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.