A pedagogy of fusion: An educational response to diversity and complexity.
The International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, Vol. 5(5), 167-172, 2006.
A very special inner-city school in Israel creates an inclusive pedagogy that provides equitable learning chances for its diverse student body: 300 children from 38 countries, speakers of 18 different languages. The great diversity of students is leveraged for enhancing the teaching/learning experiences based on 3 guiding ideas: all human beings are worthy, there is a social need for every person’s input, and every person has the right to succeed.
A pedagogy of fusion: An educational response to diversity and complexity.
The International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, Vol. 5(5), 167-172, 2006.
The video camera moved from one smiling face to another as a group of 3rd graders sitting in the school yard introduced themselves:
“My name is Chen and I’m from Israel”
“I’m Ryan and I’m from here…I was born here…but I’m Filipino”
“I am Tarek from Gaza”
“My name is Abran and I am from Ecuador”
“My name is Lara and I came from Russia”
“Joanna from Poland”
Within the dynamics of globalization, urban schools are facing a daunting increase in the diversity of their student body at the same time as awareness of and sensitivity to the educational needs of individual learners is growing. Concomitantly, the understanding that classrooms and schools are complex systems for which mechanical solutions and statistical descriptions do not work well (Davis, 2003), brings educators up against the problem of having to deliver education in a complex and constantly changing situation. How can principals and teachers deal positively with the growing diversity in their schools and classrooms so as to afford every child the meaningful education which is her right?
The Biyalik School is an inner-city elementary public school in Israel and this paper will describe a process of pedagogical reform it went through in response to the growing diversity of its population. The school was confronted with a complex situation of increasing diversity and variegation of needs of the student body, within an environment of historical, political and social circumstances that constantly impacted the situation. The principal and faculty rethought their educational mission and proactively pursued a pedagogical trajectory that took into account their special circumstances, striving to meet their particular students’ needs and include every one of them in a meaningful educational experience. This study is based on long-term field research at and about the school and is a very concise description of a long and arduous process of school reform. The full picture was presented in my Ph.D. Dissertation: What Does It Take to Learn to Read? A Story of a School With Love (Ben-Yosef, 2003) and in the video I produced: A Pedagogy of Fusion (Ben-Yosef, 2003a).
1. Diversity within the school
The Biyalik School was an inner city school located on a central thoroughfare between 2 large bus depots and several open air markets. Heavy traffic rumbling by all day, horns blaring, exhaust fumes rising, all accompanied by loudspeakers and music from the markets determined the close physical environment. The neighborhoods surrounding the school consisted of old, crumbling, low-rent apartment buildings, home to a population of poverty.
Beyond their shared poverty, many of the people living around the school where characterized by diversity and transience. The central location and low rents attracted many work migrants, who had come to the country from the world over. Some of the migrants were living in the country legally, but most were not, as was the case of families from the various republics of the former Soviet Union who were asked to leave the country but chose to stay without the necessary permits. The area was home to several Arab families and to a large number of Israelis, mostly from the lower-status Oriental ethnic groups.
These neighborhoods were considered among the most distressed in the country based on their inhabitants’ level of poverty and the known stressors this entails. But above that, political issues such as the many people living in the area being illegal migrants who lived in constant fear of being arrested (on the streets during the day or at their homes at night), social issues such as living within a larger hostile community (every group of people in these neighborhoods had to deal with hostility from groups in the dominant society), cultural issues of clashes of languages, religions, customs, and the constant bombings and acts of terror that kept everyone at high levels of anxiety (several bombs exploded in the school’s vicinity), all, necessarily, negatively impacted the children’s performance in the school.
The children themselves came from a background of deprivation, mostly economic, sometimes emotional or cultural. Very many had gone through traumas of being uprooted and relocated in a new town or foreign land and culture that they were learning to negotiate. The foreigners were dealing with learning a new language as they tried sorting out identity issues and many were also dealing with troubled family life, abuse, fears of living outside the law, of deportation, of having absentee parents or parents that worked long and unconventional hours and weren’t available to care for them during the days (many of the children went home from school to empty apartments where they stayed for the rest of the day feeding and caring for younger siblings).
