RESEARCHING ‘ON’, ‘ABOUT’ OR ‘WITH: FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR RESEARCH IN SPECIAL EDUCATION

Despite research on and about issues related to special educational needs, if we truly wish to understand the impact of teaching procedures, or the ways in which students learn, we are more likely to achieve success by ‘researching with’ those who are experiencing the learning challenge. Richard Rose Centre for Special Needs Education and Research University College Northampton, UK

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Writing in 1975, Lawrence Stenhouse, one of the most influential educational researchers of the late twentieth century, defined research as ‘any systematic, critical and self-critical enquiry which aims to contribute to the advancement of knowledge’ (1975, p. 156). He further suggested that research should encourage the full participation of those teachers and others who come into daily contact with students as key players in the research process (Stenhouse 1981). At the time when Stenhouse was most active there were a number of influential researchers who considered that his desire to encourage teachers to engage more directly with the research process was fraught with potential dangers. One of the earliest criticisms was that, if it is to be truly ‘systematic’, research depends upon being conducted by individuals who have acquired the methodological skills to ensure that procedures are conducted with the scientific rigour which ensures validity and reliability. Certainly Stenhouse himself was committed to ensuring that all who participate in structured inquiry did so within a framework which was both ethical and well planned—and his contribution to the methodological literature was considerable. A more challenging concern was that teachers who are in daily contact with students were likely to exhibit bias and would have considerable problems in maintaining objectivity. Stenhouse, far from agreeing with this comment, suggested that teachers have an interest in seeking an objective truth because of their commitment to improving classroom practice. He felt it was far more likely that the professional researcher would be concerned to prove a ‘pet theory’ and would lack some of the contextual understanding which the classroom teacher would naturally possess.

In the years since Stenhouse wrote his influential works, there has been a considerable shift in the perception of educational research as a means of investigating and informing classroom practice. Not least among these changes has been an increased focus upon the investigation of teaching and learning in relation to individuals with disabilities and groups who have collectively been described as having ‘special educational needs’. The plethora of research and publications which have considered all aspects of the education of this section of the population can be seen as an indication of a commitment to address the needs of a population which has traditionally been marginalised within the education system. It may equally be interpreted as an attempt to provide teachers and other professionals with an increased understanding of approaches and factors which enhance or promote learning in students who have traditionally posed challenges to the methods deployed in classrooms. Indeed, it can be argued that a greater corpus of research is necessary in an area of education which has often called upon theories and approaches which have lacked a sufficient empirical base.

In a critical review of pedagogy and the potential modification of approaches when working with students with special educational needs, Lewis and Norwich (2001) express concern for the lack of systematic investigation into ways in which individuals with disabilities or special educational needs learn. They call upon researchers to invest time in exploring the means through which teachers in mainstream school classrooms adapt their approaches to ensure the effective learning of all pupils, including those with special educational needs.

If we are to see a continuation of the expansion of research activity in relation to teaching and learning in students with special educational needs, it is beholding upon all active researchers to consider the manner by which systematic inquiry is conducted. In particular it is crucial that we consider the part to be played by the ‘researched’ in any future development of inquiry.

A review of the research literature in the fields of special education and disability reveals that the relationship of the researcher and the subjects of research can be divided into three distinct categories. The first of these, which owes much to the positive aspects of medical models intent on understanding the nature and aetiology of disability, is—unfortunately—also both a product and a cause of the undesirable deficit models which persist in much of our society and has its foundations within a positivist and largely experimental research paradigm. This approach, which might be referred to as ‘researching on’ individuals and groups, has undoubtedly added to our knowledge of specific disabling conditions and factors which may have a positive influence upon management and treatment. Such research led, for example to the development of cochlear implants which have now benefited many deaf individuals and have provided teachers with useful information with regards to the challenges of teaching pupils who have undergone this surgical procedure. Research of this type will persist, but it must remain within the domain of the medical researcher and be subjected to the most rigid ethical scrutiny by the researcher’s peers and by representatives of informed groups who represent the interests of disabled people. In educational terms, whilst teachers should benefit from the information provided through such research approaches, there is no justification for educational researchers to engage directly with any process which might be described as ‘researching on’ people with special needs or disabilities.

By far the majority of educational research conducted in the area of special education might be described as ‘researching about’—describing interventions developed to teach pupils with special educational needs. Such research, often small in scale, has played an important role in informing teachers about the efficacy of procedures and the ways in which standard teaching approaches may be modified to enhance teaching and learning. This has added to our knowledge base and led to changes in teaching practices which benefit individuals or groups of students. Examples of such research include studies by Florian and Rouse (2001), who examined the ways in which secondary schools might alter their practices in order to become more inclusive, and Howley and Kime (2003) who considered how structured approaches to teaching might benefit pupils with autistic spectrum disorder or dyslexia. It is likely that ‘researching about’ teaching and learning in relation to the education of pupils with special educational needs will continue to provide valuable information for practitioners and a means of evaluating the efficacy of specific interventions.

Both ‘researching on’ and ‘researching about’ have certainly contributed to our understanding of aspects of special education over many years. However the avowed commitment to both social and educational inclusion which has so dominated special education discourse over the past ten years demands that we move forward in our thinking about the roles which various players within educational research might adopt in an inclusive era. It is possible to perceive some shift in the working practices of researchers who show a determination to move beyond the rhetoric of inclusion, to engage in work which may truly enhance the lives of marginalised populations. Writers who are themselves disabled (Mason 1990, Oliver 1992) have emphasised the need to form partnerships in the study of disability which provide a prominent position for those who have a real-life experience of being part of a marginalised group. For too long people with a disability or special educational need have been the subject of studies, while being the last to be consulted about the issues of inquiry. The messages conveyed by these and other writers who have experienced disability focus upon the need to shift the parameters of research in order to make it more inclusive. While research on and about issues related to special educational needs has undoubtedly provided a corpus of knowledge, if we truly wish to understand the impact of teaching procedures, or the ways in which students learn we are more likely to achieve success by ‘researching with’ those who are experiencing the learning challenge.

Researchers who have engaged in studies which either ensure a high level of consultation with, or fully involve as equal partners, those who have special educational needs, report positively upon the impact which this has upon their own thinking. Recent research of this nature, such as the Educable project (2000) No Choice, No Chance, reveals the insights which can be gained by fully involving young people with disabilities in the research process. Other studies (e.g. Kenny et al. 2000; Fletcher 2001) demonstrate how listening to the views of young people as a part of the research process can enable teachers to gain a greater understanding of their learning aspirations and support teachers in adjusting their practices to provide a greater focus upon individual needs.

Shifting the research agenda to provide greater opportunities for participation by young people with special educational needs will not be easily achieved unless researchers themselves are willing to relinquish some of their traditionally-held ground. This is unlikely to happen until those who have experienced or are currently experiencing special education provision are provided with an opportunity to have their voices heard. Future motivations for research should be focused upon an emancipatory agenda which enables each individual to play a full part within a more inclusive society. Returning to Stenhouse’s vision for a more equitable approach to research, we can see that his desire to see teachers at the forefront of educational research has parallels in new moves to involve those with special educational needs. The understanding of context, coupled with a desire for a greater understanding of the truth of what constitutes effective teaching, forms a critical agenda which must be pursued through new partnerships. Researching with young people with special educational needs will afford us greater opportunities to understand how we can assist them to become effective learners; it may also afford us some interesting insights into ourselves as researchers and teachers.

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