Education Innovation Nation blog #3 – The future of alternative learning


Context

The Inclusion Trust is a charity specialising in alternative provision for those children, who for whatever reason, found that school failed for them. It has a core team of about ten people based at its offices in Stansted Mount Fitchet, but also has a diverse international network of associates, partners and franchises. Its main project in the UK is NotSchool, long-term distance-learning for excluded young people. However it’s also working on a wide variety of projects, including; SchoolExtra, a shorter-term, three month model of NotSchool, a project on virtual science labs for the EU, working with an Italian co-operative on the employability skills of NEETs, a mobile project with the homeless, a project about learning through online avatars, and a project on inter-generational learning which features young people practicing their speaking and listening skills while helping older people with their ICT and web skills. The thing that connects this seemingly disparate and dispersed set of activities is that they are all use technology to reach the most unengaged groups, offering them personalised learning.

Ethos

The key issue for the Inclusion Trust seems to be engagement. They practice truly learner-centred approaches, starting from wherever that individual is in terms of their location, skills, knowledge and confidence. For example they work with traveller children who are only interested in driving, or one girl who is fixated solely on her horse. They then build a personalised and project-driven programme of learning from that point, using a constructivist approach, allowing each learner to generate knowledge and meaning from the interaction between their experiences and ideas. Given the various challenges facing the individuals they work with, they are passionate champions of learning for all, regardless of age, exclusion, poverty or Special Educational Needs (SEN). For instance many NotSchool learners have SEN but are not officially recognised (or funded) by having a ‘statement’, a bureaucratic and expensive process. The Inclusion Trust always seems to start by building confidence, developing and measuring soft skills in small steps, before moving on to ‘hard’ skills. They also have a strong emphasis on research, making sure that their practice is evidence-led and based on the latest, proven ideas from around the world.

Teaching approach

In the case of NotSchool, their method involves developing learning objectives for each individual, then mapping and accrediting those against different qualifications. It is a technical, manual and slow process, which their specialist staff go through for each learner. By focussing on the initial soft skills and small successes, at the pace of the student, they can slowly build up confidence for tackling the harder skills. These are not generally learners that could easily sit through a one hour exam, let alone a three hour high-stakes paper.

Technology

The Trust firmly believes in the power of technology-enabled learning, allowing them to work remotely and online with their diverse learners. They loan out simple hardware and work with each individual to help them set up a suitable and connected learning environment for themselves, a major challenge in itself for many. They focus on personalised learning, developing learning aims and helping the student to gather the relevant evidence of achievement – regardless of format. It’s not unusual for video, audio and image evidence to be used. Learners use an e-portfolio within a virtual learning environment (VLE) designed individually for them.

Challenges

The first fears raised are about the death of personalisation with the recent focus on content. The Trust feel that their learners don’t fit easily within the system and that a stricter emphasis on standards, combined with a narrower range of eligible qualifications and greater exam stress, all makes their job of engaging hard-to-reach learners even harder. For example they are unsure what ‘supervision’ or a ‘written test’ means in their particular context, where they have delicate, remote and technology-enabled interactions with learners at the margins. They also fear England risks taking a step backwards compared to the rest of the world where there is growing support for approaches that rely on technology, project-based-learning, child-centred learning, entrepreneurship and employability.

Innovation and the future

The Inclusion Trust team seem to have strong international networks, with projects in many different countries, speaking slots at conferences and a clear passion for innovative practice around the world. This appears to be a two-way process, both sharing what they are doing and learning from others. In particular they mentioned Education Fast Forward, Horizon K12 and Stan Buckley at Cambridge who is doing work on measuring soft skills.

Follow @LouisMMCoiffait on Twitter for education policy news, comment and analysis. All text is solely the opinion of the author. You can also discuss this project on Twitter using #EduInnovNation.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job)

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