The school’s student body reflected its human surroundings: some 350 children ages 4-12, originating from 35 different countries, speaking 18 different languages and dialects. About 15% of the student body would appear or disappear within any given school year, and the students who did come to school, although of the appropriate age, came with varying educational backgrounds such as a 7 year old child from Ghana with no formal educational experience at all, a 10 year old from Turkey who had gone to a one-room school only during winters when there was no work in the fields for him, a few Russian kids who had very strict long-day schooling from an early age, through many children whose education had been disrupted for long periods of time due to their family’s migration.
Schools and classrooms are complex systems as is each individual within them. The complexity is an expression of the multiple diverse factors present in the environmental context interacting with each other on various levels in an ongoing dynamic process of adaptation (Davis, 2003; Geelan, 2003). So, looking at the Biyalik School, on top of the multiplicity of origin, mother-tongue and educational history, on top of external impacting circumstances, and on top of the regular diversity of individual learning style and motivation, gender, race, ethnicity, social and economic class that we find in every classroom, there had to be consideration of the complexity of interactions between all of these multiple factors, such as the webs of relationships – actual and expected– both vertically and horizontally among the participants (Geelan, 2003); consideration had to be given to the interactions between the human actors and the social, cultural, historical, political and economic environments that impact each other and that were dynamic and constantly changing (e.g. there were times when, for political reasons, up to a third of the students at school were not covered by any funding from the Dept. of Education and the school had to stretch whatever it received to address the needs of all of its students), and consideration had to be given to developmental processes – biological, psychological, academic – involved in the mix.
A great complexity, indeed, which brings us back to the problem posed at the beginning of this paper – namely, looking for pedagogical approaches that would allow teachers and schools who cared to do so, reach and teach every child within a curriculum relevant to their lives.
2. A Pedagogy of Fusion
As the demographics of the school began changing with an influx of foreign children, social, emotional and academic problems – that had plagued the school for years – became overwhelming. The regular pedagogical approaches were not working and the students were not making the expected progress. Coupled with a strong new leader, an appropriate ideology and a courageous faculty, the adverse conditions became a catalyst for change, as one teacher explained,
“We felt that we were working much harder than other schools and getting results that were much lower. We realized that we are in trouble and decided that there was no other choice but to look for other ways, because if we’re already investing so much energy in the children, at least it should lead us in the right direction” (Ben-Yosef, 2003:109).
Led by their principal who gave the teachers much freedom to experiment and take risks, the faculty initiated a process of reconceptualizing schooling for their particular population, rethinking their mission as it pertains to their students circumstances and recreating an educational setting that would meet their students’ needs. This process was structured upon open dialogue on all levels and frequent meetings among the faculty, where all issues were up for debate, critique and change.
Throughout the years the huge investment of thought, time, risk-taking and effort resulted in a very successful, unique and pragmatic pedagogy. Borrowing from past and present approaches and putting together parts and pieces of ideas and practices in new or different ways – as long as the practice was beneficial to the kids and promoted academic progress – this pedagogy evolved into an open-ended process. The ideology upon which it rested did not change, but the practices were constantly being examined, continued, fine-tuned or discarded according to the personal and educational benefits the kids derived from them. It was a pedagogy of fusion – like a patchwork quilt – totally focused on covering the welfare of each individual student.
2.1 The ideological base
Several values underlie and support the Biyalik Schools’ pedagogy. First and foremost is the idea that all human beings were created equal and are of equal worth, leading to a non-judgmental respect for and acceptance of every child, regardless of origin, developmental stage, abilities, temperament or needs – focusing on the possible future instead of on the questionable past:
“It doesn’t matter where the child came from”, said the school’s principal. “What’s important is where we help her reach. This is our real test” (Ben-Yosef, 2003a).
The acceptance of children at Biyalik was additionally expressed by the practice of allowing the children to talk and even hand in papers in their mother-tongue (as long as there was a teacher who could help with the translation) until they felt comfortable doing so in Hebrew, their second language. Understanding that children bring with them to school “voices from their backpacks” – personal, cultural and historical baggage that is part of their identity, differences were respected and celebrated (Ben-Yosef, 2003b).
A second value emanating from the equity of human worth at Biyalik was that every child had the right to achieve success in school. at Biyalik, success in school was considered a basic right of each student. Teachers were intent on affording the students
“experiences of capability”. The rationale was that success leads a person to try and achieve more success (as opposed to the idea that failing a child will make her work harder next try).
