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Review of  Learning Spaces for Inclusion and Social Justice

Reviewer: Alberto Fernandez-Diego
Book Title: Learning Spaces for Inclusion and Social Justice
Book Author: Hanna Ragnarsdóttir Lars Anders Kulbrandstad
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 32.2101

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‘Learning Spaces for Inclusion and Social Justice: Success Stories from Immigrant Students and School Communities in Four Nordic Countries’ is an edited volume (eds. Hanna Ragnarsdóttir and Lars Anders Kulbrandstad), and is the result of a three-year research project conducted in various European countries (Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark). The book is divided in 8 sections, along with a foreword and an introduction, all united by the common theme of social justice. In the introduction, the authors explain the main objective, justifications, and description of research areas. The research questions that guided the project are made explicit in the introduction:

1) What learning environments and practices (schools and other) seem to be instrumental for young immigrants’ participation and success in their schools and society, and how do they describe their situation and motivations as well as obstacles?

2) What are the young immigrants’ expectations of teachers and curricula?

3) How do students experience belonging to different groups, and what are their aspirations in these settings?

4) What are the immigrant children’s and young adults’ language backgrounds, language learning environment and attitudes towards their culture of origin and their majority Nordic culture and society?

This part of the book is very helpful for the reader, since it is dedicated to explaining the theoretical frame used (the Learning Spaces Project, LSP) and also, to providing an overview of the contents. Additionally, the editors point out that the aims of the studies are twofold: on one hand, ‘to understand and learn from the experiences of immigrant students who have succeeded academically’ and, on the other hand, ‘to explore and understand how social justice is implemented in equitable and successful diverse Nordic school contexts and other learning spaces’.

The remaining eight chapters each have the structure of research papers. The first study is titled ‘Immigration students in Nordic educational policy documents’, by Lars Anders Kulbrandstad, Heidi Paavola, Anette Hellman and Hanna Ragnarsdóttir. In this chapter, the authors share a comparative analysis of the current policies of Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark, specifically regarding the treatment of the immigrant children and students, from preschool to secondary school years. The outcome shows us that there are similarities in all countries, along with a few differences and discrepancies, such as if some particular measures (offering to study their mother tongue, home language and culture, religious instruction, etc.) will represent a challenge for the years to come.

The second study is titled ‘Municipal educational policy related to immigrant students in Iceland: Experiences of key people in four municipalities’, by Hanna Ragnarsdóttir and Anh-Dao Tran. The project that gives the title to this chapter (MEPIS) is a two-year project, along with the already mentioned LSP project (Learning spaces for inclusion and social justice: Success stories from immigrant students and school communities in four Nordic countries). They have two primary goals. To better understand the current educational policies implemented in Iceland; and, to better understand the perspectives of individuals in charge of developing those policies. The results of their qualitative research (interviews), allows them to conclude that the current Icelandic educational framework is responding to the social changes of recent years. In addition, they pointed out in spite of the competence and knowledge of the educational leadership, the lack of connection among policies leads to challenges, such as lack of professional development of staff in schools, limited budgets and insufficient cooperation among institutions.

The third chapter, ‘Research methodologies for a culturally diverse educational context’ (by Thor-André Skrefsrud, Karen Rut Gísladóttir, Hafdís Gu∂jónsdóttir, Anette Hellman, Heidi Layne, Johannes Lunneblad and Anna Katarzyna Wozniczka) presents to the readers four real research examples that follow a qualitative methodology, all from the already mentioned LSP project. The research question that guided their work is the following: ‘how can a multiple-method qualitative approach enable researchers and users of research to gain an in-depth understanding of the complexity of doing research in culturally diverse education contexts?’. Their first research example is from Iceland, where the methodology to better understand the school experiences of immigrants’ children consisted of story-crafting (related to the dialogue between the researcher and the participants); the second research example comes from Norway, and its methodology was an ethnographic study with multilingual students; the third is from Sweden and was based on observations of preschool children (the children’s ways of interacting); the last example was from Finland, where a race theory methodology was used in order to give silenced voices the chance to express themselves (related to storytelling and challenging hegemonic perspectives). The authors point out that different contexts call for different methodologies.

The study detailed next is titled ‘Socially just learning spaces: Inclusion and participation in preschool settings in the Nordic countries’ (by Anette Hellman, Hanna Ragnarsdóttir, Frí∂a B. Jónsdóttir, Hildur Blöndal, Kristen Lauritsen and Heini Ragnarsdóttir). This chapter is oriented to show, through the theoretical framework of culturally responsive pedagogy, how preschools in Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden were able to develop spaces of equity, empowerment and active participation, even though there are still some challenges to face, such as child development or linguistic and cultural diversity, the low retention of immigrant children, etc. The methodology was qualitative, and consisted primarily of interviews with principals, teachers and parents.

