentioned the name Sakena Yacoobi to a group of students, I found that none of them had ever heard about this amazing lady’s work. As they had not heard of Dr Yacoobi or her commitment to education, it was hardly likely that they would have been aware of The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) which has achieved so much in that desperately poor country.

Dr Sakena Yacoobi is a formidable lady who has, for many years campaigned for the rights of those from poor communities, and especially girls, to receive an education. Having determined to take affirmative action to secure educational opportunities, she has on more than one occasion put her own life at risk and found herself under threat from powerful organisations and terrorists. However, her own personal educational experiences – she was the first member of her family to receive a formal education beyond the early years of schooling, and then found herself living as a refugee outside of her native Afghanistan, has reinforced her commitment to support others to achieve their potential.

As a refugee in the USA, Dr Yacoobi worked to gain degrees in biological sciences and public health. Her academic work was highly regarded and eventually she was made professor at an American university. Such is her commitment to the people of Afghanistan, however, that she decided to return home and develop a number of schools for children in some of the poorest areas of the country. At a time when the Taliban were in power, Dr Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which supported underground schools with a specific intent of ensuring that girls received a good education. This was a brave action which she entered into fully aware of the risks she was taking.

There are a number of stories about the courage of this extraordinary lady. In particular, reference is made to the occasion when armed members of the Taliban came to a school she was running and tried to impose their narrow beliefs upon her and her staff. With considerable courage Dr Yacoobi invited these armed men into her school and served them tea, whilst arguing in defence of the education of girls, quoting freely from the Quran in justification of her actions. She admits that she thought that the men would kill her, and possibly others within the school, but eventually she persuaded them to leave and went calmly back to providing lessons.

During the period of Afghanistan’s Taliban occupation it was estimated that underground schools organised by Dr Yacoobi and her colleagues were educating up to 3,000 girls. Many have since spoken of the opportunities that these schools afforded them and the gratitude they feel towards this courageous lady.

In 2011 The WISE Prize for Education was established to recognise the services given by outstanding individuals. This prize now has an important international status and is awarded only to people who have made a significant contribution towards changing the lives of others through education. This prestigious award has just been presented to Dr Sakena Yacoobi by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of the Qatar Foundation. On receiving the prize Dr Yacoobi emphasised that many in her country still live in extreme poverty, and are certainly not free from terror. She further indicated that many of the people in Afghanistan continue to suffer and have feelings of helplessness. However, she sees increased educational opportunity as one part of the equation that can assist the inhabitants of Afghanistan towards a better life.

Whilst Dr Sakena Yacoobi remains largely unknown here in the west, there are certainly many in Afghanistan who are indebted to her for her courage and determination. Let us hope that life for those who continue to suffer in that country improves in the near future, with the inspiration of Dr Yacoobi this must be a possibility.

Details of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) can be found at the link below.

http://www.afghaninstituteoflearning.org/

Do please take the time to watch the brief video below in which this extraordinary lady tells part of her story

 

An adventure in learning – “because it’s there!”

It may be tough getting to the summit, but when you are there the view is magnificent

It may be tough getting to the summit, but when you are there the view is magnificent

“Why would anyone put themselves through such stress and hard work?” This was a question asked by a very competent and accomplished teacher and post-graduate student at the university on Friday afternoon. The question was directed towards another student who had just completed a week of induction activities for research students embarking on their studies towards hopefully gaining a PhD. Listening in to their conversation a part of me wanted to hear those immortal words uttered by the great mountaineer George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest – “because it’s there!” However, the answer I heard was equally profound and gives me great cause for optimism that this young lady has set out on a journey with exactly the right approach. “Because I want to test myself, and in so doing try to make a difference,” she said. “having finished my master’s degree I can see that it has enabled me to improve my teaching and I hope that the PhD will take my teaching and learning on to another level.”

Having received this response I am not sure that her friend was totally convinced that this would justify the many hours of hard work and occasional anxiety that characterises the research degree experience of most students. However, I am sure that this neophyte researcher is commencing her journey with exactly the right spirit and attitude to enable her to succeed.

Progression to study for a research degree is certainly not the best path for everyone, and those who enter such a course of action need to be fully aware of the personal sacrifices, doubts and apprehensions that will most certainly lie ahead. However, for those who complete the path there will undoubtedly be feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction and hopefully a renewed sense of commitment to their subject and the opportunity to make a difference. It is therefore always a pleasure to be amongst enthusiastic students about to launch forth into their doctoral studies and to share with them in discussions about their interests and passions.

