Famous Nordic equality a challenge in schools – A norm-critical approach could be the answer

According to the JustEd research project, discrimination is still common in Nordic schools. The Nordic Center of Excellence has examined schools from the perspectives of equality and diversity.

On a global scale, the Nordic countries are pioneers of equality, but at school, many pupils are still subjected to discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, social class, ethnicity, native language or disability.

 “Finnish society has a robust foundation for equality, possibly the most robust in the world, but the situation in schools is more complex,” says Gunilla Holm, professor of education at the University of Helsinki.

Holm heads the JustEd center, which studies equality and diversity in schools. JustEd (Nordic Center of Excellence  – Justice through education in the Nordic countries) is a network of 14 institutions in the Nordic countries, France, Italy and Australia.

JustEd was launched in August 2013, and the center will conclude at the end of this year. The University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences coordinates the project. Over the years, JustEd has involved several national and international research projects.

Boys embarrassed by studying hard, ethnic appearance determines social group

The problems in Nordic schools are apparent in many everyday things.

Gender is a restriction for everyone. For boys, this means that  hard work at school is not valued among their peers. A boy who does well in school because of studying hard will be socially ostracised, while girls have more strategies at their disposal with more leeway to navigate between academic success and the indifference required by their social circle. This is one of the reasons why boys tend to have less success in school than girls.

There is little understanding for gender diversity. A pupil whose gender expression differs from the mainstream will often be bullied. Traditional gender roles are unexpectedly firmly held by school pupils. Members of sexual minorities are in a troubled position: “gay” is a derogatory term, and it is frequently used.

Physical difference sets pupils apart. Students with disabilities are often confined to specific teaching spaces. While the intention to support the pupils is benign, in practice, the transfer to a separate space marks them and isolates them in the margins. Students with disabilities may have a different lunch schedule, different facilities to keep their things and a different gym class than others.

Ethnic appearance determines the social group: Teachers keep saying that skin colour makes no difference, but in practice, pupils will often divide into groups based on ethnicity. Pupils of a similar appearance will choose to do group work with each other and spend time in their own groups during breaks.

 “Our research has shown that pupils of immigrant descent have trouble making friends with ethnically Finnish children,” Holm says.

Different religions are taught separately in schools, even though researchers have suggested that joint teaching would increase the understanding of different worldviews.

High social class is an asset

In our seemingly equal society, it is easy to forget that pupils hail from different social classes. Family background is a factor in academic success.

Privileged children receive more encouragement and help with homework from their families. They get to see the world on holiday trips, and they accrue a large vocabulary just by listening to their parents’ conversations. Teaching in schools is structured so that precisely this kind of information is useful to pupils. This means that these children find it easier to succeed in school, and positive experiences further motivate them.

Pupils who do not have such a beneficial family background are in a weaker position at the outset, Holm points out.

Making room for everyone

In the course of her research, Gunilla Holm has found that the mainstream population often dominates the classroom. Those who do not conform are in a difficult situation.

Holm particularly remembers a girl who nobody wanted to work with in a group assignment for chemistry. In practice, it was impossible for the girl to even complete the assignments, as the groups would not let her use the chemistry equipment that was required. Why did the teacher not intervene? Was he too busy to notice that a pupil was being isolated?

A norm-critical approach challenges things we take for granted

What could we do to make school a more equal and easy place for everyone? Researchers in the JustEd project are proposing measures based on their research results. The recommendations are intended especially for decision-makers in education and teaching in the Nordic countries.

Teachers need better tools and information on how they can recognise, challenge and change norms and power structures. The researchers talk about a norm-critical apprach, a form of thinking that challenges and changes the norms and structures we take for granted. A norm-critical perspective helps teachers and pupils recognise problematic situations and address them. It’s not a magic trick to solve all problems, but a change in the way of thinking and an increase in awareness.

Teachers and principals must have a better understanding of how power structures create problems for minorities, and how these problems can be solved. These issues should also be clearly expressed in the guiding documents of schools, such as curricula and other documents of education policy. Teacher education should better prepare new teachers to consider such matters.

There have been guidelines and recommendations in the past. Gunilla Holm points out that if Finland could actually implement the equality recommendations from the 2015 document Tasa-arvotyö on taitolaji (the document is in Finnish), the situation would be much better. The real challenge is on the grass-roots level, in municipalities, schools and class rooms. Recognising the problems is the first, crucial step.

See the key research findings from the Nordic Centre of Excellence, JustEd

The international closing conference of the JustEd project, Promoting justice through education, which will take a critical look on the equality situation and practices in Nordic schools, is held in Helsinki 22–23 May.