Blogs Blogs

Should teaching pupils with medical diagnoses be built on similarity or difference?

An old dispute issue in the field of special needs education is whether there are teaching methods that are specific to different target groups such as e.g. students with ADHD, students with intellectual disabilities and autism.

You can distinguish two extremes in this discussion. On the one hand, some advocate teaching built upon similarity, which means that pupils' group belongings are considered to have few or no educational implications. On the other hand, we have those who mean that the deficiencies of the target groups need to be mapped out in detail so that we can tailor teaching approaches to suit their needs.

For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the two approaches as S (Similarity) and D (Difference) in the reminder of this blog.


Similarity as the point of departure

The S-teacher says something like this: "What's good for all students is good for students in need of special support/with medical diagnoses and vice versa." It was this conclusion that I believe John Hattie reached in his overview of educational research. Working methods such as direct teaching and peer learning appeared to be good for all students. In a similar vein, the S-teacher would argue that structure and order in schools, classrooms and lessons, which are usually emphasized as important to students with ADHD and Autism spectrum disorder, is beneficial to all students.

Insightful S-teachers are of course not ignorant of the fact that students are different. However, diversity is seen as a characteristic of individuals rather than as a variety of different kinds. In this way, the S-teacher has to attend to individual difference rather than group differences. Consequently, it is important to have knowledge of each student's specificity.

If a pupil encounters difficulties in school work, the S-teacher advocates a proper educational inquiry where the individual's situation is mapped. The occurrence of a diagnosis is of course not insignificant for such an investigation, but it provides limited information from an educational perspective. It is the individual and his/her teaching environment, including factors such as the teaching and the social climate, that becomes important in such an investigation.

An S-perspective can have very radical implications. If we consider that students are basically the same, it is difficult to argue that some students should be taught in specific groups. Thus, a central question then is how teachers can teach students with different conditions in the same classroom given a certain teaching content.

In other words, how should teachers teach e.g. math / English / gymnastics for students with different prerequisites? Framed differently, how can teachers teach different content in order to create inclusive classrooms? In order to be able to answer such questions in the best way, educational research has to be developed which addresses these types of questions. Unfortunately, such research is too rare.


Difference as the point of departure

The deviation is the starting point for the D-teacher. The question is not "What education is good for the heterogeneous student group?" but instead "How do we teach students with developmental disorder / learning disorder / dyslexia / behavioral disorder / Tourette's syndrome / obsessive-compulsive disorder"? The focus is on tailoring the education to these groups based on their specific characteristics.

It thus becomes important to investigate the deviation itself. Here a lot of research is taking place about, for example, executive functions, working memory and "theory of mind", which strives for a greater understanding of the specific deviations. Knowledge about such deviations, it is argued, will in the long run provide better education for these groups. This research is rarely didactic in the sense of being concerned with a specific knowledge content, but it is of course possible to ask, for example, "Which mathematics education is best for students with ADHD?"

The search for specific problems does not necessarily mean that segregated educational practices are strived for. Some suggest that we need to find out more about how these groups of students process information, etc. in order for them to be taught in the ordinary class.


An empirical question?

In part, the question about similarity or difference is an empirical issue. In order for us to methodologically determine the need for teaching strategies based on difference, we should be able to show that a teaching method X works for the Y group (for example, students with ADHD) in a different way than for "ordinary" students. This is actually quite rare. On the other hand, students in difficulties may often need more education to achieve the same goal, "more of the same."

An example from reading research can highlight this. A special teaching method for pupils with dyslexia would build on the assumption that students with dyslexia learn to decode text in other ways than the other students and thus need to be taught in a qualitatively different way. However, this assumption can hardly be said to be supported by research. On the other hand, students with dyslexia need longer time to learn to read. The difference sees thus to a large extent to be quantitative, more of a similar teaching, than qualitative, the need for another kind of teaching.

There are of course instances where teaching built on difference is necessary. For example, students who are blind need such special education. Seeing students orient themselves naturally easier in the room while pupils who are blind need to train orientation in space in qualitatively different ways, e.g. by learning to use a stick, be more vigilant on sounds and other non-visual perceptual information that seeing students do not need to focus to the same extent.

My own view is that teaching based on similarity takes us quite far but we need more didactic research on how heterogeneous groups can best be taught. Unfortunately several teachers feel more or less helpless when it comes to the task of teaching students whose behavior is considered to interfere with the order in the classroom. In such a situation, it is not uncommon for teachers to ask questions about "how shall I teach students with ADHD". Although research built on difference does not seem to have very many other answers than that it is good with order , structure and consistency and to be encouraging, which is probably good for all students, at least the teachers' concerns are taken seriously.

As long as we to a large extent lack the didactic research that I discussed above, ie didactic research that tries to solve the problem with how heterogeneous student groups are best taught in different subjects, then the demand for teaching methods built on difference will probably increase. One risk of this is that teaching built on difference easily translates into demands for special solutions and sometimes also to working methods that are not the most functional ones.

Moreover, if some students are seen as qualitatively different from other students in their learning, the step is not far to advocate teaching in special groups with educators who have a special knowledge of the group. Education built on difference provides an attractive frame for professional specialization, among other things because some of the high status of medicine comes with the special thinking. Another risk with a starting point in difference is that it conceals the enormous variety that exists within the groups. The pupil with a medical diagnosis then risks being treated based on a stereotype rather than on her/his own individuality.


Some remarks on A Manifesto for Education by Biesta and Säfström

A Manifesto for Education seems to be timely or is perhaps almost always timely. Education has very often, as has capitalism and democracy, been considered to be in a crisis. Maybe the sense of a crisis is part and parcel of the modern project.

To my knowledge, the manifesto referenced in the heading has reached quite a large audience. It was published in 2011 (see link below) by Gert Biesta and Carl-Anders Säfström. It is a brave act to propose a manifest for Education consideringgiven the multitude of perspectives and areas that constitute Education.

I read the manifest as an invitation to a dialogue, hence my remarks. My reading has more to do with the fact that I believe that a manifest should be dialogical rather than the Manifest being dialogical. My comments pertain both to the Manifest itself and to the comments to the manifest separately written by Biesta and Säfström.


Some interesting ideas

Apart from the publishing of a Manifesto in itself there are some things I really like about the Manifesto. In this context, I will mention four of these.

Firstly, I like the idea of taking Education back to Educationalists. Too many other research fields and professions have claims on Education that to me seems unwarranted since they are actually not concerned with Education itself but rather with issues at the fringes of Education. Especially problematic is of course the dominance of New Public Management, putting economics, administration and law at the centre-of –attention and the concomitant quest for evidence-based Education.

Secondly, I like that the authors of the manifest try to pinpoint what Education should mean in terms of the here-and-now. Too often Education is the means to something else such as the means for children and young people to be prepared for adulthood and/or as a vehicle to change society. Biesta and Säfström make a tremendously important claim about Education by insisting and underscoring that Education should be meaningful in its very act of occurrence.

Thirdly, the invocation of the possibility of an ironic reading of the Manifesto by Biesta is well taken. Is this a time for Manifestos? Have Manifestos ever changed the world? This signals a well needed self-distance without giving up the idea of a Manifesto altogether.

Fourthly, I also feel sympathetic towards what I want to call the anger expressed by Säfström in his comment. How can the Swedish school system, from being characterized by higher levels of equity than any other system in the world, have developed into its present shape?

Having said this, I will present what I believe is two major shortcomings of the manifesto.


Lack of dialogue

The text is quite polemic. Two enemies towards Education are pointed out: Populism and Idealism. Populism is somewhat loosely characterized but is said to simplify and to be instrumental, turning to issues of “what works”. Idealism, on the other hand, is characterized by asking too much of Education being linked to “democracy, solidarity, inclusion, tolerance, social justice and peace”. None of the two antagonistic positions are ascribed any positive values. Moreover, no distinctions between different ways of being populist or idealist are made. However, as is evident in Säfströms comment to the manifesto (labelled “A manifesto for Education!) at least one of the authors proclaims some of these values intensely, which I find reassuring but somewhat contradictory.

However, the point I wish to make concerns the rhetorical format of the manifest. By establishing and homogenizing “the others” there is no opening for dialogue. From the perspective of the authors, nothing is to be learned from these strawmen/women: If You are not with us, You are against us.


Lack of clarity

It is a little bit like kicking in open doors to state that there is a lack of clarity in the Manifesto as to the central issue of what Education is since a lack of transparency is admitted to by the authors themselves. However, it is quite clear that Education is something of a the Holy Grail in the document. This illusive Holy Grail it is located in the here-and-now and it is relational, it is neitherot an empty reminiscence of the past, neither nor a quest for the future. It has to do with freedom, these rare moments when “speech” occurs and the resources used in this process are “ethical, political and aestethical in character”. This is about how close we come to understand Education. This of course ties in with the reasoning above about being non-dialogical, in order to use the word Education we now have to abandon most, if not all, of it prior meanings.


The future and the past

As has been said It is a little bit reassuring that Biesta in his comment to the Manifesto (A manifesto for Education?) considers the possibility that a Manifesto written today has to be ironic. This too is a little bit contradictory although I find Biesta’s reading more balanced than the writing of the Manifesto. However, I do not read the Manifesto as something that is tied so much tied to the present as being reminiscent of older narratives. Something is endangered by outside forces. This something is holy and so deceptive that it cannot be described properly but the heroes of the narrative will most likely save it. I think we need more modern tales characterized by dialogue and openness to different definitions of what constitutes Education.


Link to the Manifesto:


What is meant by "inclusion" in the Salamanca statement?

In 1994, a number of representatives of different educational systems and organizations gathered in the Spanish city of Salamanca to discuss special educational issues. The result became what is commonly referred to as the Salamanca Statement (see link below), which is considered as the international breakthrough for the inclusion thought in education. The word had been used in other contexts before but now it became a keyword in the special educational field at the international level.

The Statement says in a clear way that a whole new way of looking at special educational issues is needed. Schools should become built upon the inclusion-principle. The situation where students in need of special support /with a disability attend special schools or participate in other types of segregated special education or in some instances do not attend school at all was to be radically changed. These students would now get their education in as regular a context as possible. In order for this to succeed, a large number of measures at different levels of society from policy down to the classroom need to be taken according to the Statement. If schools open up to diversity, it is also believed that a number of positive effects in other areas will be achieved:

“… regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combatting discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.” (p ix)

While the first part of the document is the statement itself, the second and by far largest part consists of pieces of advice and proposals for action at a variety of levels in order for education systems to succeed in this new way of working. The overwhelming impression is that the document is built upon principles and argumentation for those principles. Sometimes reference is made to experience, but never to specific research although probably the signers of the document mean that their convictions have support in research.

Based on the fact that inclusion is understood in different ways in different contexts, it may be a point to more specifically look at what is meant by inclusion in the document. I intend to briefly discuss two questions in relation to this: What children / students is the document concerned with? What is meant by the term an "inclusive school"?

Who is the document about?

Although in some places it is stated that inclusion is about the situation of all students, the main impression is undoubtedly that there are students in different types of difficulties that is focused by the document.

“The guiding principle that informs this framework is that schools should accomodate all children regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other conditions. This should include disabled and gifted children, street and working children, children from remote or nomadic populations, children from linguistic, ethnic or cultural minorities and children from other disadvantaged or marginalized areas and groups.”

While the first half of the quote points to the fact that it is about students regardless of their characteristics, the groups that are explicitly mentioned are essentially defined by having problems or being marginalized in other ways. In many places, however, the document only mentions students with disabilities.

It is important to note that the placement of students in different types of difficulty in common classes is not emphasized as an absolute principle but as something that should be strived for:

“Assignment of children to special schools – or special classes or sections within a school on a permanent basis – should be the exception, to be recommended only in those infrequent cases where it is clearly demonstrated that education in regular classrooms is incapable of meeting a child´s educational or social needs or when it is required for the welfare of the child or that of other children.” (p 12)

Another section of the document states that it is difficult to establish general principles regarding exceptions to placement in ordinary classrooms and suggests that such issues must be settled on a case-by-case basis. However, the document affirms the need to create special environments for children and students in need of sign language communication.

