Thursday, 8 December 2011

One, two, three... NO!

Many commercial switch training software programs feature a ‘switch building’ level where the learner is required to press the switch a number of times in order to ‘build’ either a pattern, picture or scene. With each press of the switch, another part of the image is ‘built’ until at the last press in the sequence the complete image is revealed and usually animated as a reward. Sequences often require three, five or more switch presses before the animation sequence is played. Learners moving from cause and effect activities often start switch building at three presses and move on to more as they make progress.


Is the student really making progress if they’re learning to hit a switch over and over again? By that maxim, I’ve worked with some switch skills geniuses. You know the students I’m talking about, the ones who sit there and bang or tap the switch continually… again and again and again like they’re beating out the bass line of 100bpm house music. Surely that can’t be right. Is a student who can press a switch six times in a row more advanced than one who can only press it only three?

Switch ‘building’ is a misnomer. At this level our aim for the student is to learn to press the switch a number of times to complete a simple sequence noticing the changes at each step.

Imagine ‘building’ a farm scene …

<press> “Oh look… green grass. I wonder what else we’re going to get.”
<press> “Sheep! Sheep in the field. I wonder what else we’re going to get.”
<press> “A tractor! A tractor in the field.”
<press> Animation plays showing tractor ploughing and sheep bleating. “Yay, you made a farm. Good job!”

The example illustrates that the skill here is not that the child can press the switch four times, rather it’s that the child notices that something has changed on the screen with each press of the switch. We help the child notice the changes by pointing them out… talking about what is happening on the screen. Here’s another example this time a story created in SwitchIt! Maker about a trip to the seaside with your class using your photos and a video clip of a funfair. Here’s how the activity might play out…

<press> “Look what’s that? It’s our school bus.”
<press> “Oh look, it’s our class getting on the bus. Where do you think we are going to go?”
<press> “THE SEASIDE!”

<press> “Here we all are playing on the beach…”
<press> “Having a paddle …”
<press> “and at the funfair!” Video plays.

Both of these examples illustrate a meaningful and age appropriate method of teaching the ‘switch building’ skill. Contrast that against some software which will have your students building pictures from parts of pictures. 
How about this.

<press> “Look a cow’s leg”
<press> “Look cow’s udders”

How many of our students working at low levels of cognition would be able to identify a picture from parts of a picture? It gets worse; some software uses patterns in switch building.

<press> “look a wobbly line”
<press> “and another wobbly line”
<press> “and another …”

You get the picture? Most of our students don’t and because they don’t really understand what’s happening they quickly learn that if they bash the switch repeatedly, the reward will play. This is counter-productive and keeps them firmly at the cause and effect; ‘make something happen’ stage except now they are tapping a switch repeatedly to get the reward. Switch building is an important stage in the development of switch skills which teaches some important concepts. With a little thought and a smattering of creativity it can be a lot of fun too!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What's the weather like there?

Like many of my colleagues, I’d often thought about setting up a link with an overseas school and running a collaboration project. The children I teach all have severe and complex learning difficulties and to be frank, don’t get out much. Only one of the ten children in the class had ever been out of the country and that was to Disneyland in Paris. Don’t get me wrong but the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride is hardly the best place to experience and learn about other countries and cultures.

I had some of friends who could help. A couple of months earlier I had been out to Latvia to visit some special schools and met an enthusiastic teacher who I knew would be keen to take part. I’d also been emailing a special school teacher in Hong Kong who was interested too. We chose the weather as our theme. It was February, cold and grey in the UK, heavy snow and minus twenty degrees in Latvia and spring in Hong Kong with temperatures up to thirty degrees in the shade. There were other differences between our groups too. The pupils in the Hong Kong school were all the children of well off ex pats. The student’s in Latvia were from much less wealthy backgrounds.

The project kicked off with introductions, video clips and photographs of our schools and houses, conversations about what we had for breakfast, favourite TV programs, places we liked to visit etc.  Then we introduced our work project. We would each gather weather data every day in the form of a photograph taken from the same spot. We’d each measure the temperature at the same time and fill in a simple form showing what the weather was ‘doing’ that day. Each week we would send each other the data together with other messages the students had for each other about aspects of their week.

The project ran for seven weeks. In that time our students learned so much from their peers. Their conversations with each other opened up so many research and discussion topics which led to great teaching opportunities. Did you know that many people in Latvia eat salted herring and raw onions for breakfast? Our students didn’t either so we bought some and tried it. I’m smiling as I’m writing this remembering the faces the students pulled when they tasted it. 

Ever eaten ‘Dragon Beard Candy’? Nope? We went to the Chinese Supermarket and bought some. Spun sugar confectionary beats pickled fish every time. It was a fantastic project from which all of the students in each of our schools benefited.

Now here’s the rub. I ran this project ten years ago.

Internet connectivity wasn’t great in any of our three schools. In Latvia, there wasn’t any. Our ‘conversations’ between schools were emails written on paper at school and sent to the respective teacher’s home account. We could share photographs but only one per email as the mailbox size was restricted to a couple of megabytes. We shared videos by posting the VHS tapes to each other in Jiffy bags and our weather data sheet arrived with the postman each week in an A4 envelope.

How much easier would it be to run this project today? Live video conversations with Skype. Photos shared through Flickr or a dedicated (closed and safe) Facebook group. A ‘YouTube’ channel for sharing those videos. Instant emails with large attachments. A collaborative blogging page to share the data with a world-wide audience. So many possibilities.

Our students gained so much from this project. Today’s technology opens up the world to our students and it’s so much easier today with the plethora of web tools out there.

So what are you waiting for? 

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

"Press the switch"

You’re probably wondering what these Chinese symbols mean. They are the words ‘press the switch’ written in traditional Chinese. Why am I telling you this?

When I worked at Priory Woods School, I used to take pride in just how inclusive my ICT lessons were.  We worked hard to ensure that our use of technology was matched to the needs of the student and that the teaching materials we used were appropriate and meaningful to the student’s age and cognitive abilities. We went further still. I learned how to say the words ‘press the switch’ in a variety of different languages to ensure that my prompting was meaningful to students at a cause and effect level whose first language wasn’t English. I even made a poster for the wall with phonetic spellings so my colleagues could use them too. OFFSOD loved it!

It wasn't long after that I had an epiphany. Why was I talking to the student about the switch when what really matters is the effect that pressing the switch produces? Talking about the switch (in any language) shifts the student’s focus away from the effects they are creating and on to the process of pressing the switch. I decided never again to use those words. Out went ‘press the switch’, to be replaced with prompts that engaged the student with the outcomes not the process.

“More music please”
“Make the hippo dance”
“Where’s Bob the Builder?”
“What’s coming next?”

Of course some students needed to be reminded about the switch. We overcame this by always ensuring there was a picture on the switch of the effect that pressing it would produce.

For example I’d use a picture of the hippo when we were using the dancing hippo activity.

This helped the student understand what the switch was for and to make the link between the switch and the effect will be produced when it is pressed. We may still have to model the movements required in order to produce the effect. This would cover a range of prompts which include showing the student by pressing it yourself (make sure they are looking at you and following what you are doing) or modelling the process with the student’s hand.

Whichever you choose to use, remember it’s really important to give your student time to respond… that means waiting. How long you wait depends on the student. How long might it take for a student with complex needs to process what you are asking them to do? How long for them to work out what is required? Sit on your hands for a couple of minutes and see if the student responds.

So I don’t use “press the switch” any more… in any language! 

Monday, 24 October 2011

Ipads for Autism?

60 Minutes article on Apps for Autism
On Sunday, the US news programme ‘60 Minutes’ aired an article entitled ‘Apps for Autism’. As an assistive technology consultant it’s important for me to keep up-to-date with current practice in the use of technology to support people with disabilities. I watched it with interest.

The article opens showing an Autistic young man who has no speech using an ipad with Proloquo to communicate with the interviewer. The young man is able to navigate through a series of dynamic menu pages to find pictures and symbols which correspond to the words and phrases he wants to use. The ipad partnered with Proloquo provides an affordable dynamic communication system which rivals devices such as those from Dynovox et al and for the young man featured in the article and hundreds of other speech impaired people, it is truly changing their lives. So why was I annoyed when I was watching it?

