Utilizing Participatory Action Research to Build an Inclusive Classroom Community in France
Utilizing Participatory Action Research to Build an Inclusive Classroom Community in France
- Nicole EilersNicole EilersUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Inclusive education is increasingly prioritized in legislation and policy across the globe. Historically, the concept of inclusion within educational contexts refers primarily to the placement of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. More recent descriptions of inclusive education focus on ensuring that all children can access and participate in physical, social, and academic aspects of the classroom. However, a growing body of research suggests that students continue to experience exclusion even within educational contexts that express a commitment to inclusion. In France, a growing number of private, independent schools seek to create the inclusive environments that, despite the ministry of education’s initiatives focused on inclusion, the public school system does not yet provide. One such school engaged in a participatory action research project to create an inclusive classroom that responded to the evolving needs and interests of the community, resulting in a sense of belonging for all members. As all classroom community members (students, families, and teachers) participated in the project of creating an inclusive classroom, the elements of participatory action research allowed inclusion to become a flexible, ongoing, and reflexive practice of identifying and responding to contextually specific needs of classroom members. Approaching inclusion as a participatory action research project in the classroom offers a promising approach to moving beyond interpretations of inclusion that fail to actively address pervasive inequalities and their impact on classroom experiences.
- Curriculum and Pedagogy
- Education, Change, and Development
- Research and Assessment Methods
This article highlights participatory action research (PAR) as a particularly useful methodology for examining inclusion in school settings. Inclusive education is increasingly prioritized within legislation and policy across the globe (United Nations Children’s Fund [UNICEF], 2019). Although the concept of inclusion initially attended to educational access for children with disabilities, initiatives gradually shifted to a broader focus. First, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA, 1990) and the Salamanca Declaration of 1994 (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 1994) highlighted the lack of accommodations and supports within inclusive classrooms and argued that inclusion requires that all children be able to physically, socially, and academically access and participate in the general education classroom. Second, scholars in fields such as critical disability studies (Ferri & Bacon, 2011), critical race theory (Connor et al., 2016), critical multiculturalism (Schoorman, 2011), and intercultural education (Gundara & Jacobs, 2000) pushed the field of inclusive education to recognize how individual characteristics that position students as different (e.g., gender, race, class, disability, and sexuality) may result in experiences of exclusion. Rather than focusing solely on disability, beginning in the 2010s, the term “inclusion” has been used to communicate an effort toward valuing diversity and difference (UNICEF, 2019). But despite the changing conceptualization of inclusive education, students in inclusive classrooms continue to experience instances of social, physical, and academic exclusion (Connor et al., 2016; Franck, 2018). In France, a growing number of private, independent schools seek to create the inclusive environments that, despite the ministry of education’s initiatives focused on inclusion, many caregivers and children feel the public school system does not yet provide. One such classroom community engaged in a PAR project to create an inclusive classroom that responded to the evolving needs and interests of the community, resulting in a sense of belonging for all members. This article begins with an overview of the history and barriers to inclusive education in France, followed by a description of the key insights from the PAR project and the implications for incorporating PAR into inclusive teaching practice. PAR aims to address issues relevant to particular communities and contexts through an ongoing, cyclical process of identifying and implementing action steps, reflecting on progress and persistent issues, and refining or defining next steps. The PAR process is particularly relevant to the project of creating inclusive classrooms, as instances of exclusion that arise within these environments are particular to the classroom members and contexts, and require community-specific approaches rather than a one-size-fits-all initiative.
