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.

Learning to Love Literature

That hotel, which is pure surface, apparently.

In Seven Myths, Daisy Christodoulou rightly identifies the philosophy underlying progressivism as postmodernism, because of its rejection of truth, which then leads to a refusal to pass on definite knowledge, seeing in this merely the imposition of one person’s beliefs upon another. Thus the central purpose of education, which as Chesterton points out, is only ‘truth in a state of transmission’, is lost.

But there is another aspect of postmodernism which poisons education: the declaration that there is no depth, only surface, as in Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Staying on the surface means gazing at the forms of literature, and declining to enter into its deeper meaning. Indeed, English undergraduates are taught to reject the whole concept of deeper meaning which can appeal across ages and generations as a humanist myth that has been disproved by the more advanced thinking of the cultural materialists. Materialism denies the soul, and therefore denies the existence of any transhistorical human nature to which great writers could appeal across the centuries. We are left only with shifting surfaces, supplemented by reductionist sociological readings that turn literature into a mere historical artefact, and usually one which supports the evil oppressors.

Thus the very existence of a deeper content to literature is systematically attacked by university English departments, and we are left with two things: form, and sub-Marxist historical context. Two boxes which GCSE and A level examiners are endlessly ticking. There isn’t any message. Or if there is, the medium is the message. Or the message is the same message over and over again: that everything is written to support the powerful and crush the poor.

How excruciatingly dull and lifeless.

All my teaching career, I’ve battled with the expectation to place form and context so prominently, when what I really want to talk about is content. Does anyone read anything because they want to admire its form or comment on how it relates to economic arrangements? Or do we read things because we’re interested in their subject – I mean their human subject? Of course there is a connection between the form, context and content, and for the fullest understanding of meaning, we need a sensitivity to the forms of literature as well as its living, human context, but the form is never an end in itself and the artwork can never be reduced to historical documentation. The form is merely a means by which the artist communicates. The artist wishes to communicate something to the reader. He is an artist because he is highly skilled at shaping language to communicate. What he communicates can have multiple meanings, layers of meaning, certainly, but meaning there is, and meaning is what the reader is looking for.

Meaning at its highest level is significance: philosophical significance, moral significance, human significance. The meanings of great literature are endless and inexhaustible. That’s why people keep reading it generation after generation. They don’t keep reading it so they can say, “Wow, look how he used personification there” or make erudite comments on how the base has shaped the superstructure. They read it for meaning, deep meaning which changes their lives.

That’s where the love of reading comes from. And that’s why we so often kill it in schools. David Didau has written about this recently, inspired by a controversial lecture from the ever interesting Frank Furedi. One of the points David considered was whether we do not think enough about what pupils are reading, because we are too concerned about how they learn to read. This is so crucial. In every area of the curriculum, but especially in the arts and humanities, the how has replaced the what. Form has replaced content: this is the skills agenda. It is one of the progressive mantras, and it is thoroughly postmodern. It doesn’t matter what you read. What matters is that you develop skills of literary and contextual analysis, and you can do that with any material, so the argument goes.

It’s certainly true that you can analyse anything, even the most trivial products of popular culture. George Orwell was one of the first to do this, with his essays on seaside postcards. These artefacts have an interest for their cultural meaning. But they are not of interest in themselves. They do not have the intrinsic interest of great literature. They do not have a meaning which can appeal across the generations, because it is deep enough to speak to any human soul. When we favour form over content, analysis over meaning, context over artwork, we take the power out of the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the scholar and the critic. Thus does literature crumble into dust; thus does it turn into a dead butterfly pinned to the page.

The life of literature is in its meaning. That’s why we love it, if we love it at all. Everyone who has fallen in love with literature will say that it has changed their life. And they’ll never say it changed their life because of the subtle use of a concluding couplet or the skilful deployment of metaphor. Those techniques may have helped it to have the impact it did. But it was never the artist’s intention that we should stop at the surface and never enter the depth.

