Learning about learning!

Yet another late night sitting in front of my laptop tapping on the keys and trying to make sense of all of the information I have read over the last few weeks. I have drank several (dozen) cups of coffee and eaten my weight in biscuits (study makes me hungry!) and I have thoroughly enjoyed each and every document that I have come across.

The topic is ICT integration and I have covered a diverse range of material in my quest for understanding. I have read papers on ICT integration and leadership, e-Learning, digital citizenship, ICT and teacher attitudes, ICT and teacher training, ICT and student experiences. I’ve researched the learning theories of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Seymour Papert and John Dewey and I’ve attempted to understand their theories in the context of my own teaching and indeed my own learning. I’ve read countless blogs including: @timbuckteeth, @coolcatteacher, @TeachingBlogAdd, @eschoolnews to name but a few. I have e-journals coming out my ears and my laptop is begging me to stop opening document after document after document. Earlier as I opened yet another e-book my laptop went on strike – it froze and had a little rest to gather strength for what it knew would be a long night ahead. Google and I are best buddies and that little search engine must be running out of steam at this stage with all the search terms I’ve input in the last few weeks.The EdIT library has spent endless hours searching for and returning e-journals to me only to have me place more requests. I have downloaded every government publication with regard to ICT in education that I could find and now I only have one problem – how do I take all of this information and bring it together in a cohesive, coherent understanding of the topic?!

I have gathered information, I have analysed that information – now I need to synthesise the information. I am going to have to break down everything that I’ve read and build it all up again to construct my own understanding. When I’m trying to learn or understand something I talk to myself (a lot)! So much so that sometimes my husband walks into the room to see who I’m having a conversation with. I find that by reading the information and talking to myself about it as I attempt to understand it, it begins to become clearer. When I read aloud and discuss the strengths and limitations of a paper with my learner self (two of me… scary prospect!) I develop a deeper understanding of the content. I draw diagrams – which probably don’t make sense to anyone else but me – this makes the information personal to my own learning. I regularly use mindmaps to help me to understand where I have started and where I am going. I write and type as I’m reading. I keep notes – that also would not make sense to anyone else but me – I scrawl all over my notepad. I draw arrows and squiggles and clouds to connect ideas – it’s all very messy!

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It is messy and it is confusing to others who try to make sense of it but it’s the way I learn. It took me a while to figure out how to learn but this style suits me. At secondary school I wasn’t a great student – I found it difficult and uncomfortable to sit for a long period of time. The teaching style was didactic, learning was not made personal, there was no such thing as self-directed learning. We sat, we all were given the same notes, we all turned to the same page in the book, we all took the same tests and critical thinking was not encouraged. We were told what we had to learn – not why we had to learn it. As a teacher myself now I understand that the teachers had a curriculum to deliver and they had a short space of time in which to deliver it. I think my style of teaching has been influenced by my own experience of learning (or not learning) at school. I don’t like quiet classrooms – there are times for quiet but there are more times for noise, talk, discussion, dialogue, problem-solving and project-based learning. I don’t think that children should have to sit for long periods of time listening to me talk – I am not an expert on everything (don’t tell my husband that)! I regularly tell my students that I don’t know everything and they also know that I’m studying and that I probably will continue studying for many years to come. I make them aware that I am a learner just like them. We analyse, we hypothesise, we try… we don’t always get it right but that is all part of the fun of learning.

Anyhow back to my own zany method of learning for me 🙂

Guiding light

The sun was shining today in my particular corner of Ireland and as I sat at my laptop reading through e-journals – highlighting and underlining and adding notes – I kept reminding myself that all this reading will be worth it. My pale Irish skin was also better off inside shaded from the sun anyway – wasn’t it?!

The reading focus of today wasLeadership and ICT integration (still searching for a definition on this one!). There was such a volume of literature but I’m only going to share one of the studies I read today with you as I really enjoyed reading it and it just made sense!

I am going to state the obvious but if a school hopes to achieve any level of ICT integration then leadership is key. A strong leader will assess where the school currently is with regard to ICT integration and create a vision of where the school needs to go next. A carefully designed plan must be created to guide the school on the journey to ICT integration and supports should be put in place for students, teachers and other members of the school community. This premise however assumes that principals or ICT coordinators are comfortable with assessing the needs of the school, creating this vision and supporting others on the journey – so who supports the principal and the ICT coordinators?

Meier & Mineo (2011) recently conducted a study focusing on how ICT integration becomes more probable when supports are put in place for principals. The study showed that cohesive long term processes for ICT integration could be developed when principals were provided with the necessary training and mentoring. During the study principals were mentored by other principals who were successfully leading efforts to integrate technology into their own schools. Teachers demonstrated to the principals how they were using technology in their classrooms to support the development of 21st century skills. The principals involved in the study also had the opportunity to used the technologies themselves during the course of their learning activities. All of these supports enabled the principals to develop an understanding of how technology can support learning and increase understanding for students.

