Recently, I have been reading “Battle Hymn for Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way” and I have thoroughly enjoyed it because it has confirmed and in some way legitimised the scarcely expressed thoughts I’ve had about education for a long time. For the most part, I completely embrace the ideas espoused; however, when it comes to topics like personalisation and differentiation, the truth is, I’m not so sure.
In the chapter Rethinking Initial Teacher Training by Jack Plastow-Chason he says, “excessive differentiation holds pupils back because it lowers expectations put upon them by the teacher, whether consciously or subconsciously” and he’s right. I have seen the way in which systems that are created for greater personalisation, limit the progress and development of pupils. I have witnessed first hand, situations where a child’s anxiety is seen as the deciding factor of what they can achieve rather than their effort and the work that they can produce when their anxiety is reduced. Therefore, providing less academic challenge for a learner is justified so long as it doesn’t make them stressed.
Now, not for a minute am I suggesting that we want students in our classrooms to be stressed or anxious. Instead, I am suggesting that we should provide some differentiation and personalisation to reduce the stress and anxiety of learners so that they can flourish academically. Therefore, whilst I agree with teachers who have decided not to “personalise the lessons themselves”, I think it crucial that we continue to understand the ‘range of factors [that] can inhibit pupil’s ability to learn’ and make adjustments where necessary.
The National Autistic Society tells us that one in every 100 students have autism and the latest census reports that 26.9% of those with a statement or EHCP are those with ASC. Therefore, for every year group, it is likely you will have at least 1 student with Autism and if your school is line with the national picture, then at least 1/4 of your students with autism will have a statement as a result. If indeed this student is in a mainstream environment, it is likely that this learner has high functioning autism and regardless of their eloquence and work ethic, it is likely that they are also riddled with anxiety.
Of course, anxiety is tricky because at school some of these learners will be model students but may go home to self harm or express extreme violence towards their parents or carers. Therefore, as educators, it is important to be aware of these anxieties and provide these learners with resources that can reduce their hidden anxiety. And no, this does not change your role from educator to a social worker or a learning mentor. It just allows you help your student to have good mental health whilst developing academically.
Be of no doubt, I am convinced that many of the strategies and systems suggested by “The Michaela Way” will be of tremendous benefit to ASC Learners. In fact, for many ASC Learners, a knowledge curriculum, the learning of facts and poetry by heart, emphasising a silent classroom and strict routines, are such stuff as dreams are made on. I truly believe that these systems would be beneficial in helping them to flourish within the learning environment. Nevertheless, understanding these needs and disabilities are crucial and making adjustments for them, should remain at the centre of our practice. Otherwise, we could risk losing them to anxieties and negativity that sometimes lurks so quietly inside.