At the Radcliffe Camera (left) and Christ Church (right), two of Oxford’s most iconic landmarks ©

Josephine Ambalada

January 2021

1. Tell us about yourself — what’s your story and what are you studying?

In college, I worked as a news reporter for a television news station and my beat focused on abused women and disadvantaged or special needs children. This is where my passion for special education began. It was reinforced when my daughter was unable to speak at age three, which motivated me to study Special Education at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and establish a school for special needs children in the Philippines.

I have designed various educational programmes for the school such as Winged Wonder Reading, a multisensory reading programme for struggling learners, as well as Arts Around the World, a programme that teaches history and culture through arts and crafts. Both programmes have been featured by various local TV shows.

I then pursued further studies in the UK. I studied creative writing at the University of Oxford in 2015 and eventually pursued a Diploma in British and European Studies in 2016.

After I graduated from Oxford, I was bound to study business management at the London School of Economics. At that time, I had the desire to expand our school to introduce new educational concepts and promote intercultural understanding.

Upon reflection of what my students need, I realised that the best way for me to help them lies in understanding their neuronal wiring in a deeper way. So in 2018, I pursued an MSc in Applied Neuroscience in King’s College London (KCL).

This move reinforced my belief that special education is multifaceted and should be seen in a wider range of perspectives: pedagogical, psychological and neurological. Studying neuroscience in KCL helped me to understand the brain profoundly and this somehow completes the puzzle.

2. Why did you choose the UK as a study destination?

Since studying creative writing at the University of Oxford in 2015, I have observed that the UK educational system is focused on enhancing the students’ critical thinking skills and this educational style appeals to me very much.

The UK academic and medical institutions are the front runners of cutting-edge scientific research like the Covid-19 vaccine development. The capacity of UK universities to anticipate future events, produce and encourage razor-sharp inferences are largely part of the UK institutions’ cultural DNA.

3. You work with children with special needs. Can you share with us a big idea of a recent trend you learned in neuroscience that you found extremely useful in your field?

My education in neuroscience gives me a holistic understanding of SPED. This reinforces our school’s approach in using Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) among our special needs students. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder and is often marked by dendritic spine pathology or the small neuronal protrusions on the postsynaptic side that are mainly responsible for synaptic plasticity. Early intervention using ABA is responsible for dendritic spine enlargement. This equates to synaptic plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to physically change. These neuronal changes can be observed when the child is able to communicate meaningfully, express words articulately or behave appropriately.

4. What’s your favourite memory in the UK?

One of my fondest memories of the UK was during class recitations and examinations. Unlike in the Philippines, examinations in the UK are centred on inferential analysis which I find very motivating.

One time, Oxford tutor Mark Bartram poignantly asked the class if we think that having a community of educated people may significantly lower criminal activity. I said yes because education allows one to rationalise their emotions. Mark, being the brilliant professor that he is, countered by asking me what I think the most stolen books in the university are. He said that the Philosophy department has the most stolen books because people can rationalise their emotions.

I told him that while education may help us refine and rationalise our emotions, we are also at liberty to rationalise it for the good or bad because people are given the greatest gift available and that is the freedom to choose or free will. He smiled and said that it was time for a tea break. Professor Mark gave me a distinction in his subject at the end of that term.

5. Covid-19 has impacted education systems around the world and special education students have been affected tremendously. How can teachers, parents and education practitioners ensure that students with learning differences still receive inclusive, quality education?

The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the landscape of education around the world. The pandemic has resulted not only in a technological disruption but in an educational disruption as well.

To ensure a seamless transition from campus-based to blended learning, the school must ensure a dynamic interaction between the teacher and the student and transform this novel online platform into an immersive and creative classroom. This can be done by adopting both asynchronous and synchronous learning. Synchronous learning such as mini classes or face-to-face education are excellent ways to promote socialisation and lively classroom interaction among students. On the other hand, students can benefit from asynchronous learning by means of receiving immediate feedback and individualised mentoring during their pull-out classes.

6. What are your ambitions for the future?

Winged Wonder has always been true to its educational mantra: creative teaching, creative learning. Students learn and are able to observe practical and creative application of their learning because the right modalities, experiences and exposure are used to teach them. I would like to see this educational principle be used in a wider and broader range of practical applications. Like the creation of a Learning Management System (LMS) for special needs students or establishing an interactive museum using visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile modalities as key features in fostering meaningful learning among students.

7. What advice would you give to Filipinos who aspire to study in the UK?

Focus on your passion and research interests and look for universities that complement that. Focus on learning and in being able to translate these to help your community and fellow Filipinos. While graduating with distinction is a badge of honour to you, to your family and to your country, these are all in vain if you are unable to apply what you have learned to help the wider society.

Moreover, being a student in the UK (whether in campus or through a distance programme) is a very different learning experience. UK universities are very competitive with the highest level of academic rigour. In my neuroscience course in KCL, for example, during our final examinations, we are asked to perform four written examinations in four days at 700 words per academic essay. It’s pretty intense. Studying in the UK requires readiness of the mind and heart.

And lastly, you must embrace failure as equally as you embrace success. One of my favourite KCL neuroscience professor read to me a quote by Winston Churchill: ‘Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.’ The struggles that we face mould our character and help build our resiliency.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s visit to Oxford during my first term in the university (left) and Oxford dinner at Regent’s Park College with my son, CJ (right).
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s visit to Oxford during my first term in the university (left) and Oxford dinner at Regent’s Park College with my son, CJ (right) ©

Josephine Ambalada

At the University of Oxford Awards Ceremony dinner with Professor Ros Wilson
At the University of Oxford Awards Ceremony dinner with Professor Ros Wilson ©

Josephine Ambalada

As we dine together to enjoy our adobo with our fellow Oxonians, Professor Troy would often describe our gathering as a table of beautiful minds. ©

Josephine Ambalada

See also

External links