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.

 

 

Learning must cross boundaries

Many nationalities - but only one humanity

Many nationalities – but only one humanity

 

It is said that Diogenes of Sinope declared himself to be “A citizen of the World”.

I was talking this morning with one of my PhD students about her research. Her work has involved observing teachers working with children in the early years of their education in schools in the UK. She has then taken some of the teaching approaches that she has learned and applied these in schools in her native Taiwan. Listening to her enthusiastic description of the differences of teaching approach in two countries many thousands of miles apart, and her account of what she has learned, and how she has shared this learning with teachers in both countries, reinforced my belief that there is so much to be gained from working in an international environment.

Later in the day I enjoyed conversations with groups of research students from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Vietnam, China and Colombia who occupy an office in the Centre for Education and Research at the university. Sharing a common commitment to investigating aspects of education, they bring a vast range of professional and personal experiences to the university. In addition, they have significantly different cultural backgrounds that have shaped their interpretation of the world, and are generous in exchanging these as part of their overall experience of being a student in the UK.

Without exception they enjoy being part of this richly diverse community. They recognise that they have an opportunity to learn from each other, to understand the similarities and difference in the education systems of their countries, and to appreciate the varying challenges that these bring. In formal teaching sessions they exchange their views and consider how their learning may be applied to a wide range of educational situations. Informally, they share food, music, literature and ideas from their homes, and thus broaden their understanding of each other’s cultures.

As tutors working with these students, we gain as much as they do from this multi-lingual and international community of learners. Opportunities to hear about their teaching experiences and the conditions in which they live and work in their home countries, and to listen to their aspirations for the future is a privilege that is to be greatly appreciated. We also benefit from a greater understanding of how educational policy and practices evolve in different circumstances, and how we may apply some of these ideas in our own situation. However, in the past year I have also detected a greater apprehension in their conversations than I recall from the past.

Being an international student in the UK, and I suspect in many other countries, is much harder than in the past. The world is in turmoil and the level of trust in the unfamiliar has significantly decreased. Fear of “foreigners” appears to be on the increase and several of our students have expressed a concern that they are sometimes viewed with an element of suspicion. The burgeoning bureaucracy to which they are subjected in order to monitor their movements and the increased difficulties associated with renewing visas has become a source of frustration. Increased regulation from the UK Border Agency, understandably implemented with national security in mind and designed to discourage a small minority criminal and fundamentalist element, impacts upon all non-British nationals. My fear is that those with a legitimate desire to learn may be detered from doing so outside of their own national boundaries in the future.

The students I work with are sensitive to the need for increased vigilance, but also conscious of the apparent negativity towards visitors to this country that they experience in the media, and sadly on occasions, on the streets. Much of this is founded upon ignorance, and I am sure that if some of the perpetrators of these reactions could spend time with these hard working young people, they would exhibit a different range of behaviours. Having visited several of the countries from which these students have come, I have always been received with kindness and generosity and made to feel welcome. I would like to think that this is reciprocated for colleagues who come here.

I am sure that the students with whom I work as they complete their research degrees will make a major contribution to the education systems in their own countries or elsewhere in the world. I hope that as they do so they will take with them many positive memories of their time in the UK.

The birth of an elephant may be straightforward by comparison!

Mother and child are both doing well

Mother and child are both doing well

The gestation period for elephants is approximately 22 months, the incubation of a PhD takes considerably longer. I am not conversant with the actual birth process and delivery of elephant calves, but I do know that there are often complications associated with the final production of a thesis! This may possibly seem like a slightly bizarre start to this particular article, I therefore owe you an explanation.

In recent years I have been very fortunate in working with and supervising a number of excellent research students. They are all hard working committed individuals, passionate about their research, eager to explore ideas and a joy to have as students and colleagues. Over a period of between three and five years, depending on whether they are full time or part time students, they beaver away with great diligence, reading and criticising the literature, designing research instruments, collecting and analysing data and writing various papers and then that final Behemoth of a document the research thesis. For most of them this is by far the largest piece of writing upon which they have embarked, and for some it will remain as the most considerable tome they ever produce.

