Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs

Publication Details

The purpose of this review is to outline international trends in the education of students with special educational needs, with the aim of informing the Ministry of Education’s current review of special education.

Author(s): David Mitchell PhD, College of Education, University of Canterbury, for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

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Chapter 10: Evidence-based pedagogy

17Educators are increasingly expected to be responsible not only for helping students to achieve the best possible outcomes, but also for using the most scientifically valid methods to achieve them. Indeed, in the United States, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law requires teachers to use ‘scientific, research-based programs’, defined as: ‘(1) grounded in theory; (2) evaluated by third parties; (3) published in peer-reviewed journals; (4) sustainable; (5) replicable in schools with diverse settings; and (6) able to demonstrate evidence of effectiveness.’ As well, NCLB requires each state to ensure that all learners (including those with disabilities) make ‘adequate yearly progress’, i.e., ‘continuous and substantial improvement’.

In their recent review of special education in the ACT, Shaddock et al. (2009) proposed ‘increased accountability for the learning outcomes of students with a disability and the adoption of evidence-based policy to inform service development’, arguing that ‘data and evidence, not conviction and ideology, are the key considerations’ (p.16). In a similar vein, the President’s Commission (2002) in the US recommended the establishment of ‘long-term programs of research that support evidence-based practices’ (p.61).

Briefly, evidence-based teaching strategies may be defined as ‘clearly specified teaching strategies that have been shown in controlled research to be effective in bringing about desired outcomes in a delineated population of learners’ (Mitchell, 2008, p.1).

10.1 Do SWSEN Require Distinctive Teaching Strategies?

The answer to this question is both ‘Yes’ and a qualified ‘No.’ Firstly, yes: some students – especially those with high or very high needs – do require some significantly different teaching strategies to those that educators in regular classes might usually employ. For example, some students with visual impairments are reliant on their tactile and auditory senses for learning and will require specialised techniques such as Braille and orientation and mobility training. Secondly, no: for the most part, SWSEN simply require good teaching. As some writers argue, there is little evidence to support the notion of disability-specific teaching strategies, but rather that all learners benefit from a common set of strategies, even if they have to be adapted to take account of varying cognitive, emotional and social capabilities (Kavale, 2007). What is required is the systematic, explicit and intensive application of a wide range of effective teaching strategies (Lewis & Norwich, 2005).

Although they all have a substantial evidence base for SWSEN, almost all them have general applicability.

10.2 Criteria for What Constitutes Evidence

Ideally, evidence that a particular strategy works should be based on carefully designed research studies that meet criteria such as the following:

Treatment fidelity. The teaching strategy is fully described and there is evidence that it has been carefully implemented.

Behavioural outcomes. The study should include reliable and valid measures of the behavioural outcomes. When he selected the teaching strategies described in his recent book, Mitchell (2008) relied heavily on various meta-analyses that have been reported in educational literature. Briefly, a meta-analysis synthesises the results from a range of similar research studies to determine the average effect of a particular intervention. Meta-analyses usually produce a numerical indicator, known as effect size. The larger the effect size, the greater is the impact of the intervention. An effect size of 1.0 indicates that learners receiving the intervention would achieve better than 84% of those who did not receive it; an effect size of 0.7 means that those receiving the intervention would do better than 76% of those who did not; an effect size of 0.3 means scores better than 62%, and so on. Most of the strategies selected by Mitchell had effect sizes between 0.3 and 0.7, with some over 1.0.

Learner characteristics. Studies should include clear descriptions of the learners’ ages, developmental levels, and the nature and degree of any disabilities they may have. Ideally, research studies should focus on learners who are as homogeneous as possible. The more heterogeneous the sample studies, the more difficult it is for educators to decide which learners would benefit from the strategy.

Control of variables. The research should be designed to ensure that the outcomes are due to the intervention and not to any confounding variables such as the simple passage of time or a placebo effect. One would also want to be confident that the outcomes are not due to the effects of additional attention to the learners in the study or to the effects of repeated testing.

Freedom from contamination. There should be no, or minimal, ‘contamination’ which might affect the results of the study. In other words, it is important that nothing happens (outside of the intervention) that could affect the outcomes for either the experimental group or the control group.  Of course, if events occur that affect both the experimental and the control groups, that is acceptable.
 Acceptable side effects. Possible side effects should be assessed and should be positive, or at least not negative. For example, coercive means might be used to control certain learner behaviours, but they may cause heightened anxiety or even fear.

Theory-based. The psychological mechanisms or learning processes underlying the strategy should be clearly explained, thus enabling one to generalise it to other situations.

