Do We All Have Special Needs?

Slapping labels on certain people creates the idea that they are fundamentally different, and therefore must be taught in a fundamentally different way from their peers. This idea has wrought untold damage in our education system, whether in the form of learning styles, or spurious special educational needs, or the pervasive idea that personalised education, differentiated for each pupil, is the ideal.

No one would deny that there are a small number of pupils who really do have serious special educational needs. These pupils should be educated in special schools, because ordinary schools cannot possibly provide for them. For the vast majority, however, including the vast majority of those currently labelled as SEN, what they need is what everyone needs: a coherent curriculum and teaching methods based on sound cognitive principles.

We are told that the working memory of SEN children is limited. Everyone’s working memory is limited, which is why instruction should be done incrementally and each step mastered thoroughly, and why discovery learning, which crowds the working memory, is such a disaster.

We are told that SEN children are easily distracted. Everyone is easily distracted in a noisy, chaotic classroom, which is one reason why order and discipline are so important. How can anyone concentrate on anything worthwhile if someone is talking loudly about something else in their vicinity?

We are told that SEN children appreciate routine. Routine helps everyone, because it means that most things are automatic, so the attention can be focused where it is really needed, on the challenging academic subject matter which we wish pupils to master.

We are told that SEN children easily forget material they have been taught. But the sharp forgetting curve applies to everyone. Without review and practice, spaced out over time, we all forget material very quickly.

SEN children often receive catch-up instruction in phonics, as their mastery of the fundamentals is weak. But every child benefits from proper phonics instruction, and if their primary school failed to provide it, their secondary school needs to do something about this. As with every area of academic study, it is a case of making sure the foundations are in place before moving on.

The huge growth over the last few decades in supposed SEN pupils within mainstream education has resulted from two factors: poor instruction, which harms everyone, but is most harmful for the weakest pupils, and child-centred ideology, which places the innate qualities of the child rather than the instructional methods of the teacher at the heart of educational thinking.

The obsession with innate qualities has a very dark side. It seems terribly sympathetic and humane to place the needs and concerns of children at the heart of education. But if we consider education to flow from the child rather than the instructor, it is a logical step from this idea to looking to the supposed nature of the child rather than the methods of instruction in order to explain educational failure. If Johnny can’t read, it must be because he is dyslexic, not because he was not properly taught.

There is no doubt that some people find it harder to learn to read and to write. Some people process information more readily than others. Some people grasp abstract concepts with greater ease. Not all brains are the same. But they are more similar than they are different. This is one of the most important conclusions of cognitive science.

Forgetting is normal. Distraction is normal. It is normal for mastery to be achieved only through long term effort. The cognitive bottleneck for all of us is our limited working memory.

We underestimate the normal difficulties, but we also underestimate the normal strength: the wonderful human power and capacity to remember. Our long term memory is virtually limitless. For all of our pupils, we need to play to this great strength which we all possess.

The Problems with Primary School Testing

Boy Reading

‘Boy Reading – Ned Anshutz’ by Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912)

From having been a strong advocate of the general reading tests which have been a part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal policy, Hirsch has now become an opponent. In his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, he explains why he has changed his view. Although the general reading tests are valid tests of reading ability, they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’. However accurately they may test reading, they have harmful educational consequences.

General reading tests are educationally harmful, argues Hirsch, because they promote the idea that there is such a thing as a general reading skill, when in fact, reading ability is based primarily on knowledge of the domain about which one is reading. Because general reading tests support the fallacious but widespread belief in general skills, their use as a national measure of achievement on which schools and teachers are judged leads to ever more lessons in these general skills. Pupils do ever more practice of comprehension strategies, and ever less time is spent learning specific subject knowledge.

It’s easy to sympathise with teachers and schools that adopt the strategy of training in comprehension skills, rather than take the risk of giving a good general education. Good general knowledge is the best way to improve reading comprehension, but the fact is that teachers and pupils are presented with high stakes tests for which there can be no specific preparation, and this fills them with anxiety. Naturally enough, they want to do something specific that will help their pupils perform better in the tests. And the only specific thing they can do is practise comprehension strategies. All other preparation is indirect, and we cannot blame teachers and schools who are placed under such pressure from being doubtful about indirect, incremental, long-term methods when they are facing an imminent high stakes test.

So the main practical, observable effect across the American education system of holding schools to account through general reading tests has been a further impoverishment of the curriculum, as pupils waste ever more time working on mythical general skills. Hirsch recognises that, politically, there is no possibility in the USA of their being national tests which focus on specific knowledge, so he suggests that school districts remedy the deleterious effects of national testing by introducing their own local system of tests which are focused on subject specific domains rather than general reading ability.

