4. Philosophical Underpinning of the Curriculum

Whilst approaches to delivering ‘Special Education’ can be intuitive and effective, it is important that providers of specialist education have a theoretical basis. The school described is a research-led school and has clear philosophical foundations upon which to develop understanding and practice. Staff are therefore clear about why they do what they do.

Staff in the school are well versed in the thinking of Vygotsky who stated in 1978 that children learn in a social context.  They interpret this as ensuring they provide support and help in an environment that feels safe, happy, nurtured, secure and inclusive to each child, in line with GIRFEC’s SHANARRI wellbeing wheel

The school recognises that personalised approaches are essential but believes (social) group learning is equally important. That is, it is important to dispel the myth that children with significant needs can only be taught in a one-to-one situation. To do so, is to deprive them of essential opportunities for social development.  In a Vygotskian classroom, four principles always apply:

  • learning and development is a social, collaborative activity;
  • the Zone of Proximal Development (when the teacher serves to guide a  child or group of children as they encounter different learning challenges) can serve as a guide for curricular and lesson planning;
  • classroom activity should be reality-based and applicable to the real world;
  • learning extends to the home and other out-of-school environments and activities and all learning situations should  be related.

Approaches to curriculum planning described later in this Manual demonstrate how this can happen.

Staff know how to devise the appropriate contexts for learning and provide suitably motivating resources to develop the child’s play and learning.  They give help when it is needed.  However, they are also aware of the need to encourage independence and withdraw support if it is not required.  They base their interventions on the child’s needs and do not interrupt the important developmental process of self-discovery, enabling children and young people to learn how to learn, and how to learn together. This links with high expectations and challenge and requires a subtle but important approach gained through training, modelling of practice by colleagues and positive experience.

The school has also embraced the work of Flo Longhorn and Richard Hirstwood who have a particular interest in how early development is closely linked to the senses and how this impacts on learning at any level of development. For example, Flo’s advice on assessing happiness has had a major influence on the ethos of the school. The ethos is not a smothering inappropriate overprotection of children. It is based on research which demonstrates that there is an increase in happiness when a person is given a preferred sensory stimuli and unhappiness when given a least favoured activity. Happiness can also be observed on a simple level through provision of positive sensory environments, interactions and events. The school’s sensory garden allows the children to “encounter a spiritual uplifting or feeling of mystery and awe using their numinous sense”.  It also of course allows them to experience texture, smell, colour and taste. Developing taste and using sensory cooking extends awareness and experiences. Flo Longhorns’ use of what she calls a host environment – CfE’s context for learning – is so much more meaningful than sitting at a desk. She states: “Host environments, such as the dark room, using ultraviolet light, really motivate and challenge perceptions.” For example, the glowing switch in the dark that controls and moves a fluorescent circle on the wall raises awareness of the shape that is the circle. Or, children really learn about circles and enclosure when under the parachute in the school hall. The hydrotherapy pool provides an environment where a relaxed body can absorb the geometry of angles of limbs, feel pressure and pull of the water and the swirl of rotating in the pool. This transforms learning opportunities from humdrum repetitive activities to an exciting and meaningful curriculum. The school’s expertise in technology at all levels takes account of Richard Hirstwood’s immense skill in utilising switches, effective use of the multisensory room, the power of sensory stories and the thrill of using the webcam to watch birds feeding and hatching their eggs!

The children are learning through experience, fun and enjoyment in line with the principles of Curriculum for Excellence.

The school continues to take account of national and international research, including SCERTS and Echoes to reassure practitioners and parents that there is a sound philosophical basis from which to continue to develop the school’s curriculum and methodology. Research informs the nature of the learning environment which is seminal to the development of the curriculum. This has emphasised the importance of prerequisites for learning to enable neural pathways to be developed and in turn enhance learning and achievement. The ethos and culture of the school has at its heart the health and wellbeing of all children and young people and therefore promotes a ‘can do’ attitude, enabling and supporting children and young people to become as independent as they can, relevant to each one of them.

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