The responsible education researcher

 

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

Dr Marli Vizim (in the pink top) sharing her views on poverty and school exclusion with colleagues from Brazil and the UK.

 

Whilst working last week with colleagues from both the UK and Brazil I often found myself thinking that whilst we work in very different countries and have contrasting cultural backgrounds, there is much that we have in common with respect to the educational issues that we face. Everyone in attendance at this research focused event was committed to promoting more inclusive education and the establishment of social justice, and we all face similar challenges in achieving our objectives.

Listening to the presentations given at this three day workshop and more especially during conversations with researchers from both countries, it was evident that the usual anxieties about inadequately prepared teaching staff, poor resourcing and low expectations of students as obstacles to inclusion, formed the basis of discussion. Similarly, the disparity between urban and rural educational opportunities and the impact of economic difficulties was apparent in many of the sessions we shared. At times I found myself reflecting on the fact that these are recurrent themes that I have heard not only in the UK and Brazil, but during recent visits to China, India, Georgia and Ireland. I have no doubt that similar frustrations would be raised in most of the world.

Of all the issues of concern, one that certainly troubles me most was highlighted in an excellent paper given by Marli Vizim, who is committed to working with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in São Paulo State. Clearly influenced by the work of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, Marli describes how she has tried to work with whole communities, and in particular the leaders of these groups, in an effort to foster positive attitudes to schooling, and increased opportunities for children. In particular she has demonstrated the importance of gaining the support of community leaders in order to get children previously seen as ineducable into schools. The passion with which Marli speaks and her willingness to engage in discussion and debate was encouraging and heartening. The fervency that she feels for her work is something that cannot fail to touch anyone who has a social conscience and wishes to see the lives of children and their families improved.

In a discussion group comprising colleagues from both Brazil and the UK it was easier to find similarities in our areas of concern than differences. As Marli indicated the increasing gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in Brazil, so did colleagues from the UK provide examples of a similar concern in our own country. Several of us were also able to relate this worrying trend to work we have done in other parts of the world. Whilst I have seen this increasing distance created between the wealthy and poor in India, other colleagues spoke eloquently about the same situation seen in Colombia and elsewhere in the world. Working through an interpreter always has the risk of ideas being confused during translation, but there was no doubting the level of concern and frustration with regards to current provision made for children from poorer sections of society being expressed in these sessions.

The authors of the 2014 UNESCO Global Report on the Education for All Goals, discussed previously on this blog (Feb 4th 2014), were careful to emphasise the progress that has been made towards achieving universal primary education. However, it is clear from the report that one of the greatest obstacles to making effective progress is poverty. Whilst the poverty that we see in the UK is nowhere near as widespread and pervasive as that seen in many poorer countries, this does not justify a denial of the damaging impact that it has on families. Listening to Marli speaking about the continuous struggle that some of the families face in the areas where she works, emphasised the potential for social unrest that is ever present, and could worsen if the needs of the most disenfranchised members of society are not addressed.

During my brief visit to Brazil it was apparent, just as it is here in the UK or when I work in Ireland or India, that there are many businesses and individuals that are thriving and creating considerable wealth. The economies of these countries have clearly benefited from the evident entrepreneurship and hard work of these individuals and their employees. However, just as the opportunities for the most educated and socially well connected people in these countries have increased, so have the difficulties faced by the poorest communities multiplied.

Fortunately researchers such as Marli, who recognise that they have a responsibility beyond investigating the communities with which they are involved, are having an impact. The results from her research indicate that expectations are being raised and demands for improved educational opportunities made in the areas where she works. Slowly this action is  bringing about change, and hopefully the lives of the families to whom she has made a commitment will improve.

The responsible educational researcher is one who recognises, that unless their investigation focuses upon improvements in the educational opportunities for children, families and teachers, it is probably of limited value.

 

 

Nothing lost, and much gained in translation

Marcelos on the left enabling  Niall to make himself undertood to our Portuguese colleagues

Marcelos on the left enabling Niall to make himself undertood to our Portuguese colleagues

As a watery light began to announce this morning’s dawn, I made my way along the straight road that leads towards the centre of São Carlos. My destination was the Catedral de São Carlos Borromeu, with its canary yellow dome, said to have been modelled on that of St Peter’s in Rome, though of course on a much smaller scale.

Despite leaden skies and a morning not yet fully formed, it would be impossible not to be impressed by the modern stained glass windows that are the most striking feature of this building. Beneath the dome a blue and yellow encirclement of abstract glass softens the rather austere white walls. But most surprising is the movement captured in larger windows that depict street scenes, with representations of men and women apparently walking across the glass. A further panel reveals a fisherman casting his hopeful nets all created in a vivid blue.

In medieval days of course, the stained glass windows served an important function of displaying biblical stories to a largely illiterate congregation. These wonderful works of art would remind viewers of their duty, their Christian heritage and their mortality. The need for interpretation to those who had limited skills in reading, was clear at this time, and there are parallels with experiences at our workshop for early career researchers today.

When researchers from two different countries and cultures come together there are always likely to be challenges, and amongst the greatest of these is that of language. Fortunately, just as in previous times the Christian masses had the assistance of stained glass, over the past three days we have had an excellent interpreter. Marcelos has demonstrated consummate professionalism in acting as a bridge between those colleagues whose only language is Portuguese, and others who have only English. His patience and good humour has enabled our work to flow freely and has ensured understanding and a sharing of ideas.

