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EQUALS is a not-for-profit registered charity, first formed in 1994, committed to supporting the work of teachers, TAs, schools and parents/carers of pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) severe learning difficulties (SLD) and moderate learning difficulties (MLD).

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Formal and Semi-formal curriculum choices

I have recently had a query sent to me by a colleague working in an all age special school who have just decided to move over to an Informal, Semi-Formal, Formal Curriculum model, and it struck me that the issues raised relating to the time devoted to Literacy and Numeracy and their relative importance, might be of interest to Equals’ members. The teacher’s questions are in italics followed by my suggestions.

My main concern is for the ASD pupils who have reading/math levels that are old L1. How do you suggest that we support those pupils in the lessons to ensure that they do not lose those skills? Do we teach them a formal curriculum for those subjects? I am concerned that if we don’t continue to teach them those core subjects using the formal curriculum, then they will lose those skills!
 
I’m afraid there is not a definitive answer, since the degree to which you run with a formal/semi-formal combination and how much of either you put into an individual’s timetable will very much depends on a number of factors; these being

    1. Age
    2. Current ability levels 
    3. Potential to get up towards level 4 (old money) 
    4. Interest of the individual learner

1. Age – I would be more inclined towards the formal curriculum model the younger the learner is and by extension, less inclined the older the learner is. Generally speaking, if the learner hasn’t got number by the time they’re 8 or 9 and certainly by the time they’re 11, they’re probably not going to get it to a level that will help.
 
Learners MUST have an abstract understanding of the relationship between every number and every other number if they’re going to have a chance of being numerate, otherwise it just tends to be learning by rote. Rote learning also of course, comes in to reading, and again, learners really need to understand that words themselves are merely abstract symbols representing ideas that are put together to form ever more complex thoughts. The ability to read, so often apparent in learners with ASD, does not signify understanding, otherwise I would be able to understand Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which I can’t. I can read the words, but have no idea what they mean!
 
The thing about such rote abilities is that they open teachers up to dilemmas of difference – do I carry on teaching literacy and numeracy in the hope that the learner eventually gets it or do I follow a different model knowing that the learner can and will succeed at that? Unfortunately there is no right answer, but I’m not certain that you will be able to do justice to both because both will take up SO much time.

2. Current ability and levels and 3. Potential can be more or less taken together, because both numeracy and especially literacy only really start to make sense from a position of positively helping with ordering and living our lives – that is, helping us to make sense of the very complex world around us – when we get to around level 4 of the National Curriculum, a position achieved by most neuro-typical 10 year olds by the time they leave primary school. If children haven’t already or are not going to (in your and others’ professional opinion) get to those dizzy heights, there doesn’t seem to be much point in spending large amounts of time pursuing the ambition. You may however, spend small amounts of time doing it, and how large or small will be decided by how much this additional work impinges on their making progress within the semi-formal curriculum.
 
Of course the other very important issue that we mustn’t forget here is that simply because you’re not teaching formal Literacy and Numeracy does not mean that your learners are not improving their literacy and numeracy skills. Maths is everywhere and in every thing. All learners will learn HUGE amounts of maths by being able to successfully cross a road, make a pizza, kick a ball, take their feet off the bottom of the pool, traverse across the hall. One doesn’t have to learn formal maths to learn maths! Similarly, we tend to forget that literacy is merely a higher and more complex form of communication, because that’s what it is – communication. Stephen Hawking has not managed to communicate with me and obviously, the complexity of the language used means that he wasn’t trying to communicate with me in the first place. If he was, I have to tell him that he’s failed abysmally! Is that my fault – no! It’s his fault because to be effective and therefore meaningful, the communication MUST be understood by both parties. If it’s not, what’s the point?

4. The individual learner’s particular interest is I think also a key factor – do they like reading, counting, doing sums? Some do, and if they do, why not carry it on, though again how much time you spend on this depends on how this will impinge on their successes in other areas.
Finally, on losing skills, my view would tend to be that rote skills not practised tend to stay pretty solid over time and will come back once practice recommences. That’s what makes them rote skills. And anyway a little bit of practice will largely keep them intact.

In summation, there is unfortunately, no definitive answer – it is a dilemma and dilemmas tend not to have easy answers otherwise they wouldn’t be dilemmas! Trust your judgement as a professional of long standing and experience. Trust the judgements of others you trust – your Senior Leadership Team, your TAs, SaLTs, OTs, Physios. Make a collective judgment on where you think the learner will be academically in 5 years time if you just carried on with a formal curriculum. This may not be entirely accurate (what forecasts are?) but given experience and knowledge you are likely to be broadly correct, that is, within a P scale or two. Trust that collective judgement and make your decisions accordingly.

Peter Imray
3rd October 2018
 


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