You would imagine that as they approach the end of this arduous process that the final handing in of their thesis and the last preparation for examination by viva voce would come as a blessed relief. However, over the years I have noted that the final months leading up to the delivery of this significant document is a source of angst and prevarication for so many PhD students. Over the past few weeks I have once again been subjected to those anxieties and apprehensions that may more readily be associated with a mother to be. The conversation usually goes something like this.

Supervisor: “I’ve read the final (probably tenth!) draft of your thesis, all you need to do now is get it bound and hand it in. Well done.”

Supervisor: (a week later) “Where’s the thesis? Have you had it printed yet?”

PhD student: “I just wanted to add a few more paragraphs in chapter three, it’ll be done by the end of the week”.

Supervisor: (yet another week later) “I don’t seem to have a copy of the thesis yet.”

PhD student: (somewhat sheepishly) I reread chapter 4 and felt that it needed a little reorganisation.”

The student has now been in labour for several weeks and it looks like we are heading for a forceps delivery!

There is, of course, a serious point amidst all of this banter. The PhD has always been seen as a rite of passage, an apprenticeship model whereby the student presents their credentials as a bona fide researcher. Understandably therefore they want to deliver the perfect specimen of a thesis, one where the examiners will struggle to find any minor blemish and which will sail through the viva voce examination totally unhindered.

Seeking for perfection in any aspect of learning is something to be applauded. A dogged unwillingness to part with a piece of work that has formed a significant part of your life, is therefore to be expected. I have far less worry about those learners who have periods of self-doubt than I do with those who are filled with confidence and appear quite blasé about the whole procedure. Self doubt has always seemed to me to be an important part of learning.

As teachers we need to learn how to manage all kinds of students; the confident and the apprehensive, the anxious and those who are possessed of a sometimes less than convincing bravado. It is our responsibility to nurture our students towards an outcome that is satisfactory to both the learner and the teacher.

So it is that I await  the delivery of two theses. As I don the robes of a PhD midwife I am full of anticipation for the conversations that may await me. Whilst I am confident that the period of gestation is now at an end and that a healthy delivery is imminent, we all know too well that predicting delivery dates is far from an exact science.

Moving forward through a shared understanding

 

When teachers, parents, policy makers and researchers come together for a respectful sharing of ideas, the mutual learning opportunities can have benefits for all parties.

When teachers, parents, policy makers and researchers come together for a respectful sharing of ideas, the mutual learning opportunities can have benefits for all parties.

Those of us who spend part of our lives working as educational researchers sometimes decry the fact that much of the education policy implemented by national governments, has little or no foundation in evidence. Policy is at times developed purely on a political whim, and simply reflects the dogma of the current administration. Indeed it can even appear as if policy in my own country is implemented despite being contrary to the evidence provided by a significant corpus of research. The low status afforded to educational research, as opposed to that in many of the pure science disciplines, is often a source of frustration to both teachers and researchers, and is indicative of a lack of respect shown by politicians towards those working in the education professions. However, in recent years I have been pleased to find that there is a notable exception to this situation.

In the Republic of Ireland a significant emphasis is given to the development of evidence based practice in schools. The area of special and inclusive education in particular, is one that has benefited significantly from efforts to conducted investigations into the efficacy of teaching approaches, and the deployment of resources and specific initiatives in schools. The National Council for Special Education, a department which is funded and supported by the Irish national government, has commissioned and overseen a number of substantial research projects that have influenced both policy and practice at a national level.

These projects have included investigations into pedagogical practices to support the education of deaf children, research into the management of challenging behaviours and a longitudinal study of the provision made and learning outcomes for children across the country. The National Council for Special Education having tendered for these investigations have employed research teams from both within Ireland and further afield, and have demonstrated a commitment to improving school practice on the basis of the evidence provided.

The results of research are disseminated through well produced reports, written in language accessible to service users and providers, and through national conferences for teachers, school principals and parents. Because of this collegiate approach, a mutual respect has developed between schools, researchers and this commissioning government agency. Practices in schools have been changed and the excellent work of teachers and other professional colleagues has been endorsed and supported as a result of this approach.

