It all began with Gunilla Holm’s own experiences as a child and in school. Girls and boys were treated differently. Social class and how and where you lived affected how you were perceived and received by others. Holm moved to Australia to study in the 1970s, a time when discrimination and racism were apparent both in the treatment of Indigenous Australians and in who was allowed to enter the country. She became acutely aware of the injustice caused by racism. She travelled back home to Finland across Asia by bus – a trip that took seven weeks and opened her eyes to global poverty and inequality. Years later, Holm moved to the United States, saw the racism evident in the country, and began to investigate it.
“These topics, different types of injustice and fighting them, have been a guiding principle throughout my life. They have characterised my studies, my teaching, my research – my whole life, really,” says Holm, whose goal has always been to reduce social inequalities.
Working to reduce social inequalities within education is one way of working for a just and democratic society at the grassroots level.
“For me, a just and democratic society is a priority. But we can’t have that if a number of people experience discrimination and suffer from stereotyped perceptions and expectations, bullying and hate speech. That means we don’t have a safe, democratic and just society.
“A single individual can’t influence everything directly. I’ve focused mostly on research and teaching in social injustice,” states Holm.
Research for more social justice in schools
Schools rarely implement research results directly. But research in education at different levels can help identify problems and perhaps point to solutions, too. During her career, Holm has made a real social difference through the Nordic Centre of Excellence ‘Justice through Education in the Nordic Countries’ (JustEd, 2013–2018), which she led, and the Swedish-language teacher education she helped establish at the University of Helsinki.
Within JustEd, Nordic researchers explored how systems, cultures and actors in the education sector promote as well as prevent justice in the globalising Nordic welfare societies. The research showed that pupils in Nordic schools experience marginalisation, discrimination and segregation to a surprisingly high degree. The results were summarised in three recommendations and an appeal to Nordic decision-makers to redesign education policies and curricula more equally and justly.
The recommendations were published in all Nordic languages and in English, and were sent to all Nordic government ministries, education agencies, education departments in major cities, the Nordic Council, and politicians and members of parliament working with education issues.
“But I think the Swedish-language class teacher education has had the most tangible impact on society. For many years, people talked about the lack of qualified teachers in southern Finland. It was perceived as a matter of justice because Swedish-speaking children in southern Finland were denied access to qualified teachers.”
Through persistent efforts and successful collaboration with external donors, the University of Helsinki succeeded in launching Swedish-language class teacher education in 2016. The first teachers graduated in spring 2021.
“The education has not resolved the issue of there being too few qualified teachers, but it’s helping to plug the gap,” notes Holm.
Ripple effect of justice
All of the Swedish-language study tracks in education and related research at the University of Helsinki have a profile based on diversity, multilingualism and social justice.
“Social justice is the guiding principle in all the study tracks and courses; it is all-pervasive. We wish to take our passion and activity for the promotion of social justice to the next level. We hope that as our students learn about these topics, they become aware of inequities in schools and can teach in a way that takes social justice into account. We hope that they become receptive to pupil experiences, such as bullying based on language, social class or racialisation, and tackle problems head on,” says Holm.
When Gunilla Holm took up her post as professor of education in 2006, the University of Helsinki had two Swedish-language university lecturers in the field, in addition to her professorship. With Holm working to promote Swedish-language kindergarten teacher education (launched in 2011) and class teacher education (launched in 2016), the Swedish-language community of researchers focused on issues of diversity, multilingualism and social justice has grown to its current number of three professors, one associate professor and close to 20 university lecturers.
“It’s so encouraging to witness the emergence of a new generation of researchers who have, for example, participated in JustEd’s summer schools for junior researchers. This way of thinking is so ingrained that they include issues of justice in their research without a second thought. After all, a researcher who observes injustice ideally should take it into account even if their research does not focus on such issues. The idea of justice is embedded in everything we do.”
Although Holm is retiring from her professorship in education, she will continue to conduct research on social justice. She is leading two projects on racism in Finnish- and Swedish-language schools in Finland. In addition, she investigates exclusion and inclusion in early childhood education in a third project and leads Swedish-language science education for children in a fourth.