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.