Tempestuous teaching!

This may be exaggerating Johnson's teaching experience yesterday (with apologies to the actor Greg Hicks) but at times he certainly having to fight the elements.

This may be exaggerating Johnson’s teaching experience yesterday (with apologies to the actor Greg Hicks) but at times he was certainly having to fight the elements.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

                        (Shakespeare – King  Lear)

I had the better part of the day for teaching here in Bangalore yesterday. Spending the morning engaged in lively debate over various models of interpreting behaviour with an enthusiastic and reflective group of students. Biological, psychological and social models were discussed, with the various merits of each interpretation being related to children known to the group. Arguments about the applicability of teaching approaches were high on the agenda, and a profound discussion of attachment led to some high level critical thinking. Our students participated willingly in all of the activities we had prepared, questioned their own beliefs and those of others and postulated theories and ideas in relation to their various classroom situations. This was quite literally the calm before the storm.

After another delectable lunch, Johnson took the reins and began the afternoon session by showing a video-recording of a classroom in Kerala, in a Malayalam media school. His session was well prepared with a series of questions and tasks and he had been looking forward to a vibrant lesson. He could not possibly have anticipated exactly how exciting it would become. No sooner had he begun this process than the heavens opened and rains lashed against the windows of the classroom. I should perhaps explain that we teach on the fourth floor of a building with windows on all four sides of the room. It can be noisy on a quiet day – but this was not a quiet day!

Heavy rain is not unusual in Bangalore, but what then followed was unprecedented in our experience of teaching here. Within minutes sizeable hail stones were cracking against the glass, the wind had picked up to gale force, and the eucalyptus trees behind the screen being used by Johnson, were threatening to smash their way through the windows. Johnson continued manfully, with the determination of Captain Oates going forth into the teeth of the blizzard, he raised the volume of both the video and his voice in a determined effort not to be defeated. In response to Johnson’s strategy the tempest grew fiercer building into a crescendo of rage as if to spite his every effort.

As Johnson continued, we noticed water seeping through windows, and before long two willing ladies appeared up the stairs with cloths, mops and buckets and with great gusto began to address the deluge that was fast building around Johnson’s feet. As a small lake developed in the classroom, Johnson waded forth, set on his mission and not to be distracted. I must confess to seeing an element of the old silent movie comedies in the session as with the determination that befits a seasoned professional Johnson ploughed on with increased resolve.

Fortunately the video had been concluded when the power cut arrived, and as I would have expected, ignoring this adversity Johnson fought his way stoically to his conclusion. Bravo man, what a sterling effort! The students I am sure were as full of admiration for this intrepid performance as myself. Furthermore they maintained their high level of performance and continued to complete the tasks set with gusto.

One of the saddest features of yesterday’s furious storm was the number of mature trees we encountered felled across the roads of the city in the evening. Today’s Hindu newspaper reports that more than 90 trees came down. Travel became an arduous process, and what should have taken fifteen minutes involved a journey of more than an hour. I would like to think that these wonderful giants of the city would be replaced with new planting, but I suspect that this may not be the case, as too many motorists, – these are now the dominant species in Bangalore, – see trees as taking the valuable space that could be given over to tarmac and new potholes.

We are hoping for quieter weather today as students begin to consider the assessed elements of the module. However, just in case things deteriorate further we will be armed with buckets and sponges and plenty more of Johnson’s fortitude!

Appreciating context; a first step towards respectful teaching?

Come and visit my school. You'll have seen nothing quite like it in England.

Come and visit my school. You’ll have seen nothing quite like it in England.

I have always believed that in teaching an understanding of context is important. I think that to some extent this belief was instilled in me during my first year of teaching when I worked in a school located in a coal mining area of England. It was soon apparent that the life experiences of people in this community, and therefore the children in the school were very different from my own. If I was to work in this school, I needed to gain some understanding.

I still find it difficult to imagine the dangers faced by the men who went every day, miles underground to toil in the heat, noise and dust of the coal seams. Mine was a very comfortable life and profession by comparison to theirs. I soon came to appreciate that with mining came a distinct culture and pride, built upon a close knit community that experienced similar dangers, and had bonded through times of hardship, pit accidents, respiratory disease and a common identity. To be a miner was to wear a badge of honour, and those outside of the immediate pit community could not easily gain access. But alongside a shared adversity, the local miners amongst whom we briefly lived had forged a positive life through the miner’s welfare clubs, a significant commitment to charitable work, and the rightly acclaimed music of the brass bands, a well-respected feature of many British mining communities. I still find it difficult to watch Mark Herman’s film Brassed Off without the occasional tear coming to my eye.

