The crucial question of inclusion: How should the teacher teach a heterogeneous group of students?

The title question concerns something that probably almost all teachers think about every day. I will describe in more detail the challenge facing the teacher who wants to contribute to creating more inclusive classrooms and then outline what needs to be developed for these teachers to receive the best possible support in their work.

The challenge

Creating a school for all children is a challenge. One of my definitive favorite passages in texts from the field of educational science research is the following written by childhood and educational historian Bengt Sandin about the emergence of a school for all:

“When more and more children from different social classes were accommodated in the same institution, the differences between the children became visible. The differences between different childhood worlds became dramatic and noticeable when hungry, sick children would sit side by side with children with water-combed hair - observed by an increasingly professional profession - the school teachers, who had an interest and personal commitment in pointing out the differences between the children. Not only the reluctance to go to school and the conflict between school and home became apparent but also the childrens´ other shortcomings. Diseases, abnormalities of a physical and mental and not least a moral nature were noted. The school's task of being a school for all was not very easy to carry out ”(p. 61) /my translation/.

The quote thus shows the enormous variation that historically existed in the classroom and even though the situation looks very different today, the fact remains that the students in the classroom have very different prerequisites for school work. One way to handle the variation among pupils is through organizational differentiation where students who are equal to each other are taught together. The special school is an example of this in Sweden, but also the independent schools which gather ambitious middle-class students. In recent years, however, the idea that special solutions should be avoided and that the teacher should be able to meet a more varied group of students in the classroom has gained momentum.

Teacher strategies

There are several theories about how inclusive schools should be constructed and a number of mantras that are repeated regarding how it should be done. These are often in the form of lists of factors that are said to increase inclusion, the Salamanca Declaration being a typical example of this. On the other hand, it is not as common to have lists of what the teacher should do to increase inclusion. Even when such lists exist it is relatively unclear how they can be used by the active teacher. Such lists are of course worth taking part of (see link to previous blog below with a critical review of David Mitchell's list of strategies for inclusion).

In practice, however, many (but far from all) teachers are not sure about how they should be able to meet the needs of all students in a good way. Many believe that they do not have the skills and support required to meet this challenge.

Teachers have different strategies when meeting heterogeneous student groups. A common way identified in research is to target students at an intermediate level. Other teachers can adapt the teaching to the students who have the greatest difficulties. Another way of dealing with students' different levels and needs has been to individualize in the form of, for example, "individual work", which was popular in the 1990s. The student then plans and carries out the school work at his/her own pace.

Each teacher probably has their own ideas about how the teaching should be differentiated so that all students should be given good opportunities. I am also convinced that there are many teachers who succeed with this and from whom you can learn a lot. But many teachers experience this as an almost impossible task and there is a lack of well-proven theories regarding how to increase inclusion in the classroom.

Thus, many teachers feel inadequate. Inclusion is often called for but the tools are partly missing. Several teachers believe that the task is impossible and demand special solutions for different groups of students, such as those who do not keep up with the pace of education or who do not want to conform to the required order or those who are simply unmotivated.

A didactic question

It is important to state that the question in the blog title is largely a didactic question. Didactics can be said to be the doctrine of the art of teaching and what is a more difficult art than teaching a group of students with very different conditions and characteristics? Unfortunately, there is far too little didactic research on this issue, largely due to the fact that didactics has recreated the distinction between the normal and the deviant.

We have had one teaching for "normal" students and another for the "deviant" and this difference is also reflected in the research where didactics in part provided a "normal student" and special education took care of the students who do not reach the norm.

If students with varying conditions are to be in the same classroom, didactic knowledge is needed about how they can be taught together. In other words, we can say that research is needed on how inclusive didactics can be developed.

It is also important to note that there are a number of framework factors that affect teachers. Framework factors consist of things that are beyond the teacher's control, but which still are important for how the teaching is carried out. Examples of such framework factors are the composition of student groups, the time available for various teaching elements, rules and goals formulated in the governing documents, how the support system is organized, the management of the work and the local school culture. Such framework factors can facilitate but also make it more difficult to create inclusive classrooms.

In summary, we can state that we need more research on the consequences of various framework factors for the possibility of creating inclusive classrooms and on how teachers can more concretely shape inclusive teaching in the daily interaction with students.

A final word

Of course, it is not very comforting that more research is needed for the teacher who has given up on the task of meeting a group of students with varying prerequisites. A first step towards being able to meet all students is, of course, that there is a functioning support system, so that the teacher is not left alone in the face of this difficult task. Then I think it is extremely important to build a collaboration between the school and the university to be able to develop didactics in the school and not least to learn from the teachers who seem to go ashore with the challenge of teaching diversity of students in the classroom.

Then, of course, there is a lot of research to be inspired by, although, as I said, there are very few studies that have more systematically analyzed how different didactic choices can lead to an increased degree of inclusion for all students.



Sandin, B. (1995) The creation of the normal child. In K. Bergqvist, K. Pettersson and M. Sundkvist (eds), Crossroads: An anthology of meetings between young people and institutions then and now. Stockholm: Symposium. (pp. 55-64) /titles translated/

Link to problematizing blog about strategies to increase inclusion:


Inclusion - four definitions

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

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

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

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

From placement to community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better research is needed

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



Göransson, K. and Nilholm, C. (2014) Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 29: 3, 265-280.

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

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

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


Inclusive education - a need for better theories

It may seem a little strange that we have so little knowledge about how school environments can become more inclusive for all students now that 26 years have passed since the publication of the Salamanca Declaration.

In a research article that has recently been published (see link below), I try to argue for how we can gain more knowledge about how such environments can be created. I intend to somewhat develop the reasoning in the article in this blog.

First, though, I want to explain to the reader what kind of article it is. By far the most common article in educational research report outcomes in empirical studies and puts this outcome in a research context.

Empirical research is sometimes brought together in research reviews. More rarely, but not less importantly, research reviews can be about how concepts / theories / methods are used within a research area.

The article I wrote is none of this but is a positioning article. In such an article, one tries to shed light on the entire field of research, evaluate it and try to see development paths for future research. In this way, a positioning article is supported by what is at best a clear line of argumentation.

The starting point for the argument in the article is that there is a lack of empirically based theories regarding how more inclusive environments that include all students can be created at the system, school and classroom levels.

Another starting point for my reasoning is the social psychologist Lewin's idea that "there is nothing as practical as a good theory", which means that if a theory is not useful, it is not a good theory. Similar ideas can also be found in Dewey´s thinking and in pragmatism more generally.

Everyone who is familiar with the field of inclusion knows that there is no shortage of theories, so why are they not sufficient when it comes to developing an education system that includes all students?

Limited and elaborated theories

In the article, I argue that two different types of theories dominate in the field of inclusion research, limited and elaborated theories.

On the one hand, there are what can be labelled as limited theories, which focus on the relationship between variables. Examples of questions asked in such a perspective are: What influences teachers' attitudes to inclusion? Is inclusion effective?

The problem with these types of theories is that they are too general (de-contextualized) and often start from a traditional view of special education, where the focus is only on students in need of special support and not on the inclusion of all students.

On the other hand, there are what I call elaborated theories. Perhaps the most interesting theorist in research on inclusion is, in my opinion, Thomas Skrtic. I choose to discuss his theories in the article as an example of elaborated theories (there are many other examples).

Elaborated theories include, unlike limited theories, complex descriptions of how different levels and processes in society and the education system relate to each other. The problem with these theories, which becomes not least clear with Skrtic, is that they are not tried out in practice. In this way, there are constructions that often solve problems in theory, but we do not know what it means, and what consequences it will have, if their usefulness were to be tested out in practice.

A problem concerning both types of theory is that it is often not entirely clear what is meant by inclusion within the framework of the theories. I mentioned above that limited theories are often based on a view that inclusion is only about students in difficulty. In my article, however, I am interested in theory as a tool to create inclusive environments for all students.

Of course, a number of insights have been gained and interesting research results have been obtained within the framework of these two types of theory. What I suggest in the article, however, is that they need to be developed to become better tools for creating more inclusive environments.

The case study as a vehicle to develop better theories

A large part of the article is devoted to advocating case studies as a way of developing theories of inclusion. The case study as a method fits the complexity that characterizes education and teaching. Case studies have the advantage that they a) combine different levels of analysis b) take into account the complexity of the phenomenon c) do not violate the integrity (the whole) of the studied phenomenon and d) are suitable for theory development.

Case studies can focus on entire education systems, such as in articles of the type "Inclusive education in X" where X is a country. They can also focus on schools and classrooms. In both latter cases, it is of course important to contextualize the study in the educational system where the study is conducted.

The case study of course has to be related to prior research. If, for example, I want to do a study of a classroom that seems to develop in an inclusive direction, it is good to take previous studies about how such a development takes place as a starting point. Through a careful mapping of the case, a theory about how inclusive classrooms can be created can be further developed and nuanced.

It is also advantageous if case studies have a longitudinal dimension because we then have better opportunities to analyze which factors can explain the development of and decline in inclusive processes.

In the article, I exemplify how case studies can be used for theory development with the help of Bengt and Elisabeth Persson's studies of inclusion processes in the Essunga municipality in Sweden and my and Barbro Alm's study of an inclusive classroom, also in Sweden (see link below for references).

The studies are chosen because, based on my argument, they are central and important to the area of research on inclusion. I discuss in the article how they could contribute to theory development to an even greater degree than has been the case. In both studies, a number of factors are mentioned which seem to have been important for the inclusive development studied, but we need more knowledge about how these types of factors interacts in the developmental process towards more inclusive practices.

When I received comments from the reviewers of the article, I decided to remove a long section where I put the idea of ​​inclusion in relation to liberal democracy. Within the framework of an article, only a limited number of themes can be included. Another topic that I could not fully discuss in the article concerns the question of what theories are and I therefore choose to end this blog with a discussion on this important issue.

Theories exist in different contexts

In the field of educational science, it can be fruitful to discern beteen theories about, for and in practice. Theories about practice aim to explain and increase the understanding of why the practice looks the way it does. These theories are often described as being non-normative.

Theories for practice aim to develop practice in a desired direction. We can see an analogy to these two types of theory in the division that is usually made between research about and research for the school.

The starting point for my article is, as mentioned, Lewin's maxim "there is nothing as practical as a good theory". This starting point breaks in a way the distinction between theories about and for practice since theories about practice should also be tested for their usefulness in developing practice.

The term "research for schooling" often means that research should contribute to increased goal fulfillment etc. But we can also see that more ideology-critical research can also be for practice, even if it proposes changes of such practices in the longer term.

Now, I would not go so far as to say that all theories must be for practice even when this is interpreted broadly and will also include research that is systemically critical. Some research can simply provide insights and understanding without necessarily affecting the practice more than very indirectly.

However, a lot of the research that is about the school contains a lot of, often unspoken, assumptions about what is good for the practice / how the practice should be developed. This is because the educational science researcher hardly escapes the question of educational ideologies and it is not possible to analyze the school from an ideology-free vantage point.

Theories in practice, finally, is about the theories that head teachers, teachers and others have about schooling. What is interesting in the two case studies discussed in the article is that it is practitioners who develop the inclusive processes. Usually we think that theories are developed in research and then these are to be transferred to practice, but here it is almost the opposite.

