Chapter 10. Value creation pedagogy as integration

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Value creation pedagogy can be an important piece of the integration puzzle. Some of the schools we followed in our research are located in socio-economically vulnerable areas. There, we have been able to follow how the approach strengthens integration for many years. I can honestly say that this was an unexpected effect, but on reflection it is not particularly remarkable. After all, integration is about achieving inclusion, the opposite of exclusion. To be involved, to be taken seriously and to experience the warmth of a wider community. All of this is enabled when students get to create value for others.

One headteacher who has seen the positive effects with his own eyes is Johan Karlsson in Sundsvall. He has worked for twenty years at Bredsands School, a school in a vulnerable area. From 2015 onwards, under Johan’s leadership, all staff participated in our research on value creation pedagogy. I met Johan’s staff myself several times and also got to read their reflections. Johan’s conclusion today, six years later, is that value creation pedagogy may be the best approach available for a school with challenges around integration.

The relational power of value creation builds bridges between schools and society at the individual level, between students at school and adults in the community. This enables many students to lift their gaze and break out of exclusion themselves. They build up a network of contacts both inside and outside their own neighbourhoods, they meet new role models and chart completely new paths in life. When students see what is possible for them, far beyond the suburban exclusion, they start asking school staff new questions: now I know, here is something I want in life, I want to become this, how do I do it?

According to Johan, more traditional approaches don’t really work for many young people living in exclusion. Johan’s frustration that not everyone seems to see the importance of allowing students to work in a value-creating way in vulnerable areas is clear:

“It is almost an error of omission not to understand how important and obvious this approach is for schools in deprived areas.”

Reversing the trend through community engagement

Another headteacher of a school in a vulnerable area is Marika Andersson at Lövgärdesskolan in Angered. Marika has become known in the national media as one of few principals who have managed to turn around a school in a deprived area. Under Marika’s leadership, the percentage of students achieving the upper secondary school objectives has increased from 30 to 70 percent.[1] Allowing students to interact with the surrounding community has been one of Marika’s key strategies. I asked her about value creation pedagogy, and here’s what she wrote to me:

“I truly believe that this is an approach that promotes integration. It gives students the opportunity to feel that they are doing something meaningful, that they matter to others. What they do becomes important. We already work like this to some extent in our school. However, I have never thought of it as value creation pedagogy before. When we put a name to what we do, it becomes clearer.”

In other schools in deprived areas, teachers and principals have told us about another somewhat unexpected effect. In deprived areas, the value-creation work of students attracts a whole new level of parent involvement and interest in school. When parents see that the school allows students to take initiative, connect with the surrounding world and work entrepreneurially, they recognise themselves. After all, escaping from a war-torn homeland and making it all the way to Sweden requires a good deal of initiative, networking and creativity. However, upon arrival they often end up in a segregated residential area where it is difficult for both them and their children to find equal pathways into Swedish society. That is where I share Johan’s frustration. It doesn’t feel fair that so many are stuck in exclusion. I think it is therefore important to spread Johan’s fundamentally positive message.

Some (in)justice perspectives on integration

It is difficult to write about social inequalities and integration without slipping into politics. Some believe that in Sweden we have a relatively fair distribution of income, a kind of “fair inequality” where those who make more effort also earn more.[2] According to the think tank Ratio, our compensatory education system has led to a high level of social mobility, which has ensured that almost everyone can succeed.

The young men who burn cars in segregated suburbs probably disagree. Rather, there is a deep anger and frustration at an abusive world that treats them as second-class citizens.[3] Nor can it be said to be fair that every third student in Sweden’s socially deprived areas does not finish primary school with a qualification for secondary school.[4] In many places we now have a “school for all”, except for one third, who are instead labelled as failures by society and denied the opportunity to continue their lives in regular upper secondary school. The situation is due to structural inequalities that have been allowed to grow for decades – the trend since the Second World War of increasingly equal distribution of society’s resources has long since been broken.[5] No wonder some youths burn cars. A kind of ongoing value-destroying learning, based on the lesson that you are worth nothing as a human being.[6]

What we can agree on is that we face major societal challenges. Whether we call segregation a disaster[7] , a ticking bomb[8] or a colossal challenge[9] , it is urgent to find ways to promote integration. But what is it about the value creation pedagogy approach that makes it seem like it could be part of the solution?

A gathering campfire for freezing students

Teachers can use the relational warmth and primal power of value creation to thaw the frozen hearts of segregated students. Students can feel the warmth of community for a moment by experiencing what it feels like to be a valued part of our community. If we give them the tools and the ability to change their environment for the better, they will also become more involved in the democratic development of society. The interpersonal relationships that are then created with the outside world become like glowing logs in a campfire that everyone can gather around and be warmed by. Not just the students, but all those they come into contact with.