If context is important in shaping  lives and attitudes within communities, then it is surely necessary that we as teachers try to gain an understanding of the experiences of those we teach. This is a major challenge for those of us who come from the UK to teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme in Bangalore. Whilst it is fair to say that having worked here over the past fifteen years I find that there is much that teachers in England and India have in common, and that I see similar aspirations for children in the families I meet, I am always conscious that there are phenomena here that I don’t fully understand. I am sure that a lifetime here as an outsider would not be enough to enable a full understanding of the complexities of this context.

The modules that we deliver here have been developed in close partnership with our Indian colleagues who work with us on this course. We have worked hard to ensure that each session is relevant to teachers working in Indian schools and have gathered resources and teaching materials developed by Indian teachers working in a range of schools in Bangalore and beyond. None the less there are still issues arise during teaching or the assessment of student’s work that require careful consideration, analysis and discussion with our Indian colleagues in order to ensure that we are able to fully interpret a range of situations.

I have become increasingly concerned that there are professional educators, many from well-respected universities who are working outside of their own countries with very little regard for local traditions, beliefs and culture. This came to mind yesterday as I read about the introduction of an assessment procedure, commonly used in western countries for the assessment classroom management procedures, to schools in a northern Indian state. No effort had been made to modify the instrument being used, or even to discuss its relevance with local teachers or education administrators. It would appear that an assumption was made that because this procedure had been developed by “experts” in school management in a distinguished institution, that it should be suitable for use anywhere in the world. I am reliably informed that the two academics who delivered training in the use of this assessment tool had not previously visited India, and had certainly not spent time in schools. I assume that someone in this north Indian state had paid for the services provided, and maybe too they are in part culpable for not investigating the appropriateness of the materials on offer.

The creation of cultural dissonance increases with globalisation, and the imposition of a set of values previously alien to those particularly in countries of socio-economic disadvantage, who are working hard to improve the lives of children may well be a future source of tension. Internationalisation in education brings with it great opportunities for shared learning and understanding, but the right conditions must be created in order to ensure that the advantages gained are of benefit to all parties. Establishing a partnership of equals and challenging imperialistic models of benefice is essential. Taking the time and effort to get to know something of a country, its culture, influences and the aspirations of its people should be a requirement of anyone embarking upon such work.

Celebration follows all the hard work

Activity and debate. Active learning is alive and well in Bangalore.

Activity and debate. Active learning is alive and well in Bangalore.

Some of our students here in Bangalore are still high on the celebrations of their graduation last week. I have met several of them since and it is obvious that the occasion meant a great deal to them, as it did to their tutors, and they continue to savour the moment when they were awarded their degrees. This is just as it should be and I hope they continue to wear the aura of success for some time.

In conversation with one of our recent graduates this week, she told me:-

“When we first started on the course, for a few days I thought, why do we keep debating and analysing everything? Why don’t the tutors simply tell us what to do? It took us a while to adjust to a new way of learning, but now we realise how much more effective this approach has been. I now find myself questioning everything I do as a teacher in order to improve my practice. I also find myself reading more and wanting to know more about children and teaching.”

Such conversations are always reassuring, because whenever we embark upon teaching a new group of students we have our own apprehensions about how they might react to our approach. We spend the first few sessions closely observing our students for any positive signs in the hope that they are coming together as a group, and that they are prepared to challenge their own practices as teachers. So far, whilst teaching in Bangalore it has taken no more than a couple of days for our groups to become cohesive and to feel comfortable in debate and willing to engage in critical discussion about classrooms.

Watching from the side-lines yesterday as John and Johnson worked on a practical task with our third cohort of students, I was particularly interested to see how they moved around the room, sharing ideas with others and discussing aspects of behaviour management with children. Something that we have observed in all three of our cohorts to date, is that they do not form cliques or have a tendency to sit in the same place during sessions. Their movement is much more fluid than this and they seem content to work with any colleague during the activities that we present. This contrasts greatly with our experience of teaching in England, where students appear to seek the security of familiar working partners and are sometime loathe to explore ideas with someone less well known.

