Schools of the now

I hear and read a lot about schools of the future, how children will be able to do this, that and the other. These discussions tend to be led by technology visionaries who espouse how the technology will transform learning. I must admit, I do have some reservations, I mean humans learn in particular ways, that is how their brains work. It is true that some of our institutional structures don’t capitalise on that to the benefit of the students but by and large students DO achieve and teachers are determined to help their students to realise their potential. What is important for us to remember when introducing new technologies and pedagogies is that we don’t simply throw out previous practice, we analyse what was effective and build in what is useful from the new practice. In many ways it fits with a constructivist pedagogy, assimilating and accommodating new understanding to what is extant.

So when we talk about schools of the future it is REALLY important to consider schools of the now.

What are effective ways of working?

Which technologies support student learning?

My work gives me a priveleged view of this. I work in schools all over the world and it offers me insight into the myriad of ways that students are being supported in their learning. I am also very priveleged in the fact that one of the most innovative schools sits on my doorstep and I work with them regularly. Normanby Primary already has a reputation nationally for the way that it has integrated technology into daily practice, Carl Faulkner the Head has won several awards individually for the way that he has led this. I recently attended a conference presentation he delivered and speaking to delegates afterwards it was clear that they were impressed with his student centred focus and his down to earth approach to dealing with issues that stand in the way of pupil learning.

I was at the school last night speaking to Sonia the technology leader and she was explaining the problem that she has got coming up in September. Following her input in a staff meeting, showing how she gives her year two (seven year old) students iBooks that she makes from all of the resources that she would normally use around a topic, staff have requested training from her. She has done that and now the majority of the staff are repurposing their existing resources into iBooks ready to use in September. The problem? There are only so many devices to go around and only having a device a couple of sessions a week doesn’t really work in the pupil centred, flipped world that Sonia is working in. This is a perfect example of where teachers have identified how new technologies can support a more effective way of learning for students (based on student feedback cross checked with assessment of the children’s work). They have taken the best of how they already work and then adapted their practice with these new opportunities. The limiting factor might now be availability of technology. But do you see the way that the technology demand is created? It follows from the pedagogy. I have often heard ‘Yeah but Normanby always buy technology, they are into that sort of thing..’ but what is missed is that Normanby react to what is effective for the students and if that is technology based then they use it, other solutions are available and are pursued.

I will highlight this point with the video below. It was submitted for a NAACE award and nicely sums up the way that the school focusses on learning and how technology supports this. It is not a school of the future, it is a school of the now.

There is also a link to the commentary version of the video HERE.

Back to Books!

Oh I’ve been flipping too! Following the work I saw with Year 2 at Normanby using the Jamaica iBook (now available for download from this published iTunesu course – with more to come!), I thought that the ability to collate material and give it to children in an interesting way would suit the model of support that I am providing at Badger Hill. The Y4 class have an iPad 1 between 2. It isn’t ideal but I was determined to support the teacher to get the most out of the device, integrating it to the other work that they do. The use of the iBook to access and identify information to then perhaps respond to in their exercise books fits that model (although doesn’t embrace the real learning gains from having 1:1…). I see the class for maybe an hour a week to both show the children how to use the devices and also leave the teacher with lots of transferable techniques. It is a popular model and most schools who buy my time appreciate the little and often approach.

As previous posts show, I am pretty skilled at making iBooks in iBooks Author, it is pretty easy really, but the hard thing is collating the info and getting it put together appropriately. The result of my resource for today can be found here. I wanted to show this, not for the expected adulation and applause but to demonstrate how easy it was to make. The children are studying ‘mysteries’ so I thought a book with info on the Loch Ness Monster and friends would be useful. Now here is the trick. I could have read lots of books and wrote my text for the children. Nope, too long. I went to Wikipedia and looked up Loch Ness Monster. The page is complicated and way above the reading abilities of the children though. No problem, I use the accessibility tool in Safari on my mac and click on ‘Reader’. Instantly the page is reduced to the bare bones that I needed. I copied it then pasted into the iBook. The task then was to edit the text down rather than write it from scratch. I also used the images from the page as I knew that they had creative commons licensing by being on that page. Where other images are required I used Google search settings to specifically look for Creative Commons content. I can’t vouch for it’s accuracy but it is a nod in the right direction if not a full step. The source for my work, although edited, is acknowledged in the book.

The text was still a real challenge for some of the children but that gave me the opportunity to demonstrate to them the ‘speak selection’ option and this was a real winner for many children, they attempted parts of the text that the teacher informs me they wouldn’t have previously.

As a parting shot I also showed the children that they could summarise a text and isolate their thoughts, to be collated automatically, by the notes function. The teacher was really excited by this as she could immediately see how a child could identify key information in a text, justify their choice with a text note and these be automatically collated to be emailed in. Really powerful.

Flipping update

iBookWas wandering through a classroom last week where the teacher was using her iBooks with the children. She had been on the iBooks course a few weeks ago and, following some success with iTunesu previously, she had seen iBooks as an ideal way to get all the resources that she would normally use around her Topics into one place. In fact it allowed her to add some resources that she had previously never considered (such as 3D images). The Year 2 (6-7 year olds) children in her class were using the iBook about Jamaica that she created to identify key information then recount in their books (traditional exercise book). They were using the highlight tool to identify key words and then use these as the basis of their ‘analogue’ work. These children do not have their own device, they are a shared set, but it was clear that they immediately had mastery over the task and that they were massively engaged. I spoke to a few who said that they loved the fact that they could work at their own pace. The teacher had created a range of tasks that the children had to complete within a whole range of lessons. In fact they were at liberty to change round the order of their workload so that they could do whichever tasks they best felt like doing when it suited them. In many ways they reminded me of office workers with a huge inbox cherry picking the most interesting tasks before attacking the mundane stuff. Independent learning? The teacher’s role was much more focussed on support rather than lead, and she was actually hard to spot when I first walked in as she was doing a similar task herself alongside a small group and encouraging the discussion through that. I will get a copy of her book to upload asap but it is clear that her way of working is a real winner with the children who really enjoy being in control of their work. Her approach has also inspired the other teachers in the school to work in this way and she has been running iBooks author sessions after school by popular demand!

