It may seem a little strange that we have so little knowledge about how school environments can become more inclusive for all students now that 26 years have passed since the publication of the Salamanca Declaration.
In a research article that has recently been published (see link below), I try to argue for how we can gain more knowledge about how such environments can be created. I intend to somewhat develop the reasoning in the article in this blog.
First, though, I want to explain to the reader what kind of article it is. By far the most common article in educational research report outcomes in empirical studies and puts this outcome in a research context.
Empirical research is sometimes brought together in research reviews. More rarely, but not less importantly, research reviews can be about how concepts / theories / methods are used within a research area.
The article I wrote is none of this but is a positioning article. In such an article, one tries to shed light on the entire field of research, evaluate it and try to see development paths for future research. In this way, a positioning article is supported by what is at best a clear line of argumentation.
The starting point for the argument in the article is that there is a lack of empirically based theories regarding how more inclusive environments that include all students can be created at the system, school and classroom levels.
Another starting point for my reasoning is the social psychologist Lewin's idea that "there is nothing as practical as a good theory", which means that if a theory is not useful, it is not a good theory. Similar ideas can also be found in Dewey´s thinking and in pragmatism more generally.
Everyone who is familiar with the field of inclusion knows that there is no shortage of theories, so why are they not sufficient when it comes to developing an education system that includes all students?
Limited and elaborated theories
In the article, I argue that two different types of theories dominate in the field of inclusion research, limited and elaborated theories.
On the one hand, there are what can be labelled as limited theories, which focus on the relationship between variables. Examples of questions asked in such a perspective are: What influences teachers' attitudes to inclusion? Is inclusion effective?
The problem with these types of theories is that they are too general (de-contextualized) and often start from a traditional view of special education, where the focus is only on students in need of special support and not on the inclusion of all students.
On the other hand, there are what I call elaborated theories. Perhaps the most interesting theorist in research on inclusion is, in my opinion, Thomas Skrtic. I choose to discuss his theories in the article as an example of elaborated theories (there are many other examples).
Elaborated theories include, unlike limited theories, complex descriptions of how different levels and processes in society and the education system relate to each other. The problem with these theories, which becomes not least clear with Skrtic, is that they are not tried out in practice. In this way, there are constructions that often solve problems in theory, but we do not know what it means, and what consequences it will have, if their usefulness were to be tested out in practice.
A problem concerning both types of theory is that it is often not entirely clear what is meant by inclusion within the framework of the theories. I mentioned above that limited theories are often based on a view that inclusion is only about students in difficulty. In my article, however, I am interested in theory as a tool to create inclusive environments for all students.
Of course, a number of insights have been gained and interesting research results have been obtained within the framework of these two types of theory. What I suggest in the article, however, is that they need to be developed to become better tools for creating more inclusive environments.
The case study as a vehicle to develop better theories
A large part of the article is devoted to advocating case studies as a way of developing theories of inclusion. The case study as a method fits the complexity that characterizes education and teaching. Case studies have the advantage that they a) combine different levels of analysis b) take into account the complexity of the phenomenon c) do not violate the integrity (the whole) of the studied phenomenon and d) are suitable for theory development.
Case studies can focus on entire education systems, such as in articles of the type "Inclusive education in X" where X is a country. They can also focus on schools and classrooms. In both latter cases, it is of course important to contextualize the study in the educational system where the study is conducted.
The case study of course has to be related to prior research. If, for example, I want to do a study of a classroom that seems to develop in an inclusive direction, it is good to take previous studies about how such a development takes place as a starting point. Through a careful mapping of the case, a theory about how inclusive classrooms can be created can be further developed and nuanced.
It is also advantageous if case studies have a longitudinal dimension because we then have better opportunities to analyze which factors can explain the development of and decline in inclusive processes.
In the article, I exemplify how case studies can be used for theory development with the help of Bengt and Elisabeth Persson's studies of inclusion processes in the Essunga municipality in Sweden and my and Barbro Alm's study of an inclusive classroom, also in Sweden (see link below for references).
The studies are chosen because, based on my argument, they are central and important to the area of research on inclusion. I discuss in the article how they could contribute to theory development to an even greater degree than has been the case. In both studies, a number of factors are mentioned which seem to have been important for the inclusive development studied, but we need more knowledge about how these types of factors interacts in the developmental process towards more inclusive practices.
When I received comments from the reviewers of the article, I decided to remove a long section where I put the idea of inclusion in relation to liberal democracy. Within the framework of an article, only a limited number of themes can be included. Another topic that I could not fully discuss in the article concerns the question of what theories are and I therefore choose to end this blog with a discussion on this important issue.
Theories exist in different contexts
In the field of educational science, it can be fruitful to discern beteen theories about, for and in practice. Theories about practice aim to explain and increase the understanding of why the practice looks the way it does. These theories are often described as being non-normative.
Theories for practice aim to develop practice in a desired direction. We can see an analogy to these two types of theory in the division that is usually made between research about and research for the school.
The starting point for my article is, as mentioned, Lewin's maxim "there is nothing as practical as a good theory". This starting point breaks in a way the distinction between theories about and for practice since theories about practice should also be tested for their usefulness in developing practice.
The term "research for schooling" often means that research should contribute to increased goal fulfillment etc. But we can also see that more ideology-critical research can also be for practice, even if it proposes changes of such practices in the longer term.
Now, I would not go so far as to say that all theories must be for practice even when this is interpreted broadly and will also include research that is systemically critical. Some research can simply provide insights and understanding without necessarily affecting the practice more than very indirectly.
However, a lot of the research that is about the school contains a lot of, often unspoken, assumptions about what is good for the practice / how the practice should be developed. This is because the educational science researcher hardly escapes the question of educational ideologies and it is not possible to analyze the school from an ideology-free vantage point.
Theories in practice, finally, is about the theories that head teachers, teachers and others have about schooling. What is interesting in the two case studies discussed in the article is that it is practitioners who develop the inclusive processes. Usually we think that theories are developed in research and then these are to be transferred to practice, but here it is almost the opposite.
If we again invoke Lewin, it seems that these persons have had "good theories". The theories differ from scientific theories in that they are constantly tested in, and retested by, practice. They are not tested in empirical studies but within the framework of everyday experience and are negotiated in discussions with colleagues and others. Strictly speaking, they also exist only as aspects of interpretation and action in practice. They are thus not as de-contextualized and formal as scientific theories.
So I think we can learn a lot from the practitioners who have proven to have good theories in practice. By critically analyzing such theories in practice, we as researchers can contribute to developing theories for practice. Here, of course, a complex translation work takes place from interpretations and actions in practice to more formal theories on how more inclusive environments can be developed.
I thus believe that it is important that we try to bridge the gap between theories for practice and theories in practice in order to be able to develop more inclusive schools and classrooms. In that context, of course, theories about practice are also important.
Link to the article: