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How can the attainment of knowledge goals be improved for pupils in need of extra support ?

The person who can answer the question in the heading is obviously in a favourable position. The attainment of knowledge is by many considered the key object of schooling at the same time as there are many pupils who do not reach standards. Administrators and school staff try hard to raise the knowledge levels of pupils. Obviously the demand for solutions to this problem is huge. But what can we learn from research? Is it the placement of pupils in need of extra support in mainstream classrooms that is the solution to the problem. Or new ways of teaching? Or something else?

To improve the attainment of knowledge goals

My colleague Johan Malmqvist and I were hired for an assignment by the Swedish National Agency of Education. Our task was to bring together research and proven experience with relevance for the question in the heading of this blog. Preferably we were to collect Swedish and other Nordic research. However, Swedish and Nordic educational researchers have to a rather small degree been occupied with efficiency research. We did not find any proven experience in the Swedish context either, given the definition provided by the Swedish National Agency. I.e. in order to qualify as proven experience, the experience has to be shared, documented and proven to be functional. In order words, it comes close to what we expect from research and consequently we did not find what qualifies as proven experience given this definition.

On the other hand we found a large amount of international research, mainly from USA, where systematic attempts have been made in order to investigate what educational measures that can raise goal attainments for pupils in need of extra support (or ”pupils with disabilities” as the group often is refered to in the USA). Several studies have used quasi-experimental designs where a method/work approach is tried out in one or several classrooms and compared to a control condition. The trying out of the new method/work approach is usually referred to as an intervention.

The evaluation of the interventions consists of comparing the learning outcome of the pupils in the intervention group(s) with those in the control group(s). Since there are very many studies of the effect of different methods/work approaches, for example ”cooperative learning” and ”direct teaching”, on knowledge attainment, meta-analyses are available. A meta-analysis is a combined analysis of several studies which yields an effect size, i.e. a measure of how effective a particular intervention seems to be. Our compilation of research to a large degree took its point of departure in such meta-analyses.

 

 

 

Conclusions

What conclusions could be drawn from this endeavor? Quite a few, and here are the most important ones:

  • It is striking that many different types of interventions raises goal attainment in these studies. It is not very interesting to note that a specific intervention has a significant effect when (an) intervention group(s) is/are compared to (a) control group(s) but it is the size of the effect that is of interest.

  • The interventions made by the researchers are very well structured and most often concerns basic skills, i.e. how to decode written words, how to read a text or how to compute/understand fairly simple math problems.

  • Some of the interventions, e.g. those involving text-understanding, word problems in math or the practice of meta-cognitive abilities yield large effect sizes.

  • Interventions where pupils learn from each other seems effective

  • It is what is done rather than where it is done that has the largest impact on knowledge attainment. However, the research indicates that one-to-one teaching is effective for pupils with encompassing difficulties in learning to read and write compared to when similar methods is used in the classroom or in a smaller group

  • ”Reading recovery”, developed in New Zeeland, does not generate especially pronounced effects in comparison to other ways to improve reading for pupils lagging behind in reading.

  • There is a lack of research about long-term effects (it seems that a lot of this research has a ”grab and publish” character).

  • There is still research lacking concerning what happens when teachers decide to use methods that have yielded sizeable effects in controlled studies in their own classroom.

  • More research is needed about the effects of supervision and co-teaching.

  • A general rule of thumb seems to be that what works for pupils in need of special support also works for pupils in general (and vice versa).

     

    Evidence is lacking how to reach all the goals of schooling

    It should of course be pointed out that schools have many other goals than the knowledge goals. The effectiveness of the methods/work approaches as concerns these other goals has not that often been a focus of attention in these intervention studies. Thus the studies do not yield direct evidence concerning how schools can reach this broader goal. And there is a a far way to travel from interventions where researchers with the help of often large resources and thorough planning achieve effects to using these methods/work approaches in the everyday realities of schools.

    It should also be pointed out that we synthesized a large amount of research in a limited time frame (about one working month each) which is why we are quite humble when stating these conclusions. It is possible that a more thorough analysis could alter the picture a little bit.

    Finally, we want to underscore the need to be critical to the knowledge concept used in several of these interventions. The operationalisation of achievement (usually measured by tests) implies that the full complexity of knowledge acquisition is not taken into account.

    Unfortunately, our report is only available in Swedish:

     

    Skolverket, 2014: Fristående skolor för elever i behov av särskilt stöd – en kartläggning. (bilaga 4)

     

    http://www.skolverket.se/om-skolverket/publikationer/visa-enskild-publikation?_xurl_=http%3A%2F%2Fwww5.skolverket.se%2Fwtpub%2Fws%2Fskolbok%2Fwpubext%2Ftrycksak%2FRecord%3Fk%3D3323

     

A dilemma-perspective in special needs/inclusive education

A few years back I wrote a book about perspectives on special needs education. Almost everyone would probably agree that special needs concerns school related problems or problems reltated to learning in a wider sense. There are however different perspectives regarding why such problems occur and how they should be handled. In my book, I discern three different perspectives that differ on where the problem is located.

 

The deficit perspective and the critical perspective

One the one hand, we have a deficit perspective where the cause of educational problems is found within the individual. This is where school traditionally has located educational problems. If pupils encounter problems in schools something is wrong with the pupil according to this perspective.

This deficit perspective has been challenged in recent year by a critical perspective. Within this second perspective, there is a critique implying that special education individualizes educational problems. Instead, educational problems emerge because schools cannot handle pupil diversity. Thus, the problem is re-localized from the individual to the context.

Scholars that have strived to categorize different perspectives in this area usually discern these two perspectives even if different labels are used. It should also be pointed out there are different versions of the critical perspective. Their common denominator is the critique of traditional special needs education which is considered deficient.

There are further viewpoints that can be characterized as compromises between traditional and critical perspectives, e.g a system perspective. According to this perspective, the problem can be localized at different levels, often one speaks of the individual-, the classroom- and the organizational level. This is, according to my view, a rather useful perspective even if it has been hard to anchor it in educational realities where problems routinely are ascribed to individuals.