If we again invoke Lewin, it seems that these persons have had "good theories". The theories differ from scientific theories in that they are constantly tested in, and retested by, practice. They are not tested in empirical studies but within the framework of everyday experience and are negotiated in discussions with colleagues and others. Strictly speaking, they also exist only as aspects of interpretation and action in practice. They are thus not as de-contextualized and formal as scientific theories.

So I think we can learn a lot from the practitioners who have proven to have good theories in practice. By critically analyzing such theories in practice, we as researchers can contribute to developing theories for practice. Here, of course, a complex translation work takes place from interpretations and actions in practice to more formal theories on how more inclusive environments can be developed.

I thus believe that it is important that we try to bridge the gap between theories for practice and theories in practice in order to be able to develop more inclusive schools and classrooms. In that context, of course, theories about practice are also important.


Link to the article:


Teachers´ attitudes towards "inclusion"

As usual, as in the heading, I put inclusion in quotes when refering to the placement definition of inclusion. When it comes to attitudes towards inclusion, the starting point is always a placement definition because if we mean that inclusion by definition is something good, it becomes strange to ask for attitudes towards it. In order to avoid misunderstandings, I will here write about teachers' attitudes to placement of pupils with special needs in mainstream classrooms.

My starting point is an interesting and much cited research review by de Boer, Pilj and Minnaert from 2011 (see reference below). The review is about the views of elementary school teachers on the placement of students´ with special needs in mainstream classrooms. It is the same researchers who conducted the research review I wrote about in a previous blog and which was about parents' views on "inclusion" (i.e. placement). The researchers use partly the same approach as in the previous review, where studies are divided based on whether positive, neutral or negative attitudes are expressed. However, the present review covers more studies (28 against 10) than the one about parents´ views.

Main results

The researchers' definition of what is positive and negative support is quite strictly defined and most studies are categorized as neutral (19). The participants in the other nine studies express negative attitudes according to the criteria used..

The researchers also analyzed the impact of different factors on teacher attitudes such as gender, teacher experience, experience of having students with special needs in the classroom, training and type of special needs. Experience of teaching students with special needs seems to have the strongest relation to attitudes , where more experience correlates with more positive attitudes. In this context, of course, the question should be asked concerning what is the chicken and the egg. Some training programs also seem to be related to more positive attitudes.

A central problem

The biggest drawback with the review is that it is on a level of abstraction where it is difficult to understand what the attitudes mean. Attitudes are e.g. more negative in studies conducted outside the US and Europe and this could possibly have to do with cultural differences in the view of special needs.

The uncertainty also applies to the more immediate context. The question is begging as to what kind of placements teachers have had experience with when the display their attitudes towards the mainstreaming of students with special needs.

However, these remarks should not detract from the importance of the review. The issue of placing students with special needs in mainstream classrooms has to a large extent been driven from the special educational community and obviously not all teachers are favourable to the idea and it is very important that this is recognized.

The Swedish National Agency for Education found e.g. in an investigation 2014 that over half of the teachers with less than ten years of experience find that they do not have sufficient competence and knowledge to support students in need of special support. The figure drops to a 25% for teachers who have more than 25 years of experience. The teachers also do not think that they receive sufficient support, 60 % state that access to student health is very good / good but only 42% are satisfied with the access to special teachers / special education.


What conclusons can be drawn?

It is of course extremely important how teachers look at the possibility and desirability of teaching students in different types of difficulties in the mainstream classroom. The review by de Boer and her collaborators is, as has been said, much needed and it is interesting since it finds a more negative pattern than earlier reviewers.

However, I arrive at similar conclusions as I usually do when I write about this kind of attitudes and it is that the attitudes must be put in relation to the experiences the respondents have and the cultural context in which they work.

Consider Mitchells formula for reaching inclusion:

Inclusive education = V + P + 5As + S + R + L V = Vision; P = Placement; 5As = Adapted Curriculum, Adapted Assessment,Adapted Teaching, Acceptance, Access, S = Support; R = Resources; L = Leadership.

A central question concerns how the environments that the teachers in these attitude studies have experience of look like. Has there been a vision and a leadership that has carried the vision? Has there been access to support and resources and have the teachers received training in adapting the teaching to pupils' different abilites?

In the Swedish context, these issues concern whether the school has applied for support from the SPSM (Special Education School Authority), if there are centrally located support teams, if the student health team is functioning well, etc. It is in specific contexts that attitudes are developed and, as has been said, it is difficult to determine the meaning of an attitude without knowing the context.

The problems with placements must however not be neglected. Just as for parents (see my previous blog), there is great reason to take the teachers' concerns very seriously. We also know that many teachers drop out of the teaching profession during the first few years and one reason for this may be the challenges that the variation of students constitute. Therefore, it is important to provide support and training to the teachers, which has always been a crucial part of the inclusion concept.

Many negative attitudes are probably due to the fact that the teachers lacked several of the factors proposed by Mitchell, even though we cannot ignore the fact that there are still teachers who believe that some students are someone else's concern or who think that they simply lack tools to cope with certain students. These teachers are undoubtedly a big challenge for special educators and specialist teachers who want to create inclusive school environments.


De Boer, Anke., Pilj, SJ. & Minnaert, A. (2011) Regular primary schoolteachers' attitudes towards inclusive education: A Review of the Literature. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 15 (3), 331-353.

Mitchell, D. 2008. What Really Works in Special Needs and Inclusive Education: Using Science-Based Teaching Strategies? London: Routledge.

Inclusion - the european commission and the declaration of the new Swedish government

It is interesting, and not least, puzzling, to compare how the European Commission looks at the role of education in a democratic society in a recently adopted policy document compared to the picture that appears in the declaration of the new Swedish government.

Both the policy document from the European Commission and the declaration from the new Swedish Government take their point of departure in the threats that exist towards democracy from populism and extremism but end up in quite different conclusions regarding the role of education in counteracting these threats.


The European Commission and inclusion

The European Commission's position is that inclusion is an essential part of the solution to the above-mentioned problems. By including students with different backgrounds and prerequisites in the school, a breeding ground is created to maintain and develop a democratic society. Inclusion is here a plus word, that is, it is not an empirical question whether inclusion is good or not

Inclusion is given a significant importance by the European commission and is seen as encompassing society as a whole and not only schooling. In terms of the school, the concept concerns all students and not only students with disabilities. The European commission also refers to the fact that Member States can (voluntarily) contact the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education to develop a more inclusive school system. European Agency writes on its website: “Our ultimate vision for inclusive education systems is to ensure that all age groups are provided with meaningful, high-quality educational opportunities in their local community alongside their peers”. Thus what comes close to an understanding of inclusion as building communities is proposed.

In this context, it may be interesting to note that the European Commission has also staged a program for the development of cooperation in the classroom. How then does the Swedish government see the role of education in countering the threat scenario described above? Before embarking on this issue, it may be important to put it in a historical context.

The Swedish education system has gone from being seen as an international forerunner, not least because of its earlier high degree of equity in combination with good performances in international comparisons of learning. Today, considerably more modest performances are interspersed with an alarming degree of decreasing equity. It should be added that confidence in the system, not least in the important link of politician-teacher, is at a very low level.


The declaration from the new Swedish government statement

Against the background that has been outlined, it will of course be of great interest to look at how the Swedish government views the role of education in society when one now gets the opportunity to formulate a governmental declaration.

The focus of the statement is that the school's most important task is to "restore our country as the foremost knowledge nation". This is to be done by improving the fulfillment of the knowledge goals by the students. It is also stated that the equity that has been eroded will increase (unclear how) and that all pupils should get "an honest chance".

Here is not the place to go through everything that is said, but the text can be said to emphasize the importance of all students reaching the knowledge goals and that the school should be a safe environment. It is not at all wrong with these requirements, but the document is not least interesting for what it does not mention. Words such as democracy, citizen and inclusion, which come back many times in the form of plus words in the document of the European Commission document, are absent.

However, we can find a reverberation of the recent political discussions that "inclusion has gone too far". It is stated in declaration from the Swedish government that: "It will be easier to get special support in smaller teaching groups" and further: "Resource schools should be developed and special program for students with intellectual disabilities shall be strengthened".

Such a statement about an increase in the proportion of segregated education in the Swedish school system comes a little bit unexpected, not least in the light of international declarations signed by Sweden (e.g. the Salamanca Declaration) and in view of how the European Commission approaches this issue.


Concluding comment

The Swedish educational researcher Tomas Englund has said that the policy of a part of the Swedish bourgeois has been involved in a striving for "the paradise lost". The paradise lost is in this case the school as it looked before the internationally renowned unit school was introduced. To a large extent, one has succeeded in implementing such an education policy as by now.

The Swedish school has increasingly taken the form of a parallel school system where pupils with similar backgrounds meet each other in the classrooms and where the focus is on strengthening the nation and the labor market's needs and not on citizenship and democracy. In that light, it seems logical to also exclude the students who, late, if ever, have gained access to the regular classrooms.

The outcome when students in different types of difficulties are placed in ordinary classes depends on how this placement is arranged. One can choose to try to develop more inclusive environments or to pass certain pupils to special groups and it is the latter solution that is presented in the declaration from the government.

No one (at least very few) believes that it is possible to place all students in the usual classroom. However, one way to get as many people as possible to be there requires that municipalities and schools have a well-thought-out work to meet the diversity of students. David Mitchell's definition of inclusion can be a benchmark here:

Inclusive education = V + P + 5As + S + R + L V = Vision; P = Placement; 5As = Adapted Curriculum, Adapted Assessment,Adapted Teaching, Acceptance, Access, S = Support; R = Resources; L = Leadership.

Those students who do not function in the ordinary classroom, even when there is a vision of inclusion, good leadership, support, resources and more are probably difficult to include in a genuine sense. Today, however, special educational groups and resource schools are filled by students because the regular classroom has failde to provide the conditions mentioned by Mitchell.

I believe there is a risk that a dust hatch will be opened with the new declaration from the government and that we will witness a substantial growth of segregated education in the Swedish school system. Creating smaller teaching groups is probably a far less challenging task than making the usual teaching more inclusive.


Mitchell, D. 2008. What Really Works in Special Needs and Inclusive Education: Using Science-Based Teaching Strategies. London: Routledge.



Parents' attitudes towards "inclusion"

Sometimes researchers are surprised by their results. So were the Dutch researcher de Boer and her co-workers when they made a review of the research of how parents look at "inclusion", or to express it more precisely, the placement of "pupils with special needs" in ordinary classes. I use quotation marks for inclusion to clarify that the researchers use a placement definition of inclusion.

Why were the researchers then surprised? Given that the issue of inclusion in many countries from the beginning was driven by parents of students with disabilities partly in opposition to other parents, they expected to find more positive attitudes to "inclusion" in the former group and more negative in the latter group but this pattern did not emerge in their review.

What were the main results then? A mixed but predominantly positive image emerged in the review. The researchers found 10 studies in which parents' attitudes towards the placement of pupils in need of special support in regular classes were examined. In three of these, only parents to pupils in need of special support were studied, in four only parents of other students and in the three additional studies both groups were studied.

In seven of the studies, the influence of different factors on the attitudes towards “inclusion” were studied, for example the influence of parents' level of education or of the student's type of difficulty. The reviewed studies were divided based on whether they showed a positive, a neutral or a negative attitude to the placement of pupils in need of special support in regular classes.

