I have always wondered how children, young people and families manage schooling when illness and injury means an extended stay in hospital. Does learning pause for that time? And, what education options, if any are available to school-age students who are in hospital for a length of time in Australia?

In a paper written by Dr Rachel Perry and colleagues (2014) from the University of Technology Sydney they refer to: “minimal research conducted on exploring the experiences of children and their families when hospital schooling becomes necessary” (p.9). You can access the paper here.

In the small–scale pilot study Perry et al (2014) set out to understand the main issues experienced by students (Year 3 onwards) enrolled in hospital school programs: “regarding transition, social space of interaction and available technology” (p. 10). The pilot study found that emphasis must be given to the development of supportive policies for hospital-school transition and the role of technology in facilitating communication.

Principals Lynda Campbell and Vanessa Murphy welcoming teachers to the combined TPL day on HPC and STEM/STEAM.

Furthermore, Perry et al (2014) established that in-depth consideration of communication and collegial network building will assist informing pedagogical practices and promote support for teachers in hospital schools.

And, the findings concluded by: “identifying the way in which increased access to online interactive spaces may assist in improving opportunities for education and social connectedness to reduce social isolation when out of action is essential”(p.15).

Today, with this bit of background in mind, teachers and principals from hospital schools in the NSW Department of Education: Sydney Children’s Hospital School (SCHS) and Royal North Shore Hospital School (RNSHS) considered how the pedagogical framework of High Possibility Classrooms (HPC) with a focus on the STEM disciplines might support teaching students in hospital to be more connected and engaged in a highly personalised learning context.

It was staff development day in NSW and for me – the first time I have worked up close with teachers who teach in such circumstances. What a privilege and an honour – and I appreciate even more the constraints and challenges of delivering learning in ward spaces – by a bed, in a lounge chair, for a week, a month or for years.

Engaging with STEM content through the use of various technologies is possible in such contexts. And, with wifi at both hospital sites being more reliable – using apps on mobile devices is one way to focus attention and provide diversions for school-aged students away from illness and pain. But it has to be more than that.

Research showcased in a recent report on ABC 7.30 detailed the use of virtual reality (VR) technology and how it might assist the wellbeing of seriously ill children. Being able to put on a headset of VR goggles, and go to another world, to break the monotony of long days in a hospital bed was described by one ill child as “awesome”. See the program here.

There are no VR headsets yet at these two hospital schools but it’s something the teachers certainly liked the sound of. The focus on STEM content through quality resources that target experimentation and challenge seem logical choices. Such approaches will require using a range of carefully sourced materials – for hands on learning – that can be used bedside and in the small classroom spaces on site.

In the workshop we examined the HPC framework and discussed recent findings from STEM research in a community of local primary schools. Sharing templates and flexible, quality resources aligned to content in four disciplines was also a focus.

One of a number of scaffolds that I provided set out a day long problem or design thinking challenge, ie tied to some syllabus outcomes. For example, Step 1: ASK: what is the problem? How does it happen? How could you make it better? Step 2: MAKE: What will you create to solve the problem? How will you test and improve your ideas? It’s time to build – what is your plan? Step 3: SHARE: How will you tell the story? What do others think of your solution? Here is where parents/ siblings and other bedside visitors come in.

The use of inquiry structures and PBL is something hospital school teachers are interested in. Setting out the PBL framework of discover, create and share would be achievable alongside carefully chosen resources, and seeing learning as as cumulative task/project sustained by individuals/groups of students over time. Timeframes are often unknown in a hospital school context and this adds an extra layer of complexity to planning as does the ever changing nature of the ‘class group’ and understanding the health issues/procedures impacting each child/young person.

As the principal Lynda Campbell of SCHS described: “It is not about social work, we have to be firmly focused on providing quality learning experiences while the students are away from their usual school context“. Learning programs have to flexible, and sometimes “one-off” … but also capable of addressing learning outcomes over the longer term with a view to reporting progress when students return to their own schools.

The two Sydney hospital schools are keen to move into STEAM too and see how the ARTS and a focus on music can assist learning, and of course in hospitals – the speedy recovery from illness and injury.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra has some experience in working with hospital teachers, as education manager Vicki Norton explained: “We have engaged in partnerships with teachers at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne in a Song Writing project. Students create different parts of songs at the times they are in hospital and record the accompaniment and lyrics, again at separate times (of course because everyone is so itinerant) which are then mixed to produce the final song”.

She clarified further: “Our musicians have worked with students from the very beginning of the creation of these songs, and then at the end when they are making performance and interpretive decisions. They have also recorded string quartet accompaniment to four of the songs that will be featured in the songbook recording at the end of this project. Learning outcomes for the students are about literacy, as well as music. Although there is also scope to introduce the science/engineering of recording and mathematics in regards to chord structures and rhythm”. The ACO is keen to be involved in the NSW hospital school context.

Stepping into another ‘teaching world’ today was a strong reminder of the extraordinary work that goes on silently, deliberately and with kindness by talented principals, teachers and community organisations in our schools.

HPC and STEM go to hospital