The design of the study was quite simple and the supports put in place for the principals were straight forward and practical. The principals had their eyes opened to the uses and benefits of technology and through using the technology themselves perhaps they lost some of the fear they felt around it. I particularly liked the fact that teachers demonstrated how they used technology with their students and that the principals got advice from other principals – a professional learning network of sorts. As educators we all need to support one another and share resources and best practice – we are all striving for a common goal after all aren’t we? Principals supporting teachers, teachers supporting principals, principals supporting principals – everyone learning all the time 🙂

Video

Engage Me!

How do students feel about 21st century skills? Do your students have to shut down before they come into school? How many schools still have ICT policies that don’t support the development of 21st century skills?

By maggiemulrine

It’s all in the Definition

What does ICT integration mean to you within an educational context?

Does it mean that your school has purchased all the ‘must have’ technologies? Are the computers in your school networked? Do you have policies regarding ICT in place? Does it mean that you have a designated computer room and classes are timetabled to use it once a week? Do you have a computer or two in the classroom that students use for researching their projects? Do you have an iPad? A classroom laptop?  Is there an interactive whiteboard at the top of the room that you use to deliver your lessons from? Do you have access to a digital camera, a dictaphone, a flip-camera? Are your students using web 2.0 tools? Do staff use web 2.0 tools for professional development? Do your students see ICT as an add on? Do the staff in your school see ICT as an add on? Is technology in the classroom and the school the ‘norm’? Can all staff use the tools available to them? Has the school invested in training for staff? Do staff seek training themselves? Is there sharing of best practice at meetings? Does your school support BYOD or are all mlearning devices banned in your school? What does ICT integration mean to your school? Does it mean something different to every school?

I’ve been reading through some of the ICT publications available to Irish schools. The publications recognise the importance of ICT in the education of learners today. 21st century skills are held in high regard and schools are encouraged to ensure the effective integration of ICT into teaching and learning. The report of The Ministers Strategy Group – Investing Effectively in ICT in schools states that it is important that all citizens of Ireland are capable of participating in ‘this digital world’. The report goes on to say that the government recognises the potential offered by the ‘effective integration of ICT into teaching and learning’ and that the government now needs to facilitate further ICT integration – which is commendable is it not? Within the first 25 pages of the document ICT integration is mentioned a whopping 28 times – but I didn’t see a single definition of what ICT integration is (if I missed it please correct me!). I have my own understanding of what ICT integration is and I’m sure you have your own understanding of what ICT integration… but what about a standard definition of what ICT integration is for the school principals and ICT coordinators who are trying to make sure that it’s taking place in their schools?

The NCTE have provided a very user-friendly assessment tool to schools to enable principals and ICT coordinators to ascertain their current state of play with regard to e-learning and provides guidance on where to go next. The e-learning roadmap looks at ICT under the following headings: leadership and planning, ICT and the curriculum, professional development, e-learning culture and ICT infrastructure. There are a number of statements under the headings and they are categorised as follows: initial, e-enabled, e-confident and e-mature. Principals and ICT coordinators can assess where they are, plan where to go next and reassess if they achieved what they set out to do. If schools can tick off every box on the roadmap does that mean that they have successfully integrated ICT? I’m not sure.. I think that there needs to be slightly more guidance in place when it comes to technology (and the future of our students!!!!). Whilst the roadmap is well designed and well thought out it is still depending on the competence of the person who is using it and not all school principals are confident with tech (no matter how user-friendly the roadmap is – for someone lacking confidence it’s just another document pertaining to ICT) and not all schools have ICT coordinators.

I may be living in a bubble and I fully understand that in the CURRENT CLIMATE (a rather over-used phrase of late!) funding isn’t available for everything that we might want. Let’s pretend though .. just for a moment that we live in an ideal world… What if each cluster of schools was assigned a mentor, guide, adviser to help them to follow the e-learning roadmap (I’ve spoken about this in a previous blog post too!). The mentor could visit schools and help them to assess where they are. Schools could be set goals to achieve by the next time the mentor visits. Principals and ICT coordinators could seek advice on policy development (perhaps the policies could actually be living documents that are constantly changing and evolving…instead of printed off documents stored in file folders that never see the light of day). The mentor could group schools for training. Staff meeting times could be used to share best practice and resources could be compiled and shared. The mentor could work with staff to try to achieve ICT integration. This may be happening in some schools around the country but it is not happening in every school and it needs to start happening.

So what is ICT integration? To me ICT integration is everything I have mentioned in this post and more. ICT integration is when technology becomes as banal as a pencil in the classroom and school. ICT has to become embedded in the culture of the school. Technology isn’t magic. It isn’t going to make teachers better at their jobs but it does afford teachers and learners many opportunities. We are urged to make sure ICT integration is taking place in our classrooms and in our schools but I would like to see ICT integration defined so that all schools in Ireland could work towards a common goal.