On Friday afternoon I spent a little time with around forty such keen individuals each of whom was coming to the end of their induction period and were now about to cast off from the harbour upon their academic adventure. Some will conduct their studies in areas associated with education, and I hope to get to know these students well over the next few years, others working in the sciences, arts, business, history or technology are less likely to come into my immediate purview, but it was a pleasure to be amidst their enthusiastic banter as they discussed their areas of interest with enthusiasm and authority.

Such occasions invariably bring questions to the forefront about why students give such a commitment and make personal sacrifices for learning. Their motives may be many, but it is clear that somewhere along the line they have been inspired to learn, imbued with a spirit of curiosity and encouraged to think critically and develop their own opinions and ideas. I like to think that they have, in part at least, come to this position with the aid of teachers who have committed themselves to their students, whilst demanding excellence and encouraging an enthusiasm for investigation and learning. I am quite sure that if those teachers who had thus inspired these new doctoral researchers in this way had been in that room alongside their former students on Friday, they would have been assured that they had done well by their charges.

In the vanguard of research developments

Getting to grips with the challenges of sampling. Three keen researchers in discussion with Dr David Preece

Getting to grips with the challenges of sampling. Three keen researchers in discussion with Dr David Preece

Throughout this week three students who recently studied for the MA in Special and Inclusive Education which is managed by the University of Northampton in Bangalore have been here in England. Having proven to be outstanding students on the MA programme they have now advanced to enrol as research students working at PhD level. This is a moment of considerable pride for them, for their families and also for the university.

A common concern expressed by students studying on the Bangalore based programme, is that there is a limited corpus of research literature related to special and inclusive education in an Indian context. Students inevitably find themselves referring to journal articles, books and research reports from outside of India which presents the added challenge of having to critique this work in relation to an Indian education system. It should be obvious that some of the approaches to teaching and learning adopted, for example in the more affluent areas of Europe or the USA, will not be easily applied in rural Indian schools. Issues of resourcing, training, expectations, attitude and understanding all need to be interrogated before any confidence can be gained in the application of ideas from socio-economically advantages countries. It is therefore critical that the research capacity in this area in India is increased, and that more Indian researchers make a contribution to the research literature. Data in relation to inclusion and exclusion is at a premium at present, and it is essential that local researchers address this shortfall in order that teachers, parents and children can move towards a more just education system with confidence.

The three colleagues who have joined the PhD programme here in Northampton this week have already begun to address some of the limitations in research in special and inclusive education in their country. Two have recently published papers in peer reviewed journals based upon their MA dissertations, and all are developing proposals to address critical areas related to the teaching of previously marginalised children in their communities. Their research will of necessity require them to engage with teachers, parents, children and policy makers in India, thereby broadening understanding of the complex issues that they are proposing to address.

As all teachers in India are confronted with the challenges of meeting the requirements of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act introduced in 2009, they are increasingly seeking the support of colleagues who have begun to consider how first generation learners, or those from scheduled tribes or scheduled castes, along with others with disabilities and special educational needs can be included in Indian classrooms. I am sure that in this regard our students in Bangalore will make a significant contribution to the support of their colleagues, and these new and enthusiastic researchers will provide data with which they can inform change.

Meeting with these three new research students this morning they described the journey upon which they are embarking as “exciting”, “scary”, “daunting”, and “challenging”. I am quite sure that all of these words are apt, but also convinced that in the near future they will be making a significant contribution to a growing body of research literature in India. We are fortunate in having these students here with us for a few weeks in Northampton and I am sure we are going to enjoy working alongside them in India over the coming years as they progress towards their doctorates. I look forward to reporting their progress over the years ahead.

Inclusion: let’s not narrow the debate.

Tomorrow's nation builder?

Tomorrow’s nation builder?

A couple of undergraduate students stopped me in the carpark as I was leaving the university yesterday and having established that they had accosted the correct person (we had never met before) asked me to clarify a point about the successes achieved through the  Education for All goals. I was, of course, pleased to find these young students engaging with debates about children’s rights and enthusiastic about understanding the current discourse  surrounding the establishment of a new set of fifteen year goals at the United Nations. They were well informed about the review of the Millennium Development Goals and had clearly been following recent media reports on this issue. They had also read a couple of significant texts about current debates in education and thought about these in respect of their own educational experiences.

The conversation was going well, until one of these bright young women, almost inevitably, mentioned the word “inclusion”. She then commenced to talk about the continuing plight of children with disabilities in various parts of the world, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, a part of the world where she has a number of friends and relatives. This young lady was clearly knowledgeable about this situation and in particular the work of a couple of non-governmental organisations who had established schools in two African countries. Quite rightly she reported the successes achieved by these NGOs, but also identified that there remained much to be done if the goal of universal primary education was to be achieved. At this point her colleague intervened, supporting the view that children with disabilities were still the victims of discrimination and that many teachers remained reluctant to admit them to their classes.

