Do you need an interactive touch screen? (part 1)

irons
This chap is confident that teaching from the front is a jolly good thing….

I work for a company that manufactures touchscreens. It’s an amazing company and it makes extremely cool technology and I love my job.  It’s a bit of sales, a bit of training, a bit of business development, a bit of technical support and other bits besides.

So why write a blog with a title like this? Because if you ask a school the big existential question: ‘Do you need an interactive touch screen?’ and they say “no”, then that is pretty much the end of the conversation, particularly if they have some good reasons to back this up.  Doesn’t matter how cool your swag is, if a school doesn’t want it, then you’re out of the game.

So why complicate things with this question; surely all schools and all classrooms need interactive touch screens?

The reason for posing the question is twofold.

Firstly quite a few of my formative years were spent doing research into ed-tech and one thing you learn doing research is to question everything. So asking big questions like ‘do you really need an interactive touch screen?’ is a powerful thing to ask in the edtech research space, because it challenges orthodox thinking and forces you to think again about the fundamentals of what ed-tech is meant to achieve. If the answer is ‘we need interactive touch screens because our interactive whiteboards are all old and breaking down’ then more thought is probably needed.

Secondly, on occasions a prospective school or college will ask the question of themselves:  ‘Do we actually need interactive touch screens’.  They do represent a cost, and like any cost it needs justifying. A budget will always outstrip the amount of things it could be spent on, so every purchase is competing with every other, tough decision need to be made.

Answering the question

My instinct when faced with a big question like: ‘Do you need interactive touch screens?’ is to interrogate the teaching strategy of the school or college. What kinds of teaching do you want to see happening? How are teachers to spend the precious time they have with students and which kind of behaviours and practices do you want to promote and which ones do you want to discourage or even proscribe? Once you have an answer for that you can get closer to an honest answer to the question. Now the question of the teachingf strategy is one for Senior Leadership Team (SLT), or at least it should be.  The SLT should work to set the teaching strategy of the school and then put in place the correct support so teaching staff can implement this strategy. An SLT which does not spend a good proportion of its time thinking about teaching and learning and how to improve it, is not doing its job.

Does your teaching strategy include talking to the whole group?

I think it would be very rare for any school or college to have a teaching strategy which did not involve the teacher talking to the whole group, for at least some part of a lesson1.  This is so basic an assertion that I doubt it gets explicitly covered in teaching strategies, it’s simply a given that the teacher will stand at the front and talk to the class as a whole, at the start of the lesson and once again at the end. So once thjis decision has been made you can ask the question: ‘When the teacher is doing that, how do you want to support them?’ Of course, ut is possible to talk to a group without any audio visual aids. a lot of the most popular TED talks happen on a blank stage with nothing but the speaker and a spotlight. But often teachers need something on the screen, it may be they are setting up group work and need the instructions, or are explaining a concept and need the formulae up  there, or teaching a historical idea and have images and illustration which help.

Once you have decided that it is desirable for a teacher to spend at least some of the lesson addressing the entire class it becomes a necessity to have a screen to display a computer image at a size that all of the participants can see.

So we have got some of the way there.You have at least decided that to support your pedagogic strategy you need a display screen.

In the next blog post, we’ll take a look at whether it needs to be interactive or not.

Footnote

1: It is very easy to imagine a situation where a teacher did not ever address all of the class together. If the classroom is a ‘flipped one’, then the whole class instruction would be created by the teacher and then delivered to the students to access outside of lesson time. So the teacher could make a 10 minute video on the structure of the periodic table, and use a learning environment to deliver this to the students who all watch it individually in their own time.  The classroom time is then devoted to them working through a group or individual activity the teacher sets with the teacher visiting each group or individual and supporting them according to their need. I know of no school where this happens though.

 

You are not doing an iPad project

ImageYou are not doing an iPad project.

You are using iPads in your classroom, but that by itself is not a project. If the project is more specific, then name it so. If you want to find the 10 best apps to use with for literacy in Year 7, with a particular focus on boys, then call it that. The iPad is something shiny which may or may not enable you to achieve your aims. Nothing about the iPad is remarkable in pedagogical terms, there is no magic learning dust. If the devices allow you to achieve something different, interesting and exciting in your classroom, then focus on the full range of interventions you made to enable this to happen.  Then ask yourself if the iPad did the pedagogy, or you the teacher did.  If the iPad did the pedagogy, then Steve Jobs (rest his soul), was even more of a genius than we ever gave him credit for, but if you did it. then examine how you did it and see how you can push that kind of innovation right across your practice, either with or without a shiny flat digital thing in the hands of the students.

You are not doing an iPad project.

Because even if the shorthand you use to refer to your project when talking to other people is ‘the iPad project’, then you’ve put the technological cart before the pedagogical horse once again.  The very act of naming the project after the technology inverts the order in which you should be doing things, which is looking for innovative pedagogy first, through the medium of new technology.  And if you’re finding is that ‘students were motivated to learn when using the iPad’, then that is piss piss poor. Of course they are motivated, they are human like you and I and given a shiny device to use, we all get a bit excited.  Try and tease out a little more about what important was going on when the devices were being used, and then remember that it’s not a iPad project, but a project to achieve something new in your classroom.

