Knowledge Bank - Special Needs

Introduction to Special Needs

Where next for special needs provision in schools? Discover how differentiation and remediation in classrooms can transform learning.

Introduction to Special Needs

Resistance to learning and slow progression in the classroom have two main causes. The most common is related to the disadvantaged circumstances of a child’s upbringing that can mean children are very much behind their peers in language development, general knowledge, social and personal skills and behaviour. There is a very close correlation – and some researchers say a direct causal link-between economic disadvantage and failure to thrive in school.  In many, but not all cases, basic cognitive skills like visual focusing, concentration and listening accurately have not been instilled by children’s parents or carers and need to be remediated. Children from wealthy but absent or neglectful parents can also have these deficiencies. These children are in danger of never catching up unless these cognitive skills are taught.

The second cause is a physical or mental disability, or condition, which may or may not have a medical origin.  Cerebral Palsy, Autism and Speech and Language Difficulties are some of the more common conditions with a physiological provenance; some others like Dyslexia, ADHD, or ADD are more controversial both in their causes or even in their existence, except as broad descriptive categories.There is a possible third category of cause of learning delay: behaviour problems.  Some claim all behaviour problems are a result of mental health issues resulting from poor socialisation or frustration from children’s ‘medical’ conditions.  But labelling all behaviour problems as a mental health issue is challenged by those that say that it can be a legitimate response to oppressive school regimes, poor relationships between staff and pupils, or just a response to the extreme physical and mental regulation schools impose on children, particularly those that are not academically inclined. For the purposes of this Knowledge Bank we are concentrating on learning difficulties related to economic and social disadvantage. Other Knowledge Banks are planned on  ‘Conditions’ and Behaviour.

Schools address learning and developmental delay in two main ways; remediation and differentiation. These are very different paths to take when considering the best way to meet each student’s needs, but in practice they often overlap. On the one hand, differentiation provides the student with a personally adjusted level of work, according to strength and ability. This might allow a child to cope with the curriculum requirements expected of the class but at a slower pace. Alternatively, remediation alters the child’s learning experience by building their cognitive capacity. Although differentiation has been criticized for not getting to grips with the underlying problems, schools find it a useful strategy to keep a child engaged in a class, even while remedial work might be going alongside it – a dual strategy. That said, differentiation is often haphazard and ill thought out, undertaken with no adequately personalised strategy.

Differentiated Learning

Differentiated instruction involves the acknowledgment of diversity within the classroom by assigning tasks according to individual levels of ability and attainment. This flexible method of teaching “changes the pace, level, or kind of instruction you provide in response to individual learners’ needs, styles or interests” (Heacox, 2002).

Those who use differentiation provide appropriately challenging assignments, according to each child’s needs. The model is based on the understanding that whilst one task may be too simple for some, other learners will find the same activity frustratingly complex. Instead of a ‘one size fits all’ approach, differentiation allows teachers to tailor lessons, by taking into account individual requirements.
To address the variations in mixed-ability classes, it is necessary to provide manageable projects that allow everyone to achieve success and appreciate the learning experience too. The possibilities for differentiation are extensive, including:

  • Content: providing various formats for learning such as video, lectures and audio. This is designed to offer multiple avenues for students to explore, based on individual interest.
  • Process: putting aside time for students to assess what they do or do not understand. One example of this is the implementation of literature circles, encouraging in depth discussion centred on ability groups. By processing information on all levels, each child is involved.
  • Product: designing projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply and extend the learning of a unit. This gives students the opportunity to express their learning, through various presentations setups such as written pieces, visual diagrams and verbal performances.
  • Assessment: approaching examination as a “photo album”, showcasing student’s progress, rather than providing a “snapshot” (Wiggins and McTighe 2005).  
  • Learning environment: altering the way a classroom looks and feels, providing a setting with areas of movement and quiet zones too.

The articles related to differentiation explore the reasoning behind this method of teaching, and the results that follow. Each case study breaks down how this teaching approach behaves in reality, exploring why this particular philosophical framework influences learning.

Remediation

There are many subject specific forms of remediation, for reading or maths learning delays, for example. However, this Knowledge Bank is looking at more generalised cognitive form of remediation. One leading theorist here is Professor Reuven Feuerstein and his approach of Mediated Learning. He has been singled out because his work has influenced so many others, even though his ideas are now so diffused in the field that he is rarely acknowledged. He is the father of the Thinking Skills movement, along with Professor Matthew Lipman of Philosophy For Children, and his ideas can be found in such approaches as Learning to Learn, The Competency Based Curriculum, Metacognition, Dispositions and Habits of Mind and much more. By applying Reuven Feuerstein’s approach, teachers can tackle the problem of diagnosing and remediating student’s learning difficulties. The mediated approach elevates the role of the teacher, and aligns clinical and pedagogical practice.

Feuerstein’s work is based on his studies of low-performing children after the Holocaust, where upheaval, destruction and disintegration characterised their cultural and educational history. From this experience, Feuerstein theorised that social circumstances had stolen the necessary interaction with adults, preventing the child’s development of interpretive skills involving analysis and reflection. Therefore, the mediated method is all about reintroducing the transferral of intellectual skills, emphasising the interaction between the adult and learner.

Believing that these skills are passed on generationally, Feuerstein assigns the responsibility of mediation to the child’s network of family and teachers, attributing the collapsed framework of society to the younger generation’s poor intellectual skills. Today, the issue of dislocation and educational deprivation is a global matter, stemming from mass migration, uprooting the younger generation. In our own society, communities with traditional cultures and practices are also being swept away as new technologies are developed. As a result, there is a need for a socio-cultural perspective of education.

Key Terms

Closing the Achievement gap,
Differentiation,
Special needs,
SEN/SEND
Codes of practice
Disadvantaged

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