Colourful Classrooms – How To Shift Grey Matter [Part 1]

Kim Huynh Education, K12 Education, Vocational Education 0 Comments

Differentiate”… “be inclusive” … “ensure all learners are engaged in the classroom”.

These are some of the most common chants we often hear from those with a stake in the education field. By that, I mean politicians, businesses, educational leaders, parents, students, and even our wider community. So by that, you see, I mean everyone. That’s right, we have long known that education is a subject that we are all experts in, because at some point in our life we have engaged at least once with it.

It is these varied experiences of learners that add pressure to our educators from K-12 to Vocational and Tertiary. Everyone wants their learners – young or experienced – to receive a fair and equitable education, which is why these words are so often bandied around. The truth is, we as educators want this too!

What it means to be an inclusive teacher:

• You are encouraging;
• You value students’ contributions
• You aid them to answer and contribute more
• Even wrong or partially correct answers can be a useful starting point for learning
• You try to find different ways of explaining
• You check for their understanding along the way

The 21st century classroom is more diverse than ever, especially if we take into account the massive open online courses (MOOCs), which invite unlimited participation and open access via the web. Now we as educators see students from different countries and religions, with different upbringings and preferences, or even different age groups or education backgrounds. Additionally, their level of technical skills, learning styles, learning abilities, and personal circumstances may also have a strong impact on how they absorb and digest information.

Why Inclusive Learning Is Often Easier Said Than Done

Sometimes educators can feel very hindered, as the want for a colourful classroom (a classroom that provides meaningful and personal relevance to as many students as possible – taking into account their learning style, preference, background, and so forth) requires a shift in grey matter greater than many of us imagine.

I want to talk today about inclusion, particularly for those students who are described as neurodiverse. As it is this population, which so often receives a black and white cookie-cutter education, that are often those most disaffected and hardest to engage. These learners, who fit on the most extreme ends of brain states, from task-orientation to free and flighty, can pose challenges in the classroom. These brain states can be met through understanding, compassion and yes, seeing the person rather than the label they walk in to the classroom with.

More often than not, educators say to me that “it is too hard to cater to all of my students in a classroom” or “I don’t know enough about inclusion or that student’s specific needs” or something along those lines. Which is understandable: it can be incredibly challenging, but when we as teachers are equipped with the right mindset and the right tool kits, no challenge is too great.


Neurodiverse Learners – Who Are They?

Neurodiversity is a term first coined by an Australian woman on the Autism Spectrum, as a way of describing a brain, which is diverse. Soon the rest of the population that has been displaced owing to their ‘brain difference’ or extreme brain state too jumped on board the movement. Neurodiversity encourages educators and the wider community to see past a label and see a person.

This is no easy feat. As an educator in K-12, VET Trainer, and Academic, I’ve had the most fun creating colourful classrooms for all learners to feel happy and able to access content in a variety of ways. I have advocated for years about the importance of seeing a learner first and removing the label that they may carry at the front door. This message has formed the most part of my career.

But it turns out to be easier said than done.

Let me juxtapose this experience to a real life one I have had recently, which made me realize that I needed more tools in my education bag to be able to see the person first.

In April 2014 I had to come to acknowledge the fact that even though my mum had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I as her own daughter – yes, the neurodiversity advocate – have failed to see her as a person first. Instead, I tried to shove her in a box, not only metaphorically, but literally also. I failed to listen to her wants and needs as a person, who was in fact no different because she had a label to explain her behaviours. Instead, what I needed was to see a person who required me to not think with the usual black and white mindset. I needed to see what her colourful brain required, in order to find the right solution.

This learning has led me to realise that we all need a wake up call to check whether we are really practicing what we preach. As a result, I engaged with design thinking, a process that enables us to use the colours of thinking, in order to shift our grey matter from black and white. It is our frame of mind that needs to change first, before we can engage those who walk into our classrooms. This way of thinking enables us to percolate on thoughts and reflection, rather than heading straight to the “reaction” mode many of us are guilty of doing.

In the next part, I will talk about inclusion from the perspective of design thinking in education so we can create colourful classrooms with every diverse brain by adding to your toolkit of learning.

– Expert contribution by Emma L. Donaldson from COG Matters. Emma is an expert on inclusion, education, workplace improvement and community awareness regarding neurodiversity. She was named a Telstra Victorian Marie Claire Young Business Women’s Award Finalist in 2010 for the developments in special education and recently played an important role in launching a free MOOC on autism with Swinburne University.


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