History of Inclusive Education in France
Prior to the introduction of inclusive education in France, the medical sector held primary responsibility for the care and education of children with disability labels. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the public’s critical analysis of social institutions and their role in creating particular ideas about “normalcy,” led to a questioning of the institutionalization or segregation of children considered to be “maladjusted” (Plaisance, 2008, p. 38). Plaisance writes that critics began to ask, “Why continue to imagine an extension of ‘special’ institutions to try to solve problems that are in fact related to what is ‘normal’” (p. 38)? Although educational reforms focused on challenging constructions of normalcy could have offered a promising approach to inclusive education, when translated into legislation, inclusive education in France became an example of an ambiguous and much less radical application. The 1975 law “of orientation in favour of disabled persons” (Plaisance, 2008, p. 38) suggested, but did not require, the integration of children with disabilities in regular education settings. Language that “favors” integrating children with disabilities continued to appear in educational policy throughout the 1980s and 1990s, leading to “little concrete application” (Plaisance, 2008, p. 39). As a result, education for children with disabilities continued to fall under the responsibility of the social and health system rather than the educational system (Schneider & Harkins, 2009). In 2005, the “law for equal rights and opportunities, participation and citizenship of handicapped persons” (Schneider & Harkins, 2009, p. 278) required that children with disabilities be enrolled in their local schools. However, the ultimate decision about where a child is to be educated is made “by a committee coordinated by the ‘referent teacher’ (enseignant référent) in dialogue with the families” (Schneider & Harkins, 2009, p. 278). The very existence of a system that requires a decision to include children with disabilities makes exclusion a possible option, offering an “escape clause” to any mandate for inclusion (Kliewer & Raschke, 2002, p. 45). This means that children determined to have more significant special needs than can be accommodated within the general education classroom may receive education in a separate facility (Plaisance, 2008). As a result of the ambiguity of the 2005 law, access to the general education classroom for disabled students is an ongoing issue in the context of French inclusive education.
In 2013, article L111-1 of France’s education code aimed to reduce social inequalities by focusing on the social inclusion and academic support of all children regardless of label (e.g., disability, socioeconomic status, and migration status). This shift is particularly significant in the context of France, where despite ideals of “equality, fraternity and liberty,” there has been resistance to inter-culturalism1 because of the country’s narrow definition of citizenship (Gundara, 2000). As articulated in a 1961 French civics textbook: “Civic spirit is in the first place national. Patriotism is the instinctive and passionate attachment to the national territory where men and women speak the same language and share traditions” (Soysal & Szakács, 2010, p. 108). This sense of nationalism was very gradually diluted within the French curriculum. First, in an effort to better align with UNESCO and the Council of Europe’s approach to diversity in education, the 1985 French civics curriculum explains, “A good percentage of foreign students in the classroom will help tackle certain historical events or particular aspects of civilization more efficiently” (Soysal & Szakács, 2010, p. 104). Ten years later, the 1995 curriculum framed “respect for the other” and “tolerance” as “values of citizenship” (Soysal & Szakács, 2010, p. 109). In 2008, the objective of civics education was “to form an autonomous citizen, responsible for his/her choices, open to otherness, in order to ensure the conditions of communal life that refuses violence, and in order to resolve the tensions and conflicts that are inevitable in a democracy” (Soysal & Szakács, 2010, p. 111). However, as Soysal and Szakács (2010) explained, the French education system “is not attentive to the structural disadvantages and discriminatory practices that adversely affect ethnic, religious minorities and immigrant populations” (p. 114). In 2019, the French ministry of education laid out a plan for creating a more inclusive educational system, articulating steps to change teacher training programs and school structures in order to support individual needs of all students by the year 2022 (Ministère de L’Éducation Nationale, de la Jeunesse et des Sports, 2020). French inclusive education is slowly evolving within the public sphere, but an increasing number of private, independent schools are articulating their own visions for a more inclusive school and community (Ministère de L’Éducation Nationale, de la Jeunesse et des Sports, 2020). The PAR project described in this article took place within a private, independent classroom whose community members expressed an interest in creating an experience of inclusion not yet offered by the public school system.
Current Barriers to Inclusion in France
Although the 2019 inclusion initiatives aimed to address issues related to inclusive education by continuing to increase access for students, providing additional staff, and offering teacher education and professional development related to disability, significant barriers to inclusion remain. Delbury’s (2018) critical discourse analysis of inclusive education policy in France revealed that inclusion is articulated as an already achieved goal. Specifically, by articulating exclusionary schooling practices as events that occurred in the past, while framing contemporary schools as belonging to all children, the Ministry of Education suggested that the work of inclusion has been accomplished. This rhetorical strategy is also commonly used in conversations about race and ethnicity in France. The importance of not “noticing” or discussing race is communicated through the nation’s hesitancy to collect any racial or ethnic statistics, a practice interpreted to be backed by the first Article of the 1958 Constitution: “The Republic . . . ensures the equality of all citizens before law, without any distinction of origin, race, or religion.” In other words, because equality is a legal expectation, experiences of discrimination are made impossible, making the collection of data on race and ethnicity unnecessary. Just as the simple claim of equality as a value does not translate into equitable practices, neither does a school’s commitment to inclusion automatically create an environment in which exclusion does not occur.
