Section 3 Critical factors in establishing inclusive learning environments


Setting an agenda for research


Inclusive education has been the subject of considerable investigation in recent years. While most of the research conducted in this area has been small scale and narrowly focused upon attitudes and expectations, there is a general recognition of a need to provide greater understanding of those factors that impact upon the efficacy of inclusive school practices (Rose et al., 2010; Loreman et al., 2014). In conducting Project IRIS (Inclusive Research in Irish Schools), the researchers were aware of the need to conduct an investigation which would provide a holistic view of developments in Irish schools. Maintaining a focus upon the four distinctive areas of policy, practice, experiences and outcomes, while recognising that each of these invariably impacts upon the others, enabled the researchers to gain a broader perspective of the development of inclusion in a single country than has been achieved in many other studies. The need to pursue a research agenda which considers the interactions between the many variables which impact upon our understanding of how inclusive education may be developed is important if we are to set an agenda for further development in this field (Goransson and Nilholm, 2014; Nind, 2014; Vaughn and Swanson, 2015).

Promoting research that is inclusive

As researchers we believe that in order to gain insights into schools and the wider impact of educational policy, provision and practices, it is essential to give attention to the full range of perspectives and experiences that can be provided by a broad range of parties. These include both those responsible for the development and delivery of services for children and young people and those for whom such services are intended to be beneficial. We would therefore advocate that an inclusive approach to investigation should be adopted by those researchers who suggest they are concerned for the education and welfare of vulnerable young people and their families. While in recent years many have advocated a more ‘emancipatory’ approach to research in the areas of disability and special educational needs (Oliver, 1992; Walmsley, 2001; Barnes, 2004; Armstrong and Tso-kova, 2019), much of the research in this area continues to pay little more than lip service to the opinions and lived experiences of the subjects many researchers purport to be concerned about (Snelgrove, 2007; Dowse, 2009).

Establishing a model of respectful research requires that all parties are conversant with the purpose of the investigation and the motivations of the researchers and those who have funded the study. Where this involves working with children and families, appropriate means of communication need to be deployed if their participation in research is to be meaningful. This requires that the period prior to conducting field work is prioritised as a time when the research agenda, procedures to be followed, rights of participants and intended outcomes of the research are articulated in an accessible form to all concerned. While universities and many research organisations have issued ethical guidelines and advice which should inform the conduct of researchers, we would suggest that the audience should be broader than the team of individuals likely to undertake field work and interpretation of data. Such an approach demands a reappraisal of the way we define research teams and the ways we operate as researchers. It requires that we consider the relationship between the researcher and the subjects of research and explore notions of inclusion not only as an educational phenomena worthy of investigation but rather as a philosophy which informs every aspect of the ways in which we work.

Having attempted to conduct Project IRIS in a manner that was respectful of all participants, we are now able to reflect on what more could have been done to create a research environment fully inclusive of all parties involved. The product of this reflection is summarised in Table 13.1 and provides an opportunity to discuss a future agenda for researching inclusive education while researching inclusively.

Developing inclusive research - the initial development phase

Project IRIS was commissioned by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), and as with any research of this nature, the project brief was established before a tender was issued. This brief was largely defined on the basis of previous studies and an analysis of needs identified by schools, parent groups and professional bodies, all of whom have regular dialogue with the NCSE as a national body with oversight of special education provision throughout Ireland. As is usual in this situation, the research team responded to the brief by developing a methodological framework and instruments designed to address the questions identified by the commissioning body.

Inevitably in research of this nature, the research team responded to the requirements of the commissioning agency and moved fairly swiftly to the second

TABLE 13.1 Stages in the Project Iris research process

The initial development phase

What are the aims and purpose of the research, and who has been involved in determining these?

Are all parties involved aware of the aims and purpose of the research and the intended outcomes of the investigation?

The instrument development and piloting phase

Are the instruments fit for purpose and accessible to all parties?

Are the instruments respectful of those whose data we seek?

The field work phase

Are those whose data we are seeking clear about their rights?

Have we established appropriate procedures for the verification of data?

Do the owners of the data know what we intend to do with it and use it for?

The analysis and interpretation phase

What role might the subjects of our research play in enabling us to interpret this accurately?

The reporting and dissemination phase

What role might the subjects of our research play in ensuring that we are reporting fairly?

How accessible are the reports we are producing to those who are the subjects of our research?

