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A coming together of the Learning Differences field

Learning Differences Programme / Programme news / Video

Photo credit: The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation 

After more than two years of limited travel and virtual gatherings, the Learning Differences Programme (LDP) convened its partners in person for three days of learning, reflection, and connection in September 2022. The Partner Convening, delayed twice because of the Covid-19 pandemic, was our first invitation to our partners for an in-person gathering since 2017. And, what a success it was – more than 70 of our partners joined us from across the US, including Hawai’i, as well as from South Africa, Ethiopia, England, and Switzerland.  

Our goals for the convening were to:  

1) establish and continue to strengthen a learning community; 

2) support our partners to develop deeper skills and capacity to advance equity through individual and collective impact; 

3) gain insights from students, teachers, and parents on what works to strengthen outcomes for students with learning differences; and  

4) reflect on partners’ work and attend to their personal wellbeing. 

Attending to partners’ wellbeing 

A key theme throughout the convening was wellness. This was an intentional response to the challenges our partners faced over the past few years, in their work in service of the most vulnerable students amid a global pandemic, and increased racial tensions in the US.  

Sarah Williams is executive director of the Office for Faculty Excellence at East Carolina University, where she leads transition supports for young adults with learning differences. Reflecting on her experience of the convening, she says, “the wellness activities throughout the convening were so important. Taking a minute to pause and reflect in whatever way we each need was so helpful to support our actions and learning when we returned to our day-to-day work.”  

The event also provided opportunities for connection, collaboration, and learning by featuring participants’ work. We invited students and educators to share their experiences. It was a joyous occasion to spend time together and a pleasure to meet our partners in person to share these great moments.  

Because the Covid-19 pandemic increased feelings of isolation, many partners in the learning differences field, in particular, found themselves disconnected from each other and the field during this time. “For all of us working in education – particularly in the world of learning differences and inclusion – it can often feel like a very lonely battle,” says Chaitra Murlidhar, who leads network operations at global education leadership not-for-profit Teach For All. “This convening has given us all space to pause and ground ourselves together in what matters.”  

Learning from Students and Partners  

The pandemic also made it difficult for many in the learning differences field to connect directly with students and educators during a particularly challenging time for schools. For this reason, we centred the convening around students’ and educators’ voices, making sure there were multiple opportunities for participants to hear directly from students with learning differences and the adults who support them in schools. Many partners shared that these sessions were among the most powerful, enabling them to consider the future implications for their work. 

Joshua Kearns works at Education Week, a US-based journalism organisation that focuses on education. He says, “I especially appreciated the sessions where Oak brought in school-based leaders and students. It’s an important part of our work to hear first-hand from those most impacted by challenges in schools, and to listen to students’ own solutions. Oak provided space for both at the conference.” 

With a diverse range of organisations represented at the convening, the sessions over the two days also highlighted our partners’ work to enable them to share lessons learned and problem solve with colleagues. For example, several partners working to build knowledge and understanding of what works best for diverse learners collaborated on a session focused on the pandemic’s impact on students with disabilities. Building on the direct experience of students and educators, these organisations highlighted new research about persistent inequities facing students with disabilities, recent trends in student mental health, and the implications of students’ unfinished learning during the pandemic. Highlighting this data and learnings helped to inform new areas of focus for our partners and for the LDP’s strategy going forward. 

The convening also enabled our partners to meet in person and forge valuable ties. For example, Dr Abebayehu Messele Mekonnen joined the LDP convening from Ethiopia, where he serves as managing director of the Fana Association for Individuals with Learning and Communication Difficulties. “During the convening I was in touch with organisations which have a similar interest or which share similar cause with us,” says Abe. “And now, we are planning to expand and see if we can draw the most out of this initiated connection. I am optimistic that these connections and discussions will grow into promising future partnerships.” 

What’s next? 

The LDP’s 2022 Partner Convening provided a unique opportunity to gather in person for shared learning, reflection, and connection. Because this special type of convening cannot happen every year, we are incorporating partner feedback to design other ways of fostering continued engagement. 

These include:  

Elevating voices of parents and families of students with learning differences. Building on the voices of students and educators at the convening, the LDP will highlight recent learnings from our partners about the experiences of parents and family members of young people with learning differences who are furthest from opportunity. 

Sharing across LDP partner organisations. Recognising that the connections built at the convening are most powerful when they are ongoing, the LDP will continue to facilitate connections and learning with our partners through newsletters, webinars, and introductions. 

Providing continued opportunities to engage partners in learning communities. Catalyst:Ed, a not-for-profit organisation that works to empower leaders, will host a community of practice to enable some of our partners to collaborate and learn about areas of shared interest. 

We are grateful for this important opportunity to support our partners’ wellness, reflection, and learning. The convening gave us moments of joy and connection over the three days. Even more, it gave us renewed energy and commitment to work better collectively to improve outcomes and experiences of students with learning differences who are furthest from opportunity. 

This grant falls under Oak’s Learning Differences Programme, which seeks to build a world where schools unlock the creativity and power of every young person, and equip them to shape more just and equitable communities. We partner with and invest in not-for-profit organisations that improve education for all students, particularly those with learning differences who experience further marginalisation due to racism and poverty.

Find out more
You can read more about the programme here.
For more information on the efforts of Teach For All, please visit their website here.
For more information on the efforts of EducationWeek, please visit their website here.