What does the term "inclusive school" mean?

"The inclusive school" is a central expression in the document and the document often uses the phrase "the principle of the inclusive school", which is formulated as follows:

“The fundamental principle of the inclusive school is that all children should learn together, whenever possible, regardless of any difficulties or differences they may have. Inclusive schools must recognize and respond to the diverse needs of their students, accommodating both different styles and rates of learning and ensuring quality education…. “ (p 11).

I think this quote is illustrative in two ways. On the one hand, it indicates the importance underscored in the document that all pupils (although focused on students with disabilities in the document as a whole) are entitled to meet high quality education. On the other hand, it shows ambivalence in what is meant by an inclusive school.

We can read the quote as saying that the fundamental principle is defined by the fact that students are placed together, "learn together". Then, these "inclusive" schools must also act in a certain way. It is the interpretation of "must" that becomes important here. Do schools that are inclusive do these things because the authors of the Statement mean that they have to do so? Or do they have to act in this way in order to be able to call themselves inclusive? If you adhere to the latter interpretation, it could have been expressed more clearly, such as with the following wording: The fundamental principles of the inclusive school are that a) children should learn traits and b) are ensured a high quality education.

In the Salamanca Statement, the word inclusion in its various forms is thus used in an ambivalent manner. Sometimes it is used to indicate where the student gets his/her education (e.g a) above), and as in the following example:

”While inclusive schools provide a favourable setting for achieving equal opportunity and full participation, their success requires a concerted effort…” (p 11)

It seems thus theoretically possible, based on the quotation, to have failed "inclusive schools" because the quality of the education is not made into a defining part of the term. On the other hand, of course, it is understood that students should have a good situation in the "inclusive" school, but that is not what defines the term in the quotation above. In that case, one could have written: Schools have to exhibit equal opportunities and full participation in order to be labelled inclusive.

In the preface to the document written by Federico Mayor as Representative of Unicef ​​we meet another way of using the word "inclusion":

These documents are informed by the principle of inclusion, by the recognition of the need to work towards ”schools for all” – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences, support learning, and respond to individual needs. (s iii)

Mayor's text is not unambiguous either, but seems implicitly to mean that inclusive schools are defined not only because they are open to all students but also by exhibiting certain characteristics.

Thus, we encounter different ways of using the word "inclusion" and its various forms in the document, the same words thus expressing different concepts.

The Salamanca Statement - A Challenge

I have just touched on some aspects of the Salamanca Statement. In particular, I have wanted to illustrate that the document does not categorically advocate that all students should attend regular classes, although it is undoubtedly what is preferred and deviation from this should be seen as rare exceptions. I have also shown that inclusion is given different meanings in the document. But there is also much else to analyze, for example, how the relationship between ordinary teaching and special education is expressed. In this regard, the document is not as radical.

The teacher - a free spirit or a robot?

The heading is of course exaggerated. No soul is totally free, no human is a robot. Bu even if one cannot place a concrete teacher at either of these extremes I still believe that they lurk in the background when the work of teachers is discussed. What does it mean then that that the teacher is a free spirit?

The free spirit

There are those who believe that the teacher shall stand free from outer influences. This does of course not mean that the teacher should not listen to the opinion of others or read about research findings but at the end of the day it is the teacher him/herself that decides how to teach the pupils.

It is thus the teacher´s discretion and own experience that should be the basis of the education. John Dewey (1916) expressed the dangers that emerge when goals are forced upon the teacher from the outside. He believed that authorities force goals upon teachers who, in turn, force them upon children. This makes the teacher´s intelligence confined. Rules, inspections, books on teaching methods, curricula etc. block the teacher from getting into close contact with the teaching content and the mind of the child (p 150). Dewey´s line of reasoning feels remarkably up-to-date despite the fact than it was written about a century ago. It is modern both in its threat scenario but also in its trust in the capabilities of teachers to be free spirits.

There are quite widely held beliefs that teachers are, or could become/or be educated to be a sort of didactical virtuoso. Such a teacher is familiar with different conceptions of subjects and different work forms always adapting the teaching to the situation at hand and to the different interests and skills of each pupil. The educational situation cannot be understood beforehand, thus the skilful teacher is capable of mastering varying prerequisites in the situation at hand. The concept the “reflective practitioner” belongs to this tradition. By reflection upon experience the teacher develops him/herself and the teaching. Some go as far as to state that education is an art form with secrets that are mastered be the teachers but that cannot be revealed in its entirety.

I believe this view of the teacher, or at least the ideal teacher, is not uncommon among educational researchers. The idea is an expression of a strong faith in the teaching profession and an expectation that the profession should be left to its own good judgments and reasoning.

The robot

The word robot originates from the monotonous work that was performed by Czech peasants. A robot is pre-programmed to act in a specific way in given situations. The biggest difference between human beings and robots is that the human decides over and is responsible for his/her behaviour. The less a human can decide, the more he/she becomes robot-like and thus less responsible.

Taking a look at the teaching profession in Sweden today one has to conclude that it is extremely regulated. There are laws, inspections and all those things Dewey talked about having a massive influence on what goes on in schools and classrooms. This state of affairs is probably similar to that of several other countries. Moreover, the work by teachers in Sweden is supposed to be evidence-based. According to my opinion this quest for evidence is not so much about the extremely complex and important issue about how research and practice should be interconnected. It seems as a rather to more or less (hopefully less) arbitrarily way to decide that some methods/actions “have evidence” and/or to legitimize a particular way of teaching.

As an educational researcher I am of course not against the idea that teachers should be knowledgeable about scientific findings and a lot of things are going on in schools that are not backed up by empirical research. What bothers me is the trivialization of research and the research-practice relation that often accompany quests for evidence.

The expression “teacher proof teaching” sort of clearly formulates what the control of teachers´ work to a large part is all about. It seems as if the goal is to make education as independent from the teacher as possible. Along this line, Swedish publishing companies are creating study material that will make sure that the pupils will reach the knowledge goals prescribed (from the outside). We recognize traces from the educational technologies in the 1960ies.

The relation between teachers on the one hand and politicians and authorities on the other is built upon distrust in this scenario. Politicians and authorities do not trust teachers, hence the intense regulation of their work. The teachers do not trust the politicians.

Some reflections

These are complex issues. Instead of trying to provide answers I will make some reflections. I am much more oriented towards the first view at the same time as I can see that it is far from unproblematic for several reasons: a) All teachers are not skilful enough to work in this way b) All teachers do not want to work in this way c) Outer control is not always a bad thing, it can in certain circumstances raise the quality of teaching and it also provides a democratic insight and influence into schooling and d) There are teachers who make claims for the freedom of the free spirit but that misuses this freedom- b) and d) can be seen as examples of what Erich Fromm viewed as “a flight from freedom”, i.e. the responsibility that is an intrinsic part of freedom.

There are of course huge dangers involved in trying to make education “teacher-proof” even if politicians and others try make their claims in the name of goodness. I am not an admirer of the French social philosopher Michel Foucault, but here some of his concepts come in handy, such as “docile bodies” and “surveillance”. In addition to a de-professionalization of the work (anyone can follow manuals…) the value of the concrete encounter between the teachers and the pupils and the fact that the outcome of such encounters cannot be predicted beforehand is profoundly underestimated.

As usual one has to find some middle-ground. Given the teacher shortage in Sweden, and in many other countries, an important question concerns how to make the teaching profession more attractive:

  • Which teaching role will attract the right students to teacher education?

  • Which teaching role can make skilful teachers return to the profession?

  • Which teaching role will keep skilful teachers in the profession?

There is an obvious risk for bad spirals here. E.g. an increasingly watered-down professional role might deter the ones that would like to be free spirits which will cause the surveillance to increase and so on. The role of being a free spirit is demanding but isn´t these the teachers that are admired and remembered?


Dewey, John. (1916/2000). Demokrati och utbildning. Göteborg: Daidalos.

/Democracy and Education/

Obstacles to inclusive education

One can reflect upon obstacles to create more inclusive schools systems. The inclusion movement has been underway for many years now but it is still very unclear if/to what extent school systems have become more inclusive. In many countries there has thus been an intention to create more inclusive school systems, but the realization of this idea has met barriers. Obviously there are obstacles towards the development of inclusive education. In this blog I will shortly discuss what I believe to be the main obstacles:

  • Societal changes

  • Steering documents (laws etc)

  • The medicalization of deviance

  • The lack of consensus

  • A lack of empirical investigations

I am writing from a Swedish perspective but I am convinced that these obstacles are present in most, if not all, contexts where school systems are striving to become more inclusive.

Societal changes

There are two societal changes that threaten the development of inclusion at the system level which I have described in a prior blog (see link below). The first one is the tendency for people who are alike one another in terms of level of education and financial resources to end up in the same living areas. This lessens the chance that pupils with different backgrounds will go to the same schools and classrooms. In Sweden, the right to choose school seems to strengthen this tendency. Thus, while inclusive environments still can be created in schools and classrooms, at the system level the segregation increases in the Swedish context.

In Sweden the increasing shortage of teachers in combination with a decline in the status of the teaching profession is of course a threat to the possibility to create inclusive learning environments. Such environments are dependent upon skilful and well educated teachers.

For those who suggest that inclusion involve the creation of learning communities in schools and classrooms it seems as if the marked individualisation characterising present day society works against the notion of community.

Last but not least, we are witnessing an increase in a xenophobic kind of nationalism which threatens the inclusion of many pupils (see link to prior blog below).


Steering documents

The word “inclusion” is not used in the Swedish steering documents. Many of the goals and values that are put forward in these documents are however compatible with the idea of inclusion even if the fact that certain pre-formulated knowledge goals should be attained by all pupils might be experienced as exclusive by several pupils. At the same time different segregated educational solutions are allowed in the Swedish school system: a special program for pupils with intellectual disabilities, resource schools, special educational groups and private schools that specialize in special needs.

Further, there is not much, albeit some, support in the Swedish steering documents for the one who believes that inclusion involves the building of learning communities. To conclude, the Swedish steering documents in some aspects support the development of inclusion and in other aspects do not support such development, a conclusion which probably is valid with regard to most educational systems.


Medicalisation of deviance

More and more differences between pupils are interpreted from a medical perspective. To put it differently, an increasing number of pupils are diagnosed. ADHD and autism are e.g. becoming very widespread. It seems that the US is heading this development and 30 percent of the boys older than 9 years have an ADHD diagnosis in North Carolina (the figure is from a few years ago). 10 per cent of the boys in Stockholm have an ADHD diagnosis and 4 per cent have an autism-diagnosis.

It is possible to interpret the increased medicalization as something than can support inclusion. The diagnosis makes the problems distinct and measures can be taken that increases the possibility that the pupil will thrive in the classroom. It is obvious that the use of medicine at times have this effect for pupils with ADHD. The lack of a diagnosis is according to this view something than can be a hindrance to inclusion.

I am more sceptical towards the idea that the medicalization of difference will increase inclusion more generally because I believe that the diagnosis too much de-contextualizes and individualizes the problem. The overwhelming meta-message in diagnoses like these is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the individual. This in turn implicates a demand for experts on the condition and often a demand for special educational methods, i.e. educational measures that take their point of departure in the diagnosis. From here on, it is but a small step to segregated educational settings, not least when schools have a hard time to handle differences in their classrooms.

Diagnoses are not usually proposed within the movement for inclusive education as a tool suited to the business of schooling. Instead the need to do thorough educational mappings for children in need of extra support is underscored. It is incredibly important to differentiate between such a mapping and mappings that are made under the supervision of medical professions and where the goal is to find, or rule out, diagnoses. The alternative not to focus on diagnoses is of course not to neglect difficulties but to analyse them from an educational perspective where the whole learning environment is focused.


Lack of consensus

It is also the case that not everyone wants an inclusive school. Adherents of freedom of choice suggest that this value is more important than inclusion. As discussed above the right to choose school for one´s child increases segregation tendencies at the system level. Interestingly enough there are also many persons who are proponents of inclusion at a principal level but through their choice of living area and choice of school for their children contributes to an increased segregation at the system level.

