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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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