Tag Archives: learning

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.  

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.

Mrs Morgan – how sad that we have come to this.

When Michael Gove had the baton of the education portfolio wrenched from his reluctant hands last year, I had some optimism that his successor, Mrs Nicky Morgan, would be more than Gove-lite. The new Secretary of State for Education has certainly made emollient noises about teachers and has even invited the teaching profession to share their concerns about workload. So I was somewhat dismayed when our Secretary of State whipped off her benign mask and showed her true colours. In an interview with the Sunday Times Nicky Morgan proclaimed: “We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel.” And how will she ensure this is achieved?

“The new tests for 11-year-olds we are introducing next year will be strengthened to ensure that every young person is meeting the mark.” Not so much Gove-lite but pure unadulterated Gove with the threat of dismissal for Heads who fail to ensure their pupils come up to the mark.

Where does one begin to respond to a Secretary of State who announces policy cloaked in threats? Accountability has become so much part of education that there is some perverted logic to extending it to sacking a Head Teacher for failing to “meet the mark” set by the Secretary of State for Education. After all in the push for academies there has already been collateral damage with Head Teachers’ careers coming to an abrupt end – all in the name of standards.

How utterly dismal and depressing it is that hard-working professionals can be viewed as mere flotsam and jetsam in the undulating waters of education policy. We have come a long way if a Head Teacher’s raison d’être is purely results with no regard for the broader educational imperative facing our young learners who are growing up in a world of exponential change. Of course youngsters need to learn the basics but if testing of basics to ensure children “come up to the mark” becomes the school’s major focus (because otherwise the Head Teacher will be presented with a P45), how far can a school’s function be truly educational?

Only recently the Department of Education published league tables which presented an extraordinary examination scenario where my school (where 93% of GCSE grades were A*/A last year), was awarded ‘0’ in the table because we offered a mix of GCSEs and IGCSEs. And we were not alone. We had examination league tables which were demonstrably cast straight from “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with high performing schools propping up the bottom of the table. Fortunately for me my job is not on the line. As an independent school we have the educational luxury of choosing the best qualification for our learners – we are not regulated by the latest diktat about league tables. Yet I am acutely conscious that this brutalist approach to measuring our schools is the iron-hand weighing on the shoulders of our school leaders across the country. Of course there are schools that can do better – indeed all schools should believe this is the case. Yet the battle-lines (and I use this term advisedly) which have been carved between the government and educators, means that the education of our young people, which is the most rewarding of challenges, has become a war of attrition, as evidenced by Mrs Morgan’s most recent announcement.

Most tragic of all, to me, is the underlying assumption presented by the Secretary of State for Education that Head Teachers and teaching staff don’t really care enough about how the children in their schools’ progress and it takes the cracking of a whip by Mrs Morgan to ensure each child performs. How sad that we have come to this.

Come the General Election, come another educational bandwagon – character.

I am greatly encouraged that Mrs Nicky Morgan, the new kid on the Education block, has conceded that education is about far more than merely the acquisition of qualifications. Indeed, she goes further in putting government money where her mouth is : “The &3.5m grant scheme for character education projects is a milestone in preparing young people more than ever before for life in modern Britain”.

As the leader of a school which values a holistic approach to education, I certainly would applaud this intention to give value to the overall personal development of an individual. What I question is why are we caught in the self-perpetuating matrix of segmenting learning in this way? Is “character” to be something else to be put onto the educational shopping-list of what schools must deliver to be solemnly measured by some arcane Ofsted measurement? I find it somewhat questionable that character development can be promoted through a series of character building “projects”. Mrs Morgan may argue that she is advocating a balanced education but for me this box ticking approach misses the point of what a good education should offer a youngster.

The learning environment valued by a school should be supporting the positive personal development of every learner. Far from box ticking, learners should be encouraged to think outside the comfort of their box – taking risks, learning from mistakes, taking the time to understand the perspectives of others. This can happen within the classroom in the curriculum where young people are encouraged to take intellectual risks and challenge others and not constantly feel that they are a set of data to be weighed. And of course in co-curricular activities where there are a myriad of opportunities for individuals to learn about themselves.

And how does this debate about character sit with the digital revolution which is changing our world in intended and unintended ways? The World Innovation Summit for Education, a Qatar sponsored education charity, recently carried out a survey of educational experts across the world asking their opinion about what schools will be like in 2030. The results are fascinating – if the predictions are right, a student’s interpersonal skills will be their most valued asset, with 75% of respondents ranking it number one compared to 42% for academic knowledge. In this world where online content will be king, it is argued that “old fashioned knowledge” becomes secondary. Collaboration, creativity and communication will be vital skills underpinned by critical thinking.

My view is that the debate is more evenly balanced because knowledge is integral to who we are. It strikes me that an approach to learning which values intellectual as well as personal development – not treating them as a false binary – will offer the best possible educational experience for youngsters in this future of unknowns. After all, studying the works of Shakespeare will give you a deep insight into resilience and grit in an abstract sense whilst an outward bound activity, for example the Duke of Edinburgh Award, places the learner in a personally challenging situation.

Actually Mrs Morgan, on reflection, I think we already have the tools for this task – let educational professionals get on and use them.