You are not doing an iPad project.

Because as remarkable as it seems, one day in the not so distant future, the iPad will no longer be the shiny, must have, fetish object du jour. Its lustre will have faded and something else more shiny, or thinner, or sleeker, or cooler, or ‘whateverer’ will have come along and people will be buying into that vision with gusto. And if you think that’s a ridiculous thing to say, you show me teachers today going weak at the knees at the sight of their interactive whiteboard. Once upon a time they did, but now they don’t anymore.  So one day, the iPads will languish in the cupboard, oversize coasters missing their final vocation, or the kids will have taken them home and overloaded them with apps they’ll only even open once. So make your project about teaching and learning, and think about the technology not as something essential or fundamental which underpins your goals, but simply as a convenient way of getting from A to B.

You are not doing an iPad project . .  . you are doing a teaching and learning project

______________________________

Image is creative commons (so I’ve not robbed it), by Wolf Gang. Available from Flickr here

iPads do not have magic learning dust coming out of the back vent

“The iPad is just a neat tablet computer, it does not have magic learning dust coming out of the back vent” was a tweet I sent yesterday and which I wanted to follow up with a more substantive post. Being an avid twitter kind-of person, I read quite a few tweets about the iPad in education and teachers eager to introduce these to their classrooms, and it was one of these which pushed me into the mini-rant you see encapsulated above.

This is in no way an anti-iPad posting (although I imagine some will interpret it as such), it is simply a request that as educators we assess the potential of the iPad in an objective manner and learn some lessons from great education technologies of the past which promised a great deal and delivered somewhat less.

First of all, let’s start by praising the iPad and Apple’s legendary focus on usability to create iOS (the operating system which powers the iPad and the iPhone). I grew up programming in basic (I’m looking at you Clive Sinclair), graduated to strange prompt based operating system and strange winking cursors at DOS prompts, before beholding the first colour computers (an RM Nimbus in my mum’s classroom) and then machines running Windows (but never forgetting those DOS skills, because Windows was always a huge pack of cards built on top of DOS), a breath of wind in the wrong direction and you were back to C:/ and a sense that the computer was having so much more fun than you were.

So basically old gits like me have grown up accustomed to having to cajole and curse (in equal measure) our computers to get them to do ‘stuff’. Computing was never meant to be easy, it was like hand-cranking a Ford Model T, it took lots of practice, it often did not work, and the likelihood of injury was high.  When you give an iPad to someone like me, it’s like smashcutting the cave painters of Lascaux into the centre of the Sistine Chapel; their mouths hanging open in wonder as they behold their humble tools transformed into a heady display of celestial beauty. I cannot believe how easy it is to do stuff on the iPad and how the Operating System seems to anticipate so much of what you want to do. The video at the top of this blog is my daughter who is able to unlock the iPad, start YouTube, go to history and choose her favourite videos. She is 2 and a half years old. And she’s never had a single iPad lesson in her life.

All of this usability (whether you are 2.5 or 42) makes the device very productive in a range of contexts, from taking notes in a meeting, to tweeting in front of the telly, to doing some basic video editing, to writing this blog (albeit with a grown-up keyboard bluetoothed to it). The iPad is shiny and sexy and desirable and it carries that heady promise through into the user experience and there is little wonder that some teachers have been seduced by it and speculated about the impact it could have in the classroom.

But of course the fetishisation of technologies which are new on the scene  is a recurrent theme in education technology.  When the first CD-ROMs came out (the ones which needed a ‘caddy’), there was much hype about how they could transform learning.  Suddenly a single Microsoft Encarta disc could bring an entire encyclopedia to your computer screen with multimedia (sound and pictures in old money) to boot.  Surely the kids would start learning now the theory went, what can hold them back, with these resources at their fingertips they’ll be surging ahead, what could possibly stop them? If you  wind back time to the advent of educational television you would see similar sentiments being expressed about this.  In fact you can take any new technology device and see that it will be hyped as heralding a learning revolution. The same was true of the hype around Interactive Whiteboards during their first wave of implementation in British schools.

Hype is not necessarily a bad thing though, it’s just that the temptation exists to fetishise a new technology as providing all the answers to the learning problems we face.  But once the honeymoon is over and the incredible promise is not delivered, we often turn away from that technology and seek the next big thing. But part of the hype is normally always justified, the technology does indeed have transformative potential, the trick is sticking with that particular technology and extracting maximum benefit from its residual potential. A case in point is the interactive whiteboard.  Originally hyped to a point where the technology could never cash the cheques which the advocates were writing, the IWB is now a device which is extremely useful in teaching, with the right training for the teacher and pedagogical vision of how to use it. And if you disagree with this and think the iPad is a credible replacement for the IWB, then I’ll come and do a teach-off with you, me on the IWB, you on the iPad!