It wasn’t that the article portrayed ipads as a panacea for Autistic students or that it furthered the popular portrayal of ipads as ‘Autism Therapy’ although it did both and both give me cause for concern. I was upset when I heard the young person’s parent say that this was the first intervention her son had received. Just think about that for a second…

The young man in question was 27 years old. Are we really to believe that this young man went through school without one teacher or therapist trying a PECS book or a communication aid with him? Really?

If what was broadcast was true then it’s a terrible indictment on the US education system. Are they asking us to believe that US teachers and therapists stood back and didn’t provide the technology and teaching strategies they know will help a child overcome at least some of their communication difficulties? I know better. US teachers and therapist are no different to their colleagues around the world who all work tirelessly to help their students make progress. They do whatever it takes, try whatever they can, and use whatever is available to them, often working many hours after school has finished to create the resources they need.

So why did 60 Minutes choose to portray it this way? The whole article served to further and reinforce the myth that ipads are THE tool for students with Autism. That using them provides something magical and that if we choose not to use ipads, we may be holding our students back. It’s sad really as ipads do have a place when it comes to meeting the communication, learning and leisure needs of people with disabilities and for some students they may be the tool of choice but they are just one of a multitude of tools in the teaching and therapy toolbox. Good teachers and therapists match the use of teaching strategies and technology to the needs of the student based on assessment and a sound knowledge of the student’s strengths and weaknesses, not on whim, fad or fashion.

60 Minutes could have shown me that student and the obvious joy he and his family were experiencing without wrapping it up in an advert for Apple products. Showing me a young man whose life has been enriched by the application of an appropriate technology would have been celebration enough.   

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Complex Needs and Switches: It Could Be You!

I had a lovely day yesterday. I spent it in the company of five colleagues from a special school in the Midlands who had asked me to work with them to develop their use of switches in school. This was a good school where ICT is used in a way which was meaningful and appropriate to the needs of their students and where possible, embedded in their lessons. We spent the morning session talking about processes… how the students used switches, what constituted success at each stage and how we might assess and record progress across the school. In the afternoon we put our work into practice by doing baseline assessments on some of their pupils.

I’ve done this so many times over the years, I know what to expect. Teachers always bring their most complex students. You know them… the student with CP for whom you have never found a consistent switch position. The student with severe autism who can’t attend to anything for more a couple of seconds and students like ‘Bill’ who I met yesterday. Bill is not his real name but that doesn’t matter. Bill is typical of that group of students who show no interest in technology or much else for that matter. They don’t explore the things we give them, they don’t initiate and they seem to spend their day sitting in a wheelchair waiting for that moment when somebody comes and interacts with them. Bill’s teacher describes him as a ‘people person’.

In situations like this I’m always careful to manage expectations. I don’t have a magic wand or special powers that can fix the problem. I apply an analytical approach, finding out as much as I can about what motivates the student, reviewing what the school has already done and offering suggestions for things the school might try. For some students, that’s confirming what the school already knows… that they have tried everything and for that student, at this moment in time, technology is not an appropriate tool.

I remember vividly a short while ago an ICT teacher in a special school voicing his frustrations at spending every session for almost a year trying to identify a switch position for a student with severe CP. He’d tried every kind of switch in every position and nothing had worked. I asked him a question. “Outside of ICT, how does the student interact with people?” He told me that the student was very good at eye pointing and he was doing really well with an E-Tran frame. 

“Why don’t you use that?” I said. “Is it really necessary that the student actually presses the switch himself, if he’s able to show you what he wants? Couldn’t someone help him with that part?” I could see his mind racing exploring the possibilities. So that’s what they did. The student indicated his choice by eye pointing and a TA pressed the switch for him. The result was a more engaged student who was now making progress and teacher who could go home at night not feeling guilty that he was ‘failing’ one of his students. I heard just recently that the school have bought an eye gaze system and the student can now access most things on the computer completely independently.