The British government should take heed of the damaging effects of making a general reading test the measure of school attainment. These damaging effects are a matter of historical record in the USA. If the Department for Education wishes to promote a richer programme of subject specific education in primary schools, they need to change the way primary schools are held accountable. They need to scrap general reading tests at key stage two and replace them with specific tests of pupils’ knowledge about literature, history, geography, science, art and music. And while they’re reforming key stage two tests, they should scrap the English Language GCSE, which is also an unfair and educationally unhelpful assessment.

Of course, there will continue to be courageous and intelligent school leaders and teachers who build a rich curriculum of subject specific knowledge, and eschew the false promise of training in mythical general skills. But at the moment, our assessment system, especially at primary level, is hindering rather than helping this movement for educational reform.

Further reading:

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair

How Much More Evidence Do You Need?

Flag of France.svgUntil the last few decades, France had one of the most equitable education systems in the world. It also had one of the most coherent. It was world-famous for its determination to give the same education to all citizens, following the same curriculum in every school across the land. But from the sixties onwards, progressive ideas became more influential in the teacher training colleges. Although the curriculum remained the same at first, the methods used began to lead to greater gaps in achievement between different social classes. A more constructivist approach, with an emphasis on discovery learning and a move away from explicit instruction, meant that increasingly, those with the least cultural capital were not receiving the teacher input which would enable them to make good progress.

Ironically, the results of this first move towards progressive ideas was one of the pieces of evidence used by proponents of the 1989 loi Jospin, which abolished national curricular coherence and mandated constructivism in primary schools across France. All primary schools were ordered to adopt child-centred methods, and to create their own local curriculum, adapted to the needs of their pupils. Those arguing for this revolution pointed to the increasing gaps in achievement that had appeared in previous decades, and claimed that these were the result of an ‘elitist’ curriculum that did not appeal to the interests of poorer and immigrant pupils.

Another irony of the campaign for compulsory constructivism was that one of its leading proponents, Pierre Bourdieu, himself came from a humble background, but because of the high quality state education that was available to all when he grew up in the fifties, had succeeded in becoming a leading academic. Now he was campaigning to sweep away the very system which had permitted him to rise. He was pulling up the ladder which he had climbed.

Those who have studied the damage wrought by progressive ideology in the USA and Britain will not be surprised at what followed this particular French revolution. All pupil groups saw a decline in academic achievement, but the decline was steepest for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The middles classes were protected from the disaster to some extent, because of the cultural capital they acquire outside school.

The French school crisis is particularly instructive for us, because it was an unintended natural experiment on a huge scale. Curriculum and pedagogy were radically altered, but other factors remained the same. French primary schools continued to be well funded. The academic standards remained high for the recruitment of French primary teachers. And yet we see this disastrous decline in achievement and equity. French officials measured this across the school population, so we know it was the norm, not an isolated case.

The centrally directed French school system provides a clarity which we can never hope to find when we look at the history of schools in Britain or the USA, where there are so many additional variables which could confound our assessment of the evidence. We have here a clear, explicit programme to enforce progressive ideas in primary schools across the nation, and a clear measurement of the disastrous results.

What need is there for more evidence? No artificially constructed trial could hope to match the French national experiment, which has been conducted on the whole school population for more than a quarter of a century. The results are in, and they are conclusive: explicit, teacher-led instruction and curricular coherence mean excellence and equity, while child-centred methods and personalised curricula lead to decline and inequity.

Ignore it if you want, but the evidence is there for all to see.

For more detail on this, read Chapter Seven of E D Hirsch’s latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, ‘The Educational Fall of France’.

For an insider’s view of the French school crisis, read this blog post.

And thank you to Françoise Appy for translating this post into French.

Don’t Be Yourself


Achilles sacrificing to Zeus, from the Ambrosian Iliad

‘Just be yourself’. We’ve all been advised in this way, when we’re feeling nervous about something, or facing a new challenge. It’s worse than useless, as a piece of moral advice. It’s as futile as the teacher who tells her pupils to ‘use your own knowledge’. The teacher’s role is to impart knowledge that pupils did not previously have. It is also to instil self-discipline so that her pupils will not be stuck in the circular trap of ‘being themselves’.

The conceited, pompous Polonius offers this advice to his son Laertes as he returns to university: ‘To thine own self be true’. Having promoted such licence, he sends spies to check up on his son’s behaviour. That’s our situation. Fatally weakened by the widespread idea that freedom means following the whim of the moment, we are at once licensed to do whatever we please, and placed under close surveillance by the government, which has to deal with citizens who cannot be trusted to act responsibly.