Common to the deficit., the critical and the system- perspectives is that they provide solutions to educational problems.

 

 

A dilemma-perspective

In my book I am arguing in favor of a third perspective, a so called “dilemma-perspective” which is not, as a system perspective, a compromise between a deficit and a critical perspective but something qualitatively different. Above all, I was inspired by the English researcher Alan Dyson and his collaborators. Dilemmas are, in contrast to problems, a sort of fundamental oppositions that cannot be resolved in a completely satisfactory way.

One such opposition has been formulated by the distinguished Swedish researcher Mårten Söder with the help of a metaphor. To engage in special needs is to travel on a road with one ditch on each side. You have to avoid the risk of ending up in one of the ditches. One of the ditches symbolizes the risk of making children with disabilities/in need of extra support into another species, what the sociologists call “othering”. The other ditch symbolizes the risk of not acknowledging that some pupils experiences difficulties.

Other dilemmas concern how the right to be present in the classroom should be balanced against the need of some pupils, in e.g. learning to read and write, to receive support in a smaller group.  There is a lot of research supporting the view that it is beneficial for some pupils who have such basic reading and writing difficulties to receive support in smaller groups and even more so in one-to-one teaching. It is possible to discern several such dilemmas on which an educational system has to find a balance between conflicting goals.

There are two things that come to the fore when adopting a dilemma-perspective. Firstly, there is a strong ethical dimension in the perspective. Certain pupils need extra support but what right do we have to ascribe pupils identities that are in the final end founded a distinction between normality and deviance? I am myself becoming a bit worried here when early identification of deviance is increasingly asked for. It is of course a good thing if a child who experiences problems in a certain area receives the right guidance and support. But there is the concomitant risk that we early on in life inscribe their identities that ultimately builds upon what they cannot do. Here we find an example of what from a dilemma-perspective is an ethical dimension.

The second thing concerns the issue of power. The idea that we have to find a balance between different dilemmas leads to a certain humbleness with regard to the fact that we understand issues from different perspectives. A more important question than the one about which perspective that is correct then becomes the question about who should decide which perspective that should be used in particular situations. Ethical issues and questions about power is too seldom discussed within the special needs area.

 

In three weeks, on Januari the 29th, I will publish a second blog about the dilemma-perspective, where some concrete examples of how similar situations can be interpreted from different perspectives (deficit, critical, dilemma) are presented.

INCLUSION AT THE SYSTEM LEVEL - A CHALLENGE

A common theme in this blog has been inclusion in schools and classrooms. It is also important to discuss inclusion at the level of the school system. I will firstly discuss some general issues in relation to inclusion at the system level before turning to the Swedish school system as an example. Sweden has been known for its inclusive policies and its inclusive school system but is that a correct image of the Swedish system? I will argue that the time is ripe to question this picture.

 

What characterizes an inclusive school system?

There are of course different ways to interpret what the characteristics of an inclusive school system are. One way to conceive of inclusion is that is concerns the creation of rewarding encounters between pupils with different backgrounds and abilities. Instead of sorting pupils into different groups that receive their education in separate environments, schools and classroom should according to this view mirror the diversity that is to be found in society. It should be pointed out that schools have to make such encounters a fruitful experience if we are to talk about inclusion.

Pupils with different background are thus supposed to learn from each other which would prepare them for collaboration in society. To put it differently, to sort pupils according to their socio-economical background, gender, religious background or functionality means that the prerequisite for creating an inclusive school disappears.

In an inclusive school system, e.g., newly arrived children with limited experience of schooling would subsequently be part of classes with other pupils whose parents are well-off economically and who are well-educated. When schooling is not inclusive at the system level pupils who are alike each other tend to end up in the same classrooms.

There are people who suggest that inclusion is about providing all pupils equal opportunities to succeed in the school. When a system yields differences in performance/grades between pupils due to their different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity, gender or functionality it is suggested that schooling is not inclusive.  These discussions are often discussed under the banner of social justice. I would suggest that both these aspects, diversity in schools and classrooms, on the one hand, and everyone´s possibility to succeed, on the other hand, are important to take into consideration when judging how specific a particular school system is.

According to this line of thought an inclusive school system provides possibilities for pupils to meet other pupils with different experiences and backgrounds and schools try to make all pupils succeed according to their abilities. However, I think it is overly optimistic to believe that we ever will see a school system where the resources of parents and the functionality of pupils will not affect the outcome of education to a relatively significant degree.

On the other hand, school systems can to varying degrees compensate for differences with regard to pupils social background and abilities. In fact, until a couple of years ago the Swedish school system was comparatively good at this. However, in recent years Sweden has fallen back in rankings at the international level on several indexes that measure the degree of equal opportunities, or for that matter, social decency.

 

Segregation at the system level in the Swedish school system

In Sweden today it seems to be generally accepted that pupils with intellectual disabilities enter a special educational program. Children who have been diagnosed  with intellectual disabilities and that are not expected to reach the goals of the comprehensive school are thus placed within this program if their parents do not object. Most often pupils entering the special program for pupils with intellectual disabilities receive their education in segregated classrooms that are physically located within ordinary schools.

 Moreover, sometimes specific groups are created within comprehensive schools for children with e.g. neuropsychiatric disorders and/or for pupils that are considered hard to educate within the mainstream classroom but that do not have a medical diagnosis. There are also some signs that special classrooms for pupils with language difficulties will become more important.

It is further obvious in Sweden today that people with high salaries and university degrees tend to gather in the same residential areas while people with less economical resources and/or who are sick/unemployed also end up in the same housing areas. This means that pupils to a higher degree than before will meet other pupils with similar backgrounds in the school environment.

The differences between schools have also increased. We could imagine an educational system where a massive effort is made in order to increase the educational outcomes in marginalized areas. Then the educational system would be more inclusive in terms of educational outcomes. However, this has not been the case in Sweden where differences in educational outcomes between schools have increased. In certain schools a very large portion of the pupils are according to the Swedish school law qualified for special educational support. Such a categorization in terms of special needs categories is often a way to individualize what is a genuine social problem.

Thus, regarding both the aspects that I defined as constituting an inclusive school system, i.e. that pupils from different backgrounds and with different abilities meet in schools and classrooms and that they get the best possible opportunities to learn, we can conclude that the Swedish school system has become less inclusive.

The municipality where I myself went to school during 12 years, Lidingö, situated just outside of Stockholm, may serve as an illustrative example of the development described above. In those days, the 1960- and 1970ies, there were factories and workers in Lidingö whose children went to the same schools as children with well-educated and economically well off parents. I went to a school named Skärsätra. Several of the parents of my classmates worked at the big Swedish company AGA and many of them lived in an area called Bergsätra. Today a five-room apartment in this area costs about 700.000 US dollars and the single houses where some of these working class children grew up cost about 1,2 million US dollars. This illuminates the fact that the prices of housing leads to segregation in housing which has the consequence that children from homes with similar socioeconomic backgrounds tend to end up in the same schools. The Swedish system with school vouchers seems to increase this tendency of increased segregation.

 

A diversity index

In social science research the notion of intersectionality has received increased prominence. It means, somewhat simplified, that different identities such as gender, social class, ethnicity and functionality interacts in relation to one’s position and possibilities in society. Today the differences between boys and girls are often discussed. From an intersectional perspective such a discussion has clear limitations. This is also applicable to my prior discussion about parents with good socioeconomic resources which has to be related to how such resources e.g. interact with ethnical background.

Anyway, I believe that it is theoretically possible to define some kind of diversity index. If we divide the population of pupils into different categories, which ones could be further discussed, we could estimate how many that would be placed in each intersectional category. We can then compare actual classrooms with this theoretically derived estimate and for each school and classroom calculate a diversity index. I think the outcome of such an analysis would be very unsatisfying for adherent of inclusive education.

 

Is there still a unit school in Sweden?

It is important to call things by the right name. I do believe that we should consider to talk about the Swedish school system as a segregated school system with different educational trajectories, starting from preschool, depending to a large extent on the fincancial and educational resources of  parents. It is very upsetting that some children in this way do not get a fair chance to realize their potentials.

The Swedish school system was once admired in large parts of the world. This is not the case now and the time is ripe to ask whether it still should be called a unit school.

 

Is it possible to create an inclusive language?

Recently we analyzed the 30  articles with the highest impact in North America and Europe respectively, i.e. altogether 60 articles. It was only in one of these that the language of special needs was reflected upon and critized. It was Len Barton who in an article suggested that an inclusive school needs a new language. The special educational language is according to Barton impregnated with meanings that are not really compatible with the idea of inclusive education. This is not a new idea which made it even more surprising to find out that so many influential papers were silent on this issue.

 

The language of special needs

The whole concept of special needs is built upon the distinction between an education for children with special needs, i.e. special education, and an education for other pupils. I would like to suggest that the whole language of special needs rests on similar distinctions.

Educator goes through special educational training in order to teach the special children and, at least in Sweden, a special agency cater for these pupil´s special needs. In schooling the distinction manifests itself in two partly parallel systems, on for “normal” children and one for children with special needs.  These systems are underpinned by partly different languages.

Children with special needs have to be identified from the viewpoint of the type and degree of their problems. In the special needs system we meet linguistic labels denoting different kinds of differences/disabilities such as learning disabilities, neuropsychiatric disorders, Aspergers syndrome, high-functioning autism, dyslexia, reading- and writing disabilities, behavioral problems and so on. The labels are dependent on the professions that have the power to interpret and define the behaviors.

Sociologists today speak of the “medicalization” of difference which implies that the medical profession has gained increased influence in the definition of behaviors. Emergent labels such as language disorder can probably partly be traced to the increased influence from speech therapists. Exactly what language that dominates special needs education varies with time and place, but it is always a language that rests firmly on the distinction between the normal and the deviant. To put it shortly, there is a special educational language which in some ways can be viewed as a discourse, i.e. a specific way to think and talk about differences.

During the years I have been amazed by how several of my colleagues in Sweden argue for a more inclusive educational system without reflecting over the special educational language. Thus we will get a more inclusive schools system, the argument goes, by e.g. educating more special educators, give more courses in special needs and write more educational plans for children in need of extra support. I agree with Barton that this kind of language might instead reproduce the dual systems. Thus, a new language is needed in order to make schools and classrooms more inclusive.

It should of course be pointed out that inclusion is not about language only but also, and above all, about accessability and educational approaches. However, language plays an important part in how we view the world and a language that rests on such a fundamental distinction as normality/deviance tends to exaggerate and down-value difference.

 

Inclusion as a utopian idea

Peder Haug is according to me a researcher that has expressed some of the most interesting thoughts about what inclusive education amounts to. In a book from 1998 he spells out how he believes an inclusive environment should be structured in order to prepare the pupils to be part of the societal community:

Social training and the development of community is emphasized…  . Differences between children are accepted. These differences are a part of the daily experiences in the school and they should be handled by individually adapted teaching for all children in the same school and the same classroom. Within this frame the children shall receive the teaching that take them as far as possible. This shall be done without making pupils stigmatized or excluded. In this way all appear principally as of equal worth in school, and the school has equal worth to all pupils. This upheaves the difference between special education and education and in this way the difference between pedagogics and special pedagogics is no longer of relevance. (p 24) (my translation)

What is expressed here i what could almost be labelled as a utopian condition. Such utopias are common in religious and political contexts and appears every now and then in research. The problem with utopias is to make the way towards the utopian condition concrete and realizable. Sometimes the utopia can legitimate actions that have negative consequences. When it comes to inclusion, given the meaning Haug has attached to the word, research provides too few answers about how to get there.

I have in other publications questioned this type of utopian thinking more generally but will in this context turn to the language issue. Unfortunately Haug does not approach the problem pertaining to how communication and language should be enacted in an inclusive environment. The point I wish to make can be illustrated by Haugs own formulation in the quotation above “education that take them as far as possible.” This is clearly an evaluative utterance which expresses that it is good to learn as much as possible. Our language, and not least the language of schooling, is crowded with this type of evaluative utterances:

 

“It is good that You make an effort”

“She has strength in math”

“You made a fantastic presentation”

“His language develops slowly”

 

When analyzing developmental talks and education plans it is clear that there is a, more or less explicit, message about what characterizes the ideal pupils in school. Ideals are part of all social contexts and language carries these typ of evaluations of humans and their actions. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu purportedly in some context said that we should not deny that we as humans behave in ways that may seem questionable but if we are clear about what we do and how we do it we have a possibility to change.