How will we disseminate our research in a way that reaches a broad audience, including those who have shared their data?

phase of the aforementioned sequence, which involves identification of samples and the development and piloting of research instruments. In retrospect, time spent discussing the research brief with interested parties at this stage may have proven helpful in ensuring that the issues identified by NCSE were in accord with the major interests or concerns of the schools, parents, professionals and pupils from whom data were to be gathered. As a highly professional national organisation, the officers at the NCSE clearly had been thorough in analysing the national situation and identifying their priorities for the research. However, clarification of these issues through a stage of initial discussion, particularly with families and pupils, would have further ensured they felt some ownership of the research process.

From the perspective of a research team, when working for a funding body such as NCSE, it is quite rightly to be expected that the brief provided is one to which the researchers will adhere. However, for others working more independently, some initial discussions with those who are to be at the core of an investigation may prove beneficial. In particular, researchers may wish to ensure that the focus of the investigation and the questions to be asked accord with the situation as perceived by those most closely involved in the situation. This is not to suggest that this approach will radically alter the focus of the research, but we do believe this early engagement might well assist researchers in gaining a better understanding of the context of the study and is certainly likely to indicate to the individuals involved a commitment to working in partnership and with respect. Respondents within a sample who are aware of the motivations of the research team and have been involved in discussions and become familiar with team members are likely to be less wary of their involvement at the field work stage.

Managing the data

A challenge faced by many researchers working in the area of special educational needs and inclusion is that of developing appropriate and accessible research instruments. Although piloting of instruments is a standard procedure for researchers, when required to obtain data from individuals who present specific difficulties or have unique needs, there are often problems of gaining appropriate access or response. Haig-Brown and Archibald (1996) argue that in recognising that all individuals, including those with special educational needs or disabilities, are experts in their own situation and needs, researchers need to ensure engagement with those in their samples at all stages of the research process. This view has been reinforced by Lewis and Porter (2004), who have produced a set of useful guidelines for researchers who wish to ensure the inclusion of children with disabilities, including those who are non-verbal, in the research process. An important question asked by Lewis and Porter - ‘Is the research the result of a shared agenda?’ -may provide an important guiding principle at all phases of the process.

In the case of Project IRIS, the research team was concerned with ensuring that the approaches used to collect data from pupils with special educational needs, including those with major communication or sociability difficulties, were given full consideration. The use of visual materials and familiar artefacts during interviews or the pictorial or symbolic presentation of research instruments was employed on several occasions. However, on reflection, more time involving young people in the preparation of these instruments might have been beneficial. To do so would, of course, have required additional time, a commodity usually in short supply during research projects. This, however, might be an important indicator of the need to devote more time and consideration at the earliest stages of the research process.

Verification of data is recognised as an important aspect of ensuring the trustworthiness of research data (Morse, Barratt, Mayan, Olson and Spiers, 2002; Nutt Williams and Morrow, 2009; Cook, Wills-Lloyd, Mellor, Nosek and Therrien, 2018). In Project IRIS both multi-methods triangulation and analyst triangulation (Patton, 2001) were deployed as a means of establishing trustworthiness. In some instances, following transcription, the researchers were able to return to interviewees to verify whether they felt that the interpretation being placed upon the meaning of what had been said was fair. With such a large data set spread across the whole of Ireland, this was not possible for all interviews. However, where this procedure was followed, it often led to interesting discussions and afforded the researchers greater insights into the phenomena being investigated.

The process of dissemination

Invariably the funders of research have their own expectations with regards to reporting the findings of research. Often this requires the use of language which is compatible with the culture of the commissioning organisation. An understanding of the audience for research is, of course, important. For most researchers working on large-scale funded projects, this means that the initial reporting of research needs to be tempered for an audience of policy makers, or those charged with the responsibility for overseeing provision. In the case of Project IRIS, the need to compile a report that was in ‘house style’ and would be accessible to professionals working in the field of special and inclusive education was made explicit from the beginning of the project. As the funders of the research, it is quite right that they should provide guidance of this nature and expect that a report should fit a uniform style of presentation.

Throughout any investigation the researchers have obligations to many individuals and groups. Research is dependent upon the compilation of data which is often unique to individuals and is given freely to researchers for their interpretation in order to understand the phenomena under scrutiny. This should mean that researchers also have an obligation to ensure that this interpretation and any recommendations made are available to the providers of this data in an accessible format. Most researchers acknowledge their responsibilities to fairly report their findings to those who commissioned the research and also to a wider academic audience through peer reviewed publication. However, the dissemination of research in formats that are accessible to the wider audience of stakeholders and providers is often low on the list of priorities.