In order to be able to bring the children to a position of achieving academic success, the faculty prioritized the physical, mental, emotional and social well-being of the children, prior to academics. They called it “making the child available for learning”. Consequently, the first question asked of the child in the morning was never “Have you done your homework?” but rather, “Have you had breakfast?”, “Did you sleep well?”, “What’s happening at home?”
“In the long run, we don’t care how fast a child learns to read or how well he reads. For that there is always ‘next year’. We are much more concerned with how the child feels, that he has a small corner in which he feels good” (Ben-Yosef, 2003:127).
And there was one more principle that the faculty consistently upheld – a ceaseless examination of their pedagogy at every point of the way in order to make sure that they were not losing sight of the “real needs of the child” within their efforts to school and educate the children.
2.2 The Practice
The purpose of the pedagogy developed at Biyalik was inclusivity – reaching and addressing the educational needs of every child in spite of the great diversity and complexity present. Since the school’s population was fluid and transient, the pedagogy was characterized by pragmatically-focused ongoing change and adaptation to the constantly changing environment. “Nothing is carved in stone except for our basic principles. All the rest flows from there”, said the principal. This flexibility also entailed taking on responsibilities that are not usually assumed by schools, namely responding to the children’s needs as parents, social workers, psychologists and advocates, as the needs arise (Ben-Shalom, 2004).
Whatever was done in the Biyalik School was done with love, affection and care for the children. They understood that teaching and learning could only flourish in an atmosphere of love and warmth (Noddings, 1992). Holding the children and hugging them were regular practices at the school and a veteran teacher explained:
“I believe there are teachers who love children in every school, but here it’s more prominent because our children are more in need of love. They demand it…and we respond with warm words, good words, loving words. Its not that we love more, It’s just that we show it more” (Ben-Yosef, 2003:143).
“I think the most important thing is that the children will like coming to school and that they will experience acceptance, love and happiness here. From this position they will learn all the rest” (Ben-Yosef, 2003:127).
So, from a starting point of love and acceptance, the actual practices took off:
2.2.1. Flexible grouping –grouping as we know it is considered a negative practice mainly due to its rigid structure and the inferior education usually relegated to the lower groups. At Biyalik they took the concept but adjusted it to everyone’s benefit: due to the great diversity in educational histories and countries of origin, ability groupings were necessary in math and language classes, but the groups were not fixed – children could move up or down based on their circumstances and teacher approval. For example, a child that was going through difficult times at home could move to a lower group (i.e. less pressure) temporarily; a child that was doing well and could take the extra demands, moved up. All movements were based on dialogue between the child and her teacher, and when possible, the parents.
2.2.2. Meaningful Dialogues – are a major pillar of the pedagogy at Biyalik creating an all-encompasing web of communication: between peers, faculty, faculty and children, between members of the school and people outside (family, acquaintances, service providers, the media). These dialogues involve active, sustained listening to others; listening that invests the parties to the dialogue with value. These dialogues were significant for the children in that they framed short term policy, allowed for changes and adjustments of personal schedules (kids have individual schedules) and positions in real time and allowed the children to lead their own learning processes. They were inclusive and also had a calming effect because the children knew that someone was listening:
“Our children know they have meaningful dialogues, and these give them a sense of fulfillment and contentment. When one has respect and dependable space, there is not so much need for violent, loud or inappropriate behavior” (Ben-Yosef, 2003:231).
2.2.3. Teaching Themes and Skills – The Israeli public school curriculum was an obstacle in the process of reconceptualizing education at Biyalik to meet the needs of its diverse population. As a whole, the Israeli curriculum is very Judeocentric and nationalistic, a characteristic expressed to the limit in elementary school where most of the teaching throughout the school year deals with Jewish Holidays and national events, and texts are likewise limited. The curriculum, which was somewhat acceptable (although ethnocentric) for a Jewish child who was a citizen of Israel, was irrelevant for a Moslem child from Uzbekistan who was transient and could leave the country any day, for example. The faculty came up with two main ideas to address the issue: teaching by theme and teaching learning skills.
