The life trajectories of research articles

Researchers and doctoral students are very satisfied when an article is accepted for publication. In this blog, however, the focus is on what happens to articles after the have been published. I think that far too little attention is paid to this issue. After all, it is of the utmost importance if someone reads the article and relates to its thoughts and /or results. I will thus discuss what I have chosen in the title to call the life trajectories of articles that have been published.

The thoughts discussed in this blog are a product of a major research project also involving Eva Forsberg, Åsa Hirsh, Henrik Roman, Daniel Sundberg and Ingrid Olsson. In the project, we have analyzed research with so-called "high impact", that is research that is often referenced by other researchers.

In one of our sub-projects, we have identified three types of life trajectories for articles which are described in more detail in the next paragraph.

"Magnets", "game-changers" and "game-challengers"

In the specific sub-study in the project where these three life trajectories were identified, research reviews were analyzed in leading special education journals on three arenas;  one American (three journals), one European (one journal) and one more international (one journal). It should  be noted that the journal I have called international here is dominated by European researchers. To measure the number of citations we used the databases Web of Science and Scopus.

On each of these arenas, there is a specific research revieew (see references below) that is cited significantly more than the review that is second most cited. We call these articles which attract most citations "magnets".

Only this simple analysis reflects something very important. In North America (mainly the USA) a reivew article dominates which deals with how to methodologically proceed to obtain evidence for specific working methods from studies where only a few subjects are studied. Many of these studies are about interventions for students with different diagnoses. In the European and the international journals, on the other hand, reviews about teachers´ attitudes towards inclusion are the “magnets”.

"Game-changers" are articles that are widely referenced and that partly put a research area in a new light. In this way, the article by de Boer that was identified above as a "magnet" is also a possible "game-changer" because it provides a more negative view of teachers´attitudes towards the placement of children with disabilities in mainstream classes than in previous research.

Kerstin Göransson and I have written a potential "game-challenger" where we criticize the mainstream of inclusion research (see reference below). Whether it will be a "game-changer" or not remains to be seen.

It is of course possible to develop the conceptual apparatus by identifying other life trajectories for articles. The examples above were generated in a systematic analysis of articles that have been referenced a lot, in the following I will describe and name additional life trajectories that I have identified in different contexts. However, the field is open for studies that develop the categorizations presented here or that identify new types of life trajectories for articles.

"Placeholders", "Early bloomers", "Sleeping beauties" and "Deep sleepers"

In several of the educational science research fields I have come in contact with, there seems to be a relatively limited number of articles which together account for a large proportion of references in the field. We can call these articles "Placeholders", which means that they have secured a place in the research area, at least over a longer period of time. "Magnets" are from that perspective the most prominent of "Placeholders".

But all other articles? There are articles that are initially referenced a lot, so-called "Early bloomers", which may be due to the fact that they concern a contemporary topic, but which other researchers in the longer run cease to refer to.

Then we have the articles that are rarely or never referenced. In general, there are in the fields we have examined a very large number of articles which have never been referenced, often up to half of the articles.

Of course, most people who write an article that is not referenced hope that it is a "Sleeping beauty". Someone will discover the good qualities of the article, even its beauty, and give it a new life trajectory. This is probably very unusual, it is unfortunately common for many articles to be "deep sleepers", i e extremely difficult to bring to life.

Final words

This blog can be seen as an invitation for the reader to start orienting oneself in a very exciting world. There are, of course, other words and concepts to describe the life trajectories of articles. Here I have presented what can be seen as an initial attempt to find and describe some basic life trajectories concerning research articles in the field of educational science.

I think that as a researcher it is important to find out what happens to your published articles. I think that it sometimes can be a disappointing exercise to see how often articles are referenced, but as researchers it is not our job to stick our head in the sand.

It is also important that we as researchers engage in these issues, as the number of times articles are cited may, to a greater extent than at present, form the basis for the distribution of research funds.

Finally it is time to state the most important question: Is the number of times an article is cited a good measure of its scientific quality? My answer is no regarding the field of educational sciences, which is the field I can comment on.

Quality in the field of educational sciences is always dependent on the perspective from which we assess quality. In other words, quality is a relationship between the scientific work and the perspective of the assessor and not an objective property of the assessed object. This is an important reason why it has proved difficult to measure scientific quality because researchers simply judge from different points of view.

In educational research there is a certain amount of "craftsmanship" about which I think there can be quite a lot of agreement. Such craftmanship can touch on everything from methodological considerations to the way arguments are presented. But if we go deeper into what constitutes high quality research opinions diverge.

An interesting example in this regard is Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's article Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching from 2006 published in Educational Psychologis (41 ( 2), 75–86) which by people with a polemical interest is usually cited as a proof for claims made in  progressive approaches to educational research

The article is widely referenced. For the more scientifically interested it is possible to follow in the Web of Science how this article is cited in research. We can then see that several are critical of the article and question the value of, for example, the conclusions drawn in it.

The point here is not to take a stand in this infected discussion but to illustrate that quality to a large extent has to do with the assessor's perspective. This does not mean that we as researchers should relate relativistically to the issue of quality but it does imply that it is important to  be explicit regarding our own perspective as regards research quality.

Examples of article types:

"Magnets"

North America:

Horner et al. 2005. “The Use of Single-Subject Research to Identify Evidence-Based Practices.” Exceptional Children. (referenced 1101 times in Web of Science against 438 times for the second most referenced research review in the 3 journals)

Europe:

Avramidis and Norwich. 2002. "Teachers' Attitudes Towards Integration / Inclusion: A Review of the Literature." European Journal of Special Needs Education. (referenced 483 times in Scopus against 66 times for the second most referenced research review in the journal)

International arena:

De Boer et al. 2011. "Regular Primary Schoolteachers' Attitudes Towards Inclusive Education: A Review of the Literature." International Journal of Inclusive Education. (referenced 201 times to 106 times for the second most referenced research review in the journal) (probably also a "game-changer")

Game-challenger

Göransson, K. and Nilholm, c. (2014) Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education. (now referenced 58 times in Scopus)

 This is the last blog before the summer, the next blog will be published in late August.

"We do not want to talk about inclusion"

In various contexts, one encounters educators who are hesitant to talk about inclusion. There are mainly three reasons for not using the word that I think are important to discuss.

First, the word inclusion been given different meanings. It can be difficult to use an ambiguous word in relation to the challenges educators face in school.

Secondly, there are those who believe that inclusion is an expression of something generally good and therefore is uncontroversial and a uninteresting.

A third reason to avoid the word is that one is skeptical of the ideational content that the word expresses. Possibly this may be due to the fact that schools are moving away from the ideal of inclusion and many teachers do not advocate inclusion.

In the following, I will briefly discuss these three reasons to avoid talking about inclusion.

Ambiguity

There are different ways to define inclusion (see link) which can be a reason to avoid talking about inclusion. Furthermore, it may not be a word that immediately comes down in a good way in the school world with its traditions.

It may be a little clearer to talk about inclusive learning environments and / or accessibility. To talk about inclusive learning environments could be a viable alternative to talking about inclusion.

The most important thing, however, is not which words are used but which school you advocate. It is of course possible to use words other than inclusion to talk about a) that the school should be well-designed for all students b) that special solutions should be avoided and c) that a number of measures are needed at several levels for the school to function on this way.

Something generally good

If inclusion means that all students should have a well-designed school situation and that special solutions should be avoided as far as possible, it can be said that this is a fairly uncontroversial goal for the school.

However, it can be objected that there are also those who believe that inclusion means building communities in schools and classrooms and this is far from an uncontroversial goal.

Furthermore, several would argue that inclusion is about the school realizing a broad mission, which is also not uncontroversial when a large part of the discussion today is almost exclusively about educational achievement.

In addition, the idea of ​​inclusion as presented in the Salamanca Declaration is not only a question of goals but also an idea about what means that are necessary in order to achieve the goal and these means are far from uncontroversial.

Thus, it is not really correct to claim that inclusion signifies something generally good, even if there is a certain truth in the statement. Exactly what this good consists of and how it is to be achieved is as has been argued far from uncontroversial.

Departing from the inclusion ideal?

There are (at least) three aspects of today's school which I think are a bit out of step with the inclusion ideal.

First, schools are to a large extent dominated by the educational ideology that is sometimes called “social efficiency” and which means that the primary purpose of the school is to qualify the workforce based on the needs of the labor market in the most efficient way possible.

What then happens is that the mission of knowledge (understood in a narrow sense as educational achievement) will overshadow other important goals for inclusion, such as e.g. personal development, the preparation for citizenship and the development of social relations.

Secondly, it is the student (and his or her parents) who are at the center of the educational discussion. The Swedish researcher Tomas Englund has described a shift in the school world from an emphasis on the common good to an emphasis on the individual (the private good). Inclusion is seen by many (but far from all) as an expression of "the common good" and therefore becomes a bit out of step with time.

Thirdly, students are today partly sorted based on, for example, class, ethnicity and able-bodyness to schools and classrooms in a way that many would think goes against the idea of ​​inclusion where a central idea is that differences enrich schools and classrooms.

Focus on individuals' knowledge goals in a divided school system is something completely different from what many would consider compatible with an inclusion ideal. Such a focus can also be a reason for not wanting to talk about inclusion.

There are also many teachers who do not believe in the idea that students in difficulty should be placed in regular classrooms. It is of course the case that then you do not want to talk about inclusion more than about something to be avoided.

A final word

In summary, I mean that we can talk about the idea that the word inclusion expresses in different ways. However, inclusion cannot be seen as an uncontroversial goal for the school. We must also be aware that there are several tendencies in the current development of schools which counteract the development towards an inclusive school.

It is important to distinguish between two things. On the one hand, actors who are sympathetic to the content of the concept of inclusion but who for various reasons find it easier to use other words to talk about similar things. On the other hand, actors who advocate a different type of school and who think that the issue of inclusion is either irrelevant, subordinate to the issue of efficiency or something that leads to negative consequences. In this group, people sometimes do not hesitate to more or less consciously misunderstand the concept of inclusion as in the expression "inclusion has gone too far".

Lin to blog about how to define inclusion:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/inclusion-four-definitions

Link to blog about what is meant by inclusion in the Salamanca declaration:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/what-is-meant-by-inclusion-in-the-salamanca-statement-

Five critical questions to learning studies

To avoid any misunderstanding I will point out from the beginning that I am positive about several aspects of Learning Studies (these are described in more detail below). However, it is my conviction that knowledge development is best done by looking at arguments for and against different theories and approaches.

Learning Stuies is beginning to gain an increasingly prominent position in school research, which is another reason to shed light on it. Therefore, I will raise a number of critical questions about Learning Studies, for the sake of simplicity hereinafter referred to as LS.

LS was developed from what is called the Lesson Study, which is a way of developing classroom work that emerged among teachers in Japan and China. The Lesson Study received attention when international comparisons showed that Japanese students understood teaching content significantly better than, for example, students in the United States.

The big difference between LS and Lesson Study is that in LS the importance of theory is highlighted and the teacher's knowledge assignment is put into focus. Slightly simplified, a cyclical process is used in LS.  To start with the students' initial understanding of a phenomenon is mapped (eg fractions in mathematics), teaching is planned, evaluated, refined and so on.

Liberating focus

I have repeatedly in this blog argued for the need for didactic research that is based on the teacher's assignment, so-called assignment-relevant research. I really like the focus on teachers' work in LS or perhaps rather on what is a completely central aspect of this work, namely teaching of knowledge content. What does the teacher need to do for the students to understand a certain object of knowledge? is a recurring and absolutely central issue in LS.

Another aspect of LS that I really think is fruitful is its focus on theorizing. It is important to create theories about how the learning of a certain knowledge content takes place. In this way, the pedagogical / didactic theory is also linked to practice. There is something very Deweyian about this way of thinking. Practice is the ultimate test of whether a theory works. Or as Kurt Lewin said: "Nothing is as practical as a good theory".

Furthermore, just as in phenomenography, attention is paid to the student's understanding of the object of knowledge, and in LS this understanding is put in relation to how the object of knowledge appears in the teaching. That the focus is on the student's understanding is crucial if we are to understand how a teaching can be developed.

Furthermore, LS partially abolishes the boundary between educational practice and research. It is largely  research that is developed  for the benefit of teachers. . It is also the case that many active researchers within LS are former teachers. But what happens when we put a critical light on LS?

Some critical questions for LS

Teaching in schools can be developed in many different ways, for example through the preparation of new teaching materials, through better teacher education, through working methods other than LS, through the preparation of lesson plans (and aggregation of such in databases) or through analysis of how good teachers work.

I often refer to a study of the effectiveness of an entire teaching program called Hot Math where the researchers achieved some fantastic outcomes. They did not use LS, but how do their approach compare to LS?

My first critical question is thus: Why is the outcome in studies within LS not systematically compared with the outcome of other working methods? It is a fact that the effect of many of these other working methods has been studied to a much greater extent than is the case with LS. The question becomes no less relevant because LS is very resource-intensive.

A problem that applies to all so-called intervention research is also the difficulty of showing longitudinal effects for students. Since LS is a form of intervention study, I wonder what longitudinal effects in students can be demonstrated based on the working method? I have searched for such information but have not found it.

Several representatives of LS would probably claim that it is the teacher's didactic ability, rather than students' performance, that is in focus for LS. In that case, it must be shown that the teachers' didactic ability develops (in addition to the didactic problem of the LS in which they participate). Will teachers participating in a Learning Study become better at analyzing new didactic problems?

A third closely related critical question is the following: What research shows that the working method in LS is effective when transferred to new environments? Or is it considered that it is not transferable without each teacher having to participate in a LS with participating researchers in order to be able to use the working method?

The fourth and perhaps the most important question concerns what happens to the schools` broad mission in LS. Of several assignments that can be discerned for schooling (such as the development of an enjoyment for learning, preparation for citizenship, development of virtues etc) LS focuses as I understand it exclusively on the knowledge assignment. This assignment is central, but what happens to the schools´ other assignments, should not the teachers work with them? The exclusive focus on the knowledge assignment rhymes well with ideas within New Public Management.

A final fifth critical question that I unfortunately do not really have the space to develop here concerns  theory development. Variation theory, which is a prominent theory formation within LS, at least in Sweden, seems to be a somewhat limited way of looking at knowledge development, although it also puts the finger on the importance to identify critical aspects of what is to be taught and that the ability to see similarities and differences is important in all learning.

But metaphors and perspectives are also important fundamentals in learning and so is the context of learning.  I do not think these aspects seem to be covered by variation theory. Furthermore, a focus on the broader assignment leads to the need to develop a teaching theory that deals with how this broader assignment, rather than the knowledge assignment alone, is to be achieved,

However, I seems that LS is not necessarily limited to variation theory, which I think sounds promising.

