What I learned in a one-room hospital schoolhouse

Some of my earliest memories reside in Ward 4 of the Derby Children’s Hospital. At the age of eight, I was diagnosed with a chronic stomach condition that resulted in two surgeries and frequent hospital stays. These visits lasted for months at a time, through to the end of my primary years.

This is not a tale of my medical woes. Hidden away in the dusty corners of this crusty building was a hospital school. It was here that I enjoyed the fruits of personalised learning — the only such occasion in all my years of schooling.

The school, such as it was, comprised a single classroom that could accommodate no more than ten students at any one time. Aside from its modest size, the classroom resembled any other. Students gathered around tightly clustered tables, which were clothed in maths worksheets. Worn out textbooks were scattered in the far-flung reaches of the classroom. The walls were decorated with remnants of past students’ finest work. Thanks to an anonymous donor, the classroom even hosted a high-powered computer, neatly tucked away to the side (this was before the advent of Windows 95 but it sure looked wondrous).

It was the only schooling on offer, open between 1pm and 3pm each weekday afternoon. For many of us, it satisfied our craving for normalcy in an otherwise uncertain world.

On any given day, a small throng of students would show up for school. The others would hang back in the ward, either resting up or wrestling over the hospital’s sole Game Gear — anything that did not demand mental exertion. Depending on my health and mood, I could go either way. My learning journey in these years was marked by a distinct lack of continuity.

Spare a thought for our teachers — a mix of volunteers, nurses and part-time educators. They were charged with leading a class that took on a new form each day as students left just as abruptly as they had arrived. In this one-room schoolhouse, teachers were responsible for the education of students with wide-ranging ages, learning needs and ailments.

How do you plan a lesson for the sick?

On the surface, the setup bordered on ludicrous. Yet in many ways the hospital school offered up some of my richest learning experiences. The teachers were constant in their commitment to my individual development. They assessed my physical and mental state each day before deciding whether school was the most productive place to be.

The selected learning tasks were carefully tailored to my specific needs. If the stomach pangs hit, the teachers dialled down the intensity of instruction. On my better days, they ramped it up, giving me enough homework to keep the Game Gear safely at arm’s length.

When I was discharged, the teachers laid out a course of learning, the scope and sequence of which took into account my recovery period. If I returned to hospital, the school was waiting for me; the teachers anticipating my arrival with another round of assessment and tailored learning plans.

It was not all roses and fairy dust (if it was, I might just advocate that the best strategy to raise learning outcomes is to hospitalise our children). Hospital is a grim affair for most children, and these attempts at preserving a stable learning experience often felt tame. But they left an indelible mark on my education because, unlike the one-size-fits-all structure of formal schooling, they embraced my individuality by adapting to my unique circumstances.

Two decades later, Education is replete with promises of personalised learning. It is widely presumed that children’s individual learning needs can only be met through digital technologies, and that bricks-and-mortar schooling is not fit for the task. It is an appealing claim; I would return to school following a hospital stay with some trepidation, knowing my class had moved on to through the curriculum in my absence. It seemed selfish to expect otherwise — why should I hold my peers back?

And yet, personalised learning was alive and well in the hospital school, where the range of students’ needs was more extreme than in any traditional classroom. What’s more, my hospital schooling was truly personalised because it was sensitive the vulnerability and volatility of the human condition.

The constraints of traditional schooling, with fixed curriculum paths and instructional and assessment models, are too rigid to replicate my experiences in the hospital.

On current form, digital alternatives are also a long way off. The algorithmic approaches of today’s adaptive tutoring systems remain shackled in the constraints of purely cognitive inputs — whether a student answers a question correctly, their response time etc. But teaching of any kind must be a deeply human experience that connects with each student’s life experiences.

Thankfully, not every child will have to endure ill-health. But they will each have their own experiences to bear. My own pain was visceral enough for all to see. What of the wide-ranging, often hidden pains that students bear — the emotional anguish of familial conflict, the physical torment of hunger or the mental turmoil of conflict?

My hospital schooling, for all its limitations, serves as a guidepost for today’s innovators. Adaptivity — whether in algorithms or teaching practices — must go beyond blunt test scores and account for all that makes students human, including their deepest emotions and vulnerabilities.

Education is not a purely cognitive affair; educators have a profound responsibility to connect with the life experiences of every student.

Originally posted in The Synapse, Sep 18 2016

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