The tension at this year’s BETT Show

January 23, 2016

The BETT Show in London has, since it started, provided a window into the passions and fashions of educational technology and the ways education, teaching and learning are changing. Though many of us who have been involved with these changes in education since the early days of computers in education bemoan the slow pace of change, the last few years particularly have brought significant changes that will further develop and that cannot be stopped.

The question is whether these changes are improvements in education or retrograde steps. As has been the case throughout development of technology in education, there has been almost as much failure as success, with innovations that were shown to be effective in the 1980s still not widely adopted and several blind alleys that didn’t work. This is a generational change and there is still a lot to be done to make sure that it all turns out well and does not take schooling backwards, as it could.

This year’s BETT Show was truly international and included a strong presence by companies keen to profit from the growing use of technology in schools in India, China and other parts of South-East Asia, and developing countries throughout the rest of the world. These companies are looking to capitalise on the perceived educational opportunities that technology offers. Far too often these perceived opportunities are defined in terms of what technology can do, combined with what politicians would like it to do to give them good press releases about exam passes and where the country ranks in PISA. Too many education leaders are seduced by the technology and give credence to the claims of the technology companies and support to the politicians. Thankfully some school leaders have much clearer visions and are much more astute in selecting technology that really does improve teaching and learning; their voice needs to be stronger.

The classic example this last year has been the iPad debacle in California. Those who work closely with schools, helping them adopt education technology, regularly trade their own more local examples of the schools that have bought hundreds of tablets with no clear idea as to how they will use them to improve learning. We have also seen News Corporation withdraw from the educational technology market, having realised that the company they had acquired was unlikely to make the expected returns. Both of which bring me to the tension at this year’s BETT.

The tension, or perhaps I should call it the battle of ideas for that is what it is, is between those who think that the prime use of technology in education should be to give young people access to learning content, or to push it at them as in the California debacle, and those who realise that the prime aim should be to use technology to enable and extend learning activities that will develop deep and lasting learning. This will at times include a little passive reception of content and some activities to embed learning of knowledge, but without the context of real purpose, real problems and relevance this knowledge will not be valued and will be soon lost.

Talking to people at the Show I found some clearly aware of how the connected-world and technology can have real impact on learning, but still far too many whose horizons only reach to how much more engaging an animation, video or little game can be compared to a textbook, and how assessment of learnt knowledge can be managed more often and more easily recorded to support the school’s accountability.

To take just one example, when I mentioned to BETT visitors that a key impact of technology in a school is to make the work children create more visible, some immediately understood what I was talking about while others returned a quizical stare, obviously wondering what I meant and finding this idea beyond their conceptual understanding of the purpose of technology in education. Visibility is key to the processes of learning that enable connected-world learning to surpass good traditional learning. Visibility of pupils’ work, carefully arranged and well managed by teachers, sets higher expectations, makes the challenges of learning personal and relevant, enables reflection and discussion, enables wider audiences to provide more and better feedback, stimulates self-esteem and feelings of success, enables pupils to collaborate and help each other learn and is a real aid to parental engagement and involvement in their childrens’ learning. Critically visibility also presumes that young people have actively created something worth displaying, that they are proud of as it shows their progress, even if the quality of what they have produced is behind that of others. Compare all these impacts with the learning impact of pupils just interacting in some way with content pushed at them.

At the Show I listened to teachers and leaders from some schools that appreciate this difference, who clearly understand that effective learning happens when pupils are actively engaged in their learning and want to learn. And hence they then want to access the wonderful content that these schools are making available, which they do out of school not in class. And indeed some schools are collecting the data to show that those who access the content well, and often, achieve more highly. But without the curriculum, teaching, and active and creative learning that stimulates pupils’ thirst to access and learn from content, and that provides the context that makes the content meaningful, the students would likely use their access to technology for the purposes they find meaningful in learning instead – just as the Californian students did.

This all makes me more determined than ever to help school leaders appreciate that digital evolution of their schools involves a great deal more than installing screens, buying tablets or laptops, and buying software licences for multimedia content. That comes quite a long way into the digital evolution of a school and forms only a small part of what is required. If you want to see a full listing of what is required, have a look at the program for the Digital Evolution of Schooling Leadership Program and see what it covers.

 

Why the OECD study conflicts with what good Headteachers know to be true.

September 15, 2015

We seem to be getting a rash of studies that show that lots of use of technology by young people correlates with lower exam results. We have had the study showing that schools banning mobile phones raised results, then the study that showed that children with high ‘screen-time’ achieve less (though they acknowledge this was mainly TV watching not Internet access) and now the OECD study shows that countries with lower average class-time use of the Internet score lower in PISA scores.

Yet the Headteacher interviewed by the BBC, and many other enlightened Heads, firmly support their spend on technology and can justify it to governors, parents and of course their own teachers. Why is there such a conflict between what good Heads say and what the studies seem to say?

