The final blog post

This is blogg post  #56 and my last one. Many thanks to my readers during these years. I will here try to summarize the main points I have argued in the blog.

At the heart of education is democracy

One of my colleauges once called me “democracy”….  I do think democracy is the basic value we have to protect. Schooling should be built upon goals decided upon in a democratic way and also prepare future citizens to be able to be part in and to develop democracy.

Democracy is in my view is the “soft side” of the enlighment, as important as the advancements in the natural sciences that were made possible by the enlighment. If we do no succeed in maintaining and developing democray all there is left is oppression and failure to develop the potential of humanity.

In this way, we shall not discuss education without at the same time discussing democracy. Thus, researchers and other obsessed with educational achievement alone might, often involuntarily, endanger this central task of schooling.


I would like to argue that the issue of inclusion is subordinated to the notion of democracy. In this way, the democratic society has to decide whether schools should be inclusive or not and what this would mean.

Thus, as I have argued several times in this blog, it is important to be clear what one means with inclusion. I am myself a proponent of inclusive schools given that inclusion is not only about where pupils with disabilities should be educated but also about the quality of this education. Or even more demanding, the quality of the education for all students.

Yet there is a lot of work to be done research wise when it comes to how inclusive schools should be developed. In a positional paper I have sketched how such research could be developed:

In Sweden there has been a backlash for proponents of inclusive education. This seems to be just another area where Sweden is moving from having taken a leading role which has acquired international recognition in developing a just society,  to become something else, not that much admired.


I do not think we can underestimate the importance ot education in today´s society. The global challenges are huge and we need to educate people who are able to face these challenges in different areas such as the climate challenge and the threats to democracy.

However, education is so much more. It is the everyday experience of pupils, their right to develop and find their identity, the right to experience meaningful teaching and learning, to develop social bonds and relations and become part of communities.

I must say that I have a hard time when educational systems are analyzed from the point of view of an economical thinking where there is no sharp distinction when you analyze schools and the socialization of new generations on the one hand and production processes in factories on the other.

I thinkt the language of education in a sense has to be regained from the dehumanizing simplifications we sometimes are confronted with. Education in my opinion should be about personal growth and community and not reduced to grades/educational achievement and concepts such as “value added”.

A final word

It would be nice to state that what I have written here are things that are self-evident but they are not. We have witnessed a global change during the last decades where liberal democracy is actually challenged. A new nationalism is emerging as if we have not learned anything from history. The more important that we as academics defend the core values of democracy and work to built these values into our educational system both in terms of educational content but also in the forms of life of education.

When inclusion becomes integration

There are may reasons to recall an important distinction that has often been made between the words in the title. The difference was highlighted when the term inclusion increasingly came to replace the terms integration/mainstreaming (for sake of simplicity, I will only use the word integration here).

Several claimed that inclusion, unlike integration, was about adapting the entire learning environment to students' differences. According to many, the integration movement had not succeeded because it had come to be about trying to adapt students in difficulties/with disabilities to environments that were not adapted for them at all.

The idea of ​​inclusion shifted the focus, so to speak, from the individual to the environment. The importance of this shift in focus can hardly be overstated. Instead of considering the school environment as nature, i.e.  as something fixed and finished, it was seen as something constructed, i.e. something that could be changed and influenced. Inclusion also came, to a greater degree than integration, to be about all students, rather than just those with a disability.

In a radical form, inclusion came to mean that communities should be created in schools and classrooms. This is a thought that in many ways goes against the focus on the individual that e g characterizes Swedish schools.

However, there has always been a tendency for the word inclusion in several contexts to mean roughly the same thing as integration when it is used, i.e. as a question of how students in difficulties / with disabilities should be adapted to an environment that does not necessarily suit them.

It is thus important to distinguish between words and the thought content we attach to the word. So while inclusion was seen by many as a way of challenging the way schools and classrooms were organized (i e the word was used to bring forward new ideas) it was given other meanings by others. Since inclusion was a positively charged word, many wanted to use it, even when a rather traditional special education was advocated (the word was thus linked to a traditional thought content).

To sum up the reasoning so far. The term inclusion came to replace integration to make it clear that the entire school environment needed to change in order to be make it accessible to students with disabilities/in need of special support. However, the word inclusion is used in several different meanings and sometimes as a synonym for integration.

How we speak and what we want

It is important to keep two things separate. On the one hand, the words we use when we want to talk about these issues. On the other hand, how we want education to be organized and carried out.

Some are tired of the discussion about what we mean by the words: "Well, it's not that important what it's called, but I think the school..." In my opinion this is a dangerous way to go because we risk believing that we are talking about the same things when in fact we mean different things.

However, such a discussion about the meanings of words is not an end in itself, but a prerequisite for us to be able to discuss the more important question of how the education should be organized and carried out.

It is therefore important to be clear, for example, whether by inclusion we mean that the entire learning environment should be changed to suit students' different conditions or whether we mean that it is about adapting students in difficulties/with disabilities to a certain given environment.

In fact, good science is based on being clear about our basic concepts. The entire discussion about inclusion has been characterized by a relatively long-standing conceptual confusion.

But, as I said, we should distinguish between what we mean by a word like inclusion on the one hand and how we think the school should be organized, on the other.

It is quite possible to say that inclusion means creating communities in schools and classrooms and at the same time say that this is not feasible or something to strive for. In a similar way, it is quite possible to say that inclusion means placing students with difficulties in regular classes and at the same time to say that it is possible to form communities in schools and classrooms.

However, the relationship between what one means by the words and how one wants the school to be organized is not completely arbitrary. Thus, we were able to show in a study that more radical concepts of inclusion (such as, for example, saying that inclusion means the creation of communities in schools) were also associated with an advocacy of such communities. A more "integration-like" understanding of inclusion, on the other hand, was more often associated with the advocacy of a more traditional special education.

The conclusion is that it is important to be clear about word meaning.. I do not think educational science research will move forward if researchers don not become more clear about what they mean when they write about inclusion. This becomes no less important today as we seem to witness a return to a more traditional special education, Just placing pupils with special needs/disabilities in classrooms that are not fitted to their needs is not about doing inclusion.

To review educational research

After completing a larger project on research reviews (see links below to the project's website and to an interview with me about the project (in Swedish)) financed by the Swedish Research Council, it may be timely to report some overall observations/conclusions.

Firstly, that reviewing of research is an expression of power. This statement may surprise some who see reviewing as a more or less neutral activity based on specific methods.

Secondly, reviews of research can/should be seen as a form of theory development. Research is reviewed in order to get better theories to understand and change schooling.

Thirdly, we arrived at the conclusion that perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on reviews of research and that it is rather new types of basic studies that are needed.

Let us discuss these three observations/conclusions in turn.

The power to review

David Gough is an English researcher who has played a prominent role in the development of so-called systematic research reviews. Together with his collaborators he has developed different formats for how such reviews can be carried out. But which of all these formats should you use? Gough and Thomas write:

"However, even if the idea of ​​a systematic review is simply 'doing a good literature review', like all knowledge-seeking—and creating—endeavors, the way in which you go about it, and the purposes for which you do it, can be seen as political actions, which by their nature, can be seen as promoting one epistemology over another.” (p. 96, see reference below)

It was a little bit surprising to me that Gough view systematic research reviews as political actions since that is not in my view how he himself has approached the subject. Gough has not taken this basic premise about the politics of reviewing as his point of departure.

The question that arises is, of course, why the research should be reviewd in a certain way and not in another. Gough's answer (although I can't claim to have read everything he has written) seems to be that it is a matter of choice for the researcher. 

Personally, however, I would like to go a step further and claim that this issue of why research is reviewed in a specific way should be part of the research review. In an article (in Swedish) that will soon be published in the journal Utbildning och Demokrati, we thus argue that research reviews should be both systematic and reflective. Since it is about choices being made, it is therefore important to explain the grounds on which these choices are made and, ultimately, why it is important to do the review at hand (among a universe of possible reviews).

Why, for example, does John Hattie look almost exclusively at school performance when the school has a broad mission? Why does he exclude research based on qualitative data? Hattie can be said to have exercised a very large power over schooling in a number of countries and his reviews would have had more legitimacy in my eyes if they had addressed such fundamental questions in a reflective way.

Theory development

At some point during the course of the project, I began to see reviews of research as theory development. Since I work from a pragmatic perspective, I see research on schools as something that should contribute to the development of a more democratic and fair society.

To take Hattie as an example, he develops a theory for how educational achievement can be improved.

Someone would perhaps claim that the task of research is to develop theories that explain "how it is" and "why it has become the way it is". I personally think such objectivism is unattainable, given the existence of several competing ideologies in educational research that make different claims on “how it is” "why it has become the way it has". Still if one believes in such objectivism the rationale of reviiewsr would be to get better theories about “how it is” and “why it has become the way it is”.

Is a new type of research needed?

A major problem in educational research is that the goal of schools is taken to be the increase of educational achievement. While knowledge naturally is important to schooling, my view is that we need research that takes the entire school's mission into account. Such research is largely absent which is why it is important to develop a new type of study that take such a broader mission into account. The missions of schooling would be different in different countries, still few would argue that the sole aim of schooling is educational achievement.

Furthermore, it has proven very difficult to transfer findings from the research to everyday school practice. We thus need studies that take the broader mission into account and that have de facto proven to be functional in developing practice.

Some final words

The conclusions/observations described above have, to say the least, major implications for how research reviews in education should be conducted and what role they can play. However, we should not expect that the conclusions/observations will have any greater impact on present day research on Western schooling since it to a high degree is guided by the overall logic that the role of school research is to address the issue of educational achievement.

Link to the project's website where there are also references to the works written within the framework of the project.

Link to interview with me about the project (in Swedish)

Several of the findings from this research project are discussed in prior blogs.


Gough, David & Thomas, James (2016): Systematic reviews of research in education: aims, myths and multiple methods. Review of Education, 4(1), 84–102.


Is educational research disseminated to or recontextualized in practice?

I imagine that the most common way of looking at the research-practice relationship is based on a diffusion metaphor. The results of the research must be disseminated to politicians and practitioners. But what does it mean that results are disseminated? Let's take a concrete example.

The  Swedish reading researcher Ingvar Lundberg showed in a study together with his colleagues that if children were allowed to play with the sound and formal side of  language before starting school in a well-thought-out and structured way, their later learning to read was facilitated. The working method became known as the Bornholm model and has had a great influence on the work in Swedish preschools where the working method was adopted.

We can say that the research findings were disseminated to the preschool. But isn't this a slightly simplified picture? Is it rather the case that preschool teachers and others, with the help of texts and materials about the working method, interpret both what the working method means and how it can be used in their context?

The dissemination metaphor can mislead thinking in several ways. I would like to say that in educational contexts we should rather talk about the re-contextualizing of research. Put differently, results and insights reached in a certain context, the research context, must be interpreted and made meaningful in a new context, for example in a school or a classroom. The very movement of the results and insights from one context to another can thus be understood as re-contextualizing of research.

Problems obscured by the dissemination metaphor

If we think that it is only to disseminate findings and insights from research, we tend not to see the complexity of what happens when research is to be used in practice. There is, for example, an enormous amount of studies, above all in American research, which show in experiments/quasi-experiments how different working methods improve the knowledge results for students. Somewhat simplified, it can be said that the students who were taught with the working method learn more than those who made up the control group.

These studies are of course a limited part of all school research, but I suspect that it is the type of study whose results many want to disseminate to the school world. Therefore, I will continue to draw on that type of study when I discuss the dissemination metaphor. However, it should be pointed out that my reasoning also applies to other types of studies.

Why then do teachers and others seldom take this research to their heart when it is disseminated? The research on how teachers absorb research results shows that this process is often about something completely different than dissemination. Not infrequently, research is used instead to legitimize what is done and what is already believed in. Sometimes the results of research can also be misunderstood.

Experiments/quasi-experiments further often involve a strictly planned structuring of the teaching and thus extra resources are added, which means that the context in which a study is carried out looks different from the context in which the results are to be used. This applies not least if the study was conducted within the framework of another school system.

