Extra sensory perceptions

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Jack Kenny visits special schools that are redefining the meaning of 'technology'.

Some of the most creative, innovative and inventive uses of information and communication technology are to be found in special schools. Special needs teachers have used ICT to make a link with the child and enable the child to link with the world. For them, ICT is an imperative, because it enriches, extends and expands capabilities. In Murphy Crescent School, County Durham, teachers such as Helen Crawford aim to involve the whole child through taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing.

Murphy Crescent, where Helen is deputy head, is a small school for pupils with severe and profound learning difficulties. A leading question for Helen is: how can I use ICT to enable my children to do something that they could not do otherwise? If she can find a way, then she will use it. By doing so, she begins almost to redefine the concept of what ICT is - in her book, the heading includes almost any technology that will elicit a response from the children.

There are acetate spectacles, chocolate buttons, lemon squeezers with different juice flavours, textured papers, shapes, buttons to play music, or to record and play your voice, buttons that will surprise you or greet you, paper scented with chocolate, lemon or pine, cut into shapes that allow pupils to scratch and sniff. Even fairground trinkets that respond to sound or light are brought in to delight and capture the attention of her young students.

The whole environment is built around the children. The multi-sensory room is like a super drama studio with strobe lights, projectors and glitter balls; the transformation that Helen can make in the room extends the pupils' experience. To see her reading a space story that has been generated by the students, while amazing images float across the walls and "starlight" shines on the floor, enthrals even adults; the interactive "infinity tunnel" - a screen with images that swirl and rotate constantly - would beguile any child.

Bernard Gummett is head of GeorgeHastwell School on Walney Island in Cumbria, a school for children with severe learning difficulties. He is adept at saying things you think about for a long time afterwards: "In aeronautical terms the bumblebee shouldn't be able to fly. Special needs kids are like the bumblebee. They shouldn't be able to fly - but they can." Bernard has been doing fascinating work in literacy, making big books even bigger with the aid of PowerPoint software and a Mavica digital@Bodytextjustfull7.711 = camera, projecting them on to walls and screens.

He has even used this technique to prepare for a journey to Dove Cottage, home of the poet Wordsworth, and the visit was recorded with the digital camera and mulled over afterwards by everyone. The whole class can then become involved in each child's work.

"These kids are Lakeland writers and they are working in the tradition of Wordsworth. The kids with the greatest communication difficulties are potentially our brightest pupils."

During the on-screen study of "Daffodils" some of the children noticed the pattern of the verses as well as the rhymes. Would this have happened with words printed on a page rather than writ large on a bright screen?

Richard Walter at Meldreth Manor in Melbourn, Hertfordshire, is pushing the boundaries. Richard works with children who have difficulty making any kind of conventional response. He sits with each child and, using PowerPoint, they gradually build a multimedia portrait that describes their life, loves and aspirations. The sound and images add meaning, and the presentation is played repeatedly to exploit the joy of recognition.

These are teachers who make learning fun - interactive, vital, colourful. As Bernard Gummett says, "Multimedia is more useful than pen and ink to my kids". Some of these techniques could be extended to benefit all children.

Jack Kenny visited the schools mentioned here while judging the ICT Best Practice Awards, presented at BETT in January. For details of next year's awards, go to www.becta.org.uk practiceawards

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