We could thus not expect that we can create an inclusive language that totally upheaves evaluations of individals and their acts but if we reflect upon our language usage we can become more inclusive in our use of words.

 

Dont let the perfect be the enemy of the good

The insight that we cannot create an inclusive language, in the sense that everyone will be evaluated as of equal worth, should not refrain us from the discussion about how we should talk about pupils and their difficulties. This is a classical dilemma. One the one hand, pupils who face difficulties in schools have to be identified, labelled and described in some way. On the other hand, everyone should be treated in similar way and no one should be deprecated.

The famous Swedish disability researcher Mårten Söder is said to have described this dilemma as if one is driving a car on a road and having to avoid two ditches. One has to avoid to make pupils in difficulties into something completely different, what sociologists refer to as “othering”. One also has to avoid that we do not notice these difficulties at all. Thus, we have to find a language which helps us to avoid both these ditches.

The answer to the question in the heading will thus be: “No, but we can create a more or a less including language.” I do think that one partly has succeeded in e.g. the Swedish legislation    which to a large extent is built around the concept of “pupil in need of special support” and whose need of support is defined in relation to what pupils are expected to learn rather than in relation to some kind of normal distribution.

In the reality of Swedish schools, on the other hand, other languages are intruding. The reason for this might be good and the special educational language building on the distinction between normality and deviance is effective in signaling the need for help. In a situation where professionals and/or parents see that pupils in different kind of difficulties don’t receive the support they need it is easy to understand that one reaches for strong words such as e g  “disturbance”  and “disorder”.

A challenge to schools, according to my opinions, is to provide pupils with the support they need without using stigmatizing language.

 

Barton, L. (1997). Inclusive education: romantic, subversive or realistic? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1, 231–242.

Haug, Peter. (1998) Pedagogiskt dilemma: Specialundervisningen. Stockholm: Skolverket. /Pedagogical dilemma: Special education/

How is "inclusion" affecting the other pupils?

What happens to the other pupils when pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support are ”included” in their classroom? Will the presence of for example pupils with EBD (Emotional Behavioral Disorder) or severe disabilities lower the educational achievement of the other pupils?

People who are following this blog or have read what I have written about inclusion in other contexts understand that I use the word “inclusion” above in a way that I usually do not recommend, i.e. I do not believe that we should use the word inclusion to denote only where pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support receive their education. If these pupils are placed in a regular classrooms and have a beneficial situation there, then we can speak of inclusion.

The question in the heading above will thus from my perspective more appropriately be formulated as follows: How are other pupil´s situation affected when pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support are placed in their classrooms?

This question is the focus of attention for a recent systematic review, more precisely a meta-analysis by Szumski and collaborators (2017). Even though the researchers from my perspective contribute to the erosion of the inclusion concept by equating it with the placement of pupils, they still pose some interesting and important questions. They argue that it is important to be aware of the rights of the other pupils and suggest that “inclusion” (understood as placement) will be harder to defend if it leads to decreased educational achievement among “ordinary” pupils.

I will firstly provide a short presentation of their main findings. I will conclude by contextualizing their approach in broader discussion about inclusive education.

Small but positive effects are reported

Altogether 47 studies are analyzed, that taken together encompasses almost 5 million pupils. The researchers detect a very weak, but positive association between the presence of pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support in the classroom and the educational achievement among the other pupils.

It should however be pointed out that this research is mined with methodological difficulties. 

Somewhat surprisingly no substantial differences are found when the effects are analyzed with regard to the following four moderators:

  • Country of study
  • Type of study  (intervention or natural data)
  • Professions responsible
  • Level of the educational system

Regarding the effects of the placement of pupils with severe difficulties or EBD on the achievements of the other pupils, the following conclusion is made:

In conclusion, our meta-analysis shows that on average the presence of learners with EBD and severe SEN in a classroom does not negatively influence the achievement of their peers without SEN. Still, neither does it influence their achievement positively…. (p 49)

Partly in contrast to previous research Szumski et al suggest that the educational achievements of the “ordinary” pupils is not lowered when pupils with severe difficulties or with EBD are placed in the classroom. It should be noted that effects on other variables than educational achievement such as e.g. classroom climate, are not investigated in the meta-analysis.

Before proceeding to take a view at the study from a broader perspective it should again be pointed out that the methodological problems in this area are challenging. It should be noted that information about exactly how the in this context so important effect size was calculated is not provided in the article.

A diluted inclusion concept

As I mentioned earlier the study in my opinion contributes to the watering down of the inclusion concept. When the concept was launched in the 1980ies it was partly as an answer to the dilution of its forerunners mainstreaming and integration. These latter concepts were increasingly used to denote the place of education but nothing about the qualitative characteristics of the education. More precisely the larger question about how “ordinary” education should be reformed in order to adapt to the differences between pupils was left out of the discussion.

Szumski et al are very well aware that there are different ways to interpret the inclusion concept which is evident from the introductory section of their paper. Yet in their empirical work de use the placement definition of inclusion. They even reduce the analysis of effects of “inclusion” to educational achievement. In this way a rather traditional view of special needs is combined with an belief which is strong in neoliberal views of education, i.e. that schools should be evaluated solely by educational achievement.

We thus come a long way away from an inclusion concept that also stresses the importance to learn from difference, the right of every pupil to feel safe and socially included and that underscores the importance of preparing pupils to participate in a democratic society. It is revealing that the concern is not with the “ordinary” pupils opinions but only with how the placement affect their educational achievement.

