Could teacher-led classrooms become illegal?

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There is a well-worn line of discussion on Twitter.

Firstly, Person A will question the value of differentiation. There are lots of reasons to question differentiation, not least of which is the lack of any body of empirical evidence to show that it is effective and the existence of some empirical evidence that seems to show that it is not. Or there is the cognitive science that shows that children have more in common they they have differences. Layer onto this the slightly bizarre nature of one of the more popular differentiation schemes, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), with its spurious images of brains and its requests to the general public to provide supporting evidence for its ideas.

However, the strongest reason to doubt differentiation does not come from evidence, it comes from thinking about differentiation for a while. If we give students choices about their learning then it is likely that children who struggle with reading or writing will choose to listen to audio or make posters instead. Nobody ever improved at something by avoiding doing it and so, if all else is equal, this kind of differentiation has the potential to make a bad situation worse.

The discussion then moves on and Person B responds, asking about children with a disability. Person A didn’t think he or she was talking about disability and is initially puzzled. Of course, there will be some students with severe cognitive impairments that mean they will never read or write and accommodations must be made in those circumstances, Person A will concede. But Person A does not realise how broad the idea of a ‘disability’ has become. There are, apparently, loads of children out there with disabilities. Person A cannot query this because, and this is the coup de grace, many are undiagnosed.

Now Person B is free to invoke the law. It is illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities and so Person A should be using UDL or something similar, no matter how ridiculous or ill-founded it appears to be.

It’s not as if this is in the best interests of the children concerned. In the case of dyslexia, the best treatment is also the best method of teaching reading to children who don’t have dyslexia. So there really is no need to do different things for different children, even if we may need to vary the pace. This is not surprising because dyslexic children don’t appear to be qualitatively different, they just experience more difficulties than other children on certain aspects of learning to read. It is more like a difficulty than a disability. However if we treat it as a disability then we may ask dyslexic children to avoid text.

Other disabilities such as Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) may be similar. They are characterised only by the way children behave and so the logic of cause and effect is circular. In essence, we have taken a set of behaviours that differ to those of a typical child by some arbitrary amount and decided to label them as a disability. Again, it is unlikely that these children need entirely different things to other children.

Yet by calling these difficulties, ‘disabilities,’ we place teachers who want to use a whole-class approach at risk of falling foul of discrimination law.

Note that the same can happen with behaviour management. The evidence suggests that strong routines, rules, positive reinforcement and consequences are key components of systems that reduce disruptive behaviour. But wait, these are discriminatory against children with ODD because these children have a disability which, rather than being addressed, should somehow be accommodated. Instead of being coerced into learning to write, such students should be allowed to express their thoughts in modelling clay while we make allowances for their antisocial outbursts.

And we haven’t yet mentioned the U.N. convention on the rights of a child. Article 12 states that, “Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them and to have their opinions taken into account.” So the teacher must offer choice and must negotiate with children rather than force them to write. The U.N. says so. Hmmm…

Can you see what is going on here?

These arguments are attempts to use authority to enforce basic tenets of progressive education. Classical educational progressivism asserts that education should be natural; that learning to read should be like learning to walk. Progressivism has a romantic view of the uncorrupted child who will naturally make choices about their own learning that serves their interests. If learning becomes tough or children misbehave then this is a sign that the adults haven’t provided them with the right tasks that engage them at their developmental level.

Progressivism has been thoroughly debunked. For instance, when given a choice about how to learn, students tend to make the wrong choices. Teaching methods based in progressivism, such as whole language, have relentlessly failed. So perhaps this is why progressivists are now turning to the law to enforce their ideas.

This is a greater risk than many perhaps realise. Politicians could easily be convinced to pass laws that seem innocuous. After all, who would oppose freedom from discrimination for disabled children? Politicians won’t understand the definitional slippage that has taken place; at least not until they become aware of the effects on schools via the voters.

Watch this space because it is likely to be the next theatre in the education debate. If you can’t get rid of teacher-led classrooms with evidence or reason, the next step might be to make them illegal.

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10 thoughts on “Could teacher-led classrooms become illegal?

  1. A few years ago I would have thought this piece to be ‘alarmist’ at best and perhaps even paranoid. I think differently now.

    In Alberta, Canada where I live, I worked as a school psychologist for many years before finally leaving when the school district I worked for said that “shared beliefs” around literacy would be developed. Soon afterwards I received an email telling me the shared beliefs of the system (very progressive). Time for me to resign (I didn’t share the beliefs!).