I suppose I should have known better, but I just couldn’t help myself. I found myself agreeing with these two students but also pointing out that inclusion is not simply an issue of disability, and that there are many other factors that inhibit access to education. In the countries for which they were obviously particularly concerned, I suggested that the issues of poverty and gender might also be a contributory factor in the exclusion of some children from school, and that whilst considerable progress has been made in this area, discrimination and lack of opportunity are persistent problems. Singling out disability without considering these other factors, I proposed, might be a naïve way of thinking about the problem.

Millennium Development Goal 2, which concentrated upon the achievement of universal primary education, is of course, very important. However, it would appear that on some university courses that are focused upon childhood, this specific goal is being debated in isolation from others. A brief conversation with these obviously committed and enthusiastic female students revealed that MDG 3 which is concerned with gender equality and female empowerment appears to have passed them by. Over the course of a ten minute conversation it was clear that these two recognised that there may be a correlation between gender and exclusion from education, but that in terms of the inclusion debate that had taken place in some of their lectures, the narrow focus upon special educational needs and disability had managed to by-pass this issue.

It is evident from much of the research conducted in this area that the education of girls can have has a positive effect on the communities in which they live. Women who have received a formal education make a greater contribution to the well-being and mental health of their families are likely to have increased financial stability and employment opportunities and are also more likely to send their own daughters to school.

Internationally governments have been encouraged to provide greater incentives for increased school attendance by girls, including the awarding of scholarships and the development of specific girl friendly schools. In some parts of India, the improvement of toilet facilities for girls has had a dramatic impact upon school attendance, and in Mexico a financial incentive programme in rural areas has increased female enrolment by 20%.

There remains a need to address issues for girls as they get older. Child marriage, and the necessity to manage household tasks or assist in manual labour, coupled with a pervasive poverty, and in some instances high levels of violence against women have all been shown to be major obstacles to retaining girls in school. Furthermore, it remains the case that in the most socio-economically challenged regions of the world, entry into post-compulsory education is a significant issue for would be female students.

During the course of our brief conversation I brought to mind one of my Indian PhD students who will be in England next week. Pooja is undertaking research into parental expectations in relation to the education of girls in an urban community in India. Her work is both original and important and is already highlighting significant difficulties faced by many female students in one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It would be good, I thought, to get these two young students together with Pooja to consider the importance of gender issues in relation to the inclusion agenda.

Taking my leave of the two young women in the carpark yesterday I was heartened that they were clearly reflective and concerned individuals eager to understand some of the obstacles that continue to prevent the development of a more equitable education system. Hopefully, the next time they are in a classroom debate about inclusion they may broaden the focus and thus engage their fellow students and tutors in a more holistic understanding of the inequalities that continue to hinder progress.

 

Whose development? Who benefits?

D.R. Nagaraj (1954 - 1998) a writer who never fails to challenge current thinking.

D.R. Nagaraj (1954 – 1998) a writer who never fails to challenge current thinking.

A few years ago I read a book called The Flaming Feet purchased here from Nagashree bookshop, that I found both inspiring and challenging. In this collection of essays the author D.R. Nagaraj, one of the foremost cultural and political commentators to have emerged from India’s non-English-speaking world, presented a critical interpretation of the pervasive Indian caste system, and its impact upon Dalit communities within the country. The book was in many ways shocking in its portrayal of poverty and repression in a modern country; it was also very well researched and written.

Last night I returned to Nagaraj’s work, this time reading from his book Listening to the Loom: Essays on Literature, Politics and Violence in which he provides unique insights into vernacular cultures and the tensions between modern society and those who live at its periphery. At one point in the book Nagaraj writing about the current pressures upon tribal peoples living in Karnataka State, very close to where I am seated now in Bangalore, expresses his concerns that there are assumptions made by those who claim to be promoting “development,” that everyone wishes to live the same kind of life as them. Nagaraj challenges this idea, arguing that the imposition of a homogeneous form of “civilization” is to deny and undervalue the culture of people who have long existed in their own manner, with well-established customs, and often a far more sustainable life style than those existing within modern society.

The arguments extended by this eminent writer were well constructed and I found myself in sympathy with much that he had to say. But there was one specific  sentence in the section of the book which I read last night, that gave me particular food for thought. Nagaraj suggests that:

        “The notion of the mainstream is carefully nurtured to serve as a frame of reference for minorities.”

He asserts that what society really desires from tribal peoples, or indeed others who do not fit in to our impression of the norm,is that they should conform to what we perceive to be “mainstream society,” leaving behind all that does not sit comfortably within our view of  modern life, in order to become like everyone else.

