This is my latest article, as featured in the outstanding Edudemic Magazine for iPad.
In the UK there are few words more likely to cause a room full of teachers to spontaneously break out into a cold sweat of fear and self-doubt than ‘inspection.’
There are two bodies that inspect schools, Ofsted and ISI for state and private schools respectively. It doesn’t really matter which one you get the visit from, they inspire all the same concerns. Their visits are designed to rate every aspect of a school on a scale that tends to go from ‘unsatisfactory’ to ‘outstanding’ and obviously, this matters most (at least in the eyes of the teachers), when you have an inspector sitting in your lesson.
Ofsted do offer some guidance as to what they expect from an ‘outstanding’ lesson. From January of this year, the outline was refreshed and a key word was omitted – ‘technology.’
In previous versions of Ofsted guidance on ‘outstanding’ lessons, teachers were told explicitly that the use of new technology was one of the criteria they were looking for. There is no mention of it at all in the current outline. Where once we read of ‘technology’ we see: “Teachers use well-judged and often inspirational teaching strategies.”
Does this mean that technology is no longer considered a viable method of achieving that oh-so coveted reward – a tick in the box next to the word ‘outstanding’?
Of course not. But what it probably does tell us, is that Ofsted were getting fed up of seeing teachers using technology in a haphazard, meaningless way as a showpiece they assumed would get them a pat on the back.
As someone who is trying to explore and develop the use of technology in education, there is nothing more damaging than teachers who misapply devices or software in such a way as to render them as little more than a gimmick. All this does is add fire to the brimstone of the ‘old school’ teachers who dismiss everything from Interactive Whiteboards to iPads as distracting nonsense.
It is certainly possible to teach an outstanding lesson whilst using technology and maintain pedagogical integrity, but it takes practise and time.
The first battle is ensuring that the culture of learning in your classroom (and preferably your school) is conducive to digital learning. There needs to be a clear understanding of what the expectations are when different technologies are brought into the room, long before the students even see them. A ‘lids down’ policy with laptops for example, is an excellent way of ensuring that you have the attention of students at any given time. Beyond this there does need to be an element of trust and this is something you can’t teach. You need a rapport with your class; if you don’t have some sort of monitoring software in place then you need to know that your ‘disappointment’ in their misuse of the internet is enough of an incentive for them not to do it. But without this trust, you will lose them as soon as they open the laptop/get out their phones or fire up the iPads.
So, once the culture of learning is right, it is up to you to deliver the right content on the right device.
An iPad is a great device, but if you had a choice, you probably wouldn’t want to write lengthy essays on one. A laptop is a more obvious choice, but have you considered letting them use their phones – the dexterity that 21st century students have in their thumbs is almost an evolutionary mutation. Their words per minute ratio on a phone is a fairly impressive, if slightly scary thing, and the fact that the device belongs to them means that there is immediate familiarity and usability for each student. But again, this sort of freedom and BYOD approach requires a strong wireless infrastructure and a lot of trust.
If you want them to explore and research, then a tablet or phone offers the kind of portability that they need. If you want them to collaborate then PCs and laptops create too many physical barriers. Whilst the technology might facilitate them finding the information more quickly, the worst possible thing we can do as teachers, is stop them from talking to each other. The easier it is for them to forget they have the technology, the better the learning will be. When the device itself is the best part of the lesson, you know it has gone wrong.
Of course there will always be that initial wow-factor. I know that as soon as I bring out my new class set of iPads for the first time, there will be a lot of oohing and aahing. However, to help minimise this, I have been teaching some technology-related study skills classes which are designed to prepare them for using technology in the most effective way. The students learn everything from how to evaluate the validity of a website to how to make a short film on iMovie. The aim is that by the time they get to a lesson in another subject using technology won’t be about the device, it will be about what it can do for them to make their learning more effective and efficient.
If we look at some of the other Ofsted criteria for outstanding lessons, we can see that they want “all teachers [to] have consistently high expectations of all pupils,” which fits in very well with the idea of digital learning. I know my expectations are always considerably higher when there is technology in the classroom; not only do I expect the obvious things like presentation and accuracy of writing to be better, but I expect the level of learning and the range of material covered to be increased. Students who are connected to such a wealth of resources, rather than one resource (the teacher), have no excuse but to learn more quickly and yet also at their own pace (a unique but vital combination).
Ofsted also want “Teachers [to] systematically and effectively check pupils’ understanding throughout lessons, anticipating where they may need to intervene and doing so with notable impact on the quality of learning. Apps like ‘Socrative’ (quiz/voting app)facilitate exactly this sort of instant and very clear feedback and can be used as much or little as needed with little in the way of preparation. In fact I feel quite confident in saying that students being able to demonstrate their knowledge using the relative anonymity of technology will actually help teachers address weaknesses and gaps in learning more effectively. There is nowhere to hide and yet you don’t necessarily have to reveal yourself; it is the perfect way for shy students to give honest feedback.
Perhaps the easiest aspect of an ‘outstanding’ lesson for technology to implement is also, in my opinion, the most important, and that is that “Teachers and other adults generate high levels of engagement and commitment to learning across the whole school.” Rightly or wrongly, using technology in class is motivating for students and if done well, the shine of a new approach need not wear off – technology will not stop developing and changing; if teachers are willing to innovate there will be the technological support to back it up.
Technology is in no way a synonym for ‘outstanding.’ But, it is something that can facilitate that outcome again and again. It can seem melodramatic to say things like ‘iPads have changed the world,’ but they have. The very fact that there is a debate within educational establishments across the world as to whether they and their likenesses are the key to unlocking the future of learning should show all the sceptics that technology is not going away. It is something that needs to be embraced and explored.
Technology will not be consigned to a cheap gimmick in the realms of business, medicine, defence, and transport. Education simply cannot afford to be the poor relation. If you ask the question, “What will make me a great teacher?” Technology is not the answer. If you ask the question, “What can facilitate great learning?” Then there are lots of answers. But my top two would be the teacher, and technology.