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!

1 comment:

  1. It's surprising how little I've read on this subject over the years - its a really big issue in my opinion.

    Ultimately it should depend on why you're using a switch and who you are using it with. If you were a using a switch reactively - say having a light beam being broken by initially random movements to trigger an output, in order to create an awareness of body movement in a profoundly disabled child, then clearly it wouldn't matter so much that we were reinforcing repeated switching.

    If you were trying to encourage a more cognitively able, but physically disabled student to use a switch with a view to eventually making complex choices using a small number of switch presses - which traditionally has been accomplished with a column & row grid mechanism; then switch banging would quickly become the last thing you wanted to reinforce.

    Inevitably many people use the software without thinking through what they really want the child to learn - often it's used as a fill in activity in the last 10 minutes of a lesson in my experience, and is often not tuned in to the individual needs of the child.

    For instance a first thing I'd look at is the delay on the software which controls how soon after a switch press it is possible to make another - many programs have the capability to adjust these delays built in - but how many people really take the time to customise them to individual needs ?

    I think what we're actually trying to do is two fold - on the one hand we're trying to teach the user to make more complex actions to obtain a simple outcome - and on the other, we're trying to teach them to use simple actions, to make more complex decisions - clearly there's some balancing to do there.