Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

Teaching needs adaptive expertise now more than ever
Margaret Mulholland

I've spent the last couple of years looking at how we support teacher development to build the knowledge and confidence teachers need to educate pupils with learning difficulties. I deliberately refrain from using the euphemism 'special needs' as it labels and limits our view of who and what we are discussing here . 

The pandemic has opened up the debate about what it means to be vulnerable in education and who might  'struggle to learn'.  Working remotely, more young people are finding access to the curriculum difficult.  Default mechanisms for 'differentiating' by simplifying work have been exposed as flawed. Teachers have seen the importance of making adjustment to the way they teach, not for a few pupils, but for the many. Perhaps, too, there is recognition by teachers that this is not a burden, but a professional challenge and a learning opportunity. 

Teachers don't have a box of tricks for pupils with learning difficulties, because each and every child, no matter what their diagnosis, is different. Now, more than ever we need to deepen the capability of and support for teachers to be able to respond to individual learning differences. The pandemic has highlighted many more young people with hidden difficulties of anxiety and of self regulation who, without the support of an adult, have found it difficult to manage their own learning.  We are also encountering more pupils with complex learning profiles in mainstream classrooms more frequently (Carpenter 2010) and the number overall that need support is increasing.

Teachers, particularly new teachers, are therefore often overwhelmed by the diversity of pupil profiles they face in a new classroom. They describe feeling ill equipped and lacking in relevant knowledge. 'I have two pupils with autism and one with severe dyslexic compounded by anxiety, I don't have the expertise to support them'.  Feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed can result in new teachers resisting responsibility for a pupil in their class. 'This pupil is complex, so must be the responsibility of the SENCO, right?' Wrong! Working with a diverse population of learners is the job, so how do we ensure early career teachers, indeed all teachers, feel better prepared?

One big change we could make is to try to equip teachers with the necessary adaptive expertise to cope with this diversity.  We recognise effective teaching as the capacity to adapt, generalise and transform knowledge.  This describes a pedagogy that can embrace difference.  In order to respond to this difference, our teaching and learning must be agile, flexible and capable of adapting. This form of adaptive practice is vital to quality teaching in the modern, dynamic and unpredictable context of the classroom. 

Unfortunately, few CPD sessions focus on teaching flexibility and on how we strengthen pedagogy to be more inclusive. Prioritising how we adapt our teaching, how we problem solve around children who are finding learning difficult, should be a fundamental component of CPD.  

Often the way we currently try to develop expertise in teachers to support pupils with diverse learning needs is through practical experience guided by working with the SEND specialists.  This linear approach assumes that only in later stages can the teacher support such pupils effectively. This risks new teachers believing they can't be effective unless they have served their time, mastered tricks or acquired specialist knowledge. 

We should be helping teachers reflect on and practice with the complex from the outset. The child who just can't work with others, the boy who explodes rather than face disappointing feedback, the girl who is just too anxious to share her learning. Supporting teachers to expect the unexpected, to grapple with intimidating, multi layered challenges. I'd love to see them using skills of seeing and doing, responding to what they see rather than believing that because they haven't studied autism or cerebral palsy therefore they can't help the child looking back at them.  For this to happen, we must take the opportunities of the ECF to give time to mentors to allow them to model adaptive expertise and act as co-experts in the classroom; time to problematise and problem-solve with new teachers, rather than providing simple options to 'fix' the difficulties a child is demonstrating'. 

The true value of adaptive expertise is that it builds teacher confidence to deal with the unknown and the unexpected. It builds capacity to work with ambiguities. It helps us think that a child who is really struggling to engage with curriculum and peers should be seen as a learning opportunity for the teacher, not as a problem to be delegated or denied. The reality is that teachers need to work with unusual and challenging situations, from complex learning difficulties that manifest in extreme behaviours to subtle invisible distress that is equally detrimental to a child's learning.  Professional learning should be focused around complex situational experiences, every day from our first day.  Supporting teachers to problem solve, to model independent thinking and to unpick complexity. 

There's an undeniable need to build teacher confidence and competence in supporting children with complex learning needs. By focussing on building adaptive expertise of teachers from trainee through to executive leader, we can support all our young people in maximising their potential.

Margaret Mulholland | SEND & Inclusion Policy Specialist

Association of School and College Leaders

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