This is a guest post written by Dr Helen Ross.
Helen is a fully qualified special needs teacher and former SENCO, currently working in a mainstream school. Helen’s research explores stakeholder experiences of SEND provision within the mainstream education sector, focussing on the empowerment of young people to take ownership of their own learning journeys. She is a qualitative researcher, using methods grounded within Bourdieu’s sociological project to explore barriers to participation in learning and engagement with institutions. She also provides expert advice and research consultancy, as well as specialist tuition and CPD, through her own enterprise ‘Helen’s Place’, is an advisor to the British Dyslexia Association and is Chair of the Wiltshire Dyslexia Association. She tweets as @drhelenross.
What’s going on then?
The Covid19 pandemic in 2020 has shed light on a system that is so exam-focussed that there is very little wriggle room for anything else. In many schools, students are finding remote learning overwhelming and difficult to access for a myriad of reasons. There are students who are thriving and it important to recognise this too, but these students are not the central focus of this piece. I want to talk about my practice as a teacher and how exam-focussed I had become, and had almost forgotten the joy of creativity in teaching, as a craft I love.
It has taken partial closure of schools in the UK, movement of almost all teaching online and me changing my own private practice to make me realise how tunnel-visioned some of my perspective on teaching and learning had become. It had been a slow, drip-drip-drip process to move me to the point where so much of my focus was on exams. I had lost some of the joy that innovation and creativity in topics, teaching and tasks could bring. It was when a couple of my own students switched to remote tutor sessions that I was free to create!
I discussed with the kids what they wanted their session to ‘look like’, what they were doing at school and how they wanted my session to work alongside the work that their school was setting. We all decided that it was a good thing for my work to be skills based and not related directly to the work they were doing with their teachers. I talked this through with their Mum and she thought it was a great idea to do something different in focus. Then it was the weekend and I created!
I was utterly and completely free to create programmes of study to develop skills after collaboration with my students. I have never had that in my life! Normally content is so driven by exam topics, that there isn’t space for doing something out-of-programme. But this spring, I have done and it has been glorious!
I wrote a scheme of work based on a film- In Time- to help a student learn how to critically analyse, draw comparisons with current times, analyse texts and plan responsive essays. We wrote a film review, we wrote a love letter, we discussed capitalism, all from watching a film! Her essay skills, her analysis and discursive responses are second-to-none and we were engaging with something so relatable that the tasks made sense to her. I got total artistic and creative license to cover anything I wanted, to support her in the skills we were developing.
Another student used creative writing to start understanding how stories can be ‘activism’, contain messages and evoke responses in their readers. I had a plan to introduce story structures and she had a plan to learn about able-ism assumptions and what writing and literature can do to raise awareness. In doing this, she raised her own awareness and talked with her family about systemic bias, personal prejudice and experiences of marginalised people. She also wrote an absolutely cracking story! Her literacy improved, her use of language improved and her confident went through the roof.
And I rediscovered the joy of teaching something for interest and to edify my students’ understanding of the world rather than to pass an exam.
Re-opening my eyes
How very dry and stark that final sentence reads: we teach to pass exams. We don’t teach to develop and engage with the world. Let me say it again:
We teach to pass exams.
School closures and distance learning have opened my eyes to the potential that teaching could be both for teachers and students. My literary queens are sisters who both have dyslexia and who find picking out information difficult. They find reading difficult and planning writing is a mammoth task. These are skills that they need time and freedom to develop. It should not take remote learning during a pandemic to give these students that time, freedom and headspace. We must do better and shift the curriculum so that this opportunity is afforded to all students who need it, as a matter of course during their education.
We need to do better.
We have an opportunity as we open up again after COVID-19. We have the opportunity to shift teacher training around Special Educational Needs and Disability. We have the opportunity to develop teachers’ and students’ skills using assistive technology. We have the opportunity to re-focus away from purely exam-based assessment. We have the opportunity to revolutionise education using what we’ve learned in lockdown to make creativity central in the development of transferable skills, to improve curricular access for learners with SEND and to foster a love of learning (whatever learning looks like for each person) in all our young people.
Let’s grab that chance with both hands and run with it.