It should also be pointed out that the concept of rights that is used by Szumski et al is very dissimilar to the one proposed by the Norwegian Peder Haug in a Nordic context. Haug suggests that the right to participation is fundamental. From his perspective, it is not an empirical issue whether pupils with disabilities/in need of extra support should be allowed to attend ”ordinary” classrooms but a practical issue concerning how educational environments best can be arranged in order to include all pupils in the fullest sense of the word.

 

Szumski, G., Smogorzewska, J. & Karwowski, M. (2017) Academic achievement of students without special educational needs in inclusive classrooms: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 21, 33-54.

 

Inclusion as the creation of communities

Several adherents of inclusive education suggest that inclusive education means that communities are created in schools and classrooms. This is a very interesting thought which seems somewhat distanced from how school is talked about today where the individual pupil seems to be the unit of analysis. It is the pupil that receives grades and who is evaluated in different ways. Schooling is often described as an individual project where the aim is to get as good grades as possible.

The focus on the individual differentiates school from a lot of other social activities, as form example business and team sports or singing in a choir for that matter, where the joint effort is decisive. Even though individuals emerge as important in these contexts, the activities demand, in order to function smoothly, that everyone contributes. Is it possible then, or even advisable, to create communities in schools and classrooms? Before approaching that question, I will say a few words about how differences, rather than similarity, between pupils are focused today. 

 

Diversity

The importance of difference is repeatedly pointed out. The concept “intersectionality” elucidates that people are different with regard to fundamental identity-categories such as sex, class, ethnicity and functionality. Our position with regard to these categories is decisive for our life chances/possibilities, even if one cannot reduce complexity of human beings to these type of categorizations alone.

Several scholars suggest that there are different power structures associated with these categorizations where one identity is seen as hierarchically related to another such as man/woman, able-bodied/disabled and so on. The patterns of course become more complex when categories are combined.

Identity-politics which has quite a long history by now strive to illuminate how groups become marginalized in society and to change the situation for the group and thereby also for individuals within the group. In this way, similarity within the group in the form of a shared interest to change the situation is created.

Within the special needs area the identity ”disabled” has been the predominant focus, even though the terminology tends to change. Different expressions such as “children with special needs”, “children in need of extra support” and/or “children with disabilities” are used. The concept “inclusion” has helped to illuminate how children with disabilities have been marginalized in schools. There has been some success for the critique of marginalization, it is i.e. much harder today than before to explain educational difficulties as caused på pupils´ deficits and it is less accepted to exclude groups of pupils from mainstream schools and classrooms.

It is of course important to point out that there might be other pupils that are harder to include in the classroom than pupils in need of extra support and/or with disabilities. For example pupils that are very competitive with regard to grades and/or social status and/or pupils that demean other pupils.

 

The importance of similarity

It is obvious that it is important to attend to difference as defined in the prior section. In the movement towards inclusive education it is often underscored that difference is something that enriches the environment. But even in such formulations it is difference that is focused. Without questioning the importance of attending to difference, I would like to highlight the importance to also attend to similarities in education. Several proponents of inclusive education points to the importance of creating communities in schools and classrooms and communities involve identification with others.

But is it possible to create communities if we attend to difference all the time? One trustworthy way to create community is from similarities in interests. I argued above that an identity categorization can create a common ground for a community that intends to improve the situation of the group.

But we can, on the other hand, be very different as regards the intersectional categorizations described above but still find a joint commitment from the point of view of a common interest, e.g. bird-watching, history, sports, yes the list is without an end. A big challenge to schools is that it is built on subjects and not interests, which means that many teachers face a huge challenge regarding how the subject can be interesting and engaging to the pupils. The teacher who succeeds in making his/her subject(s) interesting will be in a better position to create communities in the classroom.   

The identification with the school class can also be a foundation of community. In a study of an inclusive classroom (see earlier blog) it was obvious that there was a strong identification with the class among the pupils. The pupils wrote regularly in so called reflection books and some pupils wrote what can be labeled as celebrations of the class as in the following example:

 

Some in the other classes say that we only play and have fun

and that is almost true

but what they don´t now is that that is the way we learn things

If we have played something fun or been on an excursion

we write about it afterwards and if You haven´t done anything amusing

 then You have nothing to write about and no fantasy

 

In the classroom studied the pupils also worked a lot in groups which they appreciated. The teacher further led discussions involving all the pupils in the classroom where the pupils´ involvement in the discussions was encouraged. At the same time it almost seemed to be a mantra in the classroom that it was an asset that pupils were different from one another. We can thus see that the identification with the class and the use of cooperative work forms was combined with a respect towards differences in what seemed to be a community.

 

Hindrances to the construction of communities

In returning to the question asked in the heading one can conclude that it seems possible to create communities. At the same time there are several tendencies that work against a focus on community in present day schooling, not least in the Swedish context. Society is becoming more individualized, what the Swedish researcher Tomas Englund has described as a change from seeing schooling as something that is a public good to viewing it as a private good, i.e. as an individual right for pupils and parents.

There are thus few formulations in the steering documents for the Swedish school system that stipulates that communities should be created in classrooms and schools. Developmental plans are about pupils and to a lesser extent about school classes and schools. As regards the special needs area, the phenomenon that is described by sociologists as “the medicalization of difference” probably contributes to an increased attention to the individual level.

In addition one cannot take for granted that everyone wants that schools should provide community. Several influential persons argue that grading and competition are important components in schooling. An additional aspect concerns that fact that proponents of inclusive education has not as yet convincingly shown how principals and teachers shall work in order to create communities.

 

The importance of finding a balance

In all educational systems, or rather in all social contexts, there has to be a balance between the group, subgroups and the individual. I personally believe that there is a lack of such a balance in the Swedish school system where the notion of community has come to play a minor role. There is of course always a risk that a too strong focus on the groups tend to downplay individual rights. What is needed in education is a balance between these two poles. Not least important is the need to gain more knowledge regarding how strong communities can be built around common interests and identifications where difference is respected and seen as an asset. 

Is there any point in training working memory for pupils with ADHD and dyslexia?

It is quite common to search the reason for children´s school difficulties in the way they process information. Not least shortcomings in the so called working memory have been identified as possible causes of difficulties.