Anyway, back to Bill. His teacher told me that he doesn’t really use switches. They had tried a Big Mack to say ‘good morning’ and used some cause and effect software with him but he showed no interest in either. He occasionally moved his hand to the switch but never pressed it himself. At which point in the conversation, one of the colleagues in the room sneezed. Not a genteel sniffle but a full on, window rattling explosive sneeze. Bill’s face lit up and he started to chuckle. I asked her to sneeze again and in true pantomime style she did… “Ah… Ah… Ah… CHOOOOOOO” and Bill laughed so hard his wheelchair was rocking. Within seconds we had a sneeze recorded on a Big Mack and presented it to Bill and much to the amazement of the teachers in the room, his hand reached out and pressed the switch… again and again to watch his teacher almost fall off her chair rein acting the sneeze in that pantomime style that special school staff are so good at. Ideas started to flow. What else could we put on the Big Mack that Bill might respond to? Someone suggested “One… Two… Three… TICKLE” Billy pressed the switch and got tickled. He loved it!

Our session with Billy illustrates an important point that we need to consider when we are using switches with students who have complex needs. It’s not enough to simply provide a switch; we also have to provide a reason for pressing it. For some students, that may be the music and images generated by software or the colourful movement and vibration provided by a bubble tube. For others, like Billy it’s something else. They may press the switch to start the dancing hippo or farting dinosaur activity but they are not interested in that. What interests and motivates them to use the switch is YOUR reaction to what they have done. They don’t want to see the hippo dance, they press the switch to watch YOU dance. Many of the students I have seen using the Farting Dinosaurs activity I created at Priory Woods couldn’t possibly process and understand the subtleties of the animation. They press the switch to see the funny faces YOU pull at those smelly dinosaurs. The reward they seek from using the switch is YOUR reaction to what they have created.

When I left the school yesterday they had a long list of ideas they had come up with to engage Billy with switches. They had also remembered that our knowledge of the student informs our choice of technology and how we use it. They identified what motivates Billy and provided him with a mechanism to initiate it himself. We all knew that Billy had taken an important first step to understanding how a switch will help him interact with his environment on those in it.

Billy was learning how a switch will help him to communicate.     

Friday, 23 September 2011

Symbols 101 Part 3

"What symbol do I use for 'pursuant'?"
I recently delivered symbol training for an organisation that provided sheltered housing for people with learning difficulties. Like many organisations working in this sector they wanted to ensure that their written communications with their tenants were accessible. They purchased symbol processing software and asked me to help them. The training went the usual way. We looked at symbols and how / if they added meaning to the words they were representing.  We talked about what the needs of their tenants might be and how we might need to differentiate the text for them.

After lunch, I set them a task. Identify something you might send to a tenant and produce an accessible version. That’s when I was asked the question, “what symbol do I use for pursuant?” The delegate explained that she often received notes from tenants asking if they were able to keep a pet. She even showed me one she had just received. It was handwritten and much as you would expect from someone with a severe learning difficulty. The text was barely readable and the tenant had drawn a picture of themselves with a dog. The delegate explained that the normal way to respond to requests to keep dogs was to write a letter refusing the request and quoting the relevant section from the tenancy agreement which began. “Pursuant to your rights as a tenant …”

The note from the tenant provided a perfect example of what the organisation needed to do. The sentence that the tenant had written was almost incomprehensible to most of us yet we all understood what it was she wanted. Why? Because the tenant had, in the picture she’d drawn provided ‘symbol’ support to help us decode the text. It was a powerful example of how we need to think about whom we are writing for, differentiate the sentences to meet their needs and use symbols only where they convey information and add meaning. The tenant hadn’t drawn pictures for the rest of the words she had written, “would like to have a “, just a picture of herself and the dog she wanted. We spent the afternoon working on responses to the note and by our last session of the day they had made significant progress in writing more appropriate sentences and using symbols only for those words that aided meaning.

It’s a popular misconception that simply adding symbols to text will make it easier for someone with learning difficulties to read and understand in much in the same way that converting complex sentences to speech is unlikely to make them any more accessible to someone with dyslexia. If we are to use symbols effectively, we need to be sure about our target audience. What are their reading levels? How many information carrying words can they cope with? Are they able to ‘hold’ enough information to be able to process a long sentence?

