Think differently... learn differently... teach differently.
As a family of schools specialising in supporting students with unique learning profiles, including dyslexia, we know that our pupils require a different approach to the usual 'one size fits all' mainstream education offer. We use the phrase 'think differently, learn differently, teach differently' to communicate our approach... but what does it mean, and how does this different approach benefit our learners?
To coincide with this year's Dyslexia Awareness Week #DAW2023, we went to visit Burlington House School in Fulham which supports students with specific learning differences (SpLDs), to find out more about their unique approach.
Dyslexic people are said to have strengths in creativity, communication and problem solving, with challenges more likely to be seen with spelling, reading and retaining or retrieving information. Of course each individual is different and their pattern of strengths and weaknesses will vary from another dyslexic person.
According to the charity, Made by Dyslexia, “a dyslexic person’s cognitive profile will be uneven when compared to a neurotypical cognitive profile… (meaning) that dyslexic individuals really do think differently”.
Though our pupils think differently, they are not impaired, nor are they less likely to achieve. However, without additional support or a different approach, dyslexic pupils may find it more demanding to access all aspects of the National Curriculum and public examination system - both of which are designed for neurotypical learners. So how do we do it?
Seeing past the barriers
To start, we see our pupils' extraordinary ability and work hard to find the right ways to unlock and nurture their enormous potential. We believe they should be challenged to the same level as their mainstream peers, but they may need to reach that conclusion by a different means, or over a slightly different time period.
Consider two athletes, both of whom have been asked to cover a 100 metre distance against the clock. The first athlete is to complete the 100m sprint race, following a straight path at intensive speed. The second athlete is to complete the 100m hurdles. Both athletes will cover the same ground, achieving the same distance, however the athlete taking on the hurdles will inevitably take a longer period of time to complete the challenge and will need to approach the task with a different perspective. This analogy applies to the experiences of so many of our pupils.
Teaching to their strengths
When asked how they are taught differently, one student responded, "it's like sorcery and magic" mentioning the various strategies and tools that are in place to support their learning, such as:
the use of scooter boards for movement opportunities and to increase coordination and balance,
the inclusion of movement breaks to increase the blood flow to the brain to help refocus on a task and stay alert,
the use of off-site trips to make learning more practical, memorable and meaningful,
and perhaps most importantly, a feeling of being seen, understood and valued which helps with self confidence and self belief.
Another pupil viewed learning at Burlington as a positive experience, stating that the teaching was "not like the gibberish” they had heard in other schools.
Students also noted changes in their perspectives on life since joining the school and are more comfortable with failure - and learning from it. The school actively promotes a sense of comfort with failure by creating tasks that occasionally facilitate it at an appropriate level, thereby nurturing problem-solving skills and resilience.
An individual approach
The difference in approach is attributed to the staff's expertise, diverse teaching approaches and flexibility in terms of tailoring their teaching to how each individual learns best. Students expressed their confidence in knowing that their teachers would always find ways to teach them, even if they initially struggled to grasp certain topics.
Crucially, at Burlington House School, staff members see difference as an opportunity.
“Our pupils arrive at the answers slightly differently than a neurotypical person. It’s not wrong, just different”. - Jack, PE / Enrichment Lead
Lessons are tailored according to the needs of the students in the class, and different techniques are used based on those individual needs. From needing to phrase or rephrase questions multiple times and using real life examples, to tapping into specialist interest areas, these adjustments encourage engagement and further pupils’ understanding.
The learning objectives of each lesson are designed to be achievable to prevent overwhelm and the purposeful small classes allow teachers to tailor tasks to each individual student. Additionally attention is given to the small details that make a big difference, such as:
The use of larger or dyslexic-friendly fonts such as Comic Sans,
The use of coloured paper for handouts and worksheets, reducing visual stress and making it easier to read,
The use of starter activities at the outset of every lesson to aid recall, and to encourage independence,
The use of personal laptops and touch typing, and ready-made electronic worksheets.
Any challenges mentioned in a student's Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP) are reframed as positive aspects or opportunities for support.
Students' talents are explored, recognised, encouraged, and enriched with staff members allowing students to take the lead in their own enrichment, to request activities and express themselves without judgement. This inclusive approach is evident throughout the school and has a huge positive impact on self esteem.
Some older students expressed their desire to seek out work and educational environments that replicate the supportive atmosphere of Burlington House School. They feel a newfound sense of hope, which they rarely experienced in their previous mainstream settings.
This approach makes a real difference. As one staff member recalls,
“a few months back we had a former pupil who thanked me for the time and the support I had given them”. - Colwin, Deputy Headteacher (Prep)
However, it's not only the students who benefit; the teachers also greatly appreciate the environment. They describe a strong sense of camaraderie among the staff, noting “a real passion for creative thinking” and “a willingness to try new things”.
They feel supported and relieved from the pressure to conform to a rigid mould. They credit the small class sizes in enabling them to be more attentive which in turn, provides a strong grounding to move pupils’ forward and to develop them. A close relationship with home is also encouraged, helping teachers and parents to create strategies for school and home.
“There’s a lot more focus on the individual here. I know the name of every student at the school, even if I don’t teach them.” - Jack, PE / Enrichment Lead
As a result, they can make a tangible difference in the lives of their students every day. For many teachers, this school has brought joy back into their teaching journey.
“I love my job, honestly. I have the ability to sculpt the curriculum and have the opportunity to choose my CPD… (the school is) progressive and willing to improve”. - Jack, PE / Enrichment Lead
Beyond academics, Burlington House School recognises and nurtures students' talents, empowering them to take the lead in their own enrichment. This inclusive approach has a profound impact on self-esteem and opens doors to a brighter future. In essence, Burlington House School's commitment to thinking, learning, and teaching differently is a beacon of hope for students with specific learning differences. It demonstrates that with the right support and mindset, every individual can succeed and find fulfilment in their educational journey.