What the term 'learning difficulties' means in the UK context and what Lesson Study offers the field of special needs education
Special educational terminology has tended to be fairly vague over the last 30 years, relying on general legislative definitions of special educational needs (SEN) in terms of teaming difficulties. One of four dimensions of SEN is about cognition and learning; within this dimension are the areas of moderate and specific learning difficulties (MLD and SpLD, respectively), a distinction broadly between general intellectual and specific difficulties (e.g., dyslexic difficulties). The funders of the Lesson Study project to be described in more detail below wanted it to focus on pupils with moderate learning difficulties (MLD), as this had been an important but neglected area of research and development. It is therefore useful to consider how MLD has been formally defined in England:
Pupils with moderate learning difficulties will have attainments significantly below expected levels in most areas of the curriculum, despite appropriate interventions. ... Pupils with moderate learning difficulties have much greater difficulty than their peers in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills and in understanding concepts. They may also have associated speech and language delay, low self-esteem, low levels of concentration and under-developed social skills (Department for Education and Skills, 2005, p. 3).
National statistics show that 23% of all pupils identified between the ages of 5-16 in English schools as having the more significant levels of SEN (School Action Plus and Statements: about 9-10% of all pupils are identified with these levels of SEN1) have MLD as their primary area of SEN (Norwich & Jones, 2014). However, we would expect uncertainty and important differences in how the MLD category is used in schools, given the above definition. Research as part of this larger project has actually illustrated this vagueness. Norwich, Ylonen, and Gwernan-Jones (2014) found that although the pattern of attainment of secondary-aged pupils identified by schools as having MLD using the above definition was towards the lower end of the range of attainment and reasoning measures, there was no basis for distinguishing between the MLD group, the lower-attaining group, and those with specific learning difficulties. This finding relates to recent conclusions from the national inspection agency that there is over-identification of SEN in England (Office for Standards in Education, 2010). However, whether SEN is over-identified in general and MLD in particular depends on the purposes of using such categories. If MLD is taken as equivalent to mild intellectual disabilities, which is how it is used in health service classifications such as those based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, then the study showed that only those identified as having MLD with Statements (the highest level of SEN) came close to meeting that DSM criterion. The relatively high incidence of MLD in England (23% of SEN) compares with a much lower US incidence of mild intellectual disabilities, the US counterpart to MLD. For example, 8.6% of all pupils were identified as having intellectual disabilities in the US educational system in 2007 (MacMillan, Siperstein, & Gresham, 1996: overall rate of identification in USA was about 14%). In the US IDEA statistics, this covers mild, moderate and severe intellectual disabilities, with mild being the largest sub-group).
This national difference has partly to do with the tighter US definition, which addresses both intellectual functioning below 70 on a standard IQ-type scale and low adaptive functioning outside of school. The lower US incidence of mild intellectual disabilities is also associated with higher percentages of children being identified in the US as having specific learning disabilities (LD), the counterpart to SpLD in England. It is interesting that MacMillan et al. (1996) question the basis for a reliably distinct category of mild intellectual disability, in terms that are relevant for the use of MLD in England. They recommend that intellectual disability should be reserved for more severe forms of difficulties. In England there is the equivalent issue of whether pupils identified as having MLD are to be considered as being at the lowest end of the continuum of lower- attaining pupils or whether they have a mild-moderate intellectual disability.
These category boundary issues bear on who the Lesson Study project was focused on and for whom it had significance. However, more important was the lack of previous interest in school development and research about teaching pupils identified with MLD. So, for the purposes of the implementation of Lesson Study we opted for the general term teaming difficulties to refer to this spectrum of difficulties in learning that range from MLD to below-average attainment, which crosses over the SEN or non-SEN distinction. This uncertain boundary crossing underpins the adaptation and development of Lesson Study used in the project about to be described.