 

If you would like to let me know how ICT is integrated into your school setting please feel free to contribute to this document: https: //docs.google.com/document/d/1GiSRLnmyydXir7sKcPXBXivoXsWg48gTZhJMqxAWQ4Y/edit

It’s all just a game

‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’

George Bernard Shaw
In recent months I’ve become more aware of games and virtual environments in education. I haven’t used them in the classroom myself yet but when I return to work next term I plan to harness some of the power that is out there to engage and motivate my students. I’m going to attempt to put down a little (very little) of what I have come across so far. I’m still trying to digest all of the information myself so please forgive me if this is a little basic.
Games are influenced by cognitivist, behaviourist and constructivist theories. Games today are more likely to be influenced by the constructivist theory. These games are more complex and require the construction of knowledge – many games such as minecraft and world of warcraft require collaboration. In most games players are assisted with scaffolding in the early levels as the game progresses the challenge or game play increases the levels get harder and there is less scaffolding. These games require the player to learn new skills – problem solving and critical thinking.
The Bill and Mirenda Gates Foundation have made games based learning one of their priorities. They are investing $20 million into games based learning and other technologies which they hope will change the way teachers teach and students learn. Bill Gates spoke of the total immersion that takes place when a child plays a video game – he wants to harness the time and passion children put into video games and use it to promote learning. What the Gates Foundation is proposing to do is quite balanced in that their designers will create games that are aligned with the curriculum. The games will promote problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. The games will have inbuilt assessment – teachers will be able to view the results as students play – this will enable teachers to pinpoint what areas need more attention and thus inform planning.
James Paul Gee describes video games as just a set of problems – children have to solve those problems in order to win. He purports that teachers teach a certain way because of assessment and that assessment has to change before teaching can. James Gee states that testing will at some point in the future become primitive and that students will use facts and information that they already know to solve problems. Assessment will be integrated with learning. Students will use information in context rather than learning to rhyme off disembodied facts. This video about video games and learning will introduce you to some of James Gee’s thoughts.
Initially games and virtual environments in education came to my attention after I joined Twitter. I started following interesting people and read their tweets and encountered a few more interesting people and read their tweets and so on and so forth. One of the interesting people I encountered was @saorog aka Stephen Howell. I had already heard of Scratch which is pretty amazing in its’ own right but @saorog has made it that bit cooler by developing a piece of software called kinect2scratch which enables data from the microsoft Kinect controller to be sent to Scratch. You can find out more about the man himself and watch some videos of the software he developed in action by clicking on his name.
Another interesting person I follow on Twitter is @MissionVHQ. MissionV is a non-profit organisation which promotes the development of 21st century skills through game based learning and virtual worlds technology. MissionV is in effect developing skills in the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow. The students who take part in projects run by MissionV are being given the opportunity to reach their full potential by bridging the disconnect that they may be experiencing with regard to education and engaging them in learning.
Another interesting @ to follow on Twitter is @Coderdojo. Coderdojo is a free non-profit Irish-led global movement to introduce children to coding. The Dojos are set up and run by volunteers. Children are taught how to develop games, websites and apps and whilst doing so are developing those all important 21st century skills.
Aside from learning that I follow some very interesting people on Twitter I hope that you have found this post informative. I’ve really enjoyed my introduction to games based learning and I know that as of yet I have only skimmed the surface. Click on the links in the post – there are some really interesting things going on out there – you won’t regret taking a look 🙂
By maggiemulrine

Feet up!

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The rain is falling hard outside and the garden is drenched in rain more fitting for November than July. The sound of the rain against the window is soothing and both my children are sleeping. The house is completely silent and at last I can put my feet up.

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In previous posts I have written about a paper I have been writing based on blogging. Just half an hour ago I did a final check of my references and breathed a sigh of relief. It’s finally finished. I have been burning the midnight oil of late (which isn’t advisable with a three month old baby who thinks sleep is for the weak!) trying to get the assignment finished. I have been reading and writing and re-reading and re-writing and to say that I’ve been stressed out is putting it mildly. The assignment is due in on the 20th of this month and I was very concerned that I wouldn’t reach the deadline. I have an incredible knack of going over the word count and it usually takes me several days to cut back on words while trying to retain the original meaning of my paper. I was very proud of myself when I finished with time to spare tonight. I took out the assignment guidelines and had a read over them to make sure that I had fulfilled the criteria and as I scanned the paper one thing stood out…. it was in bold print and it was laughing at me Due date: 30th July 2012.. yes that’s right folks the 30th not the 20th .. the 30th!!!!! Note to self … read guidelines properly next time!!

I’m trying to look on the bright side.. now I can take tomorrow night off. I don’t have to read and I don’t have to write (but let’s face it… I probably will!). This assignment for me was all consuming. As I read the literature germaine to the topic I got drawn in further and further. As a novice blogger I myself am growing acutely aware of the power of blogging. Through blogging and reading the comments my blog posts receive I am more aware of what I write. Blogging encourages bloggers to think more critically about what they are writing and reflect upon input from their audience  to improve their posts, in effect writing becomes public, participatory and is constantly evolving. Blogging challenges us to construct our own understanding of the topic we have chosen to write about.