The answer is that it is easy to use technology in education very badly, and far too many schools do. We all know of schools that have bought class-sets of tablets before they asked the question as to how they were going to use them. And we probably all know lazy teachers who use computers and tablets as glorified worksheets, getting initial extra engagement that soon wears off. Even whole states and countries can get this wrong, as the California iPad debacle showed.

How can so many people be blind to what the increasing number of digitally aware schools are showing is possible – hugely greater engagement in learning that leads to all sorts of achievements, often by pupils who previous to the introduction of technology into the school were classed by teachers as ‘hard to reach’?

Getting huge impact on learning from technology is not rocket-science, but it does require clarity of thinking by the Headteacher and strong leadership. So what are the steps? Not, I hope you will not be surprised to hear, rushing out to buy technology. That should only happen when the need is clear and the groundwork has been done.

Step One – Get behaviour right. If there is poor behaviour by pupils and low-level disruption, it will increase significantly when technology is introduced or use of pupils’ phones in school permitted. With poor behaviour and concentration lowered by disruptions, everything is a distraction. Technology is powerful both ways, it can be hugely positive and helpful but it can also be hugely distracting. It may well be necessary to initially ban pupils using mobile phones in school, to get behaviour right, so the conditions can be created where it is possible to have pupils using their own devices in school sensible, safely and highly productively. Many schools are now achieving this – go and look at some before you write headlines that say banning phones is the way to increase results.

Step Two – In parallel with acting on behaviour for learning, the curriculum has to be relevant. That is the whole school curriculum, not just the content taught. If pupils do not see most of the curriculum as relevant to themselves, they are candidates for distraction and low concentration. I do not believe in our connected, media-rich world that it is possible to make a school curriculum engaging and relevant without considerable use of multimedia, the Internet and interactive activities of all kinds, some involving technology but the majority based on social interactions. Though out of school the majority of interactions with information or classmates will involve technology.

Step Three – Outstanding teaching, again in parallel with acting on behaviour. Pupils engaged in lessons don’t misbehave. As one miscreant pupil when asked (in a technology-oriented lesson that had been been set up as part of making the school curriculum more relevant) why he wasn’t misbehaving as he usually did said, “I haven’t got time to misbehave! I’m busy.” I do not believe it is possible to be an outstanding teacher without a clear understanding of the role of technology in learning. But that does not necessarily mean that pupils in class will spend much time using technology. They will spend time watching and listening, thinking, discussing, collaborating, creating and making. The fact that technology tools may be used, or that instant look-up is available, or that Internet research may be part of the task is almost irrelevant. It’s just the fastest and most effective way to work, to keep the thinking flowing. Pupils using the Internet in this way are unlikely to report this as ‘time on the Internet’, which they will think of as long periods when they are exclusively using the Internet.

Step Four – Use audiences for pupils’ work and generate feedback. There is a great deal of research showing that giving young people better and more feedback on their work is a major factor in helping them improve it. The possibilities in this area are hugely increased when a school makes effective use of a digital environment that complements the classroom environment.

Step Four – Record evidence of progress. Seeing clearly what you are struggling with in comparison to others helps you see what you have to learn. Seeing that you can improve feeds your feelings of success and growth mindset. Paper exercise books are a very poor way to record progress. Using digital methods enables selection, and much easier and better commenting by teacher and peers.

Step Five – Scaffold and support work that pupils do out of class with online information and systems. Instead of homework being the poor relative to classwork it can become an engaging activity. And it can be collaborative even though pupils are in their own homes.

By this stage the school and the teachers will be seeing the results of the ways they are using technology every day. They will be talking to the pupils about how they manage to learn more effectively because of how they use technology. They will know clearly what the impact is and why they, in their school, don’t believe the headline conclusion of the OECD report.

 

I cannot think of any other area of human endeavour where conclusions are drawn and headlines created by studying those companies or organisations that are getting it wrong, and putting their approaches on a par with those who are getting it right.

Of course in most other areas the actions of customers soon make it clearly obvious which companies are getting the introduction of technology right. Though we can see digitally evolved schools attracting more applications from parents and becoming over-subscribed, young people don’t have much choice once allocated to a school. Nor can they clearly see what is on offer from neighbouring schools. But they can react to what their school either does or does not offer. They do this by altering their level of engagement with the school and with learning. And this alters their level of concentration and the amount of time they are prepared to commit to thinking about and doing things that enhance their school achievements.

Measure these and you will have a way to assess which schools are getting it right. And from these schools you will be able to assess how technology should be used in school and out of school.

We have to get children to love learning.

May 8, 2015

Technology and the connected world are changing how we live and work – radically. Education has to move up to a completely new level of effectiveness. Some schools are achieving this and showing the way. And happily technology and the connected world provide the key enabling tools for this to happen.

The centre of education – as always – will remain the interactions between pupils and teachers. And the other ‘teaching’ interactions that teachers enable their pupils to have – from other pupils, parents and the wider community.

