Skip to content

Blog post

Unthinkable, unfundable and unknowable: The ‘evidence void’ on making science accessible to pupils with learning disabilities

Jane Essex

The question of how, in an age of performativity, we will be enabled to undertake any research other than that which promises to be productive in the short term is becoming increasingly pressing. This tension was highlighted by the recent resignation of a top Canadian academic over the issue (Migdal, 2018). For educational researchers, this is a concern because lack of evidence on wider educational issues that are of less apparent ‘usefulness’ may perpetuate disadvantage. An example of this is the way in which science is treated, and research into science education funded, solely as a subject with an economic and industrial purpose, without regards to the other, broader aims that it could fulfil.

The question of whether science is truly a subject for all is viewed as ‘useful’ research when it treats the subject as the means to augment and strengthen the existing science workforce. However, work on how learners with learning disabilities (LD) could be given access to a meaningful science curriculum, from which they would derive learning and cultural advantage, is dismissed as counter-intuitive despite there being no evidence upon which to base that decision.

‘Uncovering the reasons why assumptions are made about which learners science is “for”, and the validity of those assumptions, might offer clues to other forms of exclusion at work in STEM subjects.’

The origins of the assumption that science is only for academically able learners can be traced back to its historical origins. The position was further reinforced by the quest for technological and political supremacy, staffed by an educational elite, in the so-called Sputnik curriculum of the 1950s (Cavanagh, 2007). These assumptions were not revisited in later educational reorganisation towards all-ability schools and the integration of those with special educational needs: old values underpinned new provision. And what happened in practice was a tacit exemption of some areas of the curriculum from the process of educational inclusion. Despite this, engagement in science by learners with significant LD has occurred episodically, driven by individual innovators, and has been well-received. The perceived benefits of science are reflected in the persistent desire on the part of teachers of LD learners for further involvement. The forms of provision may be modified (Brooke & Solomon, 2001; Essex, 2018) but the activities still offer authentic forms of science.

The need to better understand the types of science learning that are best-suited to learners with LD is important if these learners are to benefit from evidence-informed practice. This is, after all, an absolute expectation for their developmentally typical peers, and specifically the most highly attaining of them. The discrepancy appears to arise from the presumption that LD learners lie outside the remit of ‘real’ science education – namely, to create a skilled wealth-creating workforce. In practice, the evaluation of the episodic current work with these exceptional learners, or the compilation of a database on effective approaches, is highly unlikely to attract support from potential funders, who appear still to define science in the terms of the Sputnik curriculum. As a result of the absence of research evidence, the most educationally disadvantaged suffer a further erosion of their educational entitlement.

This ‘evidence void’ raises the question of why counter-intuitive work does not merit systemic evaluation. Uncovering the reasons why these assumptions are made, and their validity, would seem a worthwhile area to research – and one that might, coincidentally, offer clues to other forms of exclusion at work in STEM subjects. Paradoxically, by investigating an area that would not have immediate impact on the creation of a skilled science workforce, it may prove possible to glean insights that would ultimately support this utilitarian aim. But until the wider story of hidden exclusion in STEM can be probed through funded research, the story is destined to be untold.


Brooke, H. & Solomon, J. (2001). Passive visitors or independent explorers: Responses of pupils with severe learning difficulties at an Interactive Science Centre. International Journal of Science Education, 23(9), 941–953.

Cavanagh, S. (2007, September 25). Lessons Drawn From Sputnik 50 Years Later. Education Week, 27(5), 13–14. Retrieved from

Essex, J. (2018). Why ‘science for all’ remains an aspiration: Staff views of science for learners with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. Support for Learning, 33(1), 52–57.

Migdal, A. (2018). Academic independence of UBC research institute under threat, says director who resigned. Retrieved from