Old Teachers and New Technology

I graduated in Art at Central St Martin’s in London and gained my teaching qualification at Brunel University in 1999. I have taught at primary and secondary level and have always gravitated towards teaching children with special needs. I became a qualified SENCo in 2013. Most recently I have specialised in working with children who have complex behavioural needs and who have been excluded from mainstream education. I have also been an Assessment and Intervention Adviser to schools in the local authority where the aim has been to help re-integrating students back into school or onward to more specialist provision.


Twenty years in the classroom have flown by, and with it I have seen a lot of evolving technology, changing methodology and pedantic pedagogy. Now, with my grey hair (which I feel I have well and truly earned) and my varifocal glasses pushed up to the top of my nose, I write and blog so that you can @askthesenco for my support. I work for Scanning Pens as their Head of Education and am privileged position to be able to research, advise, create resources, and share ideas. I have time to think, talk and write about how assistive technology is changing the landscape of teaching and in particular, the experience of pupils with special educational needs.  


Slow technology and lack of access to appropriate technology remains a frustration for teachers in most schools. The new budget looms and the money is already allocated or spent and our wish list goes back into the drawer. Access to computers and speed of processing is significantly better than when I started teaching. I had a Research Machine computer in my classroom for the first six years and no printer. It took half an hour to load up and I saved all my planning to 3 ½ inch floppy disks that had 1.44mb of space and YouTube didn’t exist. The library was my base of operations and the photocopier was my best friend, unless we were waiting for the Xerox man to come and fix it.  

My mum was a primary school teacher and her best friend was the Banda. In the 1970’s this messy machine would reproduce worksheets which were often smudgy and resulted in inky fingers, and oh, the smell.


Grappling with new technology takes time - something which is always in short supply when most of it is taken up doing our actual job. But we know that when we have invested our precious hours in mastering new technology, students flourish, and we have the satisfaction of doing our job well.

I’m delighted when students show me more efficient approaches, put these tools to good use and develop greater independence. Teachers, and in particular those of us who have been around long enough to know that everything comes around again, only in a different package, have a duty to try to keep up. For better or for worse, the tech journey is linear, not circular and this is the world that our students are going to inhabit. The shift to gamification of learning won’t change any time soon. Our technologically enabled students find the apps and shortcuts, create wireless hotspots when the school internet goes down and use their phones to do everything from magnifying insects to plotting constellations. These are the future techno flyers; they are hard wired to adapting to the pace of change even though they may have not mastered playing reciprocal board games or speaking in full sentences.


I remain deeply concerned about the students who can’t access learning because their literacy skills are impaired through dyslexia or decoding problems, or because they have not been engaged in conversational skills at a formative stage so have not built the vocabulary. Often, the support needed does not happen at the right time, for a variety of reasons, and as the learning journey continues, self-esteem erodes and the desire to learn is flooded by a feeling of failure.


Many young people with reading difficulties turn to their electronic babysitters and drift out of the desire to learn or make progress, and don’t become inspired by or feel passionate about something they have experienced in school. The students we should have identified and supported go under the radar until poor behaviour becomes the refuge for students who are unable to communicate their lack of confidence and weak self-esteem. For me, the heart of the matter is in ensuring that basic literacy is mastered. We need to present opportunities to read wonderful books so that they can unlock the doors to the cultural capital that reading brings. We must identify our weaker readers and support them at an early stage, and this means supporting families and communities too. Technology may have been the cause of some of this problem, but it also provides us with some tools.  


Assistive technology is now so important that there is an All-Party Parliamentary Group that regularly meets to discuss the potential benefits of technology in classrooms. If you are looking for a window into the new technologies available, I would direct you to have a look at the BESA.org website where technology is reviewed by teachers. For our dyslexic learners there is at last, a whole raft of supporting tools that work well. Text-to-speech and speech-to-text, image capture, and accelerated phonics programs with virtual rewards for playing. There is so much more choice than ever before and the door is open and hopefully, with smarter technology, we may be able to reduce the human cost of dyslexia with better interventions. 


Feed the Reading Beast

Summer break, we are so excited in the first week. We make plans and are full of good intentions, we think, “yes, this is the time to invest, I shall practice marvellous parenting. I will be engaged, positive, imaginative. I’ll encourage crafts, sports, and activities like reading”. And we do, right up to the point where we run out of steam.

After the first bloom of enthusiasm, the holiday seems likely to descend into sibling teasing, boredom, and hours and hours of screen time in darkened rooms. Once this pattern is established guilt and self recrimination will set in. The guilt, that I imagine many of us will soon be marinating in, will have resulted from the lack of boundaries around gaming and screen time. Outbursts of frustration and fury as the young people in the house sink deeper into the bedroom pit are ahead. The fetid fug of rooms where half eaten sandwiches and apple cores lurk become smell of summer. The devil makes work for idle hands. In many houses the devils name is Gaming, once we have welcomed him in, it is very hard to kick him out.

So how on earth do we achieve our aspiration of encouraging summer creativity, and in particular, encourage reading for fun? I know the answer that works for us; feed the beast. The best way to change behaviours is to find the thing that they love and if possible find a way to enjoy it and work with it together. A radical thought, but it does contribute to everyone’s mental wellbeing.

In the world of gaming, there are many marketing spin offs and merchandise options. Minecraft has an abundance of magazines and manuals on subjects ranging from combat to redstone contraptions. If you choose to embrace this challenge you are in for an interesting time. Last summer I found myself sliding into a surreal conversation about how to best construct a Nordic hall. We progressed to the best structural approach to make a suspension bridge. Fortunately, the U. K’s Ironbridge museums are not too far away my home, so I was able to feed the beast with a trip to Enginuity to look at ideas for materials and structures. I even found myself engaging intently on the value of building a T Flip-Flop and the merits of piston doors, knowledge I’d never expect to acquire.

My trips and activities plan continued to evolve. From manuals we moved to menus. If he can craft a pig from furnace to pantry, he should be able to negotiate a real world looking and cooking experience. I planned a day with time spent with a real pig, sheep, and chickens. We visited a farm shop and asked the butcher about primal meat cuts. We collected our pork mince and planned our dinner of homemade hamburgers on the way home. In Minecraft, making cake is a technically challenging procedure. It requires many components including eggs, wheat, sugar, and milk. They are combined and crafted with the added benefit of not putting on any weight IRL, which I am reliably informed means “in real life”. This may be so, but cakes in the real world are wonderful. So many recipe choices, decorating options, packaging possibilities, and then the trips out to deliver cakes to friends and family. A whole afternoon of fun inspired from reading a recipe book, followed by real cake eaten virtuously. 

My how-to advice for this summer is this. Think about the hook, feed the passion, and engage with the subject. The most important thing is spending time talking, sharing, and listening. Reading can be sandwiched into activities inspired by current interests. You may have to move out of your comfort zone and into theirs, but the result will be that you all will have much more fun. I hope you all have a wonderful summer holiday.