Some teachers are further sceptical to the idea that pupils in difficulties should be placed in mainstream classrooms and believe that these children should attend special classes/groups. This underscores the importance that teachers get support and in-service training in order to be able to create inclusive environments.

Lack of empirical research

There is also a need for more research in order to deepen our knowledge concerning how school environments can become more inclusive. Unfortunately the research about inclusive education is neither conceptually nor methodologically enough developed, which Kerstin Göransson and I have argued in a research review (see reference below). The research is often ideological and should be more concerned with didactics, at the end of the day inclusion concerns how teachers should teach heterogeneous groups of pupils.


Concluding remarks

Does this sound discouraging? Maybe somewhat, but it is good to be a realist. Inclusion has been on the agenda for a long time now. The Salamanca declaration is 24 years old and we, as has been said, know too little about how, and in what way, school systems have become more inclusive. In the Swedish case has, at least on the system level, segregation increased markedly during this period and it is actually hard today to see how the process at the system level can be changed. I still think that dedicated teachers has had and still will have possibilities to create inclusive school- and classroom environments, which also has been documented in case studies in Sweden (see link below).


Göransson, K. & Nilholm, C. (2014). Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education , 29:3, 265-280.




About inclusion at the system level:


About the risk when communities are built in antagonism with others:



About how classrooms can become more inclusive:




Positions within the educational field: the Utopian, the `Bildung` anarchist, the Technocrat and the Market fundamentalist

It is possible to combine two fundamental dimensions in order to describe a phenomenon. Such a combination yields four types of the phenomenon. The Swedish scholar Svante Beckman e.g. combined the two dimensions a) relation to the outside world (governed from within/governed from outside) and b) level of hierarchy (high/egalitarian) in order to characterize four (ideal) types of Universities: The Temple (governed from inside, high hierarchy), the Oasis (governed from inside, egalitarian), the factory (governed from outside/high hierarchy) and the bazaar (governed from outside/egalitarian).

I will explain below how I arrived at the four types of positions in the educational field mentioned in the heading above.


The first dimension – The meaning of education

When the meaning of education is discussed some people focus on knowledge acquisition. Such knowledge is considered to be formulated a priori and teachers and researchers should fine the best methods in order for learners to reach the predefined knowledge goals. The acquisition of knowledge is thus seen as the dominating purpose of education.

On the other hand, there is a view with ancient roots that education involves much more than the acquisition of knowledge. This ultimate goal of education has been labelled as Paideia in ancient Greece and as Humanitas in Rome. I will use the German word “Bildung” in order to characterize this position regarding the meaning of education. To put it very simply, “Bildung” means that education strives to develop the whole person, not least his/her moral virtues. Moreover, the outcome of education cannot be stipulated in advance, the learner has to find his/her own way through the landscapes of knowledge.

We can understand this first dimension as an opposition between the poles of humanism and instrumentalism.


The second dimension – Trust in a public educational system

Schools are the societal institution that has the responsibility for basic education. My second dimension concerns the trust than one puts into a public educational system,. This dimension varies between high and low. Even if many people are critical as regards the functioning of schools there is a tremendous difference between those who believe that such problems can be solved within the present frames and those that are sceptical that the present public school system should continue to exist.

Thus, there are thus those that are fundamentally critical towards the possibilities of a public school system and view schooling as an expression of societal coercion and/or as an institution that is used by the upper- and middle- classes in order to secure their power and privileges. To conclude, the second dimensions spans between those who have high trust in a common school system to those that lack such trust.


Two dimensions – four positions

In this way we have four positions. Those who believe that education should be centred around “Bildung” and that a public educational system could in principle be geared towards this end. The second position encompasses those who believe that a public schools system is fundamentally a constructive force and who want to focus on the transmission of predefined knowledge. In this way, the public school system will foster employable persons.

Then we have those who at heart are sceptical towards a common school system. Among these, we can discern between those that take their point of departure in “Bildung” but doubt that the public school system will ever be instrumental in realizing this idea. Finally, there are those that believe that a public school system hinders the acquisition of knowledge. Individuals should be educated with as little public influence as possible.

I choose to label the positions according to what I consider characterize typical representatives of the position. The Utopist (´Bildung`, strong trust in a public school system), the Technocrat (knowledge acquisition, trust in the system), The `Bildung´ anarchist (`Bildung`, low trust in the system) and the Market fundamentalist (knowledge acquisition; low trust).

The choice of the label ´Bildung` anarchist needs some further explanation. In this context, anarchism refers to the fact that this position involves a somewhat problematic relation to democracy since it has been decided that children have to attend schools and also that there are preformulated goals that pupils should achieve. “Anarchism” can also refer to the fact that it is something unruly in this position since it is not shown/displayed how “Bildung” can be realized.

It becomes important to consider the relations between the positions. The Utopian consider the Technocrats view of education to be barren. The `Bildung` anarchist believe that the Utopian partly share the instrumentalism of the Technocrat. And so on. There are of course varied positions within each position, there are e.g. Technocrats who open up for education that have a wider range of goals than knowledge acquisition and Utopians who are more sceptical of public education than others.

It is also possible to combine each position with a particular view regarding who the pupil should develop into. The Utopian want to educate a Citizen, the ´Bildung´anarchist a Critic, the Technocrat Employable individuals and the Market fundamentalist an Entrepreneur. This entrepreneur will work on a market with minimal governmental control.

It is, at least in Sweden, hard to find pure Market fundamentalists. Still market thinking has been very influential in the Swedish school system. The idea that individual choice is the primary value in the long run de-legitimizes a public school system. Why, the market fundamentalist asks, should the individual have to choose schools geared by the state?


A final word

Creating educational positions in this way of course simplifies matters. I believe that a “map” like this should mirror the most important aspects of the educational terrain and I hope it helps the reader to navigate in this terrain. But of course one could proceed in other directions, choosing other and more dimensions. However, I hope I have evoked the readers´ interest to pursue explorations of the educational terrain further.


Celebrating diversity in schools - is it possible?


Proponents of inclusive education state that diversity should be seen as an a strength. This is a major challenge towards traditional special education where some pupils are defined in terms of their shortcomings, rather than being seen as someone who adds quality to the educational environment. But what does it mean to celebrate diversity in schools and is it possible?

Evaluating pupils

Pupils are evaluated in a wide range of school contexts, not least when being graded. Pupils achievements and at times also their personal characteristics are further evaluated in teacher-parent-pupil conferences. When Viveca Adelswärd and I studied such conferences we discovered that the concrete pupil participating in the conference was compared to an imagined ideal pupil. This ideal pupil was focused on the school work, made clear progress in all subjects and was socially adept.

Hardly any concrete pupil manages to live up to this ideal. Some are very far away. They do not reach the learning goals in several subjects and/or do not behave according to the behavioural norms that have been established in the school. Returning to the question in the heading of this blog, how can we view this as something that is to be celebrated? Or to put it more concretely, how are we to celebrate that a pupil has a hard time learning to read? Or, perhaps even harder, can a pupil who has a hard time to concentrate and who do not show respect to his/her classmates and the teacher be celebrated?

Ideology and realities

It is thus easy to say that difference should be celebrated. But how can a teacher use this way of thinking in daily work? External demands, e.g. grading, means that it becomes totally impossible to celebrate differences. On the contrary, it leads to a focus on shortcomings. But I would go one step further and argue that even if grades were abandoned a normative order would still be established in schools where certain characteristics would be seen as more valuable than other.

How can we find a way out of this dilemma? On the one hand there is an idea that difference should be celebrated, on the other hand this will be very hard to accomplish in the everyday life of schooling. In Sweden even the pre-school seems to evaluate children more than before, probably because the pre-school is becoming more school-like.

Individuals and their characteristics

It seems hard to totally avoid a deficit perspective even in what appears as inclusive environments. In a study that we made of what appeared to be an inclusive classroom it was still obvious that the teachers used two discourses. On the one hand they suggested that differences among pupils is to be regarded as an asset, which was an ideology that to a large extent characterized the classroom and which also was expressed by the pupils. On the other hand, the teachers were very aware of the difficulties experienced by some of the pupils. Thus, it seemed like the teachers used two different discourses when talking about the pupils. On the one hand, differences contributed, on the other hand, some differences were viewed as problematic.

I have had some problems with this dilemma myself and believed that phrases such as “celebrate differences”, which at times are part of ideas about inclusive schooling, should be seen as rhetorical and as posing impossible challenges. However, I found it much less challenging when I realized the importance to make a distinction between characteristics and individuals. Then we can see that not all characteristics contribute, however each individual, taken as a whole, do. This becomes even clearer if we lessen the focus on educational achievement in a few core subjects and realize that school encompasses a lot of subject and also other aspects than educational achievements.

But how should we understand the example given above about the pupil who does not seen to respect his classmates? Maybe the pupil mocks his peers, make them feel insecure and lower their spirits. Could we view that pupil as an asset in the classroom? I would like to answer that question in the affirmative. My conviction rests upon my view of humans as inherently social and cooperative beings. The pupil who does not respect his classmates has probably been treated without respect himself. Pupils has thus the right to be seen as a potential contributor to the educational environment.

A real-life illustration

What has been written above can be illustrated by a poem/reflection that a pupil wrote and that we obtained in the study of an inclusive classroom which was discussed above. The pupil is well aware that not all of his characteristics are valued by the school but that he still can contribute to the learning environment:


One in the class is not so good at talking and writing

So he has a computer on his desk to help him

He went to a communication class before

Drawing cartoons

And being a good friend

That he is good at

I am that guy

That I dared to say that !

Inclusion - one word, two discourses

It is well known that the word” inclusion” acquires different meanings in different contexts. However, here I would like to simplify things and make a distinction between what I consider to be two fundamentally different ways to use the word, two discourses. The distinction is based on a review of research about inclusive education that I made together with Kerstin Göransson (see reference below).

We analysed altogether 60 articles about inclusive education with high impact in the field, i.e articles that are often cited by other researchers. You would expect that there will be some consensus in a research field when it comes to how basic concepts are defined. However, we could identify two fundamentally different understandings of inclusion in the articles.


The dominating discourse

In about two thirds of the articles, inclusion denoted the place of education. In this way, inclusion was not defined by any specific qualities. Consequently, inclusion could principally have good or bad consequences. A prime example of this approach is the much cited article by Lindsay (see reference below) which is a systematic review about the effects of inclusion. Inclusion is thus defined by the fact that pupils with disabilities receive their education in mainstream classrooms.

Following this line of thinking it also becomes an important research task to ask teachers, about their views of inclusion. Not surprisingly there were several articles that reported such investigations and one much cited review of this research appeared as early as 1996 (se reference below). Also the fact that inclusion is an idea emanating to a large extent from the special educational field makes this line of inquiry logical. If inclusion (understood as placement) is to be successful, teachers have a key role. In this way, special educational researchers have made a lot of studies about the views of teachers and pondered upon what factors that will make teachers more positive to the idea of inclusion (i.e. having pupils with disabilities in their classroom).

To my experience this is also often how the word is used in political discussions and among people working in schools. But it was obvious in our material that there was a challenge to this way of using the word inclusion.


The alternative discourse

In some articles inclusion was, apart from the avoidance of segregated educational solutions, associated with certain qualities. These researchers defined inclusion as a) involving the creation of learning communities where every pupil has a natural place or at least b) the requirement that pupils have to have a satisfactory educational and social situation in order to be included. There were thus different opinions about exactly what constitutes inclusive environments. The point to be made here is that in this discourse inclusion was defined by certain qualities. Put differently and simplified, if it is not good it is not inclusion (but mere placement).

Let us take a simple example. If Steven attends a resource school but is moved into a regular classroom, then he is included according to the dominating discourse. However, if we consider that Steven´s educational situation has to involve certain qualities (e.g. that he learns and thrives/becomes part of a learning community) in order to be included, then we have moved into the alternative discourse.


Does it matter?

Some would maybe state that the discussion above is “only” about semantics. However, I would not agree. I think the lack of clarity concerning what is meant with the word inclusion partly had disguised the fact that there are quite different positions in research about inclusive education. While “inclusion” for some is merely an “add-on” to traditional special educational reasoning, for others it means changing the educational system. Thus, Kerstin Göransson and I considered to entitle our article “A field divided”.