A final word

The best should not become an enemy of what is quite good. As I wrote in the introduction, I see LS as something that has the potential to drive knowledge in the educational field further. In order for me to be convinced of this I want better answers to my questions than the ones I have received so far:

1. How do we know that LS works better than other interventions?

2. How do we know that LS gives rise to change in the long run (in students and teachers, respectively)?

3. Does LS work when used by teachers who are not part of a LS study?

4. What happens to the broad mission in LS?

5. What type of theories need to be developed?

Is it possible for pupil welfare teams to work in a health promoting and preventive way?

The research about pupil welfare teams presents a rather problematic picture. The teams seldom function the way they are supposed to. Problems have been identified in interprofessional cooperation within the teams, in the relation between the team and the teachers, with leadership, in perspectives on school problems and so on.

Perhaps most importantly, teams seem to work a lot with “fire-fighting”, i.e. acting after problems have occurred instead of working with health promotion and prevention of problems. Health promotion and prevention of problems have for a long time been pointed out to be the desired way to work, yet it seems to be hard to achieve in practice.

There is some research evidence that university-driven programs can help schools  work more in line with what is prescribed, yet such changes seem hard to be made sustainable, as expressed in the following quote from what seemed to be a successful project:

“Results signaled that district personnel had achieved a measure of ownership of an effective practice and, more generally, that we had successfully bridged the notorious research-to-practice gap. Nevertheless, one year later, nobody in the district was using mainstream assistance teams”.

Thus, when we came across a pupil welfare team that seemed to have established health promotive and preventive strategies all by itself without any intervention from the inside, we found it fruitful to make a case-study of this school (see link below to the article on which this blog is built). So how can the school studied be described?

The Castle school 

The school is situated in a municipality with about 25.000 inhabitants recruiting pupils from mixed socioeconomic backgrounds and providing education from 1-9 grade. At the time of the study the school had 600 pupils with several pupils with a refugee background. All 63 teachers in the school were certified teachers and many had worked at the school for a long time. The two principals taught at the school before beginning to work as principals in 2004. The school had an impressive record because practically all pupils had become eligible for upper secondary education for many years (against a national average of about 85 % per year). Yet the educational attainment more generally was not outstanding. The pupil welfare team involved 13 persons. The pupil welfare team in Swedish schools is supposed to be multi-disciplinary and to work with learning, health and psychosocial issues.

Research questions

Two research questions guided the study: (1) Is the studied team working in a health promoting and preventive way? and (2) If so, how did their way of working emerge and how is it sustained? A huge data-material encompassing participant observation, recording of team-meetings and interviews of the team, questionnaires to the teachers, interviews with both principals (one was specifically responsible for the team) and a focus-group with pupils.

All this material was used to evaluate if the team worked in a health promoting and preventive way. It did seem that this was the case, especially when compared to patterns found in prior research. The material was further used in order to try to understand how this line of work had evolved and how it was sustained.

Emergence and sustainability of the teams work

We identified a number of factors that seemed important in order to understand the emergence and sustainability of the team´s work: 1) the mutual vision of the team shared by the school leaders when they became principals in 2004 (i.e. that the team should work in a new way and be a vehicle in preventing school failure) 2) the need for a long time-span to develop new processes 3) the leadership itself (described as percipient, not prestigious and distinct) 4) the susceptibility of the school environment for change 5) the availability of the team for the teachers (a lot of effort was put into establishing a routine where teachers came to the team before big problems had evolved) 6) regular meetings with newcomers in the 7th grade (in order to bridge the acknowledged gap between sixth grade and lower secondary school) 7) the turning of specific problems for problems into general issues (such was the case with the problem of speech anxiety where the proactive, general measures were taken to deal with what prior had been viewed as an individual problem) 8) the importance given to the work of the pupil welfare team when hiring new teachers who were supposed to work according to the routines of the team if hired 9) the ways to avoid problems involved with issues of confidentiality because of different rules for different agencies (i.e. especially between the school and the social services) 10)  reflection meetings devoted only to the team reflecting on their own work 11) the visibility of the team in the school environment and the importance given to the building of relations with the pupils 12) the idea that the work should be guided by a salutogenic perspective 13) the view of teachers as competent, knowledgeable and experienced.

Knowledge contribution

It is of course not easy to exactly establish the importance of each factor and how they affect each other. However, given that prior research to a large extent has identified shortcomings in the work of pupil welfare teams, the study described here provides an important research contribution in identifying factors that seem to contribute to how such teams can work in a more health-promoting and preventive way.

 

Larsliden, B. and Nilholm, C.  (2021): Is it possible for pupil welfare teams to work health promoting and preventively? – A case study. International Journal of Inclusive Education. Only available in pre-print:

Is it possible for pupil welfare teams to work health promoting and preventively? – A case study (tandfonline.com)

 

Research about the education of pupils with autism - an inclusion perspective

In a recently published article with my colleague Ingrid Olsson as lead author (see link below), an analysis of research reviews on educationg students with autism is presented. The study is an overview, i.e. a review of reviews.

Studies of methods or other aspects of educating students with autism are compiled in research reviews. In the overview discussed here, 80 such reviews were analyzed, each of which compiled research on some aspect of the education of students with autism.

The reviews were chosen based on the criterion that they are seen as significant in the research field. In this case, it meant that they were the most highly cited reviews (in Web of Science) of research about education pupils with autism at the time of our study.

As usual in contexts like this, it is illustrative with examples. Three examples of titles of reviews included in the overview are: a) Intervention and Instruction with Video for Students with Autism: A Review of the Literature b) Telehealth as a Model for Providing Behavior Analytic Interventions to Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review c) Use Of Computer-Assisted Technologies (Cat) to Enhance Social, Communicative, and Language Development in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In the mapping and analysis of the research reviews, the SMART (Systematic Mapping and Analysis of Research Topographies) approach was used (see link below). The analysis of the reviews focused in particular on how research on the education of students with autism can contribute to create more inclusive schools. It should be pointed out that SMART can be used both to do overviews but also reviews (that is, compilations of original research).

Questions asked in the study

In the following, we will focus on three of the research questions (slightly modified here) that guided the mapping and analysis of the 80 research reviews:

Question 1: Which research perspective dominates the reviews?

Here we distinguished between three perspectives, one functionalist, one hermeneutical and one critical. The functionalist perspective assumes that objective knowledge is possible and focuses on relationships between variables (e g the method x is effective in improving y). Hermeneutical perspectives have a more subjectivist starting point and analysis of interpretations of phenomena and conditions for such interpretations are at the center. Critical perspectives, finally focus on marginalization and injustice, for example through norm-critical analyzes of how norms around able-bodiedness marginalize people with autism.

Question 2: Do the reviews explicitly address the issue of inclusion?

This question followed from the point of departure of the SMART analysis which was to examine whether the mainstay of research on educating students with autism (as it appears in influential research reviews in the Web of Science) is at all oriented towards the question of inclusion of students with autism (it is of course possible, for example, to explicitly address the issue of inclusion and state that it does not work for a larger or smaller part of these students).

Question 3: What knowledge is generated which can contribute to creating a more inclusive education?

Ingrid developed a model in the article which she calls IEM (the Inclusion Education Model). Based on the model, knowledge contributions from research can be systematically arranged based on how they can contribute to create knowledge about different aspects of inclusion. The model also provides an opportunity to identify the type of research that needs to be developed.

In IEM, four types of knowledge contributions that can be made regarding the inclusion of students with autism are distinguished: 1) how more students with autism should have access to the regular education 2) what factors are required for it to work for students with autism in the regular education 3) what factors improve the situation for all students including students with autism and 4) what can contribute to creating communities in schools and classrooms that include all students.

The outcome of the analyzes

It was an expected outcome that functionalist points of departure would dominate in the reviews, but still somewhat surprising that only two of the reviews had hermeneutical points of departure and none had critical points of departure.

Even though about half of the overviews deal with regular education, it is rare that the issue of inclusion is dealt with explicitly and when this is done, inclusion is interpreted in a limited way.

The majority of studies are about reducing the symptoms of autism and developing social and communicative skills. Most reviews report positive outcomes of researched methods, but research needs to be developed regarding more specific issues such as which methods work for which students in which situations. It is important to remember that the autism diagnosis contains a wide range of students, which of course is a warning against too far-reaching generalizations. There is also a great lack of data on how methods should be implemented in ordinary education and be able to contribute to sustainable change.

As far as the model is concerned, it is therefore primarily with regard to 1) and 2) that the research provides useful knowledge contributions.

Concluding remarks

Most of the overviews are well or very well conducted. However, three critical points are raised in the overview when the research field is seen from an inclusion perspective: 1) More overviews should more explicitly address the issue of inclusive education, 2) More research is needed on how communities can be built in schools and classrooms where everyone, including students with autism, have a natural affiliation. 3) There is a need for increased knowledge about how the methods that have been shown to promote students with autism can be adapted to specific contexts.

The strength of SMART is evident from the important results generated. SMART enables an overview of a knowledge area, which is also analyzed on the basis of explicit points of departure, in this case the idea of ​​inclusion. In a similar way, SMART has previously been used to critically analyze research on teaching methods and inclusion (see references).

A weakness with SMART is that the quality of the underlying studies is not subject to scrutiny. But it is important to understand that SMART is intended to supplement and not replace other ways of conducting research overviews/reviews. But even without analyzing the quality of the underlying studies, it has been shown that SMART can generate very important implications for how research areas can be developed to contribute to a more democratic school.

 

The article presented in the blog:

Ingrid Olsson & Claes Nilholm (2022): Inclusion of pupils with autism – a research overview, European Journal of Special Needs Education.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2022.2037823

 

Link to information about SMART:

https://www.edu.uu.se/research/education/specialneeds/smart/

(see also: Nilholm, Claes. (2017) SMART – ett sätt att genomföra forskningsöversikter. Lund: Studentlitteratur.) Only available in Swedish. /SMART – a way to do research reviews/

Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å,. Forsberg, E. och Nilholm, C. (2021) "Mapping and analysing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography". Review and Education.

 

Articles using SMART critically:

Nilholm, C., Sundberg, D, Forsberg. E., Hirsh, Å. och Román, H. (2021) The aims and meaning of teaching as reflected in high-impact reviews of teaching research. Teaching and teacher education, 107. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X21002134

Hirsh, Å., Nilholm, C., Roman, H., Sundberg, D. och Forsberg, E. (2020) Reviews of teaching methods – which fundamental issues are identified? Educational Inquiry.https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/20004508.2020.1839232

Nilholm, C., and K. Göransson. 2017. “What Is Meant by Inclusion? – An Analysis of High Impact Research in North America and Europe.” European Journal of Special Needs Education 32 (3): 437–451.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08856257.2017.1295638

 

 

High impact research on teaching methods

The question of how teachers should teach is of course extremely important. A large part of the earth's population are pupils and students. Huge amounts of money are invested in education, which is also expanding globally. More and more people are being educated for longer periods of time.

Politicians and economists want to build education systems that are cost-effective. Students should learn as much as possible at as low a cost as possible. More efficient methods in the classroom increase productivity.

Seen against this background, we can understand the enthusiasm that met John Hattie's book "Visible learning" where the significance of 144 different factors for educational performance were analyzed. Tables provided opportunities to obtain a measure of the significance of each factor.

Far from all factors were about teaching methods. However, one conclusion in the book was that what the teacher does in the classroom is of great importance for educational achievemet. Thus, the question about how to teach came through Hattie's book perhaps even more in the spotlight than before.

Hattie's compilation is far from uninteresting, even if it has been subjected to substantial criticism. In an ongoing research project, we have been interested in research on teaching but in a completely different way than Hattie. (see link to the project's website below)

Instead of starting from the question of which teaching methods in the school that are effective, we took another starting point being interested in the research about teaching that seems to be valued by the research community.

Mapping of the research landscape

Our starting point was thus to analyze studies of teaching methods that are seen as important by the research community. We took the number of times a work was cited as a measure of its significance to the research community. It is of course possible to have views on such a selection, but we believe that the number of citations is one acceptable, if not perfect, way of capturing how widespread and significant an article is.

Since the research on teaching is incredibly extensive, we choose early on in the project to focus on research reviews of teaching methods The 75 reviews that were most cited in Web of Science during a 40-year period (10 from 1981-1990, 15 from 1991-2000, 25 from 2001-2010 and 25 from 2011-2020) were selected for mapping and analysis. All reviews were articles published in journals.

An article by Henrik Román and others (see reference below; the article won the award for best / most interesting article in the journal 2021) is a basic account of our data collection. This comprehensive article corresponds to approximately three standard research articles. Interestingly, we had a hard time to find a journal that accepted articles of this length. In the following, the key parts of the results and conclusions in the article are presented.

Research questions

1) What are the methodological starting points for the reviews? Methodological starting points were operationalized as A) scientific tradition (functionalism (objectivism, consensus view of society), interpretive (hermeneutics, phenomenology), critical perspectives (focuses on contradictions, conflicts, power structures) and as B) format for the overview (e g meta-analysis)

2) What is the focus of the reviews?

A) The degree of generality (teaching in general vs subject-specific method / working method; limited to a certain age of students / the whole of K-12)

B) Which aspect of the teaching is in focus? (a) teaching as a social / humanistic activity; b) methods with more or less pronounced claims to be general; c) more specific aspects of methods / methods related to specific topics / content; d) methods where ICT artifacts are used.

3) In what context are the reviews produced? a) the authors' domicile, experience and disciplinary affiliation; b) journal arenas.

Results of the mapping

The article of course presents a number of results and these should be seen as a substantial knowledge contribution in terms of a hitherto largely unexplored area. It is not possible here to present the outcome of all these empirical analyzes, but the most important results can be summarized in five points:

1) The functionalist tradition dominates, but there are a considerable number of reviews that are more conceptually focused and / or have their roots in an interpretive tradition. Furthermore, the increase in the number of meta-analyzes during the period is not what we expected, even though a large part of the reviews are meta-analyzes.

2) Educational psychology dominates our selection of reviews and largely defines the area in terms of more general reviews and reviews with a focus on language teaching. In both of these areas, quantitative methodologies dominate, especially meta-analyzes.

Somewhat unexpectedly, reviews concerning teaching science (physics, biology and / or chemistry) are significantly more varied in terms of theoretical traditions and methodological points of departure than the more general reviews and reviews that focus on language teaching.

3) The focus of the reviews changes over time. The clearest example is the increased element of reviews of teaching with the help of ICT artifacts. Overall, reviews dominate which, via original research, evaluate new ways of teaching, as a contribution to both research, policy and practice. It is noteworthy, however, that the review authors usually draw rather cautious conclusions, pointing to many different factors that complicate the picture.