In none of the studies did negative attitudes prevail according to the criteria used by the researchers. Parents of students other than those in need of special support are described as generally positive towards the placement of pupils in need of special support in regular classes. In one study referred to in the review, 47% of these parents were positive about the placement before it was implemented and 64% after it was implemented. Parents frequently described the social benefits of inclusive education for their own children.

Parents of pupils in need of special support were somewhat more neutral in their attitudes according to the article authors. However, it should be noted that in two of the three studies where the groups are directly compared, parents of pupils in need of special support are actually more positive towards “inclusion”.

A very important point de Boer et al emphasize is that there are many parents of pupils in need of special support who think that their children should go in special groups/schools and who also express concern about the access to support and adapted teaching as well as about the child's emotional development when their children go in regular class. In one study e.g., 54% of these parents thought that they did not think their children should attend regular classes.

Higher education levels among the parents as well as more experience of "inclusion" co-varied with more positive attitudes. Pupils with behavioural problems or severe disabilities were considered, as usual one is inclined to say, to be those who were considered most difficult to place in a regular classroom.


Some questions

There are a number of questions, of which I will discuss three here, that are evoked during the reading of this interesting research review: What conclusions can we really draw from the studies? What more research is needed? How should we understand the outcome in relation to the idea of ​​inclusion?


What conclusions can we draw?

David Mitchell (2008) has presented a model for what is required to create inclusive environments. Mitchell means that it is not enough to place a pupil with special educational needs in a normal class in order for us to be able to talk about inclusion. In this way, he represents a different inclusion concept than the placement definition used by de Boer et al. Mitchell uses the following formula to show what it takes to create inclusive environments:


Inclusive education = V + P + 5As + S + R + L


V = Vision; P = Placement; 5As = Adapted Curriculum, Adapted Assessment,

Adapted Teaching, Acceptance, Access, S = Support; R = Resources; L = Leadership.


Without getting into detail with Mitchell`s model, we can see that, according to him, a lot is required by the learning environment in order for it to become inclusive. A setback with the review of de Boer et al is that it does not specify what kind of environment that respondents in the different studies have experience with.

In other words, the parent who has experience of an "inclusive" environment without vision, with weak leadership and little support, etc. probably has a different attitude to "inclusion" than that which has experience in an environment where the opposites prevail. Not surprisingly, the attitudes differ depending on where studies have been carried out.

That does not mean that we should not take parents ' scepticism seriously and it is a very important contribution by Boer et al to show that such scepticism is quite widespread and more widespread than most researchers thought before they did the review. We must never sacrifice students for a principle. It is of course a terrible experience for a parent to see her/his child in a harmful situation in an "inclusive" environment.


What further research is needed?

The question about inclusion has to a large extent been driven ideologically and too little research has been devoted to how to create inclusive learning environments. If we look at the Mitchell model above, we understand that creating inclusive learning environments is a complex task. There is therefore a need for more research on how to create such environments.


How do we understand the outcome in relation to the issue of inclusion?

The Norwegian researcher Peder Haug, as well as other researchers, have argued that the right of students in difficulties to be placed in a regular group and to be part of a learning community is not an empirical issue but an issue about social justice. From such a perspective, the surveys that de Boers and others are reviewing become questionable: What groups other than students with disabilities can be challenged in this way? Is a reasonable question from such a perspective.

From the standpoint of inclusion, it is also rewarding that these students by many respondents seemed to be seen as bringing value to the educational environment.

One should however be hesitant to draw general conclusions on difficult issues. Inclusion is often about very vulnerable students and it is important to show great humility rather than getting stuck in locked ideological positions.

In my opinion, we should try to create as inclusive school environments as possible which we will not succeed in if this task is not given priority and taken very seriously. At the same time there are very few who believe that it would be entirely possible to avoid segregated placement for some pupils and this is also clear in the Salamanca declaration refers to (see link). Let us see inclusion as a goal to pursue where needless to say no one can be sacrificed on the way.


De Boer, Anke., Pilj, SJ. & Minnaert, A. (2010) Attitudes of Parents towards Inclusive Education: A Review of the Literature. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(2), 165-181.

Mitchell, D. 2008. What Really Works in Special Needs and Inclusive Education: Using Evi-dence-based Teaching Strategies. London: Routledge.


Link to blog about the Salamanca statement.



Is it possible to measure the quality of research applications in a reliable way?

Most researchers have told or in any case heard stories of the following type: "We got five points on our research application last year, then we developed it on the basis of the reviews we got and then we got a four this year, that's really strange…." The central point of this short story is to illustrate that the assessment of quality that is assigned to applications by research councils, foundations and the like, tend to appear quite less systematic than expected.

This blog will thus deal with the assessment of research applications and whether it is possible to assess the quality of such applications. It may seem particularly strange to ask the question at all. Of course, why would such assessments otherwise be made? And the assessments have far-reaching financial consequences, since in many cases a lot of money is distributed. Is it not true that such an activity rests on a secure foundation? A basic requirement for an assessment is that it reliable, that is, the grade we give to an application should not be arbitrary, but independent experts are expected to assess the same application to a great extent in the same way. What does the research say about researchers' ability to assess applications in a uniform manner?


Reliability in the assessment of research applications

Research about the assessment of research applications provide an unusually coherent picture with regard to the ability to achieve reliability in ratings. After analyzing applications to the Australian Research Council in a large project, Marsh e.g. concludes (2008): "Peer reviews lacked reliability". Interestingly, the outcome was no better for applications in the natural sciences than in social sciences and the humanities. In a more recent study mimicking the assessment procedure of the National Institute of Health in the United States, the authors draw the following almost devastating conclusions:

”We examined 43 individual reviewers' ratings and written critiques of the same group of 25 NIH grant applications. Results showed no agreement among reviewers regarding the quality of the applications in either their qualitative or quantitative evaluations. Although all reviewers received the same instructions on how to rate applications and format their written critiques, we also found no agreement in how reviewers "translated" a given number of strengths and weaknesses into a numeric rating.” (Pier et al, 2018).

It seems to be a consistent result in studies of independent assessments of research applications that interrater reliability is on embarrassingly low levels, not least for those who claim that quality can be assessed in this way. Note that I only talk about the reliability, that is, the ability to make similar judgments, and not the more advanced and complex question of validity, which is about whether it really is quality you measure. However, as we know, reliability is a necessary prerequisite for validity, which is why I will stay on the discussion about reliability.

One argument in responding to the fact that independent judgments have low reliability is to argue that panels of experts arrive at better assessments of scientific applications than individual assessors. The idea is then that when all assessors jointly put their perspectives on an application, the final assessment will be better than if each one assesses from their own perspective. I myself have felt quite skeptical in relation to that kind of argumentation since it seems more like a legitimization of a decision-making process than being built upon evidence. We can expect an occurrence of such arguments because it is in the interest of many to show that assessments are made with a process that is exact.

However, I want to warn against arguments that are based only on trust in processes and which are not substantiated by empirical facts. Interestingly, I have found a study by Fogelholma et al. (2012) that examined whether discussion in group panels improve the reliability of assessments of research applications and their conclusion there was: ”This indicates that panel discussions per se did not improve the reliability of the evaluation. These quantitative and experimental data support the conclusion by Obrecht et al., who based their findings on mainly qualitative data”. In fact, Fogelholma and his collaborators recommend that you should not have panels because they are costly without contributing to better reliability.

It should be noted that there seem to be some candidates for how the reliability could increase of which the perhaps most promising to at least raise the reliability somewhat seems to be to have several independent assessors. Other proposals are that researchers should assess applications in areas they really master, which is not the case in e.g. the educational sciences where assessors meet applications in areas they have little knowledge in. It is also the case that if there are many really bad applications the reliability increases. However, the current funding system has meant that universities and colleges, at least in Sweden, arrange work-shops and similar activities with the aim of writing successful research applications, which leads to a reduction in the number of substandard applications.



Thus, research implies that assessments of applications have a very low level of reliability and thus hardly any validity. Further, it seems that panel discussions did not increase reliability when examined systematically. Perhaps I should point out that the reliability (and validity) of research applications is not my research area and it may happen that there is some study that I have missed. I hope the reader who knows of any such study can get in touch with me. Moreover, there is also the possibility that new studies can come that put things in new light.

But what conclusions can you draw if the pattern I found is correct? One obvious conclusion is that researchers who are surprised by the grading of applications as in the example initially have no reason to be surprised. Different assessment of the same application seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Or more generally, the researchers, and there are quite many, who believe that gradings of research applications have an objective character can abandon this idea. Many researchers, including myself, are convinced that we can assess the quality of an application. Facts, however, point to a need for a greater element of humility on this issue.

A second conclusion is about the importance of discussing how research funds should be distributed. Often professional assessments are used because there is no other way that has proven better. If it now turns out that the emperor is naked, we cannot pretend that we do not see it and therefore we should seriously discuss how much resources should be given to peer reviews of applications.

Thirdly, the outcome may not be so surprising upon closer reflection. Researchers simply have very different opinions about what is the most urgent research.

Fourth, and finally, research applications are not the only area where peer-review is conducted. There are many reasons to also discuss the possibilities and limitations of such processes in other contexts.


Fogelholma, M. et al. (2012) Panel discussion does not improve reliability of peer review for medical research grant proposals. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 65 (2012) 47-52.

Marsh, H., Jayasinghe, U. och Bond, N. (2008) Improving the Peer-Review Process for Grant Applications Reliability, Validity, Bias, and Generalizability. American Psychologist, 63 (3), 160-168.

Pier, E. et al. (2018) Low agreement among reviewers evaluation the same NIH grant proposals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115 (12), 2952-2957.



Paradoxes of inclusion

We cannot include anyone if he/she does not want to be included. On the other hand, we cannot include those that do not adhere to the basic values that inclusion involves. There is a paradox in the inclusion idea which means that inclusion always has its limits, because some do not want to / cannot be included.

To put it in a more personal perspective: No one can force me into a community I don't want to belong to. There are some communities I cannot be included in because I do not share the norms and values ​​of these communities.

An example can further clarify what I mean with the proposition that not everyone can be included. If we mean that inclusion represents an affirmation of equality and a belief in people's equal value, inclusion almost by definition cannot include people who think that people who express a certain form of values or belong to a specific cultural/ethnic group have less human value.

Thus we cannot expect to build communities that include everyone. In the compulsory school, this fundamental paradox is reinforced because the student is obliged to attend. This means that the school must put a lot of effort into trying to include all students. We can nevertheless expect that there will be students who do not want to or that cannot be included in the community.


Paradox 1: Inclusion segregates

The paradox expressed in the title is clearly visible on the global arena. For example, when the EU strives to become more inclusive, it is obvious that everyone does not feel at home in this community. For a long time, it appears that a democratic, socioliberal political project has emerged victorious. Values ​​that have been central to this project are individuals' equal value, human rights, globalism, democracy and, at best, an idea that everyone should feel part of society.

It now seems as if it is an undeniable fact that a relatively large proportion of the populations in many countries do not want or can be included in this socioliberal project. .Instead, they argue for a different set of concerns such as nationalism, ethnocentricity, and traditional values, often involving a desire to live life as it always was lived. In the post-industrial society, structural changes are constantly occurring which break the possibility for people to live the life they want to live. Progress marginalizes groups and individuals. Some who say no to the social-liberal project are xenophobic and others are pure racists but far from everyone. Many simply feel that progress and the good life are not for them.

