Children Who Fly Below the School Radar

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Six years ago, when I was based in the UAE,  I was invited to share my thoughts on key educational issues through a series of seven articles that I wrote. I recently read back through those articles and was especially worried to find them still so relevant today, the issues raised still largely unaddressed. When it comes to reforming and changing education there has to be atime when we stop debating what needs to change and get on and make it happen. To do that, we have to sometimes ask some tough and uncomfortable questions about who benefits from maintenance of the status quo and what needs to happen to break down those entrenched positions.

Here, below is the first of those articles that dealt with education’s obsessive interest with the ‘outliers’ and non-conforming students (under and over-achievers) that meant that little was happening to ensure that the children in the middle get a fair and reasonable, personalised learning experience.

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(Click on the two links above to open the two paged article in pdf form. it should open as a separate tab or page in your browser)

Inspiring Teaching

This Teacher Gives Compliments to Every Student, Every Morning (WATCH):
http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/this-teacher-compliments-every-student-every-morning-watch/

Ten minutes a day.  Not the issue, to show we care about children and build their self esteem.

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RTE – CSE Review After Nearly 3 1/2 Years

April 2010 saw the Right to education Act come in to effect in India (my, my, doesn’t time fly when pursuing pie in the sky!!). So, it’s timely that Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) has carried out an extensive review of implementation of the Act.

Down to Earth – Elementary Failure

At the top level, on the biggest issues, the report gives a grim picture of progress so far on enrollment, prevention of drop-outs, teacher training and recruitment and parent empowerment. It doesn’t really get in to the other key areas of special needs education provision or integration of EWS children in to upmarket private schools where my suspicions would be that the failure to deliver is at least as bad, if not worse.

Of course, there were plenty of us at the time of the legislation being passed who doubted the viability and scope of the targets and promises. Nevertheless, with children as the biggest losers, ‘I told you so’ doesn’t carry much satisfaction. The legislation is a reality now and it’s time that educators and civil society started to bring pressure to bear on the Indian government to realign, to set fresh goals and to commit to put in place the resources necessary to achieve the avowed aims. If, over the next two years real progress could be achieved, then all would not have been in vain. However, without new fresh commitments I rather fear the failures would be brushed under the carpet and the objectives allowed to die a slow death – later to be blamed on party political issues!

I also believe that the best prospects for the future may genuinely lie in PPP, but partner selection must be good and the criteria for deliverables identified and communicated with clarity and transparency.

The children and the country deserve better.

Special Needs in Mainstream Education

The Right to Education Act here in India attempts to achieve many ends, regrettably most of them political rather than educational or driven by research-based knowledge of what is good for society. Here, I want to focus on the intention of the Act towards those children with Special Needs (defined in the broadest sense to include those with physical, mental or learning difficulties).

The Act is very simple and straightforward – indicating that every such child should be granted a place in a standard, mainstream school, public or private. At face value this may sound fully justifiable and pursuant to a just, fair, inclusive society. However, before coming to such a conclusion I feel we should be willing to learn from the experiences of other countries (especially when it is an acknowledged fact that their was very little conscious research behind the provisions of the RTE).

In UK, in 1978 Mary Warnock (now Baroness Warnock) chaired a committee on Special Education. The results were far-reaching and radical including a massive shift in focus on educating learning disabled children in mainstream schools.

This trend went on for over 20 years with Baroness Warnock as being a champion of Special Needs rights. However, in 2005 Baroness Warnock shocked the special needs community when she expressed dissatisfaction with the very system that she had helped to create. She went so far as to call it ‘appalling’. By that time, the situation was that so many children had been moved out of specialised schools in to mainstream ones that only 100,000 children remained in the special schools. This meant that many of those children faced very long journeys to and from school. Warnock suggested that all that had been done had been with the very best of intentions, with compassion, intellect and respect for the rights of those with special needs.

However, whilst ideologically sound, the practical outcomes had been an inability to achieve the laudable aims desired. As well as the challenges for the 100,000 students mentioned above, her research indicated that what had been done also failed to meet the needs of the children who had been ‘mainstreamed’. Too often, in what were still largely conventional classrooms in most mainstream schools their special needs were not being adequately met. However, the financial and academic attention given to attempting to meet their needs had often reduced schools’ abilities to meet the needs of all their other pupils. In short, the policy hadn’t really met anyone’s needs very effectively. As a result, Baroness Warnock advocated a reversal of the policy and the establishment of more special schools.