Recently I had an opportunity to attend a conference for around three hundred professionals and parents at which some of the latest research commissioned by the National Council for Special Education, including a project in which I have been fortunate to be involved, was discussed. The importance of this way of working was emphasised by a guest speaker, Professor Samuel Odom from the University of North Carolina in the USA, who during an interesting presentation showed how bogus approaches to working with children on the autism spectrum have emerged as a result of strange doctrines that have no foundation in research evidence. As he advised, if we simply develop practice on the basis of a philosophy or the notions of a few individuals or politicians, without recourse to a rigorous investigation of the ethics, efficacy and impact of the approach, we may well end up doing more harm than good. Professor Odom made a strong case for ensuring that before significant changes are implemented in schools, these should be subjected to a thorough investigation using objective means to verify their likely impact.

The teamwork established between policy makers, researchers, school managers and teachers in Ireland provides a sound example of how a shared focus upon providing effective teaching and learning can be achieved. If only every government were able to demonstrate the same commitment to this systematic approach to understanding what works in schools, we might find that teachers and children were more assured in the excellent work that they do together in classrooms.

Who do you think you are talking to?

Working in solitude in a study may have been OK for St Jerome, but if we want our research to have impact I would suggest we should talk to a far broader audience.

Working in solitude in a study may have been OK for St Jerome, but if we want our research to have impact I would suggest we should talk to a far broader audience.

 

“Why isn’t anyone interested in educational research these days?” The question came from a colleague who was clearly feeling a certain amount of frustration and needed someone on whom she could vent her considerable angst. “We do all this work, spend time devising research instruments, collecting data, analysing what we’ve found and then writing reports and papers, but then it seems nobody bothers reading it.” She was clearly having a bad day.

I’m sure I did little to ease her blood pressure by my response and now I am feeling a little guilty about this. “Perhaps more people are reading your work than you know,” I suggested, trying gently to move towards what I really wanted to say. “Or perhaps there would be people who might be interested if they knew about the research.” The minute I uttered this last phrase I knew I should have kept quiet. The repost was wholly predictable and came at me exactly as I should have expected. “But the work is there for all to see, it is published in a well-respected international journal, what else am I supposed to do?”

It is the end of a busy term and I didn’t want to get too deep into a philosophical discussion about why teachers don’t read research papers, or why policy makers appear to ignore empirical studies, so I made a few sympathetic noises, assured my colleague that her work was respected or possibly even revered by those closest to her subject, then made my excuses and left. However, having been subjected to her exasperated outpourings I did go away and think a little more about what she said.

It does seem to me that the problem which my colleague articulated is not so much about the value or efficacy of the research, but is much more closely related to the ways in which it is communicated. As “academics” we are encouraged and indeed expected to publish research in high ranking academic peer reviewed and preferably international journals. These are the rules of engagement that have been established by those “elite researchers” whose concern is to maintain high academic standards and ensure the quality of educational research. This is a perfectly valid system and one to which those of us working in universities have long subscribed. Those who assess the quality and impact of research do so through a journal ranking system, and like so many lemmings we have followed  the leading researchers in the field, in a desperate race to be first over the edge of the cliff. This then is the academic game in which we are all involved.

Returning to the frustrations of my colleague I can therefore sympathise with her dilemma. She wishes to establish herself as an acknowledged authority and key researcher and writer in her field of expertise. In order to do so she has rightly recognised that she has to play the game according to the rules. But returning to her original question, “why isn’t anyone interested in educational research these days?” I would suggest that perhaps she is too concerned with her own status as a researcher and needs to focus more on why educational research may have value. As someone who claims to undertake research because I want to improve the lives of children and their families and teachers, I recognise that this is not going to be achieved unless I can discuss my work directly with them. Publishing papers in journals or presenting my research at an international conference undoubtedly has a place. But the individuals for whom I claim motivation for my work are not going to access either of these outlets. Perhaps as researchers we should spend more time engaging with those whose lives we would hope to improve through our investigations, and less talking to our peers. Maybe we should be exploring ways of disseminating our work that reaches an audience other than our colleagues who are engaged in similar areas of research.

What I am suggesting will not, of course, gain points in the competition for promotion in academic institutions, neither will it attract a great deal of respect from the “elite researchers”, but it might mean that a wider audience expresses interest in research and even informs us about how me should improve and progress our work. Maybe we should be writing in plain English (or whatever other language is most accessible), and publishing in magazines, on websites or through other media that can be readily accessed by those who do not wish to wade through reams of literature, methodological discourse, statistical analysis or academic pontificating. Perhaps a more polymorphous approach whereby we make our work available to a wide range of parties that might include academic researchers, teachers, parents and children will enable research to reach a broader audience and command greater respect.

