30 Top Apps I Really Can Live Without

Sorry, couldn’t resist!

I actually appreciate the constant tweets that declare the opposite of my title but I must admit I now tend to ignore a lot of them. That isn’t because I feel I have mastered every app I will ever need on the devices, or indeed know the full range of possibilities. The reason is simple, as a teacher I use tools and ideas as need arises. The need might be a new and extra way of practising Times Tables, or it may be a way of children being able to store information they have gathered….but those decisions are rooted in the needs of the learner and how the curriculum that they are expected to engage with.

What has become VERY clear across the vast range of settings and age ranges that I have had the privilege to support and work in over the past few years is that there are several killer ways of working that are fundamental to effective learning with the devices. Raising attainment, motivating learners and developing personalised ways of working – these are all a result of a few simple aspects of using the devices….a huge range of apps is irrelevant. I spent some time with leading teachers from both Riverdale and Normanby Primary schools last week where we discussed effective classroom practice. Apps took a bit of a back seat for much of the discussion, ways of working were far more important. I made the comment at one point that I would still push for the devices in my classroom if they only had wireless, the mail app and the ability to take notes. Again, the reason is simple, at a very basic level these few elements mean that children can collaborate, access information and repurpose it. Fit that in with Vygotsky and Bruner and how humans actually learn, and you are on to a winner. Of course, before you start quoting research at me, it is not QUITE as simple as that, but it isn’t far off. Think about the last time you learned something and think how well it would have happened without collaboration or access to information or the ability to manipulate that idea into your own way of thinking. Did you use all three? Two of the three? Yes I know collaboration and access to information could equally apply to someone like a teacher telling you something but that maybe highlights how intertwined these ideas are.

The devices support these three elements massively. Let us compare a “traditional” lesson with a device enabled lesson.

In the traditional lesson the teacher stands at the front and tells the children what they will learn about and then most likely will demonstrate some examples on a board. They did this because it is an efficient way to quickly set the learning focus for all of the children and demonstrate the skills or describe the knowledge that the children will learn. I have no problem with this as a way of working. That is a very unfashionable thing to say nowadays but I stand by it. Walk into a Y3 class, give them some self study materials about how to do decomposition, then support small groups as needs arise and see how effectively that class learns how to do it compared to the class next door where the teacher supports the children through demonstration followed by small groups support where appropriate. Anyway, I’ll plough on as you have no doubt stopped reading now or are preparing your vitriolic responses to this paragraph and want more ammo…

So the learners in the traditional classroom have now got some idea of what the teacher wants them to learn and then will be asked to do some activities that allow them to practice what they have learned, or demonstrate new knowledge (or a combination – but mainly for assessment purposes). The work is done maybe on whiteboards or jotters as playing with ideas or directly into an exercise book. The teacher and other adults will probably work with a focus group to support this activity. The work will be handed in but some maybe be used for a plenary (via a visualiser, or child demonstrating an example) or the teacher may recap the main points with contributions by the children. The books will be marked at some point to lead on to the following lesson. That a reasonably typical description?

Let’s put a mobile device into the hands of each child in the room and replay the lesson. The teacher starts the lesson, possibly from the front again (easy tiger…put it in the critical comments) to set the agenda for the lesson. Just a note, in this or the traditional lesson this doesn’t have to be “Our learning objectives today are…” I simply mean the teacher explains what the lesson will be focussing on, either from an outcome point of view or an activity introduction. Either way, the children are all made aware of what they will be doing. Now this is where the devices help. At any point children can take notes on a device that will follow them around…so is accessible when they might need it. That is helpful, I would take notes if I was sat there knowing I was expected to do something about what the teacher said once they stopped talking. If the teacher has a resource to show the children, such as a text or a film clip they have the option to show it via the front screen but far more powerfully they can simply email it to the children (or drop it in Dropbox or the Skydrive or whatever you use – oops two apps to consider, but Mail will work just as well). I would argue that in any classroom a text should always be introduced “at the desk” rather than expecting a mixed ability group of readers to access it from several feet away. Some children need to follow with their fingers! They do! I never expect children to read a text for the first time on a whiteboard – it has too many variable barriers to all children reading it at the pace and level of understanding that the teacher wants and they need.

The text is not only easier to access (videos are texts too!) but can be re-watched and re-examined at the individual level. Give the text with a couple of tasks written in the email and it will allow more able children to do something useful while the other children at least get through a decent pace. I have actually run several lessons purely in this way, the children then get on with the task (different groups may have got a slightly different task to allow some differentiation or simply different approaches to a topic across the class). I find in most primary classes this works once in a while but usually they also benefit from some further input at a class level and/or then group level. At all times the children have easy access to the resources (and the web at a personal level which cannot be done in the traditional classroom) and can still access the teacher as their learning guide. From this point onwards the device continues to improve the learning opportunities. The work is done on a device that will follow them, it won’t get rubbed out as on a whiteboard or sit on a shelf as with a jotter or text book. The teacher collects in the work, usually by email but again other services are available. The child leaves the room with the work in their pocket, all the resources and all the help. If homework is set or they want to do more they can continue whenever and wherever they want, learning is not bounded by the ringing of bells. They continue to have the teacher support as they can email questions in (or to each other which tends to be the first port of call in my experience) or search on the web.

Now that is a simplified comparison. It ignores the fact that the children can repurpose their ideas as a film, or a mind map or a comic book…their work can be focussed on a blog (which raises the stakes for purpose and audience). It ignores the possibility of giving them the texts prior to the lessons, or even the lessons prior to the lessons but you know what? Ten year olds rarely work like that. Teenagers don’t either. If you gave them the year’s worth of lessons in advance how many would actually do them until them until they had to? The devices support the here and now, they hoover information in and allow children that level of repurposing and access.

The possibilities are there but the realities need to be considered, motivation as ever is a key player and that is where a new app that allows children to present work in a different way or a new audience to write for IS a very useful thing, but it isn’t the be all and end all. The basics are far more important day in and day out.

The quick practise, games types apps are great, they make repetitious learning more fun (Squeebles is possibly the favourite amongst most local schools) but focus on how a connected, data hoover device that allows the learner to access their externalised learning (previous work) will create a strong base on which the classroom practitioner can build new ways of learner centric pedagogy.

Ok…shoot me down……


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