Personally, I think it is devastating if we do not carefully monitor the fundamental values ​​that are part of the social-liberal project. At the same time, of course, it is fatal if large groups of citizens are emerging who cannot identify with such a project. It can be people who reasonably argue that family and nation are values ​​that have, and should have, significance, and which can at the same time include the idea that nations do not necessarily contradict a commitment to the global, over those who simply feel outside and marginalized to extremes such as racists.

If the fundamental values of society are challenged, it will be even more important to create an inclusive school where pupils with different backgrounds and conditions learn to work and work together and are prepared for the democratic life. This question leads us to paradox 2. The discussion primarily concerns the Swedish school system but is relevant to many other school systems.


Paradox 2: A society that claims to be inclusive has created an increasingly exclusive school system

Ideas about how society should be designed and organized are passed on to new generations, not least through the educational system. Put differently, if we want a society that is inclusive, we must also have a school that is inclusive and that advocates inclusion. The school act states, among other things, that the students should be prepared to participate in society, which presuppose that they are and feel included in the school.

The school today, however, is increasingly resembling the old parallel school system. That is, the high and middle classes tend to gather in the same schools while students from homes where parents have less resources in the form of money and cultural capital end up in others (see link below). Pupils with disabilities, including those from privileged groups, tend to become the short straw. The second paradox means that the need for a more inclusive society is paralleled by a school system that develops in a more segregated direction. This increased segregation involves in Sweden not only the issue about where students are educated but also the educational attainments of students with different backgrounds.

When we more than ever have to create communities in schools for students with different backgrounds, more and more walls are thus created between different groups. As much as freedom of choice, it emerges to be about the FREEDOM TO REMOVE. At a time when schools are to show results, pupils who are not high-performing and who are resource-intensive are seen as a burden in many schools.

At the beginning of the 20th century pupils in need of extra support were described as "an extra weightt" that slowed down the other students' progress. As a lecturer, one could before use this quote to be slightly ironic about the intolerance and constraint of the time and little could be thought that similar ideas would come back with renewed power.

When there is no natural place for pupils with disabilities in the ordinary schools and classrooms, it is natural that parent groups call for special solutions. If diagnoses are then required to gain access to support and resources, the demand for these will also increase.


A final word

There are two different kinds of paradoxes I have discussed. The first one is, so to speak, inevitable, we simply cannot establish inclusion without at the same time excluding someone. However, communities can be made more or less inclusive. The second paradox I discussed is not inevitable. Here it is not a paradox in a logical sense but rather something paradoxical: Politicians and others in Sweden who advocate an inclusive society have made possible the development of an increasingly segregating school system.

Link to blog about the decrease in inclusion at the system level in Sweden.



One turn too many?

In the social and educational sciences, it is common to talk about different turns, which means that the research community, or at least parts of it, begins to move in a new direction. One example is the qualitative turn. The qualitative turn meant that many researchers began to get interested in meaning creation and the social agent.

Previously quantitative research had dominated. In this research, one tries to find law-like relations between variables. Phonological training improves learning to read is one example from the educational science field of such relations.

I will briefly describe the most important turns from the second half of the 20th century until today in the educational sciences before returning to the question in the title. It should be noted that the different turns are expressed in different ways in different national contexts and my point of reference is primarily the Swedish research context. However, I believe that the reasoning and distinctions made are relevant to many other national contexts. So let us start with the qualitative turn.


The qualitative turn

I believe that a strong argument for a qualitative turn was that human agency and morality were to a large extent ignored within the framework of quantitative research. Human beings were seen as objects among other objects in a mechanistic worldview. When the view of the human being as an acting and morally responsible subject was increasingly established, the interest in this human being and her/his meaningful interpretation of the world was established. Interpretation to a certain degree replaced measurement.

I believe this shift was not primarily about methodology (quantitative/qualitative) but rather about differences in worldviews, objectivism was to some extent replaced by subjectivism. However, the qualitative turn has been criticized for being too uncritical of society and schooling, not least from those who advocated a critical turn.


The critical turn

Already Marx developed a critical social science. When talking about the critical turn in the educational sciences, one often implies sociologically oriented research which is based on the assumption that society and education are deeply unfair. Thus, it became the researcher's task to criticize the society and the education she/he studied and, at best, also to try to initiate some change.

The critical turn gained momentum through the leftist student movement during the latter part of the 1960s. The class society and colonialism were the main enemies and with time the patriarchal social structures and other power systems have come to be criticized. Sometimes the critical turn has gone hand in hand with the linguistic turn.


The linguistic turn

A basic starting point in the linguistic/communicative turn is that the language is not a transparent tool that reflects the outside world of objects and their relations. On the contrary, language and language use make an active contribution in recreating and renewing the world we live in. Some within the linguistic turn even went so far that it seemed that almost everything was language and / or that the world was created in interaction.

There is a particular risk with the concept of language because it has such a huge metaphorical potential. It is almost too easy to see everything as language, for example, as in the terms "soccer is a language", "the language of clothes" and the "language of the silence", that it is easy to forget all the materiality and practice that is part of the life that provides a framework for language.

It is probably the fact that we see the very construction of meaning as so central to language that we so easily use it as a metaphor for other meaningful phenomena. Maybe this tendency is strengthened when the researchers theorizing the world themselves live their lives in a textual world.

The very idea that language also contributes to the construction of the world means that the linguistic turn easily can be connected to the critical turn, perhaps since both turns take the starting point that the world as it appears is not a natural fact.

The last turn I will present is in some ways even more critical than the critical turn. Before going over to it, it should be noted that there are also connections between the qualitative and the linguistic turn, such as in, for example, ethnomethodology.


The ontological turn

This expression was used by an internationally well-known researcher at a seminar at Uppsala University, but I do not really know how established the expression is. Sometimes this turn, or parts of it, is referred to as post-humanism / postmodernism and can take different forms, ranging from a milder form in which man's rationality is partly deconstructed, over views such as at Bruno Latour´s where objects are seen as actors to approaches where animals are seen as subjects with equal value as human beings. The ontological turn thus involves a radical questioning of human sovereignty.

It is possible to distinguish and name the turns in slightly different ways and also to put them more clearly in a chronological context. It should also be noted that they have co-existed and the quantitative approach has always had a strong position. However, my point here has been to illustrate the occurrence of turns and to briefly describe them. It is now time to return to the question that was asked initially.


One turn too many?

This question can be interpreted in two ways. One the one hand the turns can be seen as an expression of a research community where confusion prevails. If so, we could talk about several turns too many. Many would think that it is important to turn in the right direction and then go on in that direction. However, I do not agree with this because I believe pluralism is an inherent aspect of modern society, therefore we can expect different views and each approach can contribute to our knowledge in different ways.

The other way to interpret the question has to do with the fact that a return to quantitative research seems to be evident in many countries. It is seen by many as a turn too many. The research community should have stayed within other approaches the argument goes. I agree with that objection but certainly not fully. Of course, my position depends on my own theoretical starting points. I consider myself a pragmatist in the sense that I believe that the development of knowledge should be relevant to the development of society and schooling.

In order to avoid misunderstandings, I do mean that research should follow the lead of politicians and school authorities but research should be relevant to the democratically decided goals of schooling. The pluralism in perspectives illustrated above can all be useful in such a pragmatic project.

However, I do not sympathize equally with the different turns, sometimes I have even warned of some elements in them, but everyone contains something important that we should take advantage off. What I see as particularly problematic in my pragmatic perspective, however, is that there are very few encounters between researchers who adhere to different turns.

If we use democracy as a metaphor, the research community in that light can be seen as consisting of different parties that very rarely debate with each other. The metaphor comes out a little bit short because political communication is usually ritualized. It is rarely about genuine discussions. But the educational science research would definitely benefit from different approaches coming into contact with one another.

As mentioned earlier, the quantitative approach in educational research has never disappeared, but seems to have ended up in the background of qualitative and critical research, at least in Sweden, for a relatively long time. The quantitative research share several assumptions with the instrumentalism that characterizes what is usually called New Public Management, which could largely explain the return of the quantitative approach. There are, of course, great risks with such an instrumentalism, which in its worst forms can develop into an anti-humanism.

From my pragmatic perspective, however, the (re)turn of the quantitative appoach can not only be seen as a negative event. It has raised very important questions about the content of research and the relationship of research to practice and has further contributed with a lot of interesting empirical research that have important implications for the work of schools.

In conclusion, it is something of a paradox that the pluralism of perspectives illustrated here rarely leads to deliberative discussions on the content and functions of research. Rather it seems that the many researchers perceive themselves as entrepreneurs whose task it is to drive their own approach forward rather than to engage in a dialogue with the research community.


Inclusive teaching? - more research is needed

A number of years ago I gave a lecture at one of Sweden's many institutions for teacher education. Afterwards a prospective mathematics teacher came to me and we started discussing different things. I took the opportunity to ask him "Do you get any teaching on special educational issues when learning how to teach Math?" i.e. I was interested to know if, and in what ways, the learning of how to teach math also considered the fact that several pupils experience difficulties in this area. He answer indicated that the prospective Math teachers learned Math, not how to teach it.

I do not mean that this episode is necessarily representative of Swedish teacher eduation in general. However, I believe that the example points to what seems problematic in many contexts. The anecdote illustrates that the teaching of prospective teachers must be developed if they are going to be able to create inclusive classrooms. In order to underpin such teaching more research is needed about how to teach specific contents to pupils of varying ability.

In a school that strives to be inclusive, students with different prerequisites are in the same classroom. As I have described in prior blogs the placement of students in need of special support / with disabilities in ordinary classes is a necessary but not sufficient condition for inclusion. The pupils needs also have to be met in order for schools to be inclusive. This is a great challenge for the teacher, how should you teach students with very different abilities?

It is a fact that a lot of teachers feel uncertain about how to teach pupils in need of special support. Thus, teachers need more knowledge about how they can teach the diversity of students they meet in a school system where special classrooms and special schools are avoided. Further, the special teachers and special educators who support them also need scientifically based knowledge to build their support on. Consequently research is needed which helps to answer the question about how inclusive teaching can be accomplished.

We thus need teaching research that explores how teachers, together with other staff in the school, can be able to meet the diversity of students and the knowledge that such research generates should become a natural element in courses in teacher education. Younger teachers feel a greater uncertainty than those with more experience. It does seem that many of them do not consider that they have received enough knowledge from their teacher training in how to teach a heterogeneous group of students. This problem was illustrated with the anecdote above. If teachers in teacher education neglect didactics a, they probably neglect the needs of the the most vulnerable students' learning too.

A more profound structural problem is the concept of normality that cuts as a knife through the school systems. Historically, the division into normal students and others has given rise to parallel systems, a normal system and a special system. This distinction has been partly re-created in the research, where the teaching of normal pupils was focused in educational research, while questions about the pupils who were considered deviating became an object of special education. A distinction made in the organization of schooling has thus largely been reproduced in research about the school. My point here is that if we want to break this historical trend and create more inclusive schools, research on teaching should be expanded and also include those students who have been the subject of special education. In a similar vein, students in teacher education has to receive knowledge about how they should teach a diversity of pupils.

Should teaching pupils with medical diagnoses be built on similarity or difference?

An old dispute issue in the field of special needs education is whether there are teaching methods that are specific to different target groups such as e.g. students with ADHD, students with intellectual disabilities and autism.

You can distinguish two extremes in this discussion. On the one hand, some advocate teaching built upon similarity, which means that pupils' group belongings are considered to have few or no educational implications. On the other hand, we have those who mean that the deficiencies of the target groups need to be mapped out in detail so that we can tailor teaching approaches to suit their needs.

