A dilemma perspective in special needs education, part 2

A dilemma perspective in special needs education, part 2

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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


Link to prior blog:


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