Professionalization of Teacher Students in the Field of Special Education in Sweden
For almost a decade, Sweden provides two postgraduate study programmes for general teachers who continue with their professional career in the field of special education: the special education teacher (SET) and the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO). The degree ordinances state that the SET is focusing on the pupils’ difficulties, e.g. in mathematics, reading and writing, or in conjunction with a specific type of disability; along these threads, six different specialisations are offered. In contrast, the SENCO shall to a greater extent be responsible for counselling, pedagogical assessment, developing of inclusive learning environments and school development. The formal structures of both study programmes are rather similar. To be eligible to enter the programmes, the applicant is required to have at least three years of practical experience in schools or pre-schools. Both programmes comprise 90 ECTS and are usually offered part-time in combination with the students’ teaching posts in educational institutions. To some extent and in different forms, an overlap can be observed between the two programmes.
In the recent past, research has been done on the occupational roles and duties of professionals in special education in Sweden, in particular SET and SENCO. It became obvious, that the fields of practical work are characterised by some overlap (Takala & Ahl 2014; Göransson et al. 2015). In addition, the role of the SENCO is often unclear and questioned when it comes to school development (Lindqvist et al. 2011; Malmqvist 2015). International comparative research was focusing on the special education teacher students’ perspective on inclusive education. Swedish students were more positive on inclusion than their Finnish counterparts (Takala et al. 2015), but to a lesser extent than teacher students in Norway (Takala et al. 2012).
Even though considerable studies have been done, notable research gaps exist. So far little is known about the study motivation, expectation and experience of teacher students in the field of special education in Sweden. Increasing knowledge in this field is relevant not only for teacher education in Sweden, but for other countries as well by opening up for comparative research. Our study aims to map these factors with regard to beginner students of the two postgraduate special education programmes – the SET and the SENCO – at a Swedish university. The following questions will be addressed:
- How can the study motivation of teacher students be described?
- Which expectations do the teacher students have for their studies and their future occupation?
- What perspective do teacher students have in terms of research and development in and for educational practice?
- Which similarities and differences can be observed concerning the motivation, expectation and perspective on research and development of teacher students in the two programmes?
The theoretical foundation that underlies this study is a combination of professional theory and special education theories. Since the 1970’s, research on professions has taken a new focus, namely to study the professional aspirations among occupational groups, or in other words, their professional project (e.g. Larson 1977). Defining professions in order to distinguish them from other occupational groups thereby becomes less significant. Instead, great interest has been directed towards studying the strategies used by different groups to achieve a certain social status as a “profession”. The essentialistic traits have come to be regarded as ambitions held by less established professions, e.g. social workers, rather than manifestations of a professional core. Within such projects, considerable symbolic significance is attributed to the theoretical knowledge of the occupational groups in question (Collins 1979). In our research, we connect this theoretical approach to special education theories, namely the categorical and relational perspective (e.g. Persson 2003).
For capturing the perspective of a large group of students, we developed a questionnaire. The questionnaire was divided into two parts: the first items took up the chosen study programme and background variables just as professional experiences in education. The second part of the questionnaire consisted of five open-ended questions regarding the study motivation, expectations, and future perspectives with regard to occupation, research and development in the field. The questionnaire was distributed to 125 SET and SENCO beginner students participating in a joint course introduction at a Swedish university; the sample stands for the majority of the beginner SET and SENCO students in the academic year 2016/17. 41 SET and 53 SENCO students replied (response rate: 75 %). In conjunction with the research objective we conducted a qualitative content analysis by identifying different topics in the students’ answers. So far, the questionnaire was carried out based on a convenience sample at one university, but it is planned to scale up and replicate the study by incorporating other universities and a number of cohorts.
The large majority of students had more than 10 years of experience in general education. Even though many students work in special education already today, about two third of the respondents can look back on less than three years of practical experience in this specific field. The decision to become a SET or SENCO was often described as a natural step in the career. In particular for SET students, the lately introduced demand to obtain a teacher certificate was an important factor. In some cases personal motivations were mentioned, e.g. having an own child with disability. With regard to the students’ expectations, the personal and professional development dominated. A number of students used the metaphor of a “tool box” concerning the expected encounters with professional challenges. For the future, the students expect better job opportunities, new professional challenges and increasing competences. Needs expressed by the respondents were on one side related to the children’s different special needs such as referring to various groups of children (i.e. diagnoses, specially-gifted, behavioural problems). On the other side referred developing needs to a decrease of professional special needs competence, and a growing meaning of this field, i.e. talking about the professional rolls of SENCO and special teachers, even their counselling task. It was even highlighted that the school for all and the idea of inclusion ought to be more emphasized, especially how it can be realized in practice. Furthermore, yet, to a smaller extent, developing needs expressed refer to pedagogical methods and the need for collaboration. The preliminary result indicates credentials are at the core of the postgraduate study. This ambition and motivation highlights the symbolic importance of degrees.
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