Inclusion as the creation of communities

Inclusion as the creation of communities

Several adherents of inclusive education suggest that inclusive education means that communities are created in schools and classrooms. This is a very interesting thought which seems somewhat distanced from how school is talked about today where the individual pupil seems to be the unit of analysis. It is the pupil that receives grades and who is evaluated in different ways. Schooling is often described as an individual project where the aim is to get as good grades as possible.

The focus on the individual differentiates school from a lot of other social activities, as form example business and team sports or singing in a choir for that matter, where the joint effort is decisive. Even though individuals emerge as important in these contexts, the activities demand, in order to function smoothly, that everyone contributes. Is it possible then, or even advisable, to create communities in schools and classrooms? Before approaching that question, I will say a few words about how differences, rather than similarity, between pupils are focused today. 



The importance of difference is repeatedly pointed out. The concept “intersectionality” elucidates that people are different with regard to fundamental identity-categories such as sex, class, ethnicity and functionality. Our position with regard to these categories is decisive for our life chances/possibilities, even if one cannot reduce complexity of human beings to these type of categorizations alone.

Several scholars suggest that there are different power structures associated with these categorizations where one identity is seen as hierarchically related to another such as man/woman, able-bodied/disabled and so on. The patterns of course become more complex when categories are combined.

Identity-politics which has quite a long history by now strive to illuminate how groups become marginalized in society and to change the situation for the group and thereby also for individuals within the group. In this way, similarity within the group in the form of a shared interest to change the situation is created.

Within the special needs area the identity ”disabled” has been the predominant focus, even though the terminology tends to change. Different expressions such as “children with special needs”, “children in need of extra support” and/or “children with disabilities” are used. The concept “inclusion” has helped to illuminate how children with disabilities have been marginalized in schools. There has been some success for the critique of marginalization, it is i.e. much harder today than before to explain educational difficulties as caused på pupils´ deficits and it is less accepted to exclude groups of pupils from mainstream schools and classrooms.

It is of course important to point out that there might be other pupils that are harder to include in the classroom than pupils in need of extra support and/or with disabilities. For example pupils that are very competitive with regard to grades and/or social status and/or pupils that demean other pupils.


The importance of similarity

It is obvious that it is important to attend to difference as defined in the prior section. In the movement towards inclusive education it is often underscored that difference is something that enriches the environment. But even in such formulations it is difference that is focused. Without questioning the importance of attending to difference, I would like to highlight the importance to also attend to similarities in education. Several proponents of inclusive education points to the importance of creating communities in schools and classrooms and communities involve identification with others.

But is it possible to create communities if we attend to difference all the time? One trustworthy way to create community is from similarities in interests. I argued above that an identity categorization can create a common ground for a community that intends to improve the situation of the group.

But we can, on the other hand, be very different as regards the intersectional categorizations described above but still find a joint commitment from the point of view of a common interest, e.g. bird-watching, history, sports, yes the list is without an end. A big challenge to schools is that it is built on subjects and not interests, which means that many teachers face a huge challenge regarding how the subject can be interesting and engaging to the pupils. The teacher who succeeds in making his/her subject(s) interesting will be in a better position to create communities in the classroom.   

The identification with the school class can also be a foundation of community. In a study of an inclusive classroom (see earlier blog) it was obvious that there was a strong identification with the class among the pupils. The pupils wrote regularly in so called reflection books and some pupils wrote what can be labeled as celebrations of the class as in the following example:


Some in the other classes say that we only play and have fun

and that is almost true

but what they don´t now is that that is the way we learn things

If we have played something fun or been on an excursion

we write about it afterwards and if You haven´t done anything amusing

 then You have nothing to write about and no fantasy


In the classroom studied the pupils also worked a lot in groups which they appreciated. The teacher further led discussions involving all the pupils in the classroom where the pupils´ involvement in the discussions was encouraged. At the same time it almost seemed to be a mantra in the classroom that it was an asset that pupils were different from one another. We can thus see that the identification with the class and the use of cooperative work forms was combined with a respect towards differences in what seemed to be a community.


Hindrances to the construction of communities

In returning to the question asked in the heading one can conclude that it seems possible to create communities. At the same time there are several tendencies that work against a focus on community in present day schooling, not least in the Swedish context. Society is becoming more individualized, what the Swedish researcher Tomas Englund has described as a change from seeing schooling as something that is a public good to viewing it as a private good, i.e. as an individual right for pupils and parents.

There are thus few formulations in the steering documents for the Swedish school system that stipulates that communities should be created in classrooms and schools. Developmental plans are about pupils and to a lesser extent about school classes and schools. As regards the special needs area, the phenomenon that is described by sociologists as “the medicalization of difference” probably contributes to an increased attention to the individual level.

In addition one cannot take for granted that everyone wants that schools should provide community. Several influential persons argue that grading and competition are important components in schooling. An additional aspect concerns that fact that proponents of inclusive education has not as yet convincingly shown how principals and teachers shall work in order to create communities.


The importance of finding a balance

In all educational systems, or rather in all social contexts, there has to be a balance between the group, subgroups and the individual. I personally believe that there is a lack of such a balance in the Swedish school system where the notion of community has come to play a minor role. There is of course always a risk that a too strong focus on the groups tend to downplay individual rights. What is needed in education is a balance between these two poles. Not least important is the need to gain more knowledge regarding how strong communities can be built around common interests and identifications where difference is respected and seen as an asset. 

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