Delbury (2018) explained that French inclusive educational policies provide a moral argument for inclusion, suggesting that the presence of diverse children in the classroom prepares future citizens to live and work together. The idea that by physically placing diverse children together in a classroom, issues related to stigma and inequitable practices will automatically be addressed absolves the school from any responsibility to critically examine how the structure and practices within schools and society might perpetuate inequities. Plaisance (2008) expands on the “abstract moralism” argument communicated by inclusion policies, explaining that “the danger is not only that disillusionment will arise but also that a paradoxal situation will emerge in which some forms of exclusion will be reinforced and, in particular, exclusion from the inside” (p. 49). Plaisance argues that current conceptualizations of inclusive education do not offer concrete strategies for how teachers might respond to the specific needs and issues (i.e., exclusion from the inside) which will inevitably be experienced by children within the inclusive classroom. Indeed, teacher education programs have not historically mandated coursework related to diversity or disability, and within the optional coursework covering issues of diversity, “students . . . only learn about differences as a fact, not as a necessity for developing particular competencies” (Allemann-Ghionda, 2008, p. 17).
Within France, “equality of all citizens is traditionally very important in the self-image of society” (Allemann-Ghionda, 2008, p. 15). When the ideal of equality results in inclusive educational policies that (a) claim inclusion as an already achieved goal and (b) fail to address social inequities that exist within society and schools, the inclusive classroom becomes a place where students and teachers experience frustration when the already-solved problems of exclusion inevitably arise. The remainder of this article describes insights from a PAR project within the “New School”2 classroom, which demonstrate how teachers and classroom communities might work to challenge current approaches to inclusion by addressing the realities of social inequalities and experiences of exclusion in the classroom.
Overview of Participatory Action Research Applied to Inclusive Education
Chevalier and Buckles (2019) provide the following description of participatory action research: “PAR works at reconciling and integrating research (R) and the advancement of knowledge with people’s active (A) engagement with social history and the ethics of participation (P) and democracy” (p. 21). In other words, PAR is a collaborative process through which the line between participants and researchers becomes blurred as a group works together to define a social issue, decide what action group members might take to address the defined issue, and reflect on the process, inspiring the continuation of the cycle. In the context of inclusive education, PAR provides a method for addressing instances of exclusion that continue to occur within classrooms despite policies that prioritize inclusion. Rather than creating broad principles related to inclusive education, PAR allows individual classroom communities to identify and respond to the unique barriers to inclusion as they occur. PAR methods have been utilized in inclusive classrooms in order to involve children, who have historically been excluded from educational research, as co-researchers (e.g., Ajodhia-Andrews, 2016; Stafford, 2017). The processes and results of such PAR projects provide important implications for the field of inclusive education, as they may contain creative solutions to be tested out in other classroom settings, and reflections that contribute to current theoretical debates and tensions in the field.
Participation Action Research in the New School Classroom
In the context of the New School community, the PAR project aimed to explore what it would mean to take a critical disability studies3 approach to inclusive education. The yearlong PAR project took place in one multilingual, multi-age (6- to 8-year-old), inclusive classroom in France. I worked with the two co-teachers, 17 children, and 25 caregivers, and one auxiliaire de vie scolaire (school life assistant), to explore what it would mean to take a critical disability studies informed approach to inclusive education. Data collected through the study include observation notes, interviews, artifacts (writing, drawing, and photographs), and researcher memos (analytic, theoretical, and reflexive). All data were qualitatively analyzed using MAXQDA and the 5QDA method described by Woolf and Silver (2018). This article focuses on the data collected, which demonstrate the potential of PAR as a methodology to create an inclusive classroom.