A further problem obscured by the diffusion metaphor is that the research only orients itself towards part of the teacher's mission, usually the knowledge mission. Effective teachers, however, have to orient themselves towards a broad mission. The knowledge assignment is of course of central importance, but it is far from the only assignment principals and teachers have. Schools should also prepare their pupils for citizenship, develop pupils´ responsibility and abilities to cooperate and so on.

In short, talking about dissemination of research oversimplifies and the conditions of practice are not taken seriously enough. Talking about re-contextualizing research, on the other hand, makes it clear that it is about two different contexts, between which there is a complex relationship.

Increasing "context similarity"

The problems with re-contextualizing research results are probably reduced the more similar the context in which the results were obtained is to the context into which they are to be re-contextualized.

Even if I conduct an experiment according to all the rules of the art and get strong effects for a teaching method, I don't know what will happen when my research results are re-contextualized. Even if we have good internal validity in the experiment, that is, we can say with great certainty that it was actually our method/our way of working that caused differences in educational performance, the ecological validity may be low. This means that the experiment is too separated from what it looks like in reality. It is my impression that within the evidence movement, the greatest importance has been placed on internal validity, for example by highlighting the randomized experiment as a model for research. It is probably a workable approach in medical research but need not always be so in research about the school.

If we put the ecological validity in the first place, on the other hand, it becomes meaningful to study how practitioners who succeed iwork. Obviously, they succeed under real circumstances and not in a situation created with a lot of structure and outside support. I myself have carried out such studies of good practices, another example is Bengt and Elisabet Persson's studies of Essunga municipality, a municipality that within a very short space of time significantly improved its school results.

Although it is difficult in such a study to determine exactly what causes a good outcome, the outcome is achieved in a context similar to that in which other school leaders and teachers operate, which hopefully would increase the possibility of being able to re-contextualize lessons learned from the study. However, this should be seen as a hypothesis as we do not have studies of what happens when this type of research results are re-contextualized, for example when other municipalities tried to imitate the work that was carried out in Essunga.

It should be considered that a very, very large percentage of the Swedish municipalities carried out study visits to Essunga, but we know very little what happened when these experiences were re-contextualized in new municipalities. It goes without saying that a diffusion metaphor does not do justice the complexity inherent in such processes, which is a message I wanted to convey in this blog. It is important that the school's work is supported by science, but it is important not to avoid the complexity of what this means by using metaphors that simplify what the processes look like.

 Context transformation

Gert Biesta presents an interesting perspective on the relationship between research and practice in his article "Why ´what works´ still won´t work: From evidence-based education to value-based education" in Studies in the Philosophy of Education (2010, vol 29: 491-503). He links to studies by Bruno Latour and believes that the research-practice relationship is not only about the recontextualization of knowledge, but that it can also involve context-transformation in such a way that the practice will imitate features of the research context. We could then speak of three different ways of looking at this relationship: diffusion, recontextualization and transformation. Biesta does not give concrete examples of what this could mean in an educational context, but the idea is very interesting. I myself have argued in various contexts that such a transformation could be a way to develop practice when certain aspects of the research are taken up by the practice, so to speak transform it. It is partly in line with Dewey's thinking about the relationship between research and practice, but surprisingly enough, Biesta makes no connection to Dewey in this part of his article. As you know, Dewey called the school he ran "the laboratory school".

Theoretical stigmatization - an ethical dilemma

In this blog, I want to highlight an ethical dilemma that is rarely, if ever, identified within the framework of educational research. The dilemma has to do with the fact that social and educational research always puts individuals and their lived world in a theoretical context.

I will distinguish three different approaches of researchers to the life world of the studied people: a) to understand b) to interpret and c) to question the lifeworld.

It is mainly in the third of these that the ethical dilemma is found. It is above all research where empirical data is collected through interviews and / or observations that I have in mind, but the reasoning has a wider application.

To understand the lived world

In the first relationship, the researcher strives to understand the lifeworld of the informants. Sometimes this is presented as the goal of the research and rhetorically the importance of making the voices of the informants heard is often asserted.

In this relation, the researcher is almost subordinate to the informant, it is the latter who has interpretive precedence as regards the nature of reality. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for the informants' life world and the informants themselves to be celebrated rather than stigmatized.

In a highly cited article, Wacquant analyzes (see reference below) three ethnographic studies of poverty in the urban United States and draws the following conclusion:

"Most significantly, all three authors put forth truncated and distorted accounts of their object due to their abiding desire to articulate and even celebrate the fundamental goodness - honesty, decency, frugality - of America's urban poor."

We see that Wacquant uses the word "celebrate" to show how the informants' life worlds are presented by the researchers.

Interestingly, the term "distorted" in the quote above opens up the possibility that it would be possible to give some form of objective / neutral description of these life worlds. However, it is the case that the lived world is always interpreted by the researcher, which is why the researcher's perspective becomes very important in the analysis of the study of life worlds.

In this way, it is of course not possible in any simple way to make informants' voices heard, as these inevitably become part of the researcher's worldview. Of course, this does not exclude an effort to do justice to the informants' life world.

To interpret the life world

It seems more fruitful, as has been said,  to understand research as a meeting between the researcher's perspective and the life worlds of the subjects, rather than to believe that the life world can be descried "as it is". Sometimes on talks about  a double hermeneutics, individuals' interpretations of their worlds are in turn interpreted by the researcher.

In the case of Wacquant's analysis above, we can speak of a triple hermeneutics, the world of the poor is interpreted by the ethnographers who in turn are interpreted by Wacquant. My  very brief comment on Wacquant's quote adds another level of interpretation.

However, it is not always the case that the significance of the researcher's theories is made explicit and that these theories are problematized. The theoretical perspective is often obscured. Rhetorical tools are used to describe the world as it "is".

There are probably several reasons for this. First, one may not be aware of the importance of one's own perspective for the interpretation given to what is being examined. Secondly, there is an expectation of science that it should be objective and rational and thus that knowledge should not be bound to particular perspectives. Thirdly, a concealment of the researcher´s perspective can increase the narrative quality of the presentation.

If we as researchers are explicit with our own perspectives, however, it becomes clearer what we do, so to speak, with the life worlds we ​​study. At best, the relationship between the researcher's worldview and the studied worlds  can end up in a fairly egalitarian relationship, even if the researcher of course always has interpretive precedence.

I would say that much of the educational science research I come in contact with still shows such a basic respect for the life worlds of the studied persons. But what happens when the researcher's theories attribute to the studied subject a subjectivity that the person in question does not recognize and which is negatively valued?

To question the life world

There are research traditions which rests upon a “hermeneutics of suspicion”. The expression means that the lived world is seen as something of a chimera. This notion that there is a more basic reality than the one we see and experience is probably as old as humanity itself.

It is the foundation of religion and has had an enormous influence on Western philosophy, not least through Plato's famous cave parable. In science, two of the foremost representatives of the hermeneutics of suspicion are Marx and Freud.

Both of these theorists claimed to know how things really are. The perceived world was dismissed as false consciousness by Marx and as distorted by defense mechanisms / resistance by Freud..

As I argued above, all social and educational research inevitably involves an encounter between theoretical worlds and life worlds, and it is in such a field of tension that interesting knowledge can be generated.  Moreover, there is no crystal clear boundary where theoretical interpretations turn into a hermeneutics of suspicion.

But I still want to argue that somewhere the hermeneutics of suspicion can become an ethical dilemma.

The concept of theoretical stigma

Tentatively, I want to define a theoretical stigma as a theoretical interpretation where the studied subjects and / or their actions are valued negatively in relation to how they perceive themselves.

Theoretical stigma can, for example, when teachers who think they are doing a good job and meeting all students needs in a thoughtful way in the researcher's theoretical interpretation beclmes described as reproducing social injustices.

Another example may be when students who work hard in school to be able to complete their life projects in theory are described as more or less ruthless careerists.

A further example could be an interpretation of professionals' work which means that they are seen as more or less involuntary victims of processes they do not understand, such as the state's efforts to create a certain type of citizen or childhood.

The ethical dilemma

This blog should be read as an attempt to outline the contours of what appears to be an ethical dilemma. I have argued that educational research necessarily involves a meeting between different worlds and ethical dilemmas can sometimes arise when these worlds meet.

A theoretical stigma means that the subject's actions are given a negative theoretical interpretation. However, this is not the dilemma, but the dilemma arises when two good principles come on a collision course.

On the one hand, we have the researcher's freedom to choose theory. Few in today's society would question what can be seen as a cornerstone of our democratic society and its search for knowledge.

On the other hand, we have the informant's right to be informed about the research he becomes part of. But this becomes impossible, at least in cases where the researcher uses theories that can take many years of study to acquire. Even if the informant cannot be recognized in a research material, her statements will be used in a way that the person could potentially feel great aversion to.

I do not claim to have a solution to this dilemma or suggestions on how it can be handled. However, I think it is important in our time, where not least the rights of the individual are increasingly emphasized as important, that it begins to be discussed.

Wacquant, L (2002) Scrutinizing the street: poverty, morality, and the pitfalls of urban ethnography. American Journal of Sociology, 107 (6), 1468 - 1532. (citation is from p. 1469)


The life trajectories of research articles

Researchers and doctoral students are very satisfied when an article is accepted for publication. In this blog, however, the focus is on what happens to articles after the have been published. I think that far too little attention is paid to this issue. After all, it is of the utmost importance if someone reads the article and relates to its thoughts and /or results. I will thus discuss what I have chosen in the title to call the life trajectories of articles that have been published.

The thoughts discussed in this blog are a product of a major research project also involving Eva Forsberg, Åsa Hirsh, Henrik Roman, Daniel Sundberg and Ingrid Olsson. In the project, we have analyzed research with so-called "high impact", that is research that is often referenced by other researchers.

In one of our sub-projects, we have identified three types of life trajectories for articles which are described in more detail in the next paragraph.

"Magnets", "game-changers" and "game-challengers"

In the specific sub-study in the project where these three life trajectories were identified, research reviews were analyzed in leading special education journals on three arenas;  one American (three journals), one European (one journal) and one more international (one journal). It should  be noted that the journal I have called international here is dominated by European researchers. To measure the number of citations we used the databases Web of Science and Scopus.

On each of these arenas, there is a specific research revieew (see references below) that is cited significantly more than the review that is second most cited. We call these articles which attract most citations "magnets".

Only this simple analysis reflects something very important. In North America (mainly the USA) a reivew article dominates which deals with how to methodologically proceed to obtain evidence for specific working methods from studies where only a few subjects are studied. Many of these studies are about interventions for students with different diagnoses. In the European and the international journals, on the other hand, reviews about teachers´ attitudes towards inclusion are the “magnets”.

"Game-changers" are articles that are widely referenced and that partly put a research area in a new light. In this way, the article by de Boer that was identified above as a "magnet" is also a possible "game-changer" because it provides a more negative view of teachers´attitudes towards the placement of children with disabilities in mainstream classes than in previous research.

Kerstin Göransson and I have written a potential "game-challenger" where we criticize the mainstream of inclusion research (see reference below). Whether it will be a "game-changer" or not remains to be seen.

It is of course possible to develop the conceptual apparatus by identifying other life trajectories for articles. The examples above were generated in a systematic analysis of articles that have been referenced a lot, in the following I will describe and name additional life trajectories that I have identified in different contexts. However, the field is open for studies that develop the categorizations presented here or that identify new types of life trajectories for articles.

"Placeholders", "Early bloomers", "Sleeping beauties" and "Deep sleepers"

In several of the educational science research fields I have come in contact with, there seems to be a relatively limited number of articles which together account for a large proportion of references in the field. We can call these articles "Placeholders", which means that they have secured a place in the research area, at least over a longer period of time. "Magnets" are from that perspective the most prominent of "Placeholders".

But all other articles? There are articles that are initially referenced a lot, so-called "Early bloomers", which may be due to the fact that they concern a contemporary topic, but which other researchers in the longer run cease to refer to.

Then we have the articles that are rarely or never referenced. In general, there are in the fields we have examined a very large number of articles which have never been referenced, often up to half of the articles.

Of course, most people who write an article that is not referenced hope that it is a "Sleeping beauty". Someone will discover the good qualities of the article, even its beauty, and give it a new life trajectory. This is probably very unusual, it is unfortunately common for many articles to be "deep sleepers", i e extremely difficult to bring to life.