How are we to lead our pupils into these depths, so that they can discover the joy of reading? Firstly, we need to do a lot of reading great stories out loud, from a young age. Right from the start, children can start meeting Goldilocks and Robin Hood and St George and King Arthur and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and Ebenezer Scrooge. Exposure to a wide range of great stories from a young age will open their minds to all the wonderful experiences of literature. They should be listening to stories that are well beyond their ability to read, because it gives them a glimpse of the exciting territory that lies ahead once they have mastered that skill.

Secondly, we need to do a lot of memorisation, and this can begin even before children can read. Memorisation can be done entirely orally, and it gives possession of beautiful and meaningful words to the child. They can own them, and turn them around in their heads, speak them loud and soft, taste them in a way that cannot be achieved without this ancient, wise practice of committing to heart.

There it is. Simple. At primary school, alongside thorough training in the skills of decoding, lots of reading out loud and lots of memorising. And there’s no reason not to continue sharing stories and committing poetry to heart at secondary school.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, Or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

(Image from Wikimedia).

The New Traditionalism: Kodaly and Hirsch Compared

Kodaly Stamp

One day, Hirsch will be on stamps too.

In my ‘About the Author’ page, I stress the excellence of my academic qualifications to show that I am not attacking a system that has hurt me in an obvious way. I am attacking a system that has heaped praise upon me, a system in which I have excelled, and despite all of the laurels I have won, it is a system which has left me ignorant of many things which are vital to a proper education. It is a system which allowed me to pick up bits and bobs of intellectual and literary history, and manipulate them into impressive arguments, all the while leaving me ignorant of most of the great heritage of Western civilisation, and hardly even aware that such ignorance was a problem. If I was getting the grades, what did it matter? I roamed freely, and I could dazzle with a touch of Proust here, and a smattering of Biblical quotation there, but I lacked foundations. It wasn’t even a house made of sand; it was a beat-up old camper van, destined to break down at some point and leave me stranded in the wilderness.

My wife has been through a similar journey. As a talented pianist, she had been through university and, despite doing very well, always felt that there was something fundamentally missing from her education. She could play the piano in an impressive way, and even won first prize for her recital one year, but she couldn’t sight sing or make sense of harmony. These skills are fundamental to real musical literacy, and yet no-one was insisting that they were vital to becoming a musician, or providing classes or material to help. She was like someone who has learned to read mostly by guessing or memorising words, but their lack of phonic awareness constantly hampers them, and eventually places an insuperable barrier to further progress. Trying to learn very difficult piano works without real musical literacy was so arduous that despite all of her achievements, my wife lost interest in becoming a performing pianist. She tried teaching the piano, but didn’t believe in it, because she was still operating in the same system which had failed her. How could she hand on this stunted education to the next generation?

Then, at the age of 33, my wife discovered Kodaly, the musical equivalent of proper phonics instruction. As a composer and performer, Zoltán Kodály had a longstanding interest in folk music traditions. This awareness of the power of an oral tradition influenced his work to improve school methods in his native Hungary. When he became aware of the poor state of music education, he started collecting best practices in music teaching when on tour around the world. These best practices were then gradually compiled by Kodaly and his friends to make what is known as the Kodaly method, or concept. It is a systematic way of teaching musical literacy, understood as being the skill of ‘hearing what you see, and seeing what you hear.’ Musicianship is developed by singing. Children first learn basic concepts of pulse and pitch through lots of singing games, and progress through learning sol-fa hand-signs and letters to reading staff notation.

There is a committed body of Kodaly enthusiasts in Britain: they come together at workshops and classes to be introduced to the concept, or to learn more, or just to get encouraged. These workshops are full of music teachers who aren’t quite sure why they feel music education is a bit off track, but they know something is wrong, and are looking for an answer. Sounds a bit like the Saturday education conferences that are springing up around the country . . .

