Tia Joya has just finished writing a book called The Big Race. “I’ve just finished editing it, so I think I’ll be publishing it soon,” she says casually. Last year, Tia directed an award-winning animated movie. Tia is 10.
The bright, airy, informal classroom occupied by multi-class A in Carrigaline Educate Together is like a glimpse into the future of education. The students, who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses, are moving freely around and interacting with their teacher, Cormac Cahill, and two special needs assistants (SNAs). Some of the class are working on iPads, like Tia, who is expertly swiping at her screen as she shows off her completed book, which Cormac will soon help her publish on iTunes.
Cormac goes to the whiteboard to make an announcement: “Great news: we’ve just reached 1,964 downloads!” Joan, Evan, Jonathan, Martin, Leon, Callie, and Tia, who range in age from 10 to 14, and have varying educational needs, are delighted at the news.
Cormac is one of 15 Apple Distinguished Educators (ADEs) in Ireland. ADEs are teachers recognised for their use of Apple technology in the classroom, who also advise Apple on integrating technology into learning environments and devise new ways of using tools like iPads and a range of applications to enrich their students’ learning.
“There are about 2,000 ADEs worldwide at the moment,” Cormac says. “Last year we met in Holland to collaborate and devise projects. It’s a support network; if I have something that I want to do and I don’t know how, I can ask another ADE. I’m hoping we can link up with other classrooms this year and do Skype calls.”
Cormac’s enthusiasm for and delight in multi-class A’s achievements is reflected in broader recognition for their work; they have three awards from the FÍS Film Festival, a national film project for primary school children.
“Last year they won the award for special effects for their animated Lego movie and the year before that they won the overall award for their Minecraft movie,” Cormac says with palpable pride. He uses iPads in the classroom to teach his students how to create their own content: “They do all the script-writing, storyboarding, and filming. I step in with some of the editing, but there are kids in here that run rings around me when it comes to technology.”
Their latest group project is on 1916. Callie has built a Minecraft replica of O’Connell Street and they’ll produce a book in comic-strip form in time for Easter. Cormac has produced an ebook summary of 1916 for the children, and will email it to them so that they’ll know a few basics before setting to work on their comic. Cormac’s class is a happy and creative environment, his students brimming with confidence.
The Apple programme isn’t specifically geared towards groups with special needs. Catherine Mangan teaches 28 senior infants in Holy Cross Mercy Primary School in Killarney and has been an ADE since 2013. Like Cormac, Catherine uses the iPads for film-making, story creation, and augmenting the curriculum by helping her class to generate their own content.
Catherine is on the ADE Advisory Board for Europe and has published a course called ‘Learn to read with iPad’.
“I wanted to show parents and teachers how to use iPads in a constructive way, rather than just mindlessly sitting and playing games,” she says.
Catherine believes that the best way to avoid producing a passive generation of tech consumers is to fight back with good-quality technological education that generates a sense of agency and confidence in children. “There’s a lot of bad use of technology in the classroom,” she says. But she thinks that in Ireland, a lot of those problems are based on a reluctance on the part of schools to invest in technology that may quickly become out-dated, and a lack of available training for teachers willing to up-skill.
“We have to start thinking more creatively,” she says. “Ireland is too bound by textbooks; in the Nordic countries, the teachers build their own content around the curriculum. Here you’re buying books and then struggling to get them finished. That’s ridiculous for juniors and seniors, who should be learning through play.”
As a giant global corporation, is Apple’s motive altruism or is it more likely to be profit-driven? Apple is using its distinguished educator programme to reach minds at a formative age and familiarise them with the Apple brand and user interface; by the time the platform becomes almost intuitive to those children, isn’t Apple just ensuring that it has a fresh supply of lifelong consumers of its products?
Catherine isn’t concerned: “We’re not allowed to endorse Apple products. A lot of our kids are using other devices and products at home: it’s not a major concern for me. I’ve researched other devices and they just don’t offer the same opportunities.”
But what about recent concerns that ‘screen-time’ is having a negative impact on children’s development? It was recently reported that in the UK, 18% of children are now presenting in primary school in need of speech therapy, and levels of dyspraxia (difficulties orienting oneself in space, manifesting as “clumsiness”) are also on the rise. Some developmental psychologists are claiming a link between these phenomena and children’s crucial play time being replaced with exposure to technology at a young age.
Catherine gives short shrift to the Luddites, and believes that we’re experiencing a wave of educational scaremongering with a historical precedent: “When the ballpoint pen was first produced, there were reports that it was bad for children’s handwriting. People will find ways to fault every new technology.”
Catherine ensures that there are collaborative aspects to her class projects so that they aid the development of communication skills instead of hindering them.
One recent project involved the children producing a book about their parents’ countries of origin; her class is ethnically diverse and the book project gave children a chance to talk about their heritage. “One child whose parents are Indian was so quiet in class that she wouldn’t even put her hand up to ask to go to the bathroom,” Catherine says. “She could tell us all about India and she brought in videos about the area her parents came from. She came alive during that project.”
Back in multi-class A in Carrigaline, a lively conversation has broken out over whether horse riding is actually a sport. “You just sit on the horse and the horse does all the work, so it isn’t,” Leon says, while Tia, who did a highly technical science experiment on an iPad to determine what speed a horse needs to be moving to complete a jump, doesn’t agree.
It’s a far cry from learning tables by rote under threat of the bata.