Transformational Technology

    Remember when interactive whiteboards transformed teaching and learning for students with severe and complex needs? When Pokemon Go had all of our students who were on the spectrum out in the community socialising with others or when eye gaze taught us all we needed to know about our students with profound and complex needs. Me neither!
    Technology is an important tool in our toolbox. For some it provides a voice, for others it helps make accessible a world littered with cognitive and physical barriers. It helps motivate and enthuse students on their learning journey, but it is just one piece in the sometimes complex puzzle of how best to reach our students.
    Some years ago I said that the best app you could have on your iPad was an interested and informed educator, therapist, parent or carer who knows what to use and when to use it... or not. The technology has changed but what underpins that statement is the same now as it was in 2010.

    It's a small world after all

    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 taught 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 confectionery beats pickled fish every time. It was a fantastic project from which all of the students in each of our schools learned something.

    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 as emails to the respective teacher’s home account later that night. 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 wonderful web tools out there.

    So what are you waiting for? 


    What do algorithms taste like?

    Some time 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.


    On Symbols

    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.

    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.

    "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.



    'Doing' technology.


    When I first saw Google Cardboard I wondered how long it would be before someone tried to fasten one to the head of a student with PMLD / Complex needs, Well that time is now.

    I understand that technology can be cool and that using 'cutting edge' technology might say something about a school or teacher. I'm also sure there are lots of teachers and students who would find virtual reality an exciting way of exploring a topic. I'm not convinced however of its efficacy with this group of students who may barely understand the 'real' world they inhabit.

    Thankfully the session I saw was short, unhappily brought to an early close by the student vomiting in their lap.

    I'm going to write this down in big as another example of where the choice of technology to use pay little regard to the needs of the student.


    You're busted! Switch Skills Timing Skills


    When someone is learning to scan using one switch there are two key skills that they need to practice. The first is the 'timing' skill. This involves the student pressing the switch in response to some cue often something popping up on the screen. In the Switch Progression Road Map, it’s described as;

    20: Student can press a single switch in response to an on-screen cue.

    The most common way to teach this skill has always been with software. You know the thing. A car pops up on the screen and the student hits the switch when they see it. If the student manages to press the switch before the car disappears, they are rewarded with a short animation. Sounds easy and for some of our students it is.

    However some will really struggle with it. These are our students with cerebral palsy or other physical difficulties who may find it incredibly difficult to overcome the excitement of the anticipation and struggle to coordinate the movement of their body to hit the switch before the time runs out. So what can we do? Well some of the software we use will allow us to extend the time period the student has to press the switch. This is useful but in my experience there will still be a few students who won’t be able to get to the switch even with 20 seconds. When we designed Switch Skills 2, we added a new feature, ‘Wait until the switch is pressed’.


    This really helps as the ‘car’ will now stay on the screen until the student has sorted themselves out and pressed the switch. No more failures, which is a good thing. Over time the student become less excited by the anticipatory element and begins to develop ‘muscle memory’ which will help speed up their response.

    All well and good but if the student can only practice this skill with one piece of software, there is a danger that they (or you) will get very bored with it. Here’s an idea for practising the skill with simple games AWAY from the computer.


    All you need is a Big Mack and some treasure. Chocolate coins works well for this as you can share them out with the class after the game is over.
    Record ‘You’re busted!’ on the Big Mack or use an alarm sound.

    Here’s what’s going to happen. Your switch user has to guard the treasure – others in the class get to take a turn too. Someone has to hide in the classroom while the guard is not looking then try and sneak up and steal some of the treasure. When the student sees you (and they will), they press the Big Mack and you’re busted. Some of the students can also try to steal the treasure – you’ll know if that might work else let everyone have a turn at being the guard.

    shoot me

    So what’s happening? Well your switch user is practising their timing skills in a game that doesn't single them as being different and you are completely in control over the time they have to press the switch. More adventurous colleagues might want to swap the Big Mack for a switch adapted water pistol or Nerf gun. Prepare to get soaked!


    This is just one of the ideas I share during my switch skills training sessions. For more information about this and other training sessions, please visit my web site. I also share lots of teaching ideas on my Facebook page