Telling people that freedom means following the whim of the moment betrays a deep pessimism about the human race, a pessimism perhaps expressed most eloquently by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent, where every character follows their predestined path in the urban hive: ‘We can never cease to be ourselves’. Somehow, the Romantic proclamation of individual freedom had turned, a century later, into the modernist proclamation of social, psychological or evolutionary determinism. We had become gods, only to be relegated soon afterwards to rats in a laboratory maze.

The descent from the divine to the animal was inevitable, because the Romantics had rejected the traditional understanding of human nature, which is at war with itself. ‘I have quelled my passion, as I must’, says Achilles to his mother Thetis, reflecting on the way he had allowed himself to be enslaved by his anger following his quarrel with Agamemnon. Achilles had not been master of himself. He had not fought against the selfish inclination to sulk petulantly, and his friend Patroclus had died as a consequence. Because he had not done his duty and fought with his comrades, but had become the slave of his emotions, he had become a ‘useless burden to the earth’.

The traditional understanding is far more optimistic, because of its faith in human freedom, based on the possibility of self-mastery. Our pupils are rational, and capable of mastering their emotions. They can be trained in doing so, under the caring authority of teachers who do not want them to become the slaves of their whims. Then, when it comes to challenges such as job interviews, they won’t be doomed to ‘be themselves’. They will be able to do battle with laziness and get up early, then do battle with anxiety and remain calm, presenting themselves in a confident, professional manner, and thereby proving to prospective employers that they are masters of themselves, and ready to take on responsibility.

We Teach Too Many Lessons

Image result for confusionIf you want to get really good at something, you need to practise it repeatedly. This is commonly accepted in sports and drama, but often ignored in the academic curriculum, where ideas about creativity and independence are wrongly interpreted to mean that drill and practice will somehow hold back the intellectual development of pupils.

Drill and practice are absolutely essential for fluency, however, and this applies to teachers as well as pupils. Fluency of teaching cannot be achieved without repetition, any more than pupils can achieve fluency in any academic subject without repetition. But how often do teachers get to repeat lessons? Often, teachers will only deliver a lesson once a year, and it is one among hundreds. By the time they come round to teaching it again, too much time has lapsed for them to remember and apply the lessons learned and fine tune the delivery. And there is no hope of automaticity with such infrequent repetition.

This infrequency of repetition results from the typical arrangement of a British secondary teacher’s timetable, where they teach their subject across multiple year groups. It is not uncommon for a secondary English teacher to be teaching as many as seven year groups. They could easily have between twenty-five and thirty different lessons per week, making hundreds of different lessons per term. With the best will in the world, there is no way that they can become fluent in the delivery of any of those lessons.

We have to recognise our own limitations as teachers, and apply the lessons of cognitive science to ourselves as much as to our pupils. Teaching lessons is a demanding and complex process, and the majority of it needs to be automatic for sufficient attention to remain for thinking about the really interesting element: the subject knowledge. If there is going to be any hope of real mastery on the part of the teacher, there needs to be a limit on the number of different lessons they have to teach each year. I would suggest that no secondary teacher should teach more than three year groups. Two year groups would be even better.

Teaching fewer year groups would also have the benefit of allowing teachers to deepen their subject knowledge and become really expert in the part of the curriculum entrusted to them. Of course they should know about the rest of the curriculum to some extent, but deep expertise cannot be achieved in everything. Teachers would be able, in these circumstances, to think of themselves more in the way university academics do, as real experts in a particular aspect of their subject.

Schools are more free to innovate than ever before. It would be wonderful to see more brave leaders considering this question of mastery and fluency in their teaching staff, as well as in their pupils, and placing limits on the number of year groups each teacher has to deal with.

The Curse of Common Sense


How many uses can you think of?

As argument rages between progressives and traditionalists, there have been widespread calls for better research into the question of whether young children should have the opportunity to experiment with sharp knives. Amazingly, no large scale, government funded research has been conducted into this vital question.

The progressive camp insists that the time has come to reject the prejudices of the past, and allow children to discover for themselves the properties of knives, as well as other kitchen implements such as food blenders and kettles. They are disgusted with the narrow minded assertions of the traditionalist camp that it is just common sense to provide the young and inexperienced with carefully controlled instruction under adult authority before allowing them to use such implements independently.

One educational expert commented, “These people claim, without the slightest bit of research evidence, that knives should not be made available to young children to experiment with. They have the temerity to appeal to common sense! They need to stop restricting children’s activities unless they can provide conclusive evidence that it is necessary to do so.”

