Cake icing

photo%201Posts on here have been somewhat few and far between recently as I have been busy training schools all over the place. Luckily I was back at base for the visit of Mike Hughes running an INSET day for a cluster of our local schools. The title of the day was ‘From good to outstanding’ which Mike articulated more accurately as ‘Adding the icing to the cake of teaching’. Much of his focus centred on identifying how teachers can promote effective dialogue around their learning. This taps into a socio-constructivist theory of learning. Sound familiar? Yes his examples of what makes outstanding teachers exactly mirrors what my research thesis concluded. Effective, focussed talk in participatory groups where the learners have responsibility to be part of the endeavour. There is a combination of both socio-constructivism and the features of communities of practice at play here.

In fact I would humbly suggest that Mike’s focus on activities that engage students (and teachers on the day!) can only be further enhanced when every student has an iPad. For example, when students are given a task where they have to collaborate on ideas taken from a text, Mike used a diamond nine activity as a frame for students to rank their ideas in terms of importance to a theme.He suggested use of post-Its so that decisions could easily be revised, reworked and reordered as discussion ensued. It makes explicit in front of the students what is being mentally manipulated. How would an iPad help this? Explain Everything would allow the same activity of course on a slide. Is this any better though from a learning point of view? I would argue that it is. The post-It activity is pretty much confined to the here and now. A slide on EE can be saved and revisited whenever the student needs to go back to the material. It can include further information such as images, video and weblinks. It can begin to ad the flesh to the bones that is the diamond nine. It can also be reworked on a duplicate slide so that the students can see the effect of rearranging ideas whilst retaining the original layout. Mike spent time discussing the virtue of metacognition – another theme that will be familiar to readers of this blog. In EE a student can add a soundtrack to a slide, describing their thinking, their strategy for the work. This is an excellent way for a teacher to include review in the ‘learning process’. Review that is planned to be revisited, that is key. Doing a review of how and why you did a piece of work is a reconnection to that learning and is a powerful tool but add to that revisiting your own thoughts on a piece of work three weeks later as your understanding of a subject has moved on. It offers unprecedented access to your own thoughts as they were at the time, so you can see where your own thinking has moved on. How often have you written something then gone back to it several weeks later and it is like something that someone else has written? But go back to that document and listen to your own description, given at the time of writing, that explains why you wrote it that way. Build in peer review to that, external views on strategies used and how well they met the objectives of the work and you are building a powerful metacognitive learning approach to learning in your classroom.

photo%202-1I  left Mike’s training with a powerful sense of vindication as he is a very respected international trainer who was advocating the exact approach that my training model and research indicate is most powerful for effective learning. In some ways I also feel that the added opportunities that a personal iPad allows can take this model further than it has ever been practically possible to before. One off lessons with iMovie or Garageband are fab. They motivate children and allow the metacognitive approach to learning happen in each instance but it is only when a device is personal and ubiquitous that the real power of the devices for long term deeper learning can be accessed.

Been busy

Apologies to readers of this blog who expect a bit more regular content but I have been beavering away on several different fronts since the last post and some of the output appears below.

I am now an official Apple Distinguished Educator following a fabulous week working with colleagues, Apple staff and guest presenters in early August. This title is also joined by being confirmed as an official Apple Professional Development trainer. This is very helpful to the schools that I work with in the UK as they get a rebate on my training costs when they buy a set of 50 iPads or more…of which three schools alone in the last week are in the middle of doing following some work I have been doing with each.

However the biggest challenge to my time has been the completion of my MA research thesis. I was told last week that it had passed as well……woohoo! I wanted to look at use of mobile devices from a slightly different perspective to the majority of research. I wanted to explore what children consider effective learning and through their discussion identify aspects of what might be termed ‘learning theories’ from the extant research. Although small in scale, the findings were fascinating and threw up almost as many questions for further research, as much good research maybe should! The thesis was written in a very specific academic style and I have no desire to inflict that on anybody (but if you do want it as a cure for insomnia please email me through the blog!). To combat this I have broken down the findings into a collection of discussion papers that I will release over the next few months.  The first is below:

Personalised Learning…let’s ask the person!

