Better understanding of diversity in education

Yadid Levy /

Better understanding of diversity in education

“We have to increase the focus on diversity in schools. Many teachers are not aware of suitable approaches and educational practices for students with immigrant backgrounds, and this is quite serious,” says Professor Hanna Ragnarsdóttir.

Teacher training must keep up with the times

Foto: Terje HeiestadAll of the Nordic countries have evolved into multicultural societies over the past few decades. This is also reflected in the schools, and diversity is expanding in many parts of these countries. Despite this, teacher training in the Nordic countries in general devotes too little attention to diversity in schools, says Hanna Ragnarsdóttir, a professor of multicultural studies at the School of Education, University of Iceland and the leader of the project Learning spaces for inclusion and social justice: Success stories from immigrant students and school communities in four Nordic countries under the NordForsk programme Education for Tomorrow.

Ragnarsdóttir and her Nordic colleagues have taken a closer look at the learning situation for children with immigrant backgrounds in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. To better the situation, all teachers need to get involved, believes the professor, not just those who work with newly arrived students in reception classes.

Divergence among the Nordic countries

“We see that some teachers view this as a lost cause. They put little effort into helping these students to progress and perform better,” says Professor Ragnarsdóttir.

“Here in the Nordic region we often talk about the Nordic countries as if they were a unified whole, but the countries diverge far more widely than we first assumed,” explains the project leader.

“The educational systems are quite different. Immigration to Sweden and Norway began earlier than to Finland and Iceland, and the immigrant populations come from different countries of origin. We also see social inequalities. So the four countries are not necessarily facing the same challenges, which has been extremely interesting to explore,” she says.

Learning from success stories

The researchers selected 26 schools with good results from the four countries, based on average marks, test results and dropout rates, among other factors. The project has encompassed preschools, primary schools, and lower and upper secondary schools. The idea was to learn from the success stories of students with immigrant backgrounds. Which experiences can be extrapolated to improve education for this group of students in the Nordic countries?

Higher aspirations

Although there are many examples of excellent work in the schools in the study, some examples from the four countries show that the level of ambition in terms of educating students with immigrant backgrounds is too low. 

“We see that some teachers view this as a lost cause. They put little effort into helping these students to progress and perform better,” says Professor Ragnarsdóttir. She believes such a lack of effort is related to a lack of knowledge. 

"A good education shouldn’t be dependent on chance or on a single individual".

“The examples in this project are obtained from schools with good results in teaching this group of students. If this is the case in the schools we’ve studied, what’s the situation at the other end of the spectrum?” she asks.

A few teachers leading the way

Lærer og elever i klasserom

The visionary teacher is a pivotal actor in the students’ learning environment in all four countries.

“Individual teachers who care about their students invest extra effort in including them in the school environment in every way. It’s fantastic that such teachers exist, and I was actually somewhat surprised to see how much responsibility some teachers take on. But a good education shouldn’t be dependent on chance or on a single individual. There’s a lot of excellent knowledge out there in the schools, and that is precisely why it’s so important for teachers and schools to cooperate and share their knowledge and success stories.” According to the professor there is too little of this. 

“It’s all about transforming individual knowledge into shared knowledge and ensuring the sustainability of this knowledge. But this will take time and it should be a long-term objective.”

Wide interest in the results

The researchers are certain that their results will help to develop knowledge-based policy in the field of education in the Nordic countries. They have presented their research at the ministerial and municipal levels, as well as in national and international conferences, and have been met with great interest. They have financed a report providing guidelines for the school sector which they believe can increase understanding and help to direct more focus towards inclusive education in schools.

To reach the teachers, the research group received additional support from the Education for Tomorrow programme to develop a course that will be implemented in all four countries.

“We will use every means we can to make our research accessible,” concludes Professor Ragnarsdóttir.


This article was first published in NordForsk Magazine 2015.

Text: Lisa H. Ekli
Photos from classroom: Yadid Levy,
Photo of Hanna Ragnarsdóttir: Terje Heiestad

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