Turning a Disability into an Asset

Traditional schooling never worked for the way my brain functions. I suspect I’m not alone.

I write this as my fourth and final tuition payment for my PhD is being processed by the University. Although my thesis is based on research I did two years ago, it has informed some awesome education initiatives we’ve been running in our local schools. The following is an article I’ve written for the Wanganui Chronicle sharing little of the success of those programmes.

Enhancing Student Learning Through Sustainability

My Year 3 teacher told my parents I would never read. It was the early seventies and many learning disabilities were yet to be recognized. I was not so interested on the ink on the page, but the space between the ink and the space between the school and my home, which, thankfully, was mostly lush and green and wild. While I struggled through school, I thrived outdoors. I learned more from turtles than from teachers.

Traditional schooling did nothing for me because it was all about objects and goals and marks when I was more interested the interconnectedness of things. Even courses in ecology were taught in a reductionist manner. In University I did my best to gravitate toward what was then called environmental studies, although even in those papers I spent most of my time sitting in lecture halls taking notes. It was not until I reluctantly entered a Masters programme that I first experienced a different way of teaching and learning. I never looked back, and now I am three quarters my way through a PhD, which examines student responses to learning ecology in ecological ways.

But holistic approaches to teaching and learning are not limited to the study of ecology. In fact, journals are full of research that indicates the value of education that is cross-curricular, experiential, relevant, student-centred, action-oriented and based on the needs of the community. I have been lucky enough to bring this type of education to schools in Wanganui thanks to funding from the District Council and administrative support from the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.

From a Year 1 classroom at Aranui School to every student at Wanganui Intermediate, and on to a Year 13 class at WHS, holistic, solution-oriented educational approaches have engaged students in high quality learning experiences. Each programme was designed to meet the needs expressed by individual teachers and to align with the New Zealand Curriculum. Feedback from teachers, students and principals has been excellent, and more programmes are underway.

An exciting programme that is being run for four rural schools during Term 4 is called “The Little House That Could.” This cross-curricular programme integrates science, maths, English and the arts while students learn about passive solar home design and energy efficiency. Student learning is supported by a curriculum guide provided to teachers and interactive web pages on The Eco-Thrfity Renovation blog. A culminating experience is being planned for the students to visit the actual “Little House That Could” in Castlecliff.

First and foremost, the programme aims to provide the highest quality learning experiences for students in numeracy, literacy, science and the arts based on current education research and the New Zealand Curriculum. After all, schools are for student learning. It is up to the education community to strive to provide the best learning experiences for children. With budget cuts coming from Wellington, the financial support from Council and other local charitable sources will be increasingly valuable for innovative approaches to student learning.

Sidebar: There will be a presentation on The Little House That Could as a model for sustainable living and for high quality teaching and learning at the Castlecliff School library on Tuesday the 29th of November at 6:30 pm. A koha is suggested to support high quality sustainability education in our community.

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