‘Schools are contributing to the upswing in the sales of tablet computers, with their numbers in classrooms more than doubling in the UK and US in the past year, figures reveal.’ (TES 23 June 2013)

Schools in the UK, in fact all across the world, are increasingly investing in tablet computers of one form or another. For some it is an iPad, for others Android phones. They see the devices as being integral to student learning in the modern age (Luckin and Clark 2013). What these devices have in common is their portability and ‘connectedness’. They tend to be instant on, connected to wireless or a phone network, rely on a touch screen interface and have battery lives that survive a day of learning (Traxler 2010). This is in contrast to what schools were buying as mobile devices five or more years ago as a ‘mobile device’ – commonly a laptop, which, although connected takes a few minutes to turn on, tends to rely on an input device (such as a USB mouse), has an ever decreasing battery life and is far less easy to carry around than a tablet or phone. Modern devices are claimed to support ‘personalised learning’ in a way that no other technology or teaching approach has managed so far (e.g., Speak Up Project 2012). So how is this possible and where is the evidence to back this claim up?

During the Summer of 2012 I undertook a small scale research project to explore how children who use mobile devices as part of their school culture view the way that they learn. Nine Y6 children who had been using iPod Touches for two years were randomly selected. It was felt that slightly more ‘mature’ users might give a more rounded picture of how the devices were used over a sustained period of time, thus minimising the ‘flashy’ effect that new technology could have on children. I also interviewed children from two schools to try and gain a perspective across two different teaching settings, potentially eliminating some of the teacher directed biases that must inevitably show. If there were underlying similar themes then it offered some strength to an argument for examples of  effective use. The research took an approach that centred on the pupil’s own perceptions of their learning. This resulted in open ended interviews where the children described ways that they use the devices both in class and at home that they felt really helped them to learn. The research was careful to identify that these definitions of effective learning were very much based on what the pupils felt was effective for them. There were no scores or tests used to ‘prove’ that the experiences they described increased their learning in a more traditional, quantitative way. There again, I am a much better driver than I was ten years ago. I could tell you lots of examples of why I am better despite not having any scores to prove it.

So that was the rationale for asking the children rather than observe lessons or interview the teachers. It was also appreciated that the testimonies of the children reflect their recollections of their experiences, not necessarily what ACTUALLY happened. In a sense that may be a pointless observation. Their recollection of what happened is probably more important in terms of what they took from previous experiences which now helps them deal with new experiences and situations which could be argued is a fundamental aspect of what ‘learning’ is.

From the mouths of babes…

So what did the children say? Well….lots and lots of things to be honest. They were asked to describe great lessons or learning experiences and try to pin down how and why the device helped them. It was fairly directed questioning but it opened up the role of the devices to lots discussion amongst the children.

One of the key factors that came up time and again, across all of the children and therefore both schools, was the idea of ‘there when I need it’. We use an analogy when teaching the children about using devices effectively of a ‘data hoover and a second brain’. The device can take in lots of different types of information and then store it in an easily accessible way as a ‘second brain’. This only works of course when the device is there whenever and wherever it is needed. The portability of the device and the battery life are both key factors in this. The fact that the devices can ‘hoover up’ text, sound and images fulfills the first role; and the ease of accessing that information when needed to further support learning is where it becomes the second brain.

One aspect of the research paper examined some of the more influential theories of how we learn to compare to what the children suggested was effective learning for them. Associationist, constructivist, social-constructivist and communities of learning were all explored as learning theories. The first three particularly emphasise the role of building learning up from experiences (though each describes the mechanisms and modes differently). They also identify that you don’t always learn things at the first attempt. It is through repeated exposure/engagement with a new phenomenon that you gradually acquire the knowledge and skills that are required in a given situation.

The children described how the device was able to store information so that they could use it for further work. It was always there when they needed it and they could more easily bring up a video clip of how they did a maths problem from three weeks ago than simply remembering. Using the Camera Roll or an app like Mental Note to easily store and retrieve self created ‘artefacts’ of information was an external support to the mental operations of linking new experiences to what had gone before. The children also described how this access to key information was also easier to share than they could do without the device. For example, one child described how they would be given a piece of writing to do on a topic. The teacher expected them to do some research then produce the work in a particular genre style, which would be the focus of the assessment. The children would then search individually but, without being asked, share information with one another to feed into their work. When asked if they used email to share the resource they replied ‘only sometimes’ as more often than not they simply found the information they needed then showed everyone else their screen. The others would then jot down what they found useful and then move on. The children were constantly working in teams to crowd source the most effective way of tackling a piece of work. This also has resonance with the idea of ‘ecologies of practice’ in a classroom environment (Boylan 2005).

