Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Can going to the theatre boost academic achievement?

Sarah Cassidy reports on Start - an initiative to link young people from deprived backgrounds with the arts - and how it is capturing young hearts and minds.

On a cold winter's day in east London a class of eight- and nine-year-olds are wrestling with some big questions. Is it right to steal from the rich to give to the poor? Should someone's choice of job be restricted because of their gender? These are just some of the issues thrown up for the children after watching a production of Robin Hood.

The previous day the children, from Nightingale Primary School in Woolwich, south-east London, could be found laughing uproariously at the show at Greenwich and Lewisham Young Person's Theatre, which they attended for free as part of a groundbreaking programme which aims to bring the arts to children from deprived backgrounds.

Research shows that the numbers of primary school-age children visiting theatres, galleries and museums have plummeted over the past five years. But the situation is worst for children from poor backgrounds and thousands of them leave school without ever having set foot in one of these establishments.

Government statistics show that the number of children going to the theatre has fallen from just under half in 2008-09 to fewer than a third last year. Only 30 per cent of primary pupils engaged in dance activities in 2013-14 (compared to 43 per cent in 2008-09), while 37.2 per cent partook in a musical activity out of school (down from 55.3 per cent five years earlier).

The Start programme aims to counter this decline by linking participating schools with local arts venues and funding a programme of activities which take pupils to visit theatres, galleries and museums and sends artists back into the schools. The programme has linked leading venues such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings with schools in deprived areas.

The scheme was set up in 2006 by The Prince's Foundation for Children & the Arts – a charity founded by Prince Charles after he visited a pupil referral unit in Birmingham and found children studying Romeo and Juliet without ever having seen the play.

At Nightingale School, in one of the UK's most deprived wards, very few pupils had ever been to a theatre before their school joined the programme. Under the scheme they will watch performances at the theatre and take part in follow-up workshops.

Monday, 20 April 2015

How technology is changing speech and language therapy

From robots that play peekaboo, to speech recognition software that analyses TV shows, tech is being used to aid human communication.

Speech and communication skills are at the heart of human relationships – without them we couldn’t share ideas and emotions. But technology is carving out a special role in boosting those skills. Pioneering research shows just how machines are helping people to make themselves understood.

Here we look at three projects where a range of academic specialists and industry partners have come together to develop and widen access to their innovations.

Kaspar the robot: helping children with autism communicate 
Meet Kaspar: he can be talked to, tickled, stroked, played with and you can even prod and poke him and he won’t run away. Kaspar, developed at the University of Hertfordshire by a team under professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, is a child-like talking robot with a simplified human face and moveable limbs and features. He’s designed to help children with autism develop essential social skills through games such as peekaboo and learning activities.

Kaspar, the size of a small child, was “born” back in 2005 and has been developed since thanks to funding raised by the university. The multi-disciplinary scope of the project, spanning robotics, psychology, assistive technology and autism therapy, harnesses technology to assist communication. But this broad approach means it falls between research council stools and misses out on their grants, says Dautenhahn.

Initially, Kaspar has been used to help children in schools under the supervision of researchers. In the latest phase of the research, redesigned, wireless and more personalised versions of the little robot – controlled using a tablet - will to go out directly to schools and families in the next few weeks.

Parents and teachers will play games such as encouraging autistic youngsters to mimic and discuss different facial expressions, or even to pinch him and discuss why he cries out and looks sad, recording the results for the Hertfordshire team to analyse. “This is a new field study phase where Kaspar will go out into the world without the helping hand of researchers,” says Dautenhahn, whose work has combined both academic research – including collaboration with psychologists and clinicians - and the nuts and bolts of developing the robot as a potential mass product.

It is Kaspar’s highly predictable, simplified interactions that appeal to autistic children who may be overwhelmed by the complexity of everyday human communication, she believes.

“His simplicity appeals to children, and the fact that they can respond to him in their own time. If you are silent for 60 seconds, Kaspar won’t mind – he doesn’t make judgments.”

Saturday, 18 April 2015

What’s the optimum amount of homework to set a teenager?

