Friday, April 13, 2012

What About Special Needs Learners?

After my school visit in Germany, I have begun to examine the challenges for teachers of children with specific learning needs. The teachers I met with talked about their priorities being:

  1. the acquisition and use of language 
  2. social acceptance
  3. future opportunities in the workforce and in life
  4.  integration of skills and application of knowledge in real life settings
The children they were working with have a range of different learning needs from autism to hearing impairment to behaviour issues and social anxieties. This broad and challenging range means that their support teachers are constantly adapting classroom programmes to enable these learners to have the maximum support whilst still ensuring that they are developing independence and integration.

In schools in Germany, there is very little use of technology as we know it. There is lucky to be a desktop, often archaeic, in the corner of the classroom gathering dust. The teaching approach is still very much based on a dusty old curriculum, which has changed little in 40+ years. The focus is still on the testing and not on child-centred teaching and learning. 

However, if I were to pick up the pluses that I saw I would have to say that they have really got some great things right. Firstly, they have the most highly skilled and greatest qualified teachers working with the special needs learners. They invest highly in the programmes for these children - they are worked with in small groups within the classroom where possible or withdrawn in small groups when necessary. They do not assign a few hours a week to keeping them mainstreamed but instead they have these children working in a specialist environment and with the experts in their learning. I have to say that I was really impressed with how much time, energy and money is invested in these children. The dedication of their teachers is phenomenal. The parents are in constant contact - the teachers give out their personal home and mobile numbers and the parents are able to contact them anytime. Of course, because this is an accepted practice, the majority of parents respect this right hugely and would generally never abuse it. 

The other thing that seems to work incredibly well in these schools is the small number of children in the classes. There are up to 20 children in the classes and then there are support teachers also for the children with high needs. The monitoring for each child is constant and consistent which has to be an extremely positive thing.

We got on to talking about technology in the classrooms and it was interesting to see that this still bears no impact on the learning in most schools in Germany. Computers, digital devices and learning are still totally disconnected and it is considered that with a much shorter school day (the children go home at 1pm at the latest) there is an already overloaded curriculum. It is deemed as imperative for the children to manage to learn to read, write and calculate at school through traditional means and this ensures that technology receives no look-in at all. As we talked, it became evident that teachers are pretty frustrated by these short days and would prefer a day that ends at 3pm instead. They are also frustrated by a stale and somewhat crusty curriculum that holds their creativity at bay and restricts their ability to introduce and use the tools of the time. I was surprised at the fact that computers are still viewed in schools as a play-thing here, rather than a learning mechanism. Testing is still a high priority from the moment that children enter school.

I showed them the wikis, blogs and online tools that we use in our classroom. We talked about self-management and the broader skills of a learner that can be developed through a variety of methods. We also talked about learning styles and student-driven learning, something that is largely ignored due to the curriculum demands here. It highlights the forward movements that some nations make and certainly makes me question the huge differences between countries and their education systems.

My friends and their colleagues are highly intelligent, self-motivated, creative people who went through these same school systems and constraints. They are able to collaborate and self-manage, think and problem-solve, so it certainly demonstrates that different methods can achieve the same goals. The only difference is that, put into a position in another country, they may not possess the same level of knowledge around technology. Does their education system prepare them well for THEIR country's jobs? I believe that it does. Could it be better? Well, I sense that these teachers and their colleagues in the main believe that it could and yearn for a greater acceptance of change from the leaders who can make it happen.

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