Next year I will be setting up a classroom blog for my students. I plan to use the classroom blog to support the development of writing skills (amongst other things) in my students. As I was reading for my paper I encountered a lot of evidence in the literature that suggests blogging has a positive influence on student writing. Giving students the opportunity to choose their own topic to research and write about also gives them the opportunity to become co-creators of their own knowledge. Students can research, gather information, synthesise the information and develop their own understanding to create their own knowledge. I am also planning on using the classroom blog for homework activities – which will present challenges – but it’s all a learning curve isn’t it and it’s healthy for my students to see me as a learner.

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For now I am going to pack up my journal articles and shutdown my laptop (maybe!). This assignment has brought it home to me more than ever that students should not ever sit by passively absorbing content – it’s imperative that they are actively and collaboratively shaping that content. Right now however, for tonight at least, I am happy to be passive so passive in fact that hopefully I’ll fall asleep!

By maggiemulrine

Moving forward one step at a time.

Classroom blogs. Focus on integration. Web 2.0 tools must be used within context. All technology must be used within context. Technology in and of itself is not the answer to all educational problems. Teachers should be able to utilise technology effectively. Technology is just another tool. A pencil would be useless if someone didn’t know how to use it – how is technology any different? Curriculum should remain central in planning when using technology. Students are not vessels to be filled with information. Students should be active in constructing their own knowledge. Teachers should act as guides for their students. Scaffolding should be provided to enable the construction of knowledge. Students should be encouraged to become independent thinkers and learners. 21st century skills should be nurtured and developed. Blogging encourages critical thinking and problem solving. Constructivism provides a framework for using technology in productive ways to support student learning. Behaviourism has a place in the use of educational technology. The reinforcing nature of certain technologies support basic behaviourist theory. Digital divide. Digital natives. BYOD. Teacher training. Teacher confidence. Student confidence. Parental support. Cyber-bullying. Blogging. Closed blog. Comments. Feedback. Monitoring. Role of the learner. Role of the teacher…

Welcome to just a small portion of the thoughts running through my slightly manic head tonight! I have read so much about constructing knowledge that I find it slightly ironic that I cannot construct my own!

‘Much learning does not teach understanding.’

Heraclitus

Last night I posted about some of the problems that I had encountered in trying to finish my latest assignment. Those problems still exist but now I’ve thrown a few more in for good measure (I never do anything by halves!!).

Attempting to integrate technology and the use of web 2.0 tools into teaching can be an uphill struggle for many. As I mentioned in a previous post not all teachers are confident or competent in using technology and therefore avoid using it completely. Interactive whiteboards become very high tech whiteboards used only for writing or sometimes for death by powerpoint. The interactive side of these boards is lost completely. Not all teachers are happy to try new teaching styles. To me a quiet classroom is not the way to go- I like a busy classroom. I like to hear ideas and see children engaging with content and getting excited about it. Yes there is definitely a place for quiet times in the classroom but I don’t think that all learning is or should be quiet! Not all teachers would agree with me on this and some might find it difficult to adapt to the noise that can arise during collaborative projects and inquiry based learning. So how can we change this? Teachers cannot be forced to like technology! Forcing change can lead to further resistance… can’t it?!

So if not all teachers are willing to try using technology with the children they teach and if not all teachers are willing to up-skill and pursue CPD courses how can technology be integrated in schools? A classroom at a time? Is it appropriate to have a teacher in one classroom supporting the development of 21st century skills in her students while another teacher down the hall sticks to more traditional instructional techniques? Shouldn’t there be some level of consistency to enable children to further develop their 21st century skills as the move through their years at school? Shouldn’t ICT integration be school wide? How can this happen with resistance?

I think strong leadership is a key player in answering this problem – principals can make this change happen in the school communities they lead. It’s not about forcing teachers to change – it’s about enabling them and supporting them and principals can do this in conjunction with other members of staff who feel confident in using technology. It’s not about doing ‘everything’ right now and ticking every box.. it’s about taking stock of where you are right now and moving forward one step at a time.

I don’t know if this post makes much sense to anyone else but it has helped me to clarify a few things 🙂 Thank you for reading!

 

 

By maggiemulrine

Burning the midnight oil..

‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’
E. M. Forster

It’s Saturday night and I am sitting at my desk staring at my laptop screen with a cup of cold tea beside me. I have a deadline fast approaching and the pressure is mounting. My head is swamped with information but I have a complete writing block! I cannot seem to bring all the information together cohesively – it’s all a bit disjointed at the moment. On the advice of @tbbrwn I have stepped away from the journal articles and I’m going to attempt to work out some of the problems I’ve encountered right here!

