Students’ progress can be inadvertently limited by the things we do as teachers. For example, if we pitch work at too low a level, students spend time working on skills or knowledge that may already be in their repertoire. If we do not allocate enough time to practising a skill before moving to the next level of difficulty, students are likely to struggle and become demotivated by unexpected failure. If we do not have enough practice materials, we can create an artificial limit to the amount that students achieve in a given time – a ‘ceiling effect’.
A less visible but very powerful limit on students’ progress is teacher expectations. If a teacher has low expectations of a student’s abilities, they will be satisfied with limited progress: ‘Not bad considering the dyslexia / dyspraxia / dyscalculia / ADHD [insert label of choice].’ (You can read more about the effects of labelling here).
One way in which teachers tend, consciously or unconsciously, to estimate student ability is through the student’s skill at reading. It is often assumed that if a student has not learned to read well by Year 7 that the cause must be something inherent to the student. Such a diagnosis may evoke a great deal of sympathy and warmth toward the student; and such sympathy, and the implicit messages about inability, will almost inevitably teach the student that they cannot do better. On more than one occasion have we heard students say, firmly and with the conviction of much repetition: “I can’t learn.”
The test for this approach to estimating ability is to see what happens when the teaching changes. For example, it might be assumed that a student in Year 10, reading at a six-year level, has a reading disability. On being given access to explicit, systematic teaching, the student makes the equivalent of nine years’ progress, in thirteen months. Now, by the same reasoning, we must conclude that he is very intelligent indeed. Yet this is the same person who had made almost no reading progress in ten years. The only thing that has changed is the teaching.
How many students have their progress hampered, not by inability or disability, but by low expectations – which are in turn based on assumptions about limited progress being a problem in the student, rather than the teaching? As Kame’enui and Simmons put it: “If the learner fails, the failure must be framed in terms of the instruction the teacher controls.” Or, as Zig Engelmann puts it, more bluntly: “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”
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