Special education - Imagination rules

21st November 2008 at 00:00
Being creative comes naturally to many children with special needs, and teachers can benefit too, says Andy Bell

Before I trained to be a teacher, I spent two years studying graphic design and found that many of the practical and creative tasks I enjoyed could be used effectively in the classroom - especially with children with special needs. They may be weak in the 3Rs, but shine at art, music or design. I remember one boy who struggled to write sentences at the age of 10 but came alive when using card and paper to design a model or present an idea, and produced excellent results.

Teaching design and technology does not need to be daunting or difficult. I was put off the subject when I was training to be a teacher - one of my first experiences involved trampling through fields, hanging over hedges to sketch buildings and using wood and cardboard to create a giant-scale model of a cottage in the country. We had to use sharp saws, hot glue guns, compasses and protractors - challenging enough for a group of adults, let alone for young children. But such elaborate exercises are unnecessary and technology has transformed the subject since.

In primary schools, you can use a practical, creative approach to subjects across the curriculum. One of the latest literacy themes we have planned and taught to Year 6 children at The Meadows in Lincoln has involved using design and technology skills, and progress has soared.

After reading extracts from a novel set at the time of the Second World War, the children used drama and role-play to imagine the story setting. Then they worked in groups to plan a setting for their own narratives and built small sets using cardboard, tissue paper, card, glue and pipe cleaners.

Characters were created, accessories and colours imagined and speech bubbles added to enable them to "act out" and present their story beginnings. The resulting writing was detailed, expressive and lively - and had a real purpose. Above all, children with special needs enjoyed great success in a way that a traditional lesson might not have enabled them to.

As for teaching design and technology as a subject in its own right, some practical suggestions for supporting children include:

- Use ICT to present ideas and designs instead of relying on pencil and paper. For example, children can use the program Paint to draw simple shapes to plan a design. They can move and arrange pre-drawn shapes on a Word document to make a plan, without having to worry about sketching and drawing.

- Choose contexts that really inspire and motivate the children. One I undertook recently involved making a box that might contain a gas mask during the Second World War. We plan to use the final product in a re- enactment of evacuation. By giving the learning a real context, those with special needs found purpose and a greater confidence.

- Allow children time to plan and work in mixed-ability groups so that strengths and weaknesses can be shared. Some children can write and draw neatly but may have fewer ideas than those who struggle with presentation; together, they can produce excellent work.

The Nuffield Foundation has useful information and practical resource ideas for teaching design and technology on its website: www.primarydandt.org.

As with all teaching, the emphasis should be on finding out what children can do, rather than what they can't. Given that positive approach, you will be amazed by how much children with special needs can achieve.

Andy Bell is deputy head of The Meadows Primary School in Lincoln and winner of the East Midlands and National BT Primary Teacher of the Year Award in 2007.

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