Teaching pupils with SEN

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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Every child is different and there is no such thing as a typical SEN pupil. However, by sticking to some basic principles of good teaching, we can offer effective support to ensure our SEN learners make progress. Matt Bromley explains

Learning is messy. First, not all types of learning are observable and not all learning occurs as a direct – and immediate – response to teaching...

For example, if I taught a pupil how to identify bias in a non-fiction text and they identified an example of bias in the pages of the Daily Mail in the same lesson, I couldn’t be certain that they had learnt the various interconnected skills of – to name but a few – skimming, scanning, and detecting inference, and were able to apply those skills to the pages of the Daily Mail as well as to The Guardian and online on Wikipedia and Facebook, and would know how to do so in history and economics not just with me in English.

To be certain my pupil had learnt all these skills and that those skills could be transferred to other contexts, I would need to observe and assess them doing so at a later time and in a range of different situations.

My pupil’s immediate demonstration could, in this case, have been mere “performance”, the instant regurgitation of what I’d just modelled – mimicry rather than mastery, if you like.

Furthermore, performance is often an unreliable index of whether or not a pupil has made the longer term changes that constitute real learning. For example, improvements in performance can fail to yield any significant learning and can even make learning more difficult. What’s more, and perhaps more confusing, is that it is possible for learning to take place even if we can see no discernible changes in a pupil’s performance.

Second, learning – in the sense of pupil progress – is not linear, it can take one step forward then two steps back, much like a drunken reveller staggering home at night...

Often, we make the mistake of assuming that pupils scale the mountain of progress in a uniform manner in response to teaching, and that we can measure each step with accuracy then categorise and label each pupil accordingly. But progress is a complex concept – a dotted line used to summarise the overall path taken along the mountainside, snaking towards the peak, which may go up as well as down as pupils find the right terrain and get a solid foothold in the rock. So, yes, learning is messy.

However, what we do know about the process of learning with some certainty is this: we must stimulate pupils’ senses to gain the attention of their working memories in order to make pupils think hard and therefore encode new information in long-term memory where it can be stored (learning, we might say, is at its simplest a change in long-term memory). But that’s not the end of the learning process...

We also know that, once information has been encoded in long-term memory, we must return to it several times – reteaching, recapping, testing, applying – in order to improve its storage strength in long-term memory but also, and crucially, to improve its retrieval strength from long-term memory so that it can be more easily and efficiently returned to working memory where it can be used.

We also know this about learning: active and guided instruction is much more effective than unguided, facilitative instruction.

So what does all this mean in relation to teaching pupils with SEN?

The big picture

Of course, every pupil is different and there is no such thing as a typical “SEN pupil”. However, there are some general rules of good teaching that, to my mind, particularly apply to supporting SEN learners. First, pupils with SEN tend to learn best when they can see the big picture, when they understand what they are learning and why they’re learning it.

As such, teachers and support staff need to connect the content of each lesson with the previous lesson or lessons, and with the lessons that will follow. They need to explain how today’s lesson will consolidate and extend what was studied last lesson, and how it will be further extended and then assessed later.

One way of connecting lessons in this way – and an effective launchpad for differentiation – is to consider pupils’ starting points: what prior knowledge do they bring to this lesson? What misconceptions and unanswered questions do they have? What are their interests and talents (in as far as these may influence the way they learn and the way we teach)? And what are their difficulties or disabilities and how will these affect their learning and progress?

Once the answers to these questions have been ascertained, teachers and support staff need to use the information as rich diagnostic data in order to determine – or at least influence – the way in which they plan and teach lessons.

One useful approach is to begin a lesson or topic with an initial assessment, perhaps a low-stakes multiple-choice quiz. The results of these pre-tests can yield invaluable evidence about pupils’ prior knowledge and misconceptions and, when repeated at various stages of the teaching sequence, can provide evidence of pupils’ growing knowledge and understanding.

Information from diagnostic assessments can guide us in our planning so that lessons are more responsive to pupils’ needs and their existing knowledge-base – surely the very definition of differentiation.

An important practical implication, of course, is that we must remember to plan opportunities for assessments and allow sufficient “wriggle room” to make adjustments based on the feedback garnered by the assessments.