Coaxing teenagers to sit down and do their homework is never an easy task. But is it actually worth their while to slave away for hours on end every evening? Not according to a new study of Spanish secondary school students which has concluded that the optimum amount of homework for children is around one hour a day.

Researchers at the University of Oviedo studied the maths and science homework and test results of 7,451 adolescents with an average age of around 13. They found a relationship between the amount of homework completed and children’s attainment. But the authors acknowledge they can’t say definitively that one hour of homework a night in total actually causes better test results.

Previous research in this area is both inconsistent and inconclusive. Some has shown the positive effects of homework and some its negative effects. In 2012, The Guardian reported on Department of Education research showing that two to three hours per day produced greater effects on achieving the highest results. In 2014, research at Stanford University found that too much homework can have a negative impact on children.

Homework can help to establish a routine and to develop independent learning skills that will be useful for professional life. Conversely, it could be argued that working at home in the evenings is the beginning of an unhealthy work-life balance and that there are academic drawbacks in studying instead of sleeping.

Not all children need to study the same

It’s unclear whether the children in the Spanish study achieve more as a result of doing the “optimum” amount of homework. Children of different abilities may take different amounts of time to complete their homework. If we subscribe to the idea that there is an “optimum” time, then we are effectively saying that children who work more quickly should complete more homework than children who work more slowly, which is arguably a disincentive for the fastest – and probably the most able – children.

The study also acknowledges that the nature of the homework has more influence over the outcomes than the time taken to complete it. This is an important point and is underpinned by a common sense view that an hour of inappropriate homework will be less effective than 45 minutes of appropriate homework.

Friday, 17 April 2015

How to teach … revision

As the exam season gets underway, we bring you useful lesson plans and ideas for making revision as pain-free as possible.

The advent of spring and the approach of summer are accompanied in school by a less welcome prospect: exam season.

May marks the beginning of Sats in primary schools and the first swathe of GCSEs and A-levels – usually practical or oral tests – in secondary schools. So as teachers try to cajole students into knuckling down, this week’s how to teach explores revision and how to make it as productive and pain-free as possible.

Start by getting students to create their own revision timetables. Author and former teacher Nicola Morgan has created a useful template to help you do this. It covers the three weeks of revision and includes a section in which students can log their exams to ensure theyare organised. It advises students to write in any days they cannot revise to help them plan ahead and includes different wellbeing tips each day to help students cope. Advice for both students and parents is available on Nicola’s blog.

Staying calm and mindful during this time is important. Get your class to think about how they might be feeling with this resource which asks: are you stressed? It includes five multiple choice questions to help students recognise how they are responding to pressure.

The Guardian’s Matthew Jenkin examined the calming benefits of mindfulness in the classroom in an article last year, stating that, according to Katherine Weare, emeritus professor at the universities of Exeter and Southampton’s mood disorder centre, one of the most useful ways of practising calm reflection is to take a very short pause in the middle of a task. Invite “students to stop what they are doing, close their eyes and recognise what is happening in their mind and body right now,” Jenkin writes.

Meditation is another useful revision break. Religious education teacher Andrew Jones has a presentation on compassion meditation for beginners, aimed at 11- to 14-year-olds. It’s based on a classroom scheme of work on Buddhism, but can act as a standalone lesson too. There is also a calming meditation track from Clear Vision that can be used to instill calmness.

Monday, 13 April 2015

What fiction has to say about the libraries of the future

Authors and artists have long imagined otherworldly libraries – magical libraries, mythical libraries, libraries of a distant past, future or planet. There’s Star Wars' Great Jedi Library – an enormous stronghold of knowledge and a symbol of the Jedi. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf learns about inscription on the One Ring in the dusty library of Minas Tirith. Or think of the Doctor Who episode in which the Doctor and his companion visit the largest library in the universe in the 51st century – an entire planet – and find it eerily deserted.

Perhaps one of the most compelling literary representations of the library occurs in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), a medieval whodunnit set in a monastery filled with books. Despatched to solve a murder committed within the monastery’s precincts, the sleuthing monk William of Baskerville discovers that the murders result from the monastery librarian’s diabolical attempts to hide a lost classical work from the world. At a climactic point of the story, William observes that: “this library was perhaps born to save the books it houses, but now it lives to bury them.”

