During my time teaching special education, I’ve attempted to put a square peg into a round hole, that is, to structure HSIE/Science units of work much in the same way I taught them in mainstream – with a pre-defined set of outcomes/indicators and a learning sequence designed to achieve those goals. I adapted existing BoS or DEC units of work to meet the needs of my students, and off we went.
Well, thus far, I’ve found this to be pretty uninspiring, and I’m pretty sure the kids have as well. You know, “Workers in our Community” might be hugely fascinating the one week you look at firefighters, for the kid in your class with Autism who has the fire engine fixation, but by and large, it’s dull, dull, dull for all concerned.
So I’m going to try something new.
I’m going to ditch the traditional HSIE/Science learning sequences or integrated units, and instead schedule in “student-directed learning” sessions twice a week. These sessions would emerge from questions the students have asked, or interests they have shown. And it would be up to me to find ways to make valid links to the curriculum and determine outcomes/indicators “on the run”.
For example, at the moment we examine/graph the weather each day using an interactive weather chart. The kids are hugely interested in the way the sky changes and the temperature drops as the sun goes down. My most articulate student has asked “Where does the sun go?” and my student who has difficulties verbalising things makes a rare comment of “sun goes down” – it’s something they’re all really cued into and fascinated by.
So I’m going to use this interest and these questions to drive a mini unit of work (about four lessons) on “Where does the sun go?”. I can easily link it to Science and Technology, and I’m sure I can attach some Creative Arts lessons into it (and Maths and English will be integrated by default). Perhaps I could even organise a Skype session with someone overseas during their “night time” to make the difference more real (potential HSIE links, maybe? I’m thinking along the lines of Stage 3 Global Connections – would be kinda cool to be potentially working towards Stage 3 outcomes in a senior IO class!).
I think this approach will be successful, primarily because it gives students the opportunity to drive their own learning, thus making it more relevant and meaningful, and hopefully more engaging.
Having said this, I think there are potential pitfalls, though I think there are possibly ways to counter them:
1) Will they gain deep knowledge/understanding of the content, if they are just briefly addressed over, say, a four lesson period? (I’m hoping interest causes them to ask questions/share interest beyond school, and that will make up for the brevity of in-school learning time. And I guess the units of work could go for longer, if need be).
2) What if there is (and there probably will be) a diversity in student interest? (I guess I’ll need to try and find links between interests and ways interests can be co-accommodated, or creatively use grouping to meet the needs of students? Perhaps I can create online learning modules/personal learning environments in an area of interest for students, so we can rotate around between teacher-support instruction and self-regulated learning?)
3) What if there are no questions? (Hmm. This would be problematic. Though it’s pretty rare for kids not to ask questions/be interested in something. But if it happens, I think I’ll need to find a way to structure events/activities that lead to questions).
I think I’ll need to be quite explicit about these learning sessions, and explain to the kids that it will be an opportunity for them to learn about things they’re interested in. Maybe we have have a Question Wall where we can record questions the kids ask, or a “Things I Like” book to gather student interests.
I imagine the transition process will be interesting for the kids. For many kids, the idea of “choice” in a classroom or even the idea that they have to initiate their own thoughts/ideas/learning can be problematic – we often spoonfeed too much! But I think this is particularly pronounced for students with disabilities – choices are often made for them, either overtly or covertly, especially when communication is limited. I think getting their heads around freedom of choice will be a lesson in itself!
So, we’ll see how it goes. I’d love to hear from other teachers who’ve tried this method, or any suggestions/questions/potential problems you may see from this approach. I’m not sure if it strictly fits into PBL or any other fancy pedagogical category, but I’d appreciate anyone who’s willing to point out any giant black holes in front of me, before I fall into them, or to shine a light on other avenues I haven’t explored
In the meantime, I’ll keep posting updates on how it’s all going.