On a somewhat more speculative note, it does not seem improbable that the vagueness regarding what is meant by inclusion might have had some harmful consequences in school practice. Inclusion has been what linguistics call a “plus-word”, i.e. it has been considered as something good. It is thus often considered progressive to include. However, and this a think is a real danger, if we are not very clear that inclusion involves a lot more than placement, we run the risk of legitimizing putting pupils with disabilities in mainstream classrooms that are not properly organized to take care of and to teach them.


Lindsay, Geoff. 2007. “Educational Psychology and the Effectiveness of Inclusive Education/ Mainstreaming.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 77: 1–24.

Nilholm, C. & Göransson, K. (2017) What is meant by inclusion? An analysis of European and North American journal articles with high impact, European Journal of Special Needs Education, 32:3, 437-451.

Scruggs, T., and M. Mastropieri. 1996. “Teacher Perceptions of Mainstreaming Inclusion, 1958–1995: A Research Synthesis.” Exceptional Children 63: 59–74.


This is my last blog before the summer. The next blog will be published on august 20 and its topic is the question if  differences can be celebrated.

Will Sweden abandon the Salamanca-declaration? – Swedish liberalism and special needs

Once upon a time the Swedish school system was admired across the world. It was a target for what later has been labelled as ”policy-tourism”. Sweden was on top in many international comparisons and, at the same time, displayed comparatively high levels of equity. Presently, Sweden has fallen back to the average OECD-level and is falling behind as regards equity. Social background and ethnicity play a larger role as regards outcomes and where the pupil will be educated.

At the same time there are obvious signs of distrust in the system, politicians do not seem to trust teachers and only eleven percent of Swedish teachers have trust in politicians working with educational issues at the national level. Do they trust the local politicians working with these issue then? Unfortunately not, only seven (7!) percent of the teachers have trust in local politicians (The Swedish National Agency, 2016).

The educational debate in Sweden is of course full of people who have an explanation for these states-of-affair. Explanations of falling results and lack of equity involve a lot of factors, perhaps most notably the decentralisation of the school system, the introduction of markets and quasi-markets, changes in the curriculum, the emergence of new individualized teaching methods, teacher recruitment and teacher education.

At times, specific groups are pointed out as scapegoats, e.g. politicians, teachers and even professors of education. There seems to be one commonality across explanations and that is that the person doing the explaining is innocent.

However, what I want to discuss and draw attention to in this blog is a proposal by the former Swedish minister of education, the liberal party leader Jan Björklund, who in a debate article in one of the major Swedish newspapers Dagens Nyheter on April 21 presented what in the future might be a Swedish turnaround as regards inclusive education. The debate article should be seen against the background of the discussion above, thus Björklund considers “inclusion” to be a factor that explains at least part of the lowering of educational attainment.

Since Björklund, despite getting a very small percentage of the votes, has had a major influence on Swedish educational policy it seems wise to take his proposal and its possibility to influence the Swedish school system very seriously. Björklund´s party, the liberals, presently attract only about five per cent of the voters, yet it is not unlikely that he will be the new minister of education after the elections this fall. He is also the Swedish politician who to a large extent has been setting the agenda of the Swedish educational debate.


The proposal

Björklund suggests that Sweden needs more special needs classes and special schools. In his opinion” inclusion” (which he understands as the place of education) has gone too far. Children with disabilities and learning problems do not, according to Björklund, learn satisfactorily in the regular classroom.

Interestingly, he does not mention neither the Salamanca declaration nor the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both acknowledged by Sweden, and both proclaiming inclusion.

Neither does he refer to any research thus leaving out systematic reviews that  shows the lack of beneficial effect for special placements (see examples below).


Why this now?

One can only speculate why this initiative is taken now. Björklund refers to a report from the Swedish School Inspectorate about resource schools.  The report shows good outcomes for pupils who have failed in regular schooling when attending resource schools. Now this phenomenon, as well as the arguments put forward by Björklund, are not new. The methodological approach of the Inspectorate to look at children who already have failed school is of course not a scientifically valid design to study the effect of placement, yet it can be persuasive to people not familiar with research design.

An additional factor is the re-emergence of the deficit-perspective in Sweden not least due to the widespread use of medical diagnoses such as e g autism spectrum disorder and AD/HD and pressure groups that point to the fact that regular school often do not succeed with these children.

Maybe, and this is highly speculative, is Björklund also trying to attract teachers who are not positive to the idea of “inclusion”.  Whatever the reasons, a major shift is announced.


Abandoning Salamanca?

It seems clear that the liberal party has chosen to take one step away from the spirit of the Salamanca-declaration and also the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The forthcoming election will show if this will be the path taken by Sweden as a country. In a wider perspective, it is obvious how the place and outcome of education in the Swedish system is increasingly decided by factors such as social background, ethnicity and functionality.


The Swedish National Agency of Education (2016) Attityder till skolan 2015 /Attitudes towards the school 2015/. Stockholm: Skolverket.


Examples of systematic reviews about the effect of inclusion (placement):


Canadian Council On Learning. (2009). Does placement matter? Comparing the academic performance of students with special needs in inclusive and separate settings. Series: Lessons in Learning, March, 2009.

Lindsey, E. (2007) Educational psychology and the effectiveness of inclusive education/mainstreaming. Bristish Journal of Educational Psychology, 1-24.


The micro-genesis of inclusion

There is a lack of research which provides a firm foundation for how educational environments can be made more inclusive. This is even truer if we understand inclusion as the building of learning- communities which encompass all pupils. How should teacher´s work in order to create such inclusive communities?

It seems reasonable to believe that inclusive communities develop over time. In a study that Barbro Alm and I conducted (reference below) we believed we could see how the teachers after several years of work together seemed to have created what appeared as a learning community in the classroom. This was evidenced in different ways, the pupil´s showed great trust in each other, enjoyed working in groups, were engaged in common discussions and reached relatively good educational outcomes.

What we did not do in that study was to study the classroom longitudinally. We entered the classroom in grade 5 and could only reconstruct the development of the class retrospectively. In a research review that Kerstin Göransson and I made (see reference below) we concluded that there was a lack of studies that in a methodologically sound way showed how learning environments can be created. Such studies demand that development is studied longitudinally and demand a lot of resources.

However, there are other ways to investigate how learning communities can be developed. I would like to use a concept from Vygotsky to characterize a type of studies than have the potential to provide valuable knowledge regarding how learning communities can become more inclusive.


Vygotsky suggested that in order to understand human beings we have to study them developmentally. He suggested that development could be studied in different areas with different developmental forces; in pyhlogenesis (before man becomes a cultural being), in sociohistorical development (when humans increasingly become cultural beings) and in ontogenesis (the development of the child).

In these spheres development takes place according to different principles. In phylogenesis it is above all the survival of the most well adapted that regulates development, in sociohistorical development the driving developmental forces are regulated by sociohistorical principles and ontogenetic development is characterized by an interplay of biological and sociocultural forces.

In addition to this Vygotsky also wrote about development of behaviours within a short time-span, e.g. a few experimental sessions in a learning experiment. He called this micro-genetic development. I will use the concept here in a slightly different way than Vygotsky, it is especially the idea to study something while it develops within a short time-frame that I want to connect to. It seems at least theoretically possible that within a shorter time-span study how a learning environment can development in an inclusive direction.

How can one do this?

If we decide to study the micro-genesis of inclusion it is of paramount importance to first define what we mean by inclusion in the context of the study. We could for example define inclusion as the development of a learning community. We could by this mean that the pupils increasingly are orienting towards each other in a respectful and constructive manner and if a sense of “we” develops it is an indication that a community is developing. If we further can show that the interaction is beneficial to learning we can speak about development of a learning community.

Group work seems to be a beneficial means to develop community and cooperation even if there of course are other means. If we choose to study group work we need to video-tape the interaction. So many things go on in interactions that cannot be grasped by an audio - recording alone.

How can we more exactly decide if an inclusive micro-genesis takes place? The best thing is of course if we can make a before- and after examination of the pupils´ knowledge within the knowledge area covered by the group work and also an assessment of the pupils´ views on cooperation before and after the group work.

There is also a possibility to analyse the development of the interaction by making a sequential analysis of the video-tape. Are the pupils increasingly orienting towards each other? In this instance we cannot fully grasp how each individual pupil experience the group work. It is also possible that with the help of video-film analyse how the group acquire the knowledge content of the lesson, but again it will be more problematic to analyse the development at the level of the individual.

From the perspective of inclusive education it is of course beneficial if the development of a “we” is not constituted in antagonism to other “we” in the classroom but instead opens up possibilities for a larger “we”. Moreover, we must never forget that inclusion implies that the individual got to have a space, which sometimes can be opposed to the common goal.

When studying the microgenesis of inclusion we can increase our understanding of how processes that lead to the development of community and learning is initiated and sustained, and those processes of course have to be analysed in relation to tendencies to segregation and rupture.

What can we learn?

I believe that this type of research can be very relevant to educational practice. It aims to very concretely identify and analyse inclusive and segregating processes in the everyday work of schools. It can perhaps be characterized as ”good practice” research at a micro-level in the concrete classroom. It is important to recognize that this way to study inclusion is yet unrealized and it is hard to know exactly what methodological challenges that will be met. Yet, it seems to be a road worth to travel.


Göransson, K. & Nilholm, C. (2014). Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education , 29:3, 265-280.

Nilholm, C. & Alm, B. (2011). An inclusive classroom? On inclusiveness, teacher strategies and children´s experiences. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(3), 239-252.

The possibilities and dark sides of communities

Sometimes it is said that society of today is characterized by ”hyper-individualism”. Somewhat ironically we can say that the liberal society at last has produced the autonomic and self-regulating citizen that has been its theoretical prerequisite.

Several institutional arrangements have been developed in order to normalize the individuals that cannot realize this ideal in order to recreate them as self-regulating. At the same time there seems to be a longing for community, to be part of something bigger and more encompassing than what appears to be a rather diluted and/or hard-to -realize individual project.

The contradiction between on the one hand a tendency towards individualization and, on the other hand, a longing for community is the point of departure for the educational theorist Nel Noddings paper ”On community” which dates back as far as 1996 (published in Educational Theory, 46(3), 245-267). Despite the fact that it was written 20 years ago it feels amazingly current. Nodding´s paper provides an interesting context for discussions about the relationship between the individual and the community.


Liberalism and communitarianism

Somewhat simplified it can be said that Nodding contrasts the liberal idea about the freedom of the individual with the communitarian ideal about communities that are created and develop from shared values. Against the “I” of liberalism stands the “We” of communitarianism. Communitarianism, with its roots in the USA, asserts that the community is prior to the individual. It is in being part of society in relation to other humans that the individual acquires his/her humanness.

A central difference between these views that is highlighted by Noddings concerns what characterizes the good life, or put differently, the issue of what is desirable in life. In the first case, liberalism, the good life is not given a specific content, it is the individual that decides what is desirable. The task of society is in this instance to facilitate for the individual to make choices. In communitarianism, the idea of the good life is formulated within the community of which the individual is a part and it can also be renegotiated within this community.

Taking the Swedish school system as an example, we can notice that the idea about choice and individual freedom has become more influential in recent years while the idea that schools should educate future citizens for a democratic society has been backgrounded. This tendency was identified at an early stage by the Swedish scholar Tomas Englund who spoke of a change in school policy from the “big” to the “small” democracy.


The dark side of communities

Noddings identify some dangers with communities. On the one hand world history is filled of ideas about communities that were built on oppression of specific groups and individuals in society. Well known modern examples mentioned by Noddings are Nazism and fascism and also communistic societies have to a large extent been built on such foundations. From a liberal point of view it is obvious that individual freedom is violated in such contexts which reminds us of the importance to always protect individual freedom.

