Teaching beyond the classroom: engaging learners in hospital

Keeping hospitalised children interested in learning is a challenge for hospitals and schools alike. Three Master of Teaching (Primary) candidates are working with The Royal Children’s Hospital Education Institute to help.

Elizabeth Watson, Nathan Welsh and Louise McLeod won a University Dreamlarge grant to work with The Royal Children’s Hospital on the Jumbunna Film Festival, which will take place in November. The festival, which is named after the Wurundjeri people’s word for ‘storytelling’, is an opportunity for patients to take part in a wide range of learning activities.

The hospital’s Education Institute offers teaching and learning opportunities to children with stays in hospital longer than five days, so they can continue to learn while away from their usual school. They do this through ‘passion projects’ – engaging projects that spark the children’s interest.

The candidates were involved in the festival’s planning, and are now working with the children on a range of activities tailored to their individual interests. The university grant enabled them to buy two new Mac laptops for the hospital, to support activities like writing and designing invitations to teach literacy skills, and planning and designing sets to teach mathematical concepts.

Sparking the children’s interests is one of the biggest challenges facing the candidates; particularly with a wide age range (5 – 15 years) to cater for.

“The children don’t have to be there – it’s not like a school environment,” says Elizabeth. “So you really have to engage them. The principles of learning and teaching become so important, in particular knowing your students and how they learn. These kids have caring adults reaching out to them all day – so you have to be pretty impressive to break through!”

An added challenge is the high turnover of patients as children are discharged and others admitted.

“We have to be resilient and really efficient and flexible,” says Elizabeth. “We have to learn where a student is up to, what interests them and engage them very quickly and not necessarily with much information. It’s a short time frame to assess their needs and build rapport.”

For Nathan exploring a child’s interests gently and informally while, for example, playing a game, can work well.

“I was playing battleships with a boy who was very reluctant to engage; he had just found out he had one more week in hospital,” he says. “He was really missing his dog, and his Mum had brought in some footage of the pet for him to watch. So we devised a task where he made an entertaining video about the world’s most dangerous animals, featuring his dog. He went from being quite upset to being quite excited about having something to do over the next week.”

The candidates work at the hospital one day a week, and will continue after the film festival has finished. Ultimately, says Louise, they plan to set up a formal partnership between the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and the hospital to allow more candidates to volunteer.

"I believe it's important for us to experience as many different teaching environments as possible,” she says. “Some candidates may find an unrealised calling to teach students in a hospital setting, which is so different from any other classroom. Developing the relationship between the hospital and the Graduate School will give more candidates the chance to volunteer there during their degree, to benefit from the divergent experience, add to their teaching repertoire and assist students at the same time."

While challenging, the candidates agree they are growing and learning from the project.

“Working with learners with additional needs is difficult and an area where a lot of teachers don’t feel confident,” says Nathan. “This project will help build our confidence with these learners once we have our own classes.”

“We’re also developing professional networks and learning about alternative learning frameworks,” says Liz.