Final words

This blog can be seen as an invitation for the reader to start orienting oneself in a very exciting world. There are, of course, other words and concepts to describe the life trajectories of articles. Here I have presented what can be seen as an initial attempt to find and describe some basic life trajectories concerning research articles in the field of educational science.

I think that as a researcher it is important to find out what happens to your published articles. I think that it sometimes can be a disappointing exercise to see how often articles are referenced, but as researchers it is not our job to stick our head in the sand.

It is also important that we as researchers engage in these issues, as the number of times articles are cited may, to a greater extent than at present, form the basis for the distribution of research funds.

Finally it is time to state the most important question: Is the number of times an article is cited a good measure of its scientific quality? My answer is no regarding the field of educational sciences, which is the field I can comment on.

Quality in the field of educational sciences is always dependent on the perspective from which we assess quality. In other words, quality is a relationship between the scientific work and the perspective of the assessor and not an objective property of the assessed object. This is an important reason why it has proved difficult to measure scientific quality because researchers simply judge from different points of view.

In educational research there is a certain amount of "craftsmanship" about which I think there can be quite a lot of agreement. Such craftmanship can touch on everything from methodological considerations to the way arguments are presented. But if we go deeper into what constitutes high quality research opinions diverge.

An interesting example in this regard is Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's article Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching from 2006 published in Educational Psychologis (41 ( 2), 75–86) which by people with a polemical interest is usually cited as a proof for claims made in  progressive approaches to educational research

The article is widely referenced. For the more scientifically interested it is possible to follow in the Web of Science how this article is cited in research. We can then see that several are critical of the article and question the value of, for example, the conclusions drawn in it.

The point here is not to take a stand in this infected discussion but to illustrate that quality to a large extent has to do with the assessor's perspective. This does not mean that we as researchers should relate relativistically to the issue of quality but it does imply that it is important to  be explicit regarding our own perspective as regards research quality.

Examples of article types:


North America:

Horner et al. 2005. “The Use of Single-Subject Research to Identify Evidence-Based Practices.” Exceptional Children. (referenced 1101 times in Web of Science against 438 times for the second most referenced research review in the 3 journals)


Avramidis and Norwich. 2002. "Teachers' Attitudes Towards Integration / Inclusion: A Review of the Literature." European Journal of Special Needs Education. (referenced 483 times in Scopus against 66 times for the second most referenced research review in the journal)

International arena:

De Boer et al. 2011. "Regular Primary Schoolteachers' Attitudes Towards Inclusive Education: A Review of the Literature." International Journal of Inclusive Education. (referenced 201 times to 106 times for the second most referenced research review in the journal) (probably also a "game-changer")


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. (now referenced 58 times in Scopus)

 This is the last blog before the summer, the next blog will be published in late August.

"We do not want to talk about inclusion"

In various contexts, one encounters educators who are hesitant to talk about inclusion. There are mainly three reasons for not using the word that I think are important to discuss.

First, the word inclusion been given different meanings. It can be difficult to use an ambiguous word in relation to the challenges educators face in school.

Secondly, there are those who believe that inclusion is an expression of something generally good and therefore is uncontroversial and a uninteresting.

A third reason to avoid the word is that one is skeptical of the ideational content that the word expresses. Possibly this may be due to the fact that schools are moving away from the ideal of inclusion and many teachers do not advocate inclusion.

In the following, I will briefly discuss these three reasons to avoid talking about inclusion.


There are different ways to define inclusion (see link) which can be a reason to avoid talking about inclusion. Furthermore, it may not be a word that immediately comes down in a good way in the school world with its traditions.

It may be a little clearer to talk about inclusive learning environments and / or accessibility. To talk about inclusive learning environments could be a viable alternative to talking about inclusion.

The most important thing, however, is not which words are used but which school you advocate. It is of course possible to use words other than inclusion to talk about a) that the school should be well-designed for all students b) that special solutions should be avoided and c) that a number of measures are needed at several levels for the school to function on this way.

Something generally good

If inclusion means that all students should have a well-designed school situation and that special solutions should be avoided as far as possible, it can be said that this is a fairly uncontroversial goal for the school.

However, it can be objected that there are also those who believe that inclusion means building communities in schools and classrooms and this is far from an uncontroversial goal.

Furthermore, several would argue that inclusion is about the school realizing a broad mission, which is also not uncontroversial when a large part of the discussion today is almost exclusively about educational achievement.

In addition, the idea of ​​inclusion as presented in the Salamanca Declaration is not only a question of goals but also an idea about what means that are necessary in order to achieve the goal and these means are far from uncontroversial.

Thus, it is not really correct to claim that inclusion signifies something generally good, even if there is a certain truth in the statement. Exactly what this good consists of and how it is to be achieved is as has been argued far from uncontroversial.

Departing from the inclusion ideal?

There are (at least) three aspects of today's school which I think are a bit out of step with the inclusion ideal.

First, schools are to a large extent dominated by the educational ideology that is sometimes called “social efficiency” and which means that the primary purpose of the school is to qualify the workforce based on the needs of the labor market in the most efficient way possible.

What then happens is that the mission of knowledge (understood in a narrow sense as educational achievement) will overshadow other important goals for inclusion, such as e.g. personal development, the preparation for citizenship and the development of social relations.

Secondly, it is the student (and his or her parents) who are at the center of the educational discussion. The Swedish researcher Tomas Englund has described a shift in the school world from an emphasis on the common good to an emphasis on the individual (the private good). Inclusion is seen by many (but far from all) as an expression of "the common good" and therefore becomes a bit out of step with time.

Thirdly, students are today partly sorted based on, for example, class, ethnicity and able-bodyness to schools and classrooms in a way that many would think goes against the idea of ​​inclusion where a central idea is that differences enrich schools and classrooms.

Focus on individuals' knowledge goals in a divided school system is something completely different from what many would consider compatible with an inclusion ideal. Such a focus can also be a reason for not wanting to talk about inclusion.

There are also many teachers who do not believe in the idea that students in difficulty should be placed in regular classrooms. It is of course the case that then you do not want to talk about inclusion more than about something to be avoided.

A final word

In summary, I mean that we can talk about the idea that the word inclusion expresses in different ways. However, inclusion cannot be seen as an uncontroversial goal for the school. We must also be aware that there are several tendencies in the current development of schools which counteract the development towards an inclusive school.

It is important to distinguish between two things. On the one hand, actors who are sympathetic to the content of the concept of inclusion but who for various reasons find it easier to use other words to talk about similar things. On the other hand, actors who advocate a different type of school and who think that the issue of inclusion is either irrelevant, subordinate to the issue of efficiency or something that leads to negative consequences. In this group, people sometimes do not hesitate to more or less consciously misunderstand the concept of inclusion as in the expression "inclusion has gone too far".

Lin to blog about how to define inclusion:

Link to blog about what is meant by inclusion in the Salamanca declaration:

Five critical questions to learning studies

To avoid any misunderstanding I will point out from the beginning that I am positive about several aspects of Learning Studies (these are described in more detail below). However, it is my conviction that knowledge development is best done by looking at arguments for and against different theories and approaches.

Learning Stuies is beginning to gain an increasingly prominent position in school research, which is another reason to shed light on it. Therefore, I will raise a number of critical questions about Learning Studies, for the sake of simplicity hereinafter referred to as LS.

LS was developed from what is called the Lesson Study, which is a way of developing classroom work that emerged among teachers in Japan and China. The Lesson Study received attention when international comparisons showed that Japanese students understood teaching content significantly better than, for example, students in the United States.

The big difference between LS and Lesson Study is that in LS the importance of theory is highlighted and the teacher's knowledge assignment is put into focus. Slightly simplified, a cyclical process is used in LS.  To start with the students' initial understanding of a phenomenon is mapped (eg fractions in mathematics), teaching is planned, evaluated, refined and so on.

Liberating focus

I have repeatedly in this blog argued for the need for didactic research that is based on the teacher's assignment, so-called assignment-relevant research. I really like the focus on teachers' work in LS or perhaps rather on what is a completely central aspect of this work, namely teaching of knowledge content. What does the teacher need to do for the students to understand a certain object of knowledge? is a recurring and absolutely central issue in LS.

Another aspect of LS that I really think is fruitful is its focus on theorizing. It is important to create theories about how the learning of a certain knowledge content takes place. In this way, the pedagogical / didactic theory is also linked to practice. There is something very Deweyian about this way of thinking. Practice is the ultimate test of whether a theory works. Or as Kurt Lewin said: "Nothing is as practical as a good theory".

Furthermore, just as in phenomenography, attention is paid to the student's understanding of the object of knowledge, and in LS this understanding is put in relation to how the object of knowledge appears in the teaching. That the focus is on the student's understanding is crucial if we are to understand how a teaching can be developed.

Furthermore, LS partially abolishes the boundary between educational practice and research. It is largely  research that is developed  for the benefit of teachers. . It is also the case that many active researchers within LS are former teachers. But what happens when we put a critical light on LS?

Some critical questions for LS

Teaching in schools can be developed in many different ways, for example through the preparation of new teaching materials, through better teacher education, through working methods other than LS, through the preparation of lesson plans (and aggregation of such in databases) or through analysis of how good teachers work.

I often refer to a study of the effectiveness of an entire teaching program called Hot Math where the researchers achieved some fantastic outcomes. They did not use LS, but how do their approach compare to LS?

My first critical question is thus: Why is the outcome in studies within LS not systematically compared with the outcome of other working methods? It is a fact that the effect of many of these other working methods has been studied to a much greater extent than is the case with LS. The question becomes no less relevant because LS is very resource-intensive.

A problem that applies to all so-called intervention research is also the difficulty of showing longitudinal effects for students. Since LS is a form of intervention study, I wonder what longitudinal effects in students can be demonstrated based on the working method? I have searched for such information but have not found it.

Several representatives of LS would probably claim that it is the teacher's didactic ability, rather than students' performance, that is in focus for LS. In that case, it must be shown that the teachers' didactic ability develops (in addition to the didactic problem of the LS in which they participate). Will teachers participating in a Learning Study become better at analyzing new didactic problems?

A third closely related critical question is the following: What research shows that the working method in LS is effective when transferred to new environments? Or is it considered that it is not transferable without each teacher having to participate in a LS with participating researchers in order to be able to use the working method?

The fourth and perhaps the most important question concerns what happens to the schools` broad mission in LS. Of several assignments that can be discerned for schooling (such as the development of an enjoyment for learning, preparation for citizenship, development of virtues etc) LS focuses as I understand it exclusively on the knowledge assignment. This assignment is central, but what happens to the schools´ other assignments, should not the teachers work with them? The exclusive focus on the knowledge assignment rhymes well with ideas within New Public Management.

A final fifth critical question that I unfortunately do not really have the space to develop here concerns  theory development. Variation theory, which is a prominent theory formation within LS, at least in Sweden, seems to be a somewhat limited way of looking at knowledge development, although it also puts the finger on the importance to identify critical aspects of what is to be taught and that the ability to see similarities and differences is important in all learning.

But metaphors and perspectives are also important fundamentals in learning and so is the context of learning.  I do not think these aspects seem to be covered by variation theory. Furthermore, a focus on the broader assignment leads to the need to develop a teaching theory that deals with how this broader assignment, rather than the knowledge assignment alone, is to be achieved,

However, I seems that LS is not necessarily limited to variation theory, which I think sounds promising.

A final word

The best should not become an enemy of what is quite good. As I wrote in the introduction, I see LS as something that has the potential to drive knowledge in the educational field further. In order for me to be convinced of this I want better answers to my questions than the ones I have received so far:

1. How do we know that LS works better than other interventions?

2. How do we know that LS gives rise to change in the long run (in students and teachers, respectively)?

3. Does LS work when used by teachers who are not part of a LS study?

4. What happens to the broad mission in LS?

5. What type of theories need to be developed?

Is it possible for pupil welfare teams to work in a health promoting and preventive way?

The research about pupil welfare teams presents a rather problematic picture. The teams seldom function the way they are supposed to. Problems have been identified in interprofessional cooperation within the teams, in the relation between the team and the teachers, with leadership, in perspectives on school problems and so on.

