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One in every classroom: How can we support pupils with colour vision deficiency in our classrooms?

Written by: Caroline Akins
6 min read
Caroline Atkins, Teacher, St Andrew’s CE High School, Worthing, UK

Behind every classroom resource that we use to deliver our curriculum stand hours of time: time spent training for our roles, learning different theories and weaving pedagogy with our own unique styles; time spent trialling and reflecting on how the resource was used with our previous classes or how we saw a colleague use it in their practice. There is also the time spent crafting the resource: a display, a worksheet, a presentation, which scaffolds and challenges while linking into to a grand series of lessons to paint a bigger picture as our curriculum plan.

The pace of teaching is so quick that we don’t often stop to appreciate this body of time and expertise that influences every choice we make in our resource development. I’d been teaching for seven years when I attended a seminar at a conference that made me take a pause in my hectic cycle of planning-teaching-resourcing, and made me consider my pedagogic resource choices all over again. Six years on, and much research later, I write to share with you that same hurdle in curriculum and resource design, one that isn’t often promoted in schools or on initial teacher training programmes, but which is largely addressed through awareness and by the willingness to stop and look at our classroom environments in a new way.

Colour vision deficiency (CVD) affects one in 12 boys and one in 250 girls, which roughly equates to one student in every classroom, or 450,000 school students in the UK (Albany-Ward, 2018). The extent and type of colour blindness is different for each person, but can be divided into the following categories:

  • protanomaly (reduced sensitivity to red)
  • deuteranomaly (reduced sensitivity to green)
  • tritanomaly (reduced sensitivity to blue).

All of these are caused by a fault in the cone cells, which are found in the retina. This fault is usually inherited recessively via the X chromosome, although it can be acquired – for example, through traumatic brain injury. With a staggeringly high statistic of ‘one in every classroom’, we have all certainly encountered students (and colleagues) who see colour differently, but how many of us can identify the potential impact in our own classroom practice and curriculums?

If you have never given this area much attention before, you are not alone. It is a hugely understudied area in the field of education. One of the most practical publications on CVD in the classroom is by Maule and Featonby (2016), who published a reflective account of examples of tasks that a student with CVD may have difficulty with, from both primary and secondary classrooms. For example, they used photos that had been altered using a colour vision simulator to show how a student with CVD had misunderstood the instructions of a numeracy task that involved colour-coding sums and solutions. Potentially we could interpret the student’s work as telling us that they didn’t understand the topic, rather than identifying that the task was inaccessible to them in the first place. The article also highlighted the difficulties that a student could have in reading a pH scale in chemistry or identifying members of their team in a PE lesson. When we stop to consider our use of colour in our classrooms, it is easy to identify areas of our curriculums where our resources could use a little editing to prevent these unnecessary challenges.

When I first began to study this area, I was lucky enough to be teaching a student who was very aware of his CVD, and was reflective and willing to talk me through the difficulties he had in my lessons. These included not seeing the detail and depth that had been expected when we dissected hearts in biology or the dispersion of light through a prism in physics. Outside of science his difficulties continued: he described how he had once diligently completed a word-fill task at the start of the lesson, only to realise that the teacher had displayed the learning objectives with the key words highlighted in a colour that he could not distinguish from the background used on the slide, and the school-wide practice of using traffic lights to assess progress and to denote the level of challenge on a set of questions was hardly ever adapted.

Most of these incidences could have been easily avoided, by taking care with colour choices and using a secondary indicator (such as italics, a letter code or underlined sections) to make key words stand out. Within groupwork, time should be taken to encourage groups to share their results and observations, bringing together the conclusions of all the class so that everyone can access the same learning points.

While there is still little research in the field of education, there are many historic and detailed accounts about the impact of CVD in other areas, such as medicine (Chakrabarti, 2018; Spalding, 1997), with some disciplines starting to publish subject-specific advice – for example, the use of a microscope (Keene, 2015) or advice for geoscience students (DePaor et al., 2017). We spend a great deal of time training and crafting our own curriculum resources, so we can certainly follow the lead of these authors and use our expertise to take a fresh look at our own materials.

In a practical sense, spending co-planning time reflecting on the reasons for the use of a colour in our presentations can be valuable: asking tough questions of our habits, such as identifying unnecessary decoration and colour-coding on a presentation, or checking that any supporting research that informs our practice has considered CVD in their sample size.

While I am grateful to have had a student who was happy to talk to me about his experiences, we need to acknowledge that it is not the responsibility of the CVD student to be informing their teacher about their experiences. A great starting point for these discussions is the organisation Colour Blind Awareness (www.colourblindawareness.org), who have some fantastic examples and advice for educators. There are also many free apps that simulate how an image would appear to a person with CVD. While these images don’t show an exact representation, they could provide a good starting point for reflective practitioners.

Colour Blind Awareness advise that in terms of the classroom environment and routines, try to use as much natural light as possible – for example, raising the window blinds after watching a video or checking with the students as to which lights they prefer in the room while they are working. There is a huge amount of variation in what can be perceived in natural light compared to a slightly darker room or an artificially lit screen. When you consider the experiences of a secondary school student who changes classroom several times a day, this clearly is a variable to their learning that is not always at the forefront of our minds, but it can start to be improved with simple actions.

Researchers have also identified CVD as the potential cause of some behaviours. These range from fussy eating in young children, with vegetables appearing an unappetising brown colour (Sullivan, 2014), to the long-term impact of low self-efficacy, as young people struggle to relate their performance on a classrom task to difficultites in their perception rather than their ability in a subject (Grassivaro Gallo et al., 2003). This is particularly prevelant in pupils who were unaware of their CVD before a screening programme was introduced to their school.

Routine screening for CVD was discontinued following the Healthy Child report (Hall and Hall, 2009). Many parents still assume that this testing is carried out in schools or during routine eye checks. The reality is that most students in our classrooms today have never been tested, leaving us with a large number who are unaware that they are seeing colour differently to their peers. It is not the place of the unit of work to diagnose a student – just to raise the question. Parents and guardians who want to have their child tested must explicitly ask at an opticians for a test, as many don’t include it in the routine set.

The debate over the value of reinstating routine testing rages on across many different disciplines; meanwhile we are faced with our responsibility to provide support and remove any barriers to learning for our ‘one student in every classroom’, even if we don’t know who they are. In an area of precious little research, and in a world where our use of colour in the classroom is changing with the technology we have available, the overriding conclusion by charities and organisations is that we need to raise awareness. It is our job as leaders in inclusion to find opportunities to start these conversations and share our experiences, so that we can start to move towards a model of good practice.

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