‘A writer doesn’t solve problems. He allows them to emerge.’
Friedrich Dürrenmatt

As I mentioned in a recent post, ‘Definitely not blogged down…’, I am writing a paper about blogging in the classroom. I have had no difficulty in finding the advantages of blogging but I have found it more challenging to ascertain the disadvantages of blogging. Teacher training and confidence seems to feature quite heavily in the literature I’ve read and yet very few of the studies I’ve encountered have addressed this in their research designs. How can teachers support their students effectively if they don’t feel confident using web 2.0 tools? Shouldn’t teacher confidence be one of the first areas addressed in setting up a study to establish if blogging can improve student writing? The teacher after all will partly facilitate this in the classroom.. the teacher may respond to blog posts outside the classroom… the teacher may model writing via a blog post.. the teacher will act as a guide for the students so the teacher should know what he or she is doing to a certain extent… shouldn’t she/he?!

In many of the studies I’ve read the students have not been given clear guidelines with regard to what is expected of them as digital citizens when blogging. They have not been shown what a blog is and they have had minimal ‘training’ in using the blogging tools prior to starting to blog. Some studies have taken this issue into account but unfortunately many of the studies I have read have not. If you can point me in the direction of more research papers that have addressed this issue please do so as I’d like to have a broader view  🙂

McGrail and Davis (2011) recently examined the impact of blogging on the development of student writing at elementary school level. A case study method was used in this research paper and a single class of fifth grade students were engaged in the study for one academic year. The teacher became a learner during this research study as she observed one of the researchers use her blogging experience to guide the students. The researchers worked collaboratively with the classroom teacher to ensure that the blogging process was integrated into the existing curriculum. Writing was given priority. The students were provided with mentors to guide them throughout the course of the research study. Frequent interviews took place between the researchers and the students and the researchers and the teachers.

Initially the students were introduced to the concept of blogging and were given very clear guidelines as to what was expected of them. A class blog was created to enable the scaffolding of writing development and the researcher modelled how to communicate via the blog. The students worked collaboratively in order to improve their posts and used other web 2.0 tools to communicate with other classes around the world about blogging.

This study was well rounded and took into account the pedagogy involved in the blogging process. There was evidence of improvement in student writing and I believe that this is due to the rich collaboration that took place between the researchers, the students and the teachers. The comments made on the students blogs and the mentors impacted greatly upon the quality of student writing. Teacher training was taken into account and the teacher was afforded the opportunity to become a learner alongside the students.

Blogging allows students to share their information, to write for a larger audience and to learn from others. Through blogging writing becomes a different type of experience for the students – blogging is faster and more efficient than paper and pen, students who have difficulty with handwriting have that obstacle removed which can improve the flow of their ideas, information can be easily accessed and checked through search engines, editing is faster and easier than traditional paper and pen editing. Students are creating their own content and sharing it with a global audience when they blog – comments about their writing help them to think critically about how they can improve and encourages deeper thought.


Wordle: Classroom Blogging

I am going to return to my reading and writing (hopefully) and try to address some of the challenges I’ve encountered… I may even make myself a fresh cup of tea or alternatively a REALLY strong coffee. Despite my current state of writing limbo I know this too will pass! I’m slightly (very slightly) more grounded after writing some of this out. Blogging isn’t reinventing writing but it can enrich the writing experience.


			
By maggiemulrine

Let there be light…. and music… and awe

This post is not about ed tech and it’s not about autism but it is about learning.

“Our children teach us what life is all about”

Angela Schwindt

Today I shared a wonderful experience with my little daughter and son – today we made a memory I will always treasure when I look back on their childhood and although they are young and may not remember it in years to come the photographic evidence will spur discussions and bring stories back to mind. As part of the Earagail Arts Festival Architects of Air have erected the Amococo Luminarium in the grounds of Rock Hill House and it is breathtaking.

As we pulled into the grounds of Rock Hill House today my toddler was mid-tantrum – she did not want to be in the car, she did not want to wear her coat, she did not want to wear her seat belt – my daughter at 21 months has discovered the word ‘no’ and it now precedes 75% of all the other words she uses!! As I tried to pacify her by using the ancient art of distraction she suddenly stopped crying and pointed out the window ‘mummy……?’ The Luminarium lay to our left and my little girl was mesmerised already.

The rain was falling hard and beating it’s rhythm on the roof of the car so as we waited for the shower to pass I put the baby into his carrier and talked to my toddler about the lights she would see in the Luminarium and the music she would hear. Every so often she said ‘um-iniminim’ which I guess is her take on Luminarium :). When the rain had stopped falling we made a swift exit from the car and walked towards the entrance. My little girl did not take her eyes away from the ‘um-iniminim’ and while I was paying she stood beside me and when I asked her to take her coat and shoes off she obliged – now I was mesmerised!

As we stepped inside the magical Amococo Luminarium we were greeted by a cheerful man who told us he was going to give us a speech before we set off on our magical journey – mid sentence he stopped and looked at my 21 month old and my 3 month old and said ‘this will go over their heads won’t it?! Just have fun!’. The second veil was lifted and in we went to what I can only describe as the most surreal space I have ever had the opportunity to visit. I felt little fingers tightening their grip on my hand and my daughter in an uncharacteristic whisper said ‘mummy?’ … I reassured her and we moved a little further into the beautiful space.

