Elusive coral – how can we go deeper?

What has the biggest challenge been for you as a teacher? What do you do when a student just doesn’t get it? How deep is your back pocket of tricks to start going deeper to help them through? How can we navigate brain blocks?

This is a story about teaching a student on the autism spectrum about coral.

The student was completing an obervational painting series in order to gather techniques and textures for them to explore in new forms later. The problem was that none of the paintings looked like coral. And this had me stumped.

Why don’t you explore some of these textures? What about doing some dots like this? How many different textures can you see? What about drawing this shape?

Nothing there apparently.

This block was new to me. Because the student had not experienced coral, they could not draw it. They had drawn and painted tropical fish because they could link them to fish they had seen. But coral remained elusive. Coral was a block.

Here’s what I tried:

– shared a slideshow of photographs of coral

– shared a documentary about coral reefs

– shared a short piece about kids making coral in minecraft

– found a VR headset for an undersea diving experience

– found a 3d model of coral in microsoft powerpoint to manipulate and look at together

– made a clay coral reef for the classroom (this was quite fun and other students liked playing with it).

– brought in a piece of coral from the Science dept

Still the block. And frustration was mounting turning the block into an internal brain battle.

I discussed the problem with my colleagues and teacher aides. We were all stumped. Across the resources there were visual images both moving and static, context from a global warming doco, tactile examples to touch and 3d digital manipulative to experience.

And it still didn’t click.

Coral was the biggest brain block I had ever encountered.

So I found some national geographic magazines with deep sea photographs that happened to include some coral and cut them up into a collage of rectangles. It became a grid of textures and colours to copy with paint and the student could cross them off as they went. We also raided the scrap box and collected paint samples from other students’ past experiments and cut them up too. So the library of textures and techniques was built for them to continue with. We just didn’t call it coral.

I don’t know if this is a success story really. The student never understood coral. Coral remained elusive both as concept and as concrete noun.


The student was able to continue the process of exploring techniques and patterns in painting. The learning outcome of exploring textures and colours of a specific topic was (eventually) reached. The initial building block of the observational painting was a step that just needed to be expertly sidestepped.

And the greatest learning for me? The depths to explore to help a student know no bounds. The creative ‘ways in’ to coral have become a pack of back pocket techniques I can apply to any subject. If one thing doesn’t work, try another thing. Going deeper, wider, sideways doesn’t hurt anyone. Helping a student to navigate their learning might take a range of approaches. It might just mean that through the right experiences a block is no longer a block. A block might actually be a very interesting step towards understanding neurodiversity, learning experience design, collaboration and relationship building.

Coral stock photo from wordpress media library. Photos like this did not work.

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