Rather than teaching only about a Jewish Holiday the teachers took the themes and concepts of that Holiday and tried to find Holidays and celebrations of the same nature in the cultures and religions of the non-Israeli/non-Jewish children, thus creating an inclusionary curriculum. By putting diversity in a unifying-general context and emphasizing similarities across differences, the teachers created a universal experience for everyone.
The transience of the school population raised the question of what relevant information could a 4th grader take back to her village in Bolivia if she suddenly left one day? The answer was to teach the kids learning skills that they would need and could use in any education system. For example: the 5th graders learned how to do historical research. They each chose a topic that interested them (the Mexican Revolution, Stalin, Jerusalem…), wrote a research paper and presented it to the class. Younger kids learned information systems –from looking up words in a dictionary to surfing the web.
2.2.4. Assessment – There was no way that a regular, competitive assessment system would work in a situation as complex as the Biyalik School, nor did they believe in the benefit of such a system for the kids. The only testing done in the school were beginning and middle of the year placement tests for ability groups and tests for the teacher to map out problem areas in a class so he could plan his lessons appropriately. Otherwise, every child was compared to herself only: every 2 months the child would meet with the teacher and they would look at past performance and plan goals for the coming 2 months. Report cards were descriptive and qualitative.
3. In Conclusion
This was a glimpse at the pedagogy of fusion developed by the Biyalik School in Israel to deal with the diversity and circumstances of its students and create a relevant and inclusive curriculum. On the one hand, there is much more to tell in order to do justice to the process. On the other hand, this is just a case study that cannot be generalized to other places and circumstances.
However, I do believe we can learn from the conceptual thinking behind this process:
- That education should be child centered and child focused;
- That schools must consider the real needs of their students within, rather than of the system beyond;
- That the whole child has to be recognized and accepted in order for learning to take place;
- That systems must constantly question their ways and means, and
- Where there is a will to transform an educational situation, there is a way (and money isn’t the issue).
Ben-Shalom, Y. (2004). The “Tikun” Idea: Educational Entrepreneurship in Israel’s Multicultural Society. Israel: Hakibbutz Hameuchad
Ben-Yosef, E. (2003). What Does it Take to Learn to Read?: A Portrait of a School with Love. Dissertation. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services.
—- (2003a). A Pedagogy of Fusion. Video.
—- (2003b). Voices from the Backpacks: Respecting students’ cultural literacies. Educational Leadership, Vol. 61(2).
Davis, B. (2003). Toward a pragmatics of Complex Transformation. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, Vol.1(1), pg. 39-45.
Geelan, D. (2003). The death of theory in educational research. Proceedings of the 2003 Complexity, Science and Education research Conference, Oct. 16-18, Edmonton, Canada. www.complexityandeducation.ca
Maslow, A.H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. NY: Harper & Row.
Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools. NY: Teachers College Press.
 Ben-Yosef, 2003a.
: “A quarter of all the new AIDS carriers (200-300 people) are foreign workers. As opposed to Israeli carriers who get the drug cocktail from the government, their chances of survival are slim. Whoever does not succeed in getting the medicines on his own is sentenced to death. Whoever goes back to his country where they haven’t even heard about the treatment, is sentenced to death. If word of one’s disease becomes known in the community, he is sentenced to ostracism, a fate similar to death. If word of one’s disease becomes known to his employer, he is sentenced to deportation.” Yediot Achront Dailyt, 6/7/01.
While success in contemporary education usually means winning the competition against your peers and so reaching positions of power (for the lucky few), at Biyalik success meant only personal progress: your starting point compared to where you have come to after a set period of time.
 Maslow (1970) talks about the impossibility of developing cognitively and spiritually, of finding self respect and realizing the self, before these basic human needs are met.
 The next day Danny was gone. He was smuggled out of the country by a relative fighting the state for custody over him and his two brothers after the death of their mother. When the three brothers were brought back to Israel (from Russia) by authorities many weeks later, they were scrawny, filthy, their heads shaved (their story and pictures received front-page coverage). They were taken to a secret safe-haven, where by orders of the police only the school’s principal could visit them. Eventually they were placed in a boarding school.
 For years the principal of the school advocated for the foreign children in the Israeli parliament, resulting in national concern for their issues and laws that were written to aid them.
 I will outline only the major practices here. For a more extensive description see Ben-Yosef, 2003.