Homework in a Digital Age

Homework – the lot of school children across the ages. In the minds of adults typically there is a correlation between the amount of homework set and the progress children are making. There is a comfort blanket of “busyness” and “doing” visible to everyone. Work is set, done, marked, returned, grade noted. Of course, I am caricaturing the homework process, but my concern is that because of pressures on schools from the Department for Education and Ofsted the purpose of homework becomes caught up with broader issues relating to school improvement and data. It certainly leaves little time to think about homework differently.
But imagine if you could? If you had additional tools which changed the dynamic of learning beyond the classroom? Tools which allowed you to refine measurable learning outcomes and promote the value of immeasurable learning? By adding the iPad to our teacher’s toolkit, homework has under gone just such a makeover in our school. Indeed, the boundaries between work during lessons and beyond have become blurred as the digital device unleashes possibilities previously unknown to teachers. Through exploring the opportunities offered by the connected world inhabited by our young people, teachers can channel their learning in a purposeful way.  I think it fair to say that our teachers are quietly and authoritatively deploying this digital tool in ways which are revolutionising how young people learn.  
Whilst the fundamental learning outcomes remain constant, the digital device allows the teacher to enrich their repertoire of tasks. It has been a revelation observing teachers explore the potential of the device as a tool for learning. In the Modern Languages Department the iPad has quite simply become a language laboratory. Listening and speaking, which conventionally happens in lessons because of the reliance on the teacher, now happen outside of lessons through the iPad. The advantage for the teacher is the written work can be under their supervision ensuring that mistakes do not become embedded and are corrected in real time rather than when the work is marked. This is a significant benefit for language teaching. And the range of Apps for language learning make a potentially dry exercise of learning grammar and vocabulary fun and more accessible to those who struggle with language learning.
Indeed, the digital device is a masterly tool for differentiated learning. It offers a platform which allows for a seamless feedback back loop between teacher and student. In the non-digital environment students typically complete a task, hand it in and a few days later get it back, with summative and formative assessment which the teacher hopes they look over, absorb and use to improve their next piece. This process is problematic in two ways. First, if a pupil has misunderstood the task set or found it too hard, often, by the time the teacher finds, out the student has already moved on – not only has the learning opportunity been lost, and that homework time been wasted, the student may well have had a thoroughly frustrating and demoralising experience. Secondly, students can be too prone to just look at their mark or the amount of red pen on the page to find out “how they did” and then stick the work in a folder, possibly never to be looked at again.
With Google Classroom, a digital dashboard on the teacher’s device, there’s the opportunity to add an extra step into the process allowing for differentiated guidance. By issuing the students with a mid-way deadline of when they have to ‘submit’ a first draft, whether that be the introductory paragraph, essay plan or their attempt at the first three questions of several, teachers can much more easily give feedback at a meaningful point in the homework process. By being able to see which students are having problems and exactly what those problems are, the teacher can clear up misunderstandings, provide extra scaffolding or even alter the parameters of the task for that student to avoid those issues, all remotely. The teacher can then simply ping it back to the student to complete, and because they are still working on the piece they are naturally going to engage much more with your feedback and make use of it to finish the work. Potentially this feedback loop is transformational for students’ learning.
But what about the textbook or worksheets in this digital world? In addition to Google Classroom we use iTunes U as a digital curation platform and iBooks Textbooks to create content tailored to the our students’ needs. So as long as students have access to these platforms they can draw on the resources anytime and anywhere. Those students that want to do more work outside of the lesson can always be stretched and extended through materials in iTunes U courses, extra reading curated by the teacher or recommended YouTube videos and channels. For Biology IGCSE we already have an iBook Textbook offering a hugely enriched resource for our students which is so much more accessible and engaging for students tasked with homework.
Indeed, in this digital Eco system the teacher can be in the room “virtually” with a student. That difficult Physics concept can be re-explained by the teacher through the Explain Everything App or experiments can be reviewed on You Tube with the class teacher demonstrating again the aim of the experiment. And this can be viewed as often as the student needs to understand. No longer a solitary activity with the potential for family rows over misunderstood tasks, homework becomes interactive with the teacher on hand to offer support. And we should never underestimate the power of the teacher’s voice in guiding students.
In fact, homework has the capacity to become a truly social activity. The digital device allows teachers to encourage collaboration, a force for creativity and invention and an important skill for our young learners. Ordinarily constrained by location, homework can now become a collaborative activity not only involving other members of the class but students in any part of the world who could become collaborative partners. The possibilities for collaborative projects are extraordinary. Just imagine a collaborative project across continents on environmental issues – really powerful learning about our world and those who live in it.
So, learning beyond the classroom can be very different in a world of digital learning. The concept of homework can be re-calibrated as a process which is both more meaningful and truly engaging. Homework becomes an authentic extension of learning with the learner supported and guided in ways previously not possible. Homework moves from the task to be completed to being a social, interactive experience and an integral part of a young person’s education both measurably and immeasurably.  

