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

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.

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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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