My wife was an enthusiastic convert to this systematised version of traditional methods, as I was a year ago when I read Christodoulou and Hirsch and realised the importance of core knowledge and direct instruction. She immediately perceived that the Kodaly method, if studied properly, would provide her with the missing heart of her own musical formation. If a school had the courage to adopt a Kodaly based programme, then with careful and faithful implementation, they would achieve impressive results after a few years. It would also prove the ineffectiveness of what otherwise passes for good practice, and would challenge people to expect far more out of music education than they ever thought possible.

If you are interested in finding out more about Kodaly, here are a few links:

The Kodaly Centre of London is David and Yuko Vinden’s project. David is Britain’s most distinguished Kodaly educator and he runs courses from his base in Northwood Hills, Middlesex, but he also does workshops tailored to the needs of groups which approach him. My wife went to a one-day introduction on Kodaly in Manchester, which was excellent.

The Len Tyler Music School in Farnborough and its vicinity is, in some ways, the musical equivalent of Michaela. It teaches music classes to children according to the Kodaly principles. Len has written his own courses, just as Michaela have found it necessary to put together their own materials. He has a lot of time to give people interested in implementing Kodaly practice. After my wife had been to one of his workshops, she sat in on some of the classes at his music school. It was soon clear that the children had core musical concepts in place, and their level of musicianship was better than many older, more technically accomplished instrumentalists. Is this sounding familiar to anyone who has visited Michaela?

The Kodaly Method could be seen as part of the new traditionalism. Perceiving the desolation of modern education, some brave souls have worked to revive traditional methods. They have found it necessary to add a level of systematisation to enable the restoration of something that previously depended upon a shared culture, much of which was oral. But there are still remnants of traditional traditionalism which have survived into the modern era, in the training of Anglican choristers. The level to which choristers are trained exposes the lamentable mediocrity of standard musical education. They can sight read; they can sight sing; they can harmonise. They are in a class of their own. Choristers develop thorough musicianship skills because, as well as all the singing they do, they receive regular musicianship classes. The success of choristers as musicians (as well as the positive impact it has on them in other ways) testifies to the effectiveness of their training and the importance of lots of singing.

Thorough oral drill survives in some places as a thread of a great tradition stretching back into antiquity. But for the rest of us, we need evangelists like Kodaly, Hirsch or Engelmann and their disciples to revive it, and to create materials and institutions which bring to our modern educational wilderness what had previously flourished within a shared traditional culture that did not need codifying.

Given the proven success of the systematised traditionalism of the Kodaly method and of traditional choral training, one might wonder why such approaches are not more widely adopted by county music services. Perhaps there is a fear of being shown up? My wife has herself experienced the humiliation of recognising her own inferiority next to those who have been properly trained, and do not have to struggle as she does. The resentment frequently expressed against Michaela may have similar roots. Better methods are certainly not universally welcomed with open arms. There are many reasons why the status quo prevails, however compelling the evidence for reform. In the end, we must overcome our resentment at those who do better than us, and resolve instead to learn from them.

Direct Instruction: The Great Equaliser

SnowflakeClever people are good at identifying patterns. That’s why aptitude tests always include exercises in pattern spotting. Whatever the pattern might be, the sharper people are more likely to spot it with less need to have it explained to them.

But whatever someone’s aptitude, they can grasp a pattern if it is clearly explained to them and they practise sufficiently.

That’s the difference between look and say and systematic phonics. A clever person will teach themselves to decode letters if they see enough print. They are spotting the patterns, and effectively giving themselves a course in phonics. But someone who is less good at identifying patterns will only know how to read the whole words that they have seen, or very similar ones. Because they have not been systematically trained in phonics, and they do not have the ability to teach themselves to decode, they are crippled by their ignorance of the alphabetic code, and unable to read unfamiliar words.

In the middle of the twentieth century, after several decades of look and say dominance, many American educators were openly saying that a large proportion of the population were simply non-literate. They had come to this conclusion because they had been using methods that only worked effectively with the most intelligent pupils. They had been using methods which denied effective reading skills to many, while giving a disproportionate advantage to a cognitive elite. This, of course, suited the requirements of big business and big government — the bureaucrats and corporations who had pushed this approach — as it created easily managed and manipulated employees and consumers for business, and easily led clients for the swollen state apparatus.