As we moved further into the Luminarium the little fingers loosened their grip and soon let go of my hand all together. The soft music was relaxing and there was a distinct air of calm. I felt uplifted and excited as I moved through the pods with my children. My baby boy looked around at the lights before he became so chilled out that he fell into a deep sleep.

My daughter moved through the pods discovering that the floor was sloped in places and made for excellent sliding. She lay down in one of the pods beside the air vent and let the air blow onto her face. In another pod she lay on her back and looked at the colours with her eyes wide with awe. I watched her with my eyes just as wide with awe at the wonder of her.

 

We walked through the Luminarium with wide eyes and full hearts. We spent an hour just wandering around (a toddler being entertained for an hour is a miracle in itself!) taking it all in. My daughter sat down for a little rest now and then and when it was time to go there was no protest. She put her little hand in mine and set off to find her shoes and coat and as I put her sleeping baby brother into his car seat she lay back and chilled out in her seat.

As I drove home the children were quiet, I was quiet and the radio remained off. We were a completely chilled out little family and we had really enjoyed our trip to the ‘um-iniminim’.

If you get the chance visit this wonderful structure it is worth the trip.

By maggiemulrine

Who feels included?

I am going to deviate from the technology and education topics that I have been drawing from in recent posts and focus on another area of particular interest to me for this post. Autism – autism and inclusion to be exact.

Autism is the behavioural manifestation of a polygenetic developmental neurobiological disorder, which primarily involves a dysfunction in the central nervous system (Minshew & Williams, 2007). The number of students in mainstream schools with autistic spectrum disorders ASDs has risen in recent years (Keen & Ward, 2004), however the placement of such pupils in mainstream schools does not automatically mean that these pupils receive an education suited to their particular needs (Humphrey, 2008).

sites.wiki.ubc.ca

The term autism was first used in 1943 by Leo Kanner to describe children he observed to have difficulty relating to others, a desire to be alone, poor communication and a need for sameness. Autism is now characterised by the triad of impairments (Wing, 1988), those diagnosed as having ASDs display behaviours reflective of difficulties in each of the areas of social communication, social imagination and social interaction, but there is significant difference in the way the triad is manifested in each individual (Connor, M., 1999). The continuum of ASDs highlights the differences in the level of severity of symptoms that may be experienced. Some children will require care and specialist interventions into adulthood whilst others, given appropriate interventions, can be enabled to live relatively independent lives.

Wide varieties of beliefs exist, about ASDs among mental health professionals, educationalists, parents and the general public. These widely differing views have led to much debate which, some would argue, has acted as a driving force behind progress and research into this area, which could lead to a better understanding of ASDs and the development of more effective interventions (Helps, Newsom-Davis & Callias, 1999).

The rising incidences of ASDs indicate a higher prevalence in recent years (Keen & Ward, 2004) and inclusion of children with ASDs in mainstream schools has risen in line with this (NAS, 2002, 2003). The distinctive difficulties in social and emotional understanding of pupils with ASDs (Emam, Mahmoud, M. & Farrell, Peter, 2009) makes the process of facilitating their learning and participation a complex and misunderstood area of education (Barnard, Prior & Potter, 2000; Batten, Corbett, Rosenblatt, Withers & Yuille, 2006; Davis, et al, 2004; Humphrey & Parkinson, 2006). This has led to many debates concerning what inclusion actually means for pupils with ASDs.

The Salamanca Statement, 1994 states that ‘those with SEN must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within child centred pedagogy capable of meeting these needs’. The Education Act which came into effect in 1998 in Ireland provides for the education of every person including any person with SEN. This makes it necessary for schools to provide an education appropriate to the needs and abilities of the children in their care, ensuring through assessment that all needs are identified and provided for (EPSEN, 2004).  Yet how is this possible when many teachers are acutely aware of their lack of training in this area and feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of students with ASDs. Many teachers report that, due to their lack of training, they find it difficult to change their teaching styles (Humphrey, 2008) to meet the needs of pupils with ASDs. Tensions arise between the pupils and the teachers which can lead to the pupil feeling excluded in an environment that should be inclusive (Connor, 2000; Osler & Osler, 2002).

In order for inclusion to take place schools must be informed by the principle of inclusion and provide a favourable setting for achieving equal opportunity for all, differences should be celebrated and individual needs should be accommodated (Salamanca Statement, 1994; Education Act, 1998, EPSEN, 2004). This is not true for many students with ASDs who report feeling socially isolated and anxious at school (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008). The school environment in itself is stressful given that it is at odds with the predictability and routine that pupils with ASDs rely upon, (Barnard, Prior and Potter, 2000; Keen and Ward, 2004; Connor, 2001). Most pupils with ASDs also experience sensory difficulties and can find noises, lights and touch, to mention a few, stressful and even painful. Taking this into account mainstream schools are not particularly ASD friendly environments and cannot feasibly accommodate all individual needs unfortunately.

