I recently presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) annual conference, based a the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle. The conference was surprisingly intimate given that it’s Australia’s main educational research conference, but the presentation themes were diverse. It’s clear that Australia has a strong body of critical researchers with a passion for social justice. I sat in presentations on gender violence in schools, exclusion of aboriginal Australians in the educational system, and the role of poverty in rural communities. The methodological creativity was astounding, with narrative inquiry and post-structuralism at the heart of most presentations that I saw.
However, I was also deeply disappointed with how scientific the inclusive education stream was, and the lack of criticality and creativity in that stream. I sat through presentations on experimental designs, interventions and treatment, and academics trying to flog their behavioural programming packages to members of the audience. (The promise being that people with social emotional and behavioural difficulties would sit down for longer and make more eye contact). What did all of this have to do with “inclusion”? Presenters happily revealed the names of schools participating in their research and failed to adequately theorise the the topic of discussion. In many ways this was my worse nightmare. However, there were some saving graces. Vijaya Dharan from Massey University (New Zealand) presented a paper which called into question the meaning of SEBD itself, the experiences of people with SEBD in mainstream schools, and the patterns of school exclusions owing to unusual and strict rules in New Zealand. I chuckled to myself at the state of New Zealand exclusion policies, then discovered that a school close to where I grew up actually excludes people if they colour their hair!
My own presentation seemed to go “OK” (Qualitatively mapping the social interaction opportunities of children with PMLD in school contexts). This presentation was basically an interim report based on the descriptive findings of my postdoc to date. The behavioural psychologists didn’t like to make eye contact with me during the presentation (go figure!), but a keen group of teachers and early career researchers were genuinely interested in the topic of “PMLD”. To my surprise, interested parties had never met people with PMLD and the concept was entirely new to them. We spent time a fair amount of time chatting about everyday classroom practices, the type of staff that work in special schools, and the needs of children with PMLD. This left me wondering about the absence of children with PMLD in the inclusive education literature. If there are academics in inclusive education that have never heard of PMLD (or “PMD” – the Aussie term) then how can we take them seriously? Their models of inclusion are not inclusive of all children. And this is the crux of the problem in the field – no matter how complex debates are about inclusion, or how extensive the research literature is, if we are trying to forge a new world without asking what all children want and need then surely we are missing the point. “Nothing for us without us” rings so true here. This makes me think of the work undertaken recently by Melanie Nind on “Inclusive Research”. Admittedly, I’ve yet to read her latest book, but I hope that it’s full of promise regarding ways of supporting children with PMLD in the research process. Children with PMLD do have a voice and academics need to learn to listen before their models of inclusion can be taken seriously.
Dr Debbie Watson and I recently published a paper that may hold promise in the area of methodological innovation for children with PMLD. I’ll soon post about this in more detail, but you can read the paper here.