4) The reviews together concern a wide range of aspects of teaching from the very specific to overarching theories of teaching. An important distinction that we are interested in is that between subject-specific and general reviews. As stated above (see point 1), reviews in the mathematics / science area differ from reviews with a more general focus or those that focus on language teaching. The article describes and explains the differences as follows:

“In particular, the community of research on science teaching seems more classroom-oriented and more concerned with teaching as a matter of content, often placed in relation to social conditions. The larger interest among researchers on science teaching for treating teaching, learning and knowledge as social phenomena seems paradoxical. Still, this could be another indicator of the relative strength and autonomy of the natural sciences. Science is more prestigious than other academic disciplines, which may place science-teaching researchers and practitioners at an advantage compared to those engaged in other types of teaching, and manifests a traditional school curriculum hierarchy.”

5) The reviews are in English and are produced and presented mainly in an Anglo-American research world, where educational psychology dominates the field of educational science research. In terms of subject teaching, no subjects other than science, mathematics and language are treated. Teaching in these subjects also dominates in overviews with a general focus.

Conclusions

The study of reviews provides basic knowledge of a research area. What we have mapped are highly cited reviews of teaching methods in school and, as usual, further research is needed to see how general the patterns we have found are.

Such further research can be based on, for example, the following questions: Does the pattern apply to all reviews of teaching methods in the Web of Science? Would we get a similar result if we used citations in Google Scholar as a selection criterion? What does the pattern we have found compare with if we have analyzed research reviews in genres other than journal articles, for example in so-called handbooks? (For example the Handbook of research on teaching).

However, it does seem to be an important task to analyze research that is highly cited in the Web of Science because this database has a high status in the scientific community. A small part of all research journals are represented in the database, which has strict quality criteria that a journal must meet in order to be included in the database.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that the article I have written about here is of a mapping nature. In the methodology, SMART, which is used in the project to map and analyze research, an important part is also to critically examine the research based on the overall question of whether the research community deals with the right issues in the right way. These aspects are developed more in other parts of the project.

 

 

Link to the project's website:

https://www.edu.uu.se/research/education/specialneeds/smart/

 

Article:

Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å,. Forsberg, E. and Nilholm, C. (2021) "Mapping and analysing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography". Review of Education. https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rev3.3258)

 

The goals of teaching

There are two absolutely crucial questions regarding the goals of teaching: 1) Who should decide the goals? 2) What should the goals be?

We have analyzed how these issues are addressed in 75 highly cited reviews of research on teaching methods (see references and links below). The reviews concerned more encompassing teaching methods such as cooperative learning to more restricted aspects of teaching such as e.g. the teaching of a specific content.

It should be emphasized that the reviews are generally very carefully carried out and published in journals with good reputations, such as the Review of Educational Research.

What did we find? Before answering that question, it may be interesting to see how the two questions above are answered in the Swedish school system.

A broad mission established by political means

Undoubtedly, it is a broad assignment that is formulated for the Swedish school in the Swedish Education Act. I have previously identified seven key assignments for the school system:

· A knowledge assignment that includes the desire to learn

· An assignment that deals with the transfer of values ​​and education to democracy

· A compensatory assignment

· An assignment that deals with the development of virtues (such as responsibility)

. Promotion of personal development

· Promotion of community

· Health promotion

This broad assignment has been established by politicians and is specified in more detail in curricula, general advice from authorities etc. Since the education is to a very large extent realized in teaching, we can expect that the above-mentioned goals should also be central to teachers in the Swedish school system.

Of course, goals of schooling are formulated differently within different school systems. Given the central role of goals in education we were interested in how issues concerning the goals of education and the related issue about who should formulate such goals were addressed in high-impact research reviews of working methods in teaching.

A somewhat unexpected result

We expected that the reviews of working methods in teaching would contain reflective sections on the school's goals. Furthermore, we expected that the reviews would refer to governing documents of various kinds such as laws, curricula, documents from professional organizations etc.

We were thus surprised when only about one-fifth of the research reviews explicitly addressed the issue of the school's goals. Furthermore, only one-fifth of the reviews were oriented towards governing documents. Only six of the 75 reviews dealt with both the question of the school's goals and related to governing documents.

In our discussion in the article, we point to this as an obvious shortcoming in the research field. We state three arguments for why it is important for research reviews of working methods in the school to explicitly relate to the school's mission and the documents that regulate schools in different ways.

Firstly, there are divided opinions about what the goals should be. Therefore, it is important to be clear about the choice of goal, to motivate why goals were chosen and to discuss the consequences of this choice for the review.

Secondly, goals are often set for the school in various forms of governing documents, and  it is thus important in research to relate to these in order to clarify one's position; Do you see it as your task to make it easier for teachers and others to achieve the goals that are set out in various forms of governing documents? Do you see these goals as illegitimate and mean that teaching should have other goals?

Thirdly, an increased focus on the goals of teaching can deepen the discussion about the role of education in society.

A (perhaps) more expected result

Thus, although it is rare to explicitly relate to the school's goals in the reviews, it is obvious that the reviews implicitly orient themselves towards goals for teaching. Clear examples of this are quantitative studies of working methods where the dependent variables reflect what is believed to be central to the working method to achieve.

In the analysis of what teaching goals appeared in the reviews, we distinguished between four types of goals: a) knowledge / cognitive goals (eg results on knowledge tests, development of metacognitive ability) b) goals that are about developing personal qualities (eg commitment, responsibility, creativity) c) social goals (eg empathy, communication, relationships) and d) democracy goals (eg knowledge of democracy, preparation for citizenship, development of communities in the classroom).

Furthermore, we analyzed whether a certain goal was seen as a means to achieve another goal, rather than being seen as a goal in itself. An example of this is if we see communication between students as something that improves the development of knowledge, rather than that such communication is desirable in itself. Each review was thus assigned a number of codes depending on which goals for  teaching could be found in the article and if one goal was soon seen as a means to another goal.

Not unexpectedly, knowledge / cognitive goals dominated, which constituted a main goal in about 4 of 5 of the reviews and were seen as a means in only about one in ten articles. Development of personal qualities constituted a main goal in about a third of the reviews and was seen as a means for other goals in another 1/3. Only one article out of seven identified social goals as the main goals of teaching while about one third identified social goals as means to achieve other goals. Only five of the 75 reviews identify democratic goals as the main goals.

Conclusions

There are perhaps above all two conclusions that can be drawn from the outcome described above.

Firstly, that it is important that reviews to a greater extent than before explicitly highlight what is seen as the goals of the teaching and that these are put in relation to governing documents and the like.

Secondly, it is important to critically analyze the teaching goals that are taken as more or less given in the research.

In the article, we  discuss the outcome of the study, among other things, in the light of the contradiction between Dewey's and Thorndyke's teaching ideologies. While the former saw education and teaching as a preparation for and a deepening of democracy, the latter saw education from a more instrumental perspective, where it is largely a matter of achieving pre-set goals.

Several have stated that Thorndyke emerged victorious from this battle, which is also evident in our analyzes of mostly US research. It is probably not very controversial to say that this instrumentality has also been given more leeway in Swedish schools in later years.

Article on which this blog is based:

Nilholm, C., Sundberg, D, Forsberg. E., Hirsh, Å. Och Román, H. (2021) The aims and meaning of teaching as reflected in high-impact reviews of teaching research. Teaching and teacher education, 107.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X21002134

 

Articles where the same data material is analyzed:

Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å ,. Forsberg, E. and Nilholm, C. (2021) Mapping and analyzing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography. Review and Education.

 https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rev3.3258)

 

Hirsh, Å., Nilholm, C., Roman, H., Sundberg, D. och Forsberg, E. (2020) Reviews of teaching methods - which fundamental issues are identified? Educational Inquiry.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/20004508.2020.1839232

 

The articles are written within the framework of the research project "Research on teaching - mapping and analysis of research landscapes" funded by the Swedish Research Council. Link to the project's website:

https://www.edu.uu.se/research/education/specialneeds/smart/

Tensions in the field of inclusive education

My colleague Gunnlaugur Magnusson describes in the article "From Salamanca to Sweden: inclusive education as policy in transit" (see link below) three tensions in the field of inclusion which I intend to discuss in this blog.

Gunnlaugur's article otherwise has a broader focus and analyzes the policy for inclusive education and how it, so to speak, traveled from Salamanca into the Swedish educational system. I can really recommend the article to anyone looking for a thorough description of this process. Here, however, I intend to discuss the three tensions ("tensions") identified in the article.

More specifically, the tensions concern 1) who is to be included, 2) the relationship between inclusion and special education and 3) how inclusion is to be organized and shaped. Let's discuss them in turn.

Who should be included?

There is a tension here between the position that inclusion involves all students over the position that inclusion concern different groups and the position that inclusion is only about students with disabilities / in need of special support. The Salamanca Declaration is certainly not crystal clear on this point, but the emphasis in the document is on students with disabilities.

Gunnlaugur points out that expressions such as "everyone should be included" in its formulation almost presupposes that someone has been excluded and thus point out one group or several groups as not naturally belonging. This is something of a paradox and easily puts the designated groups in a subordinate position.

At the same time, there are also those who see a danger when the inclusion discussion include all students/ many student groups because it takes focus and resources away from students with disabilities.

The relationships between inclusion and special education

Here, too, are different positions to be found. The word "inclusion" often becomes almost a synonym for "integration" and is then about how students with disabilities can be placed within the framework of the mainstream. This is close to how people thought in traditional special education, where this thus was discussed in terms of integration. This usually means that specially trained staff should facilitate placements in the mainstream classroom.

There are also those who believe that special education stands in the way of inclusion. As Gunnlaugur points out, there are researchers who believe that the special education's identification and categorization of students' difficulties is not in itself compatible with inclusion. The really radical proponents of inclusion almost want to abolish special education completely. Peder Haug takes such a position in his interesting book, "Pedagogical dilemma - about special education" from 1998.

Of course, there are a number of intermediate positions here, but few would probably argue that special education should cease completely. However, as I have pointed out on several occasions in this blog, it is surprising how many proponents of inclusion that seem quite untroubled by the fact that special education rests firmly a distinction between normality and deviance.

Organization for and implementation of inclusion

There are also a number of different views in this area. Well known is the American researcher Tomas Skrtic's idea that an inclusive school needs a completely new type of flexible organization that is basically not built on the basis of a bureaucratic logic (as school systems are). Instead, he advocates a high degree of professional autonomy, where joint problem solving is the key to how schools should be able to meet the needs of all students in an inclusive environment.

Others want a clear difference between a normal system and a special education system where the latter according to this view is necessary to support inclusion. This is how many influential special education researchers have thought about inclusion.

Already in the Salamanca Declaration, a number of measures at different levels, from the global level down to the classroom and support systems, are enumerated. These measures are seen as prerequisites for inclusion to be developed. Unfortunately, however, the fact that inclusion requires major, systematic changes often disappears in the discussion. It is also a pity that there is largely a lack of research that shows which factors are most important for creating inclusive schools and classrooms and how such factors interact (see link to previous blog below).

Conclusions

It is very important to note that the field of inclusion is not as homogeneous as it may seem. While (so far) few in the special education area have been opposed to inclusion, there are still quite different things that one strives for. That one has managed to gather different views under the banner of “inclusion” means that important differences have been made partly invisible and may have hindered necessary discussions to develop.

It is thus important to distinguish inclusion advocates who believe that inclusion is only about the situation for students with disabilities who are placed in regular classes, where the need to develop a special education support system is strong, to those who believe that inclusion is about all students and where you see a certain skepticism about special education, at least if this becomes too extensive.

I notice that I return to a more general argument, which I have presented in other blogs, which is about the importance of being clear about which goals for  education that are advocated. If we do not clarify what we want with education, for example in terms of inclusion. we risk having a discussion where we think we mean the same thing even when we differ in quite fundamental ways.

Link to Gunnlaugur Magnusson's article:

https://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1594917/FULLTEXT01.pdf

Link to blog about how research can be developed to help create more inclusive environments:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/inclusive-education-a-need-for-better-theories

 

The Finnish wonder?

A number of years ago, a seminar entitled "The Finnish wonder" was announced at the university where I then worked. It was with great interest that I went to the seminar.

I read the title as the starting point for a critical and comprehensive review of the Finnish school system as criticism  and versatility for me are basic scientific virtues. This does not mean that one could not be positive to different aspects of a school system, but a scientific analysis means analyzing both positive and negative aspects in relation to what the system is supposed to achieve.

The positive aspects of the Finnish system are, of course, desirable. It is really extremely important that a school system gives all students good knowledge and skills. In addition, the Finnish system was at the time the school system where parents' level of education had the least impact on the student's school performance.

But as the reader probably already understands, the seminar did not offer a critical analysis of the Finnish school system. I had simply read too much into the title or rather into the seminar format. The seminar was, as I recall, an attempt to explain the Finnish success story. But what would it have meant then to critically examine a school system that has had top results in international comparisons of achievement?

Critical aspects

Well, I would have liked a description of how the Finnish system succeeded considering a broader mission. In an analysis of the governing documents for the Swedish school, I found seven aspects of a broad mission: 1) A knowledge mission that includes the desire to learn 2) An mission that deals with the transfer of values ​​and education to democracy 3) A compensatory mission,  4) A mission that concerns development of virtues (e.g., responsibility); formulations about personal development can possibly be seen as part of this mission or as a mission in itself 5) Promoting personal development 6) Promoting community and 7) Promoting health.

I have not carried out a similar analysis regarding the governing documents for the Finnish school system but I want to argue that the seven aspects are relevant in the analysis of any school system.

I have told an anecdote in some lectures and it is possible that the passing of time has made me miss some detail but I think I remember the main point. It was a feature on TV that showed how the Swedish national hockey team's coach had introduced a new element. More precisely he started to ask the players about their opinions on how the team should play. So there were Swedish hockey millionaires who contributed constructively to the common problem solving.

Someone then asked the Finnish coach if this way of working would be workable for the Finnish team. Well, he was very skeptical of this idea and as I remember it, he emphasized that the Finnish players were used to obeying rather than discussing in this way. I usually retell this to illustrate that upbringing and education is about so much more than knowledge achievement.

I myself have tried to make an analysis of how the Swedish school system succeeds with the broader mission. It was a mixed picture that emerged and for some of the missions there was hardly any data. It was a similar analysis I had hoped to encounter at the seminar I described at the outset of this blog.

Since no such analysis was provided let us instead turn to an investigation of inclusion in the Finnish school system.

Inclusion in Finland

I base part of my presentation in this paragraph on the article Attitudes of teachers towards inclusive education in Finland by Timo Saloviita, published in Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 2020 (see link below). As a reader of this blog I probably know, I write "inclusion" when a placement definition is used.

