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.