Inspiring lifelong learners

5 minute read

Female student looking at a flower.
Female student looking at a flower.
Female student looking at a flower.
Female student looking at a flower.

It was muddy, it was messy, it was magnificent.

A group of primary school children attended a weekly course at their local community garden, working alongside a horticultural therapist to create their very own vegetable patch.

They carefully prepared the soil, planted the seeds they had chosen and nurtured their plants throughout the year until their vegetables were ready to harvest and cook.

They overcame obstacles (slug attacks, heatwaves, and countless downpours), worked as a team, and discovered how the decisions they made had direct consequences.

These children received immersive and interactive lessons in art, science, geography, PSHE, physical education, design and technology, and natural history. And let's not forget life skills such as patience, perseverance, responsibility, and resilience.

What a list!

It made me think about the systems we learn within and how they impact us.

What factors affect a pupil's enjoyment and enthusiasm for learning, and how do different schools approach this?

Falling out of love with learning

The classic classroom setup can be daunting for any student, but particularly for those with autism and ADHD who can experience the world differently.

Individuals with sensory sensitivities can feel overloaded in this busy, noisy and ever-changing environment, while others may struggle with the social dynamics, facing bullying or feelings of isolation.

Rigid structures can leave little room for flexibility and creativity for those with executive functioning differences, whilst sitting down for most of the day can feel counterproductive for energetic children who may prefer more hands-on, practical learning experiences.

The pressure to perform academically, coupled with high expectations from parents or teachers, can also create anxiety and stress.

All of these challenges can leave some students feeling uninspired and disengaged, often resulting in a negative perception of school.

A recent post by Carrie Grant, Ambassador of the National Autistic Society, highlighted this and helped inspire the theme of this article.

Alternative Education models

Schools employ various approaches to create inclusive learning environments and to accommodate diverse learners. These include collaborations with specialist support services, strategies tailored to each student's needs, and accessible resources.

Some, though, have taken a completely different path, using an alternative education model that cultivates an environment where children can be curious, explore, and grow.

Growing minds

The Outdoors School is an independent school in Devon that offers a new approach to learning for young people with Social, Emotional, and Mental Health Needs (SEMH).

Based almost entirely outside, they offer education beyond the classroom. This school works on a learner-led, emotional curriculum that incorporates real-life experiences, project-based learning, and the wellbeing of young people to help them take charge of their own journeys and become lifelong learners.

Craig Vincent, Head of Teaching and Learning, shares why they take this innovative approach:

“Being outdoors is at the heart of our ethos; it provides the freedom for young people to be autonomous and have the independence, exploration, and self-motivation to drive their own learning and projects. Particularly for young people with special educational needs, learning outdoors provides a positive sensory environment, free of artificial lights and loud noises. It’s also a great equaliser (the rain falls and the sun shines on everyone equally!) and builds resilience and community as young people navigate the elements and obstacles of being outside as part of their learning day.”

The Outdoors School demonstrates how an inclusive environment recognises and values individual interests and preferences, nurturing the whole person and giving every learner the opportunity to thrive.

Enriching the experience

Another way schools are making education more inclusive is through the integration of assistive technology.

Technology gives students an alternative way to access learning materials and can make the process more interactive and engaging. These tools help teachers remove barriers to participation and tailor the experience to each student's unique needs and preferences.

Examples include task management apps and reminder systems, which can help students stay on track with their assignments and deadlines. Text-to-speech software to convert written text into spoken words, taking pressure off those who may struggle with reading long documents, and software to condense lengthy learning materials into flashcards for more effective revision.

The built-in features of some study software can empower users to take control of their journey and customise it. Reflection features can help students identify mood patterns, understand triggers, and proactively address issues, while progress tracking is helpful for recognising achievements and maintaining motivation.

In addition to enhancing academic performance, assistive technology promotes autonomy. It allows students to work in ways that work for them, reigniting a passion for learning.

Benefits beyond academics

No environment can perfectly meet every student's needs. However, many schools are starting to weave alternative approaches like those above into the fabric of mainstream education to create a more engaging and effective learning experience for their pupils.

Textbooks and traditional teaching methods absolutely have their place, but perhaps so do community and creativity and placing more emphasis on social and emotional development.

How was your day? I asked my seven-year-old as he came out of school this afternoon. He was beaming and covered in dirt - today was Forest School.

‘‘We found woodlice, built a wildlife pond, and made a den. It was BRILLIANT.’’

A lifelong learner in the making.

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