By: Suzanne Grant Lewis, Education Science and Policy Chair, Education.org
As many as one in five children has learning differences, meaning they experience challenges between the ways they best learn and the ways classrooms and instruction have typically been designed. They include students who have specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, and those with neurological processing challenges, such as attention deﬁcits, sensory processing disorders and executive function challenges. While learning differences are widespread, awareness of what they are and how to accommodate them is not. The lack of recognition of learning differences experienced by children, and the dearth of associated data, are holding back hundreds of thousands of children who are #BorntoLearn.
Learning differences (LD) are an additional explanation for the persistently low learning levels since 1980, as documented by the GEM Report. In addition, unrecognised and unaddressed learning differences likely contribute to the large numbers of children out of school or never completing school, cited in the 2022 Spotlight Report, because they cannot learn through the dominant pedagogy and classroom conditions in the formal system.
In 2020 Education.org began tracking and analysing education system responses to COVID-19, including approaches for maintaining learning remotely. Our global efforts revealed almost nothing was being reported about students with LD. Our efforts revealed almost nothing was being reported about students with LD. Thus, few conclusions could be drawn about how they were faring during the pandemic’s peak period of educational uncertainty. Furthermore, in our evidence synthesis on Accelerated Education Programmes (AEPs), we sought answers to the questions, “How many of these children leave school due to learning differences?” and “How well are Accelerated Education Programmes serving children with learning differences?” After analysing the largest ever collection of accelerated education programme evidence, both published and unpublished sources, we still don’t know. Sources covered 45 AEPs, surfacing many great examples of how accelerated learning can support out-of-school children and youth. What we did not find was evidence on whether and how out of school children and youth with LD are being served by AEPs. Nor did we find recognition of LD as an important dimension of marginalization and its intersection with other dimensions, including gender, poverty, ethnicity, and migration status.
This discussion interrogates the nature of the data gap, why it exists, and what changes are needed to address the unmet needs of millions of children.
What do we know about the scale of the issue? WHO estimates that 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability but there are no global figures for learning disabilities nor for most countries in the global South. An exception is UNESCO’s estimate that 40,000 children born every year in Thailand (which equals 6%) “could have some form of learning disability, most commonly dyslexia.” The US National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that one in five children in the U.S. has learning and attention issues, but only a small subset are formally identified with LD in school.
The lack of awareness of learning differences is widespread among educators, policymakers, parents, and the public. In his Ethiopian study, Mekonnen found that classroom teachers demonstrated no knowledge of specific learning disabilities and reported no training in either pre-service or professional development programmes. If teachers are not trained to be aware, they are unlikely to identify learning differences in overcrowded classrooms. There is also low awareness that strategies and practices exist to assist children with LD, interventions that are appropriate for each child’s learning differences and may include specific skill instruction, accommodations, compensatory strategies, and self-advocacy skills.
Addressing the understanding gap is important because misconceptions about LD are often damaging to children. It is often assumed that learning differences are associated with low intelligence or are caused by cultural or economic factors or personal characteristics like laziness or lack of motivation.
Screening and diagnosis are a challenge for several reasons. As the KIX report on learning assessments systems found, “Appropriate classroom-based assessments for children with disabilities are often lacking, and the resources to make the required modifications to the environment and pedagogy are often insufficient.” In addition, learning differences intersect with other forms of marginalization, such as poverty, location, race or ethnicity, and language. This makes identifying and addressing more complicated. There is also a severe shortage of learning difference specialists, the unavailability of locally appropriate assessment tools, and the prohibitive cost of individual assessments, all of which contribute to the lack of data and awareness.
For these reasons, the gap in data on LD is unlikely to improve soon. However, government leaders can play a key role in raising awareness and stimulating change. They can officially recognise the issue in policies, guidelines, and sector plans. They can partner with the growing number of local and international NGOs, as well as medical practitioners. In Ethiopia, these include FANA-Ethiopia, a charitable organization working to create and raise awareness of learning and communication difficulties and provide help and support to children with these difficulties in Ethiopia. And in Ghana, the Luminos Fund is developing a set of tools for supporting teachers in low-resource contexts to identify children who may be at risk of having a learning difficulty.
Our evidence synthesis identified priority areas for government policy action, areas critical to helping OOSCY learn and transition to formal schools or other pathways. In each of the following priorities, government can start to address the needs of those with often unseen learning differences.
- AEP Goals: Make clear that those with learning differences often suffer from other forms of marginalisation and need to be served.
- Equity and inclusion policies: Include children and youth with learning differences in the policy definition of inclusive education. Specify AEPs as a strategy to serve these children and youth.
- Assessment and certification: Ensure accommodations are made in examinations for certification, such as extended time, breaks, or having instructions or questions repeated by examiners. Hong Kong’s government guidance is an example.
- Monitoring, Evaluation, Data Collection (M&E and EMIS: Introduce indicators for learning differences, such as number of students referred for assistance with LD or number of children in a few LD categories. Plan for the link between AEP data collection and EMIS.
- Teacher/facilitator professional development: Work with partners to develop guidelines for training and mentoring to raise LD awareness, counter misconceptions, and offer screening and teaching strategies. LD training in pre-service teacher education can be mandated. NEQMAP’s Asia-Pacific Review offers numerous country examples.
- Pedagogy: The student-centred pedagogy of effective AEPs is in the home language and is active and gender-sensitive. But it must also respond to the learning needs of each student. Governments can ensure teacher training policies include pedagogical strategies for LD.
Since the global commitment to the SDGs, the international education community has placed increased emphasis, even if still insufficient, on the right of children with physical challenges to an accessible, quality education. There is no longer an argument over whether children with physical challenges, such as mobility, sight, hearing, or speaking, should be afforded an opportunity to learn. Given this consensus of the global education community, it is surprising that “inclusive education” has not been widely understood to include those with learning differences.
Download the AEP High Level Policy Guidance