Clarity on disability and differentiation

I am sceptical about many common approaches to ‘differentiation’ in education. This is because I worry about the practicalities of implementing these approaches, the basis on which content is differentiated and the possibility that differentiation might compound difficulties that children already have. These are genuine concerns.

However, whenever I write about this issue, I find myself criticised in strong terms. It is suggested that teachers have a legal duty to differentiate school work for students with a disability and that my scepticism about differentiation is therefore dangerous.

This is an odd argument because differentiation is a common classroom practice, whether or not students have been identified as having a disability. For instance, the video below has been produced by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) as an illustration of their guidelines. It involves a teacher organising a ‘guided reading’ session where the class is split into different groups on the basis of a number of factors that the teacher describes. These groups are then given different tasks to complete. Disability is not mentioned at all.

The teacher is clearly a dedicated professional who is working very hard but it is this kind of differentiation that I am sceptical about.

Interestingly, disability has become something of a hot topic in Australia in the past week. The “Gonski 2.0” proposals have brought into focus the idea of needs-based funding. As Misty Adoniou points out in The Conversation, this will be a challenge because, “Each state and sector defines disability differently. The government says it will come up with a national definition. But it does not have one yet.”

This is not just a problem for funding. If the law really does state that teachers must differentiate for students with a disability then a definition of disability might help.

This may be resolved if the Australian Labour Party succeed in their call for a Royal Commission into disability support. However, for now the situation remains confused.

It might help educators if we can distinguish between a learning disability and a learning difficulty. A document publish by the ACT government in Canberra provides some useful insights.

“Students with learning difficulties underachieve academically for a wide range of reasons, including factors such as: sensory impairment (weaknesses in vision or hearing); severe behavioural, psychological or emotional issues; English as a second language or dialect (ESL or ESD); high absenteeism; ineffective instruction; or, inadequate curricula. These students have the potential to achieve at age-appropriate levels once provided with programs that incorporate appropriate support and evidence-based instruction.

Students with learning disabilities have difficulties in specific areas of academic achievement as a result of impairment in one or more of the cognitive processes related to learning. One of the defining features of a specific learning disability is that the difficulty continues to exist, despite appropriate instruction and intervention.”

This distinction is central to my argument about whether we should accommodate or address a particular issue. If a child possesses a learning difficulty then that child needs high quality instruction to address that difficulty. If he or she struggles with writing then a writing intervention may be needed. Differentiated tasks that ask or allow such children to do less writing – a feature of differentiation approaches that are promoted in Australia such as UDL  – will not address this issue and will lead, over time, to a widening gap between such children and their peers.

This does not mean that children with writing difficulties should be treated exactly the same as their peers. They may take part in withdrawal groups or make use of in-class supports. If that is what you mean by ‘differentiation’ then I have no issue with it. My criticism is specifically aimed at those forms of differentiation that lead to multiple activities taking place within one classroom and that result in a child opting out of something that they find difficult e.g. by making an audio recording rather than writing a passage.

For students with a disability as defined above then there is clearly a case for making accommodations. We wouldn’t expect a child who is blind to read from a standard textbook. Similarly, if a child possesses a neurological condition that means that he or she cannot learn to read or will never be able to read at an age-appropriate level then we would wish to make accommodations for this. Perhaps he or she could be given an audio recording or other alternative presentation of the content.

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18 Comments on “Clarity on disability and differentiation”

  1. “These students have the potential to achieve at age-appropriate levels once provided with programs that incorporate appropriate support and evidence-based instruction.”

    I find the above statement very difficult to deal with because on the one hand I totally agree that, for example, those with Asperger’s can achieve at (or exceed) age-appropriate levels provided teaching is matched to their needs, but for some children with global delay, or conditions affecting cognitive function and IQ for example, the requirement sets all teachers up for failure. The number of times I have been told that if I ‘get the teaching, differentiation and interventions right’ I should be able to ‘cure’ all conditions……

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I think that is where the distinction lies between a disability and a difficulty.

      • How do you make the distinction? In my son’s special school they wanted him to use a computer due to fine motor issues. I resisted and taught him to write myself and he has the best and neatest and fastest handwriting in the whole of year 5.

  2. It is a key job – and skill – of teachers and special education teachers in particular to determine when to remediate and when to compensate. I don’t think that either neurology or Educational Psychologists’ assessments are quite yet able to tell us whether a specific learning difficulty is in fact a disability which cannot be overcome without trial and error in the classrooms. I am fortunate that I work at second level where often students arrive having had many literacy interventions and so it may be clearer that it is time to move onto other modes of communicating. Of course one shouldn’t give up on literacy or other skills too early and recognise that a delay is not the same as a complete inabliltiy but overwhelming a child who is having difficulty can be counterproductive. It is a balance and it is difficult but it is worth giving time and effort to working out that balance.

    One thing that does puzzle me is the rather denigrating judgement of an oral presentation as a lesser substitute for writing. Isn’t it a key skill (I could add the qualifier ‘in the modern world’ although it is not strictly necessary) to be able to present orally – fluently and confidently – and shouldn’t all our students be presenting some of their work this way? Similarly why is it seen by some as a cop out to listen to an audio book than to read. Teachers require students to do a LOT of listening so why is it still regarded as a second class citizen by some? A variety of methods will include a variety of abilities.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I agree. When many such conditions are diagnosed through behaviour then it is difficult to know the long term impact on behaviour.

    • chrismwparsons says:

      I personally think that you’re absolutely right about us not underestimating, or indeed denigrating, the role of oral presentation, and children also shouldn’t be allowed to consistently ‘opt-out’ of speaking in favour of a written version of things. Aside from anything, developing your ‘voice’ whether internally or publically is a precursor to writing, as well as being an immensely useful skill as you say.