Another and related tendency is that communities often are built in antagonism to other communities. A striking example of this is the nationalism that escalated in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century and which resulted in the devastating first world war. The community that was built between workers in different countries formed in antagonism towards industrial owners and partly to states, was quickly exchanged for a nationalism where one´s own country was glorified while other countries were disparaged. Similar processes are recognizable from the Balkan peninsula in the beginning of the 1990ies and from Rwanda in 1994 where different ethnic groups were put against each other.

It is actually an understatement to speak of the dark side of communities in these examples. Rather we have witnessed devastating sides where people not belonging to one´s own “community” is even denied the right to live. But one should not neglect that similar but considerably less dangerous mechanisms operate in all social contexts. Communities are to a large part defined in relation to other communities. Often it involves establishing one´s own community as better than other ones. Such tendencies can be seen all over in society, among professional groups, in residential areas and so on and of course also in classrooms.

How then can one create a community in a classroom that is not built on antagonism towards other groups, where different groups within the class are not put against each other and where the individual feels free and of equal value?


A ”liberal community”

Noddings suggests, as many others do, that communitarianism and liberalism should be united in what she characterizes as “liberal communities”. A case-study that Barbro Alm and I did in a classroom during school years 5-6 can illustrate this (see reference below).

The studied classroom actually seemed to be an example of a liberal community. The teachers strived to create a community which encompassed group discussions and group work where every pupil participated. At the same time difference was respected and it was underscored that each pupil should be viewed as an asset and have a voice. It seemed as if the pupils saw themselves as part of a “we” but there was also a place for an “I”. By being part of a community we can say that the pupils were prepared for being part of the societal community.


Reference to the study:

Nilholm, C. och Alm, B. (2010). An inclusive classroom? On inclusiveness, teacher strategies and childen´s experiences. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(3), 239-252.


See also prior blog:

A dilemma perspective in special needs education, part 2

I wrote my prior blog ”A dilemma-perspective on special needs/inclusive education” (see link below) after attending a minor conference giving a speech about different perspectives in special needs education. There were reasons for me to draw the conclusion that several of the attendants at the conference partly had misunderstood what I mean with a dilemma perspective. I have further felt for quite a while that many people who speak about dilemmas in special needs/inclusive education do not mean the same thing as I do. Thus, I have written this second part in order to further explicate the thoughts expressed in the earlier blog.

I will use some concrete examples in order to illustrate how the dilemma perspective given my interpretation differs from the deficit, critical and system perspectives (cf the prior blog). My first example concerns how a person with an overriding responsibility for special needs support in a local educational area can think and act given the different perspectives. In the second example it is discussed how a team of teachers can act from the standpoint of the different perspectives given a quite common school problem in the lower grades. I do want to underscore that I cannot analyse the examples in depth and, further, that it is possible to interpret each of the different perspectives in different ways, including the dilemma perspective. I still believe that some of the important differences between the perspectives will be clarified by the examples.


Have can a local educational authority (LEA) organize its support?

A deficit perspective localizes school problems in pupils. It thus becomes important to diagnose the pupil in order to make clear the nature of the problem. Consequently, given this perspective a LEA should make sure that professional competence with regard to making diagnoses should be available. It could be considered a good thing to gather pupils with similar problems i special groups where they can be taught by professionals with specific knowledge tied to the diagnosis. The teaching strategies used should be tailored to the needs of the specific group of pupils, e.g. working memory training for pupils with ADHD (cf earlier blog or intensive training in reading- and writing for pupils with dyslexia.

In a critical perspective all types of segregating arrangements are rejected. Differences between pupils should be managed within regular education. No one should be negatively labelled or expelled from the classroom. Differences between pupils should be seen as valuable and all pupils should have a favourable situation within the classroom. The school and the classroom are communities where everyone is of equal worth. Diagnoses are not focused because they provide too little information about how the teaching should be organized. It is not believed that there are specific ways to teach for specific groups of pupils. On the other hand, great effort is made in order to get classes to function as communities where ever one feels responsible for the common good. The LEA in which this perspective is to be found tries to have a higher density of teachers in the classroom in contrast to employing experts in diverse areas. Co-teaching in the classroom can be one way of handling differences between pupils. One is of course sceptical towards segregated educational arrangements such as special schools or special groups within schools.

The LEA in which a system perspective dominates falls in between these two extremes. It is important to have in mind that a system perspective implies that school problems are localized at different levels, e.g. at an organisational, a group and an individual level. However, the system perspective does not determine which of these levels that is the most important one. Accordingly, we find versions of the system perspective which are very close to a deficit perspective. Then diagnoses and their consequences are considered important but there is an openness towards that factors at the group level (e.g. the teacher and/or the classroom climate) affects the situation of the pupil. While few today speak in favour of a pure deficit perspective, it seems much more common with some type of system perspective where the focus is still on the individual. But there are also persons with a system perspective who come closer to a critical perspective.

A dilemma perspective, in my view, is closer to a critical perspective than to the deficit perspective and is thus familiar to a system perspective where several levels are considered but where the group and the organisational level is especially focused. However, in the dilemma perspective democratic and ethical issues are focused to a higher degree. Since special needs/inclusive education is an area with several competing perspectives the issue about who should have the power to decide the perspective becomes crucial.

The LEA thus has to be responsive to the professionals working in the schools in order to achieve a consensus as regards how one should work with pupils in difficulties. In this way, it becomes important to have inclusive decision processes. Instead of centrally deciding how the schools should be organized, by e.g. stating that ”we shall include all pupils2 or ”we shall receive excellence in working with pupils with neuropsychiatric disorders”, as many as possible become involved in decision making. The dilemma perspective also involves a sceptical stance towards, on the one hand, routinely ascribing pupils diagnostically based identities, but also, on the other hand, a disbelief that we can help pupils in difficulties without ascribing negatively valued labels (e.g. the label ”pupil in need of extra support” which is used in the Swedish system) or without educating them in small groups at least a small part of the time. What differentiates a dilemma perspective from a critical perspective is above all the point of departure central to a dilemma perspective that decisions about special needs have to be made in a democratic way and that all differences cannot be celebrated. The dilemma perspective further underscores, in contrast to the other perspectives, that there are no final solutions to special educational problems. Thus, the dilemma of differences will always have to be handled but cannot be solved in a completely satisfactorily manner.


What shall we do with the boys that don´t know how to behave?

I got the next example from a newly graduated teacher student. The student meant that there were some boys in the school that made the situation unbearable for everyone, at times they even hit the other pupils. The newly examined teacher believed that a special unit should be created for the group of boys. This would be better both for them and for the other pupils. Even if diagnoses or similar labels were not mentioned in the e-mail we can still draw the conclusion that this solution rests on the deficit perspective. Before I continue to analyse the situation from the view of the other perspectives I want to make clear that I am aware that it also can be girls that behave in this way and that all boys of course do not behave in this way. It is always problematic when we describe these types of behaviours, we easily stereotype them. However, in my experience, it is not uncommon that these types of problems with certain boys quite often are identified in schools.

From a system perspective we, in addition to the individual level, also have to look for causes to the problem at the group and the organisational levels. Maybe it is hard to concentrate within the classroom? Maybe the teacher uses strategies that do not work and that may even escalate the problems? Maybe the head teacher should engage with the problems and/or arrange for professional development? Maybe these pupils have not learned to read and write and they are reacting to the fact that they are falling behind the other pupils? Obviously, these questions cannot be answered here but demand a thorough investigation. What is true is that if a system perspective is adhered to all levels have to be explored in order to solve the problem.

From the point of view of a critical perspective maybe the gender system in the school/classroom needs to be analysed and/or the meaning that the social background of the pupils acquire in the classroom. Moreover, deficits in teaching and classroom management, may be identified from a critical perspective.

Given a dilemma perspective I will once again underscore the importance of the democratic dimension. It is important that the team of teachers are involved in the formulation of and the solutions to the problem. A special needs coordinator might be responsible in initiating such discussions and a special teacher could help the pupils lagging behind in reading. Further, it becomes important to listen to the view of the pupils themselves and their parents. It is further important from the point of view of a dilemma perspective not to view these pupils as another species than the other pupils by ascribing to them negative, stable identities.



I will once again underscore that my examples do not give full justice to all the aspects of how perspectives relate to action. Instead I have tried to illuminate some crucial differences between perspectives. I believe that my examples illustrate how situations appear in very different lights depending on the perspective from which they are understood. This illustrates that the issue of perspective is central in special needs/inclusive education.


Link to prior blog:

How can the attainment of knowledge goals be improved for pupils in need of extra support ?

The person who can answer the question in the heading is obviously in a favourable position. The attainment of knowledge is by many considered the key object of schooling at the same time as there are many pupils who do not reach standards. Administrators and school staff try hard to raise the knowledge levels of pupils. Obviously the demand for solutions to this problem is huge. But what can we learn from research? Is it the placement of pupils in need of extra support in mainstream classrooms that is the solution to the problem. Or new ways of teaching? Or something else?

To improve the attainment of knowledge goals

My colleague Johan Malmqvist and I were hired for an assignment by the Swedish National Agency of Education. Our task was to bring together research and proven experience with relevance for the question in the heading of this blog. Preferably we were to collect Swedish and other Nordic research. However, Swedish and Nordic educational researchers have to a rather small degree been occupied with efficiency research. We did not find any proven experience in the Swedish context either, given the definition provided by the Swedish National Agency. I.e. in order to qualify as proven experience, the experience has to be shared, documented and proven to be functional. In order words, it comes close to what we expect from research and consequently we did not find what qualifies as proven experience given this definition.

On the other hand we found a large amount of international research, mainly from USA, where systematic attempts have been made in order to investigate what educational measures that can raise goal attainments for pupils in need of extra support (or ”pupils with disabilities” as the group often is refered to in the USA). Several studies have used quasi-experimental designs where a method/work approach is tried out in one or several classrooms and compared to a control condition. The trying out of the new method/work approach is usually referred to as an intervention.

The evaluation of the interventions consists of comparing the learning outcome of the pupils in the intervention group(s) with those in the control group(s). Since there are very many studies of the effect of different methods/work approaches, for example ”cooperative learning” and ”direct teaching”, on knowledge attainment, meta-analyses are available. A meta-analysis is a combined analysis of several studies which yields an effect size, i.e. a measure of how effective a particular intervention seems to be. Our compilation of research to a large degree took its point of departure in such meta-analyses.





What conclusions could be drawn from this endeavor? Quite a few, and here are the most important ones:

  • It is striking that many different types of interventions raises goal attainment in these studies. It is not very interesting to note that a specific intervention has a significant effect when (an) intervention group(s) is/are compared to (a) control group(s) but it is the size of the effect that is of interest.

  • The interventions made by the researchers are very well structured and most often concerns basic skills, i.e. how to decode written words, how to read a text or how to compute/understand fairly simple math problems.

  • Some of the interventions, e.g. those involving text-understanding, word problems in math or the practice of meta-cognitive abilities yield large effect sizes.

  • Interventions where pupils learn from each other seems effective

  • It is what is done rather than where it is done that has the largest impact on knowledge attainment. However, the research indicates that one-to-one teaching is effective for pupils with encompassing difficulties in learning to read and write compared to when similar methods is used in the classroom or in a smaller group

  • ”Reading recovery”, developed in New Zeeland, does not generate especially pronounced effects in comparison to other ways to improve reading for pupils lagging behind in reading.

  • There is a lack of research about long-term effects (it seems that a lot of this research has a ”grab and publish” character).

  • There is still research lacking concerning what happens when teachers decide to use methods that have yielded sizeable effects in controlled studies in their own classroom.

  • More research is needed about the effects of supervision and co-teaching.

  • A general rule of thumb seems to be that what works for pupils in need of special support also works for pupils in general (and vice versa).


    Evidence is lacking how to reach all the goals of schooling

    It should of course be pointed out that schools have many other goals than the knowledge goals. The effectiveness of the methods/work approaches as concerns these other goals has not that often been a focus of attention in these intervention studies. Thus the studies do not yield direct evidence concerning how schools can reach this broader goal. And there is a a far way to travel from interventions where researchers with the help of often large resources and thorough planning achieve effects to using these methods/work approaches in the everyday realities of schools.