This assertion had particular resonance in relation to the sessions we had been sharing on the past two day’s MA programme in Jayanagar. During workshop activities our students had been encouraged to discuss how the individual needs of children could be respected, appreciated and addressed in an inclusive learning environment. Through the course of the last two days they had designed learner friendly teaching classrooms, examined the purpose of the curriculum and discussed why some learners feel alienated by the kind of schools we have created. They were thoughtful and reflected in analysing the challenges faced by children and teachers and presented a range of interesting ideas of how individual needs can be met.

Nagaraj makes a critical point in stating that we have a notion of the mainstream into which we expect everyone to fit. He raises important questions about the mainstream and challenges us to question whether this, as it currently exists, is a desirable place to be. Throughout this course we emphasise to our students that inclusion is not simply about placing children in mainstream schools. Indeed, I would suggest that there are some schools which I would certainly not wish to see children attend, as I know they would be subjected to teaching that is about as far removed from inclusive as it is possible to be. We also advocate for the retention of cultural diversity and respect for individuals and their heritage. However, we also believe that it is possible to create schools that are respectful of a wide range of learning needs and able to meet the needs of children from a wealth of backgrounds. Throughout our work with students we suggest that inclusion is about changing schools to recognise and appreciate diversity, rather than changing children.

Nagaraj in his writing always challenges my current thinking. He has much to tell us about the lives of those communities that have been disenfranchised, and encourages us to consider how the influence of the structures and systems that we have created impact upon those who are perceived as different from ourselves. He quite rightly asserts that we use the word “development” in a blasé manner, without any real understanding of what we mean. If justice is to be achieved, can we have economic development at national level, without ensuring that those in our poorest communities benefit? Where does social development fit into the current scheme of things? Is it right that the promotion of development has benefits for some, whilst others suffer as a consequence of its results?

These questions are important to those of us who are concerned to create a more inclusive and equitable society. Sadly it would appear that the voices of writers such as Nagaraj can be easily lost in the clamour to promote an impression that modernisation (a term that I do not see as synonymous with development) is benefiting everyone.

Listening to the Loom, written by D. R. Nagaraj is published by Prmanent Black.

Listening to the Loom, written by D. R. Nagaraj is published by Permanent Black.

New beginnings

New students eager to lear

New students eager to learn

It seems hard to believe that yesterday we began teaching a fourth cohort of students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme here in Bangalore. Twenty enthusiastic individuals gathered somewhat apprehensively at the Brindavan Education Trust in Jayanagar, all eager but understandably uncertain about the road ahead.

I never underestimate the tremendous sacrifices that many of our students make in order to study for a higher degree. In addition to making a financial commitment, they have to reorganise their home and working patterns in order to study, and often organise child care and make other arrangements to enable them to attend classes. In Bangalore this dedication to professional development is often intensified by the challenge of working, studying and writing in ways that may be considerably different from those experienced in an Indian context. I am full of admiration for the students who join us on this journey and look forward to working with this new group of twenty professionals. Today’s new students give us every reason to believe that they are going to be an excellent group and will progress steadily through the course.

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As with any course of this nature it has taken many years to reach a point where we are confident of the sustainability of the work. Discussions about the possibilities of bringing a university accredited course to promote inclusive approaches to teaching and learning began as early as 2003, and it has required the determined endeavours of colleagues in Bangalore to succeed in this mission. The commitment of colleagues who have worked on course development, recruitment, the devising of curriculum content and the securing of India specific resources is a tribute to the vision that they have of creating a more just and inclusive society in India and beyond. Without their persistence, often against major obstacles, this exciting venture would never have been launched.

Last week we met with some of our students who graduated with their MA in Special and Inclusive Education in April. From the perspective of course tutors this was a reaffirming experience as they talked about the work they are doing now, and the ways in which they are applying learning from the course. Latha and Rekha talked passionately about their work in ensuring that the schools where they are principals adopt an inclusive approach, welcoming children with a wide range of needs and abilities. Champa described a new project in which she is engaged, working with street children and those who are homeless and rejected by their families. Four of our students, Pooja, Elsie, Sulata and Sumathi have developed their hunger for inquiry to the extent that they will be commencing studies towards a PhD with us over the next few weeks. Each of them is keen to pursue research that will make a difference to the lives of excluded or marginalised young people in India.

It is the stories told by our students that inspire us and encourage us to return and to find new ways of improving the MA course and challenging thinking about inclusive education. The memories of an informal discussion in the home of a friend in Jayanagar, and the subsequent efforts made by colleagues here in Bangalore to turn a dream into a reality are something to be valued. The professionalism of the tutors with whom I am fortunate to work on this programme will ensure that students continue to have a positive learning experience and that its future sustainability will be secured. I look forward with anticipation of another exciting day working with teachers and students today in Bangalore.