Effective use of technology in the classroom – a whole school approach

This post is influenced by a Webinar I delivered for Optimus-Education  ‘Effective use of technology in the classroom – what works for pupil learning?‘ (21 October 2015).

By Karolina Grabowska.STAFFAGE
Credit: Karolina Grabowska

I was recently asked to deliver a webinar responding the findings by OEDC on the lack of impact of edTech on learning.  The purpose of the webinar was to show an example of how digital technologies can have had a measurable impact on both teaching as well as learning –  at a whole school level.

… [we need to] find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning  to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world. – Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, 2015.

Before we can begin to solve that challenge, we must first understand the students we teach and what makes a good, if not excellent learning environment.

What is the perfect learning experience for pupils?

The answer is simple: it’s in the Modern Foreign Languages classroom. But not quite the one you may envisage. This one takes place in in France, where students can enjoy the authentic cuisine, feel the checkered table cloth under their hands, listen to local music, smell newly baked French baguettes. I think you get the picture. Total Immersive learning. 

open school door300x240What is students’ experience of learning today? The reality varies, no doubt, yet the majority of students will go from classroom to classroom, sitting, listening – lesson to lesson. How is this learning continued outside of school, at home? They carry on learning but not necessarily linked to our subject but more to do with their friends, clubs, artists, idols, sporting stars etc; they interact and learn via INSTAGRAM, Twitter, online games and so on. They return to school and many feel that their expectations of how to learn are not necessarily met.

So, who are the students we teach?

I mean, what are they about? Increasingly teachers are working with students who have, or are in the process of changing. These students have by the time they enter secondary school:

Screenshot 2015-10-29 10.42.49


1. Redefined communication:

Social Media and other digital technologies enable them to access information and interact with each other via SMS, WhatsApp, IM:ing, Facebook, Blogging, Vlogging, Twitter, Vine, Tumblr, Insta. This means they are used to getting instant feedback when sharing photos, messages, stories and other information.

2. Highly social – redefined the concept of ‘friends’

These students engage with online games where 50+ play at the same time; IM:ing each other with people they know and with people they have never met. They have hundreds of friends. These may not be ‘best friends’, as you or I may define them, but nonetheless they share thoughts, concerns, trust their advice and confide in them. Through these experiences they explore identities and CONNECT. The cyber world is a place for them to experiment with their identities and connect, connect, connect.

3. Representing themselves

They blog about their feelings, explore thoughts an opinions about the world around them. They share updates about thoughts on Twitter, Insta, WhatsApp; this is an environment where these youngsters augment friendships and their representations of themselves by posting photos, customising profiles – often daily – declare/update statuses, music/movie preferences and so on.

4. They can collaborate online anytime they like

Education is the last institution to adapt to their different world.

Why are digital technologies so attractive to young people?

Social interaction

Technologies provide a help forum for when they are outside school to swap notes, get ideas for homework, ask questions from their mates and a place or tool to share experiences.

User Generated Content

What do students spend more time on: thinking about what to add to their website in terms of text; what new phrases they can use in their presentation; or the layout, colours, themes, images, videos, titles, or which fonts they will use to make their creations amazing?Safe to say, young people take design very seriously and as part of the creative process we must allow them time to do so. When, is a matter for the teacher to decide… So, content creation is significant, where the outcomes are more important than the process. Facebook and Vine, Insta or Tumblr are all about content creation and sharing content, designing, make videos (Youtube), share photos (Flickr) create t-shirts, stickers. What does this way of learning lead to?

Expectations about immersive experiences…

So, we have students who have evolved into 21th century learners with rough digital skills and often they have accomplished this without much input from schools. There is a place – AN OPPORTUNITY – to educate them about using the tools they are already playing with, accessing, experimenting with nearly every day. And while we’re at it, why not help bring our colleagues into the same century for using digital technology? Bring your colleagues onto the prototyping playground.

Screenshot 2015-10-29 11.18.07

We decided to create digital toolkit with a specific, carefully selected number of tools which we could introduce to both students and staff – and ensure they became embedded, and used by all. We aimed to provide a suit of digital technologies that would to ensure students were equipped with technologies that would prepare them for rapidly changing labour market. Skills developed would match current research on ‘Digital Literacies’ and *futureproof* what students need know/be prepared for. We also wanted to equip staff with knowledge and skills which would give them opportunity to improve productivity e.g. lesson planning, resourcing, marking and feedback, monitoring, creativity,  to name a few.