Today we will welcome visitors to the course. Individuals who think they may wish to join our new intake of students but wish to see just what we are like. I know that they will receive a warm welcome from our students and will soon detect the friendly atmosphere that they have created. We do not let these visitors sit on the periphery of the group, but rather engage them fully in the day’s debates and activities. Hopefully by doing this alongside friendly well established colleagues they will soon feel at ease and get a flavour of the ways in which we work.

We have been fortunate that those students who have chosen to join this course since it began in 2012 have without exception been full of enthusiasm, eager to learn and willing to become a part of a group committed to debate and practical learning. I am sure that amongst our visitors today there will be others who can also make a significant contribution to the promotion of more inclusive teaching and learning here in South India. I look forward to sharing in their celebrations as they graduate in the not too distant future.

More things in common than might be expected

 

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Teachers from a mainstream and special school working together find that they can plan for their children to learn together

Working with teachers in their own environment has a very different feel from that experienced when running courses at the university or on neutral territory. Being familiar with the surroundings and comfortable with each other, often means that those tentative minutes of beginning a training session are dispensed with, and teachers quickly become relaxed. Thus was the situation at Vydehi school today in the Whitefields district of Bangalore where I had been invited to conduct a session by Anita, one of our MA students here in the city. However, an interesting dimension of today’s training was that it brought together teachers from a special school alongside those from mainstream with a specific focus on creating an inclusive learning environment. This situation raised a number of questions in my mind about the expectations that teachers from these two respective establishments might have, and the ways in which they might interpret inclusive schooling. Would the special school teachers feel that they had a monopoly of expertise in respect of children with special educational needs? Would the mainstream teachers see these children as a problem? The session was approached by examining a model of assessment and planning to create opportunities for children to learn together in one classroom. Examples were presented from schools where these approaches had succeeded, and discussions of pupil “deficits” avoided. My idea was to provide examples that could encourage and enable children of all needs and abilities to learn within the same lessons. An emphasis was placed upon the proposition that within the same lesson children could be given many learning opportunities, and they do not in fact all need to learn the same thing, or work at the same pace.

It is always interesting trying to gauge the reaction of a group when addressing what I know to be, for many teachers, a series of challenging concepts. Nodding heads and smiles are always a good sign, furrowed brows and folded arms can be slightly worrying, a firm shaking of heads and reddening faces are disturbing to say the least. I recall one occasion when an audience member sitting immediately in front of me, at the outset of a session opened to its full width a broadsheet newspaper, thus concealing himself from me, and vice versa. This all before I had uttered a word.  I must confess that this rather pointed protest made me smile at the time, and I believe I saw the man behind the newsprint as ripe for conversion. Many of his surrounding colleagues objected to his behaviour, forcing him to lower his newspaper. In a way I was disappointed, having calculated that he would be unable to maintain his pose for more than a few minutes before his arms tired and he was forced to retreat. Fortunately today, there were far more smiles and nodding heads than otherwise, and nobody undertook any form of protest. Most reassuring was that teachers from both the mainstream and special schools appeared to be in accord with the principles that I was merrily espousing.

Towards the end of the session I became slightly concerned that they had all reached saturation point in respect of the information received and the ideas discussed. However, Anita suggested one final activity to end the event, and I was happy to comply. Teachers from both schools worked together in groups to plan a lesson in one of the formats presented during the session. They were asked to demonstrate how they might ensure that the needs of children from both of their schools could be incorporated into the lesson and their needs met. I was not surprised to find that these professionals rose to this challenge admirably and that they soon settled into devising differentiated approaches, and the implementation of resources that would support inclusive learning. When they presented back their ideas it was clear that they had identified a means of planning whereby all children could work together in an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

Whilst the teachers in today’s session are used to working in very different situations, it was evident that they have far more in common than they do differences. It became clear during the morning that these enthusiastic teachers also recognised that this was equally true of the children with whom they work.

Releasing the inner writer.

Enthusiastic writers sharing their ideas and getting them down on paper

Enthusiastic writers sharing their ideas and getting them down on paper

Why do we find writing so difficult? Even some of the great writers, such as George Orwell and Thomas Hardy have described the fear invoked by the blank sheet of paper; more likely replaced today by the flickering computer screen. No matter how experienced we continue to struggle with words and prefer to find ways of avoiding the difficult task of composing our thoughts. Prevarication is one of the writer’s closest familiars, and often his greatest curse. If this is true of those who have become successful authors, how much more difficult might it be for those of us who merely dabble in the shallow waters of writing? There are more good reasons not to write than to commence this arduous process, yet in some of us there is a compulsion to proceed. How dangerous might this addiction be? Few who have achieved a modicum of success would honestly seek a cure.