A new way of thinking….are we flipping crazy?

ibooks_authorThere has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the concept of the flipped classroom. I listened to Microsoft’s view of it today at the launch of their 365 service. The idea is that the teacher removes themselves as the barrier between the students and the “learning”, taking more of a support role as issues occur. I have some fundamental issues with this “new” concept.

Really good teachers have always had the flexibility to both lead learning and work in a support role. Even bound by the constraints of the curriculum and expectations such as the Literacy Hour I would be very confident in saying that the flipped classroom has been alive and well but maybe just considered part of good practice  without rearing its head as a “technique” for many years. I will give an example.

I started teaching the year that the Literacy Strategy was introduced. Although a young and inexperienced teacher, I quickly realised that binding children to such time limited, and teacher support limited, activities did not help the vast majority of children to enjoy their literacy lessons. Furthermore it made it almost impossible to be creative with teaching approaches. If children were really into a fantastic piece of writing, possibly inspired by a film clip  or an interesting international event then the structure stopped them dead in their tracks. Its aims were good, to ensure rigour and progression in what was taught but it went about it in completely the wrong way. My first school had a very strong Headteacher, Phillip McElwee, and he made it clear that he backed us all to use our own professional judgment to vary our approaches in response to the children. Sometimes direct teaching is really useful and sometimes giving children the materials (which are often teacher created or selected anyway to scaffold the learning) and supporting them through their work.

The use of devices has radically altered what is possible in this way. Access to materials is the most obvious factor as a million learning opportunities can sit in the palm of every student’s hand. Fantastic? Hmmm it can be, but I am reminded of my science tutor when I was training to be a teacher. He made the point that you can ask students to do lots of experiments to “discover” things that can easily be explained in about five minutes. Do children always need to have gone through the processes that the discoverers of oxygen or the laws of gravity to say that they have learned it? There is a balance, of course their is but if we look at the Lavoisier example from a constructivist view of how we learn then the place of the experimental “proof” maybe changes. Explaining the theory around what oxygen is, telling the story of its discovery, gives the students a mental construct of what they are looking at so when they do the experiment it has somewhere to “fit”. doing the experiment first places far more of a strain on the process of assimilation as there may be no mental framework in which it sits easily. Does that produce deeper learning as students want to know more or does it simply disinterest the student as not fitting their experience or even fit in with an incorrect understanding as enough facts of the phenomena are consistent.


This may seem a very technical argument but it is at the crux of flipped classroom concept. Simply saying to students “here’s the stuff, get on with it, yell when you are stuck” potentially leads to that situation. This is exacerbated if the students entirely led their own learning interests. Again, there is a balance. Why am I rambling on about this?

Last Thursday I hosted a day at the Inspire2Learn centre to teach a group of teachers who all have access to iPads in their classrooms how to use iBooks Author. The app is free to download as long as you have at least version 10.7 on your mac OS. It allows teachers to create books. Big deal, teachers can do that in loads of ways…however these books have distinct advantages. Yes you can add pictures, text, even video into the pages which make them full of “Wow”, but that is not what catches the eye. The teachers who attended could do that within about 5mins of my input (if they hadn’t already done it themselves anyway!), what we took time to focus on is how an iBook could support the practice in class. Where does the book sit? As a textbook for a course? As a support alongside what happens in the lessons? As a repository for all the other resources that we don’t have time for in lessons. I hope that some of these questions are answered by the work that the teachers do back in class with their creations.

We spent a lot of time simply discussing these issues, and also use of widgets. Widgets are fabulous little things that can ad such a different dimension to an iBook. Yes there are the wow ones (like the 360 panorama widget) but something as simple as a scrolling side bar widget allows a page to hold a lot more content, in context, than could previously have been done. This isn’t simply convenient, it fits with a huge amount of research based around situated learning and how meaning is heavily influenced by context and the expectations that an audience brings to that context.As teachers we need to think about this sort of research to enhance our use of iBooks, not simply saying “it can add more detail”. A sketchpad widget within a page allows a student the opportunity to create or label a diagram and then send it back to the teacher from within the book, again keeping the learning in the context in which is it created.

Something as simple as the browser widget is a godsend. Why is that important? We can add weblinks to any book, document…even an email…so what? It is massive, the book opens the webpage, it doesn’t go off to Safari and all of the distractions (the youtube widget does the same), it stays within the book so when you close it you are still in the book. Simple yet a huge help, imagine using Guided Access with this for certain situations on shared pads?

We do have some unanswered questions though. I mentioned some above relating to how it fits within the classroom context. Also, when do you ask the student to do activities within the book and when do you offer them maybe a gallery of pictures and ask them to create a presentation in an app of their choice. I don’t know if there is a definitive answer as every situation os different and teachers are the killer app that make the difference, judging when to do what. However, an iBook is a finished artefact (although you can update it) and that means that some of these decisions need to be made when creating the book and defining its role in a scheme of work.

The teachers who attended were very complementary in their feedback for my input during the day (as a teacher I used my professional judgement of when to tell and when to… but I will be pursuing them over the next few months and hopefully reconvening the group to really pin down where the book sits within the classroom context. Armed with that sort of information future users of the app will not have to discover it all for themselves but will have some guidance as a starter for ten…isn’t that where this post started?

Example of iBook from the day: