04 SES 03 B, Supporting Inclusion By Supporting Language Learning
Just like exclusion is a constant companion to inclusion, alterity and diversity are always implied in the notion of identity. The conceptualization and understanding of the ‘Other’ are indeed essential in the process of identity construction, in so far as individuals define themselves partly by distinguishing themselves from (relevant) others (Lee, 2006). But what happens when individuals are defined and constructed as different/others and as such labelled, excluded and/or discriminated?
If inclusive education is meant to foster equal participation and learning opportunities for all, especially for those students who are at risk of marginalization (Haug, 2017; Slee, 2018), it becomes vital to counteract and overcome experiences of exclusion linked with the construction of identities associated with various ‘categories of difference’ (like, for example, disability, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.).
Drawing on othering theories and on the social identity approach, the present paper sees diversity/otherness as a social construct through which individuals mark near impenetrable borders between inside an outside, between self and other, between in-group and out-group, legitimizing such distinctions as ‘normal’ and therefore justifying social exclusion, discrimination, and subjection (Brons, 2015; Thomas-Olalde & Velho, 2011). Based on such theoretical assumptions, the current paper reports the development and pilot study of an instrument aimed to measure secondary school student attitudes towards otherness, here intended as attitudes towards conceived ‘different’ students who are excluded by peers.
The pivotal role played by peers’ attitudes in fostering or hindering a full and effective social participation and inclusion in schools of students with SEN is widely recognized in the international literature (Bossaert et al., 2011; McDougall et al., 2004). Thus, it can be assumed that peer attitudes are decisive also in the experiences of other students seen as ‘different’, as far as they are recognized as relevant others and consequently stigmatized and rejected.
According to Killen and colleagues (2013), two distinct trajectories of peer exclusion can be distinguished – at least theoretically: interpersonal rejection, that is, exclusion based on individual differences in personality traits, and intergroup exclusion, which is instead grounded on group membership (i.e. related to social identity) and stems from prejudicial attitudes. In the current paper we will refer to both types of exclusion, considering also intersection areas between them and between different categories of differences. Human identities can be seen indeed as essentially plural and multifaceted, as unique combinations of several interrelated attributes and affiliations mutually shaping one another and determining intersecting power relations (Amoroso et al., 2010; Plaut, 2010; cf. notion of “intersectionality”).
Therefore, Otherness is here intended as all those attributes and characteristics (and combinations thereof) that may potentially mark individuals as ‘different/others’, determining their social exclusion in schools (but not only). Moreover, the approach adopted in the development of the current instrument is in principle non-categorical, that is, it tries to avoid a priori defined categories of differences and to focus on those categories that, according to the students’ perspective and experiences, may give place to experiences of exclusion in schools. Social categories are indeed seen increasingly as problematic in research, inasmuch as they tend to acritically re-produce the differences under study strengthening existing status hierarchies (Baez, 2004; Gillespie et al., 2012).
Therefore, the research questions for the current study were formulated as follows: (a) Who are the different/other excluded ones in schools according to their peers’ perspective? (b) Which are the individual and group characteristics/attributes that determine the exclusion of conceived different students according to their peers’ perspectives? (c) What attitudes do secondary school students have towards their perceived different and excluded peers?
A pilot study was conducted with a convenience sample of 108 students coming from a higher and a lower secondary school of two small cities in the North-East of Italy. For each school 3 classes were selected to participate in the study: in the case of the middle school, one class per grade (1st, 2nd and 3rd grade; age range 11-13 years) was chosen; for the high school, respectively one 1st, 3rd and 5th grade class (age range 14-19) took part in the study. Data were collected by means of a computer-based questionnaire, which was administered during school time (at school in the case of the middle school, and during distance-learning hours for the high-school, which was closed by that time due to the Covid-19 pandemic). The questionnaire was developed after conducting a systematic review on peer attitudes towards otherness, whose results constituted the basis for its design. The initial vignette, which is open to students’ definitions of otherness, can be seen as the most innovative part of the instrument. The respondents themselves are indeed prompted in a vignette placed at the beginning of the questionnaire to choose and describe the target, i.e. a hypothetical boy or girl that, in their opinions, is excluded from his/her peers because conceived as ‘different’. Moreover, they are also asked to explain why they think s/he is being excluded. The whole instrument is indeed based on the concepts of social participation and exclusion in schools and its focus are those categories of differences towards whom exclusionary attitudes among peers may occur. Beside the ‘open’ vignette, the instrument includes a 5-Likert point attitude scale with 33 items, and both multiple-choice and open-ended questions. Specifically, the scale measuring peer attitudes was designed drawing on the items of the CATCH (Rosenbaum et al., 1986) and of the MAS (Findler et al., 2007), two robust and sound research instruments that were extensively used internationally to assess student attitudes towards persons with disabilities. Focus of the current paper will be especially the content of the vignettes, including the descriptions of the targets provided by participants (i.e. their definitions of otherness) and the arguments they used to explain the exclusion of their different peers, which were analyzed by means of qualitative content analysis (Schreier, 2012).
The instrument proposed here provides researchers with the opportunity of investigating who, according to participants’ perspectives and experiences, are the relevant others that are at risk of exclusion and rejection in schools. Moreover, it measures student attitudes towards their different and excluded peers, exploring the role played by the perception of difference/similarity of the designed target from oneself in shaping more positive or negative attitudes towards otherness. Beside reporting the results of the pilot study, a preliminary version of a practical tool to conduct the qualitative analysis of the data collected through the vignette will be presented. A system of (open) categories was indeed developed in order to provide a ‘common’ tool aimed to simplify the process of data analysis and increase the comparability of future research results across different study contexts. What concerns the research questions (a) and (b), current results show that the excluded other can be embodied in and represented by various (intersections of) personal as well as group characteristics. Attributes used by the participants to define otherness and to explain peer exclusion included individual physical and personality traits, attitudes and behaviors, learning achievement, the way one interacts with others, personal hobbies and interests, but also group membership(s) and/or characteristics (such as having a different ethnic and cultural background, practicing a different religion, having a disability, etc.). Moreover, from the results emerged that experiences of exclusion are often explicitly justified through what could be defined a ‘diversity argument’. That is, ‘X is excluded simply because s/he is different from me/us/the standard/the norm’. It is thus evident that, from an inclusive perspective, it is pivotal to explore student definitions of otherness and their attitudes towards their conceived different peers, in order to understand how they are linked with exclusionary patterns among peers in schools.
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