September 03 2015

Challenging prevailing wisdoms in SEND teaching

Diane Montgomery Middlesex UniversityMiddlesex University Professor Emerita Diane Montgomery is the author of ‘Teaching Gifted Children with SEN’. She seeks to challenge what she calls the “prevailing wisdoms” around teaching children with special educational needs and disabilities.

For me, the key issue in our SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) field is the lack of opportunity for teachers and teacher educators to challenge accepted wisdom, yet our lives are spent in classrooms, the engines of research.

Instead, researchers who get funding are housed in ‘hubs’ in Centres of Excellence and may never have taught a child or tried to control a difficult class. They must design ‘gold standard’ RCTs (randomised controlled trials) that will explore and manipulate variables in systematic fashion and gain government approval.

The researchers’ hypotheses can be based upon literature research rather than life in classrooms. When they do not have a hypothesis they can perform a multivariate analysis and find one. Unfortunately, classroom dynamics and their ecosystems cannot easily be reduced in this manner and make any sense for practitioners.

The result is that the prevailing wisdoms are endorsed. Custom and practice are handed down from one generation of teachers to the next, interfered with at intervals by government ministers. The ‘zeitgeist’ or current scientific orthodoxy prevails in the research field. Ethnomethodology, naturalistic observation and narrative researches still do not have the status of RCTs which in themselves are confirmatory studies and only half the research process.

Photo by Caleb Roenigk (Creative Commons 2.0)

Photo by Caleb Roenigk (Creative Commons 2.0)

The power of this orthodoxy can be felt if I present you with some of my findings, many that you will not agree with. Think of it as 20 Questions – agree or disagree? Please ignore the multiple questions inside some of the later items – it is not a research instrument.

  1. Dyslexia is found across the ability range so that slower learners may also be dyslexic
  2. The core difficulty in dyslexia is not a reading problem but a spelling difficulty
  3. Dyslexia difficulties are not caused by phonological or working memory deficits. These are a result not a cause.
  4. Systematic phonics teaching does not remediate dyslexia – 1-1.5 per cent remain dyslexic
  5. Dyslexia is a dissociative neurological condition that can be overcome in the Reception class
  6. Dyslexia is remediable – it need not be a lifetime condition
  7. Only the Gillingham and Stillman-based programmes work for Level One dyslexics (give two years’ progress in one year) and if fully followed
  8. CPS (Cognitive Process Strategies) are needed for Level Two dyslexics and can give even faster progress
  9. Most mathematical difficulties result from fear in classrooms and a lack of vocabulary knowledge and literacy difficulties
  10. More than 40 per cent of children are gifted or talented in some respect
  11. Underachievement (UAch) is mainly caused by handwriting difficulties and 30 per cent of children have these
  12. One third of pupils have serious spelling problems. Trying to correct them with ‘Look-Cover-Write-Check’ does not work.
  13. Linguistic and cultural disadvantage add to UAch
  14. Reducing ‘low-level noise’ in classrooms can be achieved by three interlinked strategies with two more to maintain it
  15. Children in Reception need to be taught joined-up writing (cursive) from the outset with no copying and tracing over letters
  16. Self-regulated learners (SRL), later high achievers, can be identified in pre-school and in disadvantaged groups after one term in school
  17. Giftedness, UAch, dyslexia and dysgraphia can all be identified and where necessary dealt with in Reception
  18. High-stakes assessment-driven systems reduce motivation, create more children with learning difficulties and disaffection from school
  19. Teaching teachers to teach is a higher order activity involving meta-teaching and strategy implementation, not simply giving them facts to pass on to pupils
  20. The current technical-rationalist view of effective teaching promoted by the TTA/TEA in its lists of competencies fails to show how they can be translated into classroom action.

Having tracked UAch among my degree students down through the age ranges my current research is on story writing or messages in Reception by analysing children’s marks on paper.

So far I have found that at least one third of infants enter Reception classes as self-regulated learners already having taught themselves to write (and probably read), or learning to do so soon after. They will be the productive gifted and the entrepreneurs if they can survive our schooling system, which will seek to suppress their SRL talent. The marks the children make can already tell us who are going to have literacy difficulties, who are the dyslexics, the dysgraphics, the slower learners and who will underachieve throughout school. This was the subject of my latest presentation at the 21st world Conference on Giftedness and Talent in Odense in August 2015. That audience was convinced, are you? Can we possibly persuade the teachers?

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