Questions! Questions!

GCSE Science at I CAN’s Dawn House school

“How long will it take fruit flies to generate 1 billion offspring?”

“Is that the same as when we talked about bacteria reproducing?”

“So Miss, why do they always say ‘kills 99% of all known germs?’”

“That’s what I did in English this morning….exaggerate!”

“I know this isn’t what we’re talking about, but how long it would take the sun to grow to double its size”

Challenging and wide ranging questions arising from a lesson I was privileged enough to observe last week at I CAN’s Dawn House School. Just what you’d expect to hear in a GCSE Science lesson – so what’s so special? The special bit is that the students in this lesson all have complex communication difficulties which can affect their ability to make sense of complex concepts and vocabulary, or to express their ideas – never mind use their talking skills to throw ideas around in the room. Talk between adults and students, and between students themselves can be a really effective way of learning – it’s the same for all of us, if we talk about something, we really internalise new information; we all make an effort to really understand something if we know we’re going to have to talk about it.

The quality of talk I observed in that lesson was impressive – asking probing questions, challenging each other, correcting each other in a supportive way, commenting on what other students said – no hands went up, it was all a smooth interchange of ideas – and no falling out! All of this may sound very straight forward, but given the students’ complex needs, I knew this was the product of the skilful support these young people access at Dawn House. In the lesson were both teacher and speech and language therapist, working closely together to support the young peoples’ learning and interaction. Each with a clear role, but exchanging these at different times to ensure that new words were introduced and linked to existing knowledge, learning behaviours prompted, successful interaction praised and new ideas scaffolded carefully. It wasn’t just the quality of student talk that was impressive, but the way they worked together in the collaboration: a style which is integral to the intervention model at Dawn House.

Talking to the staff afterwards, they could describe the progress these young people had made over the years they had been in the school to enable them to engage in the learning process in such a productive way.“[The students] know what the therapist is there for, but also what to do when she isn’t there”, “I can see [the therapist] model different strategies and then I use them across different lessons – things like pointing out key sounds, or using mini white board to record verbal feedback”. They described their close collaborative working as ‘just happening’ – but I know differently. Done successfully, it’s the result of a lot of trust, mutual respect, and a willingness to share learning.

We’re working with Sheffield University at the moment to develop robust ways of measuring the impact of speech and language therapy on students’ learning and behaviour. That lesson gave me wonderful evidence of that impact – now we just have to capture it in numbers!

A blog by I CAN’s Director of Outcomes and Information, Mary Hartshorne