When the exception becomes the rule

An increasing trend, it seems, is a phenomenon of the exception becoming the rule. This is when decisions that affect everyone in a specific context are not determined by using a utilitarian ethos, but determined by the influence of a small minority.

I’ve seen this a lot in education, where teachers/tutors forego a useful pedagogy because they have had a negative experience in implementing it… but in reality only with a handful of learners, or when a policy can’t be implemented school/university wide because it is understood that a certain few will struggle to adapt to it.

When this happens, the exception becomes the rule, and the expectations for progress of the majority are lowered.

In the first instance, it is understandable. The squeaky wheel tends to get the oil, and a vocal minority can easily become the central focus of teacher evaluations. When time and a lack of funds prevents those holding the accountability cards from looking deep into a course’s outcomes, it is a rational choice to play it safe and avoid taking risks with innovative pedagogies. Fear of the consequences of negative student evaluations of teaching and learning are very real. Sometimes it is simply easier to avoid conflict altogether. The result however of erring on the side of this caution and appeasing the minority, is that the majority miss out on the opportunity to progress to their own and a course’s potential. The exception becomes the rule to the detriment of utilitarian progress.

In reading this research paper by Boysen (2021) on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I couldn’t help but draw a parallel. What was intended to be a way to improve accessibility for learners with special needs, has morphed into something that resembles the exception becoming the rule. The original drive has become something of a maelstrom. It has become an exhortation to provide multiple modes of access and multiple modes of expression to all learners, strikingly akin and equally as incorrect as the exhortation to providing multiple modes of access and expression to satisfy learning styles.

Whilst providing suitable access to learners with special needs is an irrefutable pedagogy, extrapolating such a specific context to suggest that the same pedagogy should be applied to all learners becomes dishearteningly ironic. It suggests that every learner shares the same complexities as the learner with special needs. That would thereby eliminate the need for the context, an outcome that I am certain few advocates of special needs education would aspire to.

There is a great deal of evidence to support the notion that learners are far more alike than not in their cognitive makeup, and indeed how they encode and retrieve knowledge (Bjork et al 2013, Dunlosky et al 2013). There is a universality to the way people learn. Conversely, according to UDL, there is no average student—students’ learning is as unique as their fingerprints (Center for Applied Special Technology [CAST], 2018a;Rose & Strangman,2007 – cited by Boysen 2021). The ultimate issue with this undoubtedly well-intentioned assertion is that the coordinator needs to design a range of learning sequences to satisfy the individuality within their cohort. They then need to produce multiple forms of assessment that are equitable in terms of difficulty etc., and then grade them.

From here

Not only is there no evidence that applying such a strategy has any benefit to learning, and that it contradicts the evidence of how universal our cognitive architecture is, the real issue comes down to pragmatics. In terms of workload, such demands are completely impossible, and essentially unethical.

Educators must be wary of falling into the trap of making the exception become the rule. They can’t be tripped by illusory optics or unevidenced pedagogies. Falling has large consequences for learners, the creation of a low ceiling in terms of progress being the main one.


Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions.Annual Review of Psychology,64,417–444.https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest,14(1), 4–58.https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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