Breaking silences through collaborative actions: exploring ways to empower students with learning difficulties

  • Hannah Scott

Student thesis: Phd


Students with learning difficulties are said by many writers to be prohibited from having a valued learner identity and denied a voice in which to influence their educational circumstances. They are, it is argued, kept submerged in a 'culture of silence', where they are homogenised as a deficit category of learners and, therefore, perceived in a one-dimensional way. Such disabling barriers stem from practitioner assumptions and wider sociological influences, which are also part of this same culture. The by-products of this thinking have prevented practitioners from developing more interactive and enabling relationships with their students. Starting with a commitment to listen to student views, and explore accessible, flexible and innovative ways in which to advocate these, the research reported in this thesis sought ways to address this agenda. Set in a further education college, five student co-researchers, four practitioner co-researchers and a facilitator co-researcher embarked on a year long project to learn how the same students could be supported in contributing to their own learning. Being a transparent account, the inquiry was also interested in exploring the difficulties of this endeavour and whether student empowerment would alter the relational dynamics and, therefore, practitioner roles. As the facilitator was instrumental in introducing these ideas, she also examined her own influential role. Data were generated from observations and co-researcher experiences of engaging with roles, body collages, student interviews, photo voice, journals, portfolios and reflective meetings. These exploratory processes and methods were predicated upon the ideological frameworks of the social model of disability and multiple intelligences theory. The study revealed that renegotiated co-researcher roles and body collages were effective processes for enabling reciprocal engagement, causing students to empower themselves and leading practitioners to rethink in ways that had not been anticipated. These processes were also felt to be educationally effective in relation to curriculum aims. Whilst journals and lengthy meetings proved to be impractical and of little use, the reflective journal did prove to be an essential tool for the facilitator, allowing her to draw upon further evidence. The findings indicate that student voice can be raised through collaboration and forging relationships of trust and co-ownership. The thesis concludes by arguing that silences were broken, not least since these collaborative actions are still being used in the particular context in ways that are conducive to everyday practices. Although time and commitment are needed, these are valuable strategies that other marginalised educational communities may benefit from adopting.
Date of Award1 Aug 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMelvin Ainscow (Supervisor) & Alison Alborz (Supervisor)


  • Inclusive education, valuing student diversity, student voice, further education, students with learning difficulties/disabilities, collaborative research, cooperative inquiry, co-researchers, social model of disability, multiple intelligences theory, empowerment, relationships of trust and co-ownership.

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