    It should also be pointed out that we synthesized a large amount of research in a limited time frame (about one working month each) which is why we are quite humble when stating these conclusions. It is possible that a more thorough analysis could alter the picture a little bit.

    Finally, we want to underscore the need to be critical to the knowledge concept used in several of these interventions. The operationalisation of achievement (usually measured by tests) implies that the full complexity of knowledge acquisition is not taken into account.

    Unfortunately, our report is only available in Swedish:


    Skolverket, 2014: Fristående skolor för elever i behov av särskilt stöd – en kartläggning. (bilaga 4)



A dilemma-perspective in special needs/inclusive education

A few years back I wrote a book about perspectives on special needs education. Almost everyone would probably agree that special needs concerns school related problems or problems reltated to learning in a wider sense. There are however different perspectives regarding why such problems occur and how they should be handled. In my book, I discern three different perspectives that differ on where the problem is located.


The deficit perspective and the critical perspective

One the one hand, we have a deficit perspective where the cause of educational problems is found within the individual. This is where school traditionally has located educational problems. If pupils encounter problems in schools something is wrong with the pupil according to this perspective.

This deficit perspective has been challenged in recent year by a critical perspective. Within this second perspective, there is a critique implying that special education individualizes educational problems. Instead, educational problems emerge because schools cannot handle pupil diversity. Thus, the problem is re-localized from the individual to the context.

Scholars that have strived to categorize different perspectives in this area usually discern these two perspectives even if different labels are used. It should also be pointed out there are different versions of the critical perspective. Their common denominator is the critique of traditional special needs education which is considered deficient.

There are further viewpoints that can be characterized as compromises between traditional and critical perspectives, e.g a system perspective. According to this perspective, the problem can be localized at different levels, often one speaks of the individual-, the classroom- and the organizational level. This is, according to my view, a rather useful perspective even if it has been hard to anchor it in educational realities where problems routinely are ascribed to individuals.

Common to the deficit., the critical and the system- perspectives is that they provide solutions to educational problems.



A dilemma-perspective

In my book I am arguing in favor of a third perspective, a so called “dilemma-perspective” which is not, as a system perspective, a compromise between a deficit and a critical perspective but something qualitatively different. Above all, I was inspired by the English researcher Alan Dyson and his collaborators. Dilemmas are, in contrast to problems, a sort of fundamental oppositions that cannot be resolved in a completely satisfactory way.

One such opposition has been formulated by the distinguished Swedish researcher Mårten Söder with the help of a metaphor. To engage in special needs is to travel on a road with one ditch on each side. You have to avoid the risk of ending up in one of the ditches. One of the ditches symbolizes the risk of making children with disabilities/in need of extra support into another species, what the sociologists call “othering”. The other ditch symbolizes the risk of not acknowledging that some pupils experiences difficulties.

Other dilemmas concern how the right to be present in the classroom should be balanced against the need of some pupils, in e.g. learning to read and write, to receive support in a smaller group.  There is a lot of research supporting the view that it is beneficial for some pupils who have such basic reading and writing difficulties to receive support in smaller groups and even more so in one-to-one teaching. It is possible to discern several such dilemmas on which an educational system has to find a balance between conflicting goals.

There are two things that come to the fore when adopting a dilemma-perspective. Firstly, there is a strong ethical dimension in the perspective. Certain pupils need extra support but what right do we have to ascribe pupils identities that are in the final end founded a distinction between normality and deviance? I am myself becoming a bit worried here when early identification of deviance is increasingly asked for. It is of course a good thing if a child who experiences problems in a certain area receives the right guidance and support. But there is the concomitant risk that we early on in life inscribe their identities that ultimately builds upon what they cannot do. Here we find an example of what from a dilemma-perspective is an ethical dimension.

The second thing concerns the issue of power. The idea that we have to find a balance between different dilemmas leads to a certain humbleness with regard to the fact that we understand issues from different perspectives. A more important question than the one about which perspective that is correct then becomes the question about who should decide which perspective that should be used in particular situations. Ethical issues and questions about power is too seldom discussed within the special needs area.


In three weeks, on Januari the 29th, I will publish a second blog about the dilemma-perspective, where some concrete examples of how similar situations can be interpreted from different perspectives (deficit, critical, dilemma) are presented.

CORRECTION: Due to technical problems the second blog about the dilemma-perspective will be published the 12th of March.

Link to A dilemma-perspective in special needs education, part 2



A common theme in this blog has been inclusion in schools and classrooms. It is also important to discuss inclusion at the level of the school system. I will firstly discuss some general issues in relation to inclusion at the system level before turning to the Swedish school system as an example. Sweden has been known for its inclusive policies and its inclusive school system but is that a correct image of the Swedish system? I will argue that the time is ripe to question this picture.


What characterizes an inclusive school system?

There are of course different ways to interpret what the characteristics of an inclusive school system are. One way to conceive of inclusion is that is concerns the creation of rewarding encounters between pupils with different backgrounds and abilities. Instead of sorting pupils into different groups that receive their education in separate environments, schools and classroom should according to this view mirror the diversity that is to be found in society. It should be pointed out that schools have to make such encounters a fruitful experience if we are to talk about inclusion.

Pupils with different background are thus supposed to learn from each other which would prepare them for collaboration in society. To put it differently, to sort pupils according to their socio-economical background, gender, religious background or functionality means that the prerequisite for creating an inclusive school disappears.

In an inclusive school system, e.g., newly arrived children with limited experience of schooling would subsequently be part of classes with other pupils whose parents are well-off economically and who are well-educated. When schooling is not inclusive at the system level pupils who are alike each other tend to end up in the same classrooms.

There are people who suggest that inclusion is about providing all pupils equal opportunities to succeed in the school. When a system yields differences in performance/grades between pupils due to their different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity, gender or functionality it is suggested that schooling is not inclusive.  These discussions are often discussed under the banner of social justice. I would suggest that both these aspects, diversity in schools and classrooms, on the one hand, and everyone´s possibility to succeed, on the other hand, are important to take into consideration when judging how specific a particular school system is.

According to this line of thought an inclusive school system provides possibilities for pupils to meet other pupils with different experiences and backgrounds and schools try to make all pupils succeed according to their abilities. However, I think it is overly optimistic to believe that we ever will see a school system where the resources of parents and the functionality of pupils will not affect the outcome of education to a relatively significant degree.

On the other hand, school systems can to varying degrees compensate for differences with regard to pupils social background and abilities. In fact, until a couple of years ago the Swedish school system was comparatively good at this. However, in recent years Sweden has fallen back in rankings at the international level on several indexes that measure the degree of equal opportunities, or for that matter, social decency.


Segregation at the system level in the Swedish school system

In Sweden today it seems to be generally accepted that pupils with intellectual disabilities enter a special educational program. Children who have been diagnosed  with intellectual disabilities and that are not expected to reach the goals of the comprehensive school are thus placed within this program if their parents do not object. Most often pupils entering the special program for pupils with intellectual disabilities receive their education in segregated classrooms that are physically located within ordinary schools.

 Moreover, sometimes specific groups are created within comprehensive schools for children with e.g. neuropsychiatric disorders and/or for pupils that are considered hard to educate within the mainstream classroom but that do not have a medical diagnosis. There are also some signs that special classrooms for pupils with language difficulties will become more important.

It is further obvious in Sweden today that people with high salaries and university degrees tend to gather in the same residential areas while people with less economical resources and/or who are sick/unemployed also end up in the same housing areas. This means that pupils to a higher degree than before will meet other pupils with similar backgrounds in the school environment.

The differences between schools have also increased. We could imagine an educational system where a massive effort is made in order to increase the educational outcomes in marginalized areas. Then the educational system would be more inclusive in terms of educational outcomes. However, this has not been the case in Sweden where differences in educational outcomes between schools have increased. In certain schools a very large portion of the pupils are according to the Swedish school law qualified for special educational support. Such a categorization in terms of special needs categories is often a way to individualize what is a genuine social problem.

Thus, regarding both the aspects that I defined as constituting an inclusive school system, i.e. that pupils from different backgrounds and with different abilities meet in schools and classrooms and that they get the best possible opportunities to learn, we can conclude that the Swedish school system has become less inclusive.

The municipality where I myself went to school during 12 years, Lidingö, situated just outside of Stockholm, may serve as an illustrative example of the development described above. In those days, the 1960- and 1970ies, there were factories and workers in Lidingö whose children went to the same schools as children with well-educated and economically well off parents. I went to a school named Skärsätra. Several of the parents of my classmates worked at the big Swedish company AGA and many of them lived in an area called Bergsätra. Today a five-room apartment in this area costs about 700.000 US dollars and the single houses where some of these working class children grew up cost about 1,2 million US dollars. This illuminates the fact that the prices of housing leads to segregation in housing which has the consequence that children from homes with similar socioeconomic backgrounds tend to end up in the same schools. The Swedish system with school vouchers seems to increase this tendency of increased segregation.


A diversity index

In social science research the notion of intersectionality has received increased prominence. It means, somewhat simplified, that different identities such as gender, social class, ethnicity and functionality interacts in relation to one’s position and possibilities in society. Today the differences between boys and girls are often discussed. From an intersectional perspective such a discussion has clear limitations. This is also applicable to my prior discussion about parents with good socioeconomic resources which has to be related to how such resources e.g. interact with ethnical background.

Anyway, I believe that it is theoretically possible to define some kind of diversity index. If we divide the population of pupils into different categories, which ones could be further discussed, we could estimate how many that would be placed in each intersectional category. We can then compare actual classrooms with this theoretically derived estimate and for each school and classroom calculate a diversity index. I think the outcome of such an analysis would be very unsatisfying for adherent of inclusive education.


Is there still a unit school in Sweden?

It is important to call things by the right name. I do believe that we should consider to talk about the Swedish school system as a segregated school system with different educational trajectories, starting from preschool, depending to a large extent on the fincancial and educational resources of  parents. It is very upsetting that some children in this way do not get a fair chance to realize their potentials.

The Swedish school system was once admired in large parts of the world. This is not the case now and the time is ripe to ask whether it still should be called a unit school.


Is it possible to create an inclusive language?

Recently we analyzed the 30  articles about inclusive education with the highest impact in North America and Europe respectively, i.e. altogether 60 articles. It was only in one of these that the language of special needs was reflected upon and critized. It was Len Barton who in an article suggested that an inclusive school needs a new language. The special educational language is according to Barton impregnated with meanings that are not really compatible with the idea of inclusive education. This is not a new idea which made it even more surprising to find out that so many influential papers were silent on this issue.


The language of special needs

The whole concept of special needs is built upon the distinction between an education for children with special needs, i.e. special education, and an education for other pupils. I would like to suggest that the whole language of special needs rests on similar distinctions.

Educator goes through special educational training in order to teach the special children and, at least in Sweden, a special agency cater for these pupil´s special needs. In schooling the distinction manifests itself in two partly parallel systems, on for “normal” children and one for children with special needs.  These systems are underpinned by partly different languages.

Children with special needs have to be identified from the viewpoint of the type and degree of their problems. In the special needs system we meet linguistic labels denoting different kinds of differences/disabilities such as learning disabilities, neuropsychiatric disorders, Aspergers syndrome, high-functioning autism, dyslexia, reading- and writing disabilities, behavioral problems and so on. The labels are dependent on the professions that have the power to interpret and define the behaviors.

Sociologists today speak of the “medicalization” of difference which implies that the medical profession has gained increased influence in the definition of behaviors. Emergent labels such as language disorder can probably partly be traced to the increased influence from speech therapists. Exactly what language that dominates special needs education varies with time and place, but it is always a language that rests firmly on the distinction between the normal and the deviant. To put it shortly, there is a special educational language which in some ways can be viewed as a discourse, i.e. a specific way to think and talk about differences.

During the years I have been amazed by how several of my colleagues in Sweden argue for a more inclusive educational system without reflecting over the special educational language. Thus we will get a more inclusive schools system, the argument goes, by e.g. educating more special educators, give more courses in special needs and write more educational plans for children in need of extra support. I agree with Barton that this kind of language might instead reproduce the dual systems. Thus, a new language is needed in order to make schools and classrooms more inclusive.