In addition to the ‘in class’ work children would often email each other about work outside of lessons (though they nearly all told me that most often it would be socially related!).

So what are the implications for teachers wanting to support ‘personalised learning’ whilst also having to deliver a curriculum with specific learning goals enshrined within it?

For teachers

There are many engaging activities that can be done using a mobile device but from a learning theory point of view some of the most basic, day in and day out uses are very effective. Developing effective learners who have strategies for effective ways of learning, has been shown through many studies to improve children’s attainment and progress (e.g., Sutton Trust 2013). Mobile devices support several aspects of this metacognitive approach to learning (and teaching).

  1. There when I need it

The device acts as a data hoover and second brain and is there as an external support for my learning when the mental processes are sometimes found wanting. 1:1 devices, with a child’s own learning journey laid bare and interrogable on the screen allows the child to go back and use previous experiences to support future learning more efficiently than ‘remembering’ can.

  1. Repetition

Research by Nuthall and Alton-Lee (1993) suggested the role of repeated exposure to learning experiences was crucial in retaining what had been learned. Mobile devices allow the teacher to re-engage students with learning experiences that are personal and immediately accessible whenever they choose. For example, the children could be asked to make a short video at the end of a key unit of work to show how to ‘multiply fractions’. That experience in itself would allow the children to have access to the information on the device if they have to multiply fractions again in the future. However, if the aim is for children to be able to internalise their learning, teachers could promote re-engagement with that video at regular intervals over a period of time. This could be as simple as ‘watch the video’ once or twice a week while the teacher does the register (could be a bit dull!) or even share your video with a partner and they have to create a critique of it. This opens up the social aspect of the learning experience too.


Boylan, M. (2005) School classrooms: Communities of practice or ecologies of practices? Paper presented at 1st Socio-Cultural Theory in Educational Research, September 2005 Manchester University UK. (

Nuthall G & Alton-Lee A (1993) Predicting learning from student experience of teaching: a theory of student knowledge construction in classrooms, American Educational Research Journal, 30(4): 799-840

Speak Up Project Link:

Sutton Trust Website links to the Education Endowment foundation website for many links to research papers:

TES Article (2013) ‘Tablets in schools double in one year’ available online at: (last accessed 17th August 2013)

Traxler, J. (2010) Will Student Devices Deliver Innovation, Inclusion and Transformation? Journal of the Research Centre for Educational Technology, Kent State University 6 (1) 3-15

Download this paper as a document: Personalised learning

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.

Getting to grips

Short post about yesterday’s visit to the steel fabricators. Grangetown Primary sent 11 children and the Deputy Head on a visit arranged by Anne Simpson to show our local children the process that is building up the regeneration of our area. The fabrication company, Hambleton Steel hosted a fantastic and really interesting morning learning about the processes that the steel goes through before becoming the new leisure centre and civic hub in the local authority. My interest, and hence this post, was grabbed as we gave the children iPods to record their visit. They hadn’t used them before for school work (some had never used one out of school either) but I gave them out on the bus as we set off and challenged them to work out how to use Strip Design to create a short review of our trip.
During the visit we were given lots of opportunities to take photos of each process. Once back on the bus I quickly used my iPad to ensure that all the children had at least seen the right icons to press to complete their task (though some had worked it out for themselves). They then spent the half hour return journey reviewing their photos and selecting what best represented what they were trying to describe. The teacher was going to follow this up in school tomorrow when she would have the group back together. I will post the results as soon as I have them!

What struck me, and it shouldn’t have surprised me, was how easily the device fitted into the visit. There was a big concern from the company that the children would be kept safe and would be moving around a potentially dangerous environment. However, the iPods only came out at key points of interest then disappeared back into pockets in between, reviewing, adding detail, embellishing their ideas…that an come later, the device was a hoover for all the information that they were getting at the time it was happening. It will fulfil its second brain function when the information is reviewed and produced for an audience.

Over and Out

Although written a little after the event this post is focussed on my third and final visit to the children and loan ipods at St Paulinus. As part three of the starting from scratch series of lessons I hope it shows how little input can produce such a massive impact.