Homework in a digital age

Homework – the lot of school children across the ages. In the minds of adults typically there is a correlation between the amount of homework set and the progress children are making. There is a comfort blanket of “busyness” and “doing” visible to everyone. Work is set, done, marked, returned, grade noted. Of course, I am caricaturing the homework process, but my concern is that because of pressures on schools from the Department for Education and Ofsted the purpose of homework becomes caught up with broader issues relating to school improvement and data. It certainly leaves little time to think about homework differently.

But imagine if you could? If you had additional tools which changed the dynamic of learning beyond the classroom? Tools which allowed you to refine measurable learning outcomes and promote the value of immeasurable learning? By adding the iPad to our teacher’s toolkit, homework has under gone just such a makeover in our school. Indeed, the boundaries between work during lessons and beyond have become blurred as the digital device unleashes possibilities previously unknown to teachers. Through exploring the opportunities offered by the connected world inhabited by our young people, teachers can channel their learning in a purposeful way. I think it fair to say that our teachers are quietly and authoritatively deploying this digital tool in ways which are revolutionising how young people learn.  

Whilst the fundamental learning outcomes remain constant, the digital device allows the teacher to enrich their repertoire of tasks. It has been a revelation observing teachers explore the potential of the device as a tool for learning. In the Modern Languages Department the iPad has quite simply become a language laboratory. Listening and speaking, which conventionally happens in lessons because of the reliance on the teacher, now happen outside of lessons through the iPad. The advantage for the teacher is the written work can be under their supervision ensuring that mistakes do not become embedded and are corrected in real time rather than when the work is marked. This is a significant benefit for language teaching. And the range of Apps for language learning make a potentially dry exercise of learning grammar and vocabulary fun and more accessible to those who struggle with language learning.
Indeed, the digital device is a masterly tool for differentiated learning. It offers a platform which allows for a seamless feedback back loop between teacher and student. In the non-digital environment students typically complete a task, hand it in and a few days later get it back, with summative and formative assessment which the teacher hopes they look over, absorb and use to improve their next piece. This process is problematic in two ways. First, if a pupil has misunderstood the task set or found it too hard, often, by the time the teacher finds, out the student has already moved on – not only has the learning opportunity been lost, and that homework time been wasted, the student may well have had a thoroughly frustrating and demoralising experience. Secondly, students can be too prone to just look at their mark or the amount of red pen on the page to find out “how they did” and then stick the work in a folder, possibly never to be looked at again.
With Google Classroom, a digital dashboard on the teacher’s device, there’s the opportunity to add an extra step into the process allowing for differentiated guidance. By issuing the students with a mid-way deadline of when they have to ‘submit’ a first draft, whether that be the introductory paragraph, essay plan or their attempt at the first three questions of several, teachers can much more easily give feedback at a meaningful point in the homework process. By being able to see which students are having problems and exactly what those problems are, the teacher can clear up misunderstandings, provide extra scaffolding or even alter the parameters of the task for that student to avoid those issues, all remotely. The teacher can then simply ping it back to the student to complete, and because they are still working on the piece they are naturally going to engage much more with your feedback and make use of it to finish the work. Potentially this feedback loop is transformational for students’ learning.
