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

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.





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)




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