Maths Music Robots, the story so far

I am Hannah Durham and I am Assistant Vice Principal at Drapers’ Brookside Infant and Junior Schools in Harold Hill, and also a University Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford. I have been a teacher since 2009 and am particularly passionate about inclusion. In 2015 I collaborated with Dr. Enrico Bertelli, director of Conductive Music CIC to create 10 not-for- profit workshops for children with SEN or from disadvantaged backgrounds. These workshops were funded by the Let Teachers’ SHINE competition grant, and were so successful that we were then awarded a further grant to repeat the project in a further four schools.

Our project uses free, open source technology to create learning opportunities for children with SEN in mainstream schools. We want to inspire other teachers with our success story, but also send a clear message that anyone can access and use this technology to enhance their teaching. We also want to highlight the need for technology in education. The face of employment is changing: we need to do the same in the classroom.

Working with children who have SEN, it’s sometimes hard to capture that moment where things slot into place and make sense. It’s hard for these children to feel a real sense of achievement, to feel like they really belong in the academic world. Things so often simply don’t make sense. So when you’re given the chance to sit with three separate groups of SEN children and see that bulb light for the first time for so many of them, you want to take that, bottle it and run.

In 2015 I was offered the chance to host two half-day workshops for 60 pupils with SEN or from underprivileged backgrounds. They were free, funded by the Havering Music School and Arts Council England. I was sceptical. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is, right? By the end of the first morning I was eating my words. By the end of the second morning, I had agreed to partner with Conductive Music to bottle these light bulb moments and distribute them to more children with SEN. We submitted a proposal to the SHINE Trust to fund 10 pilot workshops for children in Harold Hill, one of the most deprived areas in Havering. We were shortlisted out of 126 applicants for interview, and chosen as one of 10 winners to receive our first collaborative grant.

We designed Maths Music Robots to tackle the need for a different teaching method, able to cater for those with a diverse range of Special Educational Needs. We set out to boost inclusion and progression by using free and open source software, freely available to teachers and students, aided by cheap and custom made hardware, to ensure project legacy. During our project, young people learn STEM skills, such as linear circuits and coding, taught through the arts. More crucially, we are teaching students to use and apply skills across several curriculum areas. Their creative process unravels through the design phase and develops via music-based modules dedicated to interface design, composition and performance. We are teaching resilience, perseverance, the importance of accuracy and the assimilation of previously unseen technology. We are teaching skills for the future. But, most importantly, where budgets are tight, we are doing this with technology that teachers can access for free. This is not a success story that has cost tens of thousands to implement – this is real life success, success that everyone can access.

In fact, the success of the project was unlike anything I had seen. We took fifteen Year 6 pupils, all of whom were either on the SEN or Pupil Premium registers, and most of whom were working well below the age related standard for Year 6. By the end of the project, many were assessed as working near, or at, the age related standard, some making as many as 12 steps progress across the course of the year (where 6 would be the expected amount of progress). The pupils also went on to gain the Bronze Arts Award, which is equivalent to a low grade GCSE and a huge achievement for 11 year olds with SEN. Academic achievement was so great that we were able to reapply for funding through SHINE and were subsequently awarded a further grant to disseminate the project in three more schools in Rotherham, an area with a similar level of deprivation to Harold Hill. But, more than that, we had for the first time made these children feel like they could be successful at school. We had made them feel as if they belong. They were actually keen to turn up at school and take part, and this was better for us than all of the other achievements put together.

What was the key to our success? Technology. Pervasive, invasive, yet inclusive, technology has morphed the way we teach and learn. Our students’ attention span is reducing and their need for immediate gratification is increasing. The process of action-reaction is fundamental to their learning, and they need a strong and independent troubleshooting strategy. Educators are faced with constant reminders that the world of work our students will enter will be very different to the one we ourselves faced when leaving school or university. Martin Boehm reminds us that “One thing that’s always going to be important is critical thinking skills, the ability to solve complex problems…

When we think about the changing times and the [unclear] future…having this cognitive flexibility is absolutely key to adapting.” This is what we are teaching. No longer should we be concerned with the factual elements of the curriculum, but how we can encourage our pupils to problem solve and ultimately gain the knowledge they need for the jobs of the future.


CM classroom

Are we inspirational? Are we transformative? Maybe. Could this be the start of something that challenges the nature of the curriculum as we know it, making way for more fluid, cross curricular teaching? Hopefully. Have we seen that light bulb moment in kids for whom there was previously little engagement with school? Most definitely.

Anyone can access this technology, which means anyone can make this a success for the pupils they teach. This is more than an inspirational story. This is the chance for teachers to take this idea and create light bulb moments of their own.