Saturday, 12 October 2013

Consultation on the New SEN Code

The government has recently launched an open consultation on the new Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice and Regulation. The consultation will run until 9th of December 2013.

The new Code's most radical policy is the shift from the current system of Statements of SEN  which typically get issued mid-school career and last until 16 years with 'Education, Health & Care Plans' which will run from birth to 25 years. Based on what teaching colleagues have said so far, this is generally being viewed as a positive development even if the mechanics and realities are not yet fully known.

I have previously spoken on this issue - see my PowerPoint presentation, 'Challenges and Opportunities facing SEN in 2013' (also available for download here and here).

Monday, 7 October 2013

Screenagers, Reason and Civilisation

Further to the previous post about gaming culture amongst school-age students - and the recent release of Grand Theft Auto V - readers of this blog might find useful, on mulling over the issues raised, the following passage from the excellent 21st Century Boys by Sue Palmer:

"Digital natives, digital learners?

This is not an argument against information technology. It's abundantly clear that the developments of recent decades are at least as significant to human progress as the invention of the printing press. We're at the dawn of a new Renaissance, as momentous as that 16th century rebirth of learning which propelled Europe out of superstition and into the Enlightenment...

But if the values that drove the Enlightenment (and brought humanity this far) are to survive, we must make sure all our children can use technology effectively, not merely for entertainment but to learn and create. Democracy demands that everyone has a mind to learn, not just a fortunate elite who can manipulate the disempowered majority. To use computer technology effectively - accessing hypertext, diving in and out of windows, holding a variety of multimedia information in the mind while maintaining a logical train of thought - boys need to focus their concentration just as efficiently as they do to read and write. Probably more.

It's by no means easy to make (and retain) creative mental connections while at the same time clinging on to the thread of an underlying logic. In fact, it takes a lot of intellectual discipline. Most experts I've met from the field of 'digital literacy' insist that, in order to use computers well, children must be able to read and write first. They intuitively feel that this 21st century way of using the human brain 'piggybacks' on the logical, sequential processes of old-fashioned literacy.

If this is the case, it has enormous implications for education. Children, especially boys, are drawn to screens and screen-based learning from the moment they're born, and in a 21st century world it seems important that these 'digital natives' take their place as soon as possible in the digital world. There's pressure from all directions - media, marketing and government education gurus - to get them hooked into technology as soon as they can manipulate a mouse...

'Kids today are not remotely the same as they were.... their brains are different,' said education expert Ian Jukes at a conference I recently attended. 'Children's brains are adapting to the digital bombardment... they are not teenagers but screenagers!' His argument was that regular frequent exposure to digital technology rewires children's brains in ways that enhance their visual memory and processing skills, so that the current generation has learned to process information in a fundamentally different way from their forebears. 'Digital learners' prefer to access information from multiple media sources (pictures, sounds, colour, video) rather than old-fashioned text, operating, as Jukes puts it, at 'twitch speed'. They use parallel processing and multitasking techniques, applying 'continuous partial attention'. Their expertise is in randomly accessing hyperlinked multimedia information, and their reward is 'learning that is relevant, active, instantly useful and fun.'

This argument is reassuring for 21st century parents. But with a little reflection it's obvious that 'the elaborate procedural habits of formal thinking' won't develop out of continuous partial attention, flicking here and there at twitch speed. It's learning, Jim, but not learning as we've known it throughout human history.

The success of the species so far has relied on application, focused concentration and the capacity to pursue long-term rewards rather than immediate gratification. As, thanks to literacy, more and more human beings acquired these mental strengths the more progress Homosapiens made. As a woman, most of whose sex were allowed access to literacy and learning only a hundred years ago, I'm very conscious of the democratising power of formal thought processes... and, on behalf of my daughter and future generations of women, very anxious literacy should continue to work its magic on the minds of men.

But for most boys - whose nature doesn't fit them for sitting in a classroom, messing about with fiddly little symbols - the development of disciplined attention takes several years of determined effort. As Ian Jukes himself points out, if we encourage them to adapt to the digital bombardment too soon, 'the downside is that children may find it more difficult to follow a logical train of thought'. Since logic underpins every aspect of education and civilisation, this is a serious downside.

In a multimedia world, it would be insane to suggest we keep little boys away from technology until they're literate - it's an integral part of their world and a source of fun and information. But there are many reasons to put sensible limits on its use. We've seen that tuning a boy into screens before he's learning to tune into people may well inhibit his development of human empathy. In the same way, tuning him into quick-fire 'digital learning strategies' before he's mastered the ability to read and write may inhibit his capacity to think clearly and logically. In these two very important respects, allowing a boy to turn into a dedicated screenager before he enters his teens may lead to an unbalanced brain."

Sunday, 6 October 2013

We need to talk about Wade?

This post is perhaps best started with two disclaimers.

