The power of experiential learning...for teachers.
When I studied to become a specialist dyslexia teacher 7 years ago, one of my course requirements was to lead a teacher-training session or school INSET. I loved it! I had thought before about the possibility of moving into adult education and felt a real passion for helping my colleagues understand just what it was like to struggle with dyslexia.
I found the initial part of my dyslexia course eye-opening - I had had no idea just how hard it was to get through a day at school with this learning difficulty. I knew the theory (or at least I thought I did), but what the course did was help me to experience it. We were shown texts that had been distorted and were asked to read them aloud in front of 'the class'. As experienced as we were, you could feel the tension in the room.
We were asked to write 5 sentences down about our summer holiday with our non-preferred hand (the left in my case). The effort it took to write the first part of my sentence was immense; I immediately realised that long, complex sentences were out of the question as I wouldn't have the energy to finish them. I wrote one simple sentence and then had a break. I started to write another, but by this point my hand had tired significantly. So I stopped and started looking around the room. I whispered a compliment to my neighbour as she seemed to be getting on really well, but this just distracted her and gave her an excuse to stop. That was great for me, as it gave me someone to chat to whilst the others were completing the task.
The irony of a teacher doing exactly what they would tell a pupil off for did not pass me by. At that moment the reason for the behaviour I'd seen at schools throughout my career made perfect sense. And something else struck me too: the amount of energy it had taken to write one and a half sentences had been exhausting and yet we expected children with dyslexia to do this for an entire school day AND continue working at home as well.
It was this experiential learning that I wanted to share with others. I asked the attendees at my dyslexia INSET to do the same activities, following them up with a chance to discuss what impact they had had on their understanding of the children they were trying to help. For me, the impact has been huge and I still remember that first day of my training course vividly.
Through the work I do with schools under the banner 'Amanda Davey Dyscalculia' I want to provide a similar experience with regards to maths learning difficulties. Very little is known about dyscalculia in the teaching community and, in fact, scientific research into the disorder lags some 30 years behind dyslexia. Across the country thousands of children are not receiving the help that they need and I know that, although teachers will always try their best, they won't be able to provide effective intervention unless they understand how severe dyscalculia can be and the devastating effects it can have on someone's life.
Having been asked to lead a presentation in April that would provide an introduction to what dyscalculia is, how to identify children that may have dyscalculia and how to support them in class, I spent the weeks leading up to it finding as many different ways as I could to give attendees a vivid picture of life with dyscalculia. I backed this up with references to the latest research, ideas for multisensory learning that would make numbers come alive and games that would elicit the sort of 'maths talk' that can build a child's in-depth understanding about how numbers relate to each other.
The presentation in April was a great success, with more than 50 teachers, teaching assistants and senior leaders from the local area attending. What I realised is that it wasn't just the presentation that people came for, it was the opportunity to ask questions and discuss what they had learnt with colleagues. Time to share ideas is just so hard to find during the school term. The main learning point for me was that my course and many of the resources available are aimed towards younger children, up to the age of 11. To some extent this makes sense, as ideally children would receive help in the first years of their schooling so that they are able to approach maths more independently as they get older. But in reality many of the children struggling are in secondary schools where maths equipment ('manipulatives') isn't always available to help children visualise what they are learning.
This is my next challenge. Having connected with some of the key educators working in the field of dyscalculia, I am starting to add ideas to my presentation for use with older children. Steve Chinn has a website called 'Maths Explained' where he has made video tutorials aimed at older audiences that explain many different areas of maths, and Pete Jarrett, Chair of the British Dyslexia Association's Dyscalculia Committee, agrees that it something we perhaps need to try to address at the 2021 International Dyslexia Conference. I'm currently reading Mark McCourt's 'Teaching for Mastery' and will consider in a future blog post whether we need to reconsider how we teach those children entering secondary school at the age of 11 that have severe gaps in their mathematical understanding.
In the meantime I am slowly trying to build awareness of the training I am offering. I have had several people reaching out to me since the website went live a week ago and social media platforms have been an ideal way to spread the word. Thank goodness for the summer holidays as I wouldn't have had the time to put into this at any other time of the year. I am passionate about helping teachers to understand dyscalculia and I hope that, through the training I provide, I can make life so much more bearable for anyone struggling with this difficulty.