What is that scream I hear from the editorial board of that highly ranked journal? – Populist nonsense I hear them shout. Yes, that may be true, but I believe that unless we change our ways we are destined to become even more of an irrelevance in the eyes of teachers, policy makers, families and children. Those of you who disagree do carry on talking amongst yourselves!

 

The teacher turned learner; and appreciating every minute.

 

Students and tutors (hopefully indistinguishable) in a shared learning experience.

Students and tutors (hopefully indistinguishable) in a shared learning experience.

Every year for the past five years the research students working towards the degree of PhD within the Centre for Education and Research, here at the University of Northampton, organise a two day research conference. This provides students with an opportunity to present papers based upon their own research projects and to hear from invited keynote speakers of national and international repute, as well as engaging in lively debate on topics related to designing and managing research.

The conference is planned and managed entirely by the students, who invite speakers, arrange the programme, book the venue and organise the domestic arrangements such as refreshments and registration. This year, as in previous years the conference was a great success with students and established academic staff participating in a shared learning experience and listening to a series of excellent presentations. The invited keynote speakers made a tremendous contribution and provided encouragement and support to the students, and as a tutor responsible for supporting several of these neophyte researchers, I was immensely proud of the way that the whole event progressed.

The topics of their research varied greatly, from inquiries into the impact of glue ear upon learning in children,  research into quality assurance in Vietnamese universities and an investigation of the use of movement and games for teaching modern foreign languages, to a study of understanding and teacher awareness of autism spectrum disorders in Nigeria and another investigating raising challenges for able school pupils. As always at events of this nature I found myself listening to presentations on topics where I have a certain amount of expertise, but also to those where I was being brought new to the subject and had a unique opportunity to gain insights and new understanding.

As a tutor and therefore a guest at this student led event, my most important function over the two days was to listen to the presentations made by students, and to provide supportive comments usually prior to and immediately after their papers were given. For those of us who have been making presentations of this nature for some time, it is important to remember that it takes courage to have the confidence to stand before one’s peers and a number of well-established researchers and talk about work that is both personal and usually at a stage of emergence rather than completion. For those who are presenting in English as their second or even third language this is an even more daunting prospect. Yet, as I had expected these bright, enthusiastic young researchers performed with élan and demonstrated their expertise and learning as if they were seasoned academics.

As I listened to the student presentations I looked around the room to observe the audience and their reaction to this situation. I was particularly taken by the respectful manner in which the students listened attentively and without distraction to their colleagues. Nods of affirmation, smiles and generous applause were important in ensuring that each speaker gained in confidence and enjoyed the opportunity to express their ideas and discuss their work. This is no more that I had expected, but is so much different from the behaviour I often witness at conferences where professional researchers present their papers. Here, the distraction of laptops (or more often smart devices) are usually in evidence, along with a demeanour which can be interpreted as a form of points scoring as hard bitten cynical individuals cast a critical eye over the work of their colleagues. Over the past two days the student researchers have afforded each presenter a respectful and supportive hearing that should surely be the norm at all events of this nature.

I found myself wishing that I had video recorded the sessions of the past two days in order that I could remind colleagues of the enthusiasm and freshness of the new researcher. This conference demonstrated all that is good about the process of research and enthusiasm for inquiry and learning. As is invariably the case, those of us placed in the role of teachers can learn so much from our students and should take the time to reflect upon what it is they have to tell us. In years to come many of these new investigators will become leading researchers in their chosen field of education. I have no doubt that their work will become highly regarded and that they will contribute greatly to our understanding of how children learn, how teachers teach and the various influences that either assist or impede this process. As they do so, I hope that they maintain both their enthusiasm and the respectful manner in which they conducted themselves throughout the past two days. I look forward to following their careers and enjoying the product of their labours in the years to come.

Thank you to each student who presented over these days and provided me with such a rich opportunity for learning.

Who is capable?

Having made a commitment to protect the rights of children Benny must now wrestle with the challenges of being a research student.

Having made a commitment to protect the rights of children Benny must now wrestle with the challenges of being a research student.