For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the two approaches as S (Similarity) and D (Difference) in the reminder of this blog.


Similarity as the point of departure

The S-teacher says something like this: "What's good for all students is good for students in need of special support/with medical diagnoses and vice versa." It was this conclusion that I believe John Hattie reached in his overview of educational research. Working methods such as direct teaching and peer learning appeared to be good for all students. In a similar vein, the S-teacher would argue that structure and order in schools, classrooms and lessons, which are usually emphasized as important to students with ADHD and Autism spectrum disorder, is beneficial to all students.

Insightful S-teachers are of course not ignorant of the fact that students are different. However, diversity is seen as a characteristic of individuals rather than as a variety of different kinds. In this way, the S-teacher has to attend to individual difference rather than group differences. Consequently, it is important to have knowledge of each student's specificity.

If a pupil encounters difficulties in school work, the S-teacher advocates a proper educational inquiry where the individual's situation is mapped. The occurrence of a diagnosis is of course not insignificant for such an investigation, but it provides limited information from an educational perspective. It is the individual and his/her teaching environment, including factors such as the teaching and the social climate, that becomes important in such an investigation.

An S-perspective can have very radical implications. If we consider that students are basically the same, it is difficult to argue that some students should be taught in specific groups. Thus, a central question then is how teachers can teach students with different conditions in the same classroom given a certain teaching content.

In other words, how should teachers teach e.g. math / English / gymnastics for students with different prerequisites? Framed differently, how can teachers teach different content in order to create inclusive classrooms? In order to be able to answer such questions in the best way, educational research has to be developed which addresses these types of questions. Unfortunately, such research is too rare.


Difference as the point of departure

The deviation is the starting point for the D-teacher. The question is not "What education is good for the heterogeneous student group?" but instead "How do we teach students with developmental disorder / learning disorder / dyslexia / behavioral disorder / Tourette's syndrome / obsessive-compulsive disorder"? The focus is on tailoring the education to these groups based on their specific characteristics.

It thus becomes important to investigate the deviation itself. Here a lot of research is taking place about, for example, executive functions, working memory and "theory of mind", which strives for a greater understanding of the specific deviations. Knowledge about such deviations, it is argued, will in the long run provide better education for these groups. This research is rarely didactic in the sense of being concerned with a specific knowledge content, but it is of course possible to ask, for example, "Which mathematics education is best for students with ADHD?"

The search for specific problems does not necessarily mean that segregated educational practices are strived for. Some suggest that we need to find out more about how these groups of students process information, etc. in order for them to be taught in the ordinary class.


An empirical question?

In part, the question about similarity or difference is an empirical issue. In order for us to methodologically determine the need for teaching strategies based on difference, we should be able to show that a teaching method X works for the Y group (for example, students with ADHD) in a different way than for "ordinary" students. This is actually quite rare. On the other hand, students in difficulties may often need more education to achieve the same goal, "more of the same."

An example from reading research can highlight this. A special teaching method for pupils with dyslexia would build on the assumption that students with dyslexia learn to decode text in other ways than the other students and thus need to be taught in a qualitatively different way. However, this assumption can hardly be said to be supported by research. On the other hand, students with dyslexia need longer time to learn to read. The difference sees thus to a large extent to be quantitative, more of a similar teaching, than qualitative, the need for another kind of teaching.

There are of course instances where teaching built on difference is necessary. For example, students who are blind need such special education. Seeing students orient themselves naturally easier in the room while pupils who are blind need to train orientation in space in qualitatively different ways, e.g. by learning to use a stick, be more vigilant on sounds and other non-visual perceptual information that seeing students do not need to focus to the same extent.

My own view is that teaching based on similarity takes us quite far but we need more didactic research on how heterogeneous groups can best be taught. Unfortunately several teachers feel more or less helpless when it comes to the task of teaching students whose behavior is considered to interfere with the order in the classroom. In such a situation, it is not uncommon for teachers to ask questions about "how shall I teach students with ADHD". Although research built on difference does not seem to have very many other answers than that it is good with order , structure and consistency and to be encouraging, which is probably good for all students, at least the teachers' concerns are taken seriously.

As long as we to a large extent lack the didactic research that I discussed above, ie didactic research that tries to solve the problem with how heterogeneous student groups are best taught in different subjects, then the demand for teaching methods built on difference will probably increase. One risk of this is that teaching built on difference easily translates into demands for special solutions and sometimes also to working methods that are not the most functional ones.

Moreover, if some students are seen as qualitatively different from other students in their learning, the step is not far to advocate teaching in special groups with educators who have a special knowledge of the group. Education built on difference provides an attractive frame for professional specialization, among other things because some of the high status of medicine comes with the special thinking. Another risk with a starting point in difference is that it conceals the enormous variety that exists within the groups. The pupil with a medical diagnosis then risks being treated based on a stereotype rather than on her/his own individuality.


Some remarks on A Manifesto for Education by Biesta and Säfström

A Manifesto for Education seems to be timely or is perhaps almost always timely. Education has very often, as has capitalism and democracy, been considered to be in a crisis. Maybe the sense of a crisis is part and parcel of the modern project.

To my knowledge, the manifesto referenced in the heading has reached quite a large audience. It was published in 2011 (see link below) by Gert Biesta and Carl-Anders Säfström. It is a brave act to propose a manifest for Education consideringgiven the multitude of perspectives and areas that constitute Education.

I read the manifest as an invitation to a dialogue, hence my remarks. My reading has more to do with the fact that I believe that a manifest should be dialogical rather than the Manifest being dialogical. My comments pertain both to the Manifest itself and to the comments to the manifest separately written by Biesta and Säfström.


Some interesting ideas

Apart from the publishing of a Manifesto in itself there are some things I really like about the Manifesto. In this context, I will mention four of these.

Firstly, I like the idea of taking Education back to Educationalists. Too many other research fields and professions have claims on Education that to me seems unwarranted since they are actually not concerned with Education itself but rather with issues at the fringes of Education. Especially problematic is of course the dominance of New Public Management, putting economics, administration and law at the centre-of –attention and the concomitant quest for evidence-based Education.

Secondly, I like that the authors of the manifest try to pinpoint what Education should mean in terms of the here-and-now. Too often Education is the means to something else such as the means for children and young people to be prepared for adulthood and/or as a vehicle to change society. Biesta and Säfström make a tremendously important claim about Education by insisting and underscoring that Education should be meaningful in its very act of occurrence.

Thirdly, the invocation of the possibility of an ironic reading of the Manifesto by Biesta is well taken. Is this a time for Manifestos? Have Manifestos ever changed the world? This signals a well needed self-distance without giving up the idea of a Manifesto altogether.

Fourthly, I also feel sympathetic towards what I want to call the anger expressed by Säfström in his comment. How can the Swedish school system, from being characterized by higher levels of equity than any other system in the world, have developed into its present shape?

Having said this, I will present what I believe is two major shortcomings of the manifesto.


Lack of dialogue

The text is quite polemic. Two enemies towards Education are pointed out: Populism and Idealism. Populism is somewhat loosely characterized but is said to simplify and to be instrumental, turning to issues of “what works”. Idealism, on the other hand, is characterized by asking too much of Education being linked to “democracy, solidarity, inclusion, tolerance, social justice and peace”. None of the two antagonistic positions are ascribed any positive values. Moreover, no distinctions between different ways of being populist or idealist are made. However, as is evident in Säfströms comment to the manifesto (labelled “A manifesto for Education!) at least one of the authors proclaims some of these values intensely, which I find reassuring but somewhat contradictory.

However, the point I wish to make concerns the rhetorical format of the manifest. By establishing and homogenizing “the others” there is no opening for dialogue. From the perspective of the authors, nothing is to be learned from these strawmen/women: If You are not with us, You are against us.


Lack of clarity

It is a little bit like kicking in open doors to state that there is a lack of clarity in the Manifesto as to the central issue of what Education is since a lack of transparency is admitted to by the authors themselves. However, it is quite clear that Education is something of a the Holy Grail in the document. This illusive Holy Grail it is located in the here-and-now and it is relational, it is neitherot an empty reminiscence of the past, neither nor a quest for the future. It has to do with freedom, these rare moments when “speech” occurs and the resources used in this process are “ethical, political and aestethical in character”. This is about how close we come to understand Education. This of course ties in with the reasoning above about being non-dialogical, in order to use the word Education we now have to abandon most, if not all, of it prior meanings.


The future and the past

As has been said It is a little bit reassuring that Biesta in his comment to the Manifesto (A manifesto for Education?) considers the possibility that a Manifesto written today has to be ironic. This too is a little bit contradictory although I find Biesta’s reading more balanced than the writing of the Manifesto. However, I do not read the Manifesto as something that is tied so much tied to the present as being reminiscent of older narratives. Something is endangered by outside forces. This something is holy and so deceptive that it cannot be described properly but the heroes of the narrative will most likely save it. I think we need more modern tales characterized by dialogue and openness to different definitions of what constitutes Education.


Link to the Manifesto:


What is meant by "inclusion" in the Salamanca statement?

In 1994, a number of representatives of different educational systems and organizations gathered in the Spanish city of Salamanca to discuss special educational issues. The result became what is commonly referred to as the Salamanca Statement (see link below), which is considered as the international breakthrough for the inclusion thought in education. The word had been used in other contexts before but now it became a keyword in the special educational field at the international level.

The Statement says in a clear way that a whole new way of looking at special educational issues is needed. Schools should become built upon the inclusion-principle. The situation where students in need of special support /with a disability attend special schools or participate in other types of segregated special education or in some instances do not attend school at all was to be radically changed. These students would now get their education in as regular a context as possible. In order for this to succeed, a large number of measures at different levels of society from policy down to the classroom need to be taken according to the Statement. If schools open up to diversity, it is also believed that a number of positive effects in other areas will be achieved:

“… regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combatting discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.” (p ix)

While the first part of the document is the statement itself, the second and by far largest part consists of pieces of advice and proposals for action at a variety of levels in order for education systems to succeed in this new way of working. The overwhelming impression is that the document is built upon principles and argumentation for those principles. Sometimes reference is made to experience, but never to specific research although probably the signers of the document mean that their convictions have support in research.

Based on the fact that inclusion is understood in different ways in different contexts, it may be a point to more specifically look at what is meant by inclusion in the document. I intend to briefly discuss two questions in relation to this: What children / students is the document concerned with? What is meant by the term an "inclusive school"?

Who is the document about?

Although in some places it is stated that inclusion is about the situation of all students, the main impression is undoubtedly that there are students in different types of difficulties that is focused by the document.

“The guiding principle that informs this framework is that schools should accomodate all children regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other conditions. This should include disabled and gifted children, street and working children, children from remote or nomadic populations, children from linguistic, ethnic or cultural minorities and children from other disadvantaged or marginalized areas and groups.”

While the first half of the quote points to the fact that it is about students regardless of their characteristics, the groups that are explicitly mentioned are essentially defined by having problems or being marginalized in other ways. In many places, however, the document only mentions students with disabilities.

