SuperMemo in a school for special education

Maarten Mols, De Berkenschutse school for special education Heeze, The Netherlands February 2, 1998

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During 1997, De Berkenschutse school for special education in Heeze has started to implement SuperMemo into its educational program. This first evaluation report is meant to give a descriptive overview of the first experiences of teachers and pupils

In our school, majority of children suffer from epilepsy. Others suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, autism or various learning disabilities. Our special education takes place in small groups: about 10 to 15 pupils in a primary school class and about 5 pupils in a secondary school setting. Every child works on his or her individual subject and level. Differentiation is a very important didactic principle in our school and SuperMemo is supposed to contribute to this goal.
Besides, memory problems are amongst the most frequently mentioned problems of students with epilepsy. We started as a school for children with epilepsy affiliated with The Epilepsy Centre. Over the years, "De Berken- schutse" became a school for children with other disabilities too. Nowadays we have 275 pupils in the age of 3 to 20 years with all kinds of medical, psychological, behavioral or even psychiatric problems. Mentally disabled children are present as well as adolescents that own the capacities for college or university studies.

About 10 pupils (age 11-15 years) started working with SuperMemo in September 1997. About 20 pupils (age 10-12 years) started in November. And another 20 (age 10 -18) started in January. In total, about 50 pupils are working with the software at this moment. Most of the teachers can manage their lessons in a way that the children work 2 or 3 times a week with SuperMemo. Most of the children reach a total workload of about 20 minutes per week. Some work a lot more.

The subjects to which SuperMemo is applied are mainly calculation (primary school), mathematics (secondary school) and English vocabulary (secondary school). Besides we made a first application for two children that are getting dyslexia training.
We have developed a database for primary school pupils concerning temporal judgement. Items like "today is Tuesday, the day after tomorrow is...", "the fourth month of the year is ...", "the day before yesterday is called ...", "three months together are called a ...", "One year contains ... days" and items on clock-reading (illustrated with pictures).

The first qualitative results give hope for continuous use in the future. Pupils are enthusiastic, and so are the teachers. Application of computers in general and SuperMemo in particular adds a pleasant variation to the daily school activities. However, it requires a new way of thinking to build in the use of SuperMemo into the lesson program. Optimally, it should become an automatic habit to start the computer at classroom-entrance. The implementation of this approach mostly depends on the individual teacher's enthusiasm and persistence.

Concerning the children with epilepsy, memory problems are the focus of attention. Not seldom a medial temporal lobe lesion is seen in people with complex partial epilepsy and it is known that the temporal lobe plays an important role in memory. Another phenomenon is related to speed of information processing. So it might be possible that children with epilepsy show larger "time" or "workload" values than other children.

Among the 50 pupils working with SuperMemo at this moment, there are about 20 children with epilepsy, 10 children with autistic problems, a few with ADD(H) and the others have only minor behavioral problems, emotional problems, learning disabilities, etc.
My personal experience with an ADDH-like child is that he usually has lots of trouble with concentrating on his work. Everything in the classroom is very interesting except his book on mathematics. When he sits at the computer, it looks like he is far more able to concentrate. SuperMemo draws his attention, he likes the way of working and he likes the immediate feedback. It works!
Another boy said: "It’s superb! I would be very happy if I could get every subject with SuperMemo instead of listening to teachers and do the paper-and-pencil-jobs".
A few pupils tried to work with SuperMemo at school as well as at home. My first experience is that many of them lack the discipline to work with it daily. "I was very busy last weekend, so I couldn’t learn my outstanding items". But that’s not always true.

We decided to apply SuperMemo in primary school especially for automation of multiplication tables. " 4 x 9 = ... " , " 9 x 8 = ...", etc. Some children get the right answers, but only applying repeated summation (9 + 9 + 9 + 9 = 36). In that case the instruction must be to give the answer quickly or not at all. Or a teacher must sit next to the pupil to control the learning process. That’s not always possible.
For the application towards dyslexia it seems valuable to present a given word only for a few seconds (unlike in standard SuperMemo presentation).

Me an my colleagues conclude that SuperMemo contributes in a very innovating way to special education. It makes individual approach to pupil’s learning difficulties possible. Besides, it’s one of the first broadly applicable software packages that manage in a strong way the memory problems of children with epilepsy and learning disabilities. I hope that future application will continue to reach more and more teachers and will make the quality of our education system rise constantly