This article is from the latest edition of Inclusion Now, which you can read by subscribing.
We are four researchers working within the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University who wish to share some findings of our ongoing research that had two stages. In the first stage of the research, school children took photographs of their understanding of inclusion in and around school. In the second stage, some of the images taken by the children were then shared with adults working in the field of education, to elicit their responses and interpretations of inclusion.
Inclusion within education settings has, through policies and social justice campaigns, become integral to much school policy and practice. It is often associated with belonging, participation and respect for others (CSIE 2015). Yet what is understood by the term ‘inclusion’ remains open to interpretation. In order to investigate in some depth what different people might understand about what inclusion might mean and what it might look like in practice, we decided to embark on a research project to explore the views and interpretations of both school children and adults working in education.
In the first part of our study, a photo-elicitation research method was used whereby children in four schools (two primary and two secondary) were given disposable cameras and asked to take images that they believed represented inclusion or exclusion. The children were asked to explain either verbally or in writing what the photographs they had taken meant to them. This offered a window into their worlds and their understandings of inclusion for us and for their teachers. They were also asked to give a small amount of information about themselves, such as gender, age, and whether or not they identified as having an educational need.
The photo-elicitation method was chosen because we felt this methodit encouraged the active engagement of children and young people in research rather than conducting research upon them. It was felt that children’s perspectives and experiences around inclusion might be heard more cogently than through traditional research approaches, such as interviews or observations. Using an approach in which children produce photographs and annotate them as they choose is, we felt, suitable for children as it provides involvement and ownership. Such an approach also assisted those who communicate differently or who have a preference for visual rather than verbal communication.
In the second part of the study, thirty of the photographs taken by the children were selected by the research team and anonymised via software that ‘cartoonises’ the image. These altered images were then shared with children in four different schools (two primary and two secondary), groups of trainee teachers and other adults working in the field of education during conferences, workshops or teaching sessions. The groups of adults were shown the photographs and asked for their views about whether they thought the images taken by the children represented inclusion or exclusion and to discuss and explain their reasoning. They were not informed of the children’s interpretation until the end of the group discussions. The intention of this process was to consider how personal experiences of school life, as pupils or teachers, might influence how they interpret practices that are intended to be inclusive. The aim was to go beyond defining forms of inclusive practice and instead find a way for trainee teachers and other adults working with children to ‘hear’ children’s voices, and access the ‘multi-voiced-ness’ of children’s lived experiences relating to inclusion.
To provide a flavour of what is emerging from our research, three of the many images taken by the children are shown in the following section.
The Baking Photo
9 year old boy who self-identified as having moderate learning difficulties, based in a primary school. He said:
“This image is of inclusion – with grown-ups to help if you can’t do it yourself”
Examples of responses to cartoonised image
Boy aged 9 with a moderate learning difficulty attending a mainstream primary school:
“This is exclusion, adults always take over and we can only watch and then they say ‘look what X has done’ but I haven’t”.
“This concerns me. The adults are doing the activity and the child is doing none of it himself”.
“Boy looks needy and not happy with the whole experience”.
“The boy is getting one to one help from his teacher”.
“(I see) Unhappiness, no acceptance of what child can do, smothering”.
“Inclusion – Child in middle is being helped and they are trying to involve him”.
The 9 year old boy who took this photograph saw this as inclusion. The comments by the adults, however, tended to show a discomfort with the image, revolving around the children and ownership of the baking activity. The positioning of the two adults and the two children and how this was framed in the image seemed, via their responses, to imply exclusion. Some interpreted the boy in the centre as receiving personalised support, while others showed concern, suggesting that the teacher was ‘smothering’ the child or taking over control of the task. Concern seemed to revolve around the relationship between the adults and children and the level of engagement each had in the task depicted.
The Mobile Phone Photo
Twelve year old female pupil in a secondary school, who did not identify as having educational needs. She said: “Using your mobile phone to keep other people out. Secrets.”
Examples of responses to cartoonised image
18 year old female student: “Inclusion – looks like friendship, not forced or organised”.
“Inclusion as both engaged”.
“Exclusion: girls together sharing something on screen of the mobile. Looks to me like they are finding amusement in something not particularly nice on the phone.”
“Don’t know what they are doing on phone, could be bullying could be asking more friends to come out”.
“Inclusion –Both girls appear relaxed and happy in each other’s company”.
“Mobile phones – exclusion for poorer children”.
There were similarities with how this image and the previous baking image were perceived. With the mobile phone example, responses identified the image as either being inclusive, with friends sharing something, or as friends excluding, or even gaining amusement from possibly bullying others. The differing suggestions appeared to be predicated on the same aspect of the image; the assumed intimacy between the girls, portrayed by their physical closeness and body language and an assumed distance between them and other pupils not portrayed in the picture. Perhaps these differing interpretations also point to a wider issue of how mobile phones, and the social media accessed through them, mediate relationships between people.
The Smiling Photo
Twelve year old female pupil in a secondary school who did not identify as having educational needs. She wrote:
“Inclusion. Friends include each other in having a good time”.
Examples of adult responses to image
“Their expressions are happy”
“Gender and ethnicity = inclusive?”
“A shared moment – positive.”
“Finding the same thing funny.”
“Facial expression of girl seems very happy”
In contrast to the mobile phone image, the responses to the smiling image were consistently positive, focussing on the emotional expressions of the two teenagers pictured and their close proximity to each other, with attention given to the relationship between the two people in the image. The more positive views surrounding interpretations of this image may be because, as well as the two children appearing happy, physically close and comfortable in each other’s presence, they are looking directly at the camera suggesting an openness or sharing of this emotional warmth beyond themselves, and with the photographer.
We are not suggesting that one view is more accurate or has more value than another when it comes to ‘seeing’ or capturing inclusion. Our interest is in understanding why those involved with the research, both children and adults can offer different and often contradictory views around inclusion and what they feel it is, or ought to be. The use of photo-elicitation as a method of research created the opportunity to access different points of view about what constituted inclusion or exclusion, or somewhere in between. The children and young people interpreted the image through the lens of their own experiences and commented accordingly. This certainly seems to be the case with the second boy who commented on the baking image by saying “exclusion – look what (name) has done, but I haven’t”. In the case of adult interpretations of the images, rather than put themselves into the position of those in the image their discussions circulated around space, place, positioning or a modification of presence. For example, there were many comments such as ‘it would be inclusive if x moved here…’. While the use of photo-elicitation as a method of research created the opportunity to access different points of view about what constituted inclusion or exclusion, few made explicit references to whether practices were fair, equal or just.
In this article we have only shared a snapshot of our research and a few comments relating to just three photographs. What we are hoping to do is gather further views from both children and adults. In particular, we are interested in hearing the reactions of Inclusion Now readers to the images and the comments. Are the images inclusive? Do you agree or disagree with the views offered? Moreover: what is inclusion? Can it be captured? How do we know that inclusion has ‘happened’?
We have a small amount of funding to extend this project and are able to offer workshop sessions with groups of children in schools around the UK to gather further views and experiences about inclusive education. If you would like to discuss hosting a workshop, or anything in relation to this research please do not hesitate to contact us via Dr Clare Woolhouse.
Clare Woolhouse (corresponding author) Linda Dunne, Fiona Hallett and Virginia Kay, Edge Hill University