But many parents weren’t happy with it. It had been foisted upon their children without their say. Reactionary fools that they were, they didn’t like to be told that their children were ‘non-literate’, and, in opposition to the stifling hegemony of the progressive pedagogical experts, they still wanted their children to learn their ABCs.

This battle has been going on for a century. It’s still going on, on both sides of the Atlantic, despite Jeanne Chall’s research and Project Follow Through, because of progressive repugnance for the principles of direct instruction: whole class teaching, careful sequencing, repetitive drill, and large amounts of practice. If you think children should go at their own pace, and that learning should be fun, you just won’t want to teach like this. Especially because, as a university graduate, you’re one of those people who spotted the patterns with little help, so why shouldn’t your pupils do the same?

The issues at stake in the reading wars apply across the curriculum. Will we use thorough, explicit and carefully sequenced methods that allow everyone to make progress, or will we continue with an incoherent curriculum in which only the highly intelligent can spot the patterns?

Why Don’t Progressivists Want to Debate?

I recently had the interesting experience of diligently ploughing through a whole book with which I disagreed on almost every level (Pring and Roberts’ A Generation of Radical Change). I should probably do this more often. It’s intellectually invigorating; it sharpens one’s own thought to scrape it against the thoughts of one’s opponents.

I could have wished, however, that there had been more substance to the thoughts of those who insistently claimed such expertise. I kept waiting in anticipation for the moment when they would really begin to justify their deep seated beliefs, so I could find out whether there was anything convincing in their arguments.

But for the most part, that moment never came. These truths were held to be self-evident. It was so self evident that education must be child centred and based on natural development, not the adult imposition of authority and knowledge, that Wendy Scott, for example, could only throw her hands up in horror at the narrow minded insistence of the government meanies that synthetic phonics be used. Her argument against phonics? She didn’t offer one. She just referred to the ‘complexities’ of teaching reading, but did not deign to offer any examples. And heaven forbid that anyone should try to teach the little lambs anything! She lamented the increase of ‘teacher-led instruction’ and how this was crushing ‘spontaneous’ learning, but neglected to explain why teachers actually teaching was such an evil thing. It just self-evidently was.

Because progressive approaches were just so obviously right, it could not be admitted that the government’s reforms were aimed at improving learning. Thus other motives had to be sought. This is very easy to do, if you work on the assumption that the Conservatives are elitist capitalists who want to oppress the people, and turn them into efficient units of production for their profit making economic machine. Thus Wendy Scott claimed that using phonics was one part of a ‘standards agenda’ based on a ‘simplistic economic model’.

When the Conservatives weren’t turning tender children into units of production for their capitalist friends in the City, they were being ‘reactionaries’. This is a word without substantial content. It is used by those who favour a particular change to attack those who oppose it. But it says nothing about whether the change is a good one; nor does it give any arguments proving why it is good. It just assumes it is good, and assumes that those who oppose it are wandering in the darkness of benighted ignorance, or obstructing reform for self-interested reasons. It is usually attached to accusations of being ‘right wing’, another morally loaded but vacuous label pinned by the progressives onto their enemies. Apparently it is ‘right wing’ to insist that children learn about important events in the history of Britain. It couldn’t possibly be that those who propose this think it will promote learning more effectively than doing projects on the Wild West. That is unthinkable.

This is why progressivists don’t want a debate. Progressivism has never been based on reason. It has emerged in a culture that has rejected reason, because it rejects anything that is not material, while at the same time, in self-contradiction, it has promoted a Romantic view of sacred and pure childhood. The materialistic and the sentimental have marched together, united in their condemnation of an academic curriculum that values knowledge for its own sake. Child worshippers and sociologists have agreed that drilling the three Rs and liberal knowledge into young children is wrong, either because it is an horrendous act of child abuse, or because children need to engage with current social life, not the dead facts of the past.