When attitudes to “inclusion” are asked for, it is attitudes to students in difficulty being placed in regular classes that are referred to. It appears in Salovita's study that Finnish teachers are largely negative towards “inclusion”, but special needs teachers are more positive than other teachers. Throughout the article confirms patterns from previous research, where Finnish teachers have also been found to be more negative than teachers in other countries.

Salovitta also highlights Finnish education statistics which show that the proportion of Finnish students who participate in special education activities outside the regular classroom part of the day ("part-time special education") was 22.7% and the proportion of students who received education in special education groups outside of regular teaching was 5 % the school year 2015-2016. It is a very large part of the students.

There are many who claim that these efforts also partly explain Finland's success in international knowledge tests, something Saloviita is hesitant about: “It has been argued that this high amount of part-time special education would be behind Finland's success in PISA comparisons (Kivirauma & Ruoho, 2007). This suspicion, however, has remained highly speculative ” (p. 273).

As I have pointed out on various occasions in this blog, there is evidence that special solutions in the form of "part-time special education" in, for example, early reading learning have good effects. Thus, temporary solutions of that kind can be beneficial.

As I also often write in this blog, inclusion must never be a "the closed door policy", on the contrary, it can support the student to get a temporary support outside the classroom. However, such support can be provided in a more or less beneficial ways and it is important to see it as something temporary. It is not clear from Salovita's article exactly how the part-time special education is managed in the Finnish system.

Research cannot be said to provide support for more encompassing special solutions. However, this line of research is fraught with major methodological problems, which is why one should be careful with conclusions.

In any case, the Finnish system seems not very inclusive when it comes to the placement of pupils. Since the entire Salamanca Declaration and a number of subsequent international agreements express that the abandonment of special solutions is one of several important preconditions for genuine inclusion, the Finnish system can hardly be characterized as inclusive.

It could be said that the Finnish system is still more inclusive than the Swedish system because students in difficulties seem to learn more in the Finnish system. Of course, this is no small matter. But in that case, it is more correct to say that the Finnish system better in that respect, since it cannot be characterized as inclusive.

It should also be emphasized, as Sundkvist and Hannås show in a comparative study of special education in Norway and Finland (see link below) that the Finnish special needs teachers have a very high professional qualification while a lot of the special education work in e.g. Norway is carried out by assistants!

Concluding words

In summary, it can be stated that I want to raise a question mark about the success of the Finnish school system. While the knowledge mission has been carried out in what in an international comparison is a very successful way, which of course deserves attention and admiration, we know too little about how the Finnish system succeeds with a broader school mission to be able to characterize it as a "wonder".

From an inclusion perspective, the Finnish school is an example of a school system that is a segregated system in an international comparison with almost a third of the students in various forms of special solutions and with a teaching staff that predominantly opposes that students in difficulty have a natural affiliation to the classroom. From that perspective, it is surprising that David Mitchell (see reference to previous blog below) highlights Finland as a good example  in a book entitled "Inclusion - teaching strategies that work" (see link below).

 

Link to Saloviita´s article:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00313831.2018.1541819?src=recsys

Link to article comparing special education in Norway and Finland:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2020.1786911

 

Link to blog about Mitchell´s book:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/does-david-mitchells-book-what-really-works-in-special-and-inclusive-education-provide-a-scientific-foundation-for-teacher-s-and-special-educator-s

 

 

The dilemma perspective part 3 - a dilemma is not a problem

This is as stated in the title my third blog on the dilemma perspective (see links to part 1-2 below). Part 2 and part 3 have been added because there seems to be a need to further clarify the perspective.

The immediate reason for this blog is a remark from a colleague that students often perceive that a dilemma is a problem. It is also the case that the special education area is full of difficult problems, which is why I think that the word dilemma interpreted as being a problem feels right to many.

However, a dilemma as it has come to be defined in the dilemma perspective is not a problem, not even a difficult one, to solve. A problem has a solution, while a dilemma is about finding a balance between different alternatives. However, it should be pointed out that a dilemma can be problematic in the sense that it can be difficult to find the right balance.

A dilemma is thus a goal conflict where it is a matter of finding a balance between goals that are each desirable but where they are in opposition to each other.

Within the framework of other perspectives on special needs education, problems rather than dilemmas are identified. What distinguishes such perspectives from the dilemma perspective is that they claim to solve the problems. Let's start by seeing how it works.

Solving special educational problems - some alternatives

Special needs discourse is a discourse about educational problems. What distinguishes perspectives on special needs education is where problems are located, which also has implications for how the problems are to be solved. In the extreme cases, the problem is placed, on the one hand, in the student, and, on the other hand, in factors completely outside of the student (in structural injustices, in discourses, in the malfunctioning of schools, in the professional division of labor) (see link below to prior blog on perspectives on special education).

In the former case, the solution to the problem is to change the student. By getting the student to work harder and / or giving him/her new strategies / aids and/or medication, the student's problem of acquiring basic skills, reaching standards or whatever the problem consists of is attempted to be solved.

In the latter case, the problem is suggested to be solved by, for example, abolishing structural injustices, establishing new discourses, developing the school's activities and / or by fundamentally changing the work of professions. These are very much potential/theoretical solutions to the problems.

In Swedish special needs education, a system perspective has long been advocated where the problem can be located at different levels. It is common here to talk about the individual, group and organizational levels. Through the right efforts at the right level, educational problems are expected to be solved.

Dilemmas

A dilemma as defined in the dilemma perspective means that two desirable goals are opposed to each other. Both cannot be achieved at the same time but a balance must be found. I usually talk about three dilemmas in special needs education but there are many more.

The first dilemma involves an opposition between the goal that no students should be singled out as different and the goal that schools need to categorize students who need additional support.

The second dilemma concerns the opposition between the goal that student´s should not be evaluated negatively and the goal that shortcomings in learning have to be labelled and defined in order for students to receive help.

The third dilemma arises between the goal that all students should have the right to attend the regular classroom and the goal that student should learn basic skills which according to research at times is better accomplished in one-on-one teaching or in teaching in small groups.

But as I said, there are more dilemmas. An example of an additional dilemma concerns the distribution of resources, where on the one hand the resources must be distributed so that everyone gets their fair share, and, on the other hand, some students need more support and thus should receive more resources.

Some concluding remarks

Since the dilemma perspective opens up the idea that there are no simple solutions for how education systems should handle school problems, it also opens up for the need of dialogue between different actors. Democratic issues will thus become important: Who should decide how these dilemmas should be handled?

Another way of understanding the dilemma perspective is to see it as a reaction to critical perspectives that in different ways deconstruct school problems and where the more or less unspoken idea is that in an inclusive school all contradictions / dilemmas will come to an end.

From a dilemma perspective, this is a utopian thought, partly due to the actual differences that exist between students. Denying that there are not real differences can mean that students' difficulties are not noticed.

What appears to be an ethical attitude in (critical) theory can thus have negative consequences in practice. Trying to balance, and not deny, the dilemma in an ethically well-balanced way is the starting point in the dilemma perspective.

 

Link to blog # 1 about the dilemma perspective:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/a-dilemma-perspective-in-special-needs-inclusive-education

Link to blog #2 about the dilemma perspective:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/a-dilemma-perspective-in-special-needs-education-part-2

Link to blog about perspectives on special needs education:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/perspectives-on-special-e

 

 

Interview with Alan Dyson

The emergence of a dilemma-perspective in inclusive/special needs research is closely associated with the work of the English scholar Alan Dyson. Alan is nowadays retired but held earlier a position as a professor at the University of Manchester. I have interviewed Alan about the emergence of this perspective in the English context.

 

Claes: Alan, you were for a long time researching inclusive education and were also a well known person in the international scholarly discussion about inclusive education. You were also a person who quite early on warned against being carried away by this appealing, I would almost say seductive, idea of inclusion, while at the same time seeing several benefits with the idea. However, I believe you started to raise some reservations already a few years following the Salamanca-declaration. Could you tell me a little bit about how this came about?

 

Alan: I think it is important to realize that the discourse of ‘inclusion’ was a relative latecomer in the field of what we might call progressive education. In England, for instance, there were already many progressive movements that were established long before ‘inclusion’ appeared. In terms of ‘special needs’ education, there was a relatively-successful ‘integration’ movement aimed at educating children in regular rather than special schools.

In regular schools themselves, there had been many developments aimed at educating children experiencing difficulties alongside their peers in ordinary classrooms, giving such children access to the full curriculum, and transforming the role of the special educator into that of a consultant to and supporter of regular teachers. Beyond special needs education, there had been a largely successful movement to end selection by ‘ability’, some exciting experiments with democratic schooling and radical curriculum design, and considerable development of provision for children for whom English was a second language.

 

Claes: I see, there were lots of interesting and progressive changes going on in the English educational system when “inclusion” appeared on the scene?

 

Alan: Yes, in the mid-1990s, inclusion seemed to hold out the promise of uniting all of these progressive causes under a single banner and founding them on a unified set of principles. Given that it had the backing of international organizations (notably UNESCO) and the support of multiple scholars and advocates, it was difficult not to get excited about the developments that it might yield.

However, there were also two problems. First, the universalizing discourse of inclusion seemed to run the risk of ignoring important differences between the different progressive movements that it sought to subsume. A particular issue was the division between – to put it crudely – disability and disadvantage. The early inclusion movement seemed to focus on children who were regarded by their education systems as disabled and who were segregated and offered limited opportunities on this basis. Some reversal of this process by ending segregation and expanding opportunity seemed essential.

Yet, much of my own work, first as a teacher and then as a researcher, was focused on children whose difficulties in schooling were not attributed to disability, but derived (albeit in complex ways) from the socio-economic disadvantage they experienced. Simply ending segregation was unlikely to be enough for these children since most of them were not in segregated settings in the first place. Instead, their situation seemed to call for positive interventions in terms of their learning and, more widely, in terms of the socio-economic challenges they faced.

The discourse of inclusion could certainly accommodate both of these situations, but it seemed to me that it did so by resorting to ever-more generalized statements of principle. Indeed, this trend towards generalization seems to have continued as ‘inclusion’ seeks to accommodate more and more ‘marginalized’ groups within its ambit. Consequently, it always struck me that the discourse of inclusion, for all its concern with diversity, made little acknowledgement of the different interests of the groups that fell within its purview. On the contrary, it is arguable that its focus on disability has effectively imposed a disability template on other, very different, groups that it claims to represent.

 

 

Claes: So the first problem was that diversity within schools was not properly attended to, what was the second problem?

 

 

Alan: The second problem was – and it seems to me still is – with the implicit theory of change in the inclusion movement. The movements that predated ‘inclusion’ had already learned that change within the education system is possible, but that it takes a very long time and is exceedingly hard. Moreover, change that is driven by minority interests in such systems is largely doomed to failure unless it can find allies in the majority system. This is because such change must overcome a powerful series of vested interests, from teachers to parents, policy-makers and politicians who – often for compelling reasons - find the status quo appropriate to their needs.

In this situation, ‘inclusion’ seemed to lack a coherent and powerful theory of change. It has always seemed to focus on a mixture of the repeated advocacy of generalized principles to whoever is prepared to listen combined with the identification of a few outstanding examples of inclusive practice. It seems implicitly to have pinned its hopes on a process of individual conversion – that is the realization by good individuals of the rightness of the inclusion case and a consequent commitment to the principles of inclusion in those individuals’ practice. Undoubtedly, ‘inclusion’ has had many successes on this basis. But how widespread and sustainable those successes have been in the face of vested exclusionary interests is, it seems to me, highly debatable.

From the start, then, inclusion seemed to me to be an exciting development judged as a set of principles around which many groups, interests and movements might rally. But beneath that surface excitement were – and continue to be – many tensions, contradictions and unacknowledged problems.

 

Claes: Can you say more about the tensions and contradictions you identified?

 

 

Alan: When I first started thinking about the kinds of fault lines in the discourse of inclusion that I have just outlined, I found the concept of educational ‘dilemmas’ very useful. In the form in which I used this concept, an educational dilemma arises when two educational courses of action have equally desirable but mutually incompatible aims. At the level of generalized principles – which all too often is the level at which inclusion operates – such dilemmas scarcely exist. It is difficult to disagree, for instance, with the propositions that all children should be educated together and that all children should be provided with the set of circumstances that enables them to learn most fully.

 

Claes: I agree, on that level, inclusion is an almost non-controversial concept.

 

Alan: Yes, however, these principles have to be realized in particular sets of conditions – in particular classrooms in particular schools with particular sets of resources and so on. It is at this point where the hidden dilemmas begin to emerge. What if some children learn some things better apart from their peer group (should the high-attaining mathematicians always do their maths alongside their lower-attaining peers, for instance)? What if, in a situation of finite resources, giving resources to one child means that other children are denied access to them (think of teacher time as an obvious example)?

Such dilemmas are so common in schools and across the education system that teachers and policy-makers routinely find ways to deal with them, often (for better or worse) almost without thinking. Yet it seems to me important to acknowledge that such dilemmas exist and that they can never really be ‘solved’. Instead, more-or-less satisfactory ways are found of balancing the competing claims of different courses of action. But the underlying dilemma does not go away, which means that the balance that is struck at one time and place is inherently unstable. At another time and place it will seem inappropriate, or undesirable, or simply impossible, and new ways of striking a balance will have to be found.

Moreover, dilemmas emerge and are ‘balanced’ in circumstances that are structured by all sorts of social interests and perceptions. The biographies of teachers and other educators will shape the ways they perceive and respond to dilemmas. They will do so within the context of school organization, curriculum development, resource allocation and so on that reflect all manner of social, political and economic realities and interests.

In this situation, the simple advocacy of generalized principles as though they were unproblematic is, it seems to me, of limited use in surfacing and engaging with these underlying issues. If they remain unsurfaced, any new response to a dilemma resulting from such advocacy of principles will simply embody in a new form the structures that have underpinned previous discredited responses.

Again, specific examples are always helpful. The inclusion movement has typically argued against segregating some children into different schools so that they can access specialized teaching. The emptying of special schools, however, creates a classic educational dilemma – how to maintain children in their peer group whilst giving them access to the specific resources they need in order to learn. A common solution is to place additional adults in the regular classroom who are claimed to have specialist skills or, at the very least, can offer additional adult time to children who might otherwise struggle. Yet we know that such practice all too easily creates a barrier between the child, her/his peer group and the teacher. Instead of being fully included in the regular classroom, a new kind of special school emerges – this time, a special school of one child and one adult working separately in an apparently inclusive context.

 

Claes: Yes it does seem like there are educational dilemmas that are unavoidable.

I believe that the critique against traditional special education in England to a large extent has been driven by educational sociologists. It is my opinion that educational sociology has provided a lot of useful critique towards traditional special education, do You agree?

