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