Perhaps most importantly, teams seem to work a lot with “fire-fighting”, i.e. acting after problems have occurred instead of working with health promotion and prevention of problems. Health promotion and prevention of problems have for a long time been pointed out to be the desired way to work, yet it seems to be hard to achieve in practice.

There is some research evidence that university-driven programs can help schools  work more in line with what is prescribed, yet such changes seem hard to be made sustainable, as expressed in the following quote from what seemed to be a successful project:

“Results signaled that district personnel had achieved a measure of ownership of an effective practice and, more generally, that we had successfully bridged the notorious research-to-practice gap. Nevertheless, one year later, nobody in the district was using mainstream assistance teams”.

Thus, when we came across a pupil welfare team that seemed to have established health promotive and preventive strategies all by itself without any intervention from the inside, we found it fruitful to make a case-study of this school (see link below to the article on which this blog is built). So how can the school studied be described?

The Castle school 

The school is situated in a municipality with about 25.000 inhabitants recruiting pupils from mixed socioeconomic backgrounds and providing education from 1-9 grade. At the time of the study the school had 600 pupils with several pupils with a refugee background. All 63 teachers in the school were certified teachers and many had worked at the school for a long time. The two principals taught at the school before beginning to work as principals in 2004. The school had an impressive record because practically all pupils had become eligible for upper secondary education for many years (against a national average of about 85 % per year). Yet the educational attainment more generally was not outstanding. The pupil welfare team involved 13 persons. The pupil welfare team in Swedish schools is supposed to be multi-disciplinary and to work with learning, health and psychosocial issues.

Research questions

Two research questions guided the study: (1) Is the studied team working in a health promoting and preventive way? and (2) If so, how did their way of working emerge and how is it sustained? A huge data-material encompassing participant observation, recording of team-meetings and interviews of the team, questionnaires to the teachers, interviews with both principals (one was specifically responsible for the team) and a focus-group with pupils.

All this material was used to evaluate if the team worked in a health promoting and preventive way. It did seem that this was the case, especially when compared to patterns found in prior research. The material was further used in order to try to understand how this line of work had evolved and how it was sustained.

Emergence and sustainability of the teams work

We identified a number of factors that seemed important in order to understand the emergence and sustainability of the team´s work: 1) the mutual vision of the team shared by the school leaders when they became principals in 2004 (i.e. that the team should work in a new way and be a vehicle in preventing school failure) 2) the need for a long time-span to develop new processes 3) the leadership itself (described as percipient, not prestigious and distinct) 4) the susceptibility of the school environment for change 5) the availability of the team for the teachers (a lot of effort was put into establishing a routine where teachers came to the team before big problems had evolved) 6) regular meetings with newcomers in the 7th grade (in order to bridge the acknowledged gap between sixth grade and lower secondary school) 7) the turning of specific problems for problems into general issues (such was the case with the problem of speech anxiety where the proactive, general measures were taken to deal with what prior had been viewed as an individual problem) 8) the importance given to the work of the pupil welfare team when hiring new teachers who were supposed to work according to the routines of the team if hired 9) the ways to avoid problems involved with issues of confidentiality because of different rules for different agencies (i.e. especially between the school and the social services) 10)  reflection meetings devoted only to the team reflecting on their own work 11) the visibility of the team in the school environment and the importance given to the building of relations with the pupils 12) the idea that the work should be guided by a salutogenic perspective 13) the view of teachers as competent, knowledgeable and experienced.

Knowledge contribution

It is of course not easy to exactly establish the importance of each factor and how they affect each other. However, given that prior research to a large extent has identified shortcomings in the work of pupil welfare teams, the study described here provides an important research contribution in identifying factors that seem to contribute to how such teams can work in a more health-promoting and preventive way.


Larsliden, B. and Nilholm, C.  (2021): Is it possible for pupil welfare teams to work health promoting and preventively? – A case study. International Journal of Inclusive Education. Only available in pre-print:

Is it possible for pupil welfare teams to work health promoting and preventively? – A case study (


Research about the education of pupils with autism - an inclusion perspective

In a recently published article with my colleague Ingrid Olsson as lead author (see link below), an analysis of research reviews on educationg students with autism is presented. The study is an overview, i.e. a review of reviews.

Studies of methods or other aspects of educating students with autism are compiled in research reviews. In the overview discussed here, 80 such reviews were analyzed, each of which compiled research on some aspect of the education of students with autism.

The reviews were chosen based on the criterion that they are seen as significant in the research field. In this case, it meant that they were the most highly cited reviews (in Web of Science) of research about education pupils with autism at the time of our study.

As usual in contexts like this, it is illustrative with examples. Three examples of titles of reviews included in the overview are: a) Intervention and Instruction with Video for Students with Autism: A Review of the Literature b) Telehealth as a Model for Providing Behavior Analytic Interventions to Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review c) Use Of Computer-Assisted Technologies (Cat) to Enhance Social, Communicative, and Language Development in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In the mapping and analysis of the research reviews, the SMART (Systematic Mapping and Analysis of Research Topographies) approach was used (see link below). The analysis of the reviews focused in particular on how research on the education of students with autism can contribute to create more inclusive schools. It should be pointed out that SMART can be used both to do overviews but also reviews (that is, compilations of original research).

Questions asked in the study

In the following, we will focus on three of the research questions (slightly modified here) that guided the mapping and analysis of the 80 research reviews:

Question 1: Which research perspective dominates the reviews?

Here we distinguished between three perspectives, one functionalist, one hermeneutical and one critical. The functionalist perspective assumes that objective knowledge is possible and focuses on relationships between variables (e g the method x is effective in improving y). Hermeneutical perspectives have a more subjectivist starting point and analysis of interpretations of phenomena and conditions for such interpretations are at the center. Critical perspectives, finally focus on marginalization and injustice, for example through norm-critical analyzes of how norms around able-bodiedness marginalize people with autism.

Question 2: Do the reviews explicitly address the issue of inclusion?

This question followed from the point of departure of the SMART analysis which was to examine whether the mainstay of research on educating students with autism (as it appears in influential research reviews in the Web of Science) is at all oriented towards the question of inclusion of students with autism (it is of course possible, for example, to explicitly address the issue of inclusion and state that it does not work for a larger or smaller part of these students).

Question 3: What knowledge is generated which can contribute to creating a more inclusive education?

Ingrid developed a model in the article which she calls IEM (the Inclusion Education Model). Based on the model, knowledge contributions from research can be systematically arranged based on how they can contribute to create knowledge about different aspects of inclusion. The model also provides an opportunity to identify the type of research that needs to be developed.

In IEM, four types of knowledge contributions that can be made regarding the inclusion of students with autism are distinguished: 1) how more students with autism should have access to the regular education 2) what factors are required for it to work for students with autism in the regular education 3) what factors improve the situation for all students including students with autism and 4) what can contribute to creating communities in schools and classrooms that include all students.

The outcome of the analyzes

It was an expected outcome that functionalist points of departure would dominate in the reviews, but still somewhat surprising that only two of the reviews had hermeneutical points of departure and none had critical points of departure.

Even though about half of the overviews deal with regular education, it is rare that the issue of inclusion is dealt with explicitly and when this is done, inclusion is interpreted in a limited way.

The majority of studies are about reducing the symptoms of autism and developing social and communicative skills. Most reviews report positive outcomes of researched methods, but research needs to be developed regarding more specific issues such as which methods work for which students in which situations. It is important to remember that the autism diagnosis contains a wide range of students, which of course is a warning against too far-reaching generalizations. There is also a great lack of data on how methods should be implemented in ordinary education and be able to contribute to sustainable change.

As far as the model is concerned, it is therefore primarily with regard to 1) and 2) that the research provides useful knowledge contributions.

Concluding remarks

Most of the overviews are well or very well conducted. However, three critical points are raised in the overview when the research field is seen from an inclusion perspective: 1) More overviews should more explicitly address the issue of inclusive education, 2) More research is needed on how communities can be built in schools and classrooms where everyone, including students with autism, have a natural affiliation. 3) There is a need for increased knowledge about how the methods that have been shown to promote students with autism can be adapted to specific contexts.

The strength of SMART is evident from the important results generated. SMART enables an overview of a knowledge area, which is also analyzed on the basis of explicit points of departure, in this case the idea of ​​inclusion. In a similar way, SMART has previously been used to critically analyze research on teaching methods and inclusion (see references).

A weakness with SMART is that the quality of the underlying studies is not subject to scrutiny. But it is important to understand that SMART is intended to supplement and not replace other ways of conducting research overviews/reviews. But even without analyzing the quality of the underlying studies, it has been shown that SMART can generate very important implications for how research areas can be developed to contribute to a more democratic school.


The article presented in the blog:

Ingrid Olsson & Claes Nilholm (2022): Inclusion of pupils with autism – a research overview, European Journal of Special Needs Education.


Link to information about SMART:

(see also: Nilholm, Claes. (2017) SMART – ett sätt att genomföra forskningsöversikter. Lund: Studentlitteratur.) Only available in Swedish. /SMART – a way to do research reviews/

Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å,. Forsberg, E. och Nilholm, C. (2021) "Mapping and analysing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography". Review and Education.


Articles using SMART critically:

Nilholm, C., Sundberg, D, Forsberg. E., Hirsh, Å. och Román, H. (2021) The aims and meaning of teaching as reflected in high-impact reviews of teaching research. Teaching and teacher education, 107.

Hirsh, Å., Nilholm, C., Roman, H., Sundberg, D. och Forsberg, E. (2020) Reviews of teaching methods – which fundamental issues are identified? Educational Inquiry.

Nilholm, C., and K. Göransson. 2017. “What Is Meant by Inclusion? – An Analysis of High Impact Research in North America and Europe.” European Journal of Special Needs Education 32 (3): 437–451.



High impact research on teaching methods

The question of how teachers should teach is of course extremely important. A large part of the earth's population are pupils and students. Huge amounts of money are invested in education, which is also expanding globally. More and more people are being educated for longer periods of time.

Politicians and economists want to build education systems that are cost-effective. Students should learn as much as possible at as low a cost as possible. More efficient methods in the classroom increase productivity.

Seen against this background, we can understand the enthusiasm that met John Hattie's book "Visible learning" where the significance of 144 different factors for educational performance were analyzed. Tables provided opportunities to obtain a measure of the significance of each factor.

Far from all factors were about teaching methods. However, one conclusion in the book was that what the teacher does in the classroom is of great importance for educational achievemet. Thus, the question about how to teach came through Hattie's book perhaps even more in the spotlight than before.

Hattie's compilation is far from uninteresting, even if it has been subjected to substantial criticism. In an ongoing research project, we have been interested in research on teaching but in a completely different way than Hattie. (see link to the project's website below)

Instead of starting from the question of which teaching methods in the school that are effective, we took another starting point being interested in the research about teaching that seems to be valued by the research community.

Mapping of the research landscape

Our starting point was thus to analyze studies of teaching methods that are seen as important by the research community. We took the number of times a work was cited as a measure of its significance to the research community. It is of course possible to have views on such a selection, but we believe that the number of citations is one acceptable, if not perfect, way of capturing how widespread and significant an article is.

Since the research on teaching is incredibly extensive, we choose early on in the project to focus on research reviews of teaching methods The 75 reviews that were most cited in Web of Science during a 40-year period (10 from 1981-1990, 15 from 1991-2000, 25 from 2001-2010 and 25 from 2011-2020) were selected for mapping and analysis. All reviews were articles published in journals.

An article by Henrik Román and others (see reference below; the article won the award for best / most interesting article in the journal 2021) is a basic account of our data collection. This comprehensive article corresponds to approximately three standard research articles. Interestingly, we had a hard time to find a journal that accepted articles of this length. In the following, the key parts of the results and conclusions in the article are presented.

Research questions

1) What are the methodological starting points for the reviews? Methodological starting points were operationalized as A) scientific tradition (functionalism (objectivism, consensus view of society), interpretive (hermeneutics, phenomenology), critical perspectives (focuses on contradictions, conflicts, power structures) and as B) format for the overview (e g meta-analysis)

2) What is the focus of the reviews?