      However, it’s probably a more common problem that children will slip the other way, and how would they be able to partake with clarity in a ‘modern world’ discussion such as ours now if they didn’t embrace such a thing…?

    • Chester Draws says:

      One thing that does puzzle me is the rather denigrating judgement of an oral presentation as a lesser substitute for writing.

      It’s not that an oral presentation has lesser value. It is that in life that you cannot replace one with the other — a manager who wants a written report for the record does not want an ephemeral oral statement, and you cannot substitute a speech at a wedding with a written statement.

      It is when students are allowed to avoid one, more or less entirely, that the problem arises. If you are too shy to speak in public, even in quite a safe environment like your own class, then you have a problem. If you cannot write a halfway coherent set of paragraphs then you have a problem.

      In other areas the concept of replacing would be laughable. It would be ridiculous, for example, to be allowed to avoid algebra by doing more geometry. It would be laughable to avoid doing music by doing my art. Yet avoiding writing essays by doing oral presentations is OK?

      • Greg Ashman says:

        Quite so. There is also a difference here between what is biologically primary and what is biologically secondary but that is probably for a different post.

      • The algebra/geometry analogy doesn’t really hold up as orally or written the words have the same meaning and function. Also oral doesn’t have to be ephemeral, video and audio recording is very simple these days and dictation programmes are getting better all the time. But generally I agree that one should not replace the other and that is why working out when a student is at the point where they should not continue to struggle with, for example, writing but substitute another medium of communicating their knowledge and understanding is an important and skilled decision. I teach in Ireland and there are criteria for state exams which are quite high to allow a candidate to record their answers instead of writing – and to have a reader instead of reading themselves so these are our benchmarks. If there are no such benchmarks or even a definition of disability I can imagine that makes life difficult for students, parents and teachers alike.

        Also, and I realise that this is anecdotal so I would welcome links to research if anyone has them, I find that my students do not opt out of writing or reading easily. In general they are acutely conscious of their difficulties and try over and over again to overcome them. They are anxious about how they appear to their peers and to their teachers and try to cover up difficulties. Of course we all know lazy children (and adults) who take the easy option at the first opportunity, I just wonder if there is an empirical measurement of their percentage of the population?

        To get back to Greg’s original point, if I have understood it correctly, students who have DIFFICULTY with a particular skill should not be directed away from it automatically as this will reduce their chances of improving that skill. I agree and would like to add that those students who do have difficulty should be monitored carefully to ensure that continued practice of said skill is actually paying off and not just leading to greater frustration and fatigue. Also that the decision to move to different modes should take into account the teachers’ observations, the student’s and parents’ experience and perhaps external assessments of ability.

        Using different modes of expression generally in the classroom is part of teaching and learning languages and can be a useful to aid learning in other subjects that are largely word based. I don’t think groups should be set up within a class along the lines of can/can’t write or read etc but I do think that all students should use graphic and audio means of communication at times.

  3. Living in a busy market town, it’s a fairly common occurrence to be stopped and asked directions. Before responding, it’s pretty obvious to me that I need to gauge what knowledge the person already has – what’s their starting point? Have they visited before and can remember landmarks? Have they just driven past a road they can remember? Have they got a local map?What is their mode of transport? After I’ve gleaned such information, I’ll adapt my instructions accordingly to enable them to reach their destination. This seems a pretty logical approach to me. And I’ll make sure I try my utmost to get them there.

  4. The differentiation I ask for as a parent is often refused. a) 3 key vocab words to be sent home at the beginning of the week to enable discussions at home and a level of pre-teaching. b) Homework to be sent directly to parents to ensure the child has not missed key information, c) Leaving a lesson 5 minutes early in order to re-calibrate and avoid noisy transitions, d) 2 questions for child to listen out for answers to during lesson to help focus, with reward for spotting them etc……

    • And these are reasonable adjustments – I’m interested in the reasons given for not allowing them as none are cumbersome or expensive to implement. In a school that ‘does SEND’ well, this type of ‘differentiation’ will be embedded.

      • Michael Pye says:

        Starlight McKenzie some thoughts.

        3 key vocab words would take quite a while to select and follow up if not already set for others. Parents having access to homework tasks is a school system issue, that said this is the most legitimate adjustment. Leaving a lesson early missing the recap/plenary/exit ticket and separate the student from their peer support group. If there are two obvious questions for a student to focus on then they should be shared with the whole group.

        I know your ideas seemed easy and without cost but with only a little thought downsides become quickly apparent. Please don’t take this as a judgment as I lack way to much info, merely that your ideas are not without significant opportunity cost.

        An alternative would be a formal supplemental program you could access and reinforce outside of class.

  5. Doesn’t it all depend on what learning you are wanting? If the learning is to write, then students need to be given the opportunity to write, but if the learning is about identifying ideas then offering students the opportunity to show their identification of ideas in a form that is not writing would be okay. I think that is the basis of UDL – identify the learning objects and think how students can access the learning and demonstrate it in the most appropriate and accessible ways.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      Maybe. But if some students are regularly writing their responses and other are regularly opting out of writing their responses then we would predict a widening gap between the writing ability of the two groups. Writing is the conventional academic medium for the communication of ideas and so students who write poorly will be disadvantaged.

  6. Michael Pye says:

    1st premise: Writing requires more practice then other skills.
    2nd premise: Dedicated writing practice is not sufficient.
    Conclusion writing should frequently be a secondary objective.


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