More than thirty friends and colleagues, each with a commitment to write, came together today in Bangalore for a workshop. At the beginning of the day it was possible to discern a range of tensions and confidences. How will I cope if I am asked to write and can think of nothing to say? Will today’s tasks be difficult and make too many demands upon me as a neophyte writer? Hopefully these apprehensions were soon allayed, as participants began to share in writing activities and found their peers supportive.

As university tutors we are cruel and unthinking  in our approach to student’s writing. Mature students enter courses, quite possibly having written nothing more complex than a shopping list for twenty years. Within weeks they are being asked to produce essays of 5,000 words and in a style with which they are largely unaccustomed. For some this is akin to being asked to work in a different language, yet this procedure has become standard in many academic institutions. Ask the tutors who run these courses, how much writing do they do, and how easily does their pen flow? I wonder how honestly they might answer?

If you decided today that you wanted to run a marathon it would be foolish to believe that you could do this tomorrow without having undertaken any training. Yet with writing we fail to recognise that this is not only an intellectual activity, but also one that makes physical demands. It takes time to become accustomed to sitting before a screen and trying to write for prolonged periods of time. For most of us it may be far better to begin with shorter and easier exercises rather than to decide to launch straight into a novel.

In too many schools writing has become a chore. Unfortunately there are teachers who are more concerned with the technical aspects of grammar and punctuation than they are with creativity. Grammar and punctuation are, of course important, they provide the structure around which fine writing is constructed. But let’s encourage children to enjoy the writing process first and once they recognise that writing can be fun, we can then shape and perfect the techniques that will help them to become proficient in using the written word for a range of purposes.

Participants in today’s workshop worked hard. They explored writing in different styles and for different purposes. They shared in their writing triumphs and admitted to a few difficulties. The learning that was in evidence assured everyone that they can write and that with practice they can write well. The concentration on a range of activities was sustained over several hours, tasks were taken seriously but there was much laughter. Interesting, often amusing and in some instances profound work was produced, but above all everyone agreed that writing had been an enjoyable experience.

Who knows, maybe the next J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, Vikram Seth, or Anita Desai could have been our midst. Even if this is not to be, I hope that at least some of today’s workshop participants will have been inspired to continue writing and shaping their ideas in words.

 

 

Happy endings.

 

A proud group of new MA graduateswith tutors and representatives of the University of Northampton

A proud group of new MA graduates with tutors and representatives of the University of Northampton

All of the stresses of recent days are past. Today was a great day of celebrations with a proud and well deserving group of students receiving their MA degrees in special and inclusive education after two years of dedicated endeavour. I must confess to feeling quite emotional as each student in turn was called to be awarded their degree certificate. Each one has a personal story to tell. Along the way several have encountered challenges which would have thwarted lesser individuals, but this group supported each other throughout the course and demonstrated commitment to achieve that was truly inspirational.

Working with these colleagues over the past two years has been a remarkably rewarding experience. They have produced work of outstanding quality, have debated and discussed issues with intelligence and enthusiasm, and have shown a willingness to deploy their learning in classrooms and to report on their many successes and the obstacles they have faced, in a reflective and professional matter.

The contribution that these teachers are making in their schools is significant. They are supporting children and their colleagues by developing more inclusive approaches to assessment, planning and teaching, and have become real advocates for inclusion, and leaders in the field of education. It will be interesting to watch their careers develop over the coming years as they become increasingly influential and establish themselves as leading professionals.

In offering a vote of thanks at the end of the graduation ceremony, one of our students, Samina, emphasised that whilst graduation signalled the end of a course of study, it was in many ways the beginning of a new phase in the lives of all who were graduating. The challenge ahead lies in applying their learning and taking others along with them on a journey towards more equitable teaching and learning.

Watching these new MA graduates today I felt immensely proud of what they have achieved, and I was pleased that their successes were witnessed not only by their families, but also by many people who have been influential in ensuring the success of the course, and who have taught me so much along the way. I was also filled with a sense of how fortunate I am in working with tutors of the quality of Mary, Jayashree, Johnson and John. It is undoubtedly true to say that working in Bangalore has not been without its challenges and occasional frustrations. But these are far outweighed by the rewards that have come through engagement with a group of committed students and tutors who have been willing to take on new ideas and consider their application in a diverse range of teaching situations.

