In the Shadows of Five Star Hotels

31 Oct

“…much of what was said did not matter, and much of what mattered could not be said.” (P.172)

BOOK-articleInlineBehind the Beautiful Forevers, written by journalist Katherine Boo, is set in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, stretching along the Mumbai Airport and hidden from view by a concrete wall that separates the indulgent from the destitute, the opulent from the deprived. Home to 3,000 residents inhabiting half an acre, this story could have easily taken place in Karachi, Pakistan, Nairobi, Africa, Cape Town, South Africa, or Mexico City (the top five slums in the world according to the United Nations – A report, that actually identified, Neza-Chalco-Itza, one of Mexico City’s many barrios, as the largest slum in the world with roughly four million people inhabiting it (UN Habitat, 2013).

The book is described as a narrative non-fiction however I would not hesitate to label it as an ethnographic studyethnography1 told in a novel-like-style. In the author’s notes, we learn that Boo spent 3 years conducting fieldwork in the slum. With the aid of interpreters, the inhabitants were interviewed repeatedly and where possible, Boo herself would have long conversations with some of the youth, pressing them to share some of their thoughts and impressions, and looking to archival research to check and re-check her facts, as she documented a detailed in-depth description of everyday life for the Annawadians.

In the telling of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the author depicts an intimate and detailed portrait of a place and a people united by a desire to improve their lives and those of their loved ones at a time when the buzz words are global development, prosperity, and progress.

As I read the stories, I was reminded of something that always struck me whenever I crossed the streets in Asia and India. The Pedestrian Traffic Signal for WALK is a running man. runTo reach the other side safely, you often had to run. Each time I crossed the street, I would be reminded how this running figure truly symbolizes life in these continents where so many are running in pursuit of progress and prosperous opportunities.

Through her narration, Boo invites the reader to witness the lives of such a people. Lives that consist of a delicate balance between thriving and surviving, doing and dodging. A people with limited access to resources – slum dwellers – for whom necessity has truly bred innovation, where the rich’s rag is literally a poor man’s treasure. Because an objective observation, devoid of an observer’s pre-existing attitudes, is simply impossible, we, as witnesses, interpret the Annawadi’s life using our own previous experiences, preconceptions, and ideas, in our attempt to understand and give meaning to the events we have witnessed.

Research that commands our attention to the likes of Annawadians, aiding us to discover hidden insights, about others and ourselves, is a research worth pursuing. As I reflect on Behind the Beautiful Forevers and ponder ethnography as a research method, I am aware of the potential of subjectivity in interpreting and in the observing of a culture. The lenses through which I see the world of the Annawadians are my lenses, giving me an understanding and an interpretation of the Annawadi culture that may differ from the Annawadis’ own perspectives and interpretations.

As I read the book, I was distraught at the poverty and corruption that the slum dwellers have to face daily but I also marveled at the resilience, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of the Annawadians and all self-reliant urban dwellers. They have once again shown me how humans can adapt to the direst of circumstances. The more I thought about the book, the more I thought about my own reflections and attitudes about global development. In that sense, this ethnographic study taught me more about my own understanding and worldviews than about the slum dwellers of Annawadi.

In pursuit of that one particular paradigm…

14 Oct

In today’s world, research is the tool we use in our quest for the truth. Its potential to provide us with new knowledge, one that can change how we understand others, and ourselves, is greatly increased when we, as researchers, are willing to be self-reflective and open toward the research process and the different ways of knowing.

After much reflection and many readings, I have come to the stance that to conduct good research in the social sciences, and especially in education, one cannot deny that both interpretivist and positivist paradigms have their place in our quest of knowledge and both have their limitations.

When conducting research, one’s paradigm, worldview, or belief system provides the framework that underpins how the research will be conducted, and how the data will be analyzed and interpreted. Both positivists and interpretivists are concerned with understanding the world, and enhancing their knowledge of it. While positivists believe that researcher and research are separate, and an objective reality exists outside and independently of those ‘creating’ it, interpretivists claim the opposite, declaring research and researcher as inseparable, and knowledge of the world as the result of our interaction and interpretation of it.

research-in-progressEducational research is complex because it not only involves human behavior and social interaction, but it also includes looking at various teaching approaches and learning strategies in educational settings. Educational research attempts to uncover solutions to practical problems in education and to do so has to include many disciplines in its analysis and study. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, and history all contribute to developing our knowledge of teaching and learning. If we really want to improve the relation between research, policy, and practice in education, we need an approach in which not only is the cognitive (quantitative) is researched but also the affective (qualitative) aspect of teaching and learning is taken into account.

