Learning from “special” education

In order to achieve better outcomes, we might want to start with assessing needs

Chris Lore Sunfield School (Ruskin Mill Trust)

In the course of my work over the past few years within the independent special education sector in England, I have become increasingly aware of the benefits of shifting my focus from a outcomes based approach to one that accounts more for the experiential needs of each learner.  

Working in special education can certainly be challenging, but, in terms of assessment, there is one aspect in which my colleagues and I have it easy: we know that something in the educational history of the children and young people who come to us has clearly not worked. 

These pupils have either fallen significantly behind their learning expectations, engaged in levels of behaviour beyond their school’s ability to support, or have simply refused to attend school at all. In the process, their relationship to schools in particular and education is general has often been severely damaged.

As mentioned, assessing that something is not working is easy; finding out what does work, not so much. Instead of starting our assessment process by looking at what these learners can and cannot do, we begin by analysing what they need in order to fully experience and interact with the world. For example, we ask ourselves how they receive and process information, express their thoughts and feelings, regulate their emotions, and relate to members of the staff team and peers. It is only once we have a better understanding of how they experience the world that we can put a programme together based on these experiential needs, often with surprisingly successful results.

We have learned a few things with this needs and experiential-based approach:

  1. In most cases, our learners’ previous programmes were much too narrow in how they were implemented.  For example, often their curriculum was delivered through cognitive activities and abstract formats, which proved difficult for the learners to process and retain. Instead, we find that these pupils benefit from learning activities that engage a wider range of rich experiences, such as those involving movement, touch, and interaction with the natural world.
  2. It can be more effective to base assessment of learning on what the learner can do, not what they can say. This means that we find that formal exams at times mask underlying achievement by trying to convert learning into a format that can be more easily measured at the expense of reflecting acquired skills and understanding. For our learners, we are better able to gauge achievement based on their ability to perform in a play, complete an experiment, or engage in a project as opposed to requiring them to articulate their learning through more formal assessment.
  3. One of the most significant barriers to using a needs and experiential approach to education is that staff need to be trained in how to design and deliver a curriculum based on the needs of learners and not on the needs of a preset curriculum, meaning that we devote and put a good amount of effort into developing their ability to assess how our learners experience their environment and plan outcomes and design schemes of work in line with these experiential needs. 

My team and I often think about how our students have experienced education prior to their enrolment at our school, which often consists of what they see as a history of failures and rejection. We also wonder about those students who are not deemed to meet the threshold for specialist education provision, but who may be quietly struggling to have their needs met within more traditional learning environments. 

What more could they achieve if we began with their needs?

Within our current education system, it sometimes seems as if learning programmes and environments are designed with a particular type of pupil in mind, and a child or young person is required to deviate significantly from this type in order to receive “special” education provision.  

Would it be possible, we ask ourselves, to change our perspective on education so that there is less of a divide between those pupils who are granted this “special” provision and those that are not?

This might mean converting our current deficit-based approach to education to one based on the view that all learners are unique individuals whose particular experience of their world should be accounted for in the design of their learning programmes and environments. In so doing, we would be able to rid ourselves of the divide between special and mainstream and make education special for all, which is a goal that is difficult to disagree with.

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