Today was indeed a day for celebration. I do hope that the excitement of the day carries on for many weeks to come, and that each individual has an opportunity to reflect upon their great accomplishments and the value of the efforts that they have made during the past two years. They take away with them not only those skills that will enable them to develop inclusive classrooms, but also a set of principles for the promotion of a more equitable education system and society. I have every confidence that the children and staff with whom they work will reap many benefits from the work that they have put into their studies. I am both proud and humbled to have had an opportunity to share in a great learning experience and to be associated with such a fine group of individuals.

Many thanks to all involved
Photographs courtesy of Varsha Rajanahally and Time Loop Photography

I hadn’t anticipated the taking of hostages!

Somewhere within lies a symbol of academia!

Somewhere within lies a symbol of academia!

I am not sure why it is that sometimes those things that one had assumed to be straightforward become complicated in India. Whatever the reason, it is certainly true to say that there are occasions when this beautiful and welcoming country develops a carapace of such complexity that one is driven to the brink of insanity. Fortunately I have experienced far more good days here than bad, but yesterday was certainly one that I am pleased to put behind me.

My journey from England to Bangalore, though long and at times tedious passed by without incident. Both flights were on time, the cabin crew worked hard to ensure our comfort within the confines of economy class travel, my luggage appeared on the carousel and having completed the several forms necessary to escape the boundaries of the airport, an awaiting friendly taxi driver commenced the customary negotiation of the chaos that constitutes the Bangalore streets without difficulty. On arrival at my destination I was greeted by the familiar welcoming smiles and embraces of friends, and all was well. Things remained thus for the next hour, and I was soon settling well into customary routines; but this situation of calm was not destined to last. The several hours that followed can best be summed us as Kafkaesque in nature, (though even Kafka had limits to his imagination),and will be lodged firmly within my memory for the rest of my days. I am sure that in years to come I will awaken in the night, drenched in cold sweat as I recall the events of the last several hours.

One might be excused for believing that things should have been simple. But please, have some patience as I try to explain. I write this with an addled brain and a body that is uncomfortably fatigued, so the story may deteriorate as it progresses. The situation is thus. In two days time a group of deservedly proud and highly accomplished students are due to graduate with their masters degrees in special and inclusive education following two years of concentrated labours and focused study. This is a keenly anticipated event for all concerned; students and tutors alike. Graduations are immersed in an element of pomp and ceremony heightened by the colour and grandeur of the academic gowns, hoods and formal head gear that has characterised such events for many centuries. Representatives of the university’s chancellor and the Dean of Education, arriving today will officiate at the ceremony. On arrival at a hotel here in the city yesterday, I had anticipated that two large parcels containing academic gowns couriered from the UK would be awaiting me in readiness for this important event. Here began a chain of events that eventually left me frustrated and sleepless for more than thirty hours.

The good news was that the academic costumes had indeed arrived at Bangalore airport. Less than assuring was the message awaiting me that they had then been duly impounded by customs and excise and were not being allowed to progress beyond the confines of airport storage. In effect two parcels were being held hostage by officialdom and a large ransom demanded before they could be released.

One of the worst impositions of the long defunct British empire in India was the creation of dense layers of bureaucracy, undoubtedly intended to increase the efficiency of administration. However, it could never have been anticipated that Indian officials could take this burgeoning bureaucracy and turn it into a surreal art form. This kind of officialdom has been likened to an onion, which has layer upon layer of paperwork and obfuscation. The illusion is a false one, because at least with an onion it is possible to penetrate the final layer.

The release from incarceration of a collection of academic gowns it would appear, could not be negotiated over the telephone, but would necessitate a series of face to face meetings with men (they were noticeably all men), armed with sheaves of paperwork, official memos and rubber stamps. There was no choice but to make a return journey of an hour to Bangalore airport to begin a new and frustrating role as hostage negotiator.

I really do not wish to bore you with the complexities of the next five hours of this story. Or perhaps it is rather the case that the painful memories of unfolding events leaves me anxious and considerably aged! Suffice to say that having sat in several offices in different locations around the airport periphery; having completed endless forms, written official letters, made a dozen or so telephone calls to the UK and worn out my fingers with texts and emails, by late evening only minimal progress had been made. The gowns remain beyond bars, not even permitted a visitor and for all I know mocked and intimidated by jailers.

