A friend in India emailed me this morning to bring to my attention a development that is being hailed as a major breakthrough in the education of children with learning disabilities. An article in the Times of India, written by Yagnesh Mehta under the headline Quick test to identify learning disability among children, implies an impending innovation, which it is suggested will enhance the educational opportunities of a significant number of children. Why is it then that having read the article a couple of times I feel more apprehension than elation?
The article informs readers that:
“Rudresh Vyas, head of psychology department at MTB Arts College, has received a grant of Rs 13 lakh from the University Grants Commission (UGC) to develop the screening test. He will work on the project for the next three years and after successful tests of the model it will be introduced for use by teachers.”
At a surface level I suppose we should all be grateful if the development of a new procedure enables teachers to provide the support for children that may enable them to be more effective learners. But I find myself somewhat disturbed by the implications that are suggested in this article. Maybe this is simply a matter of poor expression within the news report that is doing Dr Vyas a great disservice; I certainly hope that this is the case, because if my interpretation of this article is right, then it raises a number of serious questions.
In the first place, I am concerned for the implication that this “screening test” has not yet been developed, and indeed it is suggested that it is three years away from a state of preparedness, but already it is being seen as a useful tool to be used by teachers. “Successful tests of the model” are apparently assured. This does seem to imply that the results of the test’s developments and the outcomes of any field trials are already anticipated. This, in my experience, is not the usual way in which valid research is conducted. The development of any legitimate instrument would normally go through extensive piloting and field work and only then, if the results proved positive, would such a test be seen as worthy of introduction. If this normal procedure is not seen as necessary, why has Rs 13 lakh (£13,600) been provided for development?
This is clearly a concern, but I have a far greater apprehension about the report and its potential impact upon students. Dr Vyas is reported as saying that:
“With this test a child will be screened within 15 minutes. Currently, there are tests available which require three to four hours. This test will be easy since it will be computerized and shows results in seconds. The test will be available in three languages — Gujarati, Hindi and English”.
I find it hard to imagine that a fifteen minute screening test can possibly have the efficacy that is suggested in this article. However, I am even more concerned that within the period of fifteen minutes it will soon be possible to apply a label to children that will have immense impact upon the rest of their educational lives and possibly beyond.
I have no doubt that the motivations behind the development of this test are honourable. However, a procedure that is likely to result in the labelling of a child as having a learning difficulty, whilst possibly leading to the provision of additional support, is equally destined to single this learner out as potentially problematic and to result in a lowering of expectations. Do we really need more tests that simply tell us about the potential difficulties that children might have with learning? Might we not be better investing Rs 13 lakh on the professional development of teachers in order to assist them in adopting more inclusive approaches to teaching and managing their classrooms.
I wish Dr Vyas well as he works on the development of yet another screening test aimed at identifying learning difficulties in children. I do hope that if it comes to fruition, teachers who are tempted to use this test will recognise that their own professional understanding of children has a part to play in identifying their needs. I also hope that they may choose to examine their own teaching practices alongside the needs of individual children, in order to provide opportunities for them to demonstrate what they can do, rather than simply listing those aspects of learning with which they may have difficulties.