Diversity is a topical concept in our tertiary organisations: we aspire to a full and open representation of multiple demographic groups on our campuses, and report in various fora about our progress, goals and strategies. Common categories are race, ethnicity, cultural identity, age, gender orientation, physical and mental (dis)ability. Often overlooked is the area of cognitive ability, yet intellectual disability affects 5% of children under the age of 14,3% of those aged 15-44, and 1% of the older adult population (IHC, 2017). This population group are not often seen as part of a higher education student profile, so that the inclusion of a Level 1 foundation and bridging programme as a qualification offered by one institute of technology and polytechnic (ITP) organisation can be surprising to visitors to our campus. Aligned with beliefs about learning appropriacy and limitations is the fairly widespread assumption by staff and students that teaching these students will require a more pedagogically-limited reliance on workbooks and classroom tasks, rather than the inquiry-based learning delivery more typical of contemporary higher education programmes. This paper summarises learnings from a year-long evaluative case study which questioned this traditional mindset, drawing on multiple sources of evidence and viewpoints, including five focus groups with 19 students, and interviews with 2 teaching staff, a manager, and 7 family/whanau members – framed through a ‘waka voyage’ metaphor. Student narratives touched on the projects they had enjoyed: fundraisers and raffles, holding marketplace stalls, making compost, cooking – to name a few. Teachers and whanau noticed huge advances in confidence, social connectivity, and employability skills. The researchers and the Level 1 teaching team are enthusiastic about the opportunities afforded by this strength-based, project-learning model (Leach & Zepke, 2011). Level 1 students with their often-challenging and diverse needs are an important part of our local economies and communities; we hope that colleagues across other Te Pūkenga subsidiaries may find aspects of this study readily transferable to their own contexts and campuses.
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