I have a great group of students. That’s something I find myself saying every year, and something I mean every year. One of the things that I love about my students? They are all a little bit different. Okay, some of them are a lot different, but that’s part of what makes them amazing.

Every year at Banbury we gain a few students and lose a few students, so the student population composition changes. But, one thing remains constant – we are a school that attracts A-typical learners. There are a lot of reasons why Banbury is so attractive to A-Typical learners – small class sizes, individualized instruction, choices in what is worked on, when, and where, etc. But, what it all comes down to is Self Directed Learning.

I want to clarify – in the SDL world, there is a spectrum of approaches, from self-managed to self-determined, and Banbury falls more towards to the self-determined side of things. There is more freedom and choice here, because it is a smaller environment, and there is more opportunity for students and teachers to collaborate.

Over the years, I have seen many students, classified as A-typical learners, go from being sullen, withdrawn, and low-achieving academically, to bright, engaged, and academically successful, when they moved from a traditional environment to an SDL environment. Why is that? Because, they actually have the freedom to learn in a way that makes sense to them.

As I have previously said, a big part of teaching in an SDL environment is negotiation. This is especially useful with A-typical learners. I know the curriculum and what they “have to” learn, they know how they can best process the information, most of the time; sometimes we have to work together to figure out what learning strategies are best for them. Taking the time to listen to them, and help them find strategies that work for them, means that my A-typical learners are already more relaxed, because they are now getting the knowledge they are expected to acquire.

Once they have the knowledge, the second part is how do they demonstrate their learning? Once again, negotiation. Yes, there are skills that students need to develop, but why not introduce them over time, and combined with things that the students are more comfortable with? If a student struggles with expressing their own opinion, and with structured writing, don’t start them with an essay. Why not develop the “opinion” skill first, through speaking, journaling, drawing, or however they can express themselves best. The flexibility of the SDL environment allows us to scaffold, and build necessary skills, in a way that isn’t overwhelming for students, especially those who might have more challenges.

The flexibility we have comes largely from having time. Not all, but some, SLD environments (including Banbury) don’t limit kids to the traditional school year. Not done a course by the end of June? No problem. Keep going with it in September! Knowing that we can take the time to help students learn concepts and develop skills, is a huge advantage, removing pressure and allowing us to do what we need. This is particularly helpful for A-typical learners, who might not easily grasp a concept, and need more time to work it through. Of course, there is the converse of this – students who learn much quicker than average. The flexibility of SLD is wonderful for them, as they can move through material at their own rate, and advance through courses without the constraints found in the traditional classroom.

Flexibility is not just in how long learning takes, but also what is learned. In the SDL community, even based on the provincial curriculum, we have the ability to adapt ideas and enrich learning, based on the interests of the student. I have a number of students who are exceptionally interested in different aspects of science, including zoology, astronomy, and physics; their level of knowledge and understanding in these topics is astonishing. However, they are still developing in their writing and expressive skills. Some have Asperger’s, some have ADHD. Each one has their own challenges, and no one strategy works completely, but a support that worked across the board was basing their assignments around their own particular area of interest. Making a speech about spiders, sure. Arguing why the dinosaurs in Jurassic World are way off the mark, why not? Creative writing about space travel, absolutely! Different assignments, different skills developed, because different students have different needs and different interests.

SDL isn’t an absolute fix for A-typical learners – there are still many supports that need to be in place for them, but the flexibility offered by the SDL community, in terms of what is learned, how it is learned, and in what timeframe, can go a long way to improving the learning experiences of A-typical learners, and helping them to feel better about themselves.

 

Coming Soon: Taking on A-Typical Learners Part 2: He’s Not Creepy, Just Socially Awkward

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