Friday, 20 June 2014

What do algorithms taste like?

A few weeks ago I spoke at a two day conference organised by Flo Longhorn and Les Staves which explored the past, present and future of special education for people with profound and multiple learning difficulties. The stand-out moment of that conference for me was when Les Staves spoke of using the national curriculum to ‘flavour’ teaching activities for these very special students.

You know what he meant by that… we all do it every day in our class when we teach our students who work at levels P1 to P4. Our focus is to help those students become aware of themselves and their immediate environment and how they might extend some influence and control over it. We teach them to communicate in the best way that they can and we work on those skills every session and every day. We use the curriculum to ‘flavour’ our teaching for example if we are teaching about France in Modern Foreign Languages we may write a French themed sensory story;  listen to French music and songs, taste French onion soup, feel, smell and taste a crusty baguette, smell garlic… We provide French themed rich learning experiences which we’ve carefully designed to stimulate the five senses and help increase our student’s awareness of themselves and to encourage positive responses to our interactions. It’s a well-researched proven teaching strategy for students at these early levels.

However not every curriculum topic or theme lends itself to differentiation to a sensory level.  Some are just too abstract. Our students at P1 to P3 are not really expected to remember much about France. The topic is providing a theme, a flavour which helps us provide breadth to our teaching especially as we are likely to be teaching these same communication skills to these students for the whole time they are with us in school. With the launch of the new National Curriculum in September, colleagues are busy looking at how we might differentiate these new strands and topics for our students with special educational needs. Many, myself included, are working on the new ‘computing’ strand of the ICT curriculum, examining how we can teach these skills to our students in a meaningful way.

Recently I have received a few requests asking how we might teach elements of the computing curriculum which includes algorithms; programing languages, programming instructions and debugging as ‘sensory experiences’ for students at P1 to P3. That’s right, a sensory stimulation based computing curriculum for children at the very earliest levels of cognition. You can imagine… “Listen to the computer beeping… Look at the numbers on the screen… Smell that data… taste that algorithm!”

Why would anyone want to do that? I’m fully behind differentiating elements of the computing curriculum for more able students that may understand simple sequencing and giving instructions. For them there are transferrable skills that they can learn from the new strand, but I struggle to see what meaning a child at P1 to P3 might learn from this… even as a sensory experience.

It’s took a few years and some courage for teachers to step away from the dictates of the ICT curriculum and use technology in their class to support meaningful communication and to help students at P1 to P3 to begin to understand themselves and the world they live in.  Let’s not go back to the bad old days of kids banging the keyboard and colleagues calling it ‘differentiated’ word processing. That really happened in a school I once visited. If anyone is really interested I have a sensory lesson plan I found on the internet that teaches PMLD children the workings of Transfer Control Protocol /Internet Protocol. Just because we can differentiate something doesn’t mean that we should nor does it guarantee that our students at P1 to P3 will learn anything meaningful from it… no matter what flavour you make it.

What do algorithms taste like? Let’s hope we never find out!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Thoughts on the Computing Curriculum for learners with severe and complex needs

From 5, children will learn to code and program, with algorithms, sequencing, selection and repetition; from 11, how to use at least 2 programming languages to solve computational problems; to design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems; and how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system.

Michael Gove speaking at the BETT Show January 2014

I started receiving emails a few months ago from colleagues working in special schools asking, “What is an algorithm?” or “What is object oriented programming?” These questions were prompted by a review of the UK ICT curriculum, which as Gove’s speech above confirms, will require teachers to teach programming as an integral part of our ICT lessons. Colleagues I've met seem genuinely worried that they don't have the skills or experience to teach this new strand. A few braver souls asked me the more pertinent question, “What will my students get from learning this?”

I've thought long and hard about that last question. Anyone who knows me or has heard me speak anywhere in the world will know that ICT has to be meaningful to our students. It has to be delivered at their level, drawing on their real life experiences and teach skills that have value both to them and to the world around them. I still remember meeting three students who had been taught to copy type despite the fact that they couldn't read even a single CVC word … or the class from a special school in the UK who were video conferencing with a class in Norway. Sadly, when I asked "What is Norway?", none of the students could answer the question. I don’t use technology for the sake of it or to tick the ‘ICT included’ box on lesson plans. I use technology for lots of reasons, none of which is ‘because I can’.

