For 12 months now, children in education have been coping with ongoing disruption, which has understandably but unfortunately taken a toll on overall attainment. With the future still quite uncertain – whispers of a third wave have already infiltrated our headlines and social feeds – remote and online education is likely to blend further with in-person education and become a staple part of life for both teachers and pupils. This presents a unique opportunity to reassess the education system of the past and rebuild a better one for the future which is far more considerate of SEN pupils.
Recently, there was a report suggesting that families seeking support for children with special educational needs face a “Postcode lottery” – something that was made worse by remote learning this year. The Department for Education has expressed its commitment to improving support for these pupils, but there are changes teachers can make in the short-term to reduce barriers to learning and be more inclusive of neurodiversity.
If we think about the bigger picture, for example, prior to the events of the past year, teachers received very little in the way of training for remote learning or online delivery – many have been learning how to do this on the job, with pupils having to adapt and figure out what works best for them when plugging into education during the disruption.
In the past year, the scale and extent to which all children have different brains and different ways of learning has come to light for both parents and teachers. The education system so far hasn’t been designed to cater to different brains – or indeed to adapt to transformative change. Instead, we are all taught in the same way regardless of how our individual brains process information; we are all pushed through the same square hole regardless of whether we fit through it. Teachers are trained to deliver education in a certain way, which may even have deterred some of the world’s best potential teachers from the profession for fear of having to engage a classroom of 30 individuals, each with their own mind and penchant for learning.
For instance, online learning doesn’t suit everyone, and with its reintroduction in the future a possibility, it’s important to think about how any barriers to learning could be removed for those that did find it more of a struggle. Teaching online and through a screen needs to be approached in its own way, but the easiest and most beneficial approach to removing barriers is to accommodate every learner by incorporating a variety of different methods. This could be, sending a pre-reading to pupils, recapping information at different points throughout the lesson, using a variety of colour combinations, incorporating regular breaks and building in lots of interaction.
The same, though, can be said of in-classroom teaching too. Not all children are suited to classroom learning and without the correct support, this can be particularly problematic within the current educational system. Reasonable adjustments can be made to support a learner’s individual needs. These can include additional resource materials, equipment, assistive software, more one-to-one time with teachers and even just allowing a little extra time for some tasks.
Although this may sound incredibly challenging (for example, how do you get to know how each child learns and adapt your teaching style in 30 different ways?) there is the technology and infrastructure now available to help make this a reality. Even simply acknowledging the existence of potential barriers and trying to remove them where possible is key to creating a new education system – online or otherwise – that caters to the range of diversities that learners have so that every learner has the opportunity to reach their full potential during this time.
This can be as simple as assessing pupils and presenting teachers with a framework and the tools needed for adapting their teaching to help certain pupils get the most out of their education. This knowledge can help to shape teaching delivery and inform learning perspectives that might not be immediately obvious. Similarly, it is important to openly discuss ‘differences’ with children without judgement. We are all good at certain things and not so good at others. This is normal and talking about it openly reduces stigma. Each of us thinks and learns in our own way and our unique experiences of the world can bring many benefits. Encouraging children to see this and embrace this can lead to more positive outcomes – the diversity of human thinking should be celebrated, not suppressed!
The events of the past year have undoubtedly had negative consequences for some learners, but the upside is that lessons have been learned and more helpful information has come to light. The saying that “You don’t know, what you don’t know” is true and as a result of the disruption we are beginning to learn more than ever about pupil cognition and barriers to learning. Awareness and acknowledgement is the first step in the journey of reducing these and creating a new education system that caters to a multitude of different brains and better allows SEN pupils to flourish.
Dr Louise Karwowski
NCFE endorsed neurodiversity assessment and training provider