But what about the textbook or worksheets in this digital world? In addition to Google Classroom we use iTunes U as a digital curation platform and iBooks Textbooks to create content tailored to the our students’ needs. So as long as students have access to these platforms they can draw on the resources anytime and anywhere. Those students that want to do more work outside of the lesson can always be stretched and extended through materials in iTunes U courses, extra reading curated by the teacher or recommended YouTube videos and channels. For Biology IGCSE we already have an iBook Textbook offering a hugely enriched resource for our students which is so much more accessible and engaging for students tasked with homework.
Indeed, in this digital Eco system the teacher can be in the room “virtually” with a student. That difficult Physics concept can be re-explained by the teacher through the Explain Everything App or experiments can be reviewed on You Tube with the class teacher demonstrating again the aim of the experiment. And this can be viewed as often as the student needs to understand. No longer a solitary activity with the potential for family rows over misunderstood tasks, homework becomes interactive with the teacher on hand to offer support. And we should never underestimate the power of the teacher’s voice in guiding students.
In fact, homework has the capacity to become a truly social activity. The digital device allows teachers to encourage collaboration, a force for creativity and invention and an important skill for our young learners. Ordinarily constrained by location, homework can now become a collaborative activity not only involving other members of the class but students in any part of the world who could become collaborative partners. The possibilities for collaborative projects are extraordinary. Just imagine a collaborative project across continents on environmental issues – really powerful learning about our world and those who live in it.
So, learning beyond the classroom can be very different in a world of digital learning. The concept of homework can be re-calibrated as a process which is both more meaningful and truly engaging. Homework becomes an authentic extension of learning with the learner supported and guided in ways previously not possible. Homework moves from the task to be completed to being a social, interactive experience and an integral part of a young person’s education both measurably and immeasurably.  

Ms Nicky Morgan unleashed! 

Ms Nicky Morgan has been unleashed! Following the re-election of the Conservatives as the sole party of government, untrammelled by their Liberal Democrat coalition partner, the true-blue agenda for education has been unveiled by the Secretary of State.  For Ms Morgan the solution to “raising standards” in our schools is an even greater dose of Gove’s academies and free schools. Her zeal is such that she plans to strip away the right of local councils to challenge forced academisation.  Indeed, she goes further, planning to deliver on an earlier promise to sack Heads and Governors who fail to improve standards in “coasting” schools.  

Where to begin with this radical declaration of intent from the Secretary of State for Education?  Ms Morgan certainly means business and has a forensic focus on next steps.  Like every politician, she needs to be “doing”.  Yet in this haste to whip the state sector into shape, I beg Ms Morgan to just take a moment to reflect on her language of discourse.  Education should not be a battlefield with the person who is ultimately responsible for our schools speaking disparagingly about leaders in schools if they fail to meet a target set by Ofsted.  I do not deny that there are probably many issues which require addressing, but to be sending in the educational equivalent of the SAS to pull a school up by its boot-strings has more than a whiff of a Hollywood Blockbuster about it. Indeed this belief in the efficacy of hired guns is John Wayne in a suit armed with data.

Surely the culture of an individual school is more complex than the Education Secretary’s plans for improvement imply?  A scorched earth approach fails to address the underlying pressures facing Heads and their staff day-to-day.  I have had the privilege and pleasure of meeting school leaders from the maintained sector who work tirelessly to ensure the pupils in their schools receive the best possible life chances.  Their schools are a mix of academies and schools remaining in local authority control.   They strive to promote aspiration in their schools whilst juggling ever tighter budgets and ensuring their data meets the demands of Ofsted.  Granted, the schools they lead are deemed either good or outstanding by Ofsted, but they all know that this state of affairs can change very quickly.  