After four hours of seemingly fruitless negotiations and ransom demands, along with my colleagues I descended into hysteria. Much of the time the conversations and urgent phone calls made by my fellow negotiators veered from English to Kannada, leaving me totally in darkness and with a growing sense of dystopia. In desperation I found myself hatching a cunning, and completely bizarre Gandhian plan. This involved calling upon all of my many dear friends here in India to dust off their spinning wheels and work through the night to produce thread. Tomorrow, I thought, I will find others who can weave a set of perfectly formed khadi gowns. Thus attired our deserving students will make a fine statement of their independence. It will be a triumph for the emancipation of Indian academia and will announce the launching of a national “quit the customs” campaign. Such was the state of desperation experienced that we resorted to this kind of humour to address our frustrations.

Leaving the airport, minus gowns, but having acquired a new range of Indian friends and accomplices, was far from easy. Certain assurances had been given, but the outcome remains far from certain. I had not previously understood that the role of hostage negotiator would demand such sleepless nights, but now, as the first tentacles of light creep into the dawn, I sit and anticipate a further chapter in this desperate saga.

Somehow, amidst a full schedule of previously planned events for today the bargaining must continue. My pen is well charged for a further day of form filling, the bank alerted that a heavy ransom may soon be required. Expecting yet more complications, a team of friendly commandos have commenced digging a tunnel under the wires of Indian customs and excise in anticipation of the possible need for a more dramatic (non-violent) intervention. A colleague has baked a cake containing a file to be smuggled through prison bars, and my own personal nightmares continue.

I remain hopeful of a happy ending, but realistic about the paper driven monster that governs Indian procedure. Armed only with a pen and an unnatural level of optimism, I will sally forth into this brave new world. Now then, where was that phone number for amnesty international?

 

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.

The responsible education researcher

 

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

 

Whilst working last week with colleagues from both the UK and Brazil I often found myself thinking that whilst we work in very different countries and have contrasting cultural backgrounds, there is much that we have in common with respect to the educational issues that we face. Everyone in attendance at this research focused event was committed to promoting more inclusive education and the establishment of social justice, and we all face similar challenges in achieving our objectives.

Listening to the presentations given at this three day workshop and more especially during conversations with researchers from both countries, it was evident that the usual anxieties about inadequately prepared teaching staff, poor resourcing and low expectations of students as obstacles to inclusion, formed the basis of discussion. Similarly, the disparity between urban and rural educational opportunities and the impact of economic difficulties was apparent in many of the sessions we shared. At times I found myself reflecting on the fact that these are recurrent themes that I have heard not only in the UK and Brazil, but during recent visits to China, India, Georgia and Ireland. I have no doubt that similar frustrations would be raised in most of the world.

Of all the issues of concern, one that certainly troubles me most was highlighted in an excellent paper given by Marli Vizim, who is committed to working with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in São Paulo State. Clearly influenced by the work of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, Marli describes how she has tried to work with whole communities, and in particular the leaders of these groups, in an effort to foster positive attitudes to schooling, and increased opportunities for children. In particular she has demonstrated the importance of gaining the support of community leaders in order to get children previously seen as ineducable into schools. The passion with which Marli speaks and her willingness to engage in discussion and debate was encouraging and heartening. The fervency that she feels for her work is something that cannot fail to touch anyone who has a social conscience and wishes to see the lives of children and their families improved.

In a discussion group comprising colleagues from both Brazil and the UK it was easier to find similarities in our areas of concern than differences. As Marli indicated the increasing gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in Brazil, so did colleagues from the UK provide examples of a similar concern in our own country. Several of us were also able to relate this worrying trend to work we have done in other parts of the world. Whilst I have seen this increasing distance created between the wealthy and poor in India, other colleagues spoke eloquently about the same situation seen in Colombia and elsewhere in the world. Working through an interpreter always has the risk of ideas being confused during translation, but there was no doubting the level of concern and frustration with regards to current provision made for children from poorer sections of society being expressed in these sessions.

The authors of the 2014 UNESCO Global Report on the Education for All Goals, discussed previously on this blog (Feb 4th 2014), were careful to emphasise the progress that has been made towards achieving universal primary education. However, it is clear from the report that one of the greatest obstacles to making effective progress is poverty. Whilst the poverty that we see in the UK is nowhere near as widespread and pervasive as that seen in many poorer countries, this does not justify a denial of the damaging impact that it has on families. Listening to Marli speaking about the continuous struggle that some of the families face in the areas where she works, emphasised the potential for social unrest that is ever present, and could worsen if the needs of the most disenfranchised members of society are not addressed.

