Embracing new technologies

Written by: HTU | Published:

How might schools embrace technology in the classroom while ensuring the focus remains on effective teaching and learning and pupil achievement? Headteacher Ben Evans offers some advice from his school’s experience.

Today more than ever, technology should be used to make learning and the curriculum more accessible to all abilities as well as more interactive, innovative and exciting. These advancements should also help teachers to provide more easily for all styles of learning. Of course, the downside of over-using technology is that it could lead to the loss of essential skills, such as handwriting, spelling, and presentation of work.

At Edge Grove School, the use of iPads was implemented into our lesson planning very carefully to ensure that traditional skills were integrated into that process.

The staff have embraced the technology, shared ideas and good practice and have ensured the iPads have been used thoughtfully and purposefully to enhance teaching and learning. They have also been able to give parents links and apps so that the learning can be continued at home, ensuring continuity and a strong home-school partnership.

It is vital to research any apps very carefully at the start, making sure they fit well with your schemes of work and learning objectives. We also looked at how the iPads could be used for purposeful and accurate assessment of our pupils’ progress. Pupils have used iVideo to make presentations to record their calculations and methods in maths and they have also created eBooks.

Every teacher should ask themselves the question – what technology can I use that will improve pupils’ learning and why? Have I used a range of different methods throughout the day, week and term? Am I able to ensure that all pupils are engaged in their learning or are they using the technology to hide in class, play games or randomly surf the internet?

Headteachers should have a clear understanding of the planning process for all subjects and how the lessons are being taught. At Edge Grove, I attend departmental meetings and we have two hours of staff training each week. 

During these sessions we look at different aspects of teaching and learning and give staff practical ideas of how this can be implemented in their teaching (use of iPads, questioning, reading techniques, purposeful marking and assessment, plenaries etc).

The use of different teaching methods and activities is key – all lesson plans ask the same questions: have I use paired work, group work, a range of IT applications (video, iPads, word processing, research using the internet etc), individual activities, an interesting plenary?

Headteachers and members of the senior management team must be visible, actively observe lessons and feedback to staff to ensure the lessons (and planning) are suitable, varied and innovative. It is easy to fall back on last year’s plans and just teach the same thing in the same way.

All teachers are asked to annotate their plans after every lesson and then rewrite them each year to include new ideas, retain what worked well and replace things that were less successful. 

Peer observation is also important so that good practice can be observed and shared between the teaching staff and across the age groups and departments.

Heads of departments must also have a regular observation schedule so that they can evaluate the teaching of the subject and ensure that improvements are made where necessary and new ideas implemented.

The head is vital in ensuring that high standards are maintained across the school and that there is a genuine desire by all teachers to be innovative and to review their teaching so that improvements and changes can be made. All staff should be required to visit other schools to see how the teaching of their subject/age group is done there and to learn from good and bad practice.

Making curriculum topics accessible

A teacher’s planning must identify the learning objectives and outcomes and then the IT introduced, to ensure those objectives are achieved and that the outcomes are as high as possible. Planning should be a collaborative and on-going process – two or more heads are always better than one. 

Once the learning objective is identified, how can all children achieve it? This will require acquisition of knowledge (research, discovery, teacher-led discussions), how can they apply this in a variety of situations (activities need to be planned which ensure the pupils are actively engaged in their learning – not just copying information or answering questions. 

Our curriculum is based on the principles of discovery (finding out), application (using the information), and communication (explaining understanding) – technology can be used to good effect to achieve all of these aspects of learning. Research can be undertaken using the internet, apps on the iPad, CD-Roms, periodicals and research papers. 

The information can be used in a number of ways from planning a menu in French, to designing and making felt shoes in textiles (sewing machines, graphic design), conducting an experiment and fair test in science, using the virtual language laboratory, composing on the iMacs, PowerPoint presentations to communicate understanding, filming a mock interview or panel show, or even making a documentary or iBook.

iPads can certainly be used in the classroom to fantastic effect by carefully choosing apps that meet the above criteria and by teachers observing each other and regularly meeting to reflect on their lessons, teaching and learning outcomes. 

You may not get it right the first time but that is okay because you will learn from the experience – technology is always a learning curve no matter how advanced you are because it is always changing. The apps make the curriculum topics accessible and aid teacher explanations and encourage independent and group work to fire pupils’ interest and enthusiasm. They should not simply be used to type up work or research.

How it can go wrong

There is the danger that schools think all pupils should have an iPad, which is possibly seen as a good marketing tool, without any thought going into how they will be used in the classroom, what apps will be used, and the retention of more traditional teaching methods which still have their place. How many times are children asked to “do research” for homework and they then present sheets of printed material which can bear little resemblance to the topic and which they haven’t read or understood. Other times children are put in front of computers and left to their own devices, with little proper learning taking place and the obvious danger of them doing or seeing something inappropriate.

All schools now boast of their interactive whiteboards but how many are actually used as they should be – interactively? All too often they are just large television screens with so much innovative teaching and learning opportunities being wasted.

Schools need to maintain a high level of staff training to ensure the teachers have the necessary skills to use the technology and that they understand when to use it. This needs to happen regularly and be revisited to ensure that staff are supported.

Further uses include assessment of pupils by collating their work from their iPads to the main class whiteboard and using this to form lesson plenaries and conclusions. Additionally, using apps for them to record their results in different formats (television presentations/radio broadcasts/PowerPoints), explain various maths methods or other topics to ensure that the “communication” aspect of our curriculum is covered. 

The future?

Technology is moving so fast that it is often hard for schools to keep up with costs and staff training. But keep up we must. Regular investment is essential but it has to be spent wisely and in the right places. Rooms full of computers will be a thing of the past – the learning and use of technology will have to happen in the classroom, alongside the teaching, in all subjects. 

Will we still have libraries (with books) in 10 years’ time? I hope so! There will be Kindles, virtual learning environments, and tablets everywhere, but we mustn’t lose sight of the need to be able to write legibly, the importance of handling and understanding books (being able to use a traditional dictionary is so valuable on many levels for children).

Languages will be taught online with native speakers; pupils will be able to learn at home with video-conferencing and the like. The age of the digital native will have arrived but children will still need teachers and face-to-face time with someone who knows them, understands their learning styles, preferences and needs and someone who can ensure they are fulfilling their potential. That should, and must not change. Schools will look and feel very different though.

Think twice

We shouldn’t and mustn’t ignore the benefits that technology brings to the classroom but at the same time, we should always challenge it and ask: is it benefiting our pupils’ learning – is it enhancing the achievement of the learning objectives? If not, think twice because schools shouldn’t be using technology at the expense of losing traditional skills – that would be counterproductive to say the least. 

  • Ben Evans is head of Edge Grove School, a day and boarding school for children aged 3 to 13 in Hertfordshire.

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