The big change that has to happen, is that we have to get all pupils to Love Learning.

It is only young people themselves who can raise their achievement. You can’t open a child’s brain and put learning inside. They have to do that themselves. And there are just two ways to get them to do this:

– pressurise children to learn.

– or ignite their thirst for learning. Engage them in wanting to learn.

Most schools in the UK operate by pressurising children to learn. For a start school is anyway compulsory. Then there are all the messages that if you don’t do well you won’t get qualifications and a decent job. Then teachers apply more pressure, sometimes in pleasant ways and sometimes in rather unpleasant ways. Then the school leaders apply more pressure on the teachers to push the kids into extra work and various interventions to hit league table targets. This is not to deny that these various pressures can ignite a thirst for learning in some children. But there is nowhere left to go when it doesn’t, except to apply more pressure. And pressure kills motivation and concentration for many children.

3rd millennium learning, or connected-world learning, is about getting the pressure and challenge to learn to come from within the child – by igniting their thirst for learning. Once it does ignite they will also happily respond to pressure from peers and teachers, which becomes pressure the pupils ask for and control, they want to learn. Naace has spent the last four years finding out from schools that manage to do this how they do it. The evidence in schools’ submissions for the 3rd Millennium Learning Award clearly shows other schools what has to be done.

Generating the much higher engagement in learning can only be done as a whole-school process. A culture has to be developed across the pupils that it is cool to learn, and fun to learn even if it is challenging. There has to be a whole-school growth mindset, that failure is the first step on the road to success and success will involve many failures. The school has to change the ‘game’, from a game that is all about achievement or failure, to one of the game being to help each other learn. Even the weakest students have to want to display their work to others for criticism, because the fun is in helping others and being helped. And the school has to work to ensure the criticism that comes back will be constructive and well balanced between praise and the pointing out of errors and weaknesses.

Underpinning these changes there has to be a creative curriculum, with pupils able to be creative in how they present work. Which means teachers ready to accept work presented in the form the pupil chooses, whether that be a traditional essay, a video, an animation, a presentation or a voice recording. Why should it matter as long as the teacher makes clear that they have to be able to assess the work in the same time as it would take them to mark a written answer.

In schools like this remarkable changes happen. Trust grows. As do collaboration and pupils leading learning. Often the schools provide lots of opportunities for pupils to lead in different ways, so that those less academically able can achieve early success in sport, as playground buddies, digital leaders or community helpers. Teachers share a lot more and become less fearful themselves of failure, leading to more innovation.

We currently have too many school leaders who don’t understand this choice between a pressured approach and igniting the thirst for learning. And too many who may in their heart-of-hearts think igniting the thirst for learning is best, but who don’t trust that if they make this their key priority that the scores will be hit and the league-table position held. There is that ‘Trust’ word again. When a level of trust develops that you cannot currently imagine, then levels of achievement you cannot currently imagine will also materialise. And the school will be a much happier place for all.

This is not a pipe-dream. Schools in very difficult circumstances have gained the Naace 3rd Millennium Learning Award and shown how they have developed the necessary whole-school culture. Judge for yourself by looking at the 5-minute videos at http://www.naace.co.uk/thirdmillenniumlearningaward. (The schools also produce a 10 minute educational commentary, available to all Naace members.)

This blog has been triggered by the general election held in the UK yesterday. The times ahead are inevitably going to be hard with the necessity to cut government budgets. But with the government elected I reckon times are going to be even harder for schools. Soon. And I suspect the only way that schools will be able to square the circle of enabling pupils to achieve more with less budget is by moving away from a pressured approach and adopting 3rd millennium learning. Schools have to achieve more learning with less input by teachers and teaching assistants. That means more independent learning. It means more pupils leading learning. It means teachers concentrating on improving outcomes not on just making the learning activity happen – engaged pupils will do that.

With a whole school-full of trusted engaged pupils, and pupils picking up and dealing with many of the problems individual pupils will inevitably present, keeping each other safe, stopping mis-behaviour by others, and progressing their learning activity without constant reminders, creative ways can be adopted to shave the odd per-cent off staffing costs.

The leaders of those schools that are pressured, stressful hothouses should take a long cool and reflective look at what a school is there to do and how that is best achieved. And a bit of leadership in this from the new English Education Secretary would not go amiss.

 

 

3rd Millennium Learning isn’t rocket science.

September 29, 2014

The Naace 3rd Millennium Learning Guides (3ML Guides) gathered a week ago for our annual meeting, to review the standard of the 3rd Millennium Learning Award and to discuss what we are seeing in schools that are taking education to the next level. It’s getting ever clearer that we have two kinds of schools, those fully capitalising on all the educational opportunities of the connected world and technology and those not doing so. Of course it’s not the technology that causes 3rd millennium schools to have such a considerably better educational offering for their pupils, it’s how the school leaders take advantage of it.

