A dilemma-perspective in special needs/inclusive education

A dilemma-perspective in special needs/inclusive education

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


The deficit perspective and the critical perspective

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

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

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

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

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



A dilemma-perspective

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



Lägg till kommentar