As the New School community considered and tested out what inclusion meant within their community over the school year, they continuously cycled through five steps: analysis of the issue, community planning, implementation, reflection and modification, and evaluation (Fabian & Huber, 2019). Initial conversations about the action that should be taken to create an inclusive classroom resulted in a number of action projects for which different community members were responsible (e.g., teachers engaged in a project related to how they would build a sense of community, and children discussed what it would mean to include everyone in play). As community members engaged in the work of creating an inclusive classroom, they reflected on the process and made changes when faced with unexpected challenges. As new issues arose, both related and unrelated to previous action projects, community members continued the cycle. Over the course of the year, action projects emerged related to the topics of inclusive instruction, community building, classroom environment, social inclusion, discussing difference, and support at home. Certain action projects, especially those initiated at the beginning of the school year (e.g., modifying the classroom environment, building community, developing critically inclusive instructional methods) were inspired by the conversations and observations of classroom community members, and closely related to the immediate needs of the community. Further developments related to these projects, and the creation of additional action projects, were at times the result of reflection on the impact of a project. However, disruptions to the classroom environment often served as a catalyst for change, resulting in additional action projects or modifications to current ones, based on in-the-moment reflections, more deliberate considerations, or a combination of the two. For example, when the teachers observed that the children were not as engaged in activities in the later morning, they responded to the immediate situation by shortening the planned lessons and allowing for free choice (puzzles, games, and reading). After the teachers had the opportunity to reflect on the morning routine in greater detail, they decided to integrate a 20-minute outdoor break.
Chevalier and Buckles (2019) proposed two main issues that studies employing PAR must address. First, the definitions attributed to participation, action, and research vary widely, “allow[ing] each component part of participatory action research to be stretched far beyond the original concept and intent” (p. 22). For example, in PAR with young children, the idea of participation often ranges from “tokenistic to genuine, full involvement” (Pinter, 2019, p. 178). Second, the individual components of participation, action, and research are not combined in a consistent manner, if at all. Chevalier and Buckles (2019) suggest that much of the research claiming to take a PAR approach is missing one of the three components, and would be more accurately described as action research, participatory research, or participatory learning and action (p. 21). The New School community’s PAR project aimed to incorporate the elements of participation, action, and research, explore a critical approach to inclusive education within their specific classroom environment.
Inclusion: A Working Definition
The framing of “inclusion” in French educational policy demonstrates how the ambiguous nature of the term results in varying interpretations and applications within classrooms. As the New School classroom’s PAR project aimed at building an inclusive classroom, with the underlying implication that inclusion has not been achieved through early-21st-century policies or classroom practices, it is important to explain how the community understood inclusion. In the context of the New School’s PAR project, the meaning attached to the word “inclusion” evolved over the course of the school year as the community responded to the needs of its members. The community ultimately learned that inclusion requires flexibility, making a static definition problematic; the following working definition reflects the lessons learned throughout the PAR project: Inclusion refers to the creation of a classroom environment in which all children, teachers, and families experience a sense of belonging, receive the support necessary to fully access and participate in all elements of the classroom environment, and continuously re-evaluate classroom and societal norms as experiences of exclusion arise.
Chevalier and Buckles (2019) use the term “genuine participation” (p. 24) to emphasize the importance of considering the extent to which participants are actually involved in all aspects of the research process. They conclude that there are two ways genuine participation can be achieved: (a) Participants can share equally in all parts of the PAR project (e.g., planning, data collection, data analysis), or (b) participants become “partners” by “making distinct, complementary and closely coordinated contributions to achieving shared goals” (Chevalier & Buckles, 2019, p. 25). In the case of the New School’s PAR project, the second expression of genuine participation provided children, teachers, and caregivers the opportunity to work toward a shared goal (developing a critically inclusive classroom), while simultaneously holding different ideas or priorities related to how this goal might be reached. Additionally, this approach to PAR offered flexibility, allowing co-researchers to share equally in all components of the research process to the extent and in the manner that they choose.
Traditional understandings of inclusive education are critiqued for lacking reflexivity, as the establishment of policies and practices for inclusive education are often equated with its success. Graham and Slee (2008) explore the taken-for-granted nature of inclusion, encouraging educators and academics to consider who is already included, who is viewed as requiring inclusion, and what means are being used to include. In other words, it is important for inclusive education to be critical of the normative ideas on which inclusion is ultimately based. When classroom community members participate in the project of creating a critically inclusive classroom, it becomes a shared responsibility, illuminating social constructions of Otherness and the impact on classroom experiences, and demanding action as a response. In the context of the New School classroom, all participants developed a sense of collective responsibility for creating an inclusive environment that required community members to understand how exclusion functioned within the context of the classroom and society at large, and to apply this knowledge to their project of creating an inclusive classroom. Collective responsibility for creating an inclusive classroom functioned within the New School classroom in three ways: (a) The idea that inclusion is achieved by physically placing diverse students together in the same classroom was rejected; (b) the idea that children who fall outside of the “norm” must conform in order to be included was challenged; and (c) instances of exclusion became visible, allowing the community to work together to find solutions. The following anecdote provides one example representative of how the participatory element of the PAR project resulted in a sense of collective responsibility:
The class comes in from their morning outdoor time. Children take off their shoes, their yellow safety vests, and their coats, and sit on their assigned color block on a large square rug. They have been reminded just moments before entering the building that they are to come in quietly and that they will be hearing a presentation from their classmate, Geoffrey, a child with a diagnosis of autism. Geoffrey is told that he can sit in the teacher’s chair at the front of the room. He situates himself in the chair, smiling, and his auxiliaire de vie scolaire (school-life assistant),4 Caroline, sits next to him. He begins to read a story aloud, “Oscar et ses Super Pouvoirs,” which is being used to open a class conversation about autism.