A) The degree of generality (teaching in general vs subject-specific method / working method; limited to a certain age of students / the whole of K-12)

B) Which aspect of the teaching is in focus? (a) teaching as a social / humanistic activity; b) methods with more or less pronounced claims to be general; c) more specific aspects of methods / methods related to specific topics / content; d) methods where ICT artifacts are used.

3) In what context are the reviews produced? a) the authors' domicile, experience and disciplinary affiliation; b) journal arenas.

Results of the mapping

The article of course presents a number of results and these should be seen as a substantial knowledge contribution in terms of a hitherto largely unexplored area. It is not possible here to present the outcome of all these empirical analyzes, but the most important results can be summarized in five points:

1) The functionalist tradition dominates, but there are a considerable number of reviews that are more conceptually focused and / or have their roots in an interpretive tradition. Furthermore, the increase in the number of meta-analyzes during the period is not what we expected, even though a large part of the reviews are meta-analyzes.

2) Educational psychology dominates our selection of reviews and largely defines the area in terms of more general reviews and reviews with a focus on language teaching. In both of these areas, quantitative methodologies dominate, especially meta-analyzes.

Somewhat unexpectedly, reviews concerning teaching science (physics, biology and / or chemistry) are significantly more varied in terms of theoretical traditions and methodological points of departure than the more general reviews and reviews that focus on language teaching.

3) The focus of the reviews changes over time. The clearest example is the increased element of reviews of teaching with the help of ICT artifacts. Overall, reviews dominate which, via original research, evaluate new ways of teaching, as a contribution to both research, policy and practice. It is noteworthy, however, that the review authors usually draw rather cautious conclusions, pointing to many different factors that complicate the picture.

4) The reviews together concern a wide range of aspects of teaching from the very specific to overarching theories of teaching. An important distinction that we are interested in is that between subject-specific and general reviews. As stated above (see point 1), reviews in the mathematics / science area differ from reviews with a more general focus or those that focus on language teaching. The article describes and explains the differences as follows:

“In particular, the community of research on science teaching seems more classroom-oriented and more concerned with teaching as a matter of content, often placed in relation to social conditions. The larger interest among researchers on science teaching for treating teaching, learning and knowledge as social phenomena seems paradoxical. Still, this could be another indicator of the relative strength and autonomy of the natural sciences. Science is more prestigious than other academic disciplines, which may place science-teaching researchers and practitioners at an advantage compared to those engaged in other types of teaching, and manifests a traditional school curriculum hierarchy.”

5) The reviews are in English and are produced and presented mainly in an Anglo-American research world, where educational psychology dominates the field of educational science research. In terms of subject teaching, no subjects other than science, mathematics and language are treated. Teaching in these subjects also dominates in overviews with a general focus.


The study of reviews provides basic knowledge of a research area. What we have mapped are highly cited reviews of teaching methods in school and, as usual, further research is needed to see how general the patterns we have found are.

Such further research can be based on, for example, the following questions: Does the pattern apply to all reviews of teaching methods in the Web of Science? Would we get a similar result if we used citations in Google Scholar as a selection criterion? What does the pattern we have found compare with if we have analyzed research reviews in genres other than journal articles, for example in so-called handbooks? (For example the Handbook of research on teaching).

However, it does seem to be an important task to analyze research that is highly cited in the Web of Science because this database has a high status in the scientific community. A small part of all research journals are represented in the database, which has strict quality criteria that a journal must meet in order to be included in the database.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that the article I have written about here is of a mapping nature. In the methodology, SMART, which is used in the project to map and analyze research, an important part is also to critically examine the research based on the overall question of whether the research community deals with the right issues in the right way. These aspects are developed more in other parts of the project.



Link to the project's website:



Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å,. Forsberg, E. and Nilholm, C. (2021) "Mapping and analysing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography". Review of Education.


The goals of teaching

There are two absolutely crucial questions regarding the goals of teaching: 1) Who should decide the goals? 2) What should the goals be?

We have analyzed how these issues are addressed in 75 highly cited reviews of research on teaching methods (see references and links below). The reviews concerned more encompassing teaching methods such as cooperative learning to more restricted aspects of teaching such as e.g. the teaching of a specific content.

It should be emphasized that the reviews are generally very carefully carried out and published in journals with good reputations, such as the Review of Educational Research.

What did we find? Before answering that question, it may be interesting to see how the two questions above are answered in the Swedish school system.

A broad mission established by political means

Undoubtedly, it is a broad assignment that is formulated for the Swedish school in the Swedish Education Act. I have previously identified seven key assignments for the school system:

· A knowledge assignment that includes the desire to learn

· An assignment that deals with the transfer of values ​​and education to democracy

· A compensatory assignment

· An assignment that deals with the development of virtues (such as responsibility)

. Promotion of personal development

· Promotion of community

· Health promotion

This broad assignment has been established by politicians and is specified in more detail in curricula, general advice from authorities etc. Since the education is to a very large extent realized in teaching, we can expect that the above-mentioned goals should also be central to teachers in the Swedish school system.

Of course, goals of schooling are formulated differently within different school systems. Given the central role of goals in education we were interested in how issues concerning the goals of education and the related issue about who should formulate such goals were addressed in high-impact research reviews of working methods in teaching.

A somewhat unexpected result

We expected that the reviews of working methods in teaching would contain reflective sections on the school's goals. Furthermore, we expected that the reviews would refer to governing documents of various kinds such as laws, curricula, documents from professional organizations etc.

We were thus surprised when only about one-fifth of the research reviews explicitly addressed the issue of the school's goals. Furthermore, only one-fifth of the reviews were oriented towards governing documents. Only six of the 75 reviews dealt with both the question of the school's goals and related to governing documents.

In our discussion in the article, we point to this as an obvious shortcoming in the research field. We state three arguments for why it is important for research reviews of working methods in the school to explicitly relate to the school's mission and the documents that regulate schools in different ways.

Firstly, there are divided opinions about what the goals should be. Therefore, it is important to be clear about the choice of goal, to motivate why goals were chosen and to discuss the consequences of this choice for the review.

Secondly, goals are often set for the school in various forms of governing documents, and  it is thus important in research to relate to these in order to clarify one's position; Do you see it as your task to make it easier for teachers and others to achieve the goals that are set out in various forms of governing documents? Do you see these goals as illegitimate and mean that teaching should have other goals?

Thirdly, an increased focus on the goals of teaching can deepen the discussion about the role of education in society.

A (perhaps) more expected result

Thus, although it is rare to explicitly relate to the school's goals in the reviews, it is obvious that the reviews implicitly orient themselves towards goals for teaching. Clear examples of this are quantitative studies of working methods where the dependent variables reflect what is believed to be central to the working method to achieve.

In the analysis of what teaching goals appeared in the reviews, we distinguished between four types of goals: a) knowledge / cognitive goals (eg results on knowledge tests, development of metacognitive ability) b) goals that are about developing personal qualities (eg commitment, responsibility, creativity) c) social goals (eg empathy, communication, relationships) and d) democracy goals (eg knowledge of democracy, preparation for citizenship, development of communities in the classroom).

Furthermore, we analyzed whether a certain goal was seen as a means to achieve another goal, rather than being seen as a goal in itself. An example of this is if we see communication between students as something that improves the development of knowledge, rather than that such communication is desirable in itself. Each review was thus assigned a number of codes depending on which goals for  teaching could be found in the article and if one goal was soon seen as a means to another goal.

Not unexpectedly, knowledge / cognitive goals dominated, which constituted a main goal in about 4 of 5 of the reviews and were seen as a means in only about one in ten articles. Development of personal qualities constituted a main goal in about a third of the reviews and was seen as a means for other goals in another 1/3. Only one article out of seven identified social goals as the main goals of teaching while about one third identified social goals as means to achieve other goals. Only five of the 75 reviews identify democratic goals as the main goals.


There are perhaps above all two conclusions that can be drawn from the outcome described above.

Firstly, that it is important that reviews to a greater extent than before explicitly highlight what is seen as the goals of the teaching and that these are put in relation to governing documents and the like.

Secondly, it is important to critically analyze the teaching goals that are taken as more or less given in the research.

In the article, we  discuss the outcome of the study, among other things, in the light of the contradiction between Dewey's and Thorndyke's teaching ideologies. While the former saw education and teaching as a preparation for and a deepening of democracy, the latter saw education from a more instrumental perspective, where it is largely a matter of achieving pre-set goals.

Several have stated that Thorndyke emerged victorious from this battle, which is also evident in our analyzes of mostly US research. It is probably not very controversial to say that this instrumentality has also been given more leeway in Swedish schools in later years.

Article on which this blog is based:

Nilholm, C., Sundberg, D, Forsberg. E., Hirsh, Å. Och Román, H. (2021) The aims and meaning of teaching as reflected in high-impact reviews of teaching research. Teaching and teacher education, 107.


Articles where the same data material is analyzed:

Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å ,. Forsberg, E. and Nilholm, C. (2021) Mapping and analyzing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography. Review and Education.


Hirsh, Å., Nilholm, C., Roman, H., Sundberg, D. och Forsberg, E. (2020) Reviews of teaching methods - which fundamental issues are identified? Educational Inquiry.


The articles are written within the framework of the research project "Research on teaching - mapping and analysis of research landscapes" funded by the Swedish Research Council. Link to the project's website:

Tensions in the field of inclusive education

My colleague Gunnlaugur Magnusson describes in the article "From Salamanca to Sweden: inclusive education as policy in transit" (see link below) three tensions in the field of inclusion which I intend to discuss in this blog.

Gunnlaugur's article otherwise has a broader focus and analyzes the policy for inclusive education and how it, so to speak, traveled from Salamanca into the Swedish educational system. I can really recommend the article to anyone looking for a thorough description of this process. Here, however, I intend to discuss the three tensions ("tensions") identified in the article.

More specifically, the tensions concern 1) who is to be included, 2) the relationship between inclusion and special education and 3) how inclusion is to be organized and shaped. Let's discuss them in turn.

Who should be included?

There is a tension here between the position that inclusion involves all students over the position that inclusion concern different groups and the position that inclusion is only about students with disabilities / in need of special support. The Salamanca Declaration is certainly not crystal clear on this point, but the emphasis in the document is on students with disabilities.

Gunnlaugur points out that expressions such as "everyone should be included" in its formulation almost presupposes that someone has been excluded and thus point out one group or several groups as not naturally belonging. This is something of a paradox and easily puts the designated groups in a subordinate position.

At the same time, there are also those who see a danger when the inclusion discussion include all students/ many student groups because it takes focus and resources away from students with disabilities.

The relationships between inclusion and special education

Here, too, are different positions to be found. The word "inclusion" often becomes almost a synonym for "integration" and is then about how students with disabilities can be placed within the framework of the mainstream. This is close to how people thought in traditional special education, where this thus was discussed in terms of integration. This usually means that specially trained staff should facilitate placements in the mainstream classroom.

There are also those who believe that special education stands in the way of inclusion. As Gunnlaugur points out, there are researchers who believe that the special education's identification and categorization of students' difficulties is not in itself compatible with inclusion. The really radical proponents of inclusion almost want to abolish special education completely. Peder Haug takes such a position in his interesting book, "Pedagogical dilemma - about special education" from 1998.

Of course, there are a number of intermediate positions here, but few would probably argue that special education should cease completely. However, as I have pointed out on several occasions in this blog, it is surprising how many proponents of inclusion that seem quite untroubled by the fact that special education rests firmly a distinction between normality and deviance.

Organization for and implementation of inclusion

There are also a number of different views in this area. Well known is the American researcher Tomas Skrtic's idea that an inclusive school needs a completely new type of flexible organization that is basically not built on the basis of a bureaucratic logic (as school systems are). Instead, he advocates a high degree of professional autonomy, where joint problem solving is the key to how schools should be able to meet the needs of all students in an inclusive environment.

Others want a clear difference between a normal system and a special education system where the latter according to this view is necessary to support inclusion. This is how many influential special education researchers have thought about inclusion.