Today saw research released by BESA that shows what a divide in the use of technology has developed in our schools. The real picture is actually a bit worse than the research shows, because not every school that has loads of technology and good networks gets the impact on learning that they could. Naace has a small failure rate amongst schools going for the 3rd Millennium Learning Award though we try hard to advise schools not to go for the Award until they really are getting the impact. Some schools just use the technology to support didactic teacher-led 20th century approaches and the engagement they get from pupils is transient; they soon realise they are not being enabled to get the full benefits because the schools and teachers try to control how the pupils use technology and the Internet, instead of letting them fly (safely!).

The evidence base the 3rd Millennium Learning Award has created is fabulous, videos from over 80 schools showing what they are doing and talking about why and how. It is patently clear from these videos that the reason these schools are providing such a better education and getting higher achievements of all kinds is actually very simple. The pupils are considerably more engaged in their learning than pupils in most schools. And that leads directly to significantly more time learning; more concentration in class and more time spent talking about their learning with friends and working on things themselves. We have known at least since I went through teacher training in the 1970s, and read books by the likes of John Holt (How Children Learn, How Children Fail), that when children become engaged in learning their achievements can streak ahead in very short periods of time. It’s quite a rare pupil who concentrates properly in class, as we have seen on TV in the Educating Essex/Educating Yorkshire TV series.

What is slightly rocket science, though it makes perfect sense when you think about it, is how these 3rd millennium schools are getting this much higher engagement. They take a really rather psychological approach. For example, we know from lots of research that providing better and more feedback to pupils on their learning is one of the key ways to help them raise their achievement. In the Award videos we see lots of examples of how the schools use audiences to radically increase both the stimulation to try harder and the amount and quality of feedback. But children have to be ready and happy to put their work in front of an audience knowing it may be criticised. So the schools put lots of effort into creating a culture of collaborative learning, where the ‘game’ is to help each other learn, and failure is the first step on the route to success, and brains are like muscles that get stronger and grow when exercised. And the schools make sure this is a culture that ALL the pupils take ownership of, even if this starts with success in non-curriculum learning and personal qualities that are praised, while they gain the strength and confidence to expose their weak academic prowess to comment by peers and parents.

This is just one example of this psychological approach taken by the schools. One of my jobs following the 3ML Guides meeting is to refine the diagram we have developed to explain to other schools how they too can take education to the next level. Somehow we have to get the message through to all schools that the way to achieve the next level is to first and foremost ignite pupils’ thirst for learning. Putting pressure on pupils to learn and on teachers to get them to hit pupil achievement targets is a small part of the mix, but it is destructive if pupils are not ready to accept the challenge. Far better to first establish the culture where the pressure to achieve becomes intrinsic, part of the collaborative competition between growing children, where as much kudos and status can come from helping someone else learn as from one’s own achievements.

 

Is your school ready for the Computing curriculum?

August 29, 2014

Schools in England should be teaching the new Computing curriculum from next week onwards. However I fear, and I hear from colleagues, that many schools and teachers are not yet ready for this.

Over this year I have led several Naace/AQA courses for KS3 teachers wanting to better understand the KS3 Computing programme of study. The reactions to the course of those attending and things that they said have caused me to reflect over the Summer on the deep misunderstandings that many teachers and school leaders (and policy makers!) have about the nature of Computing/ICT as a curriculum subject.

I remember a Maths adviser in 1984 bemoaning the state of maths teaching in schools. He wanted to remove maths from the curriculum for five years, by which time the other curriculum areas would have had to take responsibility for teaching numeracy. Then he could bring back maths as the subject it ought to be, with it’s own unique contribution to the curriculum. The relevance of this story is that he said this during a discussion about what ICT uniquely brings to the curriculum.

Already by 1984 ‘ICT” was being interpreted as teaching of the ICT skills necessary to operate computers, and what ICT ought to be uniquely contributing to the curriculum was even then getting lost. And it’s been pretty much lost ever since in far too many schools. However the crisis point we got to 4 years ago in England, with ICT qualifications that were boring the pants off kids, has led to quite a lot of debate about what ICT as a curriculum subject ought to be. The debate has been somewhat confused by the computer science enthusiasts who are only interested in programming and don’t see the broader picture well, but it has caused teachers to question what they have been teaching and this has led a few of them to take the time to try and understand what ICT/Computing really is – and hence why they attended the courses.

ICT/Computing (or whatever you want to call this curriculum area) is fundamentally about solving problems using technology.The technology brings with it several fundamental concepts that are not at all easy to explore and learn about through other curriculum areas. The idea of a computer program as a sequence of instructions, using concepts such as variables, conditionality, iteration, logic and so on is one of the key areas of concepts, but there are others. There is the idea of hyper-linked information and the levels of interaction that can be built into a web-page – there are 7 different levels of interaction in a well-designed web page. Then there are the concepts around the organisation of data and relational databases. And other ICT tools contain important concepts, such as how spreadsheets can link and manipulate numbers, and how word-processors can manipulate grammatical structures to solve business problems – think mail-merge as a simple example. Then there is the area of embedded systems, sensing and control. These are all important conceptual areas that children should understand. They are all around us and we should be controlling them not allowing them to control us, unless in the full knowledge of how we are being manipulated by the things around us, we want them to.