 

Alan: On the one hand, sociology has played a key role in unmasking the hidden exclusions and inequalities that underlie apparently benign responses. I think in particular of Sally Tomlinson’s landmark A sociology of special education - a powerful revelation of the negative effects of a special education system that presented itself as a benign effort to support vulnerable learners. However, where it seems to me that educational sociology has been far less successful is in translating its critical analyses into positive proposals for change. We learn from sociologists what is wrong with the current system, but we rarely learn what is right with it, much less what we might do differently. Perhaps sociologists would say that is not their job.

 

Claes: To put it differently, I guess you might say that they do not provide much guidance in how these inevitable tensions and dilemmas are to be balanced.

To me research has always been a very personal issue and I believe that it is similar to you. Could you say something about the importance of your background in becoming a researcher in the educational field?

 

Alan: One aspect of my background that has been particularly important is that, before becoming a researcher, I spent 13 years as a ‘special educational needs’ teacher, mainly in regular secondary schools serving areas of high socio-economic disadvantage. ‘Special needs’ in this context was not primarily about disability. Traditional special education responses were not particularly relevant to the children I worked with. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with these children that demanded specialized teaching, or that disbarred them from regular settings. What mattered was finding ways of making the full curriculum accessible (and, more particularly, meaningful) in the ordinary classroom. So I spent much of my time working with subject-teacher colleagues to enable them – and, in some cases, to persuade them - to teach these children effectively and working with school policy and organization to make them more responsive to the nature of the school population.

This background has always made me feel something of an outsider in the inclusion movement. I have always had the sense that the movement is largely driven from a disability perspective that is subtly different from my own.

 

Claes: Finally Alan, I will of course ask you about how you view the prospects for a more inclusive society including more inclusive school systems. I know that you keep saying that you have not kept up with the discussion but I still believe that you have some interesting ideas on this issue.

 

Alan: I think I am an optimist in the long term and a pessimist in the short term. If we look at the trajectory of education systems over the past century, it seems to me that many of them have become more humane, more universal and more effective in reaching a wide range of children. They have in other words become more inclusive, not least of children identified as disabled or otherwise marginalized. So long as societies as a whole continue on a progressive track (probable but, I admit, not guaranteed even in the ‘liberal West’), I see no reasons why these trends should not continue in education.

However, in the short and medium term it seems to me that the situation is much more complicated. In my own country, the more-or-less progressive education policies and explicit commitment to inclusion that were put in place in the 1990s and early 2000s have been swept aside by right of centre governments from 2010 onwards.

It seems to me that this is inevitable, given the resistant nature of conservative forces in education systems across the world. Moreover, it also seems to me inevitable that the inclusion movement – or, more particularly, the discourse of inclusion – will, in the medium term, begin to fade away. As an attempt to create a broad church of progressive educational thinking it has never been more than partially successful. Despite the rhetorical efforts of inclusion scholars and advocates to embrace the concerns of all marginalized groups, it seems to me that key developments in, for instance, gender and ethnicity equality or in responses to educational disadvantage have taken place with only limited reference to the discourse of inclusion. This trend is not helped by the near hegemony that disability concerns have within the discourse of inclusion.

However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Before the emergence of ‘inclusion’, those of us in the special needs field found progressive inspiration in the concept of ‘integration’. Quite rightly, inclusion advocates pointed out the limitations of expecting children to adapt themselves to an unchanged and essentially hostile regular education system and proposed a better way of thinking about the task. It will hardly be surprising, therefore, if ‘inclusion’ itself suffers a similar fate.

To go back to the notion of dilemmas. ‘Inclusion’ is not a solution to the dilemmas of educating diverse children, but is a temporary response which is by its very nature unstable. Some other response will inevitably emerge to take its place.

 

Claes: I do think the Swedish reader of this will see similarities between the changes in the educational system in England and present developments in the Swedish system. I guess one way for the inclusion-concept to survive given what you have said, is to open up for diversity in the full sense of the word, or, to put it slightly differently, to adopt more of an intersectional approach. I really share your conviction that we need to develop workable theories of change in order to move schools into more inclusive directions.

 

Thank you for this interview, Alan, it has been very interesting to take part of your experiences in and with the field of inclusive education and let us hope that your optimistic view of the more distant future will be realized.

How can teachers and special educators / special teachers collaborate to create more inclusive environments?

The question in the title was the starting point for a research review conducted by David Paulsrud at Uppsala University (see reference and link to the article below). Based on what we know about Swedish special education, the answer to the question in the title is very important.

It has been shown that teachers in Sweden feel that they do not have access to the support they would like, while many points out that such support is crucial for inclusive school environments to be created.

Another way of expressing this is to state that the system perspective that, at least until recently, has permeated the thinking about special education in Swedish schools has not been completely easy to implement in school practice (see link to previous blog below).

The system perspective implies that school difficulties should be addressed at the organizational, group and individual levels. The idea has been to counteract the school's tradition of routinely individualizing school problems, i.e. to explain them with shortcomings in the student and / or his / her home environment and to create special types of teaching groups for students who are not considered to fit into the mainstream.

If schools are to become more inclusive according to the system perspective special educators / special teachers should not mainly work with students in segregated environments. Instead it becomes important to work closer to the regular teaching and support the teacher in different ways in the effort of creating an inclusive learning environment in the regular classroom.

Thus, the collaboration between teachers and special teachers / special educators becomes of crucial importance. Rather than having different responsibilities (for "normal" and "deviant" students respectively) a common responsibility for all students is foregrounded.

But what does research say about how the collaboration between teachers / special educators can contribute to more inclusive school environments?

Different forms of cooperation

In the article that presents the outcome of the research review written by Paulsrud with some assistance from me, two different forms of collaboration, co-teaching and supervision, are distinguished as well as a mixed form consisting of, for example, an investment in professional development combined with supervision. Thus, altogether research about three forms of collaboration in relation to the development of more inclusive schools is analyzed.

Both co-teaching and supervision have in many contexts been presented as forms of collaboration which can contribute to a more inclusive school. Co-teaching is an overarching concept which includes different forms of cooperation: 1) one teacher teaches and the other assists, 2) Station learning, 3) Parallel teaching (division of the class into groups), 4) Alternative teaching (a smaller group is created temporarily) and 5) Team teaching (shared responsibility for joint teaching).

When it comes to supervision, a distinction is usually made between counseling and reflective conversations. Counseling is based on an expert role where the student is placed at the center while reflective conversations are process-oriented and focus teachers' reflection on their work. In Swedish special education, the supervision model rather than the co-teaching model has been an ideal.

Many have thus seen the possibility that the collaboration between teachers and special education / special teachers can be organized in such a way that it contributes to more inclusive environments. But what support does this idea have in research?

In order to investigate this question the aforementioned research review, which is based on international, qualitative research, was carried out. Only studies with observational data were included in the review. On the other hand, several of these studies combined the observational data with interviews. A total of 25 studies formed the basis for the review.

Conclusions in the research review

Co-teaching was the form of teaching that dominated the material (17 studies), which is probably due to the fact that the supervisory role is not as established internationally as in Sweden. When it comes to co-teaching, a relatively clear pattern emerges that has also been found in previous research, which means that the model that the teacher teaches while the special teacher assists dominates. In this way, co-teaching seems in part to be, so to speak, about moving special education into the classroom and not about a shared responsibility for the entire student group.

Only a small number of studies (4 studies) of supervision were identified and there were both studies where egalitarian relations between teachers and supervisors were identified but also those where there were clear communication problems in the relationship. It should be noted here that there are several dissertations in Swedish where supervision has been analyzed but which were not included in the research overview, which as mentioned focused international publications.

There were also a few studies (4 studies) which were characterized by a mixed form (see above). In the reports from these studies, the authors were positive in their description of the collaboration and its ability to develop the school in a more inclusive direction.

In the review the importance of factors such as personal chemistry and time and space for the collaboration were identified as important. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the analysis is when the collaboration between teachers and special teachers is put in relation to educational policy changes.

Several studies identify, perhaps not entirely unexpectedly, a conflict between collaboration to create a more inclusive environment and the external requirements, in the forms of content management of teaching and the achievement of pre-determined goals, that characterize governance through New Public Management.

Conclusion

The research overview illustrates problems that may arise in the various forms of collaboration but also factors that are important for the collaboration to become more fruitful. The conclusions are also supported by the fact that similar factors have emerged in previous reviews.

As pointed out in the overview, however, there is rarely substantial evidence for success factors in the sense that it has in a methodologically sustainable way been shown how factors de facto lead to changes in the students who are to be included. There is a great deal of room here for future studies than include the consequences of the cooperation which to a greater extent than before also analyzes the conditions for cooperation between teachers and special educators / special teachers in the light of educational policy changes.

It is also important to note that the international research that forms the basis for the research overview has been carried out primarily in the USA, where the conditions for special educational work are different than in e.g. Sweden. This explains the focus on co-teaching that most studies have and thus the few studies that deal with supervision.

However, it is possible to draw a similar conclusion also with regard to the Swedish context. Thus, more research is needed concerning the consequences of supervision. Does it lead to that students become more included? In a similar vein it is also important to analyze how inclusion policy is affected by other educational policies such as the emergence of NPM.

 

Paulsrud, D. och Nilholm, C. (2020) Teaching for inclusion - A review of research on the cooperation between regular teachers and special educators in the work with students in need of special support. International Journal of Inclusive Education. Published on-line.

 

Link to the article:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13603116.2020.1846799

 

Previous blog where, among other things, challenges for the system perspective are discussed: (in Swedish): https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blogg/start/-/blogs/att-professionalisera-det-specialpedago

 

 

Special needs education: ideologies, perspectives and theories

Some questions are rarely asked and here I intend to try to answer some questions that are rarely asked. This may seem like something of a paradoxical starting point for a blog but I hope the reader will be convinced of the importance of asking and trying to answer these questions after having read the blog.

What are the questions? While many have asked the question of what is meant by a perspective in special needs education, I think there are significantly fewer who have wondered about which educational ideologies the different perspectives express. In a similar way, I do not think everyone has thought about the relationship between educational ideologies and educational theories or how these theories relate to the perspectives in special needs education.

Now it immediately became quite complicated, so let's try to analyze one thing at a time, before we move on to discuss the relationships between ideologies, perspectives and theories in the field of special education.

Educational ideologies

Central to an educational ideology is to define the purpose of education, how teaching is to be conducted and what knowledge is to be imparted to the students. In the Western tradition, several educational ideologies can be distinguished.

Schiro (reference below) distinguishes, for example, between four educational ideologies: 1) the scholar academic 2) the learner-centered (3) the social efficiency-oriented and 4) the re-constructionistic.

The academic ideology is characterized by a traditional view of teaching and learning where knowledge developed in the western academic disciplines are to be transferred to the new generation. The needs of the labor market are focused on in the efficiency-oriented ideology. In the student-centered ideology, the basic meaning of education is that students develop as individuals. The reconstructive ideology, finally, means that the purpose of education is primarily to contribute to the development of a more democratic and just society.

Ideologies can be mixed but we can never be ideology-free in relation to education. It is possible to distinguish ideologies in slightly different ways, but Schiro's division fits well into the context and we will use it when ideologies are to be related to perspectives and theories. But first a brief discussion of special education perspectives and educational theories.

Perspectives

Most researchers agree on distinguishing between two special education perspectives. On the one hand a deficit perspective where the starting point is that some students have shortcomings that the school must remedy / compensate for and, on the other hand a critical perspective where school problems are seen to emerge from shortcomings in the teaching environment and / or the school system or from society taken in a wider sense. The latter perspective is usually to a greater extent than the former associated with the idea of ​​an inclusive school.

While special education is always a discourse about problems in school, the perspectives differ as to where the problems are located. (For a more detailed discussion of perspective, see link to previous blog below and reference to book about perspectives in special education below (in Swedish)).

Educational theories

There are a very large number of theories in the social and educational sciences. Several attempts have been made to create some form of overarching map of such theories. It is not uncommon to distinguish three overarching approaches within which different theories are developed: a measurement approach (positivism / variable research), an interpretive approach (phenomenological / hermeneutical) and a critical approach.

Different names are used for the different approaches and further divisions can of course be made. The purpose of the maps is, however, to simplify and for the sake of simplicity, we will use this simple division in the continued reasoning (see link to previous blog below for a more detailed presentation of theoretical approaches).

Relationships

It is time to return to the issues initially outlined. For the sake of simplicity, we could distinguish two fairly clear relationship patterns which at least I think are relatively easy to find in research on special education. However, I would like to emphasize that the reasoning here about relationships between perspectives, educational ideologies and theories should be seen as tentative because we are moving on what has largely been untouched ground.

On the one hand, we have a fairly traditional special education research that is based on a deficit perspective. This is usually based on an educational ideology where efficiency is focused and leans towards positivism / variable research. Research is often about transferring basic skills and codes of conduct to students in different types of difficulties in the most efficient way possible.

It may seem somewhat surprising, but this more traditional research often has elements of a reconstructive educational ideology. A prominent feature of several researchers who work within this tradition is that they want to contribute to creating a more inclusive school and in this way express a reconstructive educational ideology and partly also a critical view of the school system. However, many believe that "inclusion" must be legitimized within the framework of the efficiency-oriented educational ideology by proving to be effective.

On the other hand, we have a special education research, or perhaps rather a research on special education, which locates school problems to environmental factors. The educational ideology covered is to a greater extent reconstructionist, that is, the role of education is according to this view to develop a more democratic and inclusive society. The overall scientific point of departure is critical, the existing school, its practitioners and also the more traditional research on special education are criticized.

Here the question is not whether inclusion is effective or not central. Instead, the right to participation for students in different types of difficulties / with disabilities is seen as a matter of democracy and values. Peder Haug is perhaps the researcher who has expressed this position most rigorously (see link below (in Swedish)).

Interestingly enough, a large part of the educational science research on special education since the Salamanca Declaration has had reconstructionist elements. It has thus been difficult to conduct research that has not been based partly on a reconstructive perspective.

It will be interesting to see if the current political turnaround in Sweden towards the notion that "inclusion has gone too far" will change that picture.

Final words

I have outlined two different ways in which perspectives, ideology and theory are linked. It is of course a simplified picture, but I still think it largely reflects my experience of the area. But it is of course possible to imagine other relations between perspectives, ideologies and theories and I leave it to the reader to think further along these lines.

Before I end the blog, however, I want to say something about interpretive theories. These are common in Swedish educational science research, but how can we see its relations to the educational ideologies and the special education perspectives?

Since studies of meaning-making are central, almost defining, for interpretive theories, the question of relations to educational ideologies and special educational perspectives takes on a specific meaning here. Rather than taking a stand on which perspective that is “correct”, researchers are interested in the meaning given to special educational phenomena by different groups and / or in specific contexts.