Already in the Salamanca Declaration, a number of measures at different levels, from the global level down to the classroom and support systems, are enumerated. These measures are seen as prerequisites for inclusion to be developed. Unfortunately, however, the fact that inclusion requires major, systematic changes often disappears in the discussion. It is also a pity that there is largely a lack of research that shows which factors are most important for creating inclusive schools and classrooms and how such factors interact (see link to previous blog below).


It is very important to note that the field of inclusion is not as homogeneous as it may seem. While (so far) few in the special education area have been opposed to inclusion, there are still quite different things that one strives for. That one has managed to gather different views under the banner of “inclusion” means that important differences have been made partly invisible and may have hindered necessary discussions to develop.

It is thus important to distinguish inclusion advocates who believe that inclusion is only about the situation for students with disabilities who are placed in regular classes, where the need to develop a special education support system is strong, to those who believe that inclusion is about all students and where you see a certain skepticism about special education, at least if this becomes too extensive.

I notice that I return to a more general argument, which I have presented in other blogs, which is about the importance of being clear about which goals for  education that are advocated. If we do not clarify what we want with education, for example in terms of inclusion. we risk having a discussion where we think we mean the same thing even when we differ in quite fundamental ways.

Link to Gunnlaugur Magnusson's article:

Link to blog about how research can be developed to help create more inclusive environments:


The Finnish wonder?

A number of years ago, a seminar entitled "The Finnish wonder" was announced at the university where I then worked. It was with great interest that I went to the seminar.

I read the title as the starting point for a critical and comprehensive review of the Finnish school system as criticism  and versatility for me are basic scientific virtues. This does not mean that one could not be positive to different aspects of a school system, but a scientific analysis means analyzing both positive and negative aspects in relation to what the system is supposed to achieve.

The positive aspects of the Finnish system are, of course, desirable. It is really extremely important that a school system gives all students good knowledge and skills. In addition, the Finnish system was at the time the school system where parents' level of education had the least impact on the student's school performance.

But as the reader probably already understands, the seminar did not offer a critical analysis of the Finnish school system. I had simply read too much into the title or rather into the seminar format. The seminar was, as I recall, an attempt to explain the Finnish success story. But what would it have meant then to critically examine a school system that has had top results in international comparisons of achievement?

Critical aspects

Well, I would have liked a description of how the Finnish system succeeded considering a broader mission. In an analysis of the governing documents for the Swedish school, I found seven aspects of a broad mission: 1) A knowledge mission that includes the desire to learn 2) An mission that deals with the transfer of values ​​and education to democracy 3) A compensatory mission,  4) A mission that concerns development of virtues (e.g., responsibility); formulations about personal development can possibly be seen as part of this mission or as a mission in itself 5) Promoting personal development 6) Promoting community and 7) Promoting health.

I have not carried out a similar analysis regarding the governing documents for the Finnish school system but I want to argue that the seven aspects are relevant in the analysis of any school system.

I have told an anecdote in some lectures and it is possible that the passing of time has made me miss some detail but I think I remember the main point. It was a feature on TV that showed how the Swedish national hockey team's coach had introduced a new element. More precisely he started to ask the players about their opinions on how the team should play. So there were Swedish hockey millionaires who contributed constructively to the common problem solving.

Someone then asked the Finnish coach if this way of working would be workable for the Finnish team. Well, he was very skeptical of this idea and as I remember it, he emphasized that the Finnish players were used to obeying rather than discussing in this way. I usually retell this to illustrate that upbringing and education is about so much more than knowledge achievement.

I myself have tried to make an analysis of how the Swedish school system succeeds with the broader mission. It was a mixed picture that emerged and for some of the missions there was hardly any data. It was a similar analysis I had hoped to encounter at the seminar I described at the outset of this blog.

Since no such analysis was provided let us instead turn to an investigation of inclusion in the Finnish school system.

Inclusion in Finland

I base part of my presentation in this paragraph on the article Attitudes of teachers towards inclusive education in Finland by Timo Saloviita, published in Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 2020 (see link below). As a reader of this blog I probably know, I write "inclusion" when a placement definition is used.

When attitudes to “inclusion” are asked for, it is attitudes to students in difficulty being placed in regular classes that are referred to. It appears in Salovita's study that Finnish teachers are largely negative towards “inclusion”, but special needs teachers are more positive than other teachers. Throughout the article confirms patterns from previous research, where Finnish teachers have also been found to be more negative than teachers in other countries.

Salovitta also highlights Finnish education statistics which show that the proportion of Finnish students who participate in special education activities outside the regular classroom part of the day ("part-time special education") was 22.7% and the proportion of students who received education in special education groups outside of regular teaching was 5 % the school year 2015-2016. It is a very large part of the students.

There are many who claim that these efforts also partly explain Finland's success in international knowledge tests, something Saloviita is hesitant about: “It has been argued that this high amount of part-time special education would be behind Finland's success in PISA comparisons (Kivirauma & Ruoho, 2007). This suspicion, however, has remained highly speculative ” (p. 273).

As I have pointed out on various occasions in this blog, there is evidence that special solutions in the form of "part-time special education" in, for example, early reading learning have good effects. Thus, temporary solutions of that kind can be beneficial.

As I also often write in this blog, inclusion must never be a "the closed door policy", on the contrary, it can support the student to get a temporary support outside the classroom. However, such support can be provided in a more or less beneficial ways and it is important to see it as something temporary. It is not clear from Salovita's article exactly how the part-time special education is managed in the Finnish system.

Research cannot be said to provide support for more encompassing special solutions. However, this line of research is fraught with major methodological problems, which is why one should be careful with conclusions.

In any case, the Finnish system seems not very inclusive when it comes to the placement of pupils. Since the entire Salamanca Declaration and a number of subsequent international agreements express that the abandonment of special solutions is one of several important preconditions for genuine inclusion, the Finnish system can hardly be characterized as inclusive.

It could be said that the Finnish system is still more inclusive than the Swedish system because students in difficulties seem to learn more in the Finnish system. Of course, this is no small matter. But in that case, it is more correct to say that the Finnish system better in that respect, since it cannot be characterized as inclusive.

It should also be emphasized, as Sundkvist and Hannås show in a comparative study of special education in Norway and Finland (see link below) that the Finnish special needs teachers have a very high professional qualification while a lot of the special education work in e.g. Norway is carried out by assistants!

Concluding words

In summary, it can be stated that I want to raise a question mark about the success of the Finnish school system. While the knowledge mission has been carried out in what in an international comparison is a very successful way, which of course deserves attention and admiration, we know too little about how the Finnish system succeeds with a broader school mission to be able to characterize it as a "wonder".

From an inclusion perspective, the Finnish school is an example of a school system that is a segregated system in an international comparison with almost a third of the students in various forms of special solutions and with a teaching staff that predominantly opposes that students in difficulty have a natural affiliation to the classroom. From that perspective, it is surprising that David Mitchell (see reference to previous blog below) highlights Finland as a good example  in a book entitled "Inclusion - teaching strategies that work" (see link below).


Link to Saloviita´s article:

Link to article comparing special education in Norway and Finland:


Link to blog about Mitchell´s book:



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:



Interview with Alan Dyson

The emergence of a dilemma-perspective in inclusive/special needs research is closely associated with the work of the English scholar Alan Dyson. Alan is nowadays retired but held earlier a position as a professor at the University of Manchester. I have interviewed Alan about the emergence of this perspective in the English context.


Claes: Alan, you were for a long time researching inclusive education and were also a well known person in the international scholarly discussion about inclusive education. You were also a person who quite early on warned against being carried away by this appealing, I would almost say seductive, idea of inclusion, while at the same time seeing several benefits with the idea. However, I believe you started to raise some reservations already a few years following the Salamanca-declaration. Could you tell me a little bit about how this came about?


Alan: I think it is important to realize that the discourse of ‘inclusion’ was a relative latecomer in the field of what we might call progressive education. In England, for instance, there were already many progressive movements that were established long before ‘inclusion’ appeared. In terms of ‘special needs’ education, there was a relatively-successful ‘integration’ movement aimed at educating children in regular rather than special schools.

In regular schools themselves, there had been many developments aimed at educating children experiencing difficulties alongside their peers in ordinary classrooms, giving such children access to the full curriculum, and transforming the role of the special educator into that of a consultant to and supporter of regular teachers. Beyond special needs education, there had been a largely successful movement to end selection by ‘ability’, some exciting experiments with democratic schooling and radical curriculum design, and considerable development of provision for children for whom English was a second language.


Claes: I see, there were lots of interesting and progressive changes going on in the English educational system when “inclusion” appeared on the scene?


Alan: Yes, in the mid-1990s, inclusion seemed to hold out the promise of uniting all of these progressive causes under a single banner and founding them on a unified set of principles. Given that it had the backing of international organizations (notably UNESCO) and the support of multiple scholars and advocates, it was difficult not to get excited about the developments that it might yield.

However, there were also two problems. First, the universalizing discourse of inclusion seemed to run the risk of ignoring important differences between the different progressive movements that it sought to subsume. A particular issue was the division between – to put it crudely – disability and disadvantage. The early inclusion movement seemed to focus on children who were regarded by their education systems as disabled and who were segregated and offered limited opportunities on this basis. Some reversal of this process by ending segregation and expanding opportunity seemed essential.

Yet, much of my own work, first as a teacher and then as a researcher, was focused on children whose difficulties in schooling were not attributed to disability, but derived (albeit in complex ways) from the socio-economic disadvantage they experienced. Simply ending segregation was unlikely to be enough for these children since most of them were not in segregated settings in the first place. Instead, their situation seemed to call for positive interventions in terms of their learning and, more widely, in terms of the socio-economic challenges they faced.

The discourse of inclusion could certainly accommodate both of these situations, but it seemed to me that it did so by resorting to ever-more generalized statements of principle. Indeed, this trend towards generalization seems to have continued as ‘inclusion’ seeks to accommodate more and more ‘marginalized’ groups within its ambit. Consequently, it always struck me that the discourse of inclusion, for all its concern with diversity, made little acknowledgement of the different interests of the groups that fell within its purview. On the contrary, it is arguable that its focus on disability has effectively imposed a disability template on other, very different, groups that it claims to represent.



Claes: So the first problem was that diversity within schools was not properly attended to, what was the second problem?



Alan: The second problem was – and it seems to me still is – with the implicit theory of change in the inclusion movement. The movements that predated ‘inclusion’ had already learned that change within the education system is possible, but that it takes a very long time and is exceedingly hard. Moreover, change that is driven by minority interests in such systems is largely doomed to failure unless it can find allies in the majority system. This is because such change must overcome a powerful series of vested interests, from teachers to parents, policy-makers and politicians who – often for compelling reasons - find the status quo appropriate to their needs.

In this situation, ‘inclusion’ seemed to lack a coherent and powerful theory of change. It has always seemed to focus on a mixture of the repeated advocacy of generalized principles to whoever is prepared to listen combined with the identification of a few outstanding examples of inclusive practice. It seems implicitly to have pinned its hopes on a process of individual conversion – that is the realization by good individuals of the rightness of the inclusion case and a consequent commitment to the principles of inclusion in those individuals’ practice. Undoubtedly, ‘inclusion’ has had many successes on this basis. But how widespread and sustainable those successes have been in the face of vested exclusionary interests is, it seems to me, highly debatable.

From the start, then, inclusion seemed to me to be an exciting development judged as a set of principles around which many groups, interests and movements might rally. But beneath that surface excitement were – and continue to be – many tensions, contradictions and unacknowledged problems.


Claes: Can you say more about the tensions and contradictions you identified?



Alan: When I first started thinking about the kinds of fault lines in the discourse of inclusion that I have just outlined, I found the concept of educational ‘dilemmas’ very useful. In the form in which I used this concept, an educational dilemma arises when two educational courses of action have equally desirable but mutually incompatible aims. At the level of generalized principles – which all too often is the level at which inclusion operates – such dilemmas scarcely exist. It is difficult to disagree, for instance, with the propositions that all children should be educated together and that all children should be provided with the set of circumstances that enables them to learn most fully.


Claes: I agree, on that level, inclusion is an almost non-controversial concept.


