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Controversial issues for principals in Sweden: an exploratory approach
Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Centre for Principal Development.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-4636-1886
Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Centre for Principal Development. Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Political Science. (CVIL)ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3006-1720
Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Centre for Principal Development.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-9897-7850
Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Centre for Principal Development.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6240-587x
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2023 (English)In: ECER 2023 Programme, 2023Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Controversial issues (CI) are a part of everyday life in schools’, inside and outside the classroom. How principals understand and manage these issues are therefore an interesting topic of inquiry. In this paper we set out to examine, from the theoretical standpoint of agency, principals understanding of what a CI is and how they can and cannot be managed. CIs has been a recurring topic in the educational literature for the last four decades (Hand & Levinson 2012; Anders & Shudak 2016) and in a globalised world characterized by polarisation and mediatisation the need for schools to handle CI has potentially become increasingly salient (Larsson & Lindström 2020). However, what is perceived as a controversial issue differs between contexts and can change rapidly.

The primary focus in the literature concerning CIs is teachers and teaching situations. This paper takes another point of departure focusing on principals and how they understand and manage CIs. Even though CIs are present outside formal teaching situations at the school, research on principals’ understandings and management of CIs are scarce and seldomly explicitly addressed. In addition, international educational policy discussions have underscored the importance that principals (not just teachers) manage and develop strategies in relation to CIs (Council of Europe, 2017). The aim of this paper is to explore how principals understand and manage CIs, more specifically the following research questions are applied:

What do school leaders understand as controversial issues in the Swedish education system?How and why do school leaders manage controversial issues in the Swedish education system?To categorize and analyse what principals understand as CIs (RQ1) the literature on what constitutes a CI is invoked. There is an ongoing debate on what criteria should be applied to deem something a CI (cf. Anders and Shudak, 2012). This debate differentiates between behavioural, political, epistemic, social, and theoretical criteria for defining an issue as controversial. However, this debate is primarily grounded in the question what teachers should (and should not) teach as a controversial issue which means that several of the criteria are unapplicable in principals professional practice. Based on the literature and the specific professional practice of principals’ we apply the following definition: a controversial issue is any issue that creates opposition or disputes at an organisational or societal level in schools and pre-schools.

In order to analyse how principals manage CIs (RQ2) we build on Emirbayer and Miche’s (1998) conceptualisation of agency as well as Eteläpelto et al (2013) conceptualisation of professional agency. Emirbayer and Miche’s (1998, p. 953) argue that agency should be seen as ‘temporally embedded process of social engagement’ informed by and directed towards the past, future, and present. This is complemented by Eteläpelto et al’s (2013) understanding of professional agency, which is dependent on professional knowledge and competencies as well as specific conditions of the workplace. Taken together, we understand professional agency as a dynamic concept rooted in temporal dimensions that emerges in relation to socio-cultural conditions of the workplace and professional identity, knowledge, and experience.

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used: The empirical part of the study is made up of 29 interviews with principals in Sweden. In the selection process we elected a heterogenous sample aiming for maximal variation among the principals (Ritchie & Lewis, 2013). This process started with identifying central categories of principals to make sure that the sample would include principals in different contexts and with different prerequisites. This, in turn, allows our mapping of principals’ understanding of controversial issues to include several different points of view. The categories used in the selection process was: including both men and women (gender); principals working in schools from different education stages (education stage): whether the school was placed in a central or rural setting (city-countryside) and whether the principal was experienced or novel (professional experience).

Since the research on principals understanding of CIs is limited, we elected an exploratory approach to make sure that we did not steer the principals’ understandings of what a CI is for a principal. However, to provide some sort of guidance we presented the respondents with the following generic definition of a CI in the beginning of all interviews: by controversial issues we mean issues that arouse strong feelings and/or divide opinion in schools, communities, and society. After the respondents was asked to give a brief professional background, the respondents were invited to bring up the most pressing controversial issue in their role as a principal. To each controversial issue a set of follow up questions were asked including: “why is this a controversial issue; who are involved; who are affected; how do you manage this issue?”. After the respondent had brought up their most pressing CIs questions intended to help to broaden the respondents’ perspective was applied. These questions entailed aspects such as: previously encountered controversial issues; controversial issues regarding teaching situations, norms and values, or connected to the larger society or the immediate community.

To answer the first research question the answers from the respondents were categorised thematically. First, any issues brought up by the respondents that fell outside our broad definition of CI were sifted out. After that the controversial issues were thematically organised into specific topics (religion, sustainability, racism, LGBTQI etc) and types of controversial issue (social, political, behavioural etc.). To answer the second research question the respondents answers to how they handle and manage controversial issues were analysed through the concept of professional agency as depicted above.

Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings: Preliminary results concerning the first research question show that themes concerning segregation, racism, LGBTQI and religion are recurring examples the principals give of CIs. Apparent difference can be found between the different categories of principals. For example, pre-school principals deal with CIs concerning the relation with parents claims to a larger extent than other principals. In addition, several issues brought up by the principals are not deemed controversial given the definition applied in this paper. The most salient of these issues are interpersonal issues between principals and teachers or other school staff. When these issues are not clearly connected to an organizational and/or a societal level they were not deemed a controversial issue.

Preliminary results concerning the second research questions show that how principals relate to and understand social-temporal aspects of their professional work influences how they perceive the CI at hand and have consequences for how they manage the CI. For example, how the principal understands racial tensions at his or her school influences whether s/he manages the issue proactively or simply deals with the issue as it flares up. Even though this paper is a first step in mapping and understanding CIs for principals more research is needed to provide a better understanding of how principals understand and manages controversial issues.

References: 

Anders, P. & Shudak. (2016) Criteria for Controversy: A Theoretic Approach. Thresholds in Education, 39(1), 20–30.

Council of Europe (2017) Managing controversy – Developing a strategy for handling controversy and teaching controversial issues in schools. A self-reflection toll for school leaders and senior managers.

Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A. (1998) What is agency? American journal of Sociology, 103, 962-1023.

Eteläpelto, A., Vähäsantanen, K., Hökkä, P. and Susanna Paloniemi, S. (2013) What is agency? Conceptualizing professional agency at work, Educational Research Review, 10, 45-65.

Hand, M. & Levinson, R. (2012) Discussing controversial issues in the classroom. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44(6), 614-629.

Larsson, A. & Lindström, N. (2020) Controversial societal issues in education: Explorations of moral, critical and didactical implications. Acta Didactica Norden, 14(4), 1-6.

Ritchie, J., Lewis, J., McNaughton Nicholls, C. and Ormston, R. (2013) Qualitative Research Practice: A Guide for Social Science Students and Researchers. SAGE.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2023.
National Category
Pedagogical Work
Research subject
educational leadership
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-216751OAI: oai:DiVA.org:umu-216751DiVA, id: diva2:1812353
Conference
ECER 2023, European Educational Research Association; The Value of Diversity in Education and Educational Research, Glasgow, UK, August 22-25, 2023
Available from: 2023-11-15 Created: 2023-11-15 Last updated: 2024-07-02Bibliographically approved

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Larsson, MagnusRantala, AnnaLeo, UlfAhlström, BjörnPoromaa Isling, Pär

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