So what can our students with severe and complex needs learn from the new computing curriculum? What skills will they acquire from learning about algorithms, programming statements and debugging? In my opinion, there are some important skills we can teach here. Not for everyone of course. Anyone that tells you they can differentiate programming languages for students with profound and multiple learning difficulties is quite simply deluding themselves. For me, our students will learn important and transferable problem solving skills.

Let’s look at what writing a program entails:

Analyse the problem
What is it that we need to do?

Devise a solution using algorithms

How might we do it? 
Break the task down into smaller steps we can give as instructions.

Write the program using statements
Put the instructions into the right order.

Test and debug the program
Did it work? If not did we get something in the wrong order? Could we try different instructions?

The only thing we may not have come across before is the computing terminology. Here’s how I would define those words.

Programming Statement
An instruction we can give to somebody or something.

A set of instructions to complete all or part of a task.

A sequence of instructions.

Checking that your instructions are correct and in the right order.

Again, I don’t think there is anything new here for teachers in special schools… giving and following instructions, sequencing etc. 
Here’s four statements from two very different computer programs. The first is from visual programming language called Scratch and makes a cat move across the screen before saying hello.

The second was written using photographs by some youngsters from a special school.

They are both valid programs. Each has a sequenced set of statements designed to complete a task. Each has been debugged. One of them has a complicated ‘IF THEN ELSE’ statement. Did you work out which?

IF the toast pops up THEN butter the toast ELSE wait until it pops up.

With some careful thought and planning, there is so much that our students can learn from the computing curriculum. They can learn to identify problems, come up with workable solutions by breaking the task down into smaller steps, then sequence, test and refine their solution. We can teach them in a way which has meaning to our students. Sure some of our students will LOVE the real programming tools, but some will need a less abstract approach and lots of real life examples they can practice. As ever, we are led by the needs of our learners.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post more about the computing curriculum and the training I am able to offer special schools who are keen to get involved with it. I’ll finish today with the funniest moment from the video conferencing lesson with the school in Norway. One of the UK students turned to their teacher and asked; “Can we turn it over and see what’s on BBC?”         

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Short review: My Doo-zy, My Friend, Our Journey

Written by Julia Barnes, a teacher and Heather Clarke, a speech therapist from Ravenscliffe Special School in Halifax, this 200 page book is packed with very practical examples of structured teaching with switches for students with severe and profound learning difficulties. Although written around the Doo-zy switch from Switch-ed (and I would recommend that you check the links at the end of this review to find out more about the Doo-zy), if your budget won't stretch to new equipment, all of the activities can also be taught with a Big Mack, a switch that the child can use and a toy controller, most of which you'll already have in school.

The book presents activities in a structured way, beginning at the earliest levels of cognition through choosing activities and problem solving activities linked to the new computing curriculum. 

All of the activities in the book are aligned to the UK P Levels and the excellent 'Routes for Learning' assessment tool for children with complex needs. Users of my Switch Progression Road Map will find it easy to add in these activities to teaching and assessment tools they may already be using. There's also a whole chapter covering extension ideas for use across the wider school curriculum.

The book benefits from the collaboration between teaching and speech therapy providing activities that focus on making progress in both areas. I really like that the authors provide their lesson plans and all of the links to published research material are properly referenced for those like me that want to find out more.

This is a very useful book even if you don't have a Doo-zy in your school. It's packed with tried and tested lesson plans and activities all of which you will be able to replicate and adapt for the students in your school. Time to get out the switch adapted toys and have some fun!

My Doo-zy, My Friend, Our Journey is available from Switch-ed and costs £20.