Follow-up. There should be been adequate follow-up after, say, six months, but preferably longer, to ascertain if the behavioural gains are maintained over time.

Research versus natural conditions. Ideally, the research should be carried out in everyday teaching environments, not just in research conditions. This is because it could well be that the research conditions are dramatically different from the actual conditions educators work in.

Peer review. The research should have been published in reputable journals after rigorous peer review.

Replication. The research should contain at least two studies (more for single-case studies) that have shown positive effects for the strategy; i.e., the research has been replicated, preferably by independent researchers.

Cost effectiveness. Clearly, for an intervention to be adopted it must not be excessively expensive. For example, the more the intervention depends on one-to-one treatment over a prolonged period, the less likely it is considered to be cost effective.

10.3 Evidence-based Teaching Strategies

By applying as many as possible of the above criteria, Mitchell (2008) arrived at a total of 24 strategies, some of which included several sub-strategies. Although they are illustrated with reference to learners with special educational needs, almost all the strategies have general applicability.

Mitchell emphasised that he was not arguing for a single strategy or blueprint that all teachers should use. Rather, he felt that the most effective programmes are those that incorporate a variety of best practices. His strong advice was that educators should develop a repertoire of such strategies, nested within their own philosophy, personality, craft knowledge, professional wisdom, and, above all, their knowledge of the characteristics and needs of their students and their knowledge of local circumstances.

In this chapter, 18 of the strategies are presented (Mitchell, 2009). They are as follows

  1. cooperative group teaching
  2. peer tutoring
  3. review and practice
  4. formative assessment
  5. feedback
  6. cognitive strategy instruction
  7. self-regulated learning
  8. memory strategies
  9. reciprocal teaching
  10. behavioural approaches
  11. social skills instruction
  12. positive, motivating classroom environment
  13. adequate active learning time
  14. information and communications technology
  15. parent involvement
  16. phonological processing
  17. optimal physical environment
  18. combined strategies

In the following selection only a single representative study will be cited for each strategy. For a full review of the evidence, see Mitchell (2008).

Co-operative group teaching. A comprehensive study researched the effects of co-operative learning on the reading achievement of elementary students with learning disabilities. A total of 22 classes with 450 3rd and 4th grade learners, including those with learning disabilities, were involved in the study. Teachers in nine of the classes used an approach called Co-operative Reading and Composition (CIRC) to foster comprehension and metacognitive strategies. The other 13 classes formed the controls. In the CIRC classes learners worked in heterogeneous groups on activities including partner reading, examining story structures, learning new vocabulary, and re-telling stories. Significant results were reported in favour of those in CIRC classes on standardised reading and writing tests (Stevens et al., 1987).

Peer tutoring. In a study of the effects of peer-assisted learning strategies on students’ reading achievement in 22 U.S. elementary and middle schools, 20 teachers implemented the programme for 15 weeks and 20 control teachers did not. It was found that all three groups of learners (low achievers with and without disabilities and average achievers) demonstrated greater reading progress (Fuchs et al., 2002).

Review and practice. In a comprehensive meta-analysis of 93 intervention studies targeting adolescents with learning disabilities, the single most important strategy was found to be explicit practice, defined as ‘treatment activities related to distributed review and practice, repeated practice, sequenced reviews, daily feedback, and/or weekly reviews’ (Swanson & Hoskyn, 2001).

Formative assessment. In an early meta-analysis of 21 studies of the effects of formative evaluation, an effect size of 0.70 was obtained (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1986). (See also Chapter Nine of the present review).

Feedback. After synthesising a large number of studies on the effects of a wide range of influences on learner achievement, a Hattie (2003) found 139 that focused on feedback.   With an effect size of 1.13, this was the most powerful of all the influences on achievement. He concluded that ‘The simplest prescription for improving education must be ‘dollops of feedback’ – providing information how and why the child understands and misunderstands, and what directions the student must take to improve’. Although Hattie’s meta-analysis was not confined to SWSEN, it is highly likely to apply to such learners.

Cognitive strategy instruction. In a Canadian study of 166 learners, aged seven to 13 years, with developmental reading disabilities, three groups were identified: (a) those with deficits in phonological awareness, (b) those with deficits in visual naming speed (i.e., word recognition speed), and (c) those with both deficits. A metacognitive phonics programme resulted in improvements, especially for learners with only phonological deficits. This programme instructed the learners in the acquisition, use, and monitoring of four word identification strategies. These included, for example, a ‘compare/contrast’ strategy in which the learners were taught to compare an unfamiliar word with a word they already knew (Lovett, et al., 2000).

Self-regulated learning. In a meta-analysis of 99 studies that used interventions to decrease disruptive classroom behaviour, self-management strategies yielded an effect size of 1.00. In other words, there was a reduction of disruptive behaviour for about 85 per cent of the students treated by this method (Stage & Quiroz, 1997).

Memory strategies. Several research studies have shown that students (including those with a range of disabilities) can be trained to use memory strategies independently across a range of different content areas. For example, in 19 meta-analyses of various interventions, mnemonic training, with an effect size of 1.62, was rated the highest. This effect size can be translated to mean that the average student receiving mnemonic instruction was better off than 95 per cent of the students not receiving such instruction (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1989).

Reciprocal teaching. A New Zealand study investigated the efficacy of a tape-assisted reciprocal teaching programme, referred to as ‘cognitive bootstrapping’ (LeFevre, Moore & Wilkinson, 2003).  The study’s subjects were learners aged from eight to 10 years with poor comprehension skills, half of whom also had poor decoding skills. The results showed that the poor decoders improved their use of cognitive strategies and their comprehension. These results were maintained after 10 weeks and transferred to other material.

Behavioural approaches. In a comprehensive review of meta-analyses involving 20 different intervention strategies, behaviour modification came out with the third highest effect size (after mnemonic strategies, reading comprehension and just ahead of direct instruction). The effect size of 0.93 for behaviour modification represented the average of effect sizes for social outcomes (0.69) and academic outcomes (1.57) (Forness, 2001).

Social skills instruction. A recent UK study found that two social skills training interventions directed at primary school learners at-risk for social exclusion had positive effects on their social skills and social inclusion (Denham et al., 2006).

Positive, motivating classroom environment. A Dutch study found that educators who were perceived to be understanding, helpful and friendly and show leadership without being too strict, enhanced learners’ achievement and affective outcomes. Those who were seen as being uncertain, dissatisfied with their students and admonishing were associated with lower cognitive and affective outcomes (Wubbels et al., 1991).

Adequate active learning time. An Australian investigation found that when ‘wait-time’ was greater than 3 seconds, changes in educator and learner discourse took place and higher cognitive level achievement was obtained in elementary, middle and high school science classes. This finding was attributed to both educators and learners having additional time to think (Tobin, 1987).

Information and communications technology. A recent review of the literature on the use of computer assisted instruction (CAI) with learners with mild and moderate disabilities found that, although mixed, research supported the potential for CAI to raise academic achievement, particularly when it is used as a tool for extended practice of previously learned concepts (Fitzgerald & Koury, 1996).

Parent involvement18.  A 1996 meta-analysis of the effects of behavioural parent training on anti-social behaviours of children yielded a significant effect size of 0.86 for behaviours in the home. There was also evidence that the effects generalised to classroom behaviour and to parents’ personal adjustment (Serketich & Dumas, 1996).

Phonological processing. An Australian study evaluated the effects of phonological processing skills training for learners aged nine-14 years with persistent reading difficulties. The results showed that improvement in the learners’ phonological processing skills led to considerable improvement in their reading accuracy and reading comprehension. Extending the length of the training time significantly improved the transfer of skills to the reading process, especially for those with severe phonological processing skill difficulties (Gillon & Dodd, 1997).

Optimal physical environment. A New Zealand study examined the effects of sound-field amplification for four learners with Down syndrome aged six to seven years. The results showed that the learners perceived significantly more speech when the system amplified the investigator’s voice by 10 dB (Bennetts & Flynn, 2002).

Combined teaching strategies. A few studies have investigated the impact of two or more teaching strategies on learners’ academic achievement and social behaviours. Many of them have combined cognitive strategy instruction with another type of intervention, including direct instruction (Swanson, 2000), information and communications technology (Woodward & Rieth, 1997), phonological training (Lovett et al., 2000), and co-operative group teaching (Swanson, 2000). One Canadian study looked at the combination of three strategies: co-operative group teaching, teacher collaboration and parent involvement (Saint-Laurent et al., 1998).

10.4 A Scale for Evaluating Teachers’ Use of Evidence-based Strategies

In his recent paper presented at a UNESCO conference, Mitchell (2009) outlined a scale for evaluating teachers’ use of the strategies outlined above. The scale is designed to be used in carrying out a needs analysis for teachers’ professional development. This could involve the following three steps:

Step One. Teachers are asked to complete a questionnaire, rating their use of the 22 key strategies. The questions are intended to provide a broad picture only and provide a basis for a more detailed analysis to be conducted in the next step.