It is important to note that the placement of students in different types of difficulty in common classes is not emphasized as an absolute principle but as something that should be strived for:

“Assignment of children to special schools – or special classes or sections within a school on a permanent basis – should be the exception, to be recommended only in those infrequent cases where it is clearly demonstrated that education in regular classrooms is incapable of meeting a child´s educational or social needs or when it is required for the welfare of the child or that of other children.” (p 12)

Another section of the document states that it is difficult to establish general principles regarding exceptions to placement in ordinary classrooms and suggests that such issues must be settled on a case-by-case basis. However, the document affirms the need to create special environments for children and students in need of sign language communication.

What does the term "inclusive school" mean?

"The inclusive school" is a central expression in the document and the document often uses the phrase "the principle of the inclusive school", which is formulated as follows:

“The fundamental principle of the inclusive school is that all children should learn together, whenever possible, regardless of any difficulties or differences they may have. Inclusive schools must recognize and respond to the diverse needs of their students, accommodating both different styles and rates of learning and ensuring quality education…. “ (p 11).

I think this quote is illustrative in two ways. On the one hand, it indicates the importance underscored in the document that all pupils (although focused on students with disabilities in the document as a whole) are entitled to meet high quality education. On the other hand, it shows ambivalence in what is meant by an inclusive school.

We can read the quote as saying that the fundamental principle is defined by the fact that students are placed together, "learn together". Then, these "inclusive" schools must also act in a certain way. It is the interpretation of "must" that becomes important here. Do schools that are inclusive do these things because the authors of the Statement mean that they have to do so? Or do they have to act in this way in order to be able to call themselves inclusive? If you adhere to the latter interpretation, it could have been expressed more clearly, such as with the following wording: The fundamental principles of the inclusive school are that a) children should learn traits and b) are ensured a high quality education.

In the Salamanca Statement, the word inclusion in its various forms is thus used in an ambivalent manner. Sometimes it is used to indicate where the student gets his/her education (e.g a) above), and as in the following example:

”While inclusive schools provide a favourable setting for achieving equal opportunity and full participation, their success requires a concerted effort…” (p 11)

It seems thus theoretically possible, based on the quotation, to have failed "inclusive schools" because the quality of the education is not made into a defining part of the term. On the other hand, of course, it is understood that students should have a good situation in the "inclusive" school, but that is not what defines the term in the quotation above. In that case, one could have written: Schools have to exhibit equal opportunities and full participation in order to be labelled inclusive.

In the preface to the document written by Federico Mayor as Representative of Unicef ​​we meet another way of using the word "inclusion":

These documents are informed by the principle of inclusion, by the recognition of the need to work towards ”schools for all” – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences, support learning, and respond to individual needs. (s iii)

Mayor's text is not unambiguous either, but seems implicitly to mean that inclusive schools are defined not only because they are open to all students but also by exhibiting certain characteristics.

Thus, we encounter different ways of using the word "inclusion" and its various forms in the document, the same words thus expressing different concepts.

The Salamanca Statement - A Challenge

I have just touched on some aspects of the Salamanca Statement. In particular, I have wanted to illustrate that the document does not categorically advocate that all students should attend regular classes, although it is undoubtedly what is preferred and deviation from this should be seen as rare exceptions. I have also shown that inclusion is given different meanings in the document. But there is also much else to analyze, for example, how the relationship between ordinary teaching and special education is expressed. In this regard, the document is not as radical.

The teacher - a free spirit or a robot?

The heading is of course exaggerated. No soul is totally free, no human is a robot. Bu even if one cannot place a concrete teacher at either of these extremes I still believe that they lurk in the background when the work of teachers is discussed. What does it mean then that that the teacher is a free spirit?

The free spirit

There are those who believe that the teacher shall stand free from outer influences. This does of course not mean that the teacher should not listen to the opinion of others or read about research findings but at the end of the day it is the teacher him/herself that decides how to teach the pupils.

It is thus the teacher´s discretion and own experience that should be the basis of the education. John Dewey (1916) expressed the dangers that emerge when goals are forced upon the teacher from the outside. He believed that authorities force goals upon teachers who, in turn, force them upon children. This makes the teacher´s intelligence confined. Rules, inspections, books on teaching methods, curricula etc. block the teacher from getting into close contact with the teaching content and the mind of the child (p 150). Dewey´s line of reasoning feels remarkably up-to-date despite the fact than it was written about a century ago. It is modern both in its threat scenario but also in its trust in the capabilities of teachers to be free spirits.

There are quite widely held beliefs that teachers are, or could become/or be educated to be a sort of didactical virtuoso. Such a teacher is familiar with different conceptions of subjects and different work forms always adapting the teaching to the situation at hand and to the different interests and skills of each pupil. The educational situation cannot be understood beforehand, thus the skilful teacher is capable of mastering varying prerequisites in the situation at hand. The concept the “reflective practitioner” belongs to this tradition. By reflection upon experience the teacher develops him/herself and the teaching. Some go as far as to state that education is an art form with secrets that are mastered be the teachers but that cannot be revealed in its entirety.

I believe this view of the teacher, or at least the ideal teacher, is not uncommon among educational researchers. The idea is an expression of a strong faith in the teaching profession and an expectation that the profession should be left to its own good judgments and reasoning.

The robot

The word robot originates from the monotonous work that was performed by Czech peasants. A robot is pre-programmed to act in a specific way in given situations. The biggest difference between human beings and robots is that the human decides over and is responsible for his/her behaviour. The less a human can decide, the more he/she becomes robot-like and thus less responsible.

Taking a look at the teaching profession in Sweden today one has to conclude that it is extremely regulated. There are laws, inspections and all those things Dewey talked about having a massive influence on what goes on in schools and classrooms. This state of affairs is probably similar to that of several other countries. Moreover, the work by teachers in Sweden is supposed to be evidence-based. According to my opinion this quest for evidence is not so much about the extremely complex and important issue about how research and practice should be interconnected. It seems as a rather to more or less (hopefully less) arbitrarily way to decide that some methods/actions “have evidence” and/or to legitimize a particular way of teaching.

As an educational researcher I am of course not against the idea that teachers should be knowledgeable about scientific findings and a lot of things are going on in schools that are not backed up by empirical research. What bothers me is the trivialization of research and the research-practice relation that often accompany quests for evidence.

The expression “teacher proof teaching” sort of clearly formulates what the control of teachers´ work to a large part is all about. It seems as if the goal is to make education as independent from the teacher as possible. Along this line, Swedish publishing companies are creating study material that will make sure that the pupils will reach the knowledge goals prescribed (from the outside). We recognize traces from the educational technologies in the 1960ies.

The relation between teachers on the one hand and politicians and authorities on the other is built upon distrust in this scenario. Politicians and authorities do not trust teachers, hence the intense regulation of their work. The teachers do not trust the politicians.

Some reflections

These are complex issues. Instead of trying to provide answers I will make some reflections. I am much more oriented towards the first view at the same time as I can see that it is far from unproblematic for several reasons: a) All teachers are not skilful enough to work in this way b) All teachers do not want to work in this way c) Outer control is not always a bad thing, it can in certain circumstances raise the quality of teaching and it also provides a democratic insight and influence into schooling and d) There are teachers who make claims for the freedom of the free spirit but that misuses this freedom- b) and d) can be seen as examples of what Erich Fromm viewed as “a flight from freedom”, i.e. the responsibility that is an intrinsic part of freedom.

There are of course huge dangers involved in trying to make education “teacher-proof” even if politicians and others try make their claims in the name of goodness. I am not an admirer of the French social philosopher Michel Foucault, but here some of his concepts come in handy, such as “docile bodies” and “surveillance”. In addition to a de-professionalization of the work (anyone can follow manuals…) the value of the concrete encounter between the teachers and the pupils and the fact that the outcome of such encounters cannot be predicted beforehand is profoundly underestimated.

As usual one has to find some middle-ground. Given the teacher shortage in Sweden, and in many other countries, an important question concerns how to make the teaching profession more attractive:

  • Which teaching role will attract the right students to teacher education?

  • Which teaching role can make skilful teachers return to the profession?

  • Which teaching role will keep skilful teachers in the profession?

There is an obvious risk for bad spirals here. E.g. an increasingly watered-down professional role might deter the ones that would like to be free spirits which will cause the surveillance to increase and so on. The role of being a free spirit is demanding but isn´t these the teachers that are admired and remembered?


Dewey, John. (1916/2000). Demokrati och utbildning. Göteborg: Daidalos.

/Democracy and Education/

Obstacles to inclusive education

One can reflect upon obstacles to create more inclusive schools systems. The inclusion movement has been underway for many years now but it is still very unclear if/to what extent school systems have become more inclusive. In many countries there has thus been an intention to create more inclusive school systems, but the realization of this idea has met barriers. Obviously there are obstacles towards the development of inclusive education. In this blog I will shortly discuss what I believe to be the main obstacles:

  • Societal changes

  • Steering documents (laws etc)

  • The medicalization of deviance

  • The lack of consensus

  • A lack of empirical investigations

I am writing from a Swedish perspective but I am convinced that these obstacles are present in most, if not all, contexts where school systems are striving to become more inclusive.

Societal changes

There are two societal changes that threaten the development of inclusion at the system level which I have described in a prior blog (see link below). The first one is the tendency for people who are alike one another in terms of level of education and financial resources to end up in the same living areas. This lessens the chance that pupils with different backgrounds will go to the same schools and classrooms. In Sweden, the right to choose school seems to strengthen this tendency. Thus, while inclusive environments still can be created in schools and classrooms, at the system level the segregation increases in the Swedish context.

In Sweden the increasing shortage of teachers in combination with a decline in the status of the teaching profession is of course a threat to the possibility to create inclusive learning environments. Such environments are dependent upon skilful and well educated teachers.

For those who suggest that inclusion involve the creation of learning communities in schools and classrooms it seems as if the marked individualisation characterising present day society works against the notion of community.

Last but not least, we are witnessing an increase in a xenophobic kind of nationalism which threatens the inclusion of many pupils (see link to prior blog below).


Steering documents

The word “inclusion” is not used in the Swedish steering documents. Many of the goals and values that are put forward in these documents are however compatible with the idea of inclusion even if the fact that certain pre-formulated knowledge goals should be attained by all pupils might be experienced as exclusive by several pupils. At the same time different segregated educational solutions are allowed in the Swedish school system: a special program for pupils with intellectual disabilities, resource schools, special educational groups and private schools that specialize in special needs.

Further, there is not much, albeit some, support in the Swedish steering documents for the one who believes that inclusion involves the building of learning communities. To conclude, the Swedish steering documents in some aspects support the development of inclusion and in other aspects do not support such development, a conclusion which probably is valid with regard to most educational systems.


Medicalisation of deviance

More and more differences between pupils are interpreted from a medical perspective. To put it differently, an increasing number of pupils are diagnosed. ADHD and autism are e.g. becoming very widespread. It seems that the US is heading this development and 30 percent of the boys older than 9 years have an ADHD diagnosis in North Carolina (the figure is from a few years ago). 10 per cent of the boys in Stockholm have an ADHD diagnosis and 4 per cent have an autism-diagnosis.

It is possible to interpret the increased medicalization as something than can support inclusion. The diagnosis makes the problems distinct and measures can be taken that increases the possibility that the pupil will thrive in the classroom. It is obvious that the use of medicine at times have this effect for pupils with ADHD. The lack of a diagnosis is according to this view something than can be a hindrance to inclusion.