Working memory is involved in the processing of information and has a limited capacity both concerning how much information that can be processed and for how long it can be processed. A distinction is made within working memory research between the processing of visual and auditory information, respectively.

Several researchers believe that pupils with diagnoses such as ADHD and dyslexia have problems with their working memory and that the training of working memory would benefit their school achievement.

Training programs

Computer programs for the training of working memory are available. One example of a working memory exercise is to practice how many numbers in a sequence that can be recalled. The difficulty of the task increase as the pupils become more skillful. The more numbers recalled, the better working memory capacity.

Some early studies indicated that working memory training seemed to show great promise as a method for children with different types of disabilities. It is easy to imagine the enormous possibilities that opens up. By training one important cognitive process the pupils´ achievements can increase in a range of areas. Similar to when ones computer gets extra memory capacity, everything runs more smoothly and efficient.

But what view does research today portray of the possibility to increase achievement by working memory training?

 

 

Effects of working memory training                

Unfortunately there seems to be very limited support that working memory training will have positive effects on school achievemt regardless of what group we talk about.  In four recent systematic reviews that all concern effects of working memory training (see references at the end of the blog) it is concluded that working memory training can increase achievement in similar tasks as the ones that are practiced but that the training does not transfer to other types of tasks as e.g. school tasks.

Differently put, the conclusion is that the participants in the training programs become better in what they are practicing. It can be added that in the systematic review performed by Rapport et al,  the conclusion drawn is that no cognitive training at all has positive effects for children with ADHD.

Methodological issues

One problem that emerges when one wants to investigate the effects of a training program concerns to what group the achievement of the group receiving training should be compared. In several studies what is termed a “passive” control-group has been used, i.e. the group receiving training is compared to pupils that are not involved in any activity at all. In an “active” control group, on the other hand,  pupils are performing similar activities to the pupils in the control group, however without participating in working memory training per se.

It is of course more scientifically valid to use an “active” control group since effects having to do with expectations and motivation are controlled for, at least partly. When a training group has higher achievement on a follow-up test than a “passiv” control group we have no way of knowing whether this is due to the training itself or the increased motivation and expectations that the participation in a training program creates to some extent regardless of its content.

Melby-Lervåg and Hulme (2016) reanalyze two earlier research reviews where positive effects of working memory training were reported. In their analysis the effect of the training disappears when methodological demands are increased as when only studies with “active” control groups are included. However, we shall not draw the conclusion that the discussion about the effects of working memory training will cease and it should be noted that three of the four critical reviews that I have mentioned are made by the same research group/network. But judging from these four reviews  it does not seem as if the evidence support those who recommends this kind of training.

 

Two additional aspects

There are two additional critical aspects of working memory training for pupils with different types of difficulties that I want to discuss. The first one relates to the issue about what control groups to use discussed above. In a psychological/cognitive perspective it becomes important that pupils in the control group perform similar activities as the pupils who receive working memory training.

However, in an educational context it is more interesting to compare working memory training with other methods developed to increase educational achievement among pupils with different types of difficulties. Without having the possibility to get into details about this aspect I only would like to point out that there is a whole range of methods that have been shown to have very good effects on educational achievement for pupils with different kind of difficulties. Thus, it seems more than reasonable to use such teaching methods rather than working memory training with unclear outcomes.  

Finally I will also say a few words about the theory behind working memory training. The theory states that by practicing certain type of acts one can achieve effects on a totally different kind of acts since the former are considered more fundamental than the latter. I believe it is the different way around.

By teaching pupils the acts that taken together constitute the activity to be grasped they will acquire mastery of the activity. If we take our point of departure in the former theory, we choose to train the pupils´ working memory. If we depart from the latter theoretical standpoint we will teach children to decode letters, understand texts or whatever is at stake. A vast amount of research support the latter theory.

 

Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2013) Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 270-291.

Melby-Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2016) There is no convincing evidence that working memory training is effective: A reply to Au et al. (2014) and Karbach and Verhaeghen (2014). Psychonomic  Bulletin and Review, 23, 324-330-

Rapport, M., Orban, S., Kofler, M. & Friedman, L. (2013) Do programs designed to train working memory, other executive functions, and attention benefit children with ADHD? A meta-analytic review of cognitive,  academic, and behavioral outcomes. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 1237-1252.

Redick, T., Shipstead, Z., Wiemers, E., Melby-Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2015) What´s working in working memory training? An educational perspective. Educational Psychological Review, 27(6), 617-633.

 

 

Does David Mitchell´s book "What really works in special and inclusive education" provide a scientific foundation for teachers and special educators?

It is increasingly argued that professional work should be founded on best available scientific evidence. The movement towards “evidence-based” practices has been successful in medicine and is now starting to try to conquer the field of education. I read Mitchells book as a part of this endeavor. More specifically, he wants to equip teachers and special educators with strategies that have proven to be efficient in research.

The evidence-based movement in education faces three problems. Firstly, scientific findings and their implications for practice have to be summarized, secondly findings have to be translated into everyday educational activities and, thirdly, this has to be done in a way which is relevant to the goals of schooling. Let us call these the summation -, the translation- and the relevance problems. Thus, since David Mitchell is part of this moment it is reasonable to try to analyze to what extent he solves these problems.

 

The summation problem

When educational research and its implications for practice are summarized by proponents of evidence-based education it seems as if a lot of research is deemed as irrelevant on an a priori basis. More specifically, research that is focusing meaning-making and/or power relations is most often excluded. Moreover, quantitative research not devoted to measuring the effectiveness of strategies/interventions is also deemed as irrelevant.   

Still, it is very praiseworthy that Mitchell syntheses a large amount of effectiveness research and that he makes his criteria for the selection of studies explicit. Unfortunately, he admits that he includes studies that do not satisfy his own criteria. Thus, it is impossible to know exactly what criteria that he uses when selecting studies. In a similar vein, it is not clear how databases were searched. He has indeed found a lot of relevant studies, yet a quick check shows that he has left out some important studies.

Mitchells approach can be compared with approaches in systematic reviews. These are very ambitious and rigorous in explaining how studies are collected, how the quality is judged and how studies are weighed against each other when conclusions are drawn. Reading Mitchells book it is impossible to reconstruct his methodological decisions when gathering and analyzing studies.

