On 3 April 2019, the Department for Education published a document called ‘Realising the potential of technology in education’. Now I don’t want to get hung up on the name of the document, but having read it, I ought to draw your attention to something fairly basic here. The word ‘realise’, according to most dictionaries, can be used to mean ‘become fully aware of something’ or ‘cause something to happen’. This DfE strategy document doesn’t ‘realise’ anything.
The headlines of the report are very promising – and having seen with my own eyes through teaching and leadership what a difference technology can make, I was very excited by what I read; “Technology can help to tackle some of the main challenges faced by the education sector”, particularly, it promised “supporting excellent teaching and improving accessibility and inclusion”. Yes Yes and more Yes I cheered as I read it! A strategy that uses what technology offers to bring children’s learning alive – to break down those barriers of disadvantage, inequality, and limitation. Yes a thousand times – this is right up my street.
But, oh my goodness. This strategy seems to have missed the point.
What should the point be I hear you ask?
Let me take you on a journey…
Imagine you’re in a Year 6 class, it’s maths, and you’re learning about multiplying decimals. You have a room full of children who are all at differing stages of mastering this tricky topic. Some struggle with the very idea of multiplication itself. Some could wade through a word problem, pick out the key points and then multiply a complex number sentence by decimal numbers, without so much as a blink. One teacher. Thirty children. How does that work then?
So here’s what Blackfield Primary School, part of the brilliant Inspire Learning Partnership do:
1) Teachers record 2-3 minute demonstrations of exactly, step-by-step how to do each of the mathematical skills. Some are a video recording of the teacher infront of the board demonstrating, some are voice-overs whilst showing an example with a pencil in an exercise book. Have a look at some examples.
2) Each of these videos has a QR code (bit like a bar code – no fancy equipment or training needed) assigned to it.
3) Children get a slip of paper based on where their specific needs are (identified by assessment from the previous task/lesson) – the slip has a task on it, and a QR code linked to that ‘How to’ video. The child sticks the slip in their book (see Photo A).
4) Here’s the exciting bit – they use a Chromebook/Tablet to scan that QR code, and watch that video – at their own speed. They pause, re-watch, re-hear, re-wind, start again, fast forward, until they really feel they understand it. Every child in the class is going at their own speed.
5) Once the child feels they understand the skill, they undertake the questions set on their slip. Once they finish their slip, they go to the class Working Wall (more about that another day!), and look at the ‘answer’ sheet on the wall (see Photo B below) to see if they’ve got their answers right. If yes – they move across to the next task, taking a slip from the next zippy. If no – they re-watch the film, try again.
6) So where’s the teacher in all of this? They’re being a teacher – rather than repeating the same demonstration over and over to different children who have at different points each got stuck on the same skill, they are instead freed up to really zone in on unpicking complex misconceptions, unearthing vital gaps in the child’s learning, and nurturing children whose individual needs mean that they need challenging, extending, or careful supporting. It gives capacity to the teacher to be able to teach, rather than just manage tasks.
7) And, for the children – as one child I observed summarised “It’s way better for my learning. Because you can’t rewind a teacher when they explain it to you can you?”
Oh – before you ask, this happens in all year groups not just Year 6. I’ve seen it in action from Early Years upwards in more than one school too. And yes in plenty of subjects across the curriculum – not just maths.
Now imagine this. Morph that class of Year 6 into a diverse class where not only do you have extreme differentiation to tackle, but where the majority of the children have English as a second language. A simple voice-over turns each of these videos into a version in another language. Now Imagine in that classroom some children might have just arrived at the school from another country where they may or may not have accessed formal education. They may have huge gaps in their learning, or they may be streets ahead. This simple resource empowers that child to access those gaps, fill and strengthen them, or to stretch them into new learning spaces which were previously not accessible or even visible to them. Imagine some or even most of those children have specific learning dispositions or needs which could be overcome through these same resources; headphones for those easily distracted and overwhelmed, scaffolded conversations based on the videos for those who benefit from nurtured collaboration. Not uncommon issues in our schools. What a great solution to be able to offer this kind of personally-paced learning to all children. And, the beauty of all of this is that if you have a laptop with a webcam and a built in microphone (which most do), an internet connection and a printer, you don’t need to buy anything or do any training.
And, of course, there are many unintended consequences to this kind of provision:
- Parents can access at home – so you’re teaching the whole family not just the child;
- Children can watch ‘how to’ before, during and after the class – say yes to Flipped Learning, homework support, revision, and enthusiastic independent learners;
- Teachers, Teaching Assistants and 1:1 support (EAL, SEND etc), can access these short videos before they work with your children; revising tricky concepts themselves, or ensuring they use consistent language, format and representation.
What’s not to love about this?
Having sung the praises about this, and many, many other such innovative, yet simple ideas to teachers and leaders, I know there will be those cynics who say, “ah yes but you need all that kit first”. To whom I reply – how many devices could you access ‘if you wanted to’? Even half a dozen, for one lesson – given to children who would most benefit from stretch or support. Those cynics then say “ah yes but that’s a huge time investment making those videos”. To whom I reply – so start with one or two where you know children need that input repeated and then re-use them. Or, use what other schools such as Blackfield have so kindly made available, freely, online. (In an ideal world you would make your own so that children have a familiar face and voice, but, let’s start somewhere manageable!).
So back to that EdTech strategy.
It’s totally missed the point on how technology can actually make a difference to children’s learning.
Let’s take their headline about reducing teacher workload and turn it on its head. How can we increase teacher capacity ‘TO TEACH’ – both recognising and utilising the brilliant people in our classrooms?
Well examples such as the one above do exactly that; they use technology to increase teacher capacity to do what’s important – helping children’s learning. This respects the teachers as professionals, and it respects the children as learners.
And to go back to the EdTech report title – what schools like Blackfield are really doing is genuinely ‘realising the potential of technology in education’.
All we need now is an effective way for these kinds of ideas to be shared between schools - a network of people who will encourage teachers to share their brilliant ideas (and how they went about doing them). A network of advocates both for their own practice and encouraging others.
So dear reader, what's YOUR role in doing this - now, and in the future?
Go on - try making a video for your class:
- To capture demonstrations – use www.screencast.com
- To make QR codes – try www.qr-code-generator.com
- To host your videos – pop onto www.youtube.com and set up a channel to house them
Ready to be inspired? Visit www.blackfield.hants.sch.uk then go to Children > Home Learning and pick a year group / subject to see some videos (I haven't linked directly to the page as you'll get more of a sense of the context by going this way!).