The reading and discussion take place in French. Oscar doesn’t like the feeling of sticky mud, and Caroline asks Geoffrey if there is a sensory experience that he doesn’t like, offering the idea that he doesn’t like to be wet. He agrees with this statement and continues to read, using intonation in his voice that reflects the tone of the text.
Caroline tells the class that Oscar and Geoffrey are different people, but that Geoffrey has similar differences. The book explains that because Oscar’s brain works differently, he might say things that seem to be not nice, or he might not respond when spoken to. She adds that Geoffrey sometimes needs to take breaks, which is why he leaves the room at times. Caroline talks about how one of his superpowers is his ability to read so well, and says that he was able to learn this skill very early. Geoffrey nods, confirming this statement.
One student raises her hand and says, “It’s also . . . Oscar is Geoffrey. They are the same.” Caroline responds that, yes, they have similarities, but they are different people. Geoffrey continues to read a page that explains that sometimes Oscar doesn’t look into people’s eyes because it’s a bit hard. Once again, a student responds, “They are the same!” And Caroline says, “Yes, and there are also many things that are different about them.”
Geoffrey proceeds to the last page, removing a sticky note placed to cover the word “autism” at the request of his parents, and reading the sentence in its entirety. When he is finished reading, Emma raises her hand and asks (in French), “Can you speak in English so that Sara can understand?” Teacher Pauline says that this question respects our class rule of including everyone very well. Teacher Abby gives a summary of the book in English, and the students are given a chance to ask questions.
As the New School classroom community read and discussed a book about autism, incorporated to initiate conversation about why Geoffrey received different support in the classroom, members of the community demonstrated their sense of collective responsibility for building an inclusive classroom. First, the very discussion of autism in the classroom emerged because of the awareness of teachers and caregivers about the societal stigma attached to autism, and its potential impact in the classroom environment. When children began to express a belief that their classmate Geoffrey is “just like” Oscar, a character from the story, Caroline worked to challenge this stereotypical assumption by highlighting differences between the two. The commitment of teachers and caregivers to discussing with young children socially constructed “differences,” which took place in greater depth over the course of the school year, indicates that the participation of children in the PAR project went beyond a “tokenistic approach” (Pinter, 2019). Opening up discussions about difference and normalcy in the classroom allowed the New School members to work together to understand how experiences of exclusion might manifest in the classroom, and why these are important to address. Second, Emma’s request that the class convey the information in English so that her classmate Sara, the child who could not understand French, would be able to understand demonstrates her awareness of how language practices have the potential to exclude, and how this exclusionary practice was at work in the classroom. Emma’s efforts to ensure that Sara experienced a sense of belonging and an ability to participate in the classroom provides an example of how inclusion became a project for which all community members shared responsibility.
