The dilemma perspective part 3 - a dilemma is not a problem

The dilemma perspective part 3 - a dilemma is not a problem

This is as stated in the title my third blog on the dilemma perspective (see links to part 1-2 below). Part 2 and part 3 have been added because there seems to be a need to further clarify the perspective.

The immediate reason for this blog is a remark from a colleague that students often perceive that a dilemma is a problem. It is also the case that the special education area is full of difficult problems, which is why I think that the word dilemma interpreted as being a problem feels right to many.

However, a dilemma as it has come to be defined in the dilemma perspective is not a problem, not even a difficult one, to solve. A problem has a solution, while a dilemma is about finding a balance between different alternatives. However, it should be pointed out that a dilemma can be problematic in the sense that it can be difficult to find the right balance.

A dilemma is thus a goal conflict where it is a matter of finding a balance between goals that are each desirable but where they are in opposition to each other.

Within the framework of other perspectives on special needs education, problems rather than dilemmas are identified. What distinguishes such perspectives from the dilemma perspective is that they claim to solve the problems. Let's start by seeing how it works.

Solving special educational problems - some alternatives

Special needs discourse is a discourse about educational problems. What distinguishes perspectives on special needs education is where problems are located, which also has implications for how the problems are to be solved. In the extreme cases, the problem is placed, on the one hand, in the student, and, on the other hand, in factors completely outside of the student (in structural injustices, in discourses, in the malfunctioning of schools, in the professional division of labor) (see link below to prior blog on perspectives on special education).

In the former case, the solution to the problem is to change the student. By getting the student to work harder and / or giving him/her new strategies / aids and/or medication, the student's problem of acquiring basic skills, reaching standards or whatever the problem consists of is attempted to be solved.

In the latter case, the problem is suggested to be solved by, for example, abolishing structural injustices, establishing new discourses, developing the school's activities and / or by fundamentally changing the work of professions. These are very much potential/theoretical solutions to the problems.

In Swedish special needs education, a system perspective has long been advocated where the problem can be located at different levels. It is common here to talk about the individual, group and organizational levels. Through the right efforts at the right level, educational problems are expected to be solved.


A dilemma as defined in the dilemma perspective means that two desirable goals are opposed to each other. Both cannot be achieved at the same time but a balance must be found. I usually talk about three dilemmas in special needs education but there are many more.

The first dilemma involves an opposition between the goal that no students should be singled out as different and the goal that schools need to categorize students who need additional support.

The second dilemma concerns the opposition between the goal that student´s should not be evaluated negatively and the goal that shortcomings in learning have to be labelled and defined in order for students to receive help.

The third dilemma arises between the goal that all students should have the right to attend the regular classroom and the goal that student should learn basic skills which according to research at times is better accomplished in one-on-one teaching or in teaching in small groups.

But as I said, there are more dilemmas. An example of an additional dilemma concerns the distribution of resources, where on the one hand the resources must be distributed so that everyone gets their fair share, and, on the other hand, some students need more support and thus should receive more resources.

Some concluding remarks

Since the dilemma perspective opens up the idea that there are no simple solutions for how education systems should handle school problems, it also opens up for the need of dialogue between different actors. Democratic issues will thus become important: Who should decide how these dilemmas should be handled?

Another way of understanding the dilemma perspective is to see it as a reaction to critical perspectives that in different ways deconstruct school problems and where the more or less unspoken idea is that in an inclusive school all contradictions / dilemmas will come to an end.

From a dilemma perspective, this is a utopian thought, partly due to the actual differences that exist between students. Denying that there are not real differences can mean that students' difficulties are not noticed.

What appears to be an ethical attitude in (critical) theory can thus have negative consequences in practice. Trying to balance, and not deny, the dilemma in an ethically well-balanced way is the starting point in the dilemma perspective.


Link to blog # 1 about the dilemma perspective:


Link to blog #2 about the dilemma perspective:


Link to blog about perspectives on special needs education:




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