Alan: Yes, however, these principles have to be realized in particular sets of conditions – in particular classrooms in particular schools with particular sets of resources and so on. It is at this point where the hidden dilemmas begin to emerge. What if some children learn some things better apart from their peer group (should the high-attaining mathematicians always do their maths alongside their lower-attaining peers, for instance)? What if, in a situation of finite resources, giving resources to one child means that other children are denied access to them (think of teacher time as an obvious example)?

Such dilemmas are so common in schools and across the education system that teachers and policy-makers routinely find ways to deal with them, often (for better or worse) almost without thinking. Yet it seems to me important to acknowledge that such dilemmas exist and that they can never really be ‘solved’. Instead, more-or-less satisfactory ways are found of balancing the competing claims of different courses of action. But the underlying dilemma does not go away, which means that the balance that is struck at one time and place is inherently unstable. At another time and place it will seem inappropriate, or undesirable, or simply impossible, and new ways of striking a balance will have to be found.

Moreover, dilemmas emerge and are ‘balanced’ in circumstances that are structured by all sorts of social interests and perceptions. The biographies of teachers and other educators will shape the ways they perceive and respond to dilemmas. They will do so within the context of school organization, curriculum development, resource allocation and so on that reflect all manner of social, political and economic realities and interests.

In this situation, the simple advocacy of generalized principles as though they were unproblematic is, it seems to me, of limited use in surfacing and engaging with these underlying issues. If they remain unsurfaced, any new response to a dilemma resulting from such advocacy of principles will simply embody in a new form the structures that have underpinned previous discredited responses.

Again, specific examples are always helpful. The inclusion movement has typically argued against segregating some children into different schools so that they can access specialized teaching. The emptying of special schools, however, creates a classic educational dilemma – how to maintain children in their peer group whilst giving them access to the specific resources they need in order to learn. A common solution is to place additional adults in the regular classroom who are claimed to have specialist skills or, at the very least, can offer additional adult time to children who might otherwise struggle. Yet we know that such practice all too easily creates a barrier between the child, her/his peer group and the teacher. Instead of being fully included in the regular classroom, a new kind of special school emerges – this time, a special school of one child and one adult working separately in an apparently inclusive context.


Claes: Yes it does seem like there are educational dilemmas that are unavoidable.

I believe that the critique against traditional special education in England to a large extent has been driven by educational sociologists. It is my opinion that educational sociology has provided a lot of useful critique towards traditional special education, do You agree?


Alan: On the one hand, sociology has played a key role in unmasking the hidden exclusions and inequalities that underlie apparently benign responses. I think in particular of Sally Tomlinson’s landmark A sociology of special education - a powerful revelation of the negative effects of a special education system that presented itself as a benign effort to support vulnerable learners. However, where it seems to me that educational sociology has been far less successful is in translating its critical analyses into positive proposals for change. We learn from sociologists what is wrong with the current system, but we rarely learn what is right with it, much less what we might do differently. Perhaps sociologists would say that is not their job.


Claes: To put it differently, I guess you might say that they do not provide much guidance in how these inevitable tensions and dilemmas are to be balanced.

To me research has always been a very personal issue and I believe that it is similar to you. Could you say something about the importance of your background in becoming a researcher in the educational field?


Alan: One aspect of my background that has been particularly important is that, before becoming a researcher, I spent 13 years as a ‘special educational needs’ teacher, mainly in regular secondary schools serving areas of high socio-economic disadvantage. ‘Special needs’ in this context was not primarily about disability. Traditional special education responses were not particularly relevant to the children I worked with. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with these children that demanded specialized teaching, or that disbarred them from regular settings. What mattered was finding ways of making the full curriculum accessible (and, more particularly, meaningful) in the ordinary classroom. So I spent much of my time working with subject-teacher colleagues to enable them – and, in some cases, to persuade them - to teach these children effectively and working with school policy and organization to make them more responsive to the nature of the school population.

This background has always made me feel something of an outsider in the inclusion movement. I have always had the sense that the movement is largely driven from a disability perspective that is subtly different from my own.


Claes: Finally Alan, I will of course ask you about how you view the prospects for a more inclusive society including more inclusive school systems. I know that you keep saying that you have not kept up with the discussion but I still believe that you have some interesting ideas on this issue.


Alan: I think I am an optimist in the long term and a pessimist in the short term. If we look at the trajectory of education systems over the past century, it seems to me that many of them have become more humane, more universal and more effective in reaching a wide range of children. They have in other words become more inclusive, not least of children identified as disabled or otherwise marginalized. So long as societies as a whole continue on a progressive track (probable but, I admit, not guaranteed even in the ‘liberal West’), I see no reasons why these trends should not continue in education.

However, in the short and medium term it seems to me that the situation is much more complicated. In my own country, the more-or-less progressive education policies and explicit commitment to inclusion that were put in place in the 1990s and early 2000s have been swept aside by right of centre governments from 2010 onwards.

It seems to me that this is inevitable, given the resistant nature of conservative forces in education systems across the world. Moreover, it also seems to me inevitable that the inclusion movement – or, more particularly, the discourse of inclusion – will, in the medium term, begin to fade away. As an attempt to create a broad church of progressive educational thinking it has never been more than partially successful. Despite the rhetorical efforts of inclusion scholars and advocates to embrace the concerns of all marginalized groups, it seems to me that key developments in, for instance, gender and ethnicity equality or in responses to educational disadvantage have taken place with only limited reference to the discourse of inclusion. This trend is not helped by the near hegemony that disability concerns have within the discourse of inclusion.

However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Before the emergence of ‘inclusion’, those of us in the special needs field found progressive inspiration in the concept of ‘integration’. Quite rightly, inclusion advocates pointed out the limitations of expecting children to adapt themselves to an unchanged and essentially hostile regular education system and proposed a better way of thinking about the task. It will hardly be surprising, therefore, if ‘inclusion’ itself suffers a similar fate.

To go back to the notion of dilemmas. ‘Inclusion’ is not a solution to the dilemmas of educating diverse children, but is a temporary response which is by its very nature unstable. Some other response will inevitably emerge to take its place.


Claes: I do think the Swedish reader of this will see similarities between the changes in the educational system in England and present developments in the Swedish system. I guess one way for the inclusion-concept to survive given what you have said, is to open up for diversity in the full sense of the word, or, to put it slightly differently, to adopt more of an intersectional approach. I really share your conviction that we need to develop workable theories of change in order to move schools into more inclusive directions.


Thank you for this interview, Alan, it has been very interesting to take part of your experiences in and with the field of inclusive education and let us hope that your optimistic view of the more distant future will be realized.

How can teachers and special educators / special teachers collaborate to create more inclusive environments?

The question in the title was the starting point for a research review conducted by David Paulsrud at Uppsala University (see reference and link to the article below). Based on what we know about Swedish special education, the answer to the question in the title is very important.

It has been shown that teachers in Sweden feel that they do not have access to the support they would like, while many points out that such support is crucial for inclusive school environments to be created.

Another way of expressing this is to state that the system perspective that, at least until recently, has permeated the thinking about special education in Swedish schools has not been completely easy to implement in school practice (see link to previous blog below).

The system perspective implies that school difficulties should be addressed at the organizational, group and individual levels. The idea has been to counteract the school's tradition of routinely individualizing school problems, i.e. to explain them with shortcomings in the student and / or his / her home environment and to create special types of teaching groups for students who are not considered to fit into the mainstream.

If schools are to become more inclusive according to the system perspective special educators / special teachers should not mainly work with students in segregated environments. Instead it becomes important to work closer to the regular teaching and support the teacher in different ways in the effort of creating an inclusive learning environment in the regular classroom.

Thus, the collaboration between teachers and special teachers / special educators becomes of crucial importance. Rather than having different responsibilities (for "normal" and "deviant" students respectively) a common responsibility for all students is foregrounded.

But what does research say about how the collaboration between teachers / special educators can contribute to more inclusive school environments?

Different forms of cooperation

In the article that presents the outcome of the research review written by Paulsrud with some assistance from me, two different forms of collaboration, co-teaching and supervision, are distinguished as well as a mixed form consisting of, for example, an investment in professional development combined with supervision. Thus, altogether research about three forms of collaboration in relation to the development of more inclusive schools is analyzed.

Both co-teaching and supervision have in many contexts been presented as forms of collaboration which can contribute to a more inclusive school. Co-teaching is an overarching concept which includes different forms of cooperation: 1) one teacher teaches and the other assists, 2) Station learning, 3) Parallel teaching (division of the class into groups), 4) Alternative teaching (a smaller group is created temporarily) and 5) Team teaching (shared responsibility for joint teaching).

When it comes to supervision, a distinction is usually made between counseling and reflective conversations. Counseling is based on an expert role where the student is placed at the center while reflective conversations are process-oriented and focus teachers' reflection on their work. In Swedish special education, the supervision model rather than the co-teaching model has been an ideal.

Many have thus seen the possibility that the collaboration between teachers and special education / special teachers can be organized in such a way that it contributes to more inclusive environments. But what support does this idea have in research?

In order to investigate this question the aforementioned research review, which is based on international, qualitative research, was carried out. Only studies with observational data were included in the review. On the other hand, several of these studies combined the observational data with interviews. A total of 25 studies formed the basis for the review.

Conclusions in the research review

Co-teaching was the form of teaching that dominated the material (17 studies), which is probably due to the fact that the supervisory role is not as established internationally as in Sweden. When it comes to co-teaching, a relatively clear pattern emerges that has also been found in previous research, which means that the model that the teacher teaches while the special teacher assists dominates. In this way, co-teaching seems in part to be, so to speak, about moving special education into the classroom and not about a shared responsibility for the entire student group.

Only a small number of studies (4 studies) of supervision were identified and there were both studies where egalitarian relations between teachers and supervisors were identified but also those where there were clear communication problems in the relationship. It should be noted here that there are several dissertations in Swedish where supervision has been analyzed but which were not included in the research overview, which as mentioned focused international publications.

There were also a few studies (4 studies) which were characterized by a mixed form (see above). In the reports from these studies, the authors were positive in their description of the collaboration and its ability to develop the school in a more inclusive direction.

In the review the importance of factors such as personal chemistry and time and space for the collaboration were identified as important. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the analysis is when the collaboration between teachers and special teachers is put in relation to educational policy changes.

Several studies identify, perhaps not entirely unexpectedly, a conflict between collaboration to create a more inclusive environment and the external requirements, in the forms of content management of teaching and the achievement of pre-determined goals, that characterize governance through New Public Management.


The research overview illustrates problems that may arise in the various forms of collaboration but also factors that are important for the collaboration to become more fruitful. The conclusions are also supported by the fact that similar factors have emerged in previous reviews.

As pointed out in the overview, however, there is rarely substantial evidence for success factors in the sense that it has in a methodologically sustainable way been shown how factors de facto lead to changes in the students who are to be included. There is a great deal of room here for future studies than include the consequences of the cooperation which to a greater extent than before also analyzes the conditions for cooperation between teachers and special educators / special teachers in the light of educational policy changes.

It is also important to note that the international research that forms the basis for the research overview has been carried out primarily in the USA, where the conditions for special educational work are different than in e.g. Sweden. This explains the focus on co-teaching that most studies have and thus the few studies that deal with supervision.

However, it is possible to draw a similar conclusion also with regard to the Swedish context. Thus, more research is needed concerning the consequences of supervision. Does it lead to that students become more included? In a similar vein it is also important to analyze how inclusion policy is affected by other educational policies such as the emergence of NPM.


Paulsrud, D. och Nilholm, C. (2020) Teaching for inclusion - A review of research on the cooperation between regular teachers and special educators in the work with students in need of special support. International Journal of Inclusive Education. Published on-line.


Link to the article:


Previous blog where, among other things, challenges for the system perspective are discussed: (in Swedish):



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:





Ideology and evidence in educational research

It is well known that there are different educational ideologies within the school area. There are thus different ideas about basic things such as what education should aim for, how the teaching should be carried out and what should be counted as knowledge.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the question of evidence, that is, what should be counted as proof of which policy and practice is the best, depends on the ideological position from which it is asked.

In medicine, the question of evidence is less complicated. There it is a consensus that the purpose of health care is to promote health and cure diseases. It is unfortunate if the difference between medicine and education is not taken in account in the discussion of evidence.

