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Exploring Learning Styles In School: What's Important?

As I have written about studying with dyslexia, I have come to the conclusion that schools that are failing dyslexic students do so because the student is expected to learn in the way that the teacher wants them too rather than the way that they naturally learn.

Now I am no educational expert, but as I came up through my own education as someone who struggled to concentrate, fidgeted a lot (and I mean A LOT), chatted too much and felt bored reading, there were some subjects that I absolutely adored and some that I literally felt that I had to slog through knowing that my effort in equalled a much lower level of attainment that I was satisfied with.

At the time I thought that this was down to having some teachers that I liked and some that I didn't
This article is sponsored by St David's College.
and whilst there is an element of truth in that, more recently, I have started to think that the teachers that engaged me were the ones that somehow, educationally, spoke my learning language.  They somehow matched my learning style and I thrived in those classes.

A good example is learning French at school.  My teacher at the time, in my class of about 30 kids, literally engaged only a fraction of the kids in the class.  He made French a boring subject for me, or so I thought, however for some of my peers they were really engaged.
I thought that this was down to my inability to like speaking languages, but in more recent years I have found that I absolutely love trying to communicate (poorly!) in other languages.  I love giving it a go and creating bridges with people in other countries.
My conclusion, therefore, is not that I didn't like French, but sadly the style of teaching that my teacher exhibited clashed with my style of learning and whilst he continued to be employed, I failed my GCSE in French.

For me, this highlights a problem that I suspect won't be a surprise to you.  Anyone who seeks to teach or influence others must find a way to communicate their message effectively to the listeners.  It would be easy to say that kids in school should take responsibility and listen and learn, but that is not sound advice if the message is presented in a way that highlights their weaknesses with learning.

In my French class, my teacher predicted a grade 'G' for my GCSE.  I took responsibility for my learning as best as I could.  I worked many extra hours to revise French.  At the time my hope was to cram as much as possible and hope that something stuck with me.  I was engaged, I wanted to learn but the teacher was not able to get through and as a result, I had a disappointing grade.  Just to prove to you that I was engaged and keen to learn (despite how bored I was in that guy's class), I actually managed a grade 'D' in my GCSE.  Despite all my effort, I was still not able to reach that magical grade 'C' that meant my options were open for doing A-Levels if I wanted to, but I was successful in getting my attainment up by two grades!
The teacher will never know how much I cared about trying to do well in that subject and I am pretty sure that he never changed the way that he taught his following pupils after me.

So I believe that there are two elements that are essential for the teacher-pupil relationship to be successful.  The pupil needs to be engaged, but the teacher needs to help them get there by adjusting their teaching style and the environment that they teach in.

I recently delivered a coaching programme in a school for students who regularly got excluded due to their behaviour.  To be fair, I wasn't even going in to teach them and the behaviour of some of the group drove me nuts.  I constantly had to remind myself that the behaviour I witnessed was an indication that they were struggling to engage and not that they wanted to be disruptive.  Teachers have a hard time.  In many schools, they will have upwards of 30 kids to teach and you only need a few to disrupt the whole class.  In my coaching programme, I had six! Yes, six!  I was struggling to control a room of six teenagers as I went through my programme with them.
It got so bad that at my lowest point where I felt that I was failing, I had a realisation....

'The responsibility for engagement was not the young people's responsibility, it was mine.'  

I was failing to communicate in a way that lead to a meaningful shift in learning.  Those young people were already fed up with being in school.  Some had dyslexia (2), one had a diagnosis of ADHD and across the group, there were problems with working memory and concentration.  Why should I expect them to want to listen to what I had to say if I didn't present my 'teaching' in a way that resonated with them?

To make my coaching programme successful, I had to change the way that I was communicating.  In the case of this group this meant moving away from time spent discussing and more time doing physical activities that illustrated what I wanted them to see.  It was only after changing my style of 'teaching' did those teenagers start to feel that I was meeting with their 'learning style' and thus engagement started to happen and the lads started to open up about how they wanted to learn but were struggling and how their poor behaviour was a ruse to hide how they were feeling.  From being able to communicate their feelings they started to get a sense of what they needed to change to make school more useful to them and their future.

Whilst my coaching programme didn't specifically focus on SEN challenges to learning, I was on the lookout for those challenges, after all, seven out of 10 permanently excluded pupils are reported to be experiencing a special educational need.  I had to change the way that I engaged in order for those young people to feel that they could engage with me.

I don't think that I would have come to this realisation if it wasn't for all the conversations I have had with many SENCO's in schools who care deeply about supporting children with special educational needs.  Often they are working with challenging levels of funding in order to bring about effective measures to support learning in multiple classes.

Faye Favill, St David's College
Recently I asked Faye Favill, SENCO and Head of the Cadogan Centre at St David's College in Llandudno, about learning styles and how to provide support for the very different ways in which children with special educational needs learn.  St David's have a culture of sharing good practice for
supporting students with special educational needs and Faye shared with me a publication that she uses with her teachers across the curriculum which is called:

"The Dyslexia Friendly Teachers Toolkit: Strategies For Teaching Students 3-18."

This publication gives a general overview of the principles and practices required, and what the dyslexia-aware teacher needs to bear in mind and if they want to make effective, inclusive dyslexia-friendly classrooms a reality rather than an aspiration. 

Click here to find out more.
I am really pleased to be able to share Faye's suggestion with you as I know that the concept of making classrooms more dyslexia friendly is something that is gaining popularity as taking this approach more and more pupils, dyslexic or not, will find learning a more positive process.

One aspect that is essential in making a school increasingly more dyslexia friendly is training.

Faye kindly shared with me St David's report on their own teaching model and a key element is ensuring that their teaching staff take a post-graduate level five qualification in the teaching and learning of children with SpLD. This ensures that across the teaching staff there is an effective understanding of what it is like to learn with special educational needs and what practises in the classroom helps a child with dyslexia to learn.

Taken from the St David's College report on their own SEN Teaching Model. Click to download the full report.

The British Dyslexia Association also strongly advocates a dyslexic friendly environment.
They offer the following publication:

The Dyslexia Friendly Schools Good Practice Guide 2nd Edition.

The Dyslexia Friendly Schools Good Practice Guide 2nd Edition.
Available from the BDA

Edited by Linda Eastapp and Joanne Gregory, this publication is an overview of ideas and information about the good practice that helps young people with dyslexia and other co-occurring conditions to learn more effectively in schools.  This publication has been contributed to by a number of dyslexia specialists, teachers and other specialists who share good practice in schools.

As I look through resources such as these I start to feel a level of hope that more and more teachers have the option to read up on how to make their teaching practice more inclusive for students with dyslexia and other SEN however this needs to be addressed at a strategic level so that good practice is standardised and more students reap the benefit of learning in that environment.

The real takeaway for the readers of this article is that whilst it can be problematic in catering for the wide learning requirements or styles of students with dyslexia and other SEN in schools, I believe that on a national level we are not putting in measures to fully make schools dyslexia and SEN friendly within the actual 'DNA' of the schools.  This concept is often a 'bolt-on' rather than an essential element of how a successful school should be.

If you are a teacher and feel that your level of understanding about SEN is quite low, or maybe you are struggling with the behaviour of students in your class, I challenge you to consider what you could change about your teaching style that could be more inclusive and helps to raise the attainment of dyslexic pupils.

Best ideas for teaching children with special educational needs
Click here to download this free ebook from St David's College.

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