As an educator, a researcher, and a student, I am not ready to choose one model over another. From where I stand today, I want to be able to draw upon multiple paradigms, use different methodologies, apply different tools, do whatever is needed, to encourage dialogue, and foster collaboration and exploration in the world of learning and teaching.

I know This Much is True

30 Sep

Science requires an engagement with the world, a live encounter between the knower and the known.
Parker J. Palmer

kitchentales“How can one know anything about one’s fellow man, if not speaking to him?” Asks the researcher of his colleague in Kitchen Stories/Salmer fra Kjøkkenet, a Norwegian movie about a Swedish research company’s attempt to optimize kitchen usage by sending over a team of Swedish researchers to study the habits of Norwegian single men. In particular, it is the story of one researcher, Folke, and his subject, Isak, and their engagement with one another during the research. Folke, in keeping with the positivists’ paradigm, is a neutral observer whose sole role is to collect data in a non-judgmental manner free of personal bias, opinion, or curiosity. Perched up high on his umpire chair, in a strategic spot in the kitchen, Folke, assumes that role as he silently monitors and carefully records Isak’s movements.

As the story unfolds, we witness human spirit soaring through as both the researcher and his subject, the observer and the observed, cause one another to change, and emerge with a new knowing that transforms them both. Through a tender friendship, Folke’s observations lose their neutral stance, to take on a deep empathy for his fellow human and Isak’s initial mistrust and abhorrence toward the presence of this man in his kitchen shift to curiosity and even a desire to be involved and supportive. What began as neutrality and observation in a kitchen is no longer confined to the kitchen as the two men gain deeper understanding of each other.

The movie depicts the researcher who dubs himself into believing that one can be separate from one’s subject and can learn all he needs to learn about the subject by simply observing it. This is parallel to Parker Palmer’s main ideas in his article on The Violence of Our knowledge: Toward a SpiritualMOT1.550.eenie_ity in Higher Education in which he points out that in our pursuit of objectivism, analytic, and experimentalism, we have lost what it is to truly know. In Palmer’s view, true higher learning involves a “healthy dance between the objective and the subjective, between the analytic and the integrative, between the experimental and what (he) will call the subjective.” He goes on to say that knowledge is not neutral. We, as a society, want to believe it is, and we attach it to facts and figures, but it is what we do with these facts and figures that proves that knowledge is far from being either neutral or objective. Palmer also writes that knowing – in this example the knowing is through research – is transformational, reciprocal, personal, and communal. This is well illustrated in Kitchen Tales in that the observer also becomes the observed – Isak, the subject, stops using his kitchen and observes Folke, the researcher, through a hole in the ceiling – and in the way that both the researcher and the subject transform one another. As the movie develops, we are witness to the development of a friendship between the two men that although had started out painkeep-calm-because-we-all-know-the-truthfully (Isak wouldn’t even answer the door,) becomes the focal point of the movie with the research activities being merely the means by which this relationship started and developed.

As I watched the movie, what became clear to me in that moment is how research across cultures and international borders is neither innocent nor simple. It has effects and consequences, it supports certain truths and denies others, it carries with it personal and social values, it affects and transforms… – but that will have to be a topic for another time and day.

More or Less, Unequal

16 Sep

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger is a book by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. It was published in 2009. With every publishing house, the book’s sub-title changed from Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better to Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger to Why Equality is Better for Everyone to Equality is Joy (the German edition: ‘Gleichheit ist Glück’). As of September 2012, the book had sold more than 150,000 copies in English. It is available in 23 foreign editions.