It should of course be pointed out that inclusion is not about language only but also, and above all, about accessability and educational approaches. However, language plays an important part in how we view the world and a language that rests on such a fundamental distinction as normality/deviance tends to exaggerate and down-value difference.


Inclusion as a utopian idea

Peder Haug is according to me a researcher that has expressed some of the most interesting thoughts about what inclusive education amounts to. In a book from 1998 he spells out how he believes an inclusive environment should be structured in order to prepare the pupils to be part of the societal community:

Social training and the development of community is emphasized…  . Differences between children are accepted. These differences are a part of the daily experiences in the school and they should be handled by individually adapted teaching for all children in the same school and the same classroom. Within this frame the children shall receive the teaching that take them as far as possible. This shall be done without making pupils stigmatized or excluded. In this way all appear principally as of equal worth in school, and the school has equal worth to all pupils. This upheaves the difference between special education and education and in this way the difference between pedagogics and special pedagogics is no longer of relevance. (p 24) (my translation)

What is expressed here i what could almost be labelled as a utopian condition. Such utopias are common in religious and political contexts and appears every now and then in research. The problem with utopias is to make the way towards the utopian condition concrete and realizable. Sometimes the utopia can legitimate actions that have negative consequences. When it comes to inclusion, given the meaning Haug has attached to the word, research provides too few answers about how to get there.

I have in other publications questioned this type of utopian thinking more generally but will in this context turn to the language issue. Unfortunately Haug does not approach the problem pertaining to how communication and language should be enacted in an inclusive environment. The point I wish to make can be illustrated by Haugs own formulation in the quotation above “education that take them as far as possible.” This is clearly an evaluative utterance which expresses that it is good to learn as much as possible. Our language, and not least the language of schooling, is crowded with this type of evaluative utterances:


“It is good that You make an effort”

“She has strength in math”

“You made a fantastic presentation”

“His language develops slowly”


When analyzing developmental talks and education plans it is clear that there is a, more or less explicit, message about what characterizes the ideal pupils in school. Ideals are part of all social contexts and language carries these typ of evaluations of humans and their actions. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu purportedly in some context said that we should not deny that we as humans behave in ways that may seem questionable but if we are clear about what we do and how we do it we have a possibility to change.

We could thus not expect that we can create an inclusive language that totally upheaves evaluations of individals and their acts but if we reflect upon our language usage we can become more inclusive in our use of words.


Dont let the perfect be the enemy of the good

The insight that we cannot create an inclusive language, in the sense that everyone will be evaluated as of equal worth, should not refrain us from the discussion about how we should talk about pupils and their difficulties. This is a classical dilemma. One the one hand, pupils who face difficulties in schools have to be identified, labelled and described in some way. On the other hand, everyone should be treated in similar way and no one should be deprecated.

The famous Swedish disability researcher Mårten Söder is said to have described this dilemma as if one is driving a car on a road and having to avoid two ditches. One has to avoid to make pupils in difficulties into something completely different, what sociologists refer to as “othering”. One also has to avoid that we do not notice these difficulties at all. Thus, we have to find a language which helps us to avoid both these ditches.

The answer to the question in the heading will thus be: “No, but we can create a more or a less including language.” I do think that one partly has succeeded in e.g. the Swedish legislation    which to a large extent is built around the concept of “pupil in need of special support” and whose need of support is defined in relation to what pupils are expected to learn rather than in relation to some kind of normal distribution.

In the reality of Swedish schools, on the other hand, other languages are intruding. The reason for this might be good and the special educational language building on the distinction between normality and deviance is effective in signaling the need for help. In a situation where professionals and/or parents see that pupils in different kind of difficulties don’t receive the support they need it is easy to understand that one reaches for strong words such as e g  “disturbance”  and “disorder”.

A challenge to schools, according to my opinions, is to provide pupils with the support they need without using stigmatizing language.


Barton, L. (1997). Inclusive education: romantic, subversive or realistic? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1, 231–242.

Haug, Peter. (1998) Pedagogiskt dilemma: Specialundervisningen. Stockholm: Skolverket. /Pedagogical dilemma: Special education/

How is "inclusion" affecting the other pupils?

What happens to the other pupils when pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support are ”included” in their classroom? Will the presence of for example pupils with EBD (Emotional Behavioral Disorder) or severe disabilities lower the educational achievement of the other pupils?

People who are following this blog or have read what I have written about inclusion in other contexts understand that I use the word “inclusion” above in a way that I usually do not recommend, i.e. I do not believe that we should use the word inclusion to denote only where pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support receive their education. If these pupils are placed in a regular classrooms and have a beneficial situation there, then we can speak of inclusion.

The question in the heading above will thus from my perspective more appropriately be formulated as follows: How are other pupil´s situation affected when pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support are placed in their classrooms?

This question is the focus of attention for a recent systematic review, more precisely a meta-analysis by Szumski and collaborators (2017). Even though the researchers from my perspective contribute to the erosion of the inclusion concept by equating it with the placement of pupils, they still pose some interesting and important questions. They argue that it is important to be aware of the rights of the other pupils and suggest that “inclusion” (understood as placement) will be harder to defend if it leads to decreased educational achievement among “ordinary” pupils.

I will firstly provide a short presentation of their main findings. I will conclude by contextualizing their approach in broader discussion about inclusive education.

Small but positive effects are reported

Altogether 47 studies are analyzed, that taken together encompasses almost 5 million pupils. The researchers detect a very weak, but positive association between the presence of pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support in the classroom and the educational achievement among the other pupils.

It should however be pointed out that this research is mined with methodological difficulties. 

Somewhat surprisingly no substantial differences are found when the effects are analyzed with regard to the following four moderators:

  • Country of study
  • Type of study  (intervention or natural data)
  • Professions responsible
  • Level of the educational system

Regarding the effects of the placement of pupils with severe difficulties or EBD on the achievements of the other pupils, the following conclusion is made:

In conclusion, our meta-analysis shows that on average the presence of learners with EBD and severe SEN in a classroom does not negatively influence the achievement of their peers without SEN. Still, neither does it influence their achievement positively…. (p 49)

Partly in contrast to previous research Szumski et al suggest that the educational achievements of the “ordinary” pupils is not lowered when pupils with severe difficulties or with EBD are placed in the classroom. It should be noted that effects on other variables than educational achievement such as e.g. classroom climate, are not investigated in the meta-analysis.

Before proceeding to take a view at the study from a broader perspective it should again be pointed out that the methodological problems in this area are challenging. It should be noted that information about exactly how the in this context so important effect size was calculated is not provided in the article.

A diluted inclusion concept

As I mentioned earlier the study in my opinion contributes to the watering down of the inclusion concept. When the concept was launched in the 1980ies it was partly as an answer to the dilution of its forerunners mainstreaming and integration. These latter concepts were increasingly used to denote the place of education but nothing about the qualitative characteristics of the education. More precisely the larger question about how “ordinary” education should be reformed in order to adapt to the differences between pupils was left out of the discussion.

Szumski et al are very well aware that there are different ways to interpret the inclusion concept which is evident from the introductory section of their paper. Yet in their empirical work de use the placement definition of inclusion. They even reduce the analysis of effects of “inclusion” to educational achievement. In this way a rather traditional view of special needs is combined with an belief which is strong in neoliberal views of education, i.e. that schools should be evaluated solely by educational achievement.

We thus come a long way away from an inclusion concept that also stresses the importance to learn from difference, the right of every pupil to feel safe and socially included and that underscores the importance of preparing pupils to participate in a democratic society. It is revealing that the concern is not with the “ordinary” pupils opinions but only with how the placement affect their educational achievement.

It should also be pointed out that the concept of rights that is used by Szumski et al is very dissimilar to the one proposed by the Norwegian Peder Haug in a Nordic context. Haug suggests that the right to participation is fundamental. From his perspective, it is not an empirical issue whether pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support should be allowed to attend ”ordinary” classrooms but a practical issue concerning how educational environments best can be arranged in order to include all pupils in the fullest sense of the word.


Szumski, G., Smogorzewska, J. & Karwowski, M. (2017) Academic achievement of students without special educational needs in inclusive classrooms: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 21, 33-54.


Inclusion as the creation of communities

Several adherents of inclusive education suggest that inclusive education means that communities are created in schools and classrooms. This is a very interesting thought which seems somewhat distanced from how school is talked about today where the individual pupil seems to be the unit of analysis. It is the pupil that receives grades and who is evaluated in different ways. Schooling is often described as an individual project where the aim is to get as good grades as possible.

The focus on the individual differentiates school from a lot of other social activities, as form example business and team sports or singing in a choir for that matter, where the joint effort is decisive. Even though individuals emerge as important in these contexts, the activities demand, in order to function smoothly, that everyone contributes. Is it possible then, or even advisable, to create communities in schools and classrooms? Before approaching that question, I will say a few words about how differences, rather than similarity, between pupils are focused today. 



The importance of difference is repeatedly pointed out. The concept “intersectionality” elucidates that people are different with regard to fundamental identity-categories such as sex, class, ethnicity and functionality. Our position with regard to these categories is decisive for our life chances/possibilities, even if one cannot reduce complexity of human beings to these type of categorizations alone.

Several scholars suggest that there are different power structures associated with these categorizations where one identity is seen as hierarchically related to another such as man/woman, able-bodied/disabled and so on. The patterns of course become more complex when categories are combined.

Identity-politics which has quite a long history by now strive to illuminate how groups become marginalized in society and to change the situation for the group and thereby also for individuals within the group. In this way, similarity within the group in the form of a shared interest to change the situation is created.

Within the special needs area the identity ”disabled” has been the predominant focus, even though the terminology tends to change. Different expressions such as “children with special needs”, “children in need of extra support” and/or “children with disabilities” are used. The concept “inclusion” has helped to illuminate how children with disabilities have been marginalized in schools. There has been some success for the critique of marginalization, it is i.e. much harder today than before to explain educational difficulties as caused på pupils´ deficits and it is less accepted to exclude groups of pupils from mainstream schools and classrooms.

It is of course important to point out that there might be other pupils that are harder to include in the classroom than pupils in need of extra support and/or with disabilities. For example pupils that are very competitive with regard to grades and/or social status and/or pupils that demean other pupils.


The importance of similarity

It is obvious that it is important to attend to difference as defined in the prior section. In the movement towards inclusive education it is often underscored that difference is something that enriches the environment. But even in such formulations it is difference that is focused. Without questioning the importance of attending to difference, I would like to highlight the importance to also attend to similarities in education. Several proponents of inclusive education points to the importance of creating communities in schools and classrooms and communities involve identification with others.

But is it possible to create communities if we attend to difference all the time? One trustworthy way to create community is from similarities in interests. I argued above that an identity categorization can create a common ground for a community that intends to improve the situation of the group.

But we can, on the other hand, be very different as regards the intersectional categorizations described above but still find a joint commitment from the point of view of a common interest, e.g. bird-watching, history, sports, yes the list is without an end. A big challenge to schools is that it is built on subjects and not interests, which means that many teachers face a huge challenge regarding how the subject can be interesting and engaging to the pupils. The teacher who succeeds in making his/her subject(s) interesting will be in a better position to create communities in the classroom.   

The identification with the school class can also be a foundation of community. In a study of an inclusive classroom (see earlier blog) it was obvious that there was a strong identification with the class among the pupils. The pupils wrote regularly in so called reflection books and some pupils wrote what can be labeled as celebrations of the class as in the following example:


Some in the other classes say that we only play and have fun

and that is almost true

but what they don´t now is that that is the way we learn things

If we have played something fun or been on an excursion

we write about it afterwards and if You haven´t done anything amusing

 then You have nothing to write about and no fantasy


In the classroom studied the pupils also worked a lot in groups which they appreciated. The teacher further led discussions involving all the pupils in the classroom where the pupils´ involvement in the discussions was encouraged. At the same time it almost seemed to be a mantra in the classroom that it was an asset that pupils were different from one another. We can thus see that the identification with the class and the use of cooperative work forms was combined with a respect towards differences in what seemed to be a community.