In this way, the actors' own interpretations are given more space. In other contexts, I have argued for a third perspective on special education, a dilemma perspective, which precisely takes into account that special education issues are interpreted in different ways by different actors (see links below). In this way, power issues also become important: Whose should have interpretive precedence?

Such a question can be linked to a reconstructionist ideology, but it then becomes a cautious form of reconstructionism that takes the pluralism that exists in the field as its starting point. At the same time, an openness to different voices means a recognition that all ideologies, perspectives and theories can contribute something in the discussion about how the school can be developed.

 

This is my last blog before the summer. The next blog will be published the 23:rd of August and the topic is cooperation between teachers and special educators.

 

Schiro, M. S. (2013 2nd ed). Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE publications Inc.

 

Link to blog about perspectives on special education:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/perspectives-on-special-e

 

 

Nilholm, Claes. (2020) Perspektiv på specialpedagogik. Lund: Studentlitteratur. /Perspectives in special needs education)

 

Link to blog about various theoretical starting points in educational science:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/one-turn-too-many-

 

Link to book by Peder Haug (in Swedish):

https://www.skolverket.se/download/18.6bfaca41169863e6a653289/1553956358

 

Links to blogs about the dilemma-perspective:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/a-dilemma-perspective-in-special-needs-inclusive-education

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/a-dilemma-perspective-in-special-needs-education-part-2

 

 

 

 

Ideology and evidence in educational research

It is well known that there are different educational ideologies within the school area. There are thus different ideas about basic things such as what education should aim for, how the teaching should be carried out and what should be counted as knowledge.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the question of evidence, that is, what should be counted as proof of which policy and practice is the best, depends on the ideological position from which it is asked.

In medicine, the question of evidence is less complicated. There it is a consensus that the purpose of health care is to promote health and cure diseases. It is unfortunate if the difference between medicine and education is not taken in account in the discussion of evidence.

There are different ways to distinguish educational ideologies. Here I will distinguish between five different educational ideologies that express different views on the aims of education and on how it should be shaped: 1) efficiency orientation 2) progressivism 3) “bildung” 4) democracy orientation and 5) character formation.

In the following a very brief account of the central aspects of the ideologies will be given and it will be pointed out how the different ideologies calls for different kinds of evidence.

Let us start with the efficiency-oriented ideology because it is the ideology that to a large extent seems to dominate policy today and also to some extent the work of schools. It is the ideology that is most closely associated with the idea of ​​evidence and it is also closely linked to New Public Management.

Evidence for efficiency

Within the framework of this ideology, it becomes central to convey useful knowledge in the most efficient way possible. The main purpose of the education system is to qualify pupils/students for the labor market. When searching evidence for effectiveness, one leans, for example, on John Hattie, who has compiled the effect of a number of factors in terms of their effect on educational performance. Ideally, a cost-benefit analysis should also be made where the cost of various measures in relation to their effect is calculated.

According to this logic, schools should invest in working methods and teaching methods that, for as low a cost as possible, give the most possible effect in terms of educational achievement.

Behind this thinking lies an economical metaphor. Just like for any product, the best possible product should be produced at the lowest possible cost. Evidence is thus needed for how pupils in the cheapest possible way can learn as much as possible.

In the efficiency-oriented ideology achievements in international knowledge tests are often taken as evidence that an education system is successful, while the systems ability to prepare students to participate in a democratic society (see below) is not analyzed. Surprisingly, this means that sometimes no distinction is made between educational systems in dictatorships on the one hand, and in democracies on the other.

Nor do surveys and reports which show that students' interest in the content of knowledge taught in school seem to decline, sometimes significantly, with an increased number of years in school rarely leadi to any alarming reports from those who advocate the efficiency-oriented ideology.

Evidence for meaningfulness

Within the framework of student-centered teaching, what is sometimes called progressive education, the student's activity and development are seen as important. A central theme is that the teaching should be meaningful to the students. It is the knowledge that is perceived as meaningful that students will carry with them in life.

Thus, we need evidence for which teaching that lead to active students and that is perceived as meaningful by the students. In the production of evidence, it is therefore important to assess methods and ways of working based on whether they are perceived as meaningful and whether they take advantage of students' initiative and activity. Obviously, the student's own opinions and perceptions become important in terms of evidence of which working methods are successful.

Within the framework of the efficiency-oriented ideology, it is the effect on educational achievement that is in focus but whether the students perceive the teaching as meaningful or not is infrequently explored.

Evidence for “bildung”

The idea of ​​evidence rhymes badly with the idea of ​​“bildung” because “bildung” means that the learning subject to a large extent forms her/himself. It is therefore difficult to know in advance what is a fruitful outcome of the educational process.

It is illustrative to compare this approach with intervention studies where the goals of the knowledge process have already been determined in advance and are operationalized in the dependent variables.

There are, of course, very different opinions about what knowledge content “bildung” should encompass. The ideal originates from a time when the accumulated human knowledge was still in some sense manageable and the ideal was also formed before the age of mass education.

Without going further into this discussion, it can be stated that "educational achievement" is an expression that rhymes very poorly with the idea of ​​“bildung” which is mainly about the subject's self-driven exploration of knowledge. It is, of course, possible to systematically examine which educational environments that promote such a development, but probably nothing that is prioritized by those who embrace this ideal.

Evidence for the democracy orientation

When the school's most important task is seen as providing conditions for students to develop into responsible citizens who can recreate and develop a democratic society, we seek evidence of how such a goal is best achieved.

This means that we analyze what it means to develop into a responsible citizen (what virtues, skills and knowledge this requires) in order to be able to systematically analyze whether an education system prepares students for democracy.

For example, it is important to master basic skills such as reading and writing and to have extensive knowledge to be prepared to sustain and develop democracy.

Also important are experiences of democratic processes and being able to exercise influence as well as a willingness to get involved in democratic processes.

Evidence for character formation

Within the framework of this ideology, it is central to educate individuals who act morally and in a broader sense develop into "good" people. This ideology undertakes similarities with several of the above and, like these, requires other scientific evidence than that required of the efficiency-oriented ideology.

Three important aspects

Finally, I would like to discuss three important aspects of the reasoning above. The first has to do with the question of relativism, is it not risky to relativize what counts as scientific evidence in this way? The second is about different ways of hiding ideological aspects of educationalresearch and the third concerns what evidence that is needed to develop Swedish schools.

It is very important to be able to distinguish between different forms of relativism. What I am advocating here is of course not that we should disregard established facts regarding school systems, for example students' results in international knowledge comparisons or outcomes of controlled studies. On the other hand, there is always an ideological element in identifying the facts considered most significant and also in how we interpret the meaning of facts.

It is thus not a question of the world being interpreted in an arbitrary way, but rather a question about us being clear about the starting points from which we make our interpretations. In fact, it implies a higher degree of scientific rigor than if we try to hide our ideological starting points, which brings us to the next point.

There are different ways to, so to speak hide ideological starting points. If, for example, we look for evidence of how schools should be run based on the assumption that schooling is only about knowledge achievement without acknowledging that this is an ideological stance, we hide the ideological points of departure for the analysis.

Sometimes such "fact" -oriented analysis is opposed to ideological approaches to the school. "Let's put ideology aside and see what works." Works with regard to which ideology is then the right question to ask.

My personal point of departure is that it is important to show with scientific rigor that what one advocates can be made to work in practice. This also applies to those who advocate a “bildung” approach. There is always the risk that the advocacy of an ideology can give rise to a number of unintended effects in practice and therefore, regardless of which ideology is advocated, it is important to study the consequences of ideologies when implemented in practice.

I think that an important contribution from the evidence movement is the clear requirement to use scientific research to show that something works or can be made to work as intended. Regardless of our ideological starting points, it is thus important to show that what we advocate can be made to work. An illustrative example here is the research on inclusive education where there is no shortage of articles that advocate this ideology but where there is a astonishing lack of knowledge about how inclusive schools should develop and, not least, become sustainable (see link below).

Finally, the third point above: What scientific evidence does the Swedish school need? A reasonable answer to that question is that research evidence is needed that helps the school to achieve the democratically decided purpose of Swedish education. The laws and regulations governing the Swedish school reflects all the ideologies above and thus evidence of a number of different kinds is needed in order to improve schooling in Sweden.

 

Link to analysis of research on inclusion:

https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blog/start/-/blogs/inclusive-education-a-need-for-better-theories

Perspectives on special needs education

Interestingly enough, we can distinguish two completely different approaches to the question of perspectives on special needs education. On the one hand, we have those who think that the discussion is unnecessary and leads in the wrong direction. The important thing is to find ways to help students with problems. Why discuss different perspectives?

On the other hand, we have those who believe that the issue of perspective is absolutely central to the area. According to this approach, different perspectives provide completely different understandings of problems in school and how they can be handled

Those who advocate that the perspective issue is important are almost always critical of the group that believes that the perspective issue is more or less irrelevant. Furthermore, the former group believes that the latter also has a perspective, although it is often unspoken. The group's perspective is referred to in slightly different ways, for example as a shortcoming perspective, a compensatory perspective or as a categorical perspective.

Interestingly, these researchers do not have their own name for their perspective because they do not see the perspective issue as relevant. However, I would argue that they have a perspective, let's for simplicity's call it a compensatory perspective here.

The compensatory perspective is described by the researchers who discuss the perspective issue, often in opposition to some other perspective, often a relational perspective. The subtext is that the latter perspective is more developed than the former, although it is rarely stated correctly.

No one who has a compensatory perspective writes as far as I know about the perspective issue. This is quite logical because the starting point is usually that there is only one starting point, one's own, within the framework of which one studies the world as it is.

Personally, I believe that both of these approaches can contribute to the development of work with students in need of special support in school. Unfortunately, however, communication between the positions is lacking. This is not so strange because in both cases it is often difficult to see what you can learn from the other camp.

As an example of a lack of communication, I can mention that when I was once commissioned by the Swedish Research Council to arrange a conference with the country's professors in the field of special education, they failed with a more pronounced compensatory perspective. It may in itself have been a coincidence, but I could give more examples of similar phenomena.

My experience is that perspective meetings are demanding but rewarding. These meetings can force you to re-evaluate what you have taken for granted, which is always a process that challenges and takes time. When at one point I wanted to immerse myself within the framework of the compensatory perspective, I contacted some leading researchers with compensatory approaches and it gave me new insights. What became clear to me was not least the actual variation in students' conditions.

In any case, my starting point is that it is not possible to approach the area without having some form of perspective and that it is also important to be clear with which perspective is used and what legitimizes the chosen perspective. The perspectives differ mainly when it comes to defining what is problematic when problems arise in educational contexts.

Where is the problem located?

Several have thus argued that the perspectives differ with regard to where the problem is located. The starting point is then that special education is what could be called a "problem discourse", ie it is about problems that arise in the education system. I think almost everyone can share that starting point.

The problem can be attributed to various factors: the student, the student's social background, the way the class works, the teaching, the school leadership, the education policy, the discourses of professionals and society to name a few of the most common.

A dividing line can be said to go between those who focus on student factors and those who focus on environmental factors when problems arise in school. It feels like the former group is now starting to gain traction partly due to more general societal changes, such as an increased focus on the individual's performance in relation to pre-determined goals in school and the more general and new-age tendency to biologize identities in modern society.

How, then, can a compromise be reached between what appear to be fundamentally different views?

A dilemma perspective

My proposal for such a compromise is to see school difficulties as a dilemma. These dilemmas are basically about how differences should be handled within the framework of the education system. The dilemma means that you have to find a balance between goals that are desirable but also go against each other. The dilemma requires a balance to be achieved, but unlike problems, the dilemma cannot be solved.

An absolutely fundamental dilemma is about finding a balance between seeing difference as an asset (which is desirable) and giving students extra support (which is also desirable, but requires them to be singled out and valued negatively).

Unfortunately, the dilemma perspective is often misunderstood. I think the word "dilemma" struck because many feel that special education is a complex area. But what many people mean by the term "dilemma" is something that I would characterize as "problems", which thus differ from the dilemma in that they do not create a need for balance but rather a need for solutions.

The dilemma perspective is also based on the fact that it is seen as ethically problematic to point out children and students as deviant. I have met many people in the field of special education who do not see this as problematic at all and then one starts from a compensatory rather than a dilemma perspective.

In a more critical perspective on special education where the problem is placed in the environment, on the other hand, one misses, among other things, that any existing education system as we know them will value students because this is more or less inevitable. Such a critical perspective then easily becomes an advocacy of utopias which are difficult to realize.

The dilemma perspective in my interpretation is closer to a critical than a compensatory perspective but tries to address some of the shortcomings in a more critical perspective. At the same time, it is very important to take into account insights gained within the framework of more compensatory approaches.

Since I do not claim in my interpretation of a dilemma perspective that there is a right way to look at how education systems should handle the dilemma, the question of who should decide the perspective becomes important. This is an issue that has hardly received attention within either the compensatory perspective or the critical / relational perspective. Therefore, I have seen it as important to raise the issue of democracy in relation to special education. The question of who should decide the perspective thus becomes at least as important as which perspective professionals should work from.

A quest to communicate clearer….

In various contexts, I have strived to communicate clearer about what I mean by a dilemma perspective. Now I have also had the time and opportunity to work on my book Perspective on special needs education, which has just been published in a third edition (see reference below).

In this new edition, I have thus tried to become even clearer, not least with regard to the description of the dilemma perspective. For example, I have built on and developed examples used in previous blogs in order to concretize the consequences that different perspectives, including the dilemma perspective, have for everyday work.

Although my book is about theoretical perspectives on special education, I thus believe that they have clear implications for everyday work. I have also included study questions in each chapter which are intended to help the reader go into the different perspectives in depth.

The new edition also has a new cover that I am very fond of. The cover is designed by Karl Stefan Andersson. On the cover is the German artist Adam Macke's painting "Segelboot am morgen", which is intended to inspire a journey among different perspectives on special education.

 

Nilholm, Claes. (2020) Perspektiv på specialpedagogik. Lund: Studentlitteratur. (3rd edition)

Which teaching method is the best?

The question in the title is intentionally a bit provocative. Active teachers usually work with several different methods / working methods and many researchers believe that the search for a sacred method-Grail is fruitless.

This does not lead us to relativism. On the contrary, a number of working methods in school have been eliminated because studies have shown that they have not kept their promises, for example the idea that gross-motor training facilitates early reading and writing learning. Furthermore, different working methods have varying support in research. There are thus good reasons to delve into research on methods / working methods.

This is exactly what we did in the research project "Research on teaching - a mapping and analysis of research landscapes" (see link below). More specifically, as part of the project, we have mapped and analyzed the research overviews of teaching methods / working methods that have been highly cited in the Web of Science database.

