Autonomous learners must be given the space to develop ideas.

Active learning. An enthusiastic group able to learn together outside on a warm Brazilian day.

Active learning. An enthusiastic group able to learn together outside on a warm Brazilian day.

A pair of great kiskadees have built their unkempt nest atop an electricity post outside of the hotel where I am trying to get some sleep in São Carlos. These are beautifully marked birds (as you can see below), but their grating calls, resembling a rusty hinge badly in need of oil appear to be in conflict with their colourful plumage. They serve as a dawn alarm clock, and early call to action here in Brazil.

Gathering a group of educators together for a few days, discussing opportunities for establishing partnerships for researching inclusive schooling, requires a great deal of thought. In particular achieving a balance between formal teaching activities, presentation of papers and a more informal sharing of ideas is not always easy. Today our gathered assembly have had a mixed economy of activities and it appears to have worked well.

Whilst it is important to ensure that all of these early career researchers have an opportunity to disseminate their research in formal sessions, this is not always the best means of encouraging an exchange of ideas. It would appear that our Brazilian colleagues, in common with the English contingent are pleasingly polite. We all listen to each other and then make appreciative comments, but may be less willing to engage in critical debate for fear of being misunderstood. Given some of the linguistic challenges we face this might actually be a genuine concern.

The quality of paper presentations has been good, but in my opinion the most dynamic learning opportunities were in evidence during less structured sessions. This morning, operating in pairs and then in small groups our colleagues worked together to identify research priorities and exchange their views and interpretations of a range of educational situations. Differing opinions were voiced in the safety of small groups, where there is the security to make critical comments. Ideas were exchanged, debated and in some cases discarded, and as an observer on the periphery of this activity I witnessed a tremendous sharing of learning.

A respectful sharing ideas helps to generate ideas for further collaboration

A respectful sharing of ideas helps to generate ideas for further collaboration

 

This way of working does not, of course, find favour with all teachers. Those who are less confident find it difficult to relinquish control, and to release the agenda to the most important people present, in this case the early career researchers. Here is a fine example of learning as a shared activity in which those who are supposedly the learners, have much in which to instruct the teachers. In this situation it is good to stand back and listen and to be prepared to have one’s own ideas challenged.

This approach is, of course, far easier with adults than it might be with children, but is an important aspect of teaching and learning as a democratic process. Knowing when to exert some influence and when to release learners from this control, is an important skill which we see in the most effective teachers. Sadly there are some who appear unwilling or unable to take this step and remain determined to maintain possession of the learning agenda. When working with children this is of course, at times important, but when working with able adults the teacher who wishes to apply control is in danger of destroying the creativity of the individuals involved.

Amizade e de colaboração

Amizade e de colaboração

 

Giving a degree of freedom to our researcher colleagues today resulted in an exciting and creative melee of ideas, that have now begun to shape nicely into plans for action. Autonomous adults who have already proven themselves to be effective learners, do not want to be pushed into a particular way of learning, or to have a dominant perspective from a teacher paraded before them. The adults here in  São Carlos sharing their experiences, have demonstrated that in informal learning situations they are confident in presenting their own perspectives and critically engaging with ideas.

As I left the classroom for lunch today, four disreputable black vultures had stationed themselves on the roof of the building opposite. They will be disappointed if they are awaiting carrion from today’s sessions!

 

Personal space and inclusive research

 

Forming partnerships for future research in inclusion

Forming partnerships for future research in inclusion

One of the best aspects of being amongst enthusiastic people, is that their enthusiasm can become infectious. Here today, in São Carlos Brazil, I have been surrounded by colleagues whose commitment to learning, and in particular their passion for research, has been affirming. For the next three days, researchers from the UK who are the early stages of their academic  careers, will work alongside a similar group of colleagues from Brazil exploring issues of research into the inclusion of learners with disabilities and special educational needs.

Through the good offices of the British Council, these keen investigators have been brought together to explore ways in which they may collaborate in the further development of research and exchange of knowledge and ideas. My role in this process, along with that of other well established academics from Brazil and the UK, is to support and facilitate activities, and to encourage these dynamic individuals to form partnerships for exploring ideas around inclusive education.

Today, the most stimulating and important activity has been a series of presentations given by some of these new researchers, affording them an opportunity to exchange their ideas with a supportive audience. The range of topics covered has been diverse and interesting. Research into access to learning for students who are multi-sensory impaired, an investigation into cultural interpretations of autism, the experiences of students with disabilities in Brazilian universities, explorations into ways of teaching mathematics, and an analysis of school refusal behaviours in looked after children, were just a few of the topics discussed. Each presenter demonstrated a thoughtful approach to developing a research project and a critical analysis of what they had discovered.

Many themes emerged from today’s presentation, but one that I had not anticipated comes immediately to mind. Several of today’s researchers raised issues related to the influence of spatial aspects of the management of educational provision. In some instances these revealed specific challenges that need to be confronted if progress towards inclusion is to be made. Elizabete Renders provided an interesting observation of a deaf student, attending university in Brazil. In order to assure access to learning, this student is accompanied by a signed communicator who works with him in every lecture and seminar session. However, Elizabete recorded that students in the sessions where this young man was present, spent much of their time watching him and the lady supporting him. This raises questions about his personal space and how self-conscious he may be in this situation. There are also issues about the degree to which students are distracted from their lectures by watching this activity.

A second session presented by Sean Bracken considered the control that teachers exercise over learners with special educational needs in terms of where they locate children in classes. His research suggests that teachers have clear ideas about where they wish to place children in the classroom based partly upon their individual needs, but more because of the need to exert control, and that this may mean that they have less opportunity for participation in some activities. It would seem that some teachers, in their need to ensure that they are controlling learners, give less attention to providing space that is conducive to learning.

A further presentation from Prithvi Parepa examined cultural interpretations of autism. He too found matters related to personal space to be a factor in his work. Prithvi discussed the challenges that parents experience when their children have a limited understanding of the personal space of others, and intrude upon this, with no ill-intent, but simply as a result of lack of understanding. This may seem like a small matter to some people, but to parents it can be a cause of considerable stress.

I was particularly impressed today that in expressing their findings, these researchers demonstrated a great empathy for the subjects of their studies. Each had identified potential obstacles to learning experienced by the individuals in their studies, and had sought not only to understand these, but to discuss possible ways of providing support.

Over the next few days these colleagues will be forming partnerships with others who, before today were unknown to them. This is an ambitious aim, but having met these dedicated professionals I have every confidence that much will be achieved. This is the next generation of researchers who face the responsibility to move inclusion forward through what promises to be a stormy time of social upheaval and economic challenge. Having met them, I see every reason to be highly optimistic.