Fernandez, Kodish and Weijer (2003) have identified seven advantages they perceive as emanating from ensuring that the participants of research can access findings. While these were originally focused upon research in the medical field, the principles in this list, we would suggest, are equally valid in respect of educational research. Their seven advantages are identified as the following:

  • 1 Demonstrating the ongoing central nature of the participant’s role in research
  • 2 Diminishing the chance that the participant may feel exploited by the researcher
  • 3 Providing information that may enhance quality of life or lead to interventions that may decrease the risk of future harm
  • 4 Disseminating information gleaned from research beyond the traditional medical sphere
  • 5 Raising public awareness of the impact of research on knowledge
  • 6 Emphasising participants’ contribution to the understanding of disease and therapy
  • 7 Enhancing trust in the researchers and the research process

At the completion of Project IRIS, a series of dissemination events attempted to share the research findings with as broad an audience as possible. On reflection, more could have been done in this area, particularly in terms of working with pupils and families.

A focus for the future

As with any investigation of this nature, Project IRIS, in answering a number of research questions related to the development of special education, also identified further issues which we believe could form the basis of a future research agenda. While our focus was upon developments in Ireland, it is likely that many of the questions raised would resonate with researchers elsewhere.

Whereas some areas related to special educational needs and inclusion have received considerable attention in recent years, there are undoubtedly others that are causing concern and would certainly warrant the attention of researchers.

Understanding the impact of inclusive schooling, not only upon the outcomes for pupils with special educational needs but also in respect of their peers, is an area which has received little attention. Studies by Skidmore (2004) and Black-Hawkins et al. (2007) have provided important indicators of those factors which enable inclusive education to succeed for whole school populations. These are important texts but report fairly small-scale studies and inevitably provide a brief overview of a particular moment in time. We would suggest that further research focused upon both academic and social outcomes is required and that some of this research should be longitudinal in nature, following pupils over a prolonged period of time. Concerns that inclusion becomes more difficult in the secondary years of education have been expressed (Carrington and Elkins, 2002; Keefe and Moore, 2004), and it would therefore be informative to follow a large cohort of pupils over an extended period of time. Such studies should include the period of transition between primary and secondary schooling, often perceived as a critical juncture, and should preferably continue to follow young people into post-compulsory provision.

In parallel with such research, an investigation of the impact of teaching which aims to provide for pupils with special educational needs through approaches such as differentiated instruction or the structured use of group work could provide valuable insights. Such studies to date tend to have understandably focused upon pupils with special educational needs and have given little consideration to how pedagogical practices influence others in the class (Tomlinson, et al., 2003; Diamanto and Stavroula, 2010; Wienen, Batstra, Thoutenhoofd, Bos and de Jonge, 2019). It has been suggested that teachers who are effective in planning and delivering lessons for pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools are likely to have a positive impact on all pupils in the class. However, the evidence to support such an assertion is as yet limited, and this topic is worthy of further investigation.

Project IRIS is one of the few research studies to have reported on special educational needs provision and its impact at a national level. The approaches adopted by the researchers during this investigation generated data to provide both a broad overview of special education in Ireland and a more in-depth analysis at individual school and pupil level. The instruments used for field work and the approaches for systematic data analysis could easily be adjusted to take account of cultural nuances for a replication study in many other countries. The value of such research may well provide indicators of the efficacy of provision made in response to international agreements such as the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (UNESCO, 1994) and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (UNESCO, 2015).

Having undertaken a longitudinal study across the whole of Ireland, we believe there are many advantages to be gained from a study of this nature. First, through such a study, it is possible to identify both those changes which occur during the course of the research and the various conditions and actions that have an impact on the learning of individuals over time. Being able to consider issues of sustainability was particularly useful when making recommendations about further actions to be taken in support of creating more inclusive schools. Second, through a longitudinal study, it is possible to build relationships and trust with all parties involved. By providing a long-term commitment to families and schools, we were able to call on individuals and groups when reconsidering aspects of the data or when we needed to probe an issue in greater depth. Finally, by visiting schools over a sustained period, it was possible to discuss the impact that sometimes subtle changes had upon the ability of staff to maintain a commitment to inclusion. Changes such as the appointment of new staff or approaches to classroom organisation were witnessed and their consequences for pupils and staff recorded.

Our understanding of how the most effective provision can be made for pupils with special educational needs remains at a nascent level. The need for further research is evident, but we would contend that while it is relatively easy to identify specific issues in need of investigation, the ways we conduct ourselves as researchers will be paramount if we wish to be seen to promote inclusion in its truest sense. Research that is respectful, focused and inclusive is likely to provide us with new knowledge and understanding about how we may support those who have previously been marginalised within schools. That which places the researcher in a naïve position of authority is less likely to be so influential.


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