Moreover, to my knowledge other researches have not examined his approach in depth. If we accept the criteria that knowledge, in order to be considered as scientifically valid, has to critically examined by other researchers, we cannot conclude that Mitchells summary of research findings has been scientifically validated yet.

This does not imply that Mitchell draws the wrong conclusions regarding the effects of specific strategies. Several of the strategies he mentions have a relatively clear support in research. In several cases, Mitchell´s argumentation is also convincing.

It should be noted though that hardly any evidence is presented with regard to how the strategies interact when used simultaneously. The evidence concerns mainly one strategy at a time.

Further, it is somewhat paradoxical that several of the 27 strategies presented in the book are not strategies in the usual sense of the word, e.g. “classroom climate” and “phonological awareness and phonological processing”. Classroom climate is possibly something that can be affected by a strategy and phonological awareness and phonological processing are desired outcomes of strategies. It is a clear problem that basic concepts in the book on several occasions are poorly defined.

There are other aspects of the book that I really enjoyed, e.g. the engagement expressed by Mitchell and his ability to in a simple and concrete way describe the strategies and how they can be applied in the classroom. When reflection has been a key word in school development, at least in Sweden, and advice has been avoided it could be relieving with the clarity that Mitchell uses in formulating how teachers and special educators should work (however, see below).

It should also be pointed out that Mitchell defines inclusion in a reasonable way avoiding the “placement”- definition (see my previous blog) that is too common in this research area. It is also interesting that he suggests that the strategies are useful both in inclusive and special education thus expressing a rather pragmatic approach to special needs education.

 

The translation problem

But exactly how are the 27 strategies to be translated into everyday school realities? Every strategy is in the list of contents linked to a piece of advice. Thus this adds up to 27 pieces of advice reaching from self-evident statements such as “develop the skills of the pupils”, “help the pupils understand what they read”, “help the students to remember important information”) over behavioral founded pieces of advice such as “change behavior problems by changing their antecedents” to reminders about things easy to forget (“control and inform the pupils at regular intervals about their progress”).

Reading the whole book one finds out that it contains gigantic amounts of pieces of advice. I urge the reader to count all the pieces of advice that are provided. Has the superiority of research in contrast to teachers´ experience and knowledge been preached more intensively than here? Do we believe that this kind of advice, which is said to be based on scientific evidence, will make teachers more skillful? And, which is decisive from a research perspective, where is the evidence that teachers that read Mitchell´s book will improve their teaching?

A lot of research shows that teachers often use research to legitimize what one already is doing and here there are good possibilities to do so since one can choose between 27 strategies. My hypothesis is that some teachers who read Mitchell´s book will continue as before, some may pick up something usable and some will probably be confused by a message which is almost impossible to interpret in its entirety. As an exercise, I urge readers to make a list of the pieces of advice given in the table of contents and the first ten pieces of advices provided in relation to each strategy and then reflect about whether these pieces of advice will facilitate the work of teachers or not.

 

The problem of relevance

How relevant is the book in relation to what teachers should achieve? I will discuss this issue in relation to the Swedish school system in which teachers have to follow a range of legal documents, prescriptions and recommendations. It would have been useful with a discussion about how the strategies should be interlinked with this. One problem in the Swedish context concerns e.g. that the behavioral strategies found in Mitchell´s book hardly is compatible with the view of pupils as active and responsible agents expressed in the Swedish curriculum.

A central question is of course: Strategies achieving what? Mitchell vacillates between different ideas about what the strategies are supposed to achieve. Sometimes it is implicit that they concern knowledge acquisition and at other times this is explicitly stated, sometimes goals of other kinds are involved.  However, schools, at least in the Swedish context, are expected to achieve a multiple of ends and how the strategies link to such a multiplicity of goals is not attended to in the book.

 

A scientific foundation?  

Finally I will return to the question asked in the heading which concerned to what extent Mitchell provides a foundation for a special needs practice based on research evidence. My criteria has been tough, in order to base practice on research evidence, research should be:

  • summarized with an explicit methodology (thus making a replication possible) and the summary should have been critically scrutinized by the scientific community

     

  • there should be research providing evidence that the translation of the research summary is beneficial to teachers work in relation the all the goals the are supposed to achieve

Mitchell travels a little bit on this road but his book also shows signs of evident shortcomings with regard to these robust criteria.

 

This blog builds upon the Swedish edition of Mitchell`s book:

Mitchell, D. (2015) Inkludering i skolan – Undervisningsstrategier som fungerar. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.

Creating inclusive schools and classrooms - is it possible?

While there are plenty of ideas as to how make schools and classrooms more inclusive, there is less empirical research concerning how this is to be accomplished, especially if we mean that inclusion pertains to all pupils.

 I will present some findings from our own research which might be helpful for educators who want to increase the inclusiveness of their schools/classrooms. However, let us first take a look at the concept, inclusion, which is well known to interpreted in quite different and even contradictory ways.

 

A difficult concept

The concept ”inclusion” in the context of special needs education emerged in USA in the mid 1980ies. Several influential educators believed that the precursor “mainstreaming” had lost its potential to change schools in the desired direction. Mainstreaming came more to be about where children with disabilities/in need of extra support would receive their education and not about the quality of education in a more general sense.

Inclusion involved both the idea that children with disabilities/in need of extra support would attend general classroom but also concerned the fact that they should have a satisfactory and beneficial situation within the classroom. In addition, some commentators suggested that inclusion concerned all pupils, not only children with disabilities/in need of extra support. A few even more radical commentators suggested than inclusion involved the creation of communities within schools and classrooms.

It is an enormous difference between viewing, on the one hand, inclusion to involve both the place of education as well  the well-being of pupils with regard to their health and learning, or, on the other hand, to involve only where the education is taking place.  In the former case we have to investigate whether a particular classroom is inclusive or not. In the latter case, we can conclude that a classroom is inclusive if children with disabilities/in need of special support are placed in the classroom. 

