Special needs education: ideologies, perspectives and theories

Special needs education: ideologies, perspectives and theories

Some questions are rarely asked and here I intend to try to answer some questions that are rarely asked. This may seem like something of a paradoxical starting point for a blog but I hope the reader will be convinced of the importance of asking and trying to answer these questions after having read the blog.

What are the questions? While many have asked the question of what is meant by a perspective in special needs education, I think there are significantly fewer who have wondered about which educational ideologies the different perspectives express. In a similar way, I do not think everyone has thought about the relationship between educational ideologies and educational theories or how these theories relate to the perspectives in special needs education.

Now it immediately became quite complicated, so let's try to analyze one thing at a time, before we move on to discuss the relationships between ideologies, perspectives and theories in the field of special education.

Educational ideologies

Central to an educational ideology is to define the purpose of education, how teaching is to be conducted and what knowledge is to be imparted to the students. In the Western tradition, several educational ideologies can be distinguished.

Schiro (reference below) distinguishes, for example, between four educational ideologies: 1) the scholar academic 2) the learner-centered (3) the social efficiency-oriented and 4) the re-constructionistic.

The academic ideology is characterized by a traditional view of teaching and learning where knowledge developed in the western academic disciplines are to be transferred to the new generation. The needs of the labor market are focused on in the efficiency-oriented ideology. In the student-centered ideology, the basic meaning of education is that students develop as individuals. The reconstructive ideology, finally, means that the purpose of education is primarily to contribute to the development of a more democratic and just society.

Ideologies can be mixed but we can never be ideology-free in relation to education. It is possible to distinguish ideologies in slightly different ways, but Schiro's division fits well into the context and we will use it when ideologies are to be related to perspectives and theories. But first a brief discussion of special education perspectives and educational theories.


Most researchers agree on distinguishing between two special education perspectives. On the one hand a deficit perspective where the starting point is that some students have shortcomings that the school must remedy / compensate for and, on the other hand a critical perspective where school problems are seen to emerge from shortcomings in the teaching environment and / or the school system or from society taken in a wider sense. The latter perspective is usually to a greater extent than the former associated with the idea of ​​an inclusive school.

While special education is always a discourse about problems in school, the perspectives differ as to where the problems are located. (For a more detailed discussion of perspective, see link to previous blog below and reference to book about perspectives in special education below (in Swedish)).

Educational theories

There are a very large number of theories in the social and educational sciences. Several attempts have been made to create some form of overarching map of such theories. It is not uncommon to distinguish three overarching approaches within which different theories are developed: a measurement approach (positivism / variable research), an interpretive approach (phenomenological / hermeneutical) and a critical approach.

Different names are used for the different approaches and further divisions can of course be made. The purpose of the maps is, however, to simplify and for the sake of simplicity, we will use this simple division in the continued reasoning (see link to previous blog below for a more detailed presentation of theoretical approaches).


It is time to return to the issues initially outlined. For the sake of simplicity, we could distinguish two fairly clear relationship patterns which at least I think are relatively easy to find in research on special education. However, I would like to emphasize that the reasoning here about relationships between perspectives, educational ideologies and theories should be seen as tentative because we are moving on what has largely been untouched ground.

On the one hand, we have a fairly traditional special education research that is based on a deficit perspective. This is usually based on an educational ideology where efficiency is focused and leans towards positivism / variable research. Research is often about transferring basic skills and codes of conduct to students in different types of difficulties in the most efficient way possible.

It may seem somewhat surprising, but this more traditional research often has elements of a reconstructive educational ideology. A prominent feature of several researchers who work within this tradition is that they want to contribute to creating a more inclusive school and in this way express a reconstructive educational ideology and partly also a critical view of the school system. However, many believe that "inclusion" must be legitimized within the framework of the efficiency-oriented educational ideology by proving to be effective.

On the other hand, we have a special education research, or perhaps rather a research on special education, which locates school problems to environmental factors. The educational ideology covered is to a greater extent reconstructionist, that is, the role of education is according to this view to develop a more democratic and inclusive society. The overall scientific point of departure is critical, the existing school, its practitioners and also the more traditional research on special education are criticized.

Here the question is not whether inclusion is effective or not central. Instead, the right to participation for students in different types of difficulties / with disabilities is seen as a matter of democracy and values. Peder Haug is perhaps the researcher who has expressed this position most rigorously (see link below (in Swedish)).

Interestingly enough, a large part of the educational science research on special education since the Salamanca Declaration has had reconstructionist elements. It has thus been difficult to conduct research that has not been based partly on a reconstructive perspective.

It will be interesting to see if the current political turnaround in Sweden towards the notion that "inclusion has gone too far" will change that picture.

Final words

I have outlined two different ways in which perspectives, ideology and theory are linked. It is of course a simplified picture, but I still think it largely reflects my experience of the area. But it is of course possible to imagine other relations between perspectives, ideologies and theories and I leave it to the reader to think further along these lines.

Before I end the blog, however, I want to say something about interpretive theories. These are common in Swedish educational science research, but how can we see its relations to the educational ideologies and the special education perspectives?

Since studies of meaning-making are central, almost defining, for interpretive theories, the question of relations to educational ideologies and special educational perspectives takes on a specific meaning here. Rather than taking a stand on which perspective that is “correct”, researchers are interested in the meaning given to special educational phenomena by different groups and / or in specific contexts.

In this way, the actors' own interpretations are given more space. In other contexts, I have argued for a third perspective on special education, a dilemma perspective, which precisely takes into account that special education issues are interpreted in different ways by different actors (see links below). In this way, power issues also become important: Whose should have interpretive precedence?

Such a question can be linked to a reconstructionist ideology, but it then becomes a cautious form of reconstructionism that takes the pluralism that exists in the field as its starting point. At the same time, an openness to different voices means a recognition that all ideologies, perspectives and theories can contribute something in the discussion about how the school can be developed.


This is my last blog before the summer. The next blog will be published the 23:rd of August and the topic is cooperation between teachers and special educators.


Schiro, M. S. (2013 2nd ed). Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE publications Inc.


Link to blog about perspectives on special education:




Nilholm, Claes. (2020) Perspektiv på specialpedagogik. Lund: Studentlitteratur. /Perspectives in special needs education)


Link to blog about various theoretical starting points in educational science:



Link to book by Peder Haug (in Swedish):



Links to blogs about the dilemma-perspective:







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