Schools around the world face a common challenge – how do they ensure that every child feels included and has equal education opportunities? This problem is at the heart of Petra Auer’s work as a postdoctoral research assistant at the Competence Centre for School Inclusion, part of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (unibz). She and her colleagues carry out research into inclusive education with the aim of creating “a school for all” where everyone can achieve their true potential.
One project that the members of the Competence Centre are working on is examining individual education plans (IEPs) to see how they affect inclusion in schools. An IEP outlines a child’s individual educational needs and specifies what supports should be put in place to help them thrive in school. But since IEPs are connected to resource allocation and require a preceding diagnosis, there is a possible risk of labelling and exclusion. For example, children may be taught in a separate group from the rest of the class by their support teacher, which poses a barrier to inclusion. “The next step will be to understand possible challenges and potentials from the side of the professionals in schools,” Petra explains. “We’ll do multiple case studies where we’ll go into schools to interview teachers and also parents of children with IEPs to see the topic from their point of view.”
The Competence Centre also promotes networking and scientific communication on a national and international level, bringing together experts but also professionals to share new insights into inclusive education. This ensures that the research carried out at the Centre has a real-world impact. For instance, teachers from the region are invited to different events organized by the Centre related to inclusion. Petra says, “It's important for us to connect with professionals in the field and enter into a dialogue with them on the work we are doing at the moment.”
She’s also been involved in organising an online research week during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We invited experts from Portugal, the UK, Ireland, and Germany. We asked them to make a short contribution, and then we really entered into a discussion and tried to connect our perspectives with the perspective of the experts. The results of this research week will be published in an edited volume in autumn 2022,” she explains. In addition, unibz’s location in a border region allows the researchers at the Centre to offer their unique viewpoints on how cultural diversity affects inclusion.
unibz is located in South Tyrol, an autonomous province in northern Italy where German, Italian and Ladin all share the status of official languages. Petra’s work involves connecting with schools in the local area, and as schools are separated according to the language used, one of the aims of the Competence Centre is to create bridges between the schools through the organisation of multilingual events. Petra is a native German speaker and explains that using different languages makes the team more analytical. “It's a challenge because we need to explain different concepts, which are settled in certain language cultures. As a result, you really need to go into depth. I would say that the multilingual situation helps us get to the root of things.” Living and working in a multilingual place is, Petra feels, a unique experience and something that’s not easily found elsewhere.
Petra joined unibz to study for a Master’s in Primary Education and also completed a special course in Inclusive Education. After collaborating in a few research projects, she stayed on for a PhD which focused on values held by primary school children, but just over a year ago jumped at the chance to return to the concept of inclusion when an opportunity arose at the Competence Centre. She loves the team-based work at the Centre and says, “Working in a team is very enriching because every team member has their strengths, and you can always learn a lot from each other. I feel that I’ve learned a lot of new different research methods and continually acquired theoretical background knowledge related to the field of inclusion. I guess I’ve just had the chance to really evolve as a researcher.” For Petra, working with supportive colleagues and doing meaningful work that benefits children and adolescents in the region and around the world has made unibz a very fulfilling place to be.
Petra Auer works as a postdoctoral research assistant at the Competence Centre for School Inclusion, part of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (unibz). She researches inclusive education with the aim of creating “a school for all” where everyone can achieve their true potential.