Let us not forget that all that happened in UK – a country that was starting with a mainstream education system that was far better equipped materially and professionally than the public or private schools of India. This was brought home to me when the Education Secretary of Delhi was seeking advice on how to employ/ recruit and/ or train an enormous number of Special Educators to meet the requirements of the Act and orders handed down from the courts.

Most schools in the country lack even the most fundamental and rudimentary tools of inclusion, such as ramps, level ground surfaces, adequate space in classrooms for wheelchairs, audio sound loops in classrooms for the hearing-impaired or safe environments for the visually-impaired. The vast majority of mainstream teachers need to undergo extensive sensitization and inclusion training, along with training in differentiation skills to meet disparate needs of students in a single classroom.

In the circumstances, I believe that a realistic and practical strategy is required, with the following elements;
1) a start should be made on closing the training gaps of teachers, perhaps with a ‘Foundations of Inclusion’ certification course that all would be required to complete within 5 years,
2) expansion of course offerings to develop specialised skills of special educators,
3) Direction of specific funds earmarked from Education Cess (there must be some reason we’re all paying that money!) for establishing Special Schools in all major urban areas and districts with departments/ subsidiary units specialising in different needs (sight, hearing, physical, mental),
4) defined time limits for all public and private schools to address certain core fundamentals for basic accessibility for inclusion, including ramps where possible (otherwise lifts), special toilets etc.
4) A rolling programme, linked to point 1 above in timing, to mainstream children (in both public and private schools), where their conditions place them in the mild to moderate part of the spectrum in terms of their learning difficulties AND where assessment concludes that they can function effectively in large group inclusive learning environments.
5) Where the child does not meet the definition under point 4. above, guaranteed provision of a place in the Special Schools set up under point 2. above.

Just because a Minister sitting in Delhi says something will be a particular way, doesn’t make it so. We have to start from where we are, not where we wish we were. Otherwise, pie in the sky, unrealistic programmes dictated from on high will simply mean lot of ideological angst and guilt whilst little changes practically and those with learning difficulties continue to be treated as marginalised members of society with their needs completely unmet.

I welcome others’ thoughts and views.

Differentiated Instruction

For a lot of teachers there’s something quite daunting about discussing differentiated instruction. People are hesitant to admit to each other the extent to which they really understand the concept or what it requires of them.

Some also struggle to get their heads around what it would really look like in class, what would be happening different. There are also issues at times about acknowledging the fears about the amount of extra work it entails for the teacher.

So, I was particularly pleased to come across this article written by a practicing teacher that deals with these issues openly and honestly. By giving a real life classroom example the piece gives a good feel, especially for trainee teachers, of how differentiated instruction actually looks in a classroom.

Edutopia blog on differentiated instruction

Educating Gifted Children

here’s an interesting piece from the US ASCD website looking at perspectives on giftedness and how schools should cater to the needs of their gifted children.

ASCD Article

Within TSRS we have been discussing giftedness recently in quite a lot of detail through a number of meetings over the last 2-3 months. One of the first challenges is that you have to get to a definition that all can be comfortable working with. We are clear that a definition that is narrowly defined to recognise those children who are strong on linguistic and/ or logical/ mathematical only is inadequate. It must encompass all those children at advanced stage of development in all intelligences (Howard Gardner).

Secondly, we are absolutely clear that we do not wish to finish up with a scenario in which there are special facilities/ allowances and arrangements for special needs and gifted children, whilst somehow leaving the bulk of children who fall in to neither category unfulfilled.

For me, far more comfortable is an approach based on differentiation – a set of practices and processes whereby the teacher builds knowledge and evidence of the strengths and development needs of each and every child in the classroom and, over time, seeks to provide varied and differentiated learning experiences that will meet all their learning needs.

There is no question this is challenging and a big shift for many teachers. However, there is now an increasing amount of material available to help teachers to begin the journey down this route:

Differentiated Instruction
Reflective Teaching
Andrew Pollard’s Website

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