Therefore, those who promote liberal knowledge and simple, traditional methods cannot possibly be doing so in order to help children grow up knowledgeable and self-disciplined. They must be doing so because they are right-wing-reactionary-crypto-fascist-child-hating MEANIES!

Drill: Solving a Problem Like Maria


Maria Von Trapp (1905-1987)

The myth of Maria Von Trapp perpetuated by Hollywood has probably done even more than Robin Williams’ John Keating to promote flaky educational ideas.

Just as in Dead Poets Society, The Sound of Music presents a stiff, formal world which is joyfully liberated by an inspiring young person who brings freshness, life and spontaneity. This is exactly the Romantic narrative of education presented by progressives, who see any return to hard work and discipline as an attempt to enslave the children who were joyfully liberated in the sixties.

But what really happened when Maria arrived in the Von Trapp family? The truth is very different from the Hollywood fluff. The father was not a stern disciplinarian, but a gentle, warm-hearted parent. The family already had an interest in music, and with the help of a Catholic priest, who became their musical director, Maria trained the children in singing, not lightweight catchy tunes, but a repertoire including Baroque music and madrigals.

To sing such music well takes great skill. Training in singing using a Sol-fa method, depicted in the song ‘Do-Re-Mi’ is not about gambling around Alpine fields wearing clothes made of curtains. It involves a lot of repetitive drill. It involves a lot of exercises. It involves doing a lot of things that are not immediately appealing, and do not look like the end result, because, like all thorough, traditional methods, it has broken down the path to that end result into small incremental steps which must be mastered one by one. Very much like a proper programme of systematic synthetic phonics, it is an artificial and intricately designed method for mastering what is a completely artificial skill.

Such methods for teaching singing are remarkably effective, as Zoltán Kodály demonstrated when they were implemented widely in the Hungarian singing schools. But, like all traditional methods, they depend upon teacher led drill and firm discipline. Evidently this is something the real Maria Von Trapp and her musical director, Fr Franz Wasner, understood very well.

In Hollywood fantasy land, meanwhile, we are led to believe that we can learn all about singing from singing a catchy song with rhymes for every step of the Sol-fa scale. It’s a great song, of course, but it doesn’t matter how many times you sing it, you won’t actually be trained to sing. Singing catchy songs is just fun. Learning to sing properly takes hard work.

Whole Word Reading Is Aping Experts

One of the arguments in favour of whole word reading instruction is that it is something which children will do whether you like it or not. But this is precisely why it should not be the focus of early years instruction. With novices, schools must focus on teaching what does not happen naturally, not distort their methods of instruction into a poor imitation of natural processes that would take place without expensive professional intervention.

Nobody can deny that over time, we come to recognise how words look, as whole words. Once we are fluent readers, this is what we’re doing almost all the time, unless we come across a word we have never read before. Then we have to use our knowledge of phonics to spell it out. But by definition, we are not fluent readers if we are having to decode each individual word laboriously.

The point of using systematic phonics is surely that it is the most efficient way of building the skill of decoding, so that children can begin to read as quickly as possible, read lots, and then naturally progress on to reading by word recognition, which is the end goal, but cannot be the starting point. Using whole word recognition as a method to teach reading to novices is starting at the end instead of starting at the beginning.

This seems to be the confusion in so many areas of teaching. We think that by making children pretend to be experts, they will actually think like experts.

  1. An expert reader recognises whole words.
  2. A novice needs to decode them.
  3. Systematic phonics is the method for decoding them.

This is one of Daniel Willingham’s central points: cognition is different for a novice, and we do novices no favours by having them ape expertise when they do not yet have the knowledge required to think genuinely like an expert.

Put children through a decent systematic phonics programme, then give them books to read, and they’ll soon be recognising words. We found this with our third child (having seen the older two muddle through unsatisfactory programmes): we used Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.