Celebrating diversity in schools - is it possible?

Celebrating diversity in schools - is it possible?


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

Evaluating pupils

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

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

Ideology and realities

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

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

Individuals and their characteristics

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

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

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

A real-life illustration

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


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

So he has a computer on his desk to help him

He went to a communication class before

Drawing cartoons

And being a good friend

That he is good at

I am that guy

That I dared to say that !

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