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.