Australian Association for Research in Education 2015 (University of Notre Dame, Fremantle)

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.


British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship (2014-2017)

I’m a very fortunate recipient of a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. These are three-year funding awards for early career researchers to be a principle investigator and develop their research and teaching profiles. The funding is generous (mine is worth about £310,000 plus additional grants) and not surprisingly the competition is fierce. About 800 people apply each year for 45 fellowships, making the success rate about 5%.

The official title and abstract is below. Follow this blog for future publications!


Examining situated and emerging sociability in children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) across educational contexts


This study will address the dearth in research about how different learning environments (special and mainstream, from nursery to post-16) afford alternative opportunities for children with PMLD to engage in social interaction. The study will explore how such interactions support emerging sociability, understood in terms of agency (intentional action), intersubjectivity (awareness of the subjectivity of others), and symbolic communication (deliberate exchange of information). A richly interpretivist participatory methodology will be employed to explore how social engagement impacts on development. The research will broaden understandings of the mechanisms through which learning and development occur for children with PMLD, demonstrate how non-traditional methodology leads to new insights into the lived experiences of children with PMLD, and challenge notions in the PMLD literature that some children are too cognitively impaired to engage with mainstream settings.


The PMLD Ambiguity (Book)

I’ve just learned that it’s been two years since The PMLD Ambiguity was published by Karnac Press (March 2014) so it seems fitting that the first blog post is a tribute to that work!

The PMLD Ambiguity is a book I wrote with Dr Debbie Watson (Reader in Childhood Studies at Bristol). You can read an excerpt from the book by clicking here.


In many ways the PMLD Ambiguity is a controversial and complex book. It provides the first critical review of the “PMLD field”, challenges some of the core concepts that the field relies upon, and explores alternative terrain in order to provide a counter view to the deficit-based accounts of children with PMLD found in the literature.

For those new to the field, “PMLD” or “profound and multiple learning disabilities” is a term used in the UK to refer to children with the severest forms of cognitive impairments. Typically, children with PMLD are deemed to experience “global developmental delay” and present (at least cognitively) as infants. If you pick up a book in the PMLD field you’ll probably end up reading all about the pre-verbal stages of development, how children with PMLD have yet to pass through these stages, and how they struggle to understand and engage with the world around them.  Based on this understanding of developmental delay, a range of interventions and assessment tools have been devised which aim to push children with PMLD through the earliest stages of development. These interventions are often used in special schools, and some teachers have argued that children with PMLD would never benefit from participating in mainstream schools until they reach an appropriate developmental level.

In the PMLD Ambiguity we make several challenges to the above picture. Because of space constraints we cannot cover everything, but of particular note are the following challenges:

  1. We demonstrate that the core ideas in the PMLD field are often based on old-fashioned and contested psychology. For example, in Chapter 3 we explore the cognitivist literature that has inspired the PMLD field. What we present is not a coherent theory of child development, but a range of perspectives which are in some respects radically opposed to each other, particularly with regards to the nature and emergence of social awareness in infants. If children with PMLD are defined first and foremost as being “developmentally delayed” then this debate calls into question the very meaning of “PMLD” itself and shakes our confidence in the definition.
  2. We show that alternative understandings of consciousness and cognition are needed if we are to fully appreciate the rich experiences of children with PMLD. Classic psychological accounts hold that children with PMLD lack the ability to explicitly represent the world and so struggle to engage with it. This contrasts to a phenomenological account of consciousness and cognition. From a phenomenological perspective, first meanings are not thematically represented but enacted; it is through action that we make sense of the world, and this sense is intuitive or tacit. Instead of presupposing that some children are too disabled to participate in mainstream life, a phenomenological perspective asks how different environments afford alternative opportunities to develop a sense of self, other and surrounding world. This exciting theory opens up debate about the nature of learning for children with PMLD by moving away from “neuro-reductionist” accounts and situating learning in broader contextual factors.
  3. We present evidence that mainstream (or what some would call “inclusive”) classroom environments can support the social and communication skills of children with PMLD. The book presents my doctoral research project on the topic. The project involved working longitudinally and intensively with a young boy with PMLD called Sam. (The “richly interpretivist” methodology is described in detail in the book). I observed Sam one day a week in a mainstream school and one day a week in a special school for an academic year. What became apparent was that Sam was more socially active in his mainstream school than in his special school. Furthermore, Sam demonstrated greater levels of social awareness (understood in terms of intersubjectivity and agency) and developed increasingly diverse communication skills when around mainstream school peers. Near the end of the project he transferred these skills to his special school and began to initiate interaction with his special school peers

The role of theory

The PMLD Ambiguity received strong critical reviews from Tillie Curran (Disability & Society) and Rob Ashdown (PMLD Link). However,  both reviewers noted the demanding nature of the theory and the complexity at the heart of the book. Good theory is meant to challenge our most basic presuppositions about the nature of the phenomena we are addressing, problematising what we take for granted, daring us to think differently, and forcing us to ask new questions. (I’m sure the reviewers agree.) As a Postdoctoral Fellow I find myself once again knee-deep in challenging texts, searching for answers (and having fun creating new problems!). The reading can be daunting and frustrating but at the same time exciting and compelling. It’s clear that we have a world of academic resources at our fingertips: post-structuralism, phenomenology, enactivism, etc. Each of these areas challenges the preconceptions we have of ourselves and our relationship to each other and the world . Whilst empirical research is necessary, it is theory that allows us to state what the problem is in the first place and how we address this problem. The PMLD Ambiguity is an exercise is advancing “PMLD theory” and will be the first of many publications in the topic.


Full reference

Simmons, B. & Watson, D. (2014) The PMLD Ambiguity: Articulating the Life-Worlds of Children with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities, London: Karnac.

Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

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