The next study is titled ‘The story of my teaching: Constructing learning spaces for diverse pupils’ (by Hafdís Gu∂jónsdóttir, Anna Katarzyna Wozniczka, Karen Rut Gísladóttir, Johannes Lunneblad, Ylva Odenbring, Hille Janhonen-Abruquah, Heidi Layne and Thor-André Skrefsrud). This research is focused on how teachers develop diverse learning spaces through inclusive practices, framed in the ideas of multiculturalism and inclusion in education. The methodology was qualitative (interviews, participant observations and documents such as photographs) and the results showed how teachers’ effort, experience and knowledge are paramount to the success of the development of tolerant and multicultural education atmospheres.

The sixth study is titled ‘Immigrant students’ success in Icelandic upper secondary schools: Teachers’ and students’ perceptions’ (by Samúel Lefever, Anh-Dao Tran and Renata Emilsson Peskova). This chapter shares the results of a study conducted on immigrant students’ success, along with the teachers’ and their own perceptions of that success. The methodology was qualitative (interviews with teachers and students) and the theoretical framework used was Critical Multiculturalism (CM), which consists of addressing the needs of minority groups. The results show that factors such as the teachers’ competence, their family and social network support, and the students’ qualities and strengths were determinant factors to achieve success.

The next study is titled ‘Democratic leadership practices in three preschools in Iceland’ (by Helgi Svavarsson, Börkur Hansen and Hanna Ragnarsdóttir). This chapter explored the current reality of Islandic preschools, where they are facing the possibility of increasing the social distance among students because of the increase of immigrants in the Icelandic society. Through a qualitative methodology (interviews to teachers, principals and parents) and the democratic leadership framework (social interaction among certain groups working towards common goals or purposes), the authors try to shed light on the current situation of these preschools. The results show that, despite agreement among the principals on the need to promote democratic leadership practices so marginalization can be eliminated in preschools, there is not one single agreed-upon way to achieve that goal.

The eighth study is titled ‘Enhancing the professional development of teachers in three Nordic countries: Drawing lessons from research findings in spinoff activities’, by Thor-André Skrefsrud, Anette Hellman, Johannes Lunneblad and Hanna Ragnarsdóttir. This chapter focused on three cases of professional development of educators in Iceland, Sweden and Norway, all three involved in the Learning Spaces Project (LSP). The results showed that, even though the enhancement achieved by the practices is not clear, the activities yielded positive outcomes, and that professional development is constructed in collaboration between teachers and researchers.


The book is easy to read and is well structured. The authors take time in clearly define and operationalize the importance of concepts that will be referenced throughout the volume, such as learning spaces, inclusion, success, immigrant, leadership, diversity and social justice and equity. They show how much we can learn from other countries’ practices and also, how much work is still to be done to help to create a world in peace. In this respect, the book provides interesting insight into the reality of Scandinavian education through classroom-based experiments, along with a compilation and analysis of political measures taken in the past years. That means this is not just a speculative book, since it shares empirical evidence and experiences of immigrant students and their teachers.

Additionally, I would like to point out that the authors should be commended for their avoidance of unnecessary acronyms and jargon. They use the expression critical social justice, as opposed to social justice, which leads us believe that they have noticed that the term social justice itself is susceptible to varied interpretations, to the extent that it often ceases to be meaningful at all. In the foreword, critical social justice is operationalized to celebrate and value a range of different abilities, characteristics and backgrounds, following Ryan and Rottmann (2007). The authors remark that it is not about equal treatment, but rather treating students equitably; that is, to treat students according their specific needs, rather than treating everyone the same way (which would perpetuate inequalities). Even though that is not an extremely deep and detailed definition, it is enough to let the readers to understand the concepts that underlie their work.

I do note, however, some potential issues related to the concept of diversity. The authors use this term in terms of ethnic, religious and/or linguistic background. Without calling into question the good intentions of the authors, their definition diversity might feasibly allow us to accept a cultural norm in spite of potential detriment, to students, teachers, schools and even modern democratic societies (e.g. the acceptance of a religious dogma that excludes or discriminates against certain groups of people, like women, or its rejection towards some modern medical practices such as blood transfusions, etc.).

Although this surely was not the intention of the book, the truth is that some readers might ask themselves if there is a justified need to accept all cultural differences without thinking of any potentially dangerous influence. We believe that a better world is possible, and also that education would play a major role in its construction. However, the unrestricted open-arms policy towards cultural differences might turn extremely poisonous and dangerous for that noble purpose.

That said, the book provides tools and examples that can be used to develop and implement strategies in educational institutions. One of the most important take-aways is the importance of teamwork, and that any strategy needs to consider the students involved, their parents, and their teachers. Surely, this collaborative approach is the path we should follow in order to build a better educational system and, through it, a better world for everybody.
Alberto Fernández-Diego (Oviedo, Spain, 1987) is a Graduate Student of Hispanic Linguistics in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the University of Florida. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid), an M.A. in Contemporary Philosophy (UNED), a PhD in Contemporary Philosophy (Universidad de Oviedo) and an M.A. in Spanish (Western Michigan University). His current research interests include second language acquisition, teaching methods, phonetics and phonology, and epistemological foundations of research in linguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781527514003
Pages: 256
Prices: U.K. £ 61.99