I am more sceptical towards the idea that the medicalization of difference will increase inclusion more generally because I believe that the diagnosis too much de-contextualizes and individualizes the problem. The overwhelming meta-message in diagnoses like these is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the individual. This in turn implicates a demand for experts on the condition and often a demand for special educational methods, i.e. educational measures that take their point of departure in the diagnosis. From here on, it is but a small step to segregated educational settings, not least when schools have a hard time to handle differences in their classrooms.

Diagnoses are not usually proposed within the movement for inclusive education as a tool suited to the business of schooling. Instead the need to do thorough educational mappings for children in need of extra support is underscored. It is incredibly important to differentiate between such a mapping and mappings that are made under the supervision of medical professions and where the goal is to find, or rule out, diagnoses. The alternative not to focus on diagnoses is of course not to neglect difficulties but to analyse them from an educational perspective where the whole learning environment is focused.


Lack of consensus

It is also the case that not everyone wants an inclusive school. Adherents of freedom of choice suggest that this value is more important than inclusion. As discussed above the right to choose school for one´s child increases segregation tendencies at the system level. Interestingly enough there are also many persons who are proponents of inclusion at a principal level but through their choice of living area and choice of school for their children contributes to an increased segregation at the system level.

Some teachers are further sceptical to the idea that pupils in difficulties should be placed in mainstream classrooms and believe that these children should attend special classes/groups. This underscores the importance that teachers get support and in-service training in order to be able to create inclusive environments.

Lack of empirical research

There is also a need for more research in order to deepen our knowledge concerning how school environments can become more inclusive. Unfortunately the research about inclusive education is neither conceptually nor methodologically enough developed, which Kerstin Göransson and I have argued in a research review (see reference below). The research is often ideological and should be more concerned with didactics, at the end of the day inclusion concerns how teachers should teach heterogeneous groups of pupils.


Concluding remarks

Does this sound discouraging? Maybe somewhat, but it is good to be a realist. Inclusion has been on the agenda for a long time now. The Salamanca declaration is 24 years old and we, as has been said, know too little about how, and in what way, school systems have become more inclusive. In the Swedish case has, at least on the system level, segregation increased markedly during this period and it is actually hard today to see how the process at the system level can be changed. I still think that dedicated teachers has had and still will have possibilities to create inclusive school- and classroom environments, which also has been documented in case studies in Sweden (see link below).


Göransson, K. & Nilholm, C. (2014). Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education , 29:3, 265-280.




About inclusion at the system level:


About the risk when communities are built in antagonism with others:



About how classrooms can become more inclusive:




Positions within the educational field: the Utopian, the `Bildung` anarchist, the Technocrat and the Market fundamentalist

It is possible to combine two fundamental dimensions in order to describe a phenomenon. Such a combination yields four types of the phenomenon. The Swedish scholar Svante Beckman e.g. combined the two dimensions a) relation to the outside world (governed from within/governed from outside) and b) level of hierarchy (high/egalitarian) in order to characterize four (ideal) types of Universities: The Temple (governed from inside, high hierarchy), the Oasis (governed from inside, egalitarian), the factory (governed from outside/high hierarchy) and the bazaar (governed from outside/egalitarian).

I will explain below how I arrived at the four types of positions in the educational field mentioned in the heading above.


The first dimension – The meaning of education

When the meaning of education is discussed some people focus on knowledge acquisition. Such knowledge is considered to be formulated a priori and teachers and researchers should fine the best methods in order for learners to reach the predefined knowledge goals. The acquisition of knowledge is thus seen as the dominating purpose of education.

On the other hand, there is a view with ancient roots that education involves much more than the acquisition of knowledge. This ultimate goal of education has been labelled as Paideia in ancient Greece and as Humanitas in Rome. I will use the German word “Bildung” in order to characterize this position regarding the meaning of education. To put it very simply, “Bildung” means that education strives to develop the whole person, not least his/her moral virtues. Moreover, the outcome of education cannot be stipulated in advance, the learner has to find his/her own way through the landscapes of knowledge.

We can understand this first dimension as an opposition between the poles of humanism and instrumentalism.


The second dimension – Trust in a public educational system

Schools are the societal institution that has the responsibility for basic education. My second dimension concerns the trust than one puts into a public educational system,. This dimension varies between high and low. Even if many people are critical as regards the functioning of schools there is a tremendous difference between those who believe that such problems can be solved within the present frames and those that are sceptical that the present public school system should continue to exist.

Thus, there are thus those that are fundamentally critical towards the possibilities of a public school system and view schooling as an expression of societal coercion and/or as an institution that is used by the upper- and middle- classes in order to secure their power and privileges. To conclude, the second dimensions spans between those who have high trust in a common school system to those that lack such trust.


Two dimensions – four positions

In this way we have four positions. Those who believe that education should be centred around “Bildung” and that a public educational system could in principle be geared towards this end. The second position encompasses those who believe that a public schools system is fundamentally a constructive force and who want to focus on the transmission of predefined knowledge. In this way, the public school system will foster employable persons.

Then we have those who at heart are sceptical towards a common school system. Among these, we can discern between those that take their point of departure in “Bildung” but doubt that the public school system will ever be instrumental in realizing this idea. Finally, there are those that believe that a public school system hinders the acquisition of knowledge. Individuals should be educated with as little public influence as possible.

I choose to label the positions according to what I consider characterize typical representatives of the position. The Utopist (´Bildung`, strong trust in a public school system), the Technocrat (knowledge acquisition, trust in the system), The `Bildung´ anarchist (`Bildung`, low trust in the system) and the Market fundamentalist (knowledge acquisition; low trust).

The choice of the label ´Bildung` anarchist needs some further explanation. In this context, anarchism refers to the fact that this position involves a somewhat problematic relation to democracy since it has been decided that children have to attend schools and also that there are preformulated goals that pupils should achieve. “Anarchism” can also refer to the fact that it is something unruly in this position since it is not shown/displayed how “Bildung” can be realized.

It becomes important to consider the relations between the positions. The Utopian consider the Technocrats view of education to be barren. The `Bildung` anarchist believe that the Utopian partly share the instrumentalism of the Technocrat. And so on. There are of course varied positions within each position, there are e.g. Technocrats who open up for education that have a wider range of goals than knowledge acquisition and Utopians who are more sceptical of public education than others.

It is also possible to combine each position with a particular view regarding who the pupil should develop into. The Utopian want to educate a Citizen, the ´Bildung´anarchist a Critic, the Technocrat Employable individuals and the Market fundamentalist an Entrepreneur. This entrepreneur will work on a market with minimal governmental control.

It is, at least in Sweden, hard to find pure Market fundamentalists. Still market thinking has been very influential in the Swedish school system. The idea that individual choice is the primary value in the long run de-legitimizes a public school system. Why, the market fundamentalist asks, should the individual have to choose schools geared by the state?


A final word

Creating educational positions in this way of course simplifies matters. I believe that a “map” like this should mirror the most important aspects of the educational terrain and I hope it helps the reader to navigate in this terrain. But of course one could proceed in other directions, choosing other and more dimensions. However, I hope I have evoked the readers´ interest to pursue explorations of the educational terrain further.


Celebrating diversity in schools - is it possible?


Proponents of inclusive education state that diversity should be seen as an a strength. This is a major challenge towards traditional special education where some pupils are defined in terms of their shortcomings, rather than being seen as someone who adds quality to the educational environment. But what does it mean to celebrate diversity in schools and is it possible?

Evaluating pupils

Pupils are evaluated in a wide range of school contexts, not least when being graded. Pupils achievements and at times also their personal characteristics are further evaluated in teacher-parent-pupil conferences. When Viveca Adelswärd and I studied such conferences we discovered that the concrete pupil participating in the conference was compared to an imagined ideal pupil. This ideal pupil was focused on the school work, made clear progress in all subjects and was socially adept.

Hardly any concrete pupil manages to live up to this ideal. Some are very far away. They do not reach the learning goals in several subjects and/or do not behave according to the behavioural norms that have been established in the school. Returning to the question in the heading of this blog, how can we view this as something that is to be celebrated? Or to put it more concretely, how are we to celebrate that a pupil has a hard time learning to read? Or, perhaps even harder, can a pupil who has a hard time to concentrate and who do not show respect to his/her classmates and the teacher be celebrated?

Ideology and realities

It is thus easy to say that difference should be celebrated. But how can a teacher use this way of thinking in daily work? External demands, e.g. grading, means that it becomes totally impossible to celebrate differences. On the contrary, it leads to a focus on shortcomings. But I would go one step further and argue that even if grades were abandoned a normative order would still be established in schools where certain characteristics would be seen as more valuable than other.

How can we find a way out of this dilemma? On the one hand there is an idea that difference should be celebrated, on the other hand this will be very hard to accomplish in the everyday life of schooling. In Sweden even the pre-school seems to evaluate children more than before, probably because the pre-school is becoming more school-like.

Individuals and their characteristics

It seems hard to totally avoid a deficit perspective even in what appears as inclusive environments. In a study that we made of what appeared to be an inclusive classroom it was still obvious that the teachers used two discourses. On the one hand they suggested that differences among pupils is to be regarded as an asset, which was an ideology that to a large extent characterized the classroom and which also was expressed by the pupils. On the other hand, the teachers were very aware of the difficulties experienced by some of the pupils. Thus, it seemed like the teachers used two different discourses when talking about the pupils. On the one hand, differences contributed, on the other hand, some differences were viewed as problematic.

I have had some problems with this dilemma myself and believed that phrases such as “celebrate differences”, which at times are part of ideas about inclusive schooling, should be seen as rhetorical and as posing impossible challenges. However, I found it much less challenging when I realized the importance to make a distinction between characteristics and individuals. Then we can see that not all characteristics contribute, however each individual, taken as a whole, do. This becomes even clearer if we lessen the focus on educational achievement in a few core subjects and realize that school encompasses a lot of subject and also other aspects than educational achievements.

But how should we understand the example given above about the pupil who does not seen to respect his classmates? Maybe the pupil mocks his peers, make them feel insecure and lower their spirits. Could we view that pupil as an asset in the classroom? I would like to answer that question in the affirmative. My conviction rests upon my view of humans as inherently social and cooperative beings. The pupil who does not respect his classmates has probably been treated without respect himself. Pupils has thus the right to be seen as a potential contributor to the educational environment.

A real-life illustration

What has been written above can be illustrated by a poem/reflection that a pupil wrote and that we obtained in the study of an inclusive classroom which was discussed above. The pupil is well aware that not all of his characteristics are valued by the school but that he still can contribute to the learning environment:


One in the class is not so good at talking and writing

So he has a computer on his desk to help him

He went to a communication class before

Drawing cartoons

And being a good friend

That he is good at

I am that guy

That I dared to say that !

Inclusion - one word, two discourses

It is well known that the word” inclusion” acquires different meanings in different contexts. However, here I would like to simplify things and make a distinction between what I consider to be two fundamentally different ways to use the word, two discourses. The distinction is based on a review of research about inclusive education that I made together with Kerstin Göransson (see reference below).

We analysed altogether 60 articles about inclusive education with high impact in the field, i.e articles that are often cited by other researchers. You would expect that there will be some consensus in a research field when it comes to how basic concepts are defined. However, we could identify two fundamentally different understandings of inclusion in the articles.


The dominating discourse

In about two thirds of the articles, inclusion denoted the place of education. In this way, inclusion was not defined by any specific qualities. Consequently, inclusion could principally have good or bad consequences. A prime example of this approach is the much cited article by Lindsay (see reference below) which is a systematic review about the effects of inclusion. Inclusion is thus defined by the fact that pupils with disabilities receive their education in mainstream classrooms.