Throughout the training I emphasise this over and over again. Know who you are writing for and write sentences (and use symbols) which are appropriate to their needs. I always finish the day by asking delegates to write two sentences for me about what they have learned and how they will use it in their work. It’s a trick question. I want to see if they listened. The sentences are for ME. I can read and write. I don’t need simple sentences or symbols.

They always write simple sentences and use symbols.       

Monday, 12 September 2011

The trouble with lists ...

Like many colleagues, I am very interested in how new technologies are being used to classrooms to support learners with communication, cognitive and other difficulties. Right now I’m researching the use of ipads.  Like many of you I see these in schools and I’m constantly being asked for recommendations of the best apps to use. My research has led me to some great sites and interesting blogs however they all seem to have one thing in common… a list!

Now lists are great… I’d never remember the milk if I didn’t make a shopping list and I’d surely forget my underwear if I didn’t make that ‘holiday’ list. These lists are different. They list interesting and useful apps that one might use with students. Nothing wrong so far except I’ve yet to see a list that doesn’t detail at least one hundred apps, some list thousands. I’ve looked at three lists this morning, a total of 862 apps. 

While it’s fantastic to have so much choice to research, download and evaluate that lot would cost me a fortune and take me a month. Like you I don’t have that amount of free time to spare or the resources to pay for them all. Blog posts that support these list are very helpful.  They provide the detail we need to make more informed choices. My favourites are by far the Spectronics blog …

 … and the posts by Jane Farrall and Greg o’Connor

 and the TeachingALL blog …

… and the posts by Jeremy brown.

In an effort to save both my sanity and my marriage, I’d like to make a (much) shorter list, showing just the top three apps in a particular category that you would recommend to schools and parents. Here’s where you can help. I've shared a Google doc

… please click the link and add your #1 app to any of the categories. If it’s there already, just add it again. I collate it into something more user friendly and post it on the web.

Thanks for your help.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Symbols 101 Part Two

In the previous part we discussed the importance of ensuring the symbols we choose actually communicate the information that we hope to impart. Is it obvious what the symbol means? If not can it be decoded by the child considering their level of understanding or do we need to teach the meaning of the symbol?

In this section I want to explore this further.

Symbols are just pictures. There I said it. There are no special magical properties about them, although sometimes when I talk to colleagues you might think otherwise. They are images that we use to help communicate meaning. Look at these three images.

They are all pictures of biscuits. One is a photograph; another is a drawing and the third a symbol from one of the common symbol sets.  Are any of them ‘better’ than the others? Think about a student in your class and choose which symbol would be the most appropriate for them. Every time I have asked this question in my training courses the responses are as varied as the delegates who come to them. Many choose the photograph stating that it is the least abstract and most representative of the real object. Others choose the drawing saying that it’s clear and easier to see. Some choose the symbol because that’s what they use in school and their students are already familiar with it, but they all choose something different depending on the needs of their students. And that is the point.

It really doesn't matter which picture you choose so long as your students can see it and understand what it means. Photographs, drawings and symbols are all appropriate so long as we all (staff and students) share an understanding of meaning behind them.

The most significant benefit of using a symbol set rather than ad-hoc pictures and photographs is the convenience they afford us. Symbol sets provide us with thousands of images each related to words and concepts all in one place. They usually come as part of an editing package which makes using them to create resources both quick and easy. Schools often choose a specific symbol package to meet their priorities, for example Boardmaker and PCS symbols to support communication, Symwriter and the Widget Literacy symbols to support early literacy or Makaton symbols which follow closely Makaton signing system. There are other symbol sets too each of which provide benefits to their users. Which you choose should reflect how you are going to use them. Some schools also decide a 'core' vocabulary and which symbols to use for each word to ensure consistency across school. 

Let’s have a quiz. Here’s a sentence taken from a symbol supported website. I've removed the words; see if you can decode the sentence.

How well did you do? Maybe it would help to give you a couple of other sentences which might give you a clue as the context of the sentence.

Are you any closer to working it out? Remember that the symbols were added to this site to make it easier for people to read and understand it. It won an award for it! Give up?

How many of the symbols did you just know? How many could you decode? Did any completely confuse you? The observant among you will also notice that two different symbols are used for the word ‘lots’ in the last sentence. I have no idea what that is about and it really only adds to the confusion.