These imaginary libraries are testament to the undeniably magical and complex quality of libraries – the particular quality that silent stretches of volumes have, categorised and ready to offer up innumerable secrets. Or, indeed, they demonstrate how the plenitude of the library can make it a mysterious secret itself, resistant to decoding or ordering.

But the library as we know it is under threat – and so these fictional places have never been more relevant. One day, libraries may themselves be consigned to fiction. Funding has a large part to do with this – just look at the trend away from local libraries and towards regional hubs.

But digitisation is obviously also a major factor. Terry Pratchett imagined a labyrinthine library in Discworld overseen by an orangutan where students occasionally get lost and are forced to eat their own boots to survive. It may sound absurd, but this is perhaps the library that is most immediately relevant to today – with its endless shelves and connections to every library and every collection of books in the Multiverse.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Why your child needs to fail (sometimes)

Think you’re helping your kids whenever you step in to fix their problems? You may want to think again.

From just about the moment our children are born, they’re inundated with challenges that compel us to intervene. And to some degree, they need our help and guidance. We are, after all, their primary mentors and role models. But there comes a time when we need to step aside and let things play out on their own – and for us, the difficulty is often in knowing just when we need to do so.

The urge to “fix it”

Our kids face challenges every day. And for parents, there’s often an easy way out – a “quick fix” to allow everyone to move forward without solving the problem. If your child refuses to eat their vegetables, you can heat up some chicken fingers. If your teenage son or daughter is struggling with an essay or science project, you can step in and do the work for them. If they get a less than satisfactory grade on a math test, you can go to the school and yell at the teacher. If your twenty-something child gets a job interview, you can tag along and chat with the employer.

As parents, we’re capable of doing all these things. We can step in to “fix it” whenever our child comes to us with a problem. And it’s often tempting to do so, since we don’t want to see our kids endure pain, failure or disappointment. But sometimes, by intervening, we’re only making things worse. We may just be insulating our kids from challenges that they would do far better to tackle themselves.

Teacher Jessica Lahey, writing in The Atlantic, calls this overparenting. She warns that it’s detrimental to a child’s development, since it has “the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence.” Essentially, these parents may think they’re helping, when really they’re denying their children crucial opportunities to learn.

“Children make mistakes,” she says, “and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my ‘best’ students – the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives – are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.”

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Children living in Victorian conditions, say teachers

Teaching union’s survey finds children are turning up to school sick because parents cannot afford to take time off and sometimes without socks or a coat.

Children are turning up to school sick because their parents cannot afford to take time off to care for them, teachers say.

School staff are also still seeing youngsters arriving for lessons hungry, tired and wearing inappropriate clothes due to a continuing squeeze on family finances, according to the NASUWT teaching union.

It warned that the lives of many children are young people are being “blighted and degraded by poverty and homelessness”.

In some cases, teachers reported being aware of pupils living in “Victorian conditions”, of youngsters coming to school with no socks or coat and of more families depending on food banks.

A survey commissioned by the NASUWT found that almost seven in 10 (69%) of teachers said they had seen pupils coming to school hungry, while eight in 10 (80%) had witnessed youngsters turning up in clothes that were inappropriate for the weather and similar proportions reported children arriving in unwashed or damaged and frayed clothing.

In addition, 78% said they have seen pupils without appropriate footwear and 55% had seen youngsters who were unable to afford uniform.

One of the almost 2,500 teachers surveyed said they had seen: “Pupils who come into school unwell. Often their parents cannot afford to take a day off work, and therefore send their children to school when they ought to be at home.”

And another reported: “Pupils who need medical attention, but parents are not taking them/unable to take them to the GP, optician and/or dentist.”

Monday, 6 April 2015

How to teach ... yoga

Back bends, side bends and pretzel twists – here’s how to stretch students’ minds and bodies through yoga.

Students with legs squeezed into chests and arms in the air can mean only one thing: yoga in the classroom.