Unlike assimilation, integration is a reciprocal process. If integration is to take place, the natives must also be involved and gain new perspectives. In Sweden, many of us need to be awakened from our slumbering filter bubbles and experience the value of other perspectives, knowledge and cultures. This is where students’ initiative and active action can make a big difference.

At Marika Andersson’s school in Angered, students got to exchange letters with a school class in a wealthy area of Jönköping. There was mutual surprise when they realised that in one class there were those living seven people together in a small one-room apartment, while in the other class one student was an only child in a seven-room apartment. This strengthened both writing skills and understanding across class boundaries.

At Johan Karlsson’s school in Bredsand, students were asked to write a book with an author and then present it at Sweden’s biggest book fair in Gothenburg. Johan’s students have also collaborated with a construction company, the municipality of Sundsvall, the regional science centre Technichus and a friend school in Huddinge in various value creation activities. In addition to strengthening their knowledge, the students also gained motivation for school work, resulting in higher achievement among students. More students succeeding in school also strengthens integration, says Johan.

An instrument of power to break out of exclusion

Feelings of powerlessness can be strong for students living in segregation. A term often used in sociology is alienation – a perceived sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness and social isolation.[10] For some students in disadvantaged areas, school may feel both meaningless and unrealistic.[11] Life in the suburbs and their classrooms is isolated from the rest of society and its norms. Moreover, when parents in affluent homes, even in deprived areas, choose to drive their students to schools in other areas every day, school ceases to be a meeting place between different social worlds.

Here, value creation pedagogy can be a possible countermeasure. The methods and tools in this book become, in the hands of segregated students, an instrument of power to break alienation. That knowledge is power is well known. This book makes it clear that knowledge of and the ability to create value for others is a power tool that young people can use to break free from involuntary isolation. When they take their rightful place in society by helping others through value creation pedagogy, we are thus getting a modern version of what Paulo Freire (1970) called the pedagogy of the oppressed.

However, getting students to successfully break away usually requires more extensive projects. Value creation within the classroom or within school can be engaging and beneficial to school work, but does not break an exclusion. Students need to be able to build relationships and create value for beneficiaries outside the deprived area in which they themselves live and work. Teachers in deprived areas therefore need to be a little braver than other teachers if they are to succeed in helping their students to experience that warming sense of involvement with the world outside where they live. If value creation pedagogy is to become a way of strengthening inclusion, there needs to be more cross-disciplinary projects over longer periods of time.

An integration bridge between school and work

The workplace can be the strongest integration tool we have in society. Professor Jonas Olofsson has written about how practical vocational training can counter both alienation and powerlessness among young people.[12] However, according to Olofsson, it is not enough to give them hard-cut routine tasks without context, personal development or fair remuneration. Vocational training needs to be characterised by participation, empowerment and fair conditions. As Juul has pointed out (see Chapter 1), students need to be seen as full citizens if the bridge to integration is to work. Industrialist Carl Bennet says:[13]

“For me, it goes without saying that an apprentice who does a job should be paid […] It’s time to see young people’s will and skills as a resource […] It’s very important to get a salary, it gives the job status. It’s important that employers invest in young people, it sends a message to those in charge.”

I myself have experienced with my five senses the integrative power of workplace value creation. As an entrepreneur, I was able to put both newly arrived and disabled people into productive work. Over time, we became good friends, even close friends. We went on holidays and spent time together with our respective families outside work. Mutual respect flowed from the fact that we were all contributing to a common greater purpose. Drawing on our different strengths and skills, together we created value for our clients. In the process, I learned about the tastiest food and drink in the Balkans, about a certain dictator’s best sides, about different aids for the visually impaired, and about what life as an immigrant or disabled person can be like. By sitting on their sofas and seeing life through their eyes for a while, I myself became the subject of a powerful form of integration. Together, we all grew as human beings.

Let students take action from the heart in new ways

Workplaces can also be segregating. What is the integration effect when low-paid jobs are staffed by immigrants and disabled people? Perhaps not non-existent, but at least limited. Every time I take a taxi in my work, I think about how in Sweden we carelessly leave routine value creation to the so-called precariat – individuals forced to accept precarious employment conditions in a gig economy where three of the four corners of the diamond model in Chapter 6 are missing. The everyday life of the precariat is not characterised by empowerment, creativity or personal development. Therefore, I think it is important that value creation pedagogy as integration does not only consist of value creation for others, but also includes the other three corners of the diamond model.