Step Two. This step would normally involve an independent evaluator who would build on a teacher’s questionnaire responses and would use a combination of an in-depth interview, classroom observations and document inspection to evaluate the teacher’s use of the 22 strategies. Mitchell noted that it might be possible for some teachers to carry out a self-evaluation of their use of the strategies, thus obviating Step One.

Step Three. On the basis of information obtained in the previous two steps, a professional development programme is designed.

 Table: Excerpt from a scale for evaluating strategies for enhancing learning (DRAFT)©David Mitchell, 2009  
  1. Employs co-operative group teaching
    The teacher regularly uses co-operative group teaching in which all learners work together in small learning groups of 6 to 8, helping each other to carry out individual and group tasks. Groups are usually mixed ability, but are sometimes comprised of learners with similar ability. The teacher teaches group process skills and carefully supervises group interactions. 
    Mitchell, 2008, pp.43-51.

  1. In most lessons the teacher uses co-operative group activities. 
  2. The teacher uses a combination of (a) mutual assistance groups in which learners are encouraged to help individuals to carry out tasks, and (b) ‘jig-saw’ type groups in which all learners contribute to a group task.
  3. Mostly, groups are comprised of learners with mixed abilities.
  4. The teacher teaches group process skills and carefully supervises group activities.
  1. All the indicators are regularly met.
  2. The teacher occasionally uses both forms of co-operative group activities with ability groups and mixed ability groups.
  3. The teacher occasionally uses mutual assistance groups.
  4. None of the indicators are met.
  1. Employs peer tutoring
    The teacher regularly sets up peer tutoring in which one learner (a ‘tutor’) provides learning experiences for another learner (a ‘tutee’). Such tutoring is mainly used to promote fluency through practising or reviewing skills or knowledge. The tutors are taught to follow a structured lesson format. Each dyad works for no more than 10 minutes at a time for 8-10 sessions. 
    Mitchell, 2008, pp.52-59.
  1. In most lessons the teacher uses peer tutoring. 
  2. The peer tutoring is used for practice and review of previously taught material.
  3. Tutors are taught to use a structured lesson format.
  4. Care is taken in matching tutors with tutees.
  1. All the indicators are regularly met.
  2. The teacher regularly uses peer tutoring, but not all the other indicators are met.
  3. The teacher occasionally uses peer tutoring.
  4. None of the indicators are met.
NB: This Scale has yet to be peer-reviewed and tested for reliability. It should not be used until these steps have been taken and a revised form provided. Readers of this draft are invited to provide comments. 

10.5 A Final Word

The overarching theme of this chapter is that teaching must become more based on empirical evidence of what has been proven to be effective strategies for improving students’ outcomes. A secondary theme is that, in order to bridge the research-practice gap, it is necessary that teacher education - both pre-service and in-service must be upgraded to deliver programmes based on evidence (see also Chapter Thirteen). Only by doing this will teaching be able to lay claim to being a true profession.

10.6 Summary

  1. Educators are increasingly expected to be responsible not only for helping students to achieve the best possible outcomes, but also for using the most scientifically valid methods to achieve them.
  2. Evidence-based teaching strategies may be defined as ‘clearly specified teaching strategies that have been shown in controlled research to be effective in bringing about desired outcomes in a delineated population of learners’.
  3. All students, including SWSEN, benefit from a common set of strategies, even if they have to be adapted to take account of varying cognitive, emotional and social capabilities. What is required is the systematic, explicit and intensive application of a wide range of effective teaching strategies.
  4. To constitute evidence, research studies should meet criteria such as the following: (a) treatment fidelity, (b) reliable and valid measurement of behavioural outcomes, (c) adequate control of variables, (d) freedom from contamination, (e) adequate follow-up, (f) replicated in more than a single study, and  (g) cost effectiveness.
  5. Strategies that have a strong evidential base for use with SWSEN (and other students) include (a) cooperative group teaching, (b) peer tutoring, (c) formative assessment, (d) feedback, (e) cognitive strategy instruction, and (f) instruction in memory strategies.
  6. A scale for evaluating teachers’ use of evidence-based teaching strategies is described.
  7. In order to bridge the research-practice gap, it is necessary that teacher education - both pre-service and in-service must be upgraded to deliver programmes based on evidence.


  1. This chapter is based on Mitchell (2008 and 2009)
  2. See also Chapter Fourteen of the present review.