These should of course be learned in context, with examples from many different areas (i.e. subject/curriculum areas). Which is why the Computing curriculum cannot just be taught in Computing lesson time. Just as the Maths adviser saw the necessity for for numeracy to be taught across the curriculum and maths ideas used in many subject areas, so is the same true for Computing.

The important thing for ICT/Computing teachers to understand is that pupils don’t even start learning what they should in the ICT/computing curriculum until all those low-level ICT skills necessary to operate computers and applications have been acquired. This has been quite a hard idea for the teachers on the courses to grasp, because they have traditionally spent so much of their time in ICT lessons setting tasks that that are all about developing the basic skills, and not really about problem solving.

The second idea those on my courses grappled with, is that for pupils to be demonstrating ICT capability, it is essential that they are permitted (well forced actually) to make their own choices of what technology to use to solve the problem set. Which of course means that they may use software that the teacher hasn’t taught them to use – and may not really be proficient in using themselves. And as there isn’t time in ICT lessons to teach pupils how to use new applications that are appearing, the implication is that they need to arrive at secondary school with wide experience of using applications and with personal skills to learn how to use them independently and collaboratively. They need to be teaching each other how to find and assess new applications and how to use them in the most powerful ways possible.

Then the third idea that caused them lots of concern, is that the time allocated to teaching ICT/Computing the subject is insufficient to cover all that is specified in the English Computing curriculum – which is all that was in the ICT curriculum with more emphasis on the computer science aspects and more on IT (what’s inside the box and how it works).

Just as it would be completely insufficient if language skills were only developed in the English teaching time (which is typically many times the time allocated to ICT/Computing), it is completely insufficient for the use of technology to solve problems to only be taught in ICT/computing teaching time. It has to be a responsibility of all the teachers across the curriculum. A fair number of primary schools are achieving this but the scene in secondary schools is pretty dire, to judge by the feedback from the teachers who came on the courses. Most had little of this kind of buy-in from the senior leaders or the heads of other subject departments and felt they would really struggle to make the case – though several in their course evaluations expressed the intention to try, now that they much better appreciated what ICT/computing really is.

I feel that one of the sessions on the course they really appreciated was the time we spent looking at the unique contribution of ICT/Computing to the curriculum, and the fundamental ways of thinking and approaches to problem solving that it gives children. And they appreciated the time we spent looking at the huge range of career opportunities that require understanding of how ICT solves (business) problems. Every manager in just about every kind of business, large and small, needs to understand this very well if their business is to succeed and be competitive. I wish we could get school leaders to properly consider the needs of young people in a computer-enabled and connected world, but it seems that many are driven by league tables and exam pressures, rather than by the need to provide “a broad and balanced computing curriculum’, which is what I hear that Ofsted will be looking for, every time I hear David Brown speak.

Schools need to be told it’s not acceptable.

January 2, 2014

If the school your children go to is failing to capitalise on the educational opportunities of technology and the Internet, they need to be told very clearly that it just isn’t acceptable any more.

They may be managing to get the pupils to a good level of capability as measured in national tests and exams without making much use of technology, but that isn’t enough. If children come out of their schooling without properly understanding how our connected world works and without high proficiency in using all that computers and the Internet offer them educationally and to collaborate with others, they are being disadvantaged. The education provided by schools that are creating 3rd millennium learning experiences for their pupils is hugely better than those that are not. See the videos on the Naace website if you don’t believe me.

And it’s not only a matter of failing to provide the best education they can. School spend public money and they are being wasteful and inefficient if they are not taking advantage of technology in the running of the school. Many schools are wasting tens of thousands of pounds annually on paper that could be replaced with digital information. And teachers are spending more time than they need to on processes that could be streamlined – time that could be spent on more interaction with pupils. And this can be achieved even before the teachers start to improve their pedagogy to get better leaning happening.

I was in a school a few weeks ago where the Assistant Head explained how he has changed his approach t0 marking. The pupils are now doing quite a lot of work online in Google Docs and they can share what they are doing with him. So he now arranges their tasks so that he can comment on first drafts and make suggestions as to what they need to do to improve their work. Then when the work is finally submitted all he does is assign a grade on the basis of how well they have responded to his suggestions. There is hugely more learning happening in this process than the old process of him setting a task and not being able to provide any comments until it is finally submitted, after which the pupils have no chance to act on his comments until the next piece of work, if they remember. This is just one example out of very very many of how teachers in 3rd millennium schools are improving the quality and end results of pupils’ learning.