Hindrances to the construction of communities

In returning to the question asked in the heading one can conclude that it seems possible to create communities. At the same time there are several tendencies that work against a focus on community in present day schooling, not least in the Swedish context. Society is becoming more individualized, what the Swedish researcher Tomas Englund has described as a change from seeing schooling as something that is a public good to viewing it as a private good, i.e. as an individual right for pupils and parents.

There are thus few formulations in the steering documents for the Swedish school system that stipulates that communities should be created in classrooms and schools. Developmental plans are about pupils and to a lesser extent about school classes and schools. As regards the special needs area, the phenomenon that is described by sociologists as “the medicalization of difference” probably contributes to an increased attention to the individual level.

In addition one cannot take for granted that everyone wants that schools should provide community. Several influential persons argue that grading and competition are important components in schooling. An additional aspect concerns that fact that proponents of inclusive education has not as yet convincingly shown how principals and teachers shall work in order to create communities.


The importance of finding a balance

In all educational systems, or rather in all social contexts, there has to be a balance between the group, subgroups and the individual. I personally believe that there is a lack of such a balance in the Swedish school system where the notion of community has come to play a minor role. There is of course always a risk that a too strong focus on the groups tend to downplay individual rights. What is needed in education is a balance between these two poles. Not least important is the need to gain more knowledge regarding how strong communities can be built around common interests and identifications where difference is respected and seen as an asset. 

Is there any point in training working memory for pupils with ADHD and dyslexia?

It is quite common to search the reason for children´s school difficulties in the way they process information. Not least shortcomings in the so called working memory have been identified as possible causes of difficulties.

Working memory is involved in the processing of information and has a limited capacity both concerning how much information that can be processed and for how long it can be processed. A distinction is made within working memory research between the processing of visual and auditory information, respectively.

Several researchers believe that pupils with diagnoses such as ADHD and dyslexia have problems with their working memory and that the training of working memory would benefit their school achievement.

Training programs

Computer programs for the training of working memory are available. One example of a working memory exercise is to practice how many numbers in a sequence that can be recalled. The difficulty of the task increase as the pupils become more skillful. The more numbers recalled, the better working memory capacity.

Some early studies indicated that working memory training seemed to show great promise as a method for children with different types of disabilities. It is easy to imagine the enormous possibilities that opens up. By training one important cognitive process the pupils´ achievements can increase in a range of areas. Similar to when ones computer gets extra memory capacity, everything runs more smoothly and efficient.

But what view does research today portray of the possibility to increase achievement by working memory training?



Effects of working memory training                

Unfortunately there seems to be very limited support that working memory training will have positive effects on school achievemt regardless of what group we talk about.  In four recent systematic reviews that all concern effects of working memory training (see references at the end of the blog) it is concluded that working memory training can increase achievement in similar tasks as the ones that are practiced but that the training does not transfer to other types of tasks as e.g. school tasks.

Differently put, the conclusion is that the participants in the training programs become better in what they are practicing. It can be added that in the systematic review performed by Rapport et al,  the conclusion drawn is that no cognitive training at all has positive effects for children with ADHD.

Methodological issues

One problem that emerges when one wants to investigate the effects of a training program concerns to what group the achievement of the group receiving training should be compared. In several studies what is termed a “passive” control-group has been used, i.e. the group receiving training is compared to pupils that are not involved in any activity at all. In an “active” control group, on the other hand,  pupils are performing similar activities to the pupils in the control group, however without participating in working memory training per se.

It is of course more scientifically valid to use an “active” control group since effects having to do with expectations and motivation are controlled for, at least partly. When a training group has higher achievement on a follow-up test than a “passiv” control group we have no way of knowing whether this is due to the training itself or the increased motivation and expectations that the participation in a training program creates to some extent regardless of its content.

Melby-Lervåg and Hulme (2016) reanalyze two earlier research reviews where positive effects of working memory training were reported. In their analysis the effect of the training disappears when methodological demands are increased as when only studies with “active” control groups are included. However, we shall not draw the conclusion that the discussion about the effects of working memory training will cease and it should be noted that three of the four critical reviews that I have mentioned are made by the same research group/network. But judging from these four reviews  it does not seem as if the evidence support those who recommends this kind of training.


Two additional aspects

There are two additional critical aspects of working memory training for pupils with different types of difficulties that I want to discuss. The first one relates to the issue about what control groups to use discussed above. In a psychological/cognitive perspective it becomes important that pupils in the control group perform similar activities as the pupils who receive working memory training.

However, in an educational context it is more interesting to compare working memory training with other methods developed to increase educational achievement among pupils with different types of difficulties. Without having the possibility to get into details about this aspect I only would like to point out that there is a whole range of methods that have been shown to have very good effects on educational achievement for pupils with different kind of difficulties. Thus, it seems more than reasonable to use such teaching methods rather than working memory training with unclear outcomes.  

Finally I will also say a few words about the theory behind working memory training. The theory states that by practicing certain type of acts one can achieve effects on a totally different kind of acts since the former are considered more fundamental than the latter. I believe it is the different way around.

By teaching pupils the acts that taken together constitute the activity to be grasped they will acquire mastery of the activity. If we take our point of departure in the former theory, we choose to train the pupils´ working memory. If we depart from the latter theoretical standpoint we will teach children to decode letters, understand texts or whatever is at stake. A vast amount of research support the latter theory.


Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2013) Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 270-291.

Melby-Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2016) There is no convincing evidence that working memory training is effective: A reply to Au et al. (2014) and Karbach and Verhaeghen (2014). Psychonomic  Bulletin and Review, 23, 324-330-

Rapport, M., Orban, S., Kofler, M. & Friedman, L. (2013) Do programs designed to train working memory, other executive functions, and attention benefit children with ADHD? A meta-analytic review of cognitive,  academic, and behavioral outcomes. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 1237-1252.

Redick, T., Shipstead, Z., Wiemers, E., Melby-Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2015) What´s working in working memory training? An educational perspective. Educational Psychological Review, 27(6), 617-633.



Does David Mitchell´s book "What really works in special and inclusive education" provide a scientific foundation for teachers and special educators?

It is increasingly argued that professional work should be founded on best available scientific evidence. The movement towards “evidence-based” practices has been successful in medicine and is now starting to try to conquer the field of education. I read Mitchells book as a part of this endeavor. More specifically, he wants to equip teachers and special educators with strategies that have proven to be efficient in research.

The evidence-based movement in education faces three problems. Firstly, scientific findings and their implications for practice have to be summarized, secondly findings have to be translated into everyday educational activities and, thirdly, this has to be done in a way which is relevant to the goals of schooling. Let us call these the summation -, the translation- and the relevance problems. Thus, since David Mitchell is part of this moment it is reasonable to try to analyze to what extent he solves these problems.


The summation problem

When educational research and its implications for practice are summarized by proponents of evidence-based education it seems as if a lot of research is deemed as irrelevant on an a priori basis. More specifically, research that is focusing meaning-making and/or power relations is most often excluded. Moreover, quantitative research not devoted to measuring the effectiveness of strategies/interventions is also deemed as irrelevant.   

Still, it is very praiseworthy that Mitchell syntheses a large amount of effectiveness research and that he makes his criteria for the selection of studies explicit. Unfortunately, he admits that he includes studies that do not satisfy his own criteria. Thus, it is impossible to know exactly what criteria that he uses when selecting studies. In a similar vein, it is not clear how databases were searched. He has indeed found a lot of relevant studies, yet a quick check shows that he has left out some important studies.

Mitchells approach can be compared with approaches in systematic reviews. These are very ambitious and rigorous in explaining how studies are collected, how the quality is judged and how studies are weighed against each other when conclusions are drawn. Reading Mitchells book it is impossible to reconstruct his methodological decisions when gathering and analyzing studies.

Moreover, to my knowledge other researches have not examined his approach in depth. If we accept the criteria that knowledge, in order to be considered as scientifically valid, has to critically examined by other researchers, we cannot conclude that Mitchells summary of research findings has been scientifically validated yet.

This does not imply that Mitchell draws the wrong conclusions regarding the effects of specific strategies. Several of the strategies he mentions have a relatively clear support in research. In several cases, Mitchell´s argumentation is also convincing.

It should be noted though that hardly any evidence is presented with regard to how the strategies interact when used simultaneously. The evidence concerns mainly one strategy at a time.

Further, it is somewhat paradoxical that several of the 27 strategies presented in the book are not strategies in the usual sense of the word, e.g. “classroom climate” and “phonological awareness and phonological processing”. Classroom climate is possibly something that can be affected by a strategy and phonological awareness and phonological processing are desired outcomes of strategies. It is a clear problem that basic concepts in the book on several occasions are poorly defined.

There are other aspects of the book that I really enjoyed, e.g. the engagement expressed by Mitchell and his ability to in a simple and concrete way describe the strategies and how they can be applied in the classroom. When reflection has been a key word in school development, at least in Sweden, and advice has been avoided it could be relieving with the clarity that Mitchell uses in formulating how teachers and special educators should work (however, see below).

It should also be pointed out that Mitchell defines inclusion in a reasonable way avoiding the “placement”- definition (see my previous blog) that is too common in this research area. It is also interesting that he suggests that the strategies are useful both in inclusive and special education thus expressing a rather pragmatic approach to special needs education.


The translation problem

But exactly how are the 27 strategies to be translated into everyday school realities? Every strategy is in the list of contents linked to a piece of advice. Thus this adds up to 27 pieces of advice reaching from self-evident statements such as “develop the skills of the pupils”, “help the pupils understand what they read”, “help the students to remember important information”) over behavioral founded pieces of advice such as “change behavior problems by changing their antecedents” to reminders about things easy to forget (“control and inform the pupils at regular intervals about their progress”).

Reading the whole book one finds out that it contains gigantic amounts of pieces of advice. I urge the reader to count all the pieces of advice that are provided. Has the superiority of research in contrast to teachers´ experience and knowledge been preached more intensively than here? Do we believe that this kind of advice, which is said to be based on scientific evidence, will make teachers more skillful? And, which is decisive from a research perspective, where is the evidence that teachers that read Mitchell´s book will improve their teaching?

A lot of research shows that teachers often use research to legitimize what one already is doing and here there are good possibilities to do so since one can choose between 27 strategies. My hypothesis is that some teachers who read Mitchell´s book will continue as before, some may pick up something usable and some will probably be confused by a message which is almost impossible to interpret in its entirety. As an exercise, I urge readers to make a list of the pieces of advice given in the table of contents and the first ten pieces of advices provided in relation to each strategy and then reflect about whether these pieces of advice will facilitate the work of teachers or not.


The problem of relevance

How relevant is the book in relation to what teachers should achieve? I will discuss this issue in relation to the Swedish school system in which teachers have to follow a range of legal documents, prescriptions and recommendations. It would have been useful with a discussion about how the strategies should be interlinked with this. One problem in the Swedish context concerns e.g. that the behavioral strategies found in Mitchell´s book hardly is compatible with the view of pupils as active and responsible agents expressed in the Swedish curriculum.

A central question is of course: Strategies achieving what? Mitchell vacillates between different ideas about what the strategies are supposed to achieve. Sometimes it is implicit that they concern knowledge acquisition and at other times this is explicitly stated, sometimes goals of other kinds are involved.  However, schools, at least in the Swedish context, are expected to achieve a multiple of ends and how the strategies link to such a multiplicity of goals is not attended to in the book.


A scientific foundation?  

Finally I will return to the question asked in the heading which concerned to what extent Mitchell provides a foundation for a special needs practice based on research evidence. My criteria has been tough, in order to base practice on research evidence, research should be:

  • summarized with an explicit methodology (thus making a replication possible) and the summary should have been critically scrutinized by the scientific community


  • there should be research providing evidence that the translation of the research summary is beneficial to teachers work in relation the all the goals the are supposed to achieve

Mitchell travels a little bit on this road but his book also shows signs of evident shortcomings with regard to these robust criteria.


This blog builds upon the Swedish edition of Mitchell`s book:

Mitchell, D. (2015) Inkludering i skolan – Undervisningsstrategier som fungerar. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.

— 20 Items per Page
Showing 1 - 20 of 21 results.