The example above illustrates nicely the three different types of symbols. Let’s look again at the sentence and categorise them according to my results.

Symbols I just knew: ‘10’ for the number 10 (because I'm numerate) and ‘rain’ because I know that rain falls from clouds. I learned that in science.

Symbols I could work out: ‘in’, ‘over’. I did get ‘years’ but only because I know that there are 12 months in a year and the picture was a calendar, ‘metres’ because I know what a ruler is for and that the word ‘metre’ begins with the letter M. Oh and ‘wet’ although my first guess was ‘sweaty’.

The rest I had to look up as I didn’t know what they meant. Two exclamation marks for the word ‘very’ makes sense now but only because I understand the use of them in English grammar. Think of the skills and prior knowledge that was required to complete the exercise. Now imagine what one of your students might make of this sentence. Would they have the skills and background knowledge to decode the symbols and read the sentence?

Adding symbols, photographs or drawings to words doesn’t automatically add meaning to them. We need to think carefully about the sentences that we are constructing, add symbols to the words that convey information and choose those symbols wisely based on our knowledge of our student’s needs.

In the next part we’ll look at simplifying text and I’ll share some good practice in the use of symbols from schools around the country.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Symbols 101 Part One

Symbols have been around for many years and it’s very rare for me to visit a school where they are not using one symbol set or another to support their students. From the earliest days when colleagues used to physically draw pictures over words with pencils, the use of symbols has provided support for early literacy, communication and served as a very useful tool for presenting information to visual learners. There is a strong evidence base which shows, where used appropriately; symbols aid the recognition, comprehension and retention of words.    

Over the years, I must have trained hundreds of schools and organisations on the use of symbols to support communication and early literacy. My approach hasn’t changed much, and focuses firmly on encouraging colleagues to think carefully about whom they are writing for and the words that they choose to use before considering which (if any) symbol might be the most appropriate.

A typical training session would start with a game. I give each colleague a sheet of paper and a ‘secret’ word. Their task is to draw a picture that will communicate the ‘secret’ word to the group. I choose the secret words carefully, some nouns which are easy to draw such as car, bus and banana, some verbs such as running, eating and sleeping, again relatively easy to depict in a drawing. I’ll also throw in some more difficult to depict words such as mother, which and yesterday. As you can imagine, it’s a lot of fun trying to decipher the drawings to guess the words. The purpose of the exercise of course is to encourage those taking part to really think about the word I have given them and what they might need to draw to communicate the meaning of that word to their colleagues.

Here’s a real life example from a recent training session. Have a look at the drawing above. Can you guess the word that it is trying to communicate?

The word I gave the colleague was ‘HISTORY’

Did you work it out? 
No? Me neither. 

The colleague who drew the picture explained that he found it incredibly difficult to come up with a picture that communicated the meaning of the word. “History”. He explained “history is about events that happened in the past and I couldn't think of how to depict ‘the past’ in a way that my students who all have SLD / PMLD might be able to understand. So I drew a tree and man… ‘his tree’ get it? I put a bowler hat on the figure so you can tell it’s a man.”

This example illustrates quite nicely one of the difficulties we may encounter when we’re using symbols to add meaning to words. Quite simply, does the symbol we are using actually add meaning at all?

There are essentially three types of symbols.
·         Symbols which we just know, pictures of things, for example car, tree, house, book.
·         Symbols which can be worked out (decoded) for example big, jump, eat.
·         Symbols depicting more abstract words which are difficult to work out and usually need to be taught, for example yesterday, went, going and of course history.

If we’re going to use symbols effectively, we need to consider the words we are using and who it is for. The next time you’re making symbol resources, take a moment to look at the symbol that’s popped up. Does it communicate the meaning of the word? If not, can you work it out? If the answer to both of these questions is no, you might want to reconsider the words you are using in your sentence or plan to teach your students what the symbol means. Remember, write for your audience and only choose symbols that add meaning. If you need to use more abstract words, be prepared to teach your students what the symbol actually means.

In the next part, we’ll look at some simple applications (PC and ipad) that we can use to teach symbol vocabulary.