Firstly, I do not own a games console. Although I did enjoy the first two instalments of the Halo series, via a younger brother's Xbox, I took a decision some years ago that I had better ways to spend my time. This decision came after spending an entire Saturday glued to a screen 'masterminding' a failed Space Marine attack on the strategy game Dawn of War - which then abruptly failed!

Secondly, I have not played Grand Theft Auto V. The concerns I raise about this particular game are based on YouTube clips and a recent conversation with a former colleague about his experiences of playing the game. I realise, that by making criticism of this game, I risk falling into the age-old trap of condemning something not fully known and understood. As such, I will keep my comments on this particular issue brief and restrained!

Generally speaking, there are varying perspectives about the worth of computer games. They are, of course, one of the many forms of popular entertainment which all humans need as a break from work and other busyness. They have also become part of our modern culture - arguably even having the potential to be considered an art. Whether they have achieved that status yet is disputable - the following articles are insights into this debate:

In relation to schools, there is a similar discussion - coming under the header 'Gamification' - as to how schools should view computer games and gaming culture amongst young people. There is the view that such technologies offer a potentially powerful learning resource, particularly so for those students disengaged from more traditional teaching and learning methods. The counter-view is that the use of computer games within a school setting potentially fuels further an anti-social, detached-from-reality screen addiction amongst students. Below are a few examples of these varying viewpoints:

The child development and education writer, Sue Palmer, has written prolifically on the issue of technology and the nurturing of young people. I tend to agree with Sue Palmer's argument that in recognising the benefits of playing computer games in developing problem-solving capacity ('S-type' skills), we also must recognise that too much time spent in isolation in front of a computer screen can hinder the fostering of interpersonal qualities ('E-type' skills). In the 'real world' of work-based teams, family, friendships and love, it is clear we need as much of the latter as we do of the former.

The same goes for risk-taking, highlighted in the articles cited above and also touched upon by Sue Palmer in her book, 21st Century Boys. In conservations with many teenage boys I have listened as many enthusiastically proclaim a wish to join the armed forces. The appeal of becoming a soldier is natural for young people seeking adventure - a path I also seriously considered at a similar age - and offers much in terms of the transferable skills that can be gained, especially technical trades. However, when exploring this further with students over the past few years I have noted that the ambition frequently comes from playing games such as Call of Duty with their vision of the future centering solely on frontline Rambo-style action. It seems they have little realistic idea of the demands or risks.

As part of my new role I have been fortunate to take part in a Forest Schools project, each week on a Wednesday with a group of students at-risk of exclusion. Despite being just a few sessions in, I can already see its power to counter some of the detrimental effects our Digital Age, amongst other things, has on young people. It also causes me to look back on attempts at kinaesthetic learning activities (more often than not 'cut and stick') in my previous guise as English and History teacher with a real sense of inadequacy! For a good introduction to Forest Schools, I recommend the following write-up:

- 'Why children should learn outdoors' - by Gordon Cairns (Independent, Feb 2010)

And so, now onto the most recent computer game craze, Grand Theft Auto V. Those following the @HumansNotRobots feed on Twitter will see I supported the voicing of concern over the 'mental patient' costumes over the past week or so. However, following a conversation with my former colleague about GTA V and the interplay between crime boss 'Trevor' and his sidekick 'Wade', a character portrayed as having cognitive difficulties, it struck me attention also needs drawing to this particular issue. A quick search of 'GTA V Wade' on Twitter brought up lots of examples of young people casually mocking this character as a 'retard', 'mentally handicapped' and 'speaking funny like Flynn from Breaking Bad.' How much of this attitude feeds back into school communities should be a concern to teachers and parents.

It's also worth noting the game is not without controversy beyond this particular issue, with argument that it makes users comfortable with misogyny:

> 'Grand Theft Auto V is designed to denigrate women' - by Tom Hoggins (Telegraph, Oct 2013)

And that the game includes do-it-yourself torture scenes serving both as particularly sadistic entertainment for users and a cynical way of generating even more controversy, more publicity and ultimately more sales:

> 'A closer look at GTA V's most controversial scene' - by Luke Holland (Den of Geek, Oct 2013)

The counter view is that GTA V is clearly rated as adults-only and deeply satirical, as Tom Watson MP has argued - that we could compare it with critically-lauded films such as Reservoir Dogs and Fight Club or the more recent Breaking Bad TV series. However, as argued in an online letter from a computer games salesman - 'I Sold Too Many Copies of GTA V To Parents Who Didn't Give a Damn' - parents need to be a bit more clued-up of just what they are buying when their son or daughter asks them to pick up the latest computer game whilst doing the weekly shop.

In terms of schools, it strikes me that staff - as my former colleague did - also need to take the time to find out more about the games which we dismiss as passing fads but in fact need addressing with students so that the divide between fantasy world and real world remains firm in their minds.