Children with ASDs should, wherever possible, be educated in an inclusive environment and ought to be afforded the same opportunities for social inclusion as their peers (Education Act, 1998). Yet many pupils with ASDs experience bullying as a matter of course, particularly at secondary level (Chan, 2006; Smith, 2004; Humphrey, 2008). The relationships between pupils with ASDs and their peers can be both a barrier and an enabler to inclusion.  The social isolation and bullying experienced by pupils with ASDs can be counteracted through support from peers (Humphrey, N., 2008) and social skills groups,  ‘circles of friends’, in particular have proven successful in promoting positive peer relationships (Gus, 2000).

Pupils with ASDs should be afforded appropriate opportunities to gain meaningful access to the curriculum and should be supported in accessing the hidden curriculum to aid development of personal and social skills (Task Force on Autism Report, 2001).  Yet current practices within mainstream schools have been found to contribute to alienation and social exclusion in students with ASDs (Connor, 2000; Osler & Osler, 2002).

Inclusion should ideally promote the same opportunity for education, rights and responsibilities for all within an open and transparent system. Parents, pupils and teachers should work together, reflect upon the varied natures of the children in the school, and address how best to meet their diverse needs (Task Force on Autism Report, 2001). Pupils with ASDs should be enabled to develop the necessary skills to participate in society in a meaningful way, both socially and economically, and lead, to the highest level of their ability, independent lives (EPSEN, 2004). Inclusion is an ongoing process (Humphrey, N., 2008) which must take account presence, participation, acceptance and achievement (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004) in order to be effective.

McGregor and Campbell (2001) made the observation that inclusion may not be in the best interests of each individual child and it is possible that teachers in the mainstream setting may not have the necessary skills or appropriate resources to meet the complex social, learning and behavioural needs of these pupils (Marks et al. 2003; Kasari, 2003). Many teachers are uncertain about their ability to teach pupils with ASDs within a mainstream classroom (Barnard, Broach et al. 2002).  Despite the ever growing number of pupils with ASDs being included in the mainstream setting the manner in which their learning needs are addressed and their participation in everyday school life remains a very poorly understood area in education (Barnard et al. 2000; Davis and Florian, 2003).

For inclusion to take place teaching methods and the structure of the classroom must be adapted to best meet the needs of the child with autism (Barnard, Prior & Potter, 2000; Paneri, Zingale, Trubia, Finocchiaro, Zuccarello, Ferri and Elia, 2009 ).  The placement of a child with autism in a mainstream classroom is viable only if the correct supports are put in place. Without appropriate strategies the child will struggle and unfair pressure will be placed on the teacher (Batten, 2005). Inclusion by location is of no benefit to the child or the teacher (Glashan, MacKay & Grieve, 2004) and could prove detrimental to the long term development of the child.

Students with ASDs have a right to specialised educational programs (Paneri, Zingale, Trubia, Finocchiaro, Zuccarello, Ferri and Elia, 2009) however delivering a specialist education in a non-specialist environment is challenging (Glashan, MacKay & Grieve, 2004) particularly if training is not provided. Specific techniques have been developed to aid pupils with ASDs access what it instinctively grasped by non ASD pupils (Mesibov & Howley, 2003). Studies have shown that when teachers receive training in the strategies recommended for working with children with ASDs they are less likely to experience burn-out and are more confident in working effectively with the children in their care (Emam & Farrell, 2009).  Likewise Jennett, Harris and Mesibov, 2003 found that when teachers were trained in an ASD specific intervention they were more successful in working with children with ASDs and had lower levels of burnout than those teachers who were not trained.

Children with ASDs require explicit teaching of social skills in order to help them gain an understanding of the hidden curriculum within mainstream schools (Whitaker, P., 2007). Paneri, Zingale, Trubia, Finocchiaro, Zuccarello, Ferri and Elia, (2009) found that although support teachers were employed to support children with ASDs within the mainstream setting often these teachers were not ASD trained. They lacked knowledge of the correct assessment tools and intervention strategies used for these pupils and often focused on more academic targets to the detriment of adaptive skills. In a study by Glashan, McKay & Grieve (2004) classroom teachers reported that the support received from support teachers was inadequate due to a lack of training and knowledge. All teachers who took part in this study felt that if a systematic planned approach was put in place and training provided they would be better equipped to meet the needs of pupils with ASDs.

Special needs assistants (SNA) are often assigned to pupils with ASDs in both mainstream and special classroom settings. The majority of SNAs assigned to pupils with ASDs do not have any formal training in this area and teachers reported that they found it stressful attempting to guide another adult when they themselves felt inadequately prepared with regard to ASDs (Glashan, McKay & Grieve, 2004; Jordan, 2008). Studies have shown that teachers, due to feelings of inadequacy, often relinquish responsibility of the student to the SNA and as a result the level of interaction between teacher and child is reduced (Marks, Schrader & Levine, 1999) which is not in the best interests of the teacher-pupil relationship (Hamre & Pianta, 2001).  Teachers who received training on special educational issues felt their relationships with SNAs benefited from the training (McGregor & Campbell, 2001).

