04 SES 06 E, Taking a Step Further: Developing creative approaches to research on inclusive education
This qualitative study promotes a better understanding of the impact of societal discourses on inclusion and childhood, and specifically on the identities of children, by exploring the unique perspectives of a group of children with autism in Italy and in the UK. The sample includes 16 children (between the ages of 6 and 10) attending mainstream primary schools, in Central Italy and North West England. In this study, children establish themselves in the research context by using art materials and tools in spontaneous ways, to express their experiences in individualcreative encounters that elicit personal perspectives, preferences and capability.
The validation of personal choices informs the design of a creative methodology with a corresponding ethical framework that stems from pedagogical practice and research (Nind and Lewthwaite, 2018), thus producing a model for meaningful participation that recognises children’s rights to experience self-determination by engaging creative abilities and intentionality (see, for example, Montessori, 1950 and Freire, 2014).
In this environment, children contribute to the research as autonomous participants, manifesting personal resourcefulness and leading the research dialogue, thus presenting self-identifying skills and individuality in visual and tangible forms. The space chosen and co-constructed with children either in family homes, an arts studio or a space in schools, is critical in providing the ethical and purposeful conditions that cohere with, and underline, the ethos of this study.
Artefacts, movement and activity are captured in photographs (over 900 images from each geographical location) and field notes, which are analysed concurrently to conceptualise children’s identity, participation and capability, thus validating outcomes of meaningful and autonomous contributions to research. The study develops from the debate on transdisciplinary research, while contesting the reliance on research methods that focus on verbal or literal communication and skills. Moreover, children’s views are often sought to evaluate the effectiveness of didactic interventions, and predetermined measurable outcomes, rather than as a primary source of insight into their unique perspectives. This study offers an original approach to access and validate individuality and situality, and aims to contribute to the current debate on inclusion/exclusion by advancing participatory research methodologies that prioritise children’s autonomy and capability.
Moreover, children’s personal capabilities, in this study, instigate an investigation of common sense discourses around (dis)ability, agency, inclusion and exclusion, through the analysis of spontaneous actions (in the creative processes) and the concurrent review of adults’ dispositions and readiness to observe and extend personal capability, in school and beyond.
The analysis is conducted by adopting a theoretical framework that combines Bourdieu (2005) and Gramsci’s (1947) reflections on marginalisation, common sense and the role of schools in perpetuating exclusionary practices emanating from policies written away from the realities affecting individuals, thus situating children and their families in marginalising positions.
By concurrently exploring the perceptions of parents and school practitioners, the study situates children’s experiences in a fabric of interconnected discourses. Societal participation and the perpetuation or transgression of dominant discourses of difference are explored by studying school practitioners’ enactment and versions of inclusion (Urton, Wilbert and Hennemann, 2014; Lüke and Grosche, 2018). Responses to diagnosis, potential and participation, in school and society, are identified in the interconnected discourses that can potentially affect opportunity, access to resources, and the development of personal capabilities (Onnis, 2013).
This research offers a means to substantiate a critique of inclusion/exclusion (Dunne at al., 2018), as well as inclusive methodologies and meaningful participation in research with children (Ellis, 2016; Christensen and James, 2017).
To study and situate children’s views and self-identifying practices the methodology includes three strands of participatory activities: creative encounters with individual children, photo elicitation workshops with teachers and teaching assistants (or support teachers) in nine mainstream primary schools; and individual unstructured interviews with parents. Fieldwork activities occurred during a period of ten weeks in each geographical site. Data collection involved eight complete case studies as originally planned, respectively in Italy and in the UK, comprising sixteen children (2 F, 14 M) between 6 and 10 years of age, their parents, teachers, and teaching assistants (or support teachers). Children took part in four creative sessions (63 sessions in total). Class teams from two school clusters in Italy (4 schools) and five schools in North West England, took part in two photo elicitation workshops over the course of ten weeks. The unstructured interviews with parents provided a platform to produce answers to questions formulated reflexively, which helped to generate a new interest in personal stories and fostered an ethical dialogue in the research process. Mothers and fathers interviewed individually (first and second interviews), and together (third interviews), presented their subjectivities and priorities often linked to societal discourses of gendered expectations and norms. Twenty-seven parents (sixteen family units) took part in the study; 48 interviews took place over the complete fieldwork period. Neither children, parents or schools staff, had previously participated in research.
Initial findings suggest that coexisting perspectives expose the effects of discourses of difference, which can affect children’s potential and their educational and societal inclusion, while revealing contextual distinctiveness as well as transnational commonalities as these emerge from the cultural character of participants’ stories. The initial analysis of the linguistic devices used, by children and adults, also brings to the fore the habit of placing children (associated with a diagnosis) in a marginalising positon in school, society, and in research. To understand how language is used, how it produces and legitimises (dis)abling practices, the social theory of discourse (see, Fairclough, 1995) is adopted to decipher perpetuated societal discourses that appear to be enmeshed in children’s experiences and in teachers’ tendency to reproduce othering, which can affect children, their families and support staff.
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