During my brief visit to Brazil it was apparent, just as it is here in the UK or when I work in Ireland or India, that there are many businesses and individuals that are thriving and creating considerable wealth. The economies of these countries have clearly benefited from the evident entrepreneurship and hard work of these individuals and their employees. However, just as the opportunities for the most educated and socially well connected people in these countries have increased, so have the difficulties faced by the poorest communities multiplied.

Fortunately researchers such as Marli, who recognise that they have a responsibility beyond investigating the communities with which they are involved, are having an impact. The results from her research indicate that expectations are being raised and demands for improved educational opportunities made in the areas where she works. Slowly this action is  bringing about change, and hopefully the lives of the families to whom she has made a commitment will improve.

The responsible educational researcher is one who recognises, that unless their investigation focuses upon improvements in the educational opportunities for children, families and teachers, it is probably of limited value.

 

 

Autonomous learners must be given the space to develop ideas.

Active learning. An enthusiastic group able to learn together outside on a warm Brazilian day.

Active learning. An enthusiastic group able to learn together outside on a warm Brazilian day.

A pair of great kiskadees have built their unkempt nest atop an electricity post outside of the hotel where I am trying to get some sleep in São Carlos. These are beautifully marked birds (as you can see below), but their grating calls, resembling a rusty hinge badly in need of oil appear to be in conflict with their colourful plumage. They serve as a dawn alarm clock, and early call to action here in Brazil.

Gathering a group of educators together for a few days, discussing opportunities for establishing partnerships for researching inclusive schooling, requires a great deal of thought. In particular achieving a balance between formal teaching activities, presentation of papers and a more informal sharing of ideas is not always easy. Today our gathered assembly have had a mixed economy of activities and it appears to have worked well.

Whilst it is important to ensure that all of these early career researchers have an opportunity to disseminate their research in formal sessions, this is not always the best means of encouraging an exchange of ideas. It would appear that our Brazilian colleagues, in common with the English contingent are pleasingly polite. We all listen to each other and then make appreciative comments, but may be less willing to engage in critical debate for fear of being misunderstood. Given some of the linguistic challenges we face this might actually be a genuine concern.

The quality of paper presentations has been good, but in my opinion the most dynamic learning opportunities were in evidence during less structured sessions. This morning, operating in pairs and then in small groups our colleagues worked together to identify research priorities and exchange their views and interpretations of a range of educational situations. Differing opinions were voiced in the safety of small groups, where there is the security to make critical comments. Ideas were exchanged, debated and in some cases discarded, and as an observer on the periphery of this activity I witnessed a tremendous sharing of learning.

A respectful sharing ideas helps to generate ideas for further collaboration

A respectful sharing of ideas helps to generate ideas for further collaboration

 

This way of working does not, of course, find favour with all teachers. Those who are less confident find it difficult to relinquish control, and to release the agenda to the most important people present, in this case the early career researchers. Here is a fine example of learning as a shared activity in which those who are supposedly the learners, have much in which to instruct the teachers. In this situation it is good to stand back and listen and to be prepared to have one’s own ideas challenged.

This approach is, of course, far easier with adults than it might be with children, but is an important aspect of teaching and learning as a democratic process. Knowing when to exert some influence and when to release learners from this control, is an important skill which we see in the most effective teachers. Sadly there are some who appear unwilling or unable to take this step and remain determined to maintain possession of the learning agenda. When working with children this is of course, at times important, but when working with able adults the teacher who wishes to apply control is in danger of destroying the creativity of the individuals involved.

Amizade e de colaboração

Amizade e de colaboração

 

Giving a degree of freedom to our researcher colleagues today resulted in an exciting and creative melee of ideas, that have now begun to shape nicely into plans for action. Autonomous adults who have already proven themselves to be effective learners, do not want to be pushed into a particular way of learning, or to have a dominant perspective from a teacher paraded before them. The adults here in  São Carlos sharing their experiences, have demonstrated that in informal learning situations they are confident in presenting their own perspectives and critically engaging with ideas.

As I left the classroom for lunch today, four disreputable black vultures had stationed themselves on the roof of the building opposite. They will be disappointed if they are awaiting carrion from today’s sessions!