For more information about the Doo-zy, visit their web site

John from Switch-ed has kindly given us two copies of this brilliant book to give away on my Facebook page. Click here for your chance to win.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Review of Vibe-lite switch from Switch-ed

The new Vibe-lite from Switch-ed is an 'all in one' switch and controller that can be used on the computer with your switch software and with battery operated toys and other devices. After unpacking your Vibe-lite, you'll need to install the two AA batteries that are supplied with the device and turn the device on with the slider switch on the base. I might be old fashioned but I still like an on/off switch. So many new wireless switches claim to turn themselves off but every time I go for them the batteries are dead. Turn the Vibe-lite off and you know it's off and the batteries aren't draining away!

The batteries power two special features.

Vibration: The switch can be set up to provide feedback in the form of vibration when the switch is pressed. You can turn this feature off if your student doesn't need this additional feedback.

Light: Choose from two illumination modes. The first will light up the switch every four seconds and provides a very effective switch prompt especially for students with visual impairment. The second lights up the switch for the duration of the timer.

The Vibe-lite has three modes of operation all of which fit in perfectly with the cause and effect levels of the Switch Progression Road Map (SPRM).

Momentary / Direct: Use this setting if you're using the switch on the computer or with battery toys that operate when the switch is held down. The toy will continue to operate when the switch is held down and will stop if the switch is released. See page 18 of the SPRM.

Timed: Using this setting you can define a length of time that the toy will play for when the switch is pressed. Choose from 5, 10, 20, 30, 45, 60, 90 or 120 seconds. The student activates the switch and the toy will play for the set time before stopping. See page 20 of the SPRM.

Latched: Using the latched setting, you set the switch up to alternate between turning the toy on and off. First press turns the toy on, next off, next on... and so on. This can be a difficult concept to grasp for some students. You can read more about using this setting and see some sample activities on page 24 of the SPRM.

Settings are adjusted using the eight dip switches on the base of the switch. It looks complicated but it isn't and there are illustrations showing examples of every possible setting you might want to use in the booklet that accompanies the Vibe-lite.

The Vibe-lite is well built and feels more than robust enough to survive even the busiest classroom. It costs £80 plus VAT and comes with a 12 month warranty.


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Giving away free copies of Cognable's Sensory Sound Box today.

Visitors to my Facebook page today can win one of nine redeem codes for the new version of Cognable's 'Cause and Effect: Sensory Sound Box. Nothing complicated to take part, simply 'like' the page if you haven't already and 'like' the photo.

I'll draw the winners at 9pm this evening.

Here's the link to my Facebook page if you need it.


Monday, 21 April 2014

Switch Box Invaders is now a free app.

Just heard from Simon Evans at Cognable that his brilliant (and accessible) arcade game 'Switch Box Invaders' is going free, not just for today but forever. The game can be played with a Bluetooth switch or by touching the screen. I've used this app with students during my travels and some students love it.

You can download the app here: SWITCH BOX INVADERS

Don't forget that you can download both Switch Box Invaders and Sensory Light Box for the PC / MAC for free from Cognable's web site.


Niki Music App - The best 69p you'll ever spend.

If, like me you've been looking for a easy way for students to be able to choose their own music on the ipad, you need look no further than 'Niki Music' app. For just 69p, Niki Music lets you create simple choosing boards like the one above using your own images and music. Choose a music track, attach an image (from the camera roll or one you downloaded from Google) and away you go. Students touch the big buttons to choose the track they want to listen to.

All editing buttons are locked away behind the on-screen padlock. You'll have to answer a simple maths problem to unlock them. Seriously, a very good app well worth the 69p it will cost.

Here's the link to the app: NIKI MUSIC APP

Oh and if you need an image for any 'One Direction' tracks. Here's the one I use.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Cognable's Sensory Sound Box UPDATED

Had an email today from Simon Evans, the author of Cause and Effect: Sensory Light Box informing us that the app has been updated for IOS 7 and now includes four new scenes. The update is free if you have already purchased the app.

This is brilliant news for those working with students at the earliest levels of cause and effect. Students touch the screen to create colourful effects accompanied by interesting sounds. Move a finger around the screen and the effects follow your finger with the sounds changing in pitch, reinforcing the concept of 'magic fingers'.

The updated app is available from the App Store for £1.49.

Simon has kindly given me 10 redeem codes for free copies of this app which I'll be giving away on my SENICT Facebook page early next week.