Okay, I would say that years ago I would have just taken it literally, like there should be a lot of things, right? Literally, you know—something included in other things. But I suppose over time, especially now I’m experienced as being a dad, and specifically as Geoffrey’s dad, the word has taken on a more active context. I guess before it was more passive. Something was inclusive by fact, not by act. I would say now when I think of the word “inclusion,” I think that something needs to be done, it has to be conscious. There has to be a desire and a will. (Geoffrey’s Father, interview)
Chevalier and Buckles (2019, p. 30) explain that “tangible action” within PAR “must set up a change experiment to advance knowledge and push action in the right direction.” They go on to clarify that this “push” is meant to ensure that PAR maintains a goal of “produc[ing] knowledge, especially tacit or formal theories ‘about’ action, in collaboration between scientists and practitioners” (p. 31). Defining action as a change experiment in the PAR project of creating an inclusive classroom supports the idea that inclusion must be created, continually evolving based on individuals interacting within specific sociocultural contexts. Within the New School, the specific actions taken over the course of the school year were most often motivated by prior or current experiences of exclusion (e.g., social exclusion due to stigmatization, academic exclusion due to learning “differences”). Although the discourse of inclusion often makes impossible any occurrence of exclusion, the New School’s actions toward creating an inclusive classroom were all based on an understanding that instances of exclusion can and will take place within the inclusive classroom. The following anecdote describes one incident in which one classroom member experienced exclusion, motivating a specific action project:
The children and teachers are discussing the idea of creating a set of rules that will be followed by the classroom community. They talk about why such rules might be important (“For safety,” “So that everyone knows what to expect”). They also suggest potential rules, one being that hitting others is not allowed. In response to this suggestion, Roger raises his hand and shares: “I don’t know about that. My dad told me that if someone else hits you, you hit them back.” A peer responds that if you hit back, then the hitting will just continue and the cycle will never stop. Other children nod their heads in agreement, and the class conversation continues. Roger scoots back from the circle and turns his back to the group. He puts his head in his hands and wipes tears from his eyes. He says quietly, so that only those close by can hear, “I already have such a bad reputation in this class. I should’ve just pretended to be sick.”
In this particular instance, Roger disrupted the consensus of the community, bringing up important questions about inclusion for the New School, which inspired the exploration of social conflicts as a project for the class. When Roger removed himself from the group, he was clearly upset by the reaction of his peers to the contribution he had made. This disruption also invited the teachers to begin considering what Roger might need to experience a sense of belonging in the classroom. Quick to preface any attempt to write or read with some version of “Just so you know, I’m really no good at this” when feeling an expectation to perform, Roger wanted to remove himself from the situation, and often seemed embarrassed, whether or not he successfully completed a task.
For example, after successfully completing his assigned job for the week, “Calendar,” Roger stated: “I’m not the best at my job. Just want to let everyone know that—so don’t blame me.” When asked to elaborate, Roger drew on the label “dyslexia” to justify his statement. Roger made it clear to his classroom community that being asked to write or read in more traditional ways created disabling conditions for him. If Roger was completing a writing activity, he would hide his work anytime a teacher or peer came close, and often chose to sit in a corner. While Roger’s behavior seemed to be closely related to his past school experiences, which he mentioned in the classroom, it also caused the teachers to think about what he needed from them. First, Roger’s interest in art provided an opportunity for him to feel more confident in the classroom community, and Teacher Abby and Teacher Pauline often incorporated arts-based activities and opportunities to express learning through art. Second, and similarly, Abby drew on Roger’s expertise as a speaker of English to give him more opportunities to feel confident within the class. Roger often helped to translate the morning message from French or assisted with Abby’s English lessons. Third, Roger was given the choice to use a computer to complete writing activities, which for him was much easier than writing by hand.
As the New School community was committed to reflecting on instances of exclusion in order to determine what actions were required to build an inclusive classroom, they were able to address contextually specific issues. In this way, the New School classroom created an inclusive environment that met the social, academic, and physical needs of all children. Additionally, the teachers were able to observe and respond to the impact of stigma and societal inequities. In Roger’s case, the teachers incorporated strategies to communicate that he is a valued member of the classroom, and provided accommodations that allowed him to demonstrate his learning in ways that are consistent with his personal strengths and interests, which provided the necessary foundation for him to develop a sense of belonging in the classroom.
The final component in PAR, research, emphasizes the need for any PAR project to “mediate between theory and practice” (Chevalier & Buckles, 2019, p. 23). In other words, the aim of a PAR project should be to address an issue that arises directly from the community, as well as to make contributions to “existing bodies of knowledge and related debates” (Chevalier & Buckles, 2019, p. 23). The New School’s PAR project of creating an inclusive classroom allowed them to consider what inclusion meant to the members of their community, and how inclusive practices needed to adapt over the course of the year to match changing circumstances and needs. Many of the specific decisions made by the New School to create a critically inclusive environment were initiated based on community-specific experiences of exclusion (e.g., discussing instances of exclusion during outdoor play and deciding how the class might approach play moving forward). At the same time, several general themes emerged over the course of the PAR project: the productive role of disruptions (i.e., challenging taken-for-granted norms and behaviors), the importance of building a sense of community in order to create an environment in which differences and experiences can be openly discussed, and the role of individualized instruction in supporting children academically.