The physical benefits of this exercise are well-known, but it also has educational benefits, such as improved attention, self-confidence and relaxation.

So this week on the Guardian Teacher Network, we offer a collection of ideas and lesson resources to stretch your students’ minds and bodies through yoga.

A quick-and-easy way to get started is by using short yoga-based exercises in the classroom. These activity cards by Yoga 4 Classrooms can be particularly useful to help centre students before a lesson or to regain focus if a class becomes restless.

The cards cover six areas: breathing, loosening up, stretching, standing strong, feeling well and being mindful. They give clear instructions and all of the activities can be done while standing beside or sitting at desks. Examples include a “corkscrew stretch” and “pretzel twist” to help students re-energise.

Follow up this activity by asking students to create activity cards of their own. Get them to write step-by-step instructions with illustrations; they should be able to explain the benefits of their exercise. Groups can then try out each other’s cards. Alternatively, challenge students to use the cards to create a sequence of between two and five actions for a chosen time of day, or to address a particular issue. For example, “When I am frustrated, I can help myself to calm down by … ” or “When I need a break from writing it can be helpful to … ” The full set of Yoga 4 Classrooms activity cards is available here.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Five secrets to revising that can improve your grades

An expert on revision gives his top five tips on how to revise for exam success.

How do you get the most out of your revision time, and end up with the best grades you can? Or, if you're a different sort of student, how can you get the same grades you're getting now, but spend less time revising?

Either way, you need to know how to learn better. And fortunately, decades of research carried out by psychologists about learning and memory has produced some clear advice on doing just that.

As an experimental psychologist, I am especially interested in learning. Most research on learning is done in a lab, with volunteers who come in once or twice to learn simple skills or lists of words.

Wouldn't it be better, I thought, if we could study learning by looking at a skill people are practising anyway? And could we draw links between how people practise and how good they eventually get?

Computer games provide a great way to study learning: they are something people spend many hours practising, and they automatically record every action people take as they practise. Players even finish the game with a score that tells them how good they are.

Using data from a simple online game, my colleague Mike Dewar and I could analyse how more than 850,000 people learned to play. The resulting scientific paper, showed in unprecedented detail the shape of the learning curve, allowing us to test existing theories of learning, as well as suggesting some new ideas on the best ways to learn.

So here are my five evidence-based tips on how to learn:

1. Space your practice

Our analysis showed that people who leave longer gaps between practice attempts go on to score higher. In fact, the longer the gaps, the higher the scores.

The difference is huge: people who leave more than 24 hours between their first five attempts at the game and their second five attempts score as highly, on average, as people who have practiced 50% more than them.

How space for creativity opens up young people’s minds

Creative experiences can engage the demotivated, irrigate parched minds and illuminate serious socio-economic problems. And yet the current UK coalition government has launched a sustained attack on creativity in education.

Last November, Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for education, said at a launch for a maths and physics education campaign that “the arts and humanities” were for students who “didn’t know” what they “wanted to do”. She said that while these subjects used to be thought of as “useful for all kinds of job”, now “this couldn’t be further from the truth”.

But the powerful impact of giving young people the space to be creative has been endorsed by many others – from Labour leader Ed Miliband to educationalist Ken Robinson, and it has opened some clear blue water between the parties in this election campaign.

Reaching for vocabulary

At Goldsmiths, my colleagues Jim Anderson and Vicky Macleroy have highlighted the power of giving young people creative space through Critical Connections, a multilingual digital storytelling project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

In this project, young language-learners in mainstream and complementary schools in the UK and beyond worked together to create “digital stories”. One learner created a PowerPoint presentation with a voice-over in Arabic about his uncle’s wedding in Algeria. A Year 8 class in a Catholic school in London created an animation about a fairy house in French. And a group of Palestinian teenagers created a short documentary in English about talented young local jugglers, musicians and poets.

The idea was that in creating their films, learners would work on narratives important to them – and in doing so would reach for the words and grammar they needed. This stretches learners to think beyond the dry vocabulary lists related to “my pet” or “buying a train ticket” which were standard fare in my childhood French class.