Monday, 28 February 2011

Under a Kenyan Moon II



Further updated 11.3.11

I am a 62 year old man, sitting on a Mombassa beach in very hot sun, shaded by giant palm trees. I am supposed to be retired, they tell me, and I am surely on holiday, but I am beginning to believe that now, only now, am I coming to understand what my real work could be.  Someone, will tell me I am off centre but a stronger muse will no doubt urge me on.  The poem "Under a Kenyan Moon" (see earlier post) tries to capture the emotion of our visit to Nakuru, north of Nairobi, where we met some fine people, dedicated, visionary people, who refired my passion for what too many, in England, seem to have lost the excitement for.  But the Nakuru experience is now just a starter for a big idea about the philosophy and practice of education...

I will write a more traditional, even academic record of all this soon, with the obligatory references.  But first I have to log it simply and urgently here, as a record of teeming thoughts at this time.  Forgive the tumble of words and the typos.... it is expensive to use this hotel computer!

Simon, Nicky, Dodo and I were hosted by Joseph, Lydia and their children in Nairobi and later Nakuru last week.  We visited the two year old school (Bahati Division Academy) Joseph and Lydia had built in their community and met the children, from 4 -14years, who welcomed us with warm and loving smiles.  As sponsors, for some of them, we visited their homes, met their families and saw, for the first time, the subsistence, hand to mouth livelihood their communities are forced to rely on.



 They were inspirational in their joy, hope and excitement for education, learning and all it can mean.  We were fed and sung to, we listened to their stories and we laughed and cried.  We told our stories and sang English and Kenyan songs.  The "Old Lady who swallowed a fly" was a great hit!  My lasting impression is of a developing deep, deep respect for these warm people, their integrity, humour and some nostalgia for the community spirit that exuded from all we met in Nakuru.

I was lucky enough to work with the nine teachers in the school one morning, as requested, and we discussed their reasons for being teachers - the WHY?  WHAT? and HOW? of teaching and learning.  I must be careful, so careful, not to romanticise, or worse still patronise, in what follows....but I learnt so much in those all too brief hours we had. It had something to do with the obvious simplicity and cruel reality of the life there.  It had much to do with peeling back my unnecessary words and diagrams to their basic message - to the crucial precis of what I wanted to say in response to their critical questions - by email before and whispered, too respectfully, on the day itself.   "How do you bring back the self-reliance of children who have been dominated in an autocratic government system?"  "How do you work with a range of abilities in one class?"  "What is your view of discipline and corporal punishment, as some here believe it to be necessary?"   There were many other questions too and there will be more for next time... Rarely have I been so nervous before a session with teachers and I sensed they were too!  We got the heart of so much so quickly.


In the end my chalk board notes chartered our discussion of their answers to WHY? they are teachers, We skipped the WHAT? they teach,  for that is clearly laid down by the Kenyan government.  We then moved on to the HOW? of teaching.  And suddenly, in that classroom, with those teachers, it all became clear!   The HOW? behind each of their questions -  the pedagogy, the methodology, has to be borne from the WHY?  Is it really that simple?  Is it too simple to say that getting right the WHY for education, leads logically to the HOW we educate? Is it too simplistic to say that the WHAT? is already, to a large extent, there in most of our systems? On deep and long reflection I believe it is, it is that simple.  This experience merely brought to the surface what I have been trying to say for so long (a good deal in this, largely unread, and cumbersome BLOG).

Put simply - If teachers want to teach to: "make the world a better place;  allow children to find and achieve their goals; make the country more cohesive; bring unity to tribal conflict; to build peace; educate the citizens of tomorrow;  teach moral purpose (all their words not mine!) Then it is simple - each classroom must be a country in itself.  The teacher must be the leader of a nation - the ruler of a community, a society in the style and purpose of the country s/he wishes to build.  How else will the children know how to be leaders and rulers as they grow? 

If the overwhelming and predominant, if not oppressive, force in their classroom is the teacher's views and is dominated by what s/he thinks and says and does - then the future leaders will be predominantly dictatorial...  (My "Judging the point and nature of intervention diagram fits so neatly here).  If classrooms are led by leaders who have a vision, a purpose and they predominantly want to inspire, involve, motivate and work with and alongside their "citizens" and eventually accord them the trust of delegation, sharing and responsibility, then the future leaders in their wider country will be democratic, responsive and enlightened.... (The hierarchies of Maslow, Kohlberg and Gilligan and my "For me, for us. for everyone, for everything" Tower slots in easily too).  We covered a lot in three hours.  Too little?  Too much?  Maybe the teachers will write and email and say.  Early messages suggest a good part of it did strike home.  I am buoyed because ideas are all the better when they can transcend boundaries.  The teachers understood and took the notion of interdependence to heart.  I was not surprised, for the whole of their community exudes it!

Too soon, we left - after a plaque was unveiled to my good  friend Simon whose original sponsoring, some 33 years ago, began the chain of events that led to this school being built. His emotion, so understandable as they cheered and sang, was embarrassing for him but for no one else.  What he, Lydia and Joseph had achieved was tangible. 



One teacher, Kevin, said, "You can count the seeds is an orange but not the oranges in a seed".  The responsibility on those children is huge. We had planted four trees, one for each of us, with promises that each would be looked after by a child. (The leaf image was not lost on me!)  We spent one more night camping and singing around a bright campfire under a massive spread of stars, in a Garden of Eden, a haven, built by Charles Mwai, a giant visionary Kenyan and friend of Joseph and we left, overwhelmed, humbled, muttering of somehow doing more, coming back, keeping the links.....

Here in Mombassa, on the holiday part of this visit, in a great hotel we are relaxing accompanied by a backdrop of flickering  television screens reminding us of the wider world, out there, showing the spread of public uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.  Dictators are falling, threatened and frightened.  Their bluff of power is being blown away in a few days of street protests, fuelled by the horror of deaths in city squares. Gaddaffi, the ultimate dictator, holds out in desperation as I write.  Ordinary people are fired up demanding more involvement, a greater stake in their community's, society's and country's affairs.  Now it has started, it cannot be put back easily...although history tells regime change can lead to alternative evil powers and further corruption...  It takes weeks to bring down a regime.  It will take months and years to build a stronger and better one.  I cannot now help make an obvious link.

It will take decades to educate these new nations....  My overwhelming thoughts, here on this unreal beach, away from it all, is yet another simple thought.  It will be the educational structures, systems and teachers that lay the real foundations for the future of these countries.  Teachers hold the keys to the future.  In all our countries, not just Kenya, not just Egypt ,or even England, it will be the vision and work of individual teachers in their classrooms that will create the sustainable foundations for democracies, or dictatorships.  The medium really is the message.

So, I am now more sure than ever that, all that I am banging on about in this BLOG -  "Leading learning for interdependence" is an idea stronger, more viable and of the moment than I could ever have thought before this visit..  There is a real task in all this simplicity for those of us who ask and answer WHY? - the philosophers of education.  We must strengthen our resolve about purpose, common goods and the UN Charter for the Rights of the Child.  We must step up and offer to help these new regimes and some old ones too!  The curriculum developers will be important too but I guess, as always, that the WHAT? we teach will be more obvious and easier to sort...indeed it is probably already there in many of these places, if my recent experience of global curriculum work is anything to go by...  And what of the HOW? - the methodology?  A new pedagogy is the key and here will be our most crucial work....  If newly established democracies want their citizens to be empowered, responsible, functional and with moral purpose then the classrooms in their schools must be microcosms of this...  There is surely a critical place for my Pedagogical Oath.  The new governments will do well to think and plan early and hard with their teachers about HOW? their classrooms and schools will reflect their new vision.   I could go on...I do go on,.... I will go on!  Suffice to say, at this early juncture, that this has to be a new focus for my work - no not new, or even a wider focus, but a tighter focus...




So, what next?  Well, if you have read this far - take this as a first and early signalling of an intention - I want to work with "more powerful others"*, "keen supporters" and "the interested" to motivate and inspire this development of educational systems to build interdependent learners and leaders...  I want to pull together this thinking and, most importantly, the practical pedagogy in all this.  I want to signpost the HOW? of teaching.  Asking the question, "What do teachers say and do to build interdependency in their classrooms (and countries)?" Is anyone out there interested i  this deceptively simple idea?  Indeed is there anyone out there? I now need honest, tough challenge and support for this.

In particular, I'd like to think this piece will be twittered, blogged, copied and built on.  For this we need the technologically literate to "pass it on".  If this idea has any value - it will snowball into something.

Back at home I will continue to write up the materials mentioned above and, in particular collect those simple classroom techniques that embody empowerment, self-assessment, action research and democracy building.  This is not to replace the traditional, functional curriculum but rather to give it a real moral purpose.

So, thank you Kenya, thank you BDA students and most importantly thank you BDA teachers for helping me surface this insight....

John updated 11.3.11

*  This could be Joseph, Lydia, Charles, Simon and Nicky in and for Kenya.  It could be my Moroccan friends in Taroudant (and the British Council).  John in Kuwait.  It could be Brian, John, and others in the Curriculum Foundation England, Pippa, Jill, Illy, Alan, Phil, John, Kevin, Dave and Jennie and a host of others. Please make contact if this makes any sense to you....

Sunday, 20 February 2011


Under a full Kenyan moon


Under a full Kenyan moon,
Lit by fires of Bushmen cooking meat
Warm hands clasp. White eyes flash
We whisper then shout smiling words
Over deafening drumbeats.

We talk of names and some meanings
And how places, people, journeys
Always connect on the trail to here and now.

Listening, I come to understand
Why I can never remember names, nouns and numbers.
I know now, suddenly, in this cool Nairobi night, that
Wisdom is not names, nouns and numbers,
But deeper, dark and warm blooded things,
From the born, the dead and unborn people.
Knowing is in the verbs, voices and visions
Captured in these firelight noddings of sadness and joy.
In the hush of families and friends.

And I see all the others’ stories and my little poems,
(To strangers, of enemies and over time)
As specks of light from these fires
Sprinkled over the black earth.
Pin prick mirrors of stars in this black African sky.
And, as each fire dies, it marks a charcoal trail
Under this Kenyan moon.

I see suddenly, truly, that our future was made there
And know that it is being made here, now in this ash and am 
Happy in this place.
This place that needs no name.



 Note:  In penultimate line:  ash = Ashley; and = Andrew, am = Amy