You will find six questions for schools on my website. Any school that cannot answer a resounding YES to all six should be heavily criticised by parents. Some schools could answer YES to most of these questions back in 2007. That’s seven years ago; seven years for other schools to look at what these leading schools are doing, to see the advantages and to start to make similar changes themselves.

In every other area of life the way we do things now is considerably different to how we did things 7 years ago. We shop and book holidays online, submit our tax returns online, go online for all sorts of information and we collaborate for work and leisure reasons in online networks. Why on earth are we allowing some schools to put their heads in the sand and avoid confronting the change in how their customers – pupils and parents – are now living their lives. How can we allow schools to still prohibit pupils from using the powerful technology they have in their pockets to aid their learning, when lots of schools have shown how this can be achieved safely and sensibly.

I have decided that it is time to be a lot more direct about this. As the government and Ofsted are doing little to acknowledge this reality, and as only a very few local authorities are providing any strong leadership, it is being left to individual schools. If those whose job it is to hold schools to account will not act more forcefully on this issue, the only force left to create the change we need is parents. For the sake of the children this must happen. The gap between the best and the worst schools in this respect is too large and too many children are not being properly prepared for the world they will live in.

In future blogs I will explore in more detail why it is imperative that schools adopt 3rd millennium learning.

Two ways to be outstanding.

July 3, 2013

UK schools are being put under immense pressure to be graded as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. Now it has now been announced that schools that are failing to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils will be stripped of their ‘outstanding’ status.

Narrowing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children undeniably has to be a priority. Research by Chris Cook  shows clearly that the majority of schools fail to do this. But a minority show that it is possible. This failure to get disadvantaged children to achieve what they could has knock-on effects personally and for society throughout their lives.

The question for schools is how to achieve this. The problems that disadvantaged children have and present to schools can be severe. Many, such as their family environment are not under the control of schools, yet schools are being tasked with getting these pupils to achieve despite home problems. Working with schools that are managing this seemingly impossible task, such as some of the schools that have gained the Naace 3rd Millennium Learning Award, and schools taking part in the Naace leadership programme TOTAL, it appears that there are two possible approaches.

The first is for the whole school, including all teachers and support staff, to have an unrelenting focus on raising their pupils’ attainment, with high expectations and pressure to achieve. All the teachers have to be doing their utmost to be outstanding teachers. The pupils have to be made very aware of their current levels of attainment and what they can do to raise these. It can be good to work in an elite establishment with a very strong work ethic but there is inevitably the fear that the pressure cannot be maintained constantly and that should achievement slip, bringing it back can only be achieved with more pressure. And some pupils will have days their out-of-school problems are overwhelming and their self-image, confidence and resilience is just not strong enough to produce the concentration on school work being demanded.

There seems to be another way that is developing. In the 3rd Millennium Learning Award schools we see many examples of pupils being empowered to control their own learning and pupils leading learning. We see curriculum approaches designed to strongly engage pupils, such as ‘mantle of the expert’ and pupils presenting to wide community audiences through radio, TV and videos on school websites. We a lot of collaborative work between pupils, and pupils being able to choose how to do their work is a constant theme in the videos the schools submit. The impression this gives is of a new culture developing amongst the pupils, where the focus is on engagement and enjoyment of learning. We hear the teachers talk of pupils so keen they cannot wait to get to school and become reluctant to stop work at the end of a lesson. We hear the pupils talking explicitly about helping each other to learn. The use of technology is a key component in all this, but the key driver of more energetic learning is quite clearly the culture of learning for enjoyment that the teachers have engendered.

These schools to not abandon rigorous sessions with pupils to develop their literacy and numeracy skills and maths and English scores, but the feeling one gains from watching the videos is that this kind of learning has become an adjunct to, and just a necessary basic achievement, that opens the world of real and exciting projects that are being done for purposes relevant in the childrens’ lives.

If you were a child with huge home problems would you be more likely to respond to the former approach of high teacher expectations and pressure to achieve, or to the peer pressure and collaborative excitement of a pupil culture where learning is fun? Would you respond better to a good behaviour regime set and policed by the school or to a culture of good learning behaviour that involves pupils more strongly? This is obviously not a black and white picture and both are obviously desirable.

The question for schools is one of balance. Can conscious development of pupil engagement and enjoyment in learning reduce the necessity to apply pressure to raise achievement. Can a culture be developed that is sustained by older pupils ‘teaching’ younger pupils what good learning behaviors (and school behaviours) are. I believe that this is what schools that have normalised the use of digital are showing us.

Digital Normalisation in schools

May 7, 2013

Established education systems are very resistant to change. Developments can bloom for a while only to revert to previous practices when the innovators move on. However I am now convinced that the changes in schooling and learning being driven by the advent of ‘digital’ are unstoppable. The only question is how long it will take schools to realise and respond and how many children will have a worse education than they could because some schools are slow to respond.

