Academic journal article The International Schools Journal

Engaging with Difference: Finding Ways Forward

Academic journal article The International Schools Journal

Engaging with Difference: Finding Ways Forward

Article excerpt

As I have been listening to students, teachers, researchers and others, in strand presentations, discussions, exhibitions, interest groups, the plenaries on language, global citizenship, school leadership, teaching and learning, curriculum, and culture and the Gallery Walk, it struck me that a synthesis of any sort was impossible. So my aim is less to summarise, and more to offer some reflections of my own, provoked by the ideas I have heard.

Indeed, thinking back to the student comments on manufactured CAS reflections, let me assure you these are authentic. Samuel Johnson said 'Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging' and let me assure you that putting together some closing remarks on presentations you have heard only the day before, on topics you know little about, has much the same effect.

I start with a story I was reminded of in the global citizenship strand. I think it illustrates a theme that has emerged several times over the last few days, in various guises. My wife did karate at school in a mixed gender karate club - then considered progressive. The instructors made a point of promoting gender equality, and with all the authority of a fourth dan, Sensei confidently declared in a deep voice "there's no place for sexism in the dojo". He glared challengingly at the boys, smiled sympathetically at the girls and said "girls and boys can both do karate, and some girls are actually quite good at it".

You could see that as hypocrisy, and laugh, but Sensei was trying to be inclusive, perhaps to engage with a gender different to the one he was used to teaching; he had his heart in the right place. We can see, of course, the outcome was not perfect; and there is something important here about the difference between Sensei's values and behaviours. I think this difference that has emerged over the course of this conference in a number of ways.

Let me refer to this phenomenon - the difference between our values and behaviours - as the voice of Sensei. It turns out that Sensei can be heard often, and sometimes in far grander arenas: The American Declaration of Independence 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This founding document addresses equality favourably; as such it is a positive step to engaging with difference. Note however, that it privileges men over other genders (note the plural - I will return to that later); arguably it privileges religious over secular beliefs; and is perhaps based on an individualistic rather an collectivist approach to society. And we know that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers owned slaves - who patently did not have the right to liberty, the pursuit of happiness, or in many cases, life. Not so different from Sensei, in an historic event.

Closer to home, temporally or geographically, it is not hard to see similar things at work. We can see the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar (where the terrifically positive values underpinning this developing democracy seem not to apply to all). Or the Syrian refugees in Europe (where living up to what seem to many basic values is proving extremely difficult when the people in trouble have a different language, skin colour or culture). Or in any country where one ethnicity/race/ gender/whatever gets treated in ways that would be roundly condemned if anyone actually proposed them and which run contrary to espoused values. We can all no doubt think of similar examples, wherever we are from, where there are some differences that are not currently being engaged with.

And we can take a hard look at our schools and institutions that often claim to encourage diversity and inclusion, while are at the same time being out of reach of the vast majority of people, even in rich countries (as was pointed out in the Secondary Interest Group); and that cater to diversity of passport rather than diversity of character, or diversity of academic ability. …

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