Since the research on pedagogical methods / working methods is extremely extensive, we chose to analyze research overviews and not original studies. We call our own mapping and analysis an overview, i e an overview of research overviews.

The 75 overviews we have analyzed represent a number of different methods / working methods, from those associated with progressive pedagogy, over those that deal with the importance of different artifacts in teaching to more cognitively oriented research. A lot of the studies are meta-analyzes which provide numerical measures of the effectiveness of specific working methods.

In this blog, I want to discuss the question in the title and with the help of an analysis we have done show why it is so difficult to answer. But first something about how the analysis was carried out.

To map and analyze a research landscape

The approach, SMART (Systematic Mapping and Analysis of Research Topographies), used in the project is based on an interest in what researchers in a particular field focus on (see references and links below about SMART). This differs from the points of departure for the “what works” research which characterizes the evidence movement and which seeks answers to what is effective in achieving a certain purpose (usually but not always some form of knowledge achievement).

Based on the assumption that research that is highly cited is seen as important by the research community, systematic mapping and analyzes of such “high-impact” research are carried out. As mentioned, the research on teaching is extremely extensive and therefore we did not start from original research but from research overviews in our analysis.

The 75 most cited research overviews on methods / working methods in Web of Science over a 40-year period were thus mapped and analyzed. The empirical analysis carried out by Associate Professor Åsa Hirsh at the University of Gothenburg (see reference and link to the article where the overview is reported below) focused on the problems identified by the article authors themselves regarding what conclusions could be drawn about the teaching methods / working methods that were in focus for their reviews.

It should be pointed out that this analytical approach is very unusual when compiling research. Usually, through the compilation of research, guidelines are sought for how teaching should be set up and thus the fous is on what is effective. Interestingly enough, we came to that question as well but via detours after having started at a completely different point.

Three problems identified in the research reviews

Through a very careful analysis of the research overviews (see summary in article), Åsa found three recurring challenges which were identified by many article authors.

The first problem concerned the presence of moderating factors. Moderating factors are those that can be said to qualify conclusions about the use of working methods. Does it work differently for different teaching content? For different ages? For students at different levels? About 40 such moderating factors were identified in the analysis, which together give rise to an almost infinite amount of possible combinations.

The second problem that many article writers identified was that the approach required competent teachers in order to be realized. This can be said to be something of a paradox as it is perhaps above all less competent / experienced teachers who need clearer guidelines in the form of specific working methods.

The third problem, which is linked to the two previous ones and which was identified in several of the articles, is the well-known “research-practice gap”, i e the difficulty of transferring “findings” from research to school reality.

Interestingly enough, these problems tended to be recurring throughout the 40-year period. It was thus not the case that the research community had found a solution to the problems, even though there are suggestions on how they should be solved. Interestingly, the responsibility for the gap was often left to the research rather than to the teachers. The research was judged to be not enough didactic and too little carried out under natural conditions.

Conclusions

We found that there were actually two fundamentally different ways for us to relate to the outcome of the analysis. On the one hand, a more critical way that demonstrated the difficulty of drawing conclusions from the research due to the recurring problems. Maybe another type of research is needed in order to develop teaching?

On the other hand, it was possible to relate to the outcome of the overview in a way that was more focused on how the identified problems could be handled in different ways. This was the path that we for different reasons decided to follow in the article. In such a perspective, the problems can be seen as a result of a contradiction between the striving to find more general conclusions and the need for context-bound decisions that active teachers need to make.

In other words, while research strives to comment on the outcome of a way of working /a method on a more general level ("what works"), the use of a way of working/a method in school involves questions of "what works" for whom, for what knowledge content, under what circumstances, etc.

One solution to this problem that we discuss in the article is that research must become even clearer in terms of the circumstances in which a teaching method works. This means that the contexts in which studies are conducted must be described carefully. To reconnect to the question in the blog's title, we could expect a method / way of working to work differently under different circumstances.

In this way, there is an opportunity for those who want to use research results to be able to better see which aspects of the research context are transferable to the context in which the results are to be applied and which are not. Then it may be more possible to determine which aspects of a teaching method that are transferable to one's own situation.

A problem that we do not discuss in the overview but which becomes clear when analyzing research on teaching methods is that the outcome of working methods / methods is seldom analyzed in relation to a broad mission for the school involving more than knowledge transfer, e.g. social and democratic goal. Thus there is every reason to be very careful in drawing implications from the research on teaching methods to classroom teaching.

 

Link to the home-page of the research project:

https://www.edu.uu.se/research/education/specialneeds/smart/

 

Book in which the approach (SMART) used in the study described above is described in detail:

Nilholm, Claes. (2017) SMART – ett sätt att genomföra forskningsöversikter. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

/SMART – a way to conduct research reviews/

This article provides a (condensed) description in English of the approach:

Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å,. Forsberg, E. och Nilholm, C. (2021) "Mapping and analysing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography". Review and Education. (ännu endast som web-publicering: https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rev3.3258)

 

The article described in this blog:

Hirsh, Å., Nilholm, C., Roman, H., Forsberg, E. och Sundberg, D. (2020) Review of teaching methods - which fundamental issues are idenfied? Published on-line.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/20004508.2020.1839232

 

What interventions for preschool childen with autism have evidence?

For a long time, children with autism were not considered worth investing in, which changed when studies began to emerge in the early 1980s which showed that exercise can significantly improve development. There is a consensus that it is important to have a lot of training and structured learning for younger children with autism, but there are divided opinions about which interventions give the best results.

In this blog, I will first report on a recently published meta-analysis of Sandbank et al (see reference below) that focuses on the issue in the title of the blog. A meta-analysis provides numerical values ​​for how effective different efforts are.

So which initiatives are supported in the research according to Sandbank et al? And can we trust their conclusions? Let's start with the first question.

A meta-analysis of interventions for children with autism

In the article, the authors distinguish between seven different interventions for children with autism (0-8 years) and I briefly reproduce here their description of the seven interventions.

Behavioral interventions (1) are the interventions that were first used systematically with children with autism. This type of intervention is usually summarized as ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy and is the intervention that is most common in the American context. There are rigorous training programs developed at universities and colleges in how to work with behavioral interventions.

Development-related interventions (2) are partly in opposition to the more behavior-oriented interventions and are based on constructivist principles such as a view of the child as active. Vygotsky's theories have also influenced these methods, such as the idea that children develop in interaction with more knowledgeable people.

Naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions (3) are described as a mixture of (1) and (2) while TEACHH (4) is a program that contains carefully planned activities and structured environments, recurring routines and a high degree of visual support. Sensory-oriented interventions (5) are based on the idea that basic sensory functions need to be stimulated in order for children with autism to eventually develop more advanced functions.

Efforts built around relationships with animals (6) usually involve riding, which is assumed to lead to positive effects such as increased sensory stimulation and increased motivation. Efforts with technological aids (7), finally, involve technical aids such as computers, video, computer games and robots, which are expected to stimulate a positive development.

A "Public significance statement" reproduced in the article (p 2) summarizes the overall outcome of the meta-analysis:

“This comprehensive meta-analysis of interventions for young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) suggests that naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions and developmental intervention approaches have amassed enough quality evidence to be considered promising for supporting children with ASD in achieving a range of developmental outcomes. Behavioral intervention approaches also show evidence of effectiveness, but methodological rigor remains a pressing concern in this area of research. There is little evidence to support the effectiveness of TEACHH, sensory-based interventions, animal-assisted interventions, and interventions mediated solely through technology at this time.”

The meta-analysis puts the development-related interventions in a positive light, but we can be absolutely convinced that the last word has not been said in this discussion (see below). It is also the case that development-related interventions so far have mainly been shown to have a positive impact on communicative skills, while naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions and behavioral interventions have been investigated for and shown to have a positive effect on a wider range of skills.

Gathering evidence - the importance of choices made

It is easy to perceive evidence as an almost thing-like entity that that can be extracted from research. Many people want answers to questions such as "Is there evidence for the intervention / method X" but unfortunately it is seldom possible to give a simple answer. There are different ways of making research reviews and the choices we make have consequences for the conclusions we will end up with.

One choice that Sandbank and others make, which has enormous consequences for the conclusions drawn, is that they completely opt out of research with so-called single-case designs, that is studies with only a few participants. They believe that such studies are not strict enough to be used in a meta-analysis. Furthermore, it should also be pointed out that studies with qualitative approaches have also been excluded.

Other choices they have made that also have consequences for their conclusions concern how studies are searched for in databases, the weight of different studies, the significance given to what the control group has done, what significance should be given how long an effort lasts and so on.

An additional choice with absolutely decisive consequences leaves Sandbank and others partly to the reader. That choice is about whether the conclusions of the meta-analysis should be based on all included studies (note that studies with single-case design have already been excluded) or only on those that live up to high methodological requirements.

When studies with a lower degree of methodological strictness are included, the behavioral interventions turn out to be significantly better than when only those who live up to high methodological requirements (randomized group designs where participants are randomly distributed among the intervention and control groups) are included. If, on the other hand, we set the methodological requirements for methodolgy very high, all studies will lapse!

Compiling evidence - the importance of the question being asked

What evidence is found has further to a large extent also to do with how the question about evidence is posed. In the analysis referred to here, the question is which interventions are effective for children with autism. This means that the special nature in the form of the medical diagnosis has been taken as a starting point for the overview.

We can also think of other ways to ask the question: What interventions are effective for children with autism who go to a regular group of children? What working methods are generally fruitful for developing communication and social interaction for all children? Which working methods are fruitful for the children who have problems with communication and social interaction? We can also more closely, so to speak, nail down the specialty: What interventions are effective for children with autism who also have an intellectual disability? Each question requires different types of evidence to be answered.

It is important to note that some research reviews only include research conducted in integrated environments (see examples of such reviews below).

Other choices, other conclusions - an example

At the time of writing, I get hold of a fresh research overview on evidence for interventions in autism by Steinbrenner and others (see link below) who use a completely different methodology than Sandbank and others. They also cover a longer development period (0-22 years). I argued above that the choices made when conducting research reviews are of great importance.

Since Steinbrenner and others make different choices than Sandhurst and others, it is illustrative to compare the consequences this has. The differences I want to highlight here are that Steinbrenner and others choose a) to approve of studies with single-case design b) not to calculate effect sizes and c) to identify and name interventions in a different way.

The choice to include studies with single-case studies has the consequence that the number of studies increases enormously, as this is historically the most common study design in the field. It is also used, as I understand it, almost exclusively by researchers with behavioral analytic starting points, and many of these studies also provide support for such initiatives.

The choice not to analyze effect sizes makes it difficult to compare the effect of the interventions, so to speak. To simplify a little bit, we can say that Sandbank and others analyze, just like John Hattie, who jumps the highest, while Steinbrenner and others examine who gets above a certain height.

Steinbrenner and others thus find a very large number of interventions that come over this bar (28) or which they believe have the potential to do so in the future (12). As this research expands rapidly, we can expect even more efforts that, according to this decision logic, have evidence.

The choice of how interventions are defined and named is also of great importance. The number of interventions identified and the terms used are different from those in Sandbank's and others' analysis.

Steinbrenner and others distinguish interventions involving behavioral analysis techniques (to the number clearly dominant involving e.g. modeling, singe-trial learning, behavioral momentum intervention) over more psychologically oriented interventions (for example social skills training, self-management) to more pedagogically oriented working methods (music-mediated interventions, direct teaching). Translating these interventions into the seven interventions that Sandbank and others identify is certainly not an easy task.

It is also worth noting that many of the interventions mentioned in the two reviews probably work for all children. However, the interventions are discussed more or less decoupled from this question and from the question of how the pedagogical environment in the preschool as a whole is shaped. Of course, the lack of mapping and description of the environment also makes it more difficult to see how the mainly American research becomes relevant for e.g. Swedish preschool environments.

A final word

My ambition in this blog has been quite modest, namely to present a research overview and at the same time illustrate and discuss choices made when evidence is compiled and the consequences such choices can have.

From an inclusion perspective, it is of course important that the activities in the preschool maintain a high quality with a learning environment that is adapted based on the fact that children have different prerequisites for participating. It is therefore very problematic if the discussion about interventions for children with autism in preschool is conducted alongside discussions about how the environment in general should be designed and the interventions that benefit all children.

No matter how well the general environment is designed, however, we can expect that some children still need targeted support, which must also sometimes be given outside what happens in the regular child / student group. Many children with autism pose great challenges for educators in preschool and it is of course good to know the research that tries to map interventions that help children reach the goals of preschool education. Ultimately, it is always important to map the situation of the individual child. It is of course important to map both strengths and difficulties and to try to understand the child's behavior based on the complex context in which the child is involved.

 

Sandbank M, Bottema-Beutel K, Crowley S, Cassidy M, Dunham K, Feldman JI, Crank J, Albarran SA, Raj S, Mahbub P och, Woynaroski, TG. (2020) Project AIM: Autism intervention meta-analysis for studies of young children. Psychological Bulletin, 146 (1), 1-29.

Examples of overview articles where integration / inclusion is taken as a starting point for the overview

Gunning, C., Breatnach, O., Holloway, J. McTiernan, A. and Malone, B. (2019) A systematic review of peer-mediated interventions for preschool children with autism spectrum disorder in inclusive settings. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (6), 40–62.

Meindl, J., Delgado, D. and Casey, L. (2020) Increasing engagement in students with autism in inclusion classrooms. Children and Youth Services Review.

Link to blog about the importance of the control group:

Link to systematic research overview by Steinbrenner et al:

https://ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/sites/ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/files/imce/documents/EBP%20Report%202020.pdf

(in the review there is also a link to a material that deals with how the evidence-based efforts can be used in practice)

Has inclusion gone too far? - the Swedish experience

Sweden has taken a move away from the international trend in special needs which is preoccupied with how more inclusive learning environments can be created. Instead the Swedish system seems to be heading towards more segregated educational solutions.

The issue of inclusive education has a long history by now but it seems important to scrutinize the main arguments for and against inclusion as well as the empirical evidence bearing on this issue when inclusion becomes challenged as in the case of Sweden.

Two positions on inclusive education

On the one hand, we have those who believe that placement in ordinary classes is a matter of democracy and rights. On the other hand, we have those who advocate placement in ordinary classes if it is proven to be more effective.

Many thus believe that it is a democratic and human right for students in different types of difficulties / with disabilities to be allowed to participate in the ordinary school environment. Throughout history, people with disabilities have been more marginalized than perhaps any other group in society and have been relegated to institutions and special solutions on the side.

