Balancing act: flexible approach to learning
What if students did not have to sit at traditional desks and chairs all day but were given different seating options like a beanbag chair, a couch, a balance ball, or the choice to lie on the floor to do their work?
At the Bermuda Centre for Creative Learning, a school designed for students with diagnosed learning differences, these alternative or flexible classrooms do not deter student learning. Allowing students to choose what is most comfortable for them helps sustain their concentration and attention. Just as adults in the corporate world have spaces designed for comfort, students enjoy these benefits too.
The school, which has a team of four teachers, provides small-group, personalised learning for students who have been assessed with learning differences such as dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other language-based disorders. Working towards each child's abilities is a group effort.
“Even for teachers, it is not a typical classroom environment where one teacher sees and says it all — we work as a team,” Sofie Vandenbohede said.
She has worked with children with various learning differences, as well as teaching everyday life skills to Syrian refugee children in Belgium before starting at the BCCL.
“Every morning we start our day with a staff meeting. This meeting allows us to begin each day with a plan for every student. I put a lot of effort into building strong relationships with each student throughout the school year,” she added.
“This allows me to develop an individual approach and prepare lessons which are engaging for every single one of them. We really know our students. We get time to spend with them. It doesn't feel like a school; it feels like a shared learning room.”
“Students have the freedom to choose a workspace that best suits their needs throughout the day,” Chardala Simons explained. “That could mean working at a table, sitting on a beanbag chair, standing while working or sitting on a balance ball in a location they have chosen. Alternative seating arrangements help the students to stay more focused when completing an assignment. It also gives them an option to sit or lay in a more comfortable position, as sitting upright in a hard chair is difficult for many of them.”
For the teachers, this unique focus on the environment has helped them become more dynamic teachers.
Ms Simons added: “I've found that incorporating lessons that involve movement and manipulatives (hands-on materials) helps the students to understand the concepts better. They also start to see learning as fun.”
The teaching style at the BCCL differs from lecture-style classrooms. This method of teaching is beneficial to their students and helps all types of learners.
“My teaching style provides the students with all different mediums to help them grasp a concept or skill,” said Sandra Neal, who started her career as a social worker before qualifying as a teacher.
“My lessons include interactive PowerPoints, games, modelling, use of movement in the classroom, working in pairs and having the students explain to the class in their own words the concepts we are learning. It is important to establish routines and boundaries, but allow students the flexibility to get up for movement breaks, especially for children with ADHD.”
She added: “Flexible classrooms are beneficial because they allow students to learn how to work independently, improve their organisation and time-management skills and adapt to changes in the environment.”
Support is viewed differently for students at the BCCL. Ms Simons explained: “Since therapy sessions such as occupational, speech and language, or tutoring with the Reading Clinic, are built around their schedule, students aren't missing any classes. Teachers aren't stressed trying to ensure that they cover work that their students would have missed. The support is built in. There is also a focus on supporting students' social and emotional wellbeing.”
This allows for staff to look at students from an holistic standpoint, not just academically.
Ms Neal said: “We have a varied programme with meditation, a focus on social and emotional skills and alternative PE choices, like yoga.”
Ben Hall, who began teaching at the school last year, believes that this style of teaching students in small groups has helped him grow as an educator.
“No matter what the topic or lesson is that we are covering, students are always making connections to what they know and understand. Whether they share an answer that is correct, or not exactly what I was looking for, I still take the time to acknowledge what they have shared.
“Allowing students to feel heard and providing a safe place to exercise what they know, allows them to really learn and grow.”
Teachers at the BCCL recognise that adapting their lesson plans to support students individually, versus a “one size fits all” teaching style, works for their students.
Mr Hall explained: “Focusing on students' individual needs, so they can move up to the next grade level whenever they are ready, means that they don't have to wait for the end of a term, or year.”
Ms Neal added: “One of the greatest joys that comes from teaching at the BCCL is to see the students embrace learning and gain confidence in their abilities where, before, they may have felt stupid, different or slow. We work really hard to help build students' confidence by meeting them where they are academically and using positive reinforcement to encourage them to try.”
Mr Hall said: “What brings me the most joy is when I am working with a student and an idea or lightbulb goes on in their head. I love seeing students as they are thinking and trying to make a connection to what they have learnt. When that happens, I feel just as excited as they do.”
• Robyn Bardgett is a media communications consultant working with the Bermuda Centre for Creative Learning, which is celebrating its third year. Its next open house is scheduled for tomorrow from 11am to 1pm. Interested families can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information