 

Research seminars are a regular feature of life in the Centre for Education and Research at the University of Northampton. These provide opportunities for researchers, including students to present their work in progress and to encourage discussion of ideas related to their studies. They are attended by a gathering of experienced and novice researchers who are keen to learn from each other and share issues and ideas.

On Friday, one of our PhD students, Benny from India presented aspects of his research on the use and efficacy of learning mentors in primary schools. Benny’s research is interesting and the presentation was engaging, but whilst the subject of his study held the attention of his audience, comprising students and researchers from the UK, Viet Nam, China, Hungary and Kenya, it was a specific issue related to data collection and research ethics that provoked much discussion. The debate began with a consideration of the challenges of obtaining informed consent from research participants before proceeding to interview them or observe them in class. Benny described the frustration that many of us have felt when he has obtained the consent of a parent to interview their child, but then the child refuses to give their own consent and therefore the observation or interview cannot proceed.

This is not an unfamiliar issue, but rather one that comes up all the time. The argument is usually put that children are minors and that if we have the consent of their parents it is perfectly OK to conduct and interview for research purposes.  This is of course true, if we have parental consent the researcher can interview or observe the child. However, there is a further consideration here and one that I (along with many other researchers) believe to be important.

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that

“Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”

Every member state of the United Nations with the notable exceptions of the United States of America and Somalia signed up to this agreement. This being the case I believe that as researchers and teachers we should recognise the spirit and intention of the convention and try to abide by its principles.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was written in the knowledge that children are vulnerable and in some circumstances have been ignored or even abused by people in positions of authority. Its intention is clearly to afford protection to children but also to instil respect for their views, and ensure that they are encouraged to understand those actions that might affect them. For this reason I take a particular view and express to my students the belief that children need to be consulted and their consent obtained before we involve them in research. Though we often debate this point it is one that most educational researchers appear happy to accept because they too are concerned for the wellbeing of children. However, there is one part of article 12 that always gives cause for concern and confusion.

The article emphasises that “the child who is capable of forming his or her own views” should be consulted and recommends that due consideration must be given to the “age and maturity of the child.” These are clauses that I often find problematic. They usually result in my asking the question “who is capable?” For those of us working in the area of inclusive education, a commitment to full participation of the child is important and we would like to think that we take all appropriate measures to ensure that they are fully included in all aspects of decision making that concern them.  Yet it is not only my students like Benny, who find this issue challenging. There are many complications surrounding this matter, but two of the most common issues I will raise here.

Firstly, when conducting research that involves children who may have learning difficulties, challenges with communication or of social adjustment how can we be sure that they understand what we are asking when we seek consent? Over a number of years some of my research has involved young people with multiple disabilities and complex needs. Some of these children who have no spoken language, and severe cognitive impairments are dependent upon adults for all of their basic needs. Are such children capable of giving their consent to be a part of my project? If so, how do we go about obtaining their informed consent? I do not believe that there is a simple answer to these questions; however, I do believe that there are principles that may guide us in this area. At the outset I think it important that we assume that all children can understand far more than they are often given credit for. It is important as researchers that we err on the side of caution and take every measure possible to ensure that each child is consulted and is comfortable with the decisions we make. For those with the most complex needs we should seek the assistance of those who know the child best and may therefore have ways of communicating with them that we cannot hope to achieve in a limited period of time. We need to take the advice of these more knowledgeable individuals to ensure that the work that we are doing is not causing stress or in any way discomforting the children at the centre of our work. For pupils with such complex needs the consent of parents or carers is particularly critical to our work, but we need others who know the child well to be around at all stages of the research to be sure that we are not inadvertently causing any distress to the individual.

The second issue (there are of course others), relates to the notions of age and maturity. My colleague Jane Murray recently completed an interesting study of children as researchers. Her work involved observing children in nursery settings to investigate their powers of inquiry and investigation of their world. Her study, and that of others working in this field suggests that very young children have a refined sense of justice and that they are able to demonstrate both verbally and in other ways that they have opinions and beliefs. We should not therefore assume that there is an age after which we should believe that children are capable. The onus is upon us as researchers to find ways to engage children in our research and to ensure that we work not only within the recommendations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but that we actually challenge the narrow views of capability and maturity that may afford an escape clause to those who wish to deny the application of these rights in respect of a vulnerable population.

Benny is not the first to wrestle with these issues, neither will he be the last!