This marginalization has been criticized on ethical and political grounds. The Norwegian researcher Peder Haug (1998) has perhaps most thoughfully developed these arguments in relation to the development of the school in the welfare state. Haug, like the European Commission presently, see inclusion almost as a prerequisite for building a democratic society. Students should not be singled out and expelled but be part of a community in school that prepares for active participation in a democratic society.

Many further argue that other students learn from the fact that students in difficulty are present in the classroom by becoming more alert to and tolerant of the fact individuals are different. It is further argued that teachers can learn a lot from working with students in different types of difficulties provided that they receive the right support and help.

The efficiency position fits well with the philosophy of New Public Management and its economic metaphors where educational achievement is the main currency in which the school is evaluated. The arguments for inclusion are based on the idea that students in difficulties / with disabilities going to regular classes will be stimulated by the other students thus raising their educational achievement. Correspondingly, it is believed that special educational groups and resource schools set too low requirements and dilute curricula.

Arguments against students in difficulties/with disabilities going to regular classes

These arguments have often been based on the premise that segregated educational solutions are for the pupils’ own good. In this way pupil in difficulties/with disabilities must be saved from the prejudices of society and also have an educational situation tailored to their specific needs. Small and quiet environments with persons specially trained to take care of / teach these students are deemed to be beneficial for them.

These students’ needs will thus be met by creating adapted special environments. These special environments also provide opportunities to meet other students in the same situation and to make friends.

It is further often claimed that placement in a small group is time-limited, a way to prepare students to be able to function in the regular class.

In the school context, the argument has sometimes been that pupils in difficulties/with disabilities create problems for the other students, even though it (so far) has been difficult to express such an opinion in public in Sweden. Such arguments are most often used when it comes to students who disturb the order in the school.

An additional argument for segregated educational solutions is that it has proved difficult to create environments that is genuinely inclusive in ordinary classrooms.

What about research?

The main conclusion from research is that placing pupils in difficulties in regular classes does not seem to affect their performance negatively. However, it should be pointed out that this field of research faces several methodological challenges so one should be very cautious when drawing conclusions. Research further shows that teachers and parents are generally not entirely positive to inclusion, but their attitudes are often not related to the nature of the environment in which the pupil is placed (see below which factors are usually pointed out as essential for creating an inclusive environment). It is thus difficult to draw any major conclusions from these studies of attitudes.

It should be pointed out that the research I have invoked here has largely been conducted on the basis of the efficiency position. Many who advocate the placement of students in difficulty in regular classes believe that it is not an empirical question whether such a placement is good or not since participation in regular education is a fundamental democratic right. An analogy can clarify: We do not mean that it is an empirical question whether the public's voting rights are good, but it is something we value as such.

Conclusions

It sounds strange when the politicians who have been responsible for the development of the Swedish school system in recent years claim that "inclusion" has gone too far, when it is a fact that the Swedish educational system has become increasingly segregated. From being seen by many as an international forerunner, not least in terms of equivalence, the Swedish system has become increasingly divided. This applies both when we look at educational performance and when we look at who end up in the same schools and classrooms. Housing segregation and school choice are important factors behind this development.

However, it is not this segregation that is meant by the statement that “inclusion has gone too far” but the question of where students with disabilities / in other types of difficulties should get their education. It is obvious to many that the Swedish school system has not succeed in creating the necessary environments for many of these students, even if we must not forget that some good educators have succeed well in integrating students with difficulties in ordinary classrooms.

It is, according to most, a lot of factors that must be at hand for a placement in a regular class to succeed for pupils in need of special support / with a disability: visions, adapted teaching and assessment, acceptance, support, resources, well-developed leadership and a working collaboration student health-special educator / special teacher-teacher to name the most important factors. If all these factors are present and it still does not seem to work with a placement in a regular class for a pupil, naturally other educational solutions such as a smaller group should be considered.

It is the case that these environments have been not been at hand for many pupils in the Swedish school system. Thus, the need to segregate is probably more a sign of the lack of system difficulties rather than the occurrence of pupils who are, almost by nature, impossible to include. It becomes cynical to say that inclusion has gone too far if the problem is that teachers and students do not get the support they need.

A hypothesis that seems to have some support is that the free choice of school means that students with disabilities risk being seen as a burden and are being excluded by schools and / or other parents / students. That free school choice also meant to opt out of others was one of several aspects that were not given the necessary consideration when introducing free school choice in the Swedish school system.

The fact that some independent schools also focus on students in need of special support (e g students with NPF) can also increase the proportion of segregated solutions in the Swedish system. From the democracy perspective on inclusion advocated by, for example, Haug and the European Commission, this whole development is of course very worrying.

The focus in the Swedish school system is on goal fulfillment (knowledge goals). The idea that students in different types of difficulties will find it easier to achieve the knowledge goals in smaller groups is however something that is not supported by the research as discussed above. It could be argued that placement in smaller groups means that responsible politicians do not have to address more general problems in the Swedish school system.

It is a little bit frightening that the Swedish school system is becoming increasingly divided based on categories such as class, ethnicity and functionality. To a large extent, we have regained what the Swedish educational professor Tomas Englund so aptly called "the paradise lost", that is, parts of the bourgeoisie's dream of a return to the old parallel school system. The lifeline that many Swedish school politicians seem to stick to is that if more students reach the knowledge goals, then the crisis identified is over. Although I am the first to emphasize the importance of basic knowledge, there are two major problems with that attitude.

Firstly, there is a lack of a more basic analysis of knowledge and its role in schooling and, secondly, there is a risk of missing other basic goals such as increasing the pupils desire to learn, to educate for democracy, the development of virtues as responsibility, personal development (which is a value many teachers highlight), promotion of community and last but not least the promotion of health.

It is lastly important to point out the almost non-existent trust in the political governance that seem to exist among Swedish teachers. It is frightening that about only one in ten teachers has confidence in school politicians.

 

Inclusion in a dilemma perspective

It is of course possible to have different opinions about exactly how the idea of ​​inclusion appears from a dilemma perspective. Here I will start from my own interpretation of what a dilemma perspective means in relation to the issue of inclusion. My interpretation has emerged from a book chapter "Theorizing special education - time to move on?" by Alan Dyson and his collaborators (see reference below).

The dilemma perspective is founded on the fact that educational systems have to deal with certain basic dilemmas, which means that the systems must find a balance rather than reaching an endpoint where all contradictions end. Such a fundamental dilemma concerns whether certain students should be categorized as deficient in various respects or whether all students should be treated as unique individuals.

What Dyson et al meant was that the movement for inclusive schools and classrooms tended to ignore the contradictions and dilemmas that all education systems have to deal with. It was not the case that Dyson and his collaborators were opposed to schools and classrooms developing in an inclusive direction, but they criticized theorists who postulated in advance what characterizes an inclusive school more or less without taking into account fundamental dilemmas and contradictions.

In this way, there was something almost imperious in the idea of ​​inclusion. It was already decided in advance what inclusion meant and also in part how inclusion should be implemented. In some of these visions, it was imagined that all students would meet as individuals in a community without derogatory categorizations and special solutions. All actually existing schools and classrooms could only deviate in a negative direction from this ideal image.

Dyson et al further argued that there are several legitimate perspectives regarding how society should shape education and provide support for students in different types of difficulties. Representatives of the inclusion movement should thus not have a monopoly on how education should be configured.

From the realization that there are several legitimate perspectives on schooling, the step is not far to ask who should decide which perspective to choose. My own conclusion had been that this is a question for democracy. I have argued that the question of democracy is overriding the question of how education should be shaped. The question of who should decide over the education system is thus more fundamental than what form it should take. But who then decides on education in our democracy? In order to approach this issue, the Swedish educational system will be used as an illustration.

Education within Swedish democracy

In the Swedish society, there is a relatively clear division of power with regard to the issue that ended the previous paragraph. Elected politicians determine overall goals for the school system which are expressed in laws and regulations such as the school law and the curriculum. School authorities, teachers, principals and others have to work within the framework of these objectives. Students and parents are also given certain opportunities to influence what happens within the school.

The role of research is to critically examine the school system but also to facilitate that the democratically decided objectives of the system can be realized. Researchers have different opinions about which of these objectives that are most important.

Politicians are accountable to the citizens in elections. In a democracy, it is important that citizens have knowledge to be able to assess how well politicians carry out their work. In this way, it also becomes important how different activities are described in the media.

Thus the democratic system in itself distributes power regarding who is to decide what as concerns schooling. Thus, even if a person, such as myself, is affirmative of the idea of inclusion, I believe we should to take the power distribution in the democratic society as our point of departure when deciding what school system to develop.

Inclusion and dilemmas

From a dilemma perspective, it thus becomes important to take the purpose decided for the school seriously, while at the same time it becomes legitimate to criticize the school system for not achieving the objectives that are decided upon in the democratic process. Since the Swedish school law and the curriculum prescribes a more inclusive system than is to be found in practice it is legitimate to critize the system from a democratic standpoint.

It is important to again emphasize that a dilemma perspective is based on the fact that one cannot ignore basic dilemmas in the education system. On the one hand, it is desirable that students are treated as individuals and that differences between students are viewed as natural variation. It is also desirable to avoid segregated learning environments. On the other hand, students need to be categorized, among other things so that support needs can be identified, and sometimes support may need to be given outside the work in the regular classroom.

The recognition of such dilemmas means that from a dilemma perspective it is not seen as possible to achieve the almost utopian state prescribed by certain inclusion theorists.

My own attitude is that we should mainly see students as individuals, the difference between students as differences and promote participation. However, it is a utopia that we could get there and all known education systems use categorizations (for example to make it clear who should have extra support), shortcomings (because there are requirements for what is to be achieved) and also in some ways use compensatory solutions.

To sum up. There are two aspects in a dilemma perspective that have significant consequences for the issue of inclusion. First, the recognition of different legitimate viewpoints within the dilemma perspective means that the question of power becomes absolutely central. Second, the identification of fundamental dilemmas implies a skepticism that a utopian inclusive state can be created. Of course, the latter does not mean that school systems can be more or less inclusive, but it seems wiser to try to take steps in the right direction than to be seduced by a goal that is more or less unrealistic.

 

Clark, C., Dyson, A. & Millward, A. 1998: Theorising: special education. Time to move on? I C. Clark, A. Dyson & A. Millward (red): Theorising special educa-tion. London: Routledge.

Special needs and intersectionality

For quite some time now, the concept of intersectionality has been on the rise. Intersectionality means that different identity belongings such as gender, class, entities, sexual orientation, functionality, etc. interact. It is possible to see society as being made up of different power structures that are built up by opposites, dichotomies, where one category is considered superior to the other.

The Swedish researcher Yvonne Hirdman's theory of the gender system is an example of an analysis of such a power system, where the man is superior to the woman and thus constitutes the norm. The point in an intersectionality perspective is that the power structures interact.

It is easy to see the theory of intersectionality as a project for the academic left. The expression power structure seem to indicate this. But I think it is quite possible to also see it as a liberal project, it is about releasing individuals from limiting structures. Anyway, when I lecture on these issues, I usually point out the great progress that has been made during my lifetime concerning these things (although, of course, it is a long way to go and that some signs of the time are really worrying).

Individuals and groups that have been marginalized now have better opportunities to realize their life projects. Special education is closely associated with a power structure that is based on functionality and the dichotomy "able-bodied / disabled". Let's take a closer look at this dichotomy.

Functionality

There is no given boarder between what is considered body-functional and a disability. There are a number of disability groups with a long history such as developmental disability, visual impairment / blindness, deafness / hearing loss and various types of motor functional impairments. In recent years, a number of new disabilities have become increasingly frequent, such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorders.

Common to the disabilities is that they are associated with bodily dysfunctions according to the usual explanatory models. It is difficult to determine how many people have any form of disability today, but there are many. There is, of course, a risk of posing different intersectional categories to each other, but I would, however, like to say that disabled people may have been the most marginalized group throughout history.

The marginalization does not only concern placement in clinics and institutions, but also in our world of ideas and in our language. For example, our language is almost packed with expressions derived from designations of disabled people that have come to be used in degrading descriptions ("idiot", “cripple”). Prejudices are so great and many that we cannot seem to avoid them totally.

Disability also differs from most other intersectional categories in that disability not only leads to discrimination, but also to a positive redistribution of resources in order for people with disabilities to have the same life conditions as everyone else. For example in the school, a lot of resources are allocated to special educators, specialist teachers, resource schools, special schools, and more to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

What if we see functionality intersectionally? I imagine that this question can be approached in two different ways based on the idea of ​​figure and background of Gestalt psychology. How does functionality appear when other dichotomizations are foreground and what role does other dichotomizations have when functionality is the focus?

Functionality within the framework of other power structures

My guess is that functionality is not often problematized in analyzes of, for example, class, gender and ethnicity in the school. Interestingly, the Swedish National Agency for Education, in its often excellent reviews of results on international tests, often discusses the outcome in relation to gender and, to a certain extent, ethnicity and social class, but not in relation to functionality. One reason for this is of course that there is no public data on functionality in Sweden. Often, outcomes are analyzed in relation to performance levels, but it is something other than functionality.

I usually argue that functionality has had such a significance for the development of school systems that the category should be relevant for almost all analyzes of schooling, i.e. also those analyzes that do not specifically concern power structures. By identifying disability, a normality is created and maintained. How this distinction is made will thus have consequences on almost all issues with regard to schooling.

If we for example are interested in issues of democracy in relation to education or school hitory, the distinction between able-bodied and disabled pupils is obviously very important since different school systems have been built around the distinction. A first conclusion that can be drawn is that functionality should be considered more in educational science generally and in those analyzes dealing with power and intersectionality specifically.

Other power structures within the framework of functionality

There is some research that shows the importance of other categories of identity within the framework of disability / special education. Thus, there are a large number of studies in the United States on the representation of boys / girls and different ethnic groups in special education. A recurring result is that boys and certain ethnic groups are generally over-represented, but that the pattern varies with different diagnoses.

For example, in the case of AD HD, the diagnosis is much more frequent on boys than girls. However, although it is important to examine the representativeness of different groups within the framework of special education, an increased understanding of the importance of intersectionality requires more detailed studies of how different identity markers interact in different educational environments.

In what ways does gender / entities / functionality interact in the special school? Is it a difference to have hearing loss for the person who is born in Sweden and has Swedish as the first language than for the immigrant who speaks another language in the home? Is there a difference between having ADHD for boys and girls respectively? In some research these type of question are asked but a lot remains to be done.

A second conclusion is therefore that when functionality is in focus, this should be analyzed more often than before in relation to other power structures.

To conclude: Intersectionality means that power structures must be analyzed in their concurrence. However, this is rarely the case. Also it should also be pointed out that while power structures are extremely important to analyze, it can also mean that we miss the common, what is generally human, in addition to additional types of identifications that do not fit into the intersectional scheme.