Sunday, 7 September 2008

BERA 2008: Reflections on the Inclusion Strand

This week I attended the BERA 2008 conference at Heriot-Watt University. I was presenting two papers at the conference- one was a joint paper with Melanie Nind called "Developing a multiperspective conceptual understanding of access for people with learning difficulties". The other was a paper reflecting on the processes and outcomes of the PAIRS project, that I have described elsewhere- see for example: When we have uploaded the papers to Education Online, I will create a link to the URL's.

I got a good response to the PAIRS paper, which I was pleased about; with several people agreeing with my argument that the participatory approach is a useful alternative to standard student evaluation methods in higher education.

BERA is a huge conference, so I decided to concentrate on the inclusion and social-justice themes. Here are just a few highlights of the presentations I attended.

Kristine Black-Hawkins, Lani Florian and Martyn Rouse gave an interesting talk entitled "Achievement and Inclusion in Schools and Classrooms: Participation and Pedagogy" in which they described research that aimed to explore meanings of achievement and inclusion through the study of inclusive schools. Some key phrases or ideas that struck me and that I wrote down while listening were:

" Inclusion is conditional (i.e passive); participation is a right (and more active)"

" Inclusive practices are the things that teachers do to give meaning to the concepts of inclusion"

"The relationship between a medical diagnosis and an educational intervention is pretty weak; there is no one strategy for a particular "difference" that will work"

"Schools took risks, but also safe-guarded the most vulnerable"

During question time, I raised the issue of "risk" with the presenters and asked something along the lines of: if risk-taking promotes inclusion, how can we encourage or create environments or climates where people are willing to take risks. One response by Kristine was where a School had a supportive Head who gave their staff "permission" take risks.

Picking up on the notion of risk, which is also a strong theme in the "concepts of access" work that I have been doing with Melanie Nind, I was also interested to hear the talk given by Linda Dunne in which she explored discourses of inclusion with a sample of teachers and other key stakeholders. She identifed three discourses: a policy discourse; an othering discourse and a discourse of self. Linda defined the policy discourse as one that focuses on prevailing needs and keeping children safe. I was struck by the diagram that one study participant had drawn in which the child was in the centre of a circle and the word "protection" was written around the circumference of the circle. In my notes I wrote: A circle that encloses rather than connects" and "where is the discourse about potential and children's abilities". This safety or risk-averse discourse views people with disabilities as vulnerable and lacking abilities or resilience.

In giving example sof the discourse of self, Linda talked about the participants who viewed happiness and self-esteem as an educational goal and who judged some children as vulnerable and at risk because they felt they had low self-esteem. Linda commented that this was akin to a therapeutic discourse (my therapist friends might disagree, but I understand what she was trying to say- in that she was questioning whether low self-esteem was a "new" deficiency" that had to be remedied or treated.

Marie Huxtable talked about her role in supporting schools to develop inclusive practices at a time when schools have been encouraged to create what she considered to be devisive lists of gifted and talented youth. Maries' talk stimulated me to think about my daughters experience of being singled out as gifted and talented at Maths. She was made a member of the National Gifted and Talented Academy" and was invited to join online discussion forums etc. She chose to ignore the invitations as they seemed irrelevant and pointless to her. The point being, that whilst she was good at Maths, her passion was art- something her School completely misjudged. Central to my daughters identity was her art- and it meant nothing to her to be listed as gifted in Maths. This experience merely served to distance my daugher from her School and she has since left it to study A levels somewhere else. Something designed to include- served to exclude in a sense.

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