There are different ways to distinguish educational ideologies. Here I will distinguish between five different educational ideologies that express different views on the aims of education and on how it should be shaped: 1) efficiency orientation 2) progressivism 3) “bildung” 4) democracy orientation and 5) character formation.

In the following a very brief account of the central aspects of the ideologies will be given and it will be pointed out how the different ideologies calls for different kinds of evidence.

Let us start with the efficiency-oriented ideology because it is the ideology that to a large extent seems to dominate policy today and also to some extent the work of schools. It is the ideology that is most closely associated with the idea of ​​evidence and it is also closely linked to New Public Management.

Evidence for efficiency

Within the framework of this ideology, it becomes central to convey useful knowledge in the most efficient way possible. The main purpose of the education system is to qualify pupils/students for the labor market. When searching evidence for effectiveness, one leans, for example, on John Hattie, who has compiled the effect of a number of factors in terms of their effect on educational performance. Ideally, a cost-benefit analysis should also be made where the cost of various measures in relation to their effect is calculated.

According to this logic, schools should invest in working methods and teaching methods that, for as low a cost as possible, give the most possible effect in terms of educational achievement.

Behind this thinking lies an economical metaphor. Just like for any product, the best possible product should be produced at the lowest possible cost. Evidence is thus needed for how pupils in the cheapest possible way can learn as much as possible.

In the efficiency-oriented ideology achievements in international knowledge tests are often taken as evidence that an education system is successful, while the systems ability to prepare students to participate in a democratic society (see below) is not analyzed. Surprisingly, this means that sometimes no distinction is made between educational systems in dictatorships on the one hand, and in democracies on the other.

Nor do surveys and reports which show that students' interest in the content of knowledge taught in school seem to decline, sometimes significantly, with an increased number of years in school rarely leadi to any alarming reports from those who advocate the efficiency-oriented ideology.

Evidence for meaningfulness

Within the framework of student-centered teaching, what is sometimes called progressive education, the student's activity and development are seen as important. A central theme is that the teaching should be meaningful to the students. It is the knowledge that is perceived as meaningful that students will carry with them in life.

Thus, we need evidence for which teaching that lead to active students and that is perceived as meaningful by the students. In the production of evidence, it is therefore important to assess methods and ways of working based on whether they are perceived as meaningful and whether they take advantage of students' initiative and activity. Obviously, the student's own opinions and perceptions become important in terms of evidence of which working methods are successful.

Within the framework of the efficiency-oriented ideology, it is the effect on educational achievement that is in focus but whether the students perceive the teaching as meaningful or not is infrequently explored.

Evidence for “bildung”

The idea of ​​evidence rhymes badly with the idea of ​​“bildung” because “bildung” means that the learning subject to a large extent forms her/himself. It is therefore difficult to know in advance what is a fruitful outcome of the educational process.

It is illustrative to compare this approach with intervention studies where the goals of the knowledge process have already been determined in advance and are operationalized in the dependent variables.

There are, of course, very different opinions about what knowledge content “bildung” should encompass. The ideal originates from a time when the accumulated human knowledge was still in some sense manageable and the ideal was also formed before the age of mass education.

Without going further into this discussion, it can be stated that "educational achievement" is an expression that rhymes very poorly with the idea of ​​“bildung” which is mainly about the subject's self-driven exploration of knowledge. It is, of course, possible to systematically examine which educational environments that promote such a development, but probably nothing that is prioritized by those who embrace this ideal.

Evidence for the democracy orientation

When the school's most important task is seen as providing conditions for students to develop into responsible citizens who can recreate and develop a democratic society, we seek evidence of how such a goal is best achieved.

This means that we analyze what it means to develop into a responsible citizen (what virtues, skills and knowledge this requires) in order to be able to systematically analyze whether an education system prepares students for democracy.

For example, it is important to master basic skills such as reading and writing and to have extensive knowledge to be prepared to sustain and develop democracy.

Also important are experiences of democratic processes and being able to exercise influence as well as a willingness to get involved in democratic processes.

Evidence for character formation

Within the framework of this ideology, it is central to educate individuals who act morally and in a broader sense develop into "good" people. This ideology undertakes similarities with several of the above and, like these, requires other scientific evidence than that required of the efficiency-oriented ideology.

Three important aspects

Finally, I would like to discuss three important aspects of the reasoning above. The first has to do with the question of relativism, is it not risky to relativize what counts as scientific evidence in this way? The second is about different ways of hiding ideological aspects of educationalresearch and the third concerns what evidence that is needed to develop Swedish schools.

It is very important to be able to distinguish between different forms of relativism. What I am advocating here is of course not that we should disregard established facts regarding school systems, for example students' results in international knowledge comparisons or outcomes of controlled studies. On the other hand, there is always an ideological element in identifying the facts considered most significant and also in how we interpret the meaning of facts.

It is thus not a question of the world being interpreted in an arbitrary way, but rather a question about us being clear about the starting points from which we make our interpretations. In fact, it implies a higher degree of scientific rigor than if we try to hide our ideological starting points, which brings us to the next point.

There are different ways to, so to speak hide ideological starting points. If, for example, we look for evidence of how schools should be run based on the assumption that schooling is only about knowledge achievement without acknowledging that this is an ideological stance, we hide the ideological points of departure for the analysis.

Sometimes such "fact" -oriented analysis is opposed to ideological approaches to the school. "Let's put ideology aside and see what works." Works with regard to which ideology is then the right question to ask.

My personal point of departure is that it is important to show with scientific rigor that what one advocates can be made to work in practice. This also applies to those who advocate a “bildung” approach. There is always the risk that the advocacy of an ideology can give rise to a number of unintended effects in practice and therefore, regardless of which ideology is advocated, it is important to study the consequences of ideologies when implemented in practice.

I think that an important contribution from the evidence movement is the clear requirement to use scientific research to show that something works or can be made to work as intended. Regardless of our ideological starting points, it is thus important to show that what we advocate can be made to work. An illustrative example here is the research on inclusive education where there is no shortage of articles that advocate this ideology but where there is a astonishing lack of knowledge about how inclusive schools should develop and, not least, become sustainable (see link below).

Finally, the third point above: What scientific evidence does the Swedish school need? A reasonable answer to that question is that research evidence is needed that helps the school to achieve the democratically decided purpose of Swedish education. The laws and regulations governing the Swedish school reflects all the ideologies above and thus evidence of a number of different kinds is needed in order to improve schooling in Sweden.


Link to analysis of research on inclusion:

Perspectives on special needs education

Interestingly enough, we can distinguish two completely different approaches to the question of perspectives on special needs education. On the one hand, we have those who think that the discussion is unnecessary and leads in the wrong direction. The important thing is to find ways to help students with problems. Why discuss different perspectives?

On the other hand, we have those who believe that the issue of perspective is absolutely central to the area. According to this approach, different perspectives provide completely different understandings of problems in school and how they can be handled

Those who advocate that the perspective issue is important are almost always critical of the group that believes that the perspective issue is more or less irrelevant. Furthermore, the former group believes that the latter also has a perspective, although it is often unspoken. The group's perspective is referred to in slightly different ways, for example as a shortcoming perspective, a compensatory perspective or as a categorical perspective.

Interestingly, these researchers do not have their own name for their perspective because they do not see the perspective issue as relevant. However, I would argue that they have a perspective, let's for simplicity's call it a compensatory perspective here.

The compensatory perspective is described by the researchers who discuss the perspective issue, often in opposition to some other perspective, often a relational perspective. The subtext is that the latter perspective is more developed than the former, although it is rarely stated correctly.

No one who has a compensatory perspective writes as far as I know about the perspective issue. This is quite logical because the starting point is usually that there is only one starting point, one's own, within the framework of which one studies the world as it is.

Personally, I believe that both of these approaches can contribute to the development of work with students in need of special support in school. Unfortunately, however, communication between the positions is lacking. This is not so strange because in both cases it is often difficult to see what you can learn from the other camp.

As an example of a lack of communication, I can mention that when I was once commissioned by the Swedish Research Council to arrange a conference with the country's professors in the field of special education, they failed with a more pronounced compensatory perspective. It may in itself have been a coincidence, but I could give more examples of similar phenomena.

My experience is that perspective meetings are demanding but rewarding. These meetings can force you to re-evaluate what you have taken for granted, which is always a process that challenges and takes time. When at one point I wanted to immerse myself within the framework of the compensatory perspective, I contacted some leading researchers with compensatory approaches and it gave me new insights. What became clear to me was not least the actual variation in students' conditions.

In any case, my starting point is that it is not possible to approach the area without having some form of perspective and that it is also important to be clear with which perspective is used and what legitimizes the chosen perspective. The perspectives differ mainly when it comes to defining what is problematic when problems arise in educational contexts.

Where is the problem located?

Several have thus argued that the perspectives differ with regard to where the problem is located. The starting point is then that special education is what could be called a "problem discourse", ie it is about problems that arise in the education system. I think almost everyone can share that starting point.

The problem can be attributed to various factors: the student, the student's social background, the way the class works, the teaching, the school leadership, the education policy, the discourses of professionals and society to name a few of the most common.

A dividing line can be said to go between those who focus on student factors and those who focus on environmental factors when problems arise in school. It feels like the former group is now starting to gain traction partly due to more general societal changes, such as an increased focus on the individual's performance in relation to pre-determined goals in school and the more general and new-age tendency to biologize identities in modern society.

How, then, can a compromise be reached between what appear to be fundamentally different views?

A dilemma perspective

My proposal for such a compromise is to see school difficulties as a dilemma. These dilemmas are basically about how differences should be handled within the framework of the education system. The dilemma means that you have to find a balance between goals that are desirable but also go against each other. The dilemma requires a balance to be achieved, but unlike problems, the dilemma cannot be solved.

An absolutely fundamental dilemma is about finding a balance between seeing difference as an asset (which is desirable) and giving students extra support (which is also desirable, but requires them to be singled out and valued negatively).

Unfortunately, the dilemma perspective is often misunderstood. I think the word "dilemma" struck because many feel that special education is a complex area. But what many people mean by the term "dilemma" is something that I would characterize as "problems", which thus differ from the dilemma in that they do not create a need for balance but rather a need for solutions.

The dilemma perspective is also based on the fact that it is seen as ethically problematic to point out children and students as deviant. I have met many people in the field of special education who do not see this as problematic at all and then one starts from a compensatory rather than a dilemma perspective.

In a more critical perspective on special education where the problem is placed in the environment, on the other hand, one misses, among other things, that any existing education system as we know them will value students because this is more or less inevitable. Such a critical perspective then easily becomes an advocacy of utopias which are difficult to realize.

The dilemma perspective in my interpretation is closer to a critical than a compensatory perspective but tries to address some of the shortcomings in a more critical perspective. At the same time, it is very important to take into account insights gained within the framework of more compensatory approaches.

Since I do not claim in my interpretation of a dilemma perspective that there is a right way to look at how education systems should handle the dilemma, the question of who should decide the perspective becomes important. This is an issue that has hardly received attention within either the compensatory perspective or the critical / relational perspective. Therefore, I have seen it as important to raise the issue of democracy in relation to special education. The question of who should decide the perspective thus becomes at least as important as which perspective professionals should work from.

A quest to communicate clearer….

In various contexts, I have strived to communicate clearer about what I mean by a dilemma perspective. Now I have also had the time and opportunity to work on my book Perspective on special needs education, which has just been published in a third edition (see reference below).

In this new edition, I have thus tried to become even clearer, not least with regard to the description of the dilemma perspective. For example, I have built on and developed examples used in previous blogs in order to concretize the consequences that different perspectives, including the dilemma perspective, have for everyday work.

Although my book is about theoretical perspectives on special education, I thus believe that they have clear implications for everyday work. I have also included study questions in each chapter which are intended to help the reader go into the different perspectives in depth.

The new edition also has a new cover that I am very fond of. The cover is designed by Karl Stefan Andersson. On the cover is the German artist Adam Macke's painting "Segelboot am morgen", which is intended to inspire a journey among different perspectives on special education.


Nilholm, Claes. (2020) Perspektiv på specialpedagogik. Lund: Studentlitteratur. (3rd edition)