‘Digital’ includes the ways that technology enhances learning and the impact of the digital environment. The reason the changes are unstoppable is because they stem from forces acting on individuals that are completely external to schools and education systems. At the core of this is that information and communication technologies (ICT) are fundamentally about learning. Organising information, presenting it and engaging in communications with others about information IS the core of teaching and learning. It is not possible for human beings to use ICT without some learning happening.

How much learning depends on how well individual people are taught to use ICT for learning, or how much they learn how to do this themselves. My father in law who was the Head of a primary school used to say that every person is interested in something. If you could find that something they would engage with energy in talking about it. The two main challenges for our schools are how to engage pupils in learning, to raise their energy in learning , and how to take advantage of ‘digital’ in doing this.

I have been conversing with Mal Lee about digital normalisation. He has written a paper “Digital Normalisation: Key Variables” as a result of many conversations with schools that have succeeded in normalising use of digital wherever appropriate, in the things that teachers and pupils do. The schools that I and my colleagues in Naace are working with around the 3rd Millennium Learning Award illustrate clearly the evolutionary stages Mal is finding in schools in other countries. There are threads of development that need to proceed alongside each other, which you will shortly find an analysis of on my website. Some of these are obvious, such as increasing use of digital by teachers and by pupils. Others are less obvious and as educators we should be discussing them much more. They include:

Vision. Schools need to develop their own vision of what learning and education in a networked world should be, and why they are important. Pedagogy and curriculum have to be discussed without any assumption that traditional ways are best. Everything has to be re-assessed in the light of the digital world.

Insular mindset. Traditional teaching and learning are in large measure viewed as insular activities. And this insular approach is deeply embedded, for example in the concept of ‘cheating’ and in the concept of a ‘class’ led by a teacher. The mindset of both pupils and teachers needs to change to a ‘people network’ mindset. Making this change drives fundamental changes in how ‘schooling’ is perceived and the roles of all the individuals involved in and around schools.

Control of ICT equipment. As ICT has been acquired by schools over the last 30 years it has been managed and controlled centrally by ‘experts’ in schools. This has in some cases been used to extend the ‘control’ that school leaders and teachers have traditionally exercised over what and how pupils learn. Control of what ICT equipment teachers and pupil use has to be devolved. Choice of what ICT to use and when to use it has to be given to individual teachers and learners, with the gatekeepers to technology use surrendering their control and changing their role to become enablers of other peoples’ choice of ICT.

Teaching and learning have to change. Discussing this calls into question many of the deep structural ways that schools are organised into year groups, classes and subjects, and the boundaries of time and space that exist between what happens in schools and learning that happens out of class and school. Schools have to start recognising and rewarding informal and personally chosen learning as well as the statutory learning the government pays them to provide.

Change processes. I can’t express it better so I am going to use Mal’s word here for how a school is progressing change by the time mindsets have started to become ‘people network’ thinking instead of insular thinking. “Positioning of the school to readily accommodate change and sustain the desired evolution. Continuing development of a tightly integrated school ecology that embraces the in and out of school contributions and learning. Escalating empowerment of and trust in professionalism of all staff.”

There are some other threads that have to be developed, such as parent and community links, the school’s online presence, use of digital in administration and of course development of the ICT equipment and systems in use.

Mal’s overall conclusion from his many conversations in schools is that there is a surprising commonality across the world between schools that have normalised use of digital. Such schools may have much more in common with schools elsewhere in the world than they do with neighbouring schools that are way behind them in evolving schooling and learning appropriate to a digital world. With their whole school communities able to use their choice of connected digital technology, for more effective, faster and cheaper ways of working, re-gaining traditional control and approaches would be unpopular, difficult and expensive. I don’t think there is any way back for schools that have properly normalised digital. For which I am very glad; this change has been too long coming. The challenge now is to see how fast we can get other schools to move through the evolutionary changes.

What progress in 29 years?

February 4, 2013

Having just attended my 29th BETT Show in London (every one since the start of the Show!)  I’m pondering what we have achieved in nearly 30 years trying to get schools and teachers in the UK to use educational technology. Throughout my 30 years working with schools and teachers there have been those that ‘get it’ and those that don’t. It’s very clear from the BETT Show this year that technology in education is now happening globally – the Show was full of companies from all over the world. Yet I keep coming across schools where pupils’ access to technology is very poor and where teachers cannot properly factor it into their pedagogy.

Why are some schools and teachers so resistant to what others see as a ‘no-brainer’. We had lots of schools coming to the Naace stand to receive their ICT Mark and 3rd Millennium Learning Awards. They know clearly why technology is important to get significantly better learning, and they can explain it to other schools and teachers very clearly, but the message is obviously not being received by some.