I must admit I indulged myself for the first ten minutes in asking the children their reasons for having an ipod for learning (I was careful not to say “in the classroom”), my notes are screen shot below:

It is interesting to note that they focussed their answers on mainly literacy and numeracy and how the device supports this. The comment about downloading apps at home referred to some of the maths games that they had used in class. Remember, they were using loan kit so were not taking them home, this was a frustration for them they told me. There is an answer to that below…

So what did we do for the last lesson?

Well, I wanted to reinforce the way that the devices support effective classroom pedagogy. So I started by using the Hobbit Movie app (Free) to show the children the 360 panorama of Hobbiton. I asked the children to discuss in pairs who lived there, in fact they had to be more precise than that. I settled the view on one hobbit hole with a clear view of the front door and the front garden. I asked the children to pick out things that they could see in the picture to act as evidence for who lived there. So for example:

overgrown lawn – someone who doesn’t come home very often

The children were asked to pick out five features. The learning focus here is on settings, not one blade of grass will appear on that film set if it isn’t needed. Someone has made that setting to create an accurate impression of the person who lives there – several meetings and a lot of biscuits came up with what we are presented with! How do the devices support this? The image was on the board but it was also taken as a screenshot and emailed to the children (if I’d prepared it in advance this might have worked better through uploading it to the Skydrive as the image was quite large and took a few minutes to load up on the devices via Mail). By doing this the children were able to get up close and personal with the image, zooming in for greater detail. They then used a range of ways of recording their ideas. Some inserted a “zoom” on an identified feature into Mental Note then wrote their idea below it, repeating a different “zoom” for each feature. Others simply inserted the picture and wrote their ideas below. Some even identified a feature by jotting a number next to it on the inserted picture (with the pen tool – I may have led some to that way of working…) and then used a key below the picture to write what each “number” suggested. It was all about children learning to organise their thinking. I repeated the task using the other panorama viewer, the inside of the Hobbit Hole to reinforce the way of working. In all cases the children had to work together. Interestingly, the emailed picture took a while to get through to some of the devices so the children simply went up to the board at the front of the room and photographed it there.

Really simple after that, I turned the task the other way around. Each pair of children was given a character (whispered in their ears – e.g., Cinderella). They had to write down five objects that would appear in the character’s house if we walked in and looked around.
Ok, I know the spelling was a bit dodgy (to say the least!) but these are children who often struggle to know what to write when asked to “write the setting for a story”. Grammar and building these ideas up into sentences is the next step but the children now have a strategy, a place to start when opening a narrative piece. The details of the setting are relevant rather than “it was a nice sunny day” because it is something that paints a picture. Identifying key features to base your setting around, drawn from the character who is in the story, makes writing more meaningful and engaging. I then asked the children to upload their finished writing (screenshot then skydrive as it is easier to flick from one to next than via Mail) so that we could have a quick quiz and discussion around meaningful information in a setting as a plenary to the lesson.

The lesson focus was clearly on literacy yet we could see where the device made that lesson more effective from both the teacher and child point of view. The stimulus could be delivered into the palm of the children’s hands, they had alternative ways of manipulating information to suit them, they were able to feedback info to the teacher and in fact the rest of the class. The teacher was fairly hands free for much of the lesson in the sense that the majority of the time was focused on all children talking and working together. I only stopped them when we needed to clarify a point or move the learning forward. If I had done that with a big screen at the front it would have been more teacher led with children feeding back individually more often one at a time. The fact they could easily hand in their work to a secure place that the teacher could access with minimum effort (it is an app on the iPad with a direct path to the iPod work) was the icing on the cake. I could use it to review the learning in the lesson, children could see each other’s work and learn from it and I could even walk out the classroom and access it either at home or back at our office. In fact, the uploaded images here have just been downloaded from the Skydrive as all the work is still there.

I mentioned above the frustration about stopping learning at 3pm in an iPod sense. Well, the school held a parent meeting last night where I talked to the Y4 parents about what we had been doing with the class and why we wanted it to continue. I think every parent in the room agreed that it was educationally a big advantage to their children and that bringing a device home to continue that would be even better. There were questions around types of device and how they might work, safety and so on but as a group they were very positive. They have been asked to go away and think about contributing to a scheme that will allow their children to have their own school iPod that they will also be able to bring home as well. The school where the other set of iPods were loaned out last term have also done the same thing. In fact, I have yet to work with a school where following a loan and my regular support, they have not then gone on to get their own devices. This may sound like bragging but it is simply a fact and maybe owes more to the fact that we are doing this with the correct educational approach than my personal magnificence! lol