Students in vulnerable situations need to be taught at an early age how to take action from the heart about issues they are passionate about, how to help others in new ways and how to accumulate whole-body learning along the way. Of course, schools cannot take unlimited responsibility for everything and everyone, as often needs to be pointed out. But teaching students how to create new kinds of value for others around something they feel strongly about is certainly a pressing task for schools. Otherwise we risk ending up with Marxism’s dystopian image of an immigrant underclass being heavily exploited by the country’s capitalists. No wonder then that cars keep burning.

In 2016, Sweden’s former Education Minister Gustav Fridolin advocated that schools in deprived areas should employ people with a special task of building bridges between school and working life.[14] I think it’s a good idea, even though there is already a professional role in Sweden that has this mission. More and more school principals have started to appoint school-worklife developers who act as a “spider in the web” when it comes to various value-creating partnerships between schools and the surrounding community. Precisely because through value creation pedagogy we can build so much better bridges than the traditional apprenticeship.

But the best bridge-builders are probably the students themselves. Let them do a lot of the community outreach themselves, they are capable of it. Especially if they are supported by their teachers and others in their work. Let students take on the role of teacher, guidance counsellor, restaurant owner, care worker, journalist, architect or cleaner as a natural part of their core curriculum.

An alternative to the gangster lifestyle

What is the meaning of life? Throughout this book I have tried to give a picture of the ultrasocial human who sees community, social interaction and co-creation with and for others as important sources of meaning and joy in life. But what happens when young people are denied a place at society’s warming campfires? What fills the void in the lives of the one third who were not allowed to participate, who were assessed by their teachers at school as unfit? Just because they couldn’t do the maths or had difficulty learning the language of their new home country.[15] Unfortunately, the answer is probably that crime often takes the place in young people’s hearts that society has failed to fill with democratic and humanist ideals. At least among boys. And then it can take horrible forms. There is much in what Hjalmar Söderberg (1905) wrote in his novel about the lonely and isolated priest-killer Dr. Glas:

“One wants to be loved, or else admired, or else feared, or else detested and despised. You want to instill some kind of feeling in people. The soul shudders at the emptiness and wants contact at any price.”

Hand on heart dear readers. If you yourself were unaccounted for, lonely, loved by no one, despised by many (racist people) and seemingly without a future. And if at the same time you had a few good friends down in the square who occasionally asked you to help them move some small package here and there. Would you yourself have been able to resist the temptation to take a seat by the warm campfire of the gangsters? Here, schools can use value creation pedagogy as an alternative campfire, while inviting the community outside the suburbs to join them for a moment of fellowship.

Fire air instead of luxury car

Commercial ideals probably also play an important role here. Olofsson (2018, s. 32) writes about how many young people’s “horizons of action and vision are limited to commercially created images of success and meaning in life instead of a social community based on empowerment and responsibility for working and living conditions”. Olofsson’s quote puts an image in my head of a successful gangster with glittering gold jewellery and a expensive watch, sitting in his brand new black Mercedes with hip-hop on full blast. How will schools ever be able to provide an alternative vision of life for young men in vulnerable areas?

I think it’s possible. Creating value for others can be a drug stronger than the drugs that are peddled in the marketplace. Or, in the words of Machiavelli, a weapon bolder than a Kalashnikov. An alternative lifestyle that doesn’t consist of gang wars, fast cash, luxury cars and vicious life-and-death fraternisation. We have seen many times in our research how young people build a strong identity around seeing themselves as a person who loves to create value for others around issues they are passionate about. And it is the almost magical motivational substance of value creation, the fire-breath of learning oxygen, that does it. The strong feedback and deep affirmation from exciting people (socialising oxygen), the inherent joy and meaningfulness of collective creation (handiness oxygen) and, not least, the feeling of doing something urgent and completely new with others that would not otherwise have happened (creativity oxygen) are all highly addictive. There are certainly side-effects, such as lack of time and the risk of fatigue syndrome with prolonged use. But rarely is anyone drawn into crime or gets shot.


[1] See interview with Marika Andersson in Göteborgs-Posten (Petterson 2020).

[2] See Ratio (2020).

[3] See Kamali (2006, s. 93).

[4] See The Global Village Foundation (2019).

[5] See Olofsson (2018).

[6] See Wingborg and Svensson (2019, s. 31).

[7] See Wingborg (2019).

[8] See Lindquist (2020).

[9] See Olofsson (2018).

[10] Seaman (1959).

[11] See Hugo (2012).

[12] See Olofsson (2018).

[13] See interview in SVT, https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/halland/industrimannen-som-vill-andra-larlingssystemet and on the website https://gymnasielarling.se/for-foretag/arbetsgivare/carl-bennet/

[14] See Green Party (u.å.).

[15] See Wingborg and Svensson (2019, s. 23).

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