Supporting learners with special needs to ensure equity for all

By Heather King - November 2013


Villanueva, M. G., Taylor, J., Therrien, W., & Hand, B. (2012). Science education for students with special needs. Studies in Science Education, 48(2), 187–215.

Research Brief 

It has been suggested that science provides a valuable learning opportunity for students with special educational needs. As a subject, science supports students to develop an awareness of and interest in themselves and their immediate surroundings and environment. Science pedagogy may also particularly appeal to learners with special needs because of its emphasis on hands-on engagement and practical work in small groups.

However, students with special educational needs still score significantly below their peers across several measures of science achievement. Moreover, little appears to be known about the ways in which science educators and special needs educators could and should join forces to design appropriate resources. In this paper, Villanueva and her colleagues discuss approaches that may benefit students with special needs and ensure an equitable experience for all.

The paper, whilst acknowledging that the field of special educational needs is broad and includes learners with intellectual disabilities, gifted students, and students with physical impairments, focuses on students with mild to moderate cognitive and emotional behaviour disorders. The authors note that support for these students is complicated by many issues. First, teacher education programmes spend very little time exploring theory and practical skills related to special educational needs. Second, science instruction has traditionally relied on textbooks and lectures; students who have trouble focusing on technical writing thus have limited opportunities for success. Third, students with behavioural difficulties simply have trouble paying attention. They also have difficulty forming positive attitudes or abiding by the norms of social interaction. All these factors affect their science performance.

The authors join the call for pedagogical practices that are socially just and provide learning opportunities for all (Ball & Wilson, 1996; Moje, 2007). Such practices include learning goals that are appropriately challenging and that are supported by materials, methods, and assessment approaches that are responsive to individual learning needs.

As an example of a socially just approach to science learning and teaching, the authors offer the science writing heuristic (SWH, See Keys et al., 1999). This approach is designed to help students who have difficulty writing to express their understanding and build their learning in different ways. Students are encouraged to develop and refine their understanding of science concepts by using many kinds of representations, such as pictures, text, graphs, and equations. In addition, SWH promotes critical reflection as students discuss and challenge ideas and analyse the contributions of others. As a student-directed approach to learning, SWH “provides students with disabilities with opportunities to learn science using a variety of evidence-based strategies” (p. 206).

Although this paper focuses on SWH, the authors note that more research is needed in order to understand how students, and particularly those with special needs, engage in and respond to other holistic approaches. In addition, greater attention must be paid to understanding how educators address perceived and actual barriers to inclusion and equity in their teaching.

Implications for Practice

In critiquing the significance placed on writing in school settings and noting the value of hands-on group work, this paper highlights the potential of many informal science education opportunities, which are generally non-paper-based, practical, and highly collaborative. However, the paper also alerts the field to the importance of appropriate professional preparation for informal science practitioners. Like formal educators, informal science educators will benefit from training that addresses the particular needs of learners with special educational needs.

Specifically, the paper highlights the value that student-directed learning techniques such as SWH can have for scaffolding and supporting science understanding. While the particular technique may be more appropriate for use over extended timeframes—in afterschool science clubs, for example, rather than in one-time visits to a museum—the main message here is relevant to all: When we promote pedagogical approaches that support learners who have difficulty in engaging with or understanding science, all learners will benefit.