Language was no barrier to enthusiastic researchers

Language was no barrier to enthusiastic researchers

The dissemination of knowledge is an essential part of the educational research process and today we had fine examples of how researchers have shared their investigations with different groups. David Preece placed an emphasis upon effective communication with the families of children on the autism spectrum, whilst Aila Narene Dahwache Criado Rocha demonstrated principles of communication between health workers and educators. Niall Devlin fascinated the audience with his analysis of how educational psychologists relate to children, and Marli Vizim described the importance of respectful work with people living in some of the poorer communities of São Paolo State.

Each of these presenters demonstrated an important feature of good educational research, that of ensuring that children teachers and families are not simply the subject of our investigations, but are accepted as partners at each stage of the process. This was a theme evident throughout the day, as participants in this workshop made ambitious plans for further work over the coming months and years. Although these researchers are at an early stage of their careers, it is already evident that they have a determination to conduct investigations that will be of benefit to others and move the inclusion agenda forward.

A coming together of colleagues in São Carlos has proven to be a great success. In the initial stages there was apparent nervousness, apprehension about the route ahead and the challenges of working in two languages. But just as the cathedral stained glass windows gradually increased the intensity of the light within the building this morning, so have the last few days seen an increase in confidence and an awakening of ideas.

I am sure that several working relationships and a number of long term friendships will have been established during three days of working together in São Carlos. I am equally confident that educational research aimed at improving the lives of children and families is safe in the hands of these early career researchers with whom I have been privileged to work this week.

Many thanks to all for your hard work and collaboration during this brief visit.

São Carlos cathedral on a wet early morning

São Carlos cathedral on a wet early morning

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

I could be anywhere in the world!

Heathrow, Birmingham, Rome, Dublin, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai - who knows?  This is simply corporate world!

Heathrow, Birmingham, Rome, Dublin, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai – who knows?
This is simply corporate world!

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

          Malvina Reynolds (1962)

Pete Seeger, the American political activist and singer with whom I most readily associate the song “Little Boxes” died last year at the age of ninety four. The song tells the story of an unimaginative approach to housing development, through which hundreds of poorly designed and constructed houses, built with low quality materials cover the country. These become indistinguishable from each other, as do the people who live within them. The song is a protest against poor design and the encroachment of corporate image.

You know how it is, suddenly a song comes into your head and you are unable to shake yourself free of this, until after a while it begins to iritate? Well, this morning I found myself humming the tune to this song as I meandered in a somewhat delirious, fatigued state through the airport at which I arrived in São Paulo, Brazil. Here was I, arriving in an airport at a place previously unvisited, that was oh so familiar. Looking at the immediate environment, this could easily have been Dubai, Bangalore, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dublin, or any one of the numerous airports I have visited in recent years, including terminal five of London’s Heathrow from which I had departed just twelve hours earlier. This is a curse of modern travel; the uniformity that has come to characterise airports around the globe, forbidding any true sense of national or local identity. If an unknowing individual was dropped into the midst of any of these locations, they would have little clue as to where in the world they might be.

Each destination appears to house the same ugly furnishings, completely ill at ease with themselves. The décor is bland and boring, almost clinical in its presentation. In recognition of the modern obsession with consumerism, the architects (if one can truly describe them as such) of these soulless places, guide the passenger through a mazy path between “designer” shops, with instantly recognisable labels, selling goods that you could never previously have known you needed, enticing you to part with whatever currency you choose in a frenzied display of shopper’s madness. The same familiar goods, sold from display cabinets of corporate uniformity, easily recognised from any other airport in the world, ensure that the only thing that you, the weary traveller knows for sure is that you are in yet another airport.

As many who know me well would tell you, I am not a great fan of shopping, and I must say that it is rare that anything within these cathedrals of consumer insanity would entice me off the path to a seat near my embarkation gate. I sometimes wonder if I was inoculated against the dangers of catching the shopping bug when I was a child. If so, this is doubtless yet another act for which I owe many thanks to my parents.

To be fair, a few airports have made the effort to reassert a more personal identity. I remember a few years ago in Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, that there were two particularly pleasing and thoughtful features. A small collection of paintings from the Rijksmuseum had been displayed in a quiet area, inviting the waiting traveller to browse and enjoy something of Dutch culture. In another part of the airport, a small library with books in many languages had been installed, tempting willing readers to turn the pages and relax with a work of literature. I was more than happy to respond positively to both of these allurements, a much more delectible means of addressing the tedium of a long wait. Even more creative, at Changi airport in Singapore, a butterfly garden was constructed with exotic plants and examples of these beautiful multi-coloured insects to raise the curiosity of the passenger in transit. Again, a pleasant half hour or more was spent during one of my visits, exploring this lovely area. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more such innovation could be applied to these boring, non-descript edifices. Such creativity could certainly make the endless periods of waiting less tedious. Whilst functionality and efficiency must obviously dictate the ways in which airports operate, some effort to retain national identity would be most welcome.

I well recognise the symptoms associated with today’s blog. I am tired after a long period of travel by air and road, and a fruitless effort in trying to sleep in a cramped aircraft seat. I am sure that after a good night’s rest I will be restored and ready to learn with and from colleagues here in Brazil. Perhaps it is the lack of sleep that has made me view international airports in a less than favourable light – but I still can’t get that irritating tune out of my head, because basically

they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.