Chevalier and Buckles’s (2019) definition of research within a PAR process focuses on the relationship between practice and theory, but in the context of the New School’s project, it is important to address the specific ways in which children are involved in research. When children are included in research, they are often the subjects of research rather than active participants in the research process (Fabian & Huber, 2019). In the context of a PAR project to create an inclusive classroom, the research goals of all community members, including children, drive the process. The New School children shaped the classroom’s approach to inclusion by (a) communicating or demonstrating their own experiences of exclusion that needed to be addressed by the classroom, (b) initiating their own action projects (e.g., inclusive approaches to play, inclusive approaches to communication), and (c) analyzing their experiences in the classroom, reflecting on the process of creating an inclusive classroom, and determining significant events and actions. In order to support the children’s participation in the research process, it was important to provide methods that took into account the communication preferences of the New School children. When I discussed research goals, processes, or reflections with children, I often drew on Stafford’s (2017) suggestion to use activity-based interviewing, incorporating “art-based activities, such as drawing, mapping and designing, to explore lived experiences about a theme/phenomenon, and the meanings of these experiences” (p. 605). This provided children with the opportunity to shape the goals of the PAR project, be involved in analysis of the action projects that took place in the classroom, and communicate their perspectives on what actions became significant in their classroom. In this way, PAR has the potential to impact educational research and reform in a manner that incorporates children, who should be viewed as key stakeholders in conversations about elements of inclusive education.
Recommendations for Utilizing Participatory Action Research to Build Inclusive Classroom Communities
The participatory action research standpoint emphasizes the ways in which researchers and the parties immediately concerned can contribute to investigating and making sense of reality and ways to change it, each in their own manner and through conversations bound to overlap and interconnect.(Chevalier & Buckles, 2019, pp. 27–28)
PAR provides a method for addressing experiences of inequity and exclusion within so-called inclusive educational contexts. The participation of all community members in the project of developing an inclusive environment contributes to a sense of collective responsibility in which members work interdependently to create and sustain a sense of belonging. As community members observe or experience instances of exclusion, they are able to address contextually specific barriers faced within the classroom. By implementing PAR projects to create an inclusive classroom, the actions taken by community members are relevant, responding to the lived realities of individuals. This approach makes it possible for inclusion to be enacted in a multitude of ways within different environments while still aiming for the same general goal: the creation of a classroom environment in which all children, teachers, and families experience a sense of belonging, receive the support necessary to fully access and participate in all elements of the classroom environment, and continuously re-evaluate classroom and societal norms as experiences of exclusion arise. The lessons learned by classroom communities as they engage in inclusion as a participation action research project, though specific to local circumstances, still hold important information for the educational research community. Common action projects and their motivators (i.e., experiences of exclusion) might suggest areas of focus for teacher education programs or policies. University partnerships with schools could support teachers in developing the skills to engage in PAR in their classrooms, and incorporate lessons learned through local PAR projects into educational research agendas. By approaching inclusion as a PAR project, it becomes possible to provide classroom community members with the tools to ensure that inclusive education does not lose its radical meaning, but rather addresses evolving contextual issues. Taking a PAR approach to inclusive education shifts the way inclusion has traditionally been interpreted in France, insisting that inclusion requires action and reflection on experiences of inequity in the classroom and society.
My deepest thanks to the New School community for their creative exploration of inclusive education. Many thanks to the reviewers for their constructive feedback on this article.
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1. The Council of Europe recommends intercultural education as a “pedagogic approach” to “breaking down barriers, and as exchange and reciprocity, rather than merely passively accepting differences in a tolerant manner or even assuming that individuals belong to defined and fixed groups” (Allemann-Ghionda, 2008, p. 2). France stopped using the term “intercultural” in educational policy in 1998, as it conflicted with the belief that “there should not be a specific status for minorities” (p. 15).
2. The name of the school, as well as all other names used within this article, are pseudonyms.
3. Critical disability studies is an interdisciplinary field interested in how constructions and experiences of disability and ability emerge and impact societal and individual practices (Meekosha & Shuttleworth, 2009).
4. Auxiliaire de vie scolaire (AVS) is a “school-life assistant” who, in this case, provides one-on-one school inclusion support.