Questions from my fuzzy brain

Parents and children together as learners in Urumqi

Parents and children together as learners in Urumqi

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Attributed to Socrates

I’m back in England and trying to shake off the jet lag. This might account for some rather fuzzy thinking today. Having spent the best part of forty years working in Education, I become increasingly aware of how little I know about the areas in which I am supposed to have some level of expertise. This is further compounded when I attempt to place my professional learning in an international context. But then, this is all part of the excitement of being a teacher, a researcher and a learner. Perhaps when the jet lag wears off things might become a little clearer.

Over the course of a few days in China I was able to have discussions with teachers and post-graduate students as well as visiting schools and embarking on some conversations (through an interpreter) with children. I encountered much that was familiar. Dedicated teachers who demonstrated their professional knowledge and understanding, and applied their skills to managing groups of children with a range of needs; students eager to acquire insights into how research can inform improvements in the lives of children and their families. Much of what I saw in schools and university classrooms was very similar to what I might have seen in England, India, Ireland or any of the other countries with which I am acquainted. But as with any other learning it is the unfamiliar that is challenging and ensures that we have the motivation to continue learning.

I always feel that it is good to come away from a situation that has raised a number of questions, and to make time to think about these.  I find that when I visit schools in countries other than my own, this is a  frequent, often challenging but invariably rewarding experience. An example of this  occurred a couple of days ago when visiting a facility for pre-school aged deaf children in Ürümqi. In one classroom there were more adults than children, all seated on the floor engaged in a range of play activities. There was evident enjoyment in the learning taking place and real purpose in the tasks I was observing. Talking with the teacher in charge of the school she explained that most of the adults I was watching were parents. This was a situation that I might have encountered in many schools in England, where parents are frequent visitors to classrooms. However, the next piece of information with which she provided me, surprised me and led to the questions that continue to buzz around my fuzzy brain.

The parents working alongside their deaf children in that lively classroom are required to attend the school with their child every day for a year. Many come from parts of Xinjiang Province  hundreds or even thousands of kilometres distant from the school (Xinjiang is China’s largest province and accounts for one sixth of  its huge total area). These dedicated and often anxious parents find accommodation locally in which to live and attend the school every day to learn alongside their children. This commitment is a requirement for the child’s attendance at this school, which provides specialist support from well qualified teachers, therapists and audiologists. The children whose parents cannot make such a commitment simply do not get a place. The teacher explained to me that the intention is that all children on reaching school age should have acquired the communication skills to enable them to attend a mainstream school. Furthermore, every parent should be equipped and confident to support their child as they commence formal schooling. The whole process appeared to be well focused on establishing learning founded upon a partnership between teachers, therapists, pupils and parents.

So, now to my questions. The parents I witnessed have made a huge commitment in time and finances to benefit the education of their children. Many are living away from their homes to be near to the school for most of the year in order to achieve this. What impact I wondered does this approach have upon family life and upon the siblings of the deaf children? Having worked in this intensive and well supported situation I would imagine the expectations of parents of what might be provided in mainstream schools may be raised. How are these expectations realised I wonder, and how do the teachers in the mainstream schools respond to the demands likely to be made of them? What about those deaf children in Xinjiang Province whose parents for legitimate reasons cannot make this commitment? How do their children fare?

Such an intense approach to working with children in a pre-school situation is beyond my previous experience and having come away from Ürümqi I may never have the opportunity to find answers to these questions. Maybe you have knowledge that can help me here. If so, then please come to my assistance. However, one of the great advantages of experiences such as these is that the questions raised can be discussed with colleagues and students in the weeks and months to come and may possibly result in new ideas and insights into how we might work with children. The joy of this blog at times is that people I have never met can also inform my understanding of phenomena such as these. This is of course a great relief, because until such time as the jet lag fades I have no real hope of sorting out these questions for myself.

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Found in Translation

Without the assistance of  Tao Yuhong (Dolores), my earning difficulties are exposed in China!

Without the assistance of Tao Yuhong (Dolores), my learning difficulties are exposed in China!

Inevitably when working in Asia I have language difficulties. Typical of most British people, my knowledge of European languages is limited, but when it comes to the languages of Asia I am completely at a loss. In India, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia I have usually found a number of people around me who speak a good level of English. In China, and particularly on this visit to Xinjiang Province this is most definitely not the case. In such situations I am obviously dependent upon an interpreter or two to get me through meetings, my teaching or conference presentations and to assist me in social situations where I am otherwise like the proverbial fish out of water.