In this book, authors Wilkinson and Pickett highlight the correlation between income inequality and health and social problems. Looking at 23 rich countries and 50 US States, they conclude that of the eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries. Based on their research, people living in unequal societies were more likely to be in jail, be mentally ill, be obese, be murdered, and have higher infant mortality. Inequality, in this view, is a virus that infects society and creates mistrust. The stress of it all leads to diseases and forms a society that is divided and competitive. This inequality is equal in that it even affects the rich because they have to be vigilant, protect their status, their jobs, their wealth, and so on. In an unequal society, society is broken and everything is bad for everyone.

Based on the numbers sold, and the amount of discussion it created, this book is popular and well known. However, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing, and that the correlations being made were overlooking something fundamental, something that makes the picture they have drawn incomplete. With every re-read, I had more unanswered questions.

income-inequality-by-nationFrom a research methodological stance, the book’s data was presented well and convincingly. Using the gap between the richest and poorest 20% of the population, the authors provided evidence to back up their claims and addressed the many concerns and questions that readers had in regards to their country choices and measurement procedures and techniques. All clarifications and explanations confirmed and supported their claim that inequality leads to broken societies.

Still… I had my reservations and many questions. I wondered… A study that is comparing countries with different histories, population size, geographic makeup, and cultural values – how were these factors accounted for? Is such a comparison valid? What about comparing countries using only one criterion: inequality? This simply did not feel statistically sound to me. What about cultural values and race? Today’s family structure of single parent households – How did that play into income inequality? What of the role of technology, skilled labor, and globalization in today’s market world? To ignore all of these and simply focus on the financial aspect of humanity is overly simplistic and reduces people into an economic factor.

harshipsTo assume that inequality only leads to jealousy, stress and ultimately disease is not painting the full picture. It is assuming that we all want more material and feel envy towards those that have more than us. I do not believe that to be true. Such assumptions reduce humans to mere consumers.  What about human spirit? Man’s will to survive? The intrinsic motivations of so many that despite all odds shine through?

Growing inequality is a political, social, and economic challenge that is on everyone’s mind. The Spirit Level brought this issue to the forefront and paved the way for dialogue. Trust, basic needs, and honesty are essential for a society to exist, grow, and function, no one can argue that point; however, when one tries to force all of social inequalitiesunequal-logos into “income inequality”, something is missing. By adopting ‘income inequalities’ as the sole cause leads to different focus and places all of our attention on one arena. Looking holistically and culturally at the reasons that bring about this inequality is important if we wish to find the right solution.


Paradigm Proclaimed

30 Aug

As an educator, I am interested in understanding, interpreting, and exploring the many complex and rich relationships between teaching and learning. Research will be the tool that will help me gain insights and contribute to the field, and research is always guided by a set of beliefs – or a paradigm – whether acknowledged or not by the researcher. A researcher’s paradigm, in other words, is then determined by the way he or she defines reality (ontology), how he/she knows something (epistemology) and how he/she goes about finding answers (methodology).

My paradigm, or belief system, will then steer my thought patterns and serve as a framework, shaping the observations I make, the facts I discover, and the conclusions I draw. It is for this reason that before I publicly declare my paradigm, I want to share my understanding of the different social research paradigms using the analogy of a shepherd and his flock.

positivistsA positivist shepherd stands atop a hill. Before him, a little distance off, are some sheep. He stands for a long time – without ever attempting to take one step closer – and observes the sheep as they flock around unaware of his presence. He records his observations and in so doing declares that which is universal about sheep behavior. Along comes a post positivist shepherd. He supplements the quantitative observations made by his predecessor by conducting a structured interview of a random sample of sheep to determine their reasons for flocking as they do. He weighs, measures, and diligently records his findings.

An interpretivist shepherd arrives on the scene. He walks into the flock and establishes rapport with the sheep, tinterpretivistshen goes on to graze with them in an attempt to understand and describe their experience. The interpretivist shepherd is thrilled as his findings emerge through dialogue and interviews with the sheep.

A little bit off to the side, a critical theorist shepherd feels a strong urge to empower the sheep to organize themselves as a lobby group to protest againstcritical theorist the Agriculture Department. He advocates on their behalf pointing out the many benefits they provide to human beings, namely meat, skins, milk, and wool. He enables them to see the pollution in the grass where they live and feed, to find its source, and to identify the harmful effect that it places on them.