Following this line of thinking it also becomes an important research task to ask teachers, about their views of inclusion. Not surprisingly there were several articles that reported such investigations and one much cited review of this research appeared as early as 1996 (se reference below). Also the fact that inclusion is an idea emanating to a large extent from the special educational field makes this line of inquiry logical. If inclusion (understood as placement) is to be successful, teachers have a key role. In this way, special educational researchers have made a lot of studies about the views of teachers and pondered upon what factors that will make teachers more positive to the idea of inclusion (i.e. having pupils with disabilities in their classroom).

To my experience this is also often how the word is used in political discussions and among people working in schools. But it was obvious in our material that there was a challenge to this way of using the word inclusion.


The alternative discourse

In some articles inclusion was, apart from the avoidance of segregated educational solutions, associated with certain qualities. These researchers defined inclusion as a) involving the creation of learning communities where every pupil has a natural place or at least b) the requirement that pupils have to have a satisfactory educational and social situation in order to be included. There were thus different opinions about exactly what constitutes inclusive environments. The point to be made here is that in this discourse inclusion was defined by certain qualities. Put differently and simplified, if it is not good it is not inclusion (but mere placement).

Let us take a simple example. If Steven attends a resource school but is moved into a regular classroom, then he is included according to the dominating discourse. However, if we consider that Steven´s educational situation has to involve certain qualities (e.g. that he learns and thrives/becomes part of a learning community) in order to be included, then we have moved into the alternative discourse.


Does it matter?

Some would maybe state that the discussion above is “only” about semantics. However, I would not agree. I think the lack of clarity concerning what is meant with the word inclusion partly had disguised the fact that there are quite different positions in research about inclusive education. While “inclusion” for some is merely an “add-on” to traditional special educational reasoning, for others it means changing the educational system. Thus, Kerstin Göransson and I considered to entitle our article “A field divided”.

On a somewhat more speculative note, it does not seem improbable that the vagueness regarding what is meant by inclusion might have had some harmful consequences in school practice. Inclusion has been what linguistics call a “plus-word”, i.e. it has been considered as something good. It is thus often considered progressive to include. However, and this a think is a real danger, if we are not very clear that inclusion involves a lot more than placement, we run the risk of legitimizing putting pupils with disabilities in mainstream classrooms that are not properly organized to take care of and to teach them.


Lindsay, Geoff. 2007. “Educational Psychology and the Effectiveness of Inclusive Education/ Mainstreaming.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 77: 1–24.

Nilholm, C. & Göransson, K. (2017) What is meant by inclusion? An analysis of European and North American journal articles with high impact, European Journal of Special Needs Education, 32:3, 437-451.

Scruggs, T., and M. Mastropieri. 1996. “Teacher Perceptions of Mainstreaming Inclusion, 1958–1995: A Research Synthesis.” Exceptional Children 63: 59–74.


This is my last blog before the summer. The next blog will be published on august 20 and its topic is the question if  differences can be celebrated.

Will Sweden abandon the Salamanca-declaration? – Swedish liberalism and special needs

Once upon a time the Swedish school system was admired across the world. It was a target for what later has been labelled as ”policy-tourism”. Sweden was on top in many international comparisons and, at the same time, displayed comparatively high levels of equity. Presently, Sweden has fallen back to the average OECD-level and is falling behind as regards equity. Social background and ethnicity play a larger role as regards outcomes and where the pupil will be educated.

At the same time there are obvious signs of distrust in the system, politicians do not seem to trust teachers and only eleven percent of Swedish teachers have trust in politicians working with educational issues at the national level. Do they trust the local politicians working with these issue then? Unfortunately not, only seven (7!) percent of the teachers have trust in local politicians (The Swedish National Agency, 2016).

The educational debate in Sweden is of course full of people who have an explanation for these states-of-affair. Explanations of falling results and lack of equity involve a lot of factors, perhaps most notably the decentralisation of the school system, the introduction of markets and quasi-markets, changes in the curriculum, the emergence of new individualized teaching methods, teacher recruitment and teacher education.

At times, specific groups are pointed out as scapegoats, e.g. politicians, teachers and even professors of education. There seems to be one commonality across explanations and that is that the person doing the explaining is innocent.

However, what I want to discuss and draw attention to in this blog is a proposal by the former Swedish minister of education, the liberal party leader Jan Björklund, who in a debate article in one of the major Swedish newspapers Dagens Nyheter on April 21 presented what in the future might be a Swedish turnaround as regards inclusive education. The debate article should be seen against the background of the discussion above, thus Björklund considers “inclusion” to be a factor that explains at least part of the lowering of educational attainment.

Since Björklund, despite getting a very small percentage of the votes, has had a major influence on Swedish educational policy it seems wise to take his proposal and its possibility to influence the Swedish school system very seriously. Björklund´s party, the liberals, presently attract only about five per cent of the voters, yet it is not unlikely that he will be the new minister of education after the elections this fall. He is also the Swedish politician who to a large extent has been setting the agenda of the Swedish educational debate.


The proposal

Björklund suggests that Sweden needs more special needs classes and special schools. In his opinion” inclusion” (which he understands as the place of education) has gone too far. Children with disabilities and learning problems do not, according to Björklund, learn satisfactorily in the regular classroom.

Interestingly, he does not mention neither the Salamanca declaration nor the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both acknowledged by Sweden, and both proclaiming inclusion.

Neither does he refer to any research thus leaving out systematic reviews that  shows the lack of beneficial effect for special placements (see examples below).


Why this now?

One can only speculate why this initiative is taken now. Björklund refers to a report from the Swedish School Inspectorate about resource schools.  The report shows good outcomes for pupils who have failed in regular schooling when attending resource schools. Now this phenomenon, as well as the arguments put forward by Björklund, are not new. The methodological approach of the Inspectorate to look at children who already have failed school is of course not a scientifically valid design to study the effect of placement, yet it can be persuasive to people not familiar with research design.

An additional factor is the re-emergence of the deficit-perspective in Sweden not least due to the widespread use of medical diagnoses such as e g autism spectrum disorder and AD/HD and pressure groups that point to the fact that regular school often do not succeed with these children.

Maybe, and this is highly speculative, is Björklund also trying to attract teachers who are not positive to the idea of “inclusion”.  Whatever the reasons, a major shift is announced.


Abandoning Salamanca?

It seems clear that the liberal party has chosen to take one step away from the spirit of the Salamanca-declaration and also the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The forthcoming election will show if this will be the path taken by Sweden as a country. In a wider perspective, it is obvious how the place and outcome of education in the Swedish system is increasingly decided by factors such as social background, ethnicity and functionality.


The Swedish National Agency of Education (2016) Attityder till skolan 2015 /Attitudes towards the school 2015/. Stockholm: Skolverket.


Examples of systematic reviews about the effect of inclusion (placement):


Canadian Council On Learning. (2009). Does placement matter? Comparing the academic performance of students with special needs in inclusive and separate settings. Series: Lessons in Learning, March, 2009.

Lindsey, E. (2007) Educational psychology and the effectiveness of inclusive education/mainstreaming. Bristish Journal of Educational Psychology, 1-24.


The micro-genesis of inclusion

There is a lack of research which provides a firm foundation for how educational environments can be made more inclusive. This is even truer if we understand inclusion as the building of learning- communities which encompass all pupils. How should teacher´s work in order to create such inclusive communities?

It seems reasonable to believe that inclusive communities develop over time. In a study that Barbro Alm and I conducted (reference below) we believed we could see how the teachers after several years of work together seemed to have created what appeared as a learning community in the classroom. This was evidenced in different ways, the pupil´s showed great trust in each other, enjoyed working in groups, were engaged in common discussions and reached relatively good educational outcomes.

What we did not do in that study was to study the classroom longitudinally. We entered the classroom in grade 5 and could only reconstruct the development of the class retrospectively. In a research review that Kerstin Göransson and I made (see reference below) we concluded that there was a lack of studies that in a methodologically sound way showed how learning environments can be created. Such studies demand that development is studied longitudinally and demand a lot of resources.

However, there are other ways to investigate how learning communities can be developed. I would like to use a concept from Vygotsky to characterize a type of studies than have the potential to provide valuable knowledge regarding how learning communities can become more inclusive.


Vygotsky suggested that in order to understand human beings we have to study them developmentally. He suggested that development could be studied in different areas with different developmental forces; in pyhlogenesis (before man becomes a cultural being), in sociohistorical development (when humans increasingly become cultural beings) and in ontogenesis (the development of the child).

In these spheres development takes place according to different principles. In phylogenesis it is above all the survival of the most well adapted that regulates development, in sociohistorical development the driving developmental forces are regulated by sociohistorical principles and ontogenetic development is characterized by an interplay of biological and sociocultural forces.

In addition to this Vygotsky also wrote about development of behaviours within a short time-span, e.g. a few experimental sessions in a learning experiment. He called this micro-genetic development. I will use the concept here in a slightly different way than Vygotsky, it is especially the idea to study something while it develops within a short time-frame that I want to connect to. It seems at least theoretically possible that within a shorter time-span study how a learning environment can development in an inclusive direction.

How can one do this?

If we decide to study the micro-genesis of inclusion it is of paramount importance to first define what we mean by inclusion in the context of the study. We could for example define inclusion as the development of a learning community. We could by this mean that the pupils increasingly are orienting towards each other in a respectful and constructive manner and if a sense of “we” develops it is an indication that a community is developing. If we further can show that the interaction is beneficial to learning we can speak about development of a learning community.

Group work seems to be a beneficial means to develop community and cooperation even if there of course are other means. If we choose to study group work we need to video-tape the interaction. So many things go on in interactions that cannot be grasped by an audio - recording alone.

How can we more exactly decide if an inclusive micro-genesis takes place? The best thing is of course if we can make a before- and after examination of the pupils´ knowledge within the knowledge area covered by the group work and also an assessment of the pupils´ views on cooperation before and after the group work.

There is also a possibility to analyse the development of the interaction by making a sequential analysis of the video-tape. Are the pupils increasingly orienting towards each other? In this instance we cannot fully grasp how each individual pupil experience the group work. It is also possible that with the help of video-film analyse how the group acquire the knowledge content of the lesson, but again it will be more problematic to analyse the development at the level of the individual.

From the perspective of inclusive education it is of course beneficial if the development of a “we” is not constituted in antagonism to other “we” in the classroom but instead opens up possibilities for a larger “we”. Moreover, we must never forget that inclusion implies that the individual got to have a space, which sometimes can be opposed to the common goal.

When studying the microgenesis of inclusion we can increase our understanding of how processes that lead to the development of community and learning is initiated and sustained, and those processes of course have to be analysed in relation to tendencies to segregation and rupture.

What can we learn?

I believe that this type of research can be very relevant to educational practice. It aims to very concretely identify and analyse inclusive and segregating processes in the everyday work of schools. It can perhaps be characterized as ”good practice” research at a micro-level in the concrete classroom. It is important to recognize that this way to study inclusion is yet unrealized and it is hard to know exactly what methodological challenges that will be met. Yet, it seems to be a road worth to travel.


Göransson, K. & Nilholm, C. (2014). Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education , 29:3, 265-280.

Nilholm, C. & Alm, B. (2011). An inclusive classroom? On inclusiveness, teacher strategies and children´s experiences. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(3), 239-252.