Now can I suggest to Ms Morgan that a more effective approach to her quest to improve standards across all schools, which I applaud in principle, would be to value Heads who frankly in many cases are already doing an extraordinary job in challenging circumstances.  And if a school appears to be coasting would it not be more constructive to offer support and training to the leadership team to enable them to improve their school rather than offering threats which will inevitably discourage initiative and foster a bunker mentality.  Instead of seeing the Head and the leadership team as the problem, make them integral to the solution. And in those cases where there really is a problem of leadership, deal with it on this basis, as a problem specific to an individual school.  Do not caricature Heads because of data – take the time to look more closely at the context.

And whilst the Secretary of State is taking up her cudgels, she would do well to note the impending crisis we face across the education sector – teacher recruitment.  The Heads, who Ms Morgan holds accountable for school performance, are only as successful as the staff who work in their schools.  Heads need to recruit and retain the best teachers because it is the teacher who effects the change in the classroom.  It is the relationships they forge with pupils which facilitate their progress – inspiring, encouraging and chivvying in equal measure. 

This is the cautionary tale for our political masters who would do well to remember that whilst they continue to use combative language against our school leaders they do little to promote the profession to potential future teachers.  Why would you want to be a teacher when you have a big stick waved at you?  Teachers in schools learnt long ago that this tactic alone does not really work. Our Education Secretary needs to add inspiration and encouragement to her toolkit if she is to build constructive relationships with Heads and teachers in schools everywhere.

   

Is reading being crowded out in our digital age?

I am proud that my school is at the forefront of deploying digital technology in the classroom.  Technology has become embedded in our learning environment and really is just another tool in the teachers’ and learners’ toolkit.  In a valedictory letter sent to me recently by parents, who were initially sceptical about the 1:1 deployment of iPads, I was delighted to read that they were now convinced that this had had a hugely positive impact on their daughter’s education observing that for her using digital technology is completely natural.

And yet, with the many upsides of our approach, we cannot ignore a broader trend being fuelled by the omnipresence of technology.  The very real concern of our teachers, particularly teachers of English, is the growing sense that reading as an activity is being crowded out by all the distractions offered by the digital age.  There is just so much instant gratification out there.  This emerging view is coloured by the exponential changes in the world around us which we all experience day-to-day.  It is of course always difficult to calibrate change when you are in the middle of it – there are no longitudinal studies to help us.  But we do have the professional experience of staff.  Our Curriculum Leader in English is of the view that over the last 5-6 years she and her colleagues have observed a real difference in the attitude of our students in reading for pleasure.  Indeed, such is her concern, that she and her colleagues are seriously considering introducing reading lessons in our senior school next year.

But the unintended consequences of the digital revolution go beyond merely the activity of reading.  There is also a growing awareness that what is being read does not necessarily fall within the classical canon of literature famously advocated by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.  For many of our teenagers the lure of Dickens and Austen is cast into sharp relief by authors who take advantage of the free platforms to publish on the Internet.  The positive here is that at least this is evidence of reading but the real concern is about the quality of the literature being read.

So was Gove right, in his previous role, to insist that the classics of English Literature should be included in the National Curriculum and the reformed GCSE?  Certainly inclusion in the curriculum marks the importance of the English canon of literature.  Yet my concern is that force-feeding reading of the classics is not necessarily going to energise our young learners to want to explore the classics beyond Dickens and Austen.  The danger is that the classical canon of literature will be seen as the stuff for qualifications and irrelevant for reading for enjoyment.  

Do I have the answer to this very digital conundrum? I don’t think I do.  But I do know that by acknowledging this reality around reading at least we have made the first step in addressing it.  What was previously backgrounded in learning is now foregrounded.  How the English canon is passed down to future generations is the challenge and this is beyond merely the process of reading – it is about our cultural identity.