Digital technologies

We decided to use Google apps for education. The main reasons why we chose to use this suite of tools was because it was free, Microsoft proved not only complicated but also expensive ( at the time of deciding),  we had significant expertise in this field, and the features and benefits matched the aims for our school:

  • Drive:   allow us to move away from an old-fashioned system of sharing information.  Drive would enable us to have a repository for files, documents, presentations.  it would also allow us to share and collaborate online, anytime.
  • Mail:  streamline communication.
  • Calendar:  enable staff and  students to improve their organisation.
  • Youtube:  support our flipped learning and user generated content approach.
  • Classroom:  feedback, assessment for learning, blogging and updates.

NB. we also had a core group of staff there wanted to explore further digital technologies as we had also decided to promote the use of iPads by teachers in the school ( all teachers have iPads in our school).

How did we do it?

It was a gradual process which involved careful planning and buy-in from SLT. We also made sure that the kit and systems worked before launch.

Approach to whole school learning

We also decided to allow for settling time. This coupled with sharing all material via Drive left everyone with no other choice but to start using it. It worked.

What was the impact?

Screenshot 2015-10-29 11.36.50

There were initial challenges to get staff moving from a traditional  school network to using an online space.  We are still working on getting teachers and staff to move away from the teacher planner to using calendar. However, this is not a priority and many staff would want to continue using a paper-based method. The organisation for both staff and students have improved significantly with all our exam groups accessing information and material on Google Drive, email and many teachers make excellent use of Google Classroom.  All schemes of learning and resourcing are now stored in the cloud and the sharing of the latter happens seamlessly.  We still have a way to go, for example, we would like all students to use calendar so that intervention and support can be organised quickly without any to-ing and fro-ing of emails to check a suitable time. Integrating iPads into whole school teaching is still proving to be a challenge, but we are getting there.

So to revisit Andreas Schleicher’s quote at the start of this article… I think we have managed to get to a good place where learners can continue to grow and where staff can share, collaborate and develop as professionals.

References and Attributions

All images from PEXEL.com

Rosen (2010) Rewired

JISC Developing Digital Literacies

Maximise Retention of Students Long-term Memory Part 1

Always Seek Knowledge

There is an abundance of research, for example here, here and here, that point to the idea that reading comprehension and academic achievement can be vastly improved, and socio-economic gaps closed, by consistently increasing the amount of academic knowledge students learn starting from primary school. These theorists also suggest that knowledge builds on knowledge, cumulatively. So the more you read and learn about the world, the more you will be able to grasp. A good summary about the idea of core knowledge and the link to literacy comes from ED Hirsch, who states that:

Nearly all of our most cherished ideals for education – from reading comprehension and problem solving to critical thinking and creativity – rest on a foundation of knowledge.

As a parenthesis, in case you’re interested in a second perspective, see this critique of Hirsch. Some of his ideas can be interpreted as a tad elitist e.g. his books ‘What your child needs to know…’ series can testify to that notion. However, I still agree with his basic premise above.

A Knowledge Curriculum

I am interested in what we can do with a research guided approach to ‘knowledge’ in the classroom, beyond testing. Many may be familiar with Daniel T Willingham’s thinking around knowledge and intelligence. Willingham states:

..knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills: It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes—the very ones that teachers target—operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.

apple Let’s look at a concrete example of how this would work in practice. A weak reader with some background knowledge of the read topic will score higher than a stronger reader with little or no background knowledge of the topic. Why? Because, as Willingham has found, factual knowledge matter improves literacy and critical thinking skills. So with your own background knowledge, consider the word ‘Apple’. What comes to mind, a piece of fruit, Apple Watch or perhaps apple pie? But, your background knowledge goes deeper than that, of course. Let’s take a look at how language is further made complex by the absence or presence of background knowledge by examining the example below:

The hunter said “There’s a grouse across that field maybe 100 yards away.” His friend said, “well, shoot.” The sentence does not mean “fire your gun.”
Background knowledge = shotguns aren’t accurate at 100 yards. A grouse that has flown from cover is gone. “Well, shoot” means “too bad we missed it”. – D.T. Willingham

This is why “in-jokes” are only funny to those with the background knowledge to understand the underlying meanings.

So if we believe that factual knowledge is the medium of understanding, then what’s the problem? The problem for students lie in retaining this knowledge. Unfortunately for us humans, our working memory – the one we use remember and use relevant information while in the middle of an activity e.g. following instruction or remembering a phone number – is very limited. This is an area I have devoted some time to explore, particularly in terms of testing and spacing, but I’ll share my experience on that at a later date. For now, I’d like to share a pedagogical framework I have developed which looks to maximise retention of long-term memory for students; a ‘wrapper’ for a consistent approach to the way we teach – whilst encouraging teacher autonomy and teacher creativity. I have accessed recent research on core knowledge and instruction, all of the sources are listed at the end of this post.

There are five subjects in my faculty: History, Geography, Sociology, Law and Government and Politics. As a result, there’s a real opportunity to align our curricula according to the framework below. Here’s how it works.

retention framework memory2Conflict Planning

Our lessons are framed around a ‘hinge’ or key question which students investigate throughout the lesson. These questions provide a sense of meaning to the learned content and, if planned with conflict in mind, may make our lessons more memorable. Hinge questions work for any subject and are ideal for challenging students to think throughout the lesson. The ‘why, why, why, why?’ helps to provide tension in the learned content. However, in order for students to retain the new knowledge in their long-term memory, further tension is needed. If we treat each lesson like a good story with its predictable structure (see previous post on the power of stories in lessons), which focuses on the 4Cs of causality, conflict, character and complications, then this will help to refocus students’ attention on the core meaning of the lesson and therefore more likely for new knowledge to be added to their long-term memory.

Good modelling would ensure that the central meaning of the lesson is maintained by using concrete but subject relevant information.

Activating Prior Knowledge

This is of course a key component in any good lesson plan so that the teacher knows where to pitch the learning. However, activating is more than checking if they remember. When I use the phrase ‘to activate prior knowledge’, I am referring to a moment in the lesson when students use techniques to retrieve knowledge. This means that teachers need to train students ways to remember facts. In order to teach them memory retrieval skills I recommend you read any of the sources from this list:

One simple way to encourage students to practise memory retrieval is to engage them in gamification via tools such as Memrise or Quizlet. The latter is particularly good as tests are quick to set up and students really enjoy taking them due to their competitive structure. The real strength of these types of tools is the opportunity for self-testing, again and again.

Quizlet is a good tool to allow student self-testing.

We are also exploring using Knowledge Vaults with students, particularly with exam groups. This is a document which provides an overview of required knowledge we want students to remember. The Knowledge Vaults differ depending on the subject and Unit but would for example include terminology, quotes (from historians, sociologists or research), key studies and a timelines. Our Knowledge Vaults accompany the testing framework well, as you can imagine, and is an active component in the way we assess mastery.

Cognitive Support through Modelling

To make sure we offload as much of the cognitive load as possible, good teachers provide good quality modelling of tasks or activities e.g. working through examples on the board with the support from students. Some use examples that are relevant to students’ lives and to make the subject matter more enjoyable e.g. when teaching about the October revolution the teacher gets students to create an animation using stop-motion, which the teacher demonstrates how to do. Daniel T. Willingham reasons that “…your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about“. According to this argument, student would therefore remember how cool it was to create a stop-motion animation rather than, say, the causes of the revolution. Good modelling would ensure that the central meaning of the lesson is maintained by using concrete but subject relevant information.

Effective scaffolding teases out understanding rather than limiting it; creates opportunity rather than slowing thinking down; challenges students to struggle through their thinking.

Chunking and Supervised Practice

This is an essential part of the lesson. Our working memory is too limited to be able to deal with the vast amount of facts that teachers want students to learn. By splitting the new knowledge into manageable chunks, students are capable of working through each chunk by step without memory overload. After each new part has been looked at, students should practise with guidance from the teacher or peers. This is a crucial part of the lesson so that the new knowledge is not forgotten, or that misconceptions are not remembered. Techniques for supervised practice could include using graphic organisers to do various activities like 100 word summaries, venn diagrams, or by asking pairs to reason through a problem, with another pairs listening in, to gauge how far they have understood.

Supervised practice is key and links directly to the next step:

Deep Questioning, Deep Answers

In ‘Teach like a Champion (chapter 1)‘,  a teacher favourite across the globe nowadays, Doug Lemov shows how exceptional questioning can encourage the most stubborn student (or shy) to think hard; think deep. I think this strategy can be further improved by challenging students to support each other to build a deep answer. This is where the whole class actively listens and then provides examples of how to improve the verbal answer e.g. using subject specific terminology, connectives, examples and so on. Whilst this is a worthwhile cognitive activity in its own right, it also allows teachers to check understanding across the class, sort misconceptions and drive learning forward by showing students how to connect their knowledge together – both factual and skill(s).

Scaffold – allow thinking

We had an educational advisor come into our school to review teaching and learning (we are a Free School). One thing she picked up on was how different teachers provide support. The advisor commented that good scaffolding occurred throughout most of the school but there were instances when ‘students [had] no chance to think for themselves’. I’ve worked in several schools over the years and this way of scaffolding is not isolated to only some of our teachers. Because we want to makes sure all students progress, we differentiate and provide challenge where we require. Effective scaffolding teases out understanding rather than limiting it; creates opportunity rather than slowing thinking down; challenges students to struggle through their thinking.

Independent Monitored Practice

At this point in the lesson students know what they are doing and will spend time on their own focusing on completing a set task. Unlike supervised practice, independent practice involves more time for students to think and work without the support from peers. It does not really mean allowing students to ‘get on with it’ for three lessons without supervision. Regular reviews will take place to check understanding. Supervision of independent practice often takes shape as questioning and quick pitstop checks.

Retrieving Memories

By reviewing what students have learned during regular intervals e.g. weekly and monthly, we help them to strengthen their memories further. In fact, retrieval practice goes even further and:

  • Improves students’ complex thinking and application skills
  • Improves students’ organization of knowledge
  • Improves students’ transfer of knowledge to new concepts

So, retrieval doesn’t only help to improve long-term memory, it also increases our understanding. As Barak Rosenshine explains:

Students need extensive and broad reading, and extensive practice in order to develop well-connected networks of ideas (schemas) in their long-term memory. When one’s knowledge on a particular topic is large and well connected, it is easier to learn new information and prior knowledge is more readily available for use. he more one rehearses and reviews information, the stronger these interconnections become. It is also easier to solve new problems when one has a rich, well-connected body of knowledge and strong ties among the connections. One of the goals of education is to help students develop extensive and available background knowledge.

There are numerous ways of encouraging retrieval practice some of which have been mention above in ‘Activating Prior Knowledge’. This way of connecting knowledge, exponentially growing one’s understanding, is particularly effective if built into the curriculum for example via tests or an exam strategy that spaces learning across time with several opportunities to practice.

Next post I will explore how we will use the framework for maximum impact.

References and Further Reading

What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research by Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major, Durham University and the Sutton trust, October 2014

Ask the Cognitive Scientist: What Will Improve a Student’s Memory? in AMERICAN EDUCATOR | WINTER 2008-2009 by Daniel T. Willingham

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T Willingham

How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking. By Daniel T Willingham, American Educator, Spring 2006

You Can Always Look it Up’… Or Can You? by E.D. Hirsch., American Educator (Spring 2009)

Assessing Mastery: Going SOLO

bruce lee brandon leee 1966
Bruce and Brandon Lee 1966

I remember watching ‘The Way of the Dragon‘, starring Bruce Lee, when I was a teenager. I was fascinated by his natural ability, the perfection of moves and his sophisticated technique. It took me many years to really understand that anyone could become very good, if not exceptional, at any given skill. The essence of this post is not to share my own thinking around the power of purposeful practice or mastery as a concept, though I might look at those later, but to share my own broader view of assessing how one gets closer to mastery. Continue reading Assessing Mastery: Going SOLO

How Stories in the Classroom Can Lead to Meaningful Learning

Extract from The Exam Class Toolkit: How to Create Engaging Lesson That Ensure Progression and Results (Continuum). This section is a snapshot on using stories in the classroom.

The following story was emailed to us recently. At first it may seem just like a
funny story, but if you read between the lines, it raises several interesting
questions. Can you spot them?

An old Maori man lived alone at his family home out in Ruatoria.
He wanted to dig his kumara garden, but it was very hard work.
His only son, Hone, who used to help him, was in Paremoremo prison.
The man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.

Kia ora e Hone,
I am feeling pretty bad because it looks like I won’t be able to
plant my kumara garden this year.
I’m just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot.
If you were here, all my troubles would be over.
I know you would dig the plot for me.
Aroha nui

A few days later he received a letter from his son.

E Pa,
For God’s sake! Don’t dig up that garden, that’s where I buried the BODIES.

At 4am the next morning, Gisborne C.I.B and the local police showed up with a search warrant and dug up the entire area without finding any
bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the man received another letter from his son.

E Pa,
Go ahead and plant the Kumara.
That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.

Continue reading How Stories in the Classroom Can Lead to Meaningful Learning

5 Steps to Creative Ideas

Beginning tomorrow morning every single one of us is going to sell Ideas! …What we are not clear about is just how to get ideas. So I said maybe you could tell us. – James Web Young (2003)

So, how do I get ideas?

In James Webb Young’s brilliant book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, he argues that coming up with an idea is actually a rather straight-forward process. In fact, the reason why ideas differ so enormously is because it is simply a new combination of old elements and the way we view relationships between them. So, in Young’s view, some will see each piece of fact as a separate bit of knowledge whilst others will see a link in a chain of knowledge with relationships and similarities. For the latter, facts are more like an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts. Therefore, for someone who is quick at spotting patterns and relationships several ideas will be produced. When relationships are seen they in turn lead to the extraction of a more general principle which, when understood, suggests the way to a new combination – the new idea. This process can of course be cultivated as Young states:

The production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool

5 Steps to Creative Ideas (influences from Young)

Step 1. Gather Material

As with all professions without understanding the key facts you have nothing. If you sit and wait for a revolutionary idea to strike you, think again! Johannes has worked as mentor and Associate Tutor for many years and have helped new teachers who sometimes would start planning their lessons without having done any research into the topic. His advice was always to ensure that subject knowledge was sound before planning begins. Teaching a lesson without understanding the subject content is impossible. Lack of understanding leads to poor teaching (see Musings on Creativity in Teaching Part 1: Knowing Your Knowledge). That said, outstanding teachers not only have specific knowledge of their topic but also a general understanding of their subject which enable them to understand the ‘bigger picture’. We also suggest a third element, namely to have a wider perspective in other subject areas. Outstanding teachers gather anecdotes, information and stories from a range of areas for example architecture, music, business, nature and film etc.  The latter is essential in the creation of ideas. It is the new combination of specific knowledge about a topic coupled with a general understanding and wider perspective about the subject and other areas that will make ideas occur. The task of gathering material is a life-long one , be it an interesting quote, enigmatic photo or recent news story, find ways of cataloguing/storing these snippets of data.

Step 2. Oblique Strategies

This part is less concrete  as it involves thinking more abstractly about the facts you have, looking at each one individually, bringing two facts together to see if they fit, as well as beginning to synthesize and spot relationships. For this process to work you should try not to think too directly at each element but do what Young refers to as ‘listening’ for their meaning without ‘looking’ for it (Young 2003, p30). What tends to happen here is that you will get initial, sometimes rather odd, ideas but don’t disregard these as they will help to shape your future ideas. Whilst engaged in this process you’ll also feel like you’ve ran into a wall, but don’t give up just yet. It’s the same feeling you have when you’re engaging in a long brainstorming-session with a team and it feels like you’re getting nowhere – but you are! It is crucial to continue just a little bit longer before stopping, not giving up, but stopping as you have exhausted you mind for the time being. Cue: Step 3.

Step 3. No Efforts – Stop Thinking

This is the time for your unconscious mind to do some work. Like you say to your students, remember not too cram everything the night before… Well, the reason you say that is also because the mind needs to rest to synthesize the information properly – to take it all in. However, sleeping will not be the only solution to your ideas. The best way of letting your mind rest whilst topping up the creative juices is to undertake another creative, yet relaxing, activity for example go for a nice run or long walk, watch a decent film, listen to music and so on. You are not only giving your mind time to reflect but also providing additional material which has nothing to do with the topic at hand but will serve to keep your mind working without you having to think about it.

Step 4. It Just Came to Me

Just like that, the idea popped into your head when you least expected it, in the middle of the night, early in the morning or sometimes annoyingly when you’re driving or in a situation where frantically writing down things may not be regarded as something positive. So, when you stop pushing for ideas and gone through a period of rest, they’ll show up.

Step 5. The Bleak Reality

When you take out your new idea to the harsh reality you might realise that it’s not as wonderful as you once thought. This is the hardest part; moulding your idea into the structures and conditions so it can work. It is during this period when most people give up and put their idea in the half-baked drawer together with hundreds of its counterparts. Solution: don’t protect your new idea, throw it to the Devil Advocates! You will then see that your idea carry self-generating qualities as it stimulate those who examine it and consequently will help develop into the final masterpiece.

If you find the topic about ideas interesting you might want to get your hands on a copy of these books, they have stimulated us to write some of the posts on Eat.Sleep.Teach.

Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley

Making Ideas Happen – Scott Belsky

The Back of the Napkin – Dan Roam

The Art Of Innovation – Tom Kelley

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