A regular discussion topic for educators, researchers, and the general public is how to make our schools more effective. However, there is little consensus on what effectiveness means, particularly regarding the education of students with disability. The term ‘evidence-base’ is inextricably intertwined within discussions on educational effectiveness, and this term refers to a substantial level of high-quality, rigorous, systematic research demonstrating the activities or programs lead to improved outcomes for students. It is often assumed that only evidence obtained through quantitative methods, also known as positivist, empirical and scientific research, is the sole source of strong evidential claims of effectiveness. But is it?
Both quantitative and qualitative research provides valuable knowledge in the education of students with disability; however, it is critical to identify which type of evidence provides the best answers to specific questions. Quantitative research is derived from numerical data that answers ‘how many’ or ‘how much’ and can give an overall picture of a particular group. Hence, this approach is best for determining the type of programs, interventions and pedagogical strategies that work best. However, individual stories tend to get lost within quantitative evidence. Qualitative research plays a role here as it is a means of obtaining perceptions, assumptions, values and beliefs. Qualitative data is written, spoken and observed information. It can be collected from a range of places including:
- Classroom observations
- Focus groups
- A student’s work sample with comments from their teacher
- Feedback from a teacher about a student’s progress
- A transcript from a focus group with parents
- Audio/visual recordings of a parent/ teacher interview
- A transcript from a staff meeting
Qualitative data is essential in the education of minority groups, such as students with disability, as their voices tend to be unnoticed or even silenced in our society. In qualitative research, the focus is not on the ‘robustness’ of one instrument versus another but choosing the most appropriate means to collect data from participants. Research methods include case studies, interviews, focus groups and document analysis. As well, there is no optimal sample size, and some qualitative research has a sole participant. Qualitative research takes into account the local context. Findings can assist in developing solutions that are tailored to each particular context as well as broadening the scope of quantitative approaches, playing a role in translating evidence into practice and providing guidance for socially just ways of teaching.
Findings obtained by qualitative methods encompass a wide range of philosophical positions and analytical procedures and are considered subjective in nature; however, this does not mean that it lacks rigour and reliability. Instead, the trustworthiness of qualitative research can be determined by a variety of strategies including triangulation using multiple methods or data sources and thick description, that is the addition of extra details so that readers gain a deep understanding of the context, emotion, culture, circumstances and social relationships. Publication in a high-quality journal that relies upon the peer review process is another safeguard to ensure reliable research.
Reflexivity is where the researcher reflects upon their values, opinions and life experiences to reduce researcher bias influencing the study. It is another strategy often used within qualitative research to increase trustworthiness. Reflexivity involves the researcher questioning what they might be taking for granted and examining their impact on the study. It is important to note that most researchers are non-disabled (Mellifont 2019; Oliver 1992). All research, including quantitative analysis, is informed by the worldview and experiences of the researcher. As ‘non-disabled researchers and medically endorsed topics have historically dominated the disability research agenda’ (Mellifont 2019), this restricts the forms of knowledge about disability that are produced. Disabled people are largely excluded from developing and influencing research, so reflexivity is one way of encouraging researchers to reflect upon the way disabled people are represented. Hence, reflexivity is an integral part of inclusive education.
Inclusive education is based on principles of social justice. While quantitative research provides teachers with evidence-based pedagogical practices, this needs to be complemented with social justice understandings from qualitative research. An example of how the two research approaches complement each can be understood regarding literacy practice. Rosenshine’s (2010) cognitive science research draws on quantitative analysis, and it provides ten steps on how to utilise direct instruction in the classroom. These ten steps can be used to teach reading and comprehension explicitly, but the choice of reading material may not serve socially just purposes. This is where qualitative research, particularly that which draws on critical approaches, can support teachers to choose literature that facilitates ‘culturally responsive pedagogy’ (Souto-Manning 2009 p. 50). And what is ‘culturally responsive pedagogy’ in the context of teaching students with disability?
Our classrooms are more diverse than ever before, yet discrimination against students with disability is increasing. Attitudes are learned, and our understanding of disability is formed mainly through popular culture (Mitchell & Snyder 2000), in which children’s literature plays a key role. Literature operates as either a window into another world or a reflection of our world (Blaska 2004). While there is an increased representation of characters from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds within children’s literature, characters with disability are largely omitted. Within the small number of underrepresented books about disability, the lived experience of disability is largely misrepresented. For example, when disabled characters are incorporated into novels, often they are not represented as real people with a lifestyle and personality. At times their purpose is to instruct about disability, provide a moral lesson or be an inspiration to non-disabled people, who appear to be the target audience. Other problematic portrayals include those that convey a tragedy view of disability, a happy ever after ending or those who reinforce disability stereotypes. These approaches highlight differences between non-disabled and disabled students, generate pity or fear in readers and segregate children with disability from their peers.
Qualitative research that focusses on lived experience of disability or draws on a disability studies lens can support teachers and their students to critically examine literature within the school. The choice of literature and the underlying messages embedded within them require scrutiny so that students are not exposed to harmful messages about disability that they will absorb. This does not necessarily mean that literature that does not promote an accurate view of disability should be discarded. Instead, when texts are utilised within an educational context, a critical evaluation of the underlying messages should be incorporated, but teachers can only apply a critical assessment when they understand disability stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals of disability. Teachers could also introduce students to literature that are a form of resistance to normative demands for ableness. Australian books that fit this category include ‘Ugly’ by Robert Hoge (there is a children’s and adult version of this text), ‘Hearing Maud’ by Jessica White and ‘Growing Up Disabled in Australia’ edited by Carly Findlay.
It is obvious that teachers want positive outcomes for students as they put considerable time, thought and energy into developing teaching programs. This blogs aims to encourage teachers to balance their input of educational research between quantitative approaches that offer scientific ways of addressing problems and critical qualitative approaches that include disability perspectives and voices into the curriculum.
Blaska, J. K. (2004) Children’s Literature that Includes Characters with Disabilities oe Illnesses in Disability Studies Quarterly Vol. 24 No. 1
Mellifont, D. (2019) Non-disabled Space Invaders! A Study Critically Exploring the Scholarly Reporting of Research Attributes for Persons With and Without Disability in Studies in Social Justice Vol 13 Issue 2
Mitchell, D.T. & Snyder, S.L (2015) The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism and Peripheral Embodiment Michigan: University of Michigan Press
Oliver M (1992) ‘Changing the Social relations of Research Production’ in Disability,
Handicap and Society Vol 7 No 2
Souto-Manning, M. (2009) Negotiating Culturally Responsive Pedagogy through Multicultural Children’s Literature: Towards Critical Democratic Literacy Practices in a First Grade Classroom in Journal of Early Childhood Literacy Vol. 9 Issue 1