These shepherd stories depict the way research would be conducted based on one’s paradigm. Being one who believes that the best research method is the one that helps to uncover injustice and empower individuals, I would have to say that my paradigm falls in the realm of critical theory, because for me it is and has always been about how I can change a situation and improve someone’s experience.

Culturally Relevant Teaching

6 Jun

Today I witnessed something that brought home to me the importance that culturally relevant teaching has on students’ level of interest, motivation, and comprehension.

roar1A poem by Jack Prelutsky was read during a discussion on the use of imagery to portray feelings in poetry to a Second Grade Class made up of Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and a few American students. The poet’s intention was to illustrate the loathing of liver that a child felt, however, because 13 out of the 17 children in that classroom ate and loved liver, and had never heard of anyone not liking liver, the whole meaning of the poem was lost on them. Not being able to personally identify with the feelings of the boy not only hindered their comprehension, leading the teacher to think they did not understand the use of imagery in the poem, but went so far as to result in some kids thinking that the animal cries were symbols of the joy that the boy felt about eating liver. Following that lesson, I asked some of the children I work with, to illustrate the poem as they understand it. Included in this post are some of the drawings!

This brought back memories of similar situations I’ve experienced in my 10 years of teaching abroad. One that stands out in particular took place when I was teaching a Third Grade class in Dubai. roar2It was a lesson on measurements. I asked the students to measure things and places in and around their homes. The next day, two of the girls listed 1 kilometer and 1.5 kilometers as the size of their backyards. I confidently corrected their answers explaining that backyards would never measure a kilometer in length – it was far too big! – only to discover later that year that the girls’ backyards were in fact a few kilometers in length as were the backyards of many of the Emirati People!

The other situation I was reminded of was when I volunteered with Asia Child Fund. My work consisted in introducing and training Nepalese teachers in western teaching methodologies. Prior to going, the organizers chose to base the workshops on the children’s tale Jack and the Beanstalk. Volunteer teachers had to prepare activities in math, art, science, and English around this book. When the book was read to the pupils, there was an outburst of surprise, as they could not understand how Jack could exchange a cow for a few beans – even magical beans – since cows are sacred in the Hindu culture and no one would dare trade a cow – for anything!roar3

Making one’s teaching pedagogy relevant to one’s students is of the utmost importance. Taking the time to tweak one’s lessons and examples to make them meaningful and culturally relevant is a must if one’s aim is to have a student-centered classroom where students are motivated, interested and involved.

Time and time again, I witness teaching that is completely foreign to students and not as a result of language barriers. The students may understand the meaning of the words but because they cannot relate to the story, the examples, or the cultural meaning of a passage, they cannot relate to what is being taught and remain disengaged and removed from the learning.

Educate not one or two of your students but educate all who sit in your room today. Begin by becoming aware and familiar with the diverse cultures in your classroom and let that be the guide to your pedagogy!

Teaching for Today

13 Mar

If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.
~ John Dewey

To teach and to educate are words that are often used interchangeably in the English language but if we were to look at the origin of these words we would see that while to teach has its roots in the Germanic language meaning “to show, present, point out”, to educate is made up of two Latin words: educare and educere and means “to lead out and led out.”

educateTo educate assumes that a learner already possesses the knowledge and only requires a guide or a mentor to lead that knowledge out whereas to teach implies that knowledge has to be imparted on to a learner through the presentation of facts and the showing of skills.teach

To Teach or To Educate

In today’s technology driven world, students have access to an abundance of information anywhere and at any time, giving them ample opportunities for learning. As a consequence of this, teaching cannot be about the presentation and imparting of information but rather the assimilation and assessing of that information.


With this in mind, teachers’ roles are no longer about lecturing nor the teaching of rules. Teachers have to be flexible, and willing to learn, relearn, and unlearn, to remain abreast of their students’ needs.  They have the opportunity to design, create, and collaborate in a learning environment of their own making. Planning, organizing, engaging, and connecting learners of all ages and at all levels in learning activities and project based-learning are the aims of education today. Providing students with opportunities to develop their communication, collaboration, creative problem solving, and critical thinking skills are the goals of schooling.

Teachers monitor and guide learners so they can find their own path to knowledge, and lead them to their inner wisdom thus applying the true meaning of the word educate!