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.


9 thoughts on “Do We All Have Special Needs?

  1. I absolutely agree. There’s a tendency to ascribe a student’s difficulties to immutable characteristics, rather than anything it’s possible to effectively change, and I think that does those students a disservice.

    Everyone struggles with spelling, because spelling is confusing, hard, and often arbitrary. The only way you get better is through practice. But some students don’t get the practice, because they’re given dyslexia to hide behind. It’s definitely a real thing – you can open a student’s book and know instantly that they’re dyslexic. But there are lots of kids with a diagnosis who don’t actually exhibit the symptoms, who struggle with spelling, etc., but well within what I’d call normal bounds.

    Children need to know that getting better at the fundamental skills is possible. For most of them, it absolutely is possible. Pathologising everything convinces them otherwise.


    • There are certainly people who have particularly severe difficulties with reading and writing. But the dyslexia label is unhelpful, because it is applied to such a wide range of difficulties with such a wide range of causes. David Didau has blogged about this issue.


  2. Provided the teacher is well aware of what the pupils in their class are able to do (or not) then there is no need to treat these pupils differently. However, many teachers lack a good understanding of what dyslexia really means since it covers such a wide range of difference. For *some* dyslexics reading speed is the problem, not reading per se. This means that a dyslexic pupil may read and write extremely slowly compared with their peers and this can end up being to their disadvantage since the teacher moves on or doesn’t allow enough time. A lot of people go through their whole schooling without anyone noticing that they’re dyslexic and are then identified as dyslexic at university when reading and writing speed become a lot more critical – at least for the more traditional courses. So I agree that we all have special needs, I guess the problem is that often teachers don’t always realise what they all are and for some people their special needs can be a lot more problematic than for others if they are not allowed for.


    • This illustrates the problem with the dyslexia label. It means a multitude of different things. If the problem is writing speed, that needs to be specifically addressed. The vague label obfuscates rather than clarifying.


  3. Thank you for the above. What are your thoughts on neurodiversity and twice-exceptional pupils in education- those pupils who may be gifted and talented, but who have been diagnosed with specific learning difficulties? I think what you are really complaining about here is the use and abuse of SEN by schools to get extra money or by parents who can’t accept that their child is just not as intelligent as others. By the way, I have a personal interest in this as I am diagnosed with Aspergers and dyspraxia.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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