Inclusion - four definitions

Inclusion - four definitions

There are those who think that the social and educational sciences should mimic the more successful natural sciences by increasing the level of quantification. Others argue that since the social sciences and the educational sciences are primarily interested in human meaning-making, they should distance themselves from the natural sciences.

My view is that both of these approaches miss an important factor behind the success of the natural sciences and that is the importance placed in the natural sciences in being clear about what is meant by the theories and words / concepts used. Here, I believe that both quantitatively and qualitatively oriented researchers in the social sciences and not least the educational sciences have a lot to learn.

This conviction is also the reason why I myself in my research and also in this blog have spent a lot of time trying to increase clarity about key concepts in educational research. If it is unclear what we mean by a word we use this easily leads to misunderstandings. This becomes extremely clear in the research on inclusion where we can find (at least) four different uses of the word inclusion. Put differently, the same word indicates different concepts.

Kerstin Göransson and I have written an article called "Conceptual diversities and empirical shortcomings" (see reference below) where we critically examine the research on inclusion. In the first part of the article, we discern four different uses of the word "inclusion" in research about inclusive education. Interestingly, this article has been frequently referenced in international research, which may indicate that we have pointed to a critical point.

From placement to community

Many researchers and politicians define inclusion as indicating placement of pupils. A pupil in a special school who is transferred to a regular class is according to the logic of such a definition included. It is on the basis of such a definition that it is possible to say that "inclusion has gone too far" when, for example the pupil does not feel comfortable in the regular class, does not benefit from the teaching, does not get any classmates or is exposed to or exposes others to bullying.

The following three definitions are also based on placement in a regular class, but for each new definition, the requirements regarding what is to be perceived as inclusion become stricter. Before I go on to definition two, it is important to state that placement is not about the policy of a locked door where no pupil will ever get out of the regular classroom but rather about all students including students in difficulties having a natural class affiliation. There are thus opportunities to work with extra support in connection with the classroom / in flexible group formations.

It should be pointed out that the first definition differs in fundamental ways from the second. The second definition presupposes that the pupil placed in a regular classroom thrives in the class in order for us to be able to say that he/she is included.

Exactly what thriving amounts to can of course be discussed- It can, for example, mean that he/she learns based on his/her potential and develops beneficial social relationships with the other students. According to this second definition, inclusion cannot be said to have gone too far because inclusion is by definition something good. However, it can be difficult to include the pupil for various reasons.

The confusion between the first two definitions has led to a lot of negative consequences. When the Salamanca Declaration talks about "the inclusion principle", it is often about placement. At the same time, the declaration lists a very large number of measures at different levels which must be implemented for the placement to be successful.

Already here, an uncertainty was established, is inclusion only about placement or about placement + measures? I am quite convinced that it is the latter that the declaration implies and therefore inclusion also has a positive value in the declaration; inclusion was considered a good thing because it was thought that these measures would lead to beneficial school environments.

Based on the second definition, a number of measures may be required for the pupil in our example to be included such as visions, adapted teaching and assessment, acceptance, support, resources, well-developed leadership and a functioning collaboration between student health-special educator / special teacher-teacher. If the school provides all this and the pupil still does not thrive in the class, there may be a need for another organizational solution.

My impression is that it is mainly the two definitions described above that has figured in the discussion. However, as has been said, there are additional ways to define inclusion.

The third definition means that inclusion is not only about students in different types of difficulties / with disabilities, but that inclusion means that all students should have a beneficial situation in the school. It is of course difficult to oppose inclusion in this sense, however, one may ask whether it is possible to create an inclusive school and in what ways a particular classroom can be said to be inclusive. To know if a school / a classroom is inclusive, we must, based on this definition, not only examine the situation for pupil with special needs/disabilities but the situation of all students.

That is what Barbro Alm and I did in a study where we were interested in whether the particular classroom we studied could be said to be inclusive. We investigated if the students felt pedagogically and socially involved and if difference was seen as something that was valued within the classroom.

The fourth definition means that inclusion involves, in addition to all students having a beneficial situation, also the construction of communities in schools and classrooms. Such communities can involve different features, e.g. forms of work that require cooperation, a perceived sense of belonging and common goals. This latter ideal is quite far from the discussion that is going on about schooling today which often concerns educational achievement. In the classroom examined in the study mentioned in the previous paragraph, the teachers carried out a lot of community-creating activities, which is why the classroom to important parts also lived up to the fourth definition.

But how should we then look at linguistic constructions such as "social inclusion” in relation to the four definitions? The expression "social inclusion" often appears in international research. The notion of “social inclusion” implicitly builds upon a placement definition. In definition 2-4 above, “social inclusion” is, so to speak, inscribed in the definition of inclusion. If the student is not socially included, he/she is not included at all. Although it is wise to distinguish between different aspects of inclusion (social, pedagogical), it is important to realize that such specifications are basically based on the placement definition.

It should also be mentioned that sometimes the word inclusion is used to denote that a student has a good situation no matter where he/she is educated. Thus given such an inclusion concept we can say that a pupil t in a special school or in a special teaching group is included if he/she thrive in these contexts. However, it is very doubtful to use the word in this way because the placement is a very central point in the Salamanca Declaration (with the exception of students who need instruction in sign language and students who can harm other students / who get hurt in a regular classroom).

Better research is needed

In the second part of the article mentioned above, Kerstin and I mapped the research that exists on how an environment (class, school) through some form of action / change can become more inclusive. We then started from definitions 2 and 3 above and looked for studies that could show positive effects of some action/change in terms of learning and social factors for both students in difficulty and other students. We did not find any article within the time span we examined that lived up to this criterion. It is always possible that we missed someone / some studies, but our study illustrates that the research has a long way to go before it can clearly show how more inclusive environments can be created. To put it differently, we need better theories concerning how schools and classrooms can become more inclusive (see link to article below).



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, 29: 3, 265-280.

Reference to article where the degree and nature of inclusion in a classroom was examined:

Nilholm, C. and Alm, B. (2010) inclusive classroom? On inclusiveness, teacher strategies and children's experiences. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25 (3), 239-252.

Link to article on the need to create better theories in order to construct inclusive environments:



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