Teachers are crucial to the successful inclusion of pupils with ASDs in mainstream settings and without the correct assistance and support teachers attitudes are unlikely to be positive. Following a review of pertinent literature it appears that in order for inclusion to be successful appropriate support and training must be provided as positive attitudes and commitment are likely to come after best practice in provision rather than precede it (McGregor & Campbell, 2001).

Many pupils with ASDs are being enrolled in mainstream schools but they face numerous barriers which prevent them from having a positive school experience (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008). The unpredictability of the mainstream school, with its large class sizes and open plan layout coupled with an over stimulating environment can make school a stressful environment for pupils with ASDs (McGregor & Campbell, 2001; Connor, 2000; Glashan, McKay & Grieve, 2004). Social barriers to inclusion in mainstream schools also exist in the form of the curriculum, which is not appropriate for all children as it was not designed for all children, (McKay, 2002) and the difficulties with social interaction experienced by pupils with ASDs.

Social interaction is a core area of deficit for pupils with ASDs (Bauminger & Kasari, 2003), specific interventions are required to help these pupils to develop an understanding of social interactions to enable them to interact more meaningfully with their peers (Bauminger, 2003). Body language, prosody and other facets of the hidden curriculum (Myles & Simpson, 2001) must be taught explicitly to these pupils. The unusual behaviours that are sometimes exhibited by pupils with ASDs may prevent them from forming positive relationships with their peers (Robertson, Chamberlain & Kasari, 2003) as they are sometimes perceived as ‘odd’ (Humphrey, 2008).

Teachers can react to ‘labels’ and this can cause them to treat pupils with ASDs in a manner which is distinctly different to the way in which they treat their peers. It is imperative that teachers recognise that the ‘label’ does not define the child and that each child with ASD is unique (Molloy & Vasil, 2002). The manner in which the teacher treats the pupil with ASD has a direct impact on the way in which the pupil’s peers will perceive him. It is necessary for schools to ensure that these pupils do not become defined by their diagnosis (Molloy & Vasil, 2002; Humphrey, 2001; Murray, 2006) and that through ‘circles of friends’ (Gus, 2000) and other interventions peers are educated and relationships nourished.  The relationships between pupils with ASDs and their peers can be both a positive and negative influence to their successful inclusion in school (Humphrey, 2008) and schools should utilise these relationships to the benefit of all parties involved.

In a study by Robertson, Chamberlain & Kasari (2003) it was found that students with ASDs are perceived to experience the same level of social inclusion as their neurotypical peers suggesting that it is possible for pupils with ASDs to experience successful inclusion in mainstream classrooms. Contrary to these findings Carrington & Graham (2001) found that school can be a stressful and exclusionary place for pupils with ASDs, as they experience high levels of bullying and social isolation and regularly find themselves ostracised in what should be an inclusive environment.

Social difficulties in communication and interaction (Attwood, 2000; Baron-Cohen, 2000; Downs & Smith, 2004; Dunlop, McKay & Knott, 2003) can make pupils with ASDs even more susceptible to bullying than other pupils with SEN (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008). In a recent study by Humphrey & Lewis (2008) it was found that many pupils experience bullying on a regular basis and because of their difficulties with ‘mentalising’ they may not tell teachers or other adults as they may not be aware that the teacher does not know what is going on (Moore, 2007).

Reiter and Vitani (2007) found that pupils reacted in a variety of ways to rejection by their peers. Some pupils ignored their peers, others spoke with their parents about their experiences and others attempted to assert themselves. The experience of being bullied has been shown to have a detrimental effect on these pupils (Tantam, 2000) and can result in problems with mental health in later life (Schafer, 2004; Barnhill & Myles, 2001) as direct links between social isolation and depression in adolescents with ASDs have been established (Hedley & Young, 2006).

Inclusion in its purest form should enable pupils with ASDs to fully experience the day-to-day life of a mainstream school and to engage with typically developing peers on a daily basis. This would result in improving the quality of social interactions (McGregor & Campbell, 2001; Robertson, Chamberlain & Kasari, 2003) and peer relationships.

In my own experience I have witnessed some very successful placements for students with ASDs. I have worked closely with parents of children with ASDs and I have been in awe at the sheer strength and dedication they have to fighting for what their children are entitled to – and they do have to fight unfortunately.What are your views on ASDs and inclusion? Have you witnessed successful placements and true inclusion taking place? I would love to hear your experiences.

I will leave you with some very wise words from a parent of a child I used to teach – I was nervous about teaching this child as I didn’t feel experienced enough at the time. We were having a meeting and prior to the meeting beginning we were talking informally. I have great respect for this woman as I know just how hard she has to fight for what her son is entitled to (as so many SEN parents do)… I expressed my concern at my lack of experience and she told me that ‘when you’ve met one child with autism you’ve met one child with autism’ – that has and will always stay with me and despite all the training I now have that remains the most important piece of advice I have ever received.

By maggiemulrine