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Trends in special needs education: More mainstream technology and call for involvement of all stakeholders

by Katja Engelhardt, member of the Observatory team

On 26 November, I presented European Schoolnet’s SENnet project at the conference on image_largeModern Technologies in inclusive education in Warsaw (Poland). I am part of the Observatory Team of European Schoolnet and support the SENnet project. This was the first conference organised by the Polish Ministry of National Education which was simultaneously translated into sign language. At the conference, Pawel Kubicki (Educational Research Institute) said that inclusive education was still a fresh research topic in Poland.

For me two topics touched upon by several speakers were particularly interesting. The first one was the shift away from assistive technology towards mainstream devices with multiple accessibility features (Universal design: find here the new SENnet report). Both Janusz Krupa (Polish Ministry of National Education) and Marlena Plebanska (Centre of Education Development) shared the belief that what was good for all students should also be good for students with special needs. Amanda Watkins (European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education) shared figures illustrated this trend. In this year’s collection of 50 country examples of use of ICT that supports students with special needs (collected within the ICT4I project), 75% of the examples illustrate the use of mainstream technology. In a similar collection of best practice examples in 1999, it was only 60%.

A second crucial issue discussed was the need for a multi stakeholder approach to best cater for the needs of special needs students. Amanda Watkins emphasized that it was important to include all teachers, not just a few specialists. Iwona Olszówska (Educational Consulting Centre at Special Education Centre no 1 in Czestowa) stressed that also the role of the specialists has changed.  While in the past the main task of special needs teachers was to support students with special needs, today they are also expected to guide colleagues and parents.

Iwona Olszówska initiated an Educational Consulting Centre in Czestowa (Poland) which puts the idea that a multitude of stakeholders must be involved into practice. In the centre, teachers give open lessons, which can be attended both by colleagues and parents. It also offers consultation hours to parents and involves student teachers.

A step towards more involvement of parents has also been taken on a national level: Today it is the decision of the parents to which school they send their child with special needs. Janusz Krup (Ministry of National Education) put forward that also the Powiat (regional) level had it role to play in the support of special needs students.

Katja Engelhardt has joined the European Schoolnet Observatory Team in 2012. She mainly works on the Creative Classrooms Lab project and the SENnet project. 

PISA results 2012 – How do Mathematics classes differ from Science lessons?

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This Tuesday the OECD launched the results of the latest PISA study. During the European Commission’s media launch event I attended the same day (in order to keep the European Schoolnet Observatory Team of which I am a member updated), Jan Pakulski (Directorate General for Education and Culture, Head of Unit A4) put a strong emphasis on one of the EU benchmarks for 2020: the share of low-achieving 15-years olds in reading, Mathematics and Science should be less than 15%. The EU-averages in Science (16.6%) and reading (17.8%) are now close to that benchmark but mathematics remains an area of concern.

What I am surprised about is that many more students find Mathematics difficult than Science lessons (as both subjects require similar competences). What makes Mathematics lessons different/ more difficult than Science lessons? There will be many answers to this question, but I found one in the last European Schoolnet Observatory Briefing Paper. The briefing looks at the use of ICT in Mathematics and Science classes, based on the findings from the Survey of Schools: ICT in Education. Students use ICT in Science classes more often than in Mathematics, both in grade 8 and 11. Although the difference in use between Mathematics and Science lessons is not big, it makes me wonder whether Maths and Science teachers and students may have different specific characteristics that need to be addressed independently. 

The briefing paper concludes that the types and magnitude of obstacles to the use of ICT within the classroom are quite different for Mathematics and Science teachers. Exam pressure stands out as the single relevant inhibitor for all subjects and grades. But Mathematics teachers are the most highly affected, especially at grade 11 in general education.

In reaction to the PISA results, the European Commission recommends for policies to look at what motivates young people to learn, how to give them new tools and instruments and how to teach them to steer the learning process (among others). Using ICT in an innovative way in Science and Mathematics classes could be one of the tools to look at. Both Science and Mathematics teachers agree on the positive impact of ICT on students’ higher-order thinking skills, motivation and achievement (according to the European Schoolnet Observatory Briefing Paper). It almost seems to be paradoxical that while the use of ICT has the potential to increase students’ motivation and achievement in class, exam pressure appears to be the biggest inhibitor for its use. It would be very interesting to have a closer look at how to overcome the obstacles to the use of ICT in these lessons. As the figures suggest, this should perhaps be done for Mathematics and Science lessons separately.

One initiative that is already looking at these topics is InGenious. This European Coordinating Body in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) was launched by European Schoolnet and the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT).

Katja Engelhardt has joined the European Schoolnet Observatory Team in 2012. She mainly works on the Creative Classrooms Lab project and the SENnet project. 

Futurium – what will learning look like in 2050?

futurium Futurium is the name of a series of online debates on Europe in 2050. One of the eleven emerging themes is Learning, an all-encompassing topic with as yet only one comment – it takes courage to be the first, but anyone who registers can post an opinion or contribution and vote on topics.

I found the overview piece interesting and fresh, and challenging. It is suggested for example that technology will support ‘full immersion in learning settings not achievable otherwise, including powerful simulations, intelligent conversational agents, and brain-to-machine or even brain-to-brain interfaces.’ There is no doubt that technology will continue to surprise and maybe challenge fundamental human values: where is privacy if we have brain implants and are always connected? For every benefit there are downsides for sure.

It could be argued that many of the developments are already happening in Europe’s schools, albeit in the margins (e.g. games, Big Data), and that 2050 is so far in the future (as 1976 in the past – pre-Walkman, pre-Internet, pre-Excel…) that uncertainty is the only sure prediction – that and seemingly enduring issues related to inequality and inclusion. There are some similarities with work in the Horizon K-12 projects (one for Europe is in preparation) which aim to look a mere five years ahead.

The value of exercises like Futurium in education is to help us take a step outside our day-to-day habits and mindsets, consider how things may change, but crucially how we can own some of these changes and make them work for the benefit of young people and a better world. The scenario building approach in projects like iTEC go some way in this direction as well – helping teachers to design learning experiences that are fit for the future, not simply ‘business as usual’ or ‘more of the same’.

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