In-built flexibility like this is not just advisable, it is a key aspect of effective lesson-planning and differentiation because it enables learning to be personalised to match the needs and pace of pupils’ learning – which is essential if we are to support pupils with SEN. It also ensures that gaps in pupils’ learning are identified and filled, which in turn will avoid an off-the-peg, one-size-fits-all approach to lesson-planning and enable good progress to be made by all pupils, irrespective of their additional and different needs.

The big ideas

Once we have connected the learning, we need to consider how pupils with SEN will be engaged in exploring the big ideas and questions around which we have framed our lessons and topics.

We also need to consider what approaches, including direct instruction, will best support and equip pupils with SEN for their final assessment. And we need to consider what homework tasks and additional interventions may be needed in order to enable pupils to develop and deepen their understanding of important ideas.

It is easy to assume that what we need to do in order to fill gaps in pupils’ knowledge is to teach more knowledge and cover more curriculum content. But deep understanding requires an iterative mix of experiences, reflections on those experiences, and targeted instruction in light of those experiences. Good lesson design, therefore, involves the provision of sufficient real or simulated experiences in order to enable pupils’ understanding to develop.

It is our job to equip and enable pupils with SEN to eventually perform with understanding and increasing autonomy. That is very different from preparing them for a test. In order to do this, we should ask ourselves what kinds of knowledge, skill and routines are prerequisites for a successful pupil outcome and what kinds of tasks and activities will help pupils with SEN develop and deepen their understanding of key ideas?

We often complain that pupils with SEN cannot transfer what they have been taught into new problems and tasks. Yet, we rarely plan opportunities to help pupils learn how to transfer knowledge to different situations.

In other words, the problem is typically regarded as a pupil deficit rather than a teaching need.

Information that is overly contextualised – that is to say, anchored in just one specific context – can reduce transfer; abstract representations of information can help promote transfer as can teaching information in a range of different contexts. Transfer is affected by the degree to which pupils learn with understanding rather than merely memorise sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures. As such, to help pupils with SEN to develop transferability, we should:

  • Allow a sufficient amount of time for initial learning to take place.
  • Plan for distributed – or spaced – learning and engage in deliberate practice.
  • Make sure pupils are motivated to learn by planning work with sufficient challenge.
  • Teach information in multiple, contrasting contexts and/or in abstract form.
  • Teach metacognition so that pupils become expert at monitoring and regulating their learning.

Less is more

Trying to cover too many topics too quickly can also hinder SEN pupils’ learning and their ability to transfer that learning, because pupils end up learning isolated sets of facts that are not organised and connected, or they’re introduced to ideas they cannot possibly grasp because they lack the background knowledge necessary to make those ideas meaningful.

Accordingly, we need to provide SEN pupils with opportunities to engage with sufficient, specific information that’s relevant to the topic they are learning. Also, we need to provide enough time for pupils to be able to process information. In other words, learning cannot be rushed; the complex cognitive activity involved in integrating information takes time.

Therefore, when planning lessons with SEN in mind, we should aim to cover less curriculum content but to cover that content in greater depth. We should provide opportunities for pupils with SEN to explore subject matter from a range of perspectives and to provide sufficient experience and context.

Finally, we should provide opportunities for pupils with SEN to repeat learning several times so that it penetrates their long-term memories. Tests are a good way of “interrupting forgetting” because they reveal what’s actually been learnt as well as what gaps exist.

In order to ensure, once pupils have thought about and encoded the knowledge and skills we need them to acquire, that the information “sticks”, we need to make ideas tangible because some pupils with SEN find it hard to care about or understand theoretical concepts.

If we ground a theoretical concept in a sensory reality and thus engage our pupils’ emotions, our pupils are made to care about something, they are made to feel something and this is an important part of the learning process.

What’s more, when we are exposed to new information, we process it and then attempt to connect it to existing information (in other words, we try to assimilate new knowledge with prior knowledge). The richer – sensorily and emotionally – the new information is, and the deeper the existing information is ingrained, the stronger we will encode the new information in our long-term memories.

Returning to my caveat: every pupil is different and there is no such thing as a typical “SEN pupil” – as such, you need to be attuned to your classroom environment, you need to read the dynamics of the room so that you can be flexible and fluid in your approach, you shouldn’t stick slavishly to a plan or blindly follow the advice of others (yes, me included) – instead, you should adapt and adjust to the here-and-now circumstances of the classroom.

  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 18 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and for Matt’s archive of best practice articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/1Uobmsl


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