It seems that the practice of placing sharp knives within the reach of young children is growing in popularity, following the runaway success of a YouTube video created by Sir Chris Bobbins, in which he points out that the adult world has been tyrannically restricting the creativity of the young. He gives convincing evidence of this, by showing that a three year old can think of thousands of uses for a sharp knife, whereas a thirty year old can barely manage half a dozen. Clearly the abundant imagination of children needs to be allowed to flower more fully. As another progressive thinker has memorably said, the ‘greatest resource we have in our kitchens is the children’s imagination’.

Despite such convincing arguments and the lack of any conclusive research evidence for restricting the availability of sharp knives, there remain a significant minority of naysayers who insist that it has been the practice of the human race throughout history to train the young under adult supervision. They even consider adult authority to be paramount in the kitchen, thus preventing our young people from developing into independent minded citizens who can question the powerful.

These people really need to understand that appealing to the past in such an unthinking way will never convince the modern, forward-thinking person of the twenty-first century. The burden of proof should surely rest upon those who would stifle the creativity of the young, not upon those who are determined to liberate it.

[Image from Wikimedia]

Is Poor Behaviour Widespread?

Hoop jumpingFollowing my post yesterday about troublemakers in education, and how important they are, I debated with two people on Twitter who objected to the claim that there is a widespread behaviour problem in England’s schools. They objected on the grounds that I could not provide them with convincing evidence that this problem exists. They were particularly unimpressed with any evidence based on the experiences of classroom teachers. You may not be surprised to learn that neither of these individuals are classroom teachers themselves.

Consider the evidence from Ofsted. The overall picture appears positive: according to Ofsted, behaviour is good or outstanding in 92% of schools. But when we consider this evidence more closely, the picture is not so rosy.

Firstly, visitors to a school, especially when they are preannounced, will not see the reality. Pupils usually behave better for visitors, especially when they are important. However badly behaved they are, they usually have a certain loyalty to their school. I have seen this over and over again during my years as a teacher. Most pupils who would normally be disruptive and rude become polite when visitors from outside the school enter the classroom.

Secondly, there are all the tricks that schools play to avoid Ofsted’s seeing bad behaviour, such as sending home the worst pupils or organising special trips for them. By definition, of course, these tricks will not find their way into official evidence.

After considering these factors, it’s amazing that the figure for good or outstanding behaviour is not 100%. It’s amazing that there are 8% of schools where behaviour is so appalling that they couldn’t put on a good show for Ofsted.

And in any case, what about the 8%? Even if Ofsted’s overall assessment were accurate, that 8% amounts to tens of thousands of children. Are we satisfied with a system where so many must suffer disruption and fear every day of their school lives? Can we afford to be complacent? Would we be happy if 8% of hospitals failed to provide adequate care to children? These tens of thousands of youngsters are required by law to go every day to a place that is often unsafe and frightening.

Now let’s consider the evidence of the first hand witnesses: the classroom teachers. They see the reality of school life, day in, day out. They are not sheltered from it in the way that senior leaders, consultants and inspectors inevitably are. Because Ofsted will never get the real picture, because official research will never reveal it, it is classroom teachers who must tell us what is really going on in England’s classrooms.

So here’s my witness statement. None of the schools I have worked in previously have had good behaviour across the board. In all of them, there were classes where disruption was frequent. In all of them, there was a significant minority of pupils who were rude, disrespectful and uncooperative. In all of them, these pupils were usually allowed to remain in classes and damage the learning of others, unless they did something really outrageous. In all of them, there were many areas of the school that were not properly policed, and because the dangerous pupils were allowed to roam free and did not fear serious consequences, such places were not safe.

The other first hand witnesses are the pupils themselves, of course. My wife was talking to a friend recently, both of whose children have avoided going to the toilet at school because they are afraid of the people who hang around them. Neither of these children go to schools where Ofsted considers behaviour to be poor. But whatever Ofsted says, these are not civilised places.

Meanwhile, in the same city, while most children are finding ways of surviving varying degrees of disorder and danger, there are sixty applicants for every place in the schools of a multi-academy trust which, like Michaela, tackles behaviour through school wide discipline and thorough training to build a culture of kindness and respect. Sixty applicants to every place. There’s some evidence for you. Large numbers of parents are sick of the bog-standard, complacent norm, where disruption and disorder are common in the classroom, and danger lurks in the corners of playgrounds, avoided by teachers who know they will not be backed up by senior staff.

This is the most criminal thing of all. There are schools which demonstrate clearly that it doesn’t have to be like this. They show that it is possible for all schools, whatever their intake, to be ordered, civilised places. But for most parents and children in that city where my wife’s friend lives, they can only dream of a place in such a school. Meanwhile, the daily battle goes on.