Put otherwise, in the former case, inclusion is a good thing in itself (since the wellbeing of the pupils is part of the definition of inclusion). To put it bluntly, if it is not working, it is not inclusion.  In the latter case it is an empirical issue whether inclusion is a good thing or not. Further, in the former case we can talk about classrooms as being more or less inclusive, in the latter case inclusion is an either-or issue. Unfortunately, these different meanings of inclusion are constantly mixed-up, not least in research.

 

 

A lack of research about how to create inclusive schools and classrooms

My colleague Kerstin Göransson and I have been quite critical to research about inclusive education (see reference below). Not only is the concept defined in diverse ways, there is also a lack of research that in a methodologically cogent way demonstrate how schools and classrooms can become more inclusive when inclusion is defined as being concerned with the well-being and learning of all pupils.

Since such studies are lacking I want to present two studies that I have been involved in myself and where we have tried to identify some factors that can contribute in making environments more inclusive. These studies differ from a lot of research in the field since we tried to be quite explicit with what was meant by inclusion in the studies.

However, it should be pointed out that also our studies, especially the second one, fall short of the methodological criteria used by Kerstin and I when criticizing the research about inclusive education. Thus, one should be careful when drawing conclusions from our studies.

The first study is a case-study of an inclusive classroom and the second one is an interview-study with heads whose schools had exhibited good learning outcomes and who had displayed inclusive attitudes on a questionnaire. Moreover, they were identified as working in in inclusive way by chief education officers. Thus, both studies were studies of good, if not best, practice.

I want to underscore that these studies they do not allow for conclusions regarding exactly what factors that help to create inclusive schools and classrooms. Much more research is needed in order to disentangle which are the most important ones and how they interact.

 

A case-study of an inclusive classroom

In the first study Barbro Alm and I researched a classroom during school year 5-6 which we, after conducting a pre-study, had reason to believe was inclusive. There were five children in the classroom that had been categorized as having a disability.

As asserted above, the inclusiveness of a classroom has to be investigated. We thus scrutinized the inclusiveness of the classroom in a number of ways using primarily interviews and questionnaires. We reached the conclusion that the classroom displayed a high degree of inclusiveness since data from different sources indicated that all children seemed to have a good social and educational situation.

How then did the two teachers work? The following factors were identified as factors potentially contributing to the high level of inclusiveness in this classroom:

 

  • A shared view that it was important to work with group-dynamics
  • A lot of outdoor-acitivites
  • An uncontroversial divison of labour between the two teachers (one teacher with educaitonal responsibility and the other with more responsibility for the social climate and the 5 pupils with disabilities)
  • A good personal relation between the teachers
  • Few pupils in the class (15)
  • Adaption of the teaching to the pupils individual abilities
  • Clear frames for appropriate behavior in the classroom
  • Clearly structured activities
  • Class council meetings
  • Good relations with the parents
  • Lots of group activities (where the teachers,  not the peoples werre responsible for the composition of groups, pupils were further trained in group work) in order to increase learning and build good personal relations
  • Conflicts were solved without delay
  • Pupils were respected and cared for
  • Collective discussions about important topics where the teachers strived to include all the pupils

     

    Factors that emerged in the interview-study with heads

    Gunilla Lindqvist and I identified a set of factors that seemed to characterize the work of heads who held inclusive attitudes and who were running schools that seemed comparably effective:

     

  • Communicating visions and putting these visions into practice
  • Creation conditions for communication, good relations and trust among the staff
  • Create opportunities for the staff to increase their competence
  •  Act as pedagogical leaders and take an active part in the activities of the school
  • Express a holistic view on children in need of extra support
  • Evaluate solutions and results at regular intervals
  • Distribute resources in a way which makes it possible for all pupils to reach the knowledge goals
  • Provide support is within the frame of the class
  • Teachers are equipped with a broad repertoar to be able to handle diversity within the classroom
  • Evaluations of support and activities within the classroom
  • Special educators are considered important in order to support the teacher
  • Teachers rather than teaching assistants in the classroom
  • Possibilities for the teaching teams to jointly organize learning activities

     

    As was pointed out, one should be careful in interpreting the meaning of lists like these. Moreover, in the second study we did not have any research data on how the pupils themselves experienced their school environment which of course detracts from our possibility to judge the inclusiveness of the head´s schools.

    Both studies can be characterized as “best practice” studies which thus rest on the idea that a lot can be learned from teachers and heads that are successful in their work.

    Interestingly, none of the head recommended a “closed door policy”, that is that it should never be allowed to have pupils work in small groups outside the classroom. This decision is backed up by research findings that shows that pupils having reading difficulties in fact benefit by working in small groups and, even more, in one-to-one education.

     

    Göransson, K. och Nilholm, C. (2014). Conceptual Diversities and Empirical Shortcomings - A Critical Analysis of Research on Inclusive Education. European Journal of Special Needs Education , 29:3, 265-280.

    Lindqvist, G. och Nilholm, C. (2014).  Promoting inclusion? – “inclusive” and effective head teachers´ descriptions of their work. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 29(1), 74-110.

     

    Nilholm, C. och Alm, B. (2010). An inclusive classroom?  On inclusiveness, teacher strategies and childen´s experiences. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(3), 239-252. 

     

    This is the first of my blogs that is published in English. I will be publishing blogs in English three weeks in a row and then I will publish one blog every third week. My nest two blog appearing in one and two weeks respectively are named:

     

    Does David Mitchells book “What really works in special and inclusive education” provide a scientific foundation for teacher´s and special educator´s work with children with special needs?

     

    and

     

    Is there any point in training working memory for pupils with ADHD and dyslexia?

     

    Here is a link to my Swedish blog:

     

    https://mp.uu.se/web/claes-nilholms-blogg

     

     

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CLAES NILHOLM

 

My name is Claes Nilholm and I am a professor in education at Uppsala University in Sweden. My research area is primarily inclusive education and to a lesser extent special needs education. Here are some examples of issues that will be discussed in this blog:

  • What can we learn from research about inclusive education/special needs education?   
  • What is the relation of this research to practice?
  • Can we create an inclusive language?

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