    It’s too complex to describe here the history of the curriculum developments that are now underway in my province. To ‘cut to the chase’, I expect that these changes, and possible updated legislation too, will at least to some degree, limit teacher practice as you predict (perhaps not in the exact way you predict, immediately, but heading down that road). Many outcomes, I expect will (in my opinion) be framed as competencies, with knowledge de-emphasized and the competencies mis-aligned with any form of didactic practice. This article:

    https://fcpp.org/2017/11/03/change-is-hard-in-education/

    describes the situation very well – how Ministries at the provincial level (which is where control lies in our system) are staffed by those who have often risen because they are in step with the upper echelons of the teaching profession dominated by progressive voices. Unfortunately, I don’t live in the province in Canada to which the article refers, and the Education Minister mentioned in the article (as a breath of fresh air) isn’t ours.

    Many cognitive/school psychologists here are aware and fully agree that limiting teacher-lead/direct instruction will only hurt students who are less advantaged to start with. It will have the opposite effect of what one might expect from a government perceived as left of centre, politically. The saddest part of all of this is the damage done to social justice often being argued from a social justice (critical literacies) perspective (note that literacies continues to be picked up as a spelling mistake by my spell checker, not withstanding the ‘in-vogue’ phenomenon of describing everything as a ‘literacy’).

    I worked on behalf of students with disabilities throughout my career and even lauded practices such as UDL. The theory isn’t so much the problem. It’s the implementation. I have yet to see UDL implemented in accordance with/aligned with its actual intentions and agree that it is/has ended up contributing to watered down expectations rather than allowing for valid assessment, as was intended. There are fundamental impossibilities (you’d need the school hours to be about 5 times what they are now to ‘do’ UDL successfully without running into the problems you’ve identified).

    Since the biggest push for UDL, a few years back, our Ministry has now decided to basically eliminate timing requirements on provincial tests and exams (standardized tests at the end of years 6, 9 and 12). They now universally allow up to more than twice the time the exams are set for. This may be acceptable if we have agreed as a society that we don’t expect students to complete academic tasks efficiently. I don’t think this is the case. Rather, this has all occurred ‘under the radar’. Interestingly, this change has happened with very little attention paid to it in the news or elsewhere, as far as I can tell. Perhaps that will change when it becomes more widely known. But it certainly has attracted no fan fare to date.

    All this is to say that I completely agree that major changes can occur without much input from science and without empirical support. Your scenario is no longer as implausible as I would have thought a few years back.

    Thank you for a thought provoking piece.

    1. No timing? It will be interesting when these kids get to submit tenders for business in later life, and forget that businesses have very strict timing requirements.

      1. You will even hear educators say that we aren’t usually timed in the workplace. If you want to measure what students know, that is different from measuring what they can do under time pressures. So, since we want to measure learning, not performance under pressure, we should not have time limits. For example (I may not have this precisely right in terms of exact numbers, but it goes something like this:

        Test developers when creating a two hour exam set one that they expect most students should be able to do in 90 minutes – provides allowance for if they misjudge. Then they allow any student to take up to 30 minutes over (some students may need it). So now it is an exam that they think many can do in 90 minutes but students are given 50 minutes.

        Under the new rules, they have said – no time limit – everybody can have double time (4 hours). So, assuming that it really can be done by most in 90 minutes – a 90 minute test is now going to take 240 minutes to administer.

        It will be effective for measuring what a student can do, given enough time, just not effective for measuring efficiency of how students have consolidated learning and can use what they’ve learned automatically or rapidly.

  2. I’ve noticed a recent tendency in debate on social media in England for people who are advocating low standards to refer to the 2010 Equalities Act. This seemed really odd to me because, although it does cover disabilities and schools, a) it is quite vague and schools have far far more detailed guidance available and b) it was not mentioned much a few years ago. I followed the debate about SEND around 2012 and don’t recall anyone even mentioning it then.

    Now, I’m beginning to think people are referring to it *because* it is vague. They know that attempts to lower standards in the name of inclusion will not be supported by government or teachers, and their best shot is to see if tribunals and courts might push their agenda instead, and interpretation and enforcement of the vague standards of that act is the way to do it.

    1. Interestingly, I think taking the legal route could be it’s undoing. Far more public attention and opinion will surround it. More people asking more questions and seeking evidence? Not what people who want to lower standards are after – they want it imposed without debate. Those days are gone.

      1. Hope you are right that any legal look will make use of quality evidence. I have seen that evidence seems challenging for many to interpret. Hope tribunals and courts don’t get baffled with b.s.!

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