This may sound a rather strange thing to say, but I am coming to the conclusion that quite a lot of schools and teachers don’t understand learning. They see school primarily as a place where teachers teach rather than as where pupils learn. At the BETT Show we have always had lots of companies showing lovely software for learning. We also have lots of companies selling content and systems primarily designed to support teaching. If you are designing content for learning is the priority to design it to help teachers present it in the way they conceptualise the topic or would it be better to design it to enable pupils to explore it in various ways in order to develop their understanding? I am not in any way suggesting that we don’t need teachers; I am suggesting that if teachers thought first and foremost about how children can learn without teachers, they would see their role differently and could use their time and skills in different ways, to have much more impact, aiding and improving the ways children learn.

There is a battle in schools that is raging now and will rage for the next three years – tablets and phones. I talked to a technical expert on a stand where they were showing their system for controlling Android devices in schools. That is for the school and teachers to control pupils’ Android devices. He had spoken to many school network managers who were despairing that their school had bought iPads that they couldn’t manage and control in the ways that they have traditionally controlled the computers on the school network. Heaven forbid! – the pupils were able to download the apps they wanted to instead of the apps the school wanted to push them towards and to teach with. And he was annoyed that they can’t technically bring the Apple iOS devices into their controlling world.

If you have a local council department whose job is to make road signs, road signs will appear all over the place for little reason and every year the department will bid for similar amounts of money so their staff can make yet more road signs. There is a brilliant example in Huntingdon where there is a huge sign after you come out of the supermarket and turn right at the roundabout. It says “Is your indicator still on?”. Haven’t they heard that indicators have been self-cancelling these last 20 years? If you have groups of young men who have been trained for war and employed to fight and who know of no other life, they will fight and will create wars in order to fight. If wars are stopped in one place they will go somewhere else and create a war. It happened in Italy in the middle ages with the wars fomented between the city states by English mercenaries and it is happening now wherever there is a lack of good government and countries can be de-stabilised.

If you employ teachers whose job is to teach in traditional ways, they will carry on doing it and will seek to subvert any system or software that promotes learning in ways that don’t require their traditional lecture, direct and control mode of teaching. There are only two ways that this can be changed; by those who give teachers their jobs re-defining those jobs, or by children rejecting controls on their learning that stop them learning in more effective ways. We are seeing the first, good leaders working with their teachers to re-define how learning happens, in the schools gaining the 3rd Millennium Learning Award. We are seeing the second in those schools still trying to block and control access to the Internet and denying pupils use of their own devices in school.

It’s taken over 30 years but I think the forces of technology for learning are now winning the war against those who want technology for teaching, controlled and limited by schools and teachers fearful that pupils cannot lead learning for themselves and others. But will those school leaders who don’t yet ‘get it’ see the error of their ways and change sides, or will they fight to the death, continuing to pressure their teachers to pressure their pupils instead of engaging their thirst for learning?

The gap is widening between the two kinds of schools.

December 4, 2012

That there are two kinds of school has been very noticeable in recent briefings and courses that we have run for teachers and school senior leaders. Those that understand the impact of ICT and are using it pretty well are looking to take the next step, to get even more impact. While those that are struggling with ICT are making very little progress.

In recent weeks I have heard of the following direct from teachers:
– a school that has lots of visualisers, but they are all sitting in cupboards because the school has failed to convince the teachers of their value.
– a school where a new ICT coordinator has insisted all the cupboards were unpacked, resulting in a huge pile of un-used kit including a laptop still in it’s box, that no-one knew was there.
– a school that accepted loads of desktop cast-offs when the local secondary went BSF, that just clogged up the school and were in the main completely unusable with wrong software or ancient OSs.
– a school where the ICT Coordinator does not even have a laptop of camera. ‘No money’ is the reason given, as all available money has just been spent on an ICT suite to respond to the dire situation with ICT flagged in the Ofsted report that put them into special measures.
– an infant school where the person responsible for leading on ICT is a teaching assistant. This no doubt indicates the priority the Head gives to ICT which is likely to be the main reason why the junior school they feed is having to teach ICT skills that should have been taught in EYFS and KS1.
– any number of schools that have rushed out and bought sets of iPads with very little vision as to how to use them.

I’m struggling to understand why some Heads seem to be able to grasp that ICT has huge impact on learning, while others don’t. The message obviously isn’t getting through to some Heads. Some Heads see ICT how ICT supports their central priorities while others don’t.  I strongly suspect that this is because the ICT community – those trainers and consultants who know most about ICT in education – talk about the technology and nothing like enough about learning.

We need to frame the conversation around the evidence of what works best to develop young peoples’ learning.But here also some Heads just carry on with approaches they feel are best and ignore evidence, as was shown by the recent Ofsted report into how the pupil premium money is being spent.

It’s probably time for me to try to turn all the stories and experience into a coherent narrative and to link them to the brilliant practice we are seeing in schools gaining the Naace 3rd Millennium Learning Award (for which new submissions from schools are now coming in). We’ve got to do something to engage those schools that are complacently carrying on as though nothing has changed in the world our children live in.


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