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Students cheering for the declartion of school peace in Helsinki in 2017. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

More than 100 researchers representing universities in eight countries have spent years examining social justice in education from various angles.

Now the researchers are appealing to policymakers in all the Nordic countries to adjust educational principles and curricula in a more equal and fair direction.

“Through our research, we have seen that marginalization, discrimination and exclusion are surprisingly common in Nordic schools. To make a change we need to address the issues both on a political and practical level,” said Gunilla Holm, a professor at the Helsinki University, in a statement. Holm is a team leader in the Justice Through Education in the Nordic Countries research center.

According to Holm, exclusion and marginalization of students are often based on differences related to social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, locality and language. “Additionally, market-based and privatization reforms in the Nordic countries have detrimental consequences for educational justice,” Holm said.

The following three guidelines, presented by the researchers, will provide policymakers with ideas on how to encounter these challenges.

1. Create equal access to schools and education

Prevent and counteract market-based and privatization policy reforms that contradict fair and equal education.

In Finland, privatization of education is still marginal but new linkages between the economy, the labor market and education and training have created new types of governance and partnerships at all levels.

Research in Finland and Sweden shows how strengthened marketization and privatization of education and young people’s transitions from school to work have resulted in social capital becoming more important for educational and career choices than previously, and that social justice and equality are increasingly being framed as questions of individual achievements.

2. Counteract discrimination and marginalization

In curricula and teacher education, explicitly address discrimination and marginalization based on social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, locality and language.

Even though these issues are superficially addressed in current steering documents and teacher education, not much has changed in schools.

Beyond addressing discrimination and marginalization in steering documents, school leaders and practicing teachers as well as teacher-education students need to have an understanding of how structures and practices can lead to exclusion and marginalization.

Individuals who do not fit the ideals of normalcy are easily pathologized, or constructed as abnormal, which further establishes the positions of privileged groups.

Individuals who do not fit the ideals of normalcy are easily pathologized, or constructed as abnormal, which further establishes the positions of privileged groups.

To make education more inclusive and dismantle power relations, the policies, practices and teacher education need to be based upon critical educational research.

To address marginalization related to disability, social class, gender, ethnicity, as well as stigmatization of residential areas, policymakers, researchers and teacher educators need clear theoretical and methodological guidelines on how to make the voices of the marginalized heard.

In addition, there is a lack of awareness of sexual and gender diversities and harassment in educational contents and practices; for example, both compulsory and upper secondary education often lack coherent protection of queer students.

Presently, gender differences in school achievement are regularly addressed by the administration and the media as generalized worries about boys, ignoring research with more nuanced knowledge about the school problems of various gender groups.

3. Balance content coverage, student initiative and active participation

Balance student autonomy and active participation with cognitively demanding learning environments and use of digital technologies in the classrooms.

The research from lower secondary classrooms in Norway, Sweden and Finland indicates comparatively more classroom discussions and student-initiated input in Swedish and Norwegian classrooms.

The analyses also show that a high degree of student participation might come at the cost of keeping track of the content—thus, teachers might find it hard to balance a high degree of student engagement while still maintaining a cognitively demanding learning environment.

While there are more opportunities for pupils to talk with their peers and engage in class discussion in Norwegian and Swedish classrooms, Finnish classrooms provide equity through cognitively demanding and focused tasks and assignments.

JustEd researchers’ set of policy implications for the Nordic countries can be found here.