Fortunately on this visit I have been assigned an interpreter with superb English and the kind of understanding of local custom and etiquette that keeps me out of trouble. Tao Yuhong (Dolores) has not only assisted me in teaching, but has been a constant presence at meals and in other social situations where I would otherwise falter. (Did you know that if you sit at the head of a fish at the dining table you must propose a toast to whoever sits at the tail? – no neither did I!). The professionalism of good interpreters always amazes me, not only do they need to know the language well enough to speak with authority, but they are also required to navigate the technical nuances of the subject of the person for whom they translate. Sitting with Tao Yuhong prior to sessions and going through presentation materials ensures that terms such as inclusion, assessment for learning and differentiation are understood. This enables an audience to be reassured and assists them to find the meanings and concepts through the translation. It also inspires confidence in the presenter.

I think it is quite good to place oneself in a relative position of helplessness such as is occurring with me at present. Finding myself in a situation where I cannot manage the spoken language and have no hope of reading the Chinese or Uighur script that surrounds me I have some idea of how many children who have learning difficulties must feel. As a normally (reasonably) self-sufficient and competent adult I have reverted to being as dependent as a child and look to others to support me in the most basic of situations.

Of course, a significant difference between myself and most children with learning difficulties is that I am in a very different cultural context and as a rare visitor to this part of the world nobody is suggesting that I be taught the language and gain a degree of personal autonomy. Also unlike children who have learning difficulties, in a few days time I will be back in familiar surroundings and will almost miraculously have recovered my learning competence.

Perhaps it would be good for all teachers to experience this situation from time to time if it made them think of the challenges faced by their pupils. Such an experience makes us re-evaluate terms such as independence and competence as well as encouraging us to think about how we go about understanding the world we find ourselves in.  For now I would just like to say thank you to Tao Yuhong (Dolores) for being my teacher and carer for a few days here in Urumqi. Your skills as an educator were greatly appreciated. I hope that I have not been too troublesome a child!

Similarities and differences across cultures

These teachers working on speech exercises with deaf children in Urumqi show great professionalism. It is hoped by all that these children on reaching school age with be admitted to mainstream classes

These teachers working on speech exercises with deaf children in Urumqi show great professionalism. It is hoped by all that these children on reaching school age with be admitted to mainstream classes

Working with colleagues at the conference here in Ürümqi today I found it interesting to observe the similarities and differences, in terms of the challenges that we face in developing more inclusive education systems. Whenever educators get together to discuss the promotion of inclusion there are familiar themes that emerge. The attitudes and apprehensions of teachers, the inadequacy of school resourcing, the pressures of a competitive assessment regime, these are all clearly of concern in China, just as they have been during similar discussions in the UK, India, Malta and in many other places I have encountered. There is no surprise that teachers are expressing their anxieties about what they perceive as being the additional challenges of working with a greater diversity of pupils in classrooms. Neither is it uncommon to hear discussions related to the possible impact that the presence of children with special educational needs might have on academic outcomes in schools.

What did surprise me a little was the continuing focus upon a medical-deficit model approach to special education provision that persists here in China. Where I was concerned to talk about inclusion through the development of appropriate teaching approaches and changes in classroom environment, many of the professionals who came to talk with me were focused upon children with specific diagnoses of disability or need. The hunt for a panacea in working with children with Down’s syndrome or autism continues, and whilst this is something I am familiar with at home, there many teachers have begun to look at teaching approaches and classroom management for the promotion of inclusion.

It is understandable that teachers who encounter a child who has been categorized with a label such as Down’s syndrome will want to find some information about this condition. However, if we can encourage teachers to examine how they can adjust their teaching and change their classrooms to make them welcoming to all learners, the need to spend so much time examining labels will lessen. Discussions of differentiation, child centred assessment and focusing upon achievement and progress rather than attainment often lead to useful suggestions about teaching practices and successful classroom interventions. These are of far more help to the busy class teacher than a series of medical facts and figures.

Whilst we can offer research evidence for the effectiveness of inclusion from western contexts, these are very different from those seen in China or other Asian countries. There is an urgent need for more data to be collected from within this country, and there are sufficient researchers committed to achieving this to make me believe that we will soon be seeing the kind of evidence that might enable schools to move forward.

The enthusiasm demonstrated by colleagues at the conference today and their willingness to engage in ideas leaves me in no doubt that progress in developing inclusive schools will be made here in China. The fact that education researchers, teachers and policy makers are eager to discuss these issues with professionals from other countries is a significant indicator of a determination to improve the situation for all children. I hope that the dialogue which was conducted here in Ürümqi will bear fruit and that we shall be hearing about further developments in inclusive education from China.