So here’s the thing. If you put iPads into your classroom expecting them to be magical learning devices, then prepare for disappointment; there is no magical learning dust. The only magical device in a classroom is the teacher whose imagination can create new pedagogies and the students who can enter into these pedagogies and make them work. And if you think iPads are magical learning devices, also be prepared, after the bitter recriminations about why they did not work,  to be seduced by the next big shiny thing coming over the horizon.

Technologies do not create learning revolutions, pedagogies do. And developing pedagogies is difficult, painstaking work.  Pedagogy is not a silver slimline minimalist shiny device in a cool case, ‘designed in Cupertino’; it is rather a messy, headscratching, ‘one step forward, one step back’ kind of a process which you have to inhabit, live with and work through.  Create a transformational pedagogy for your classroom and you’ll be able to sprinkle magical learning dust on just about any technology you give to your students.

NB: I know that technically the iPad does not have any back vents, as it cools via a heat sink rather than direct air circulation. But the tweet which initiated this posting was kind of ‘off the cuff’ and technical accuracy was sacrificed for twitter brevity!

Extra lessons at Free Schools: Is cramming more teaching in a good idea?

Free Schools are finally opening and Michael Gove’s flagship policy is morphing from an ideological position on supply side reform to schooling to physical reality. The number of free schools opening this term is 24 which is a tiny proportion of the state funded schools in England, but the media attention is blown out of all proportion as everyone tries to find out a little more about what these schools will do once open, and more broadly what the ‘Free School’ agenda means.

The BBC carried an umbrella story on the fledgling free schools earlier in the week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14731677 .  In this article we read about Alborough Academy, in Redbridge London which is run by the E-ACT group. Those of us who have been following the Free School movement have been quite rightly asking how these schools will be different to the Local Authority controlled schools which they are set to compete with/replace/augment (choose the term based on your politics and reading of the spin).  I had hoped that Free Schools could use some of their freedoms to do attempt some pedagogic innovations.  Rethinking how teaching and learning works, trying some experiments out; these kind of  activities could see the Free Schools challenging the orthodoxies of teaching and learning and offering genuine alternatives, and in the process stimulating a much needed debate about teaching and learning within the wider education community (including politicians and parents).

I was, therefore, a little disappointed to read of the comments of the chair of Governors from Alborough which appeared to offer little understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning within school settings. To quote the section in full:

 There will be an optional extended day – with an educational slant – says Mr Greatrex, who will be the leader of the school’s governing body.  Children could be at school from 08:00 to 18:00 – and could find themselves in extra lessons after school if they are not making enough progress.  “Teachers’ focus will be on high attainment and they will track pupils’ progress in every lesson. If a child does not make enough progress in a lesson, they will be asked to stay later that day,” said Mr Greatrex.

There is some confusion here, firstly the extended school day is optional, but a few words later it seems pupils not making sufficient progress will find themselves (as if by some miracle it seems) in extra lessons. Will they be forced to attend or not is the simple question, and once open the school will realise that writing policies is the easy part, implementing them justly within the busy chaotic life of a school is the challenge.  Just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one pupil’s extra lesson may be another’s pupil’s detention. I struggled hard to think about how children kept behind for extra lessons could fail to see this as some sort of punishment, or at least a palpable signal to themselves and the school that they are not learning as much as they could.

But what concerns me most about all of this is the crude, even simplistic understanding of the nature of learning which it reveals.  The idea that within a single lesson a student should make progress sounds great as a soundbite, but learning is often not like this, particularly with concepts which challenge and test student’s cognitive abilities. I sat in Maths lessons as a pupil and often struggled to make sense of what was being taught, despite listening hard and desperately trying to understand. Learning somedays would just not happen, although often a few days, weeks or even months later something would slot into place and things would start to make more sense. Dylan Wiliam has a brilliant phrase for this:  ‘Learning is a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos’ (Wiliam 2007). He bases this insight on a review of papers about the learning of Mathematical concepts which show that learning is indeed chaotic. Some students learned concepts at the point at which they were taught, others did not learn at the point of teaching but understood after 3 months, some understood at the point of teaching but 3 months later had lost that learning.  Learning is only partly controlled by the teacher, and only partly controlled by the learner; it’s a slippery process, sometimes difficult to pin down. The idea that you have to learn something which can be measured in every lesson and face sanctions if you do not learn is problematic for me.

Putting children under notice that unless progress was made in each and every lesson surely could create unnecessary stress, particularly for those who regularly have to stay behind. People of any age under stress do not learn well; the physical responses to stress are about fight and flight rather than thinking.

When you picture the kids staying behind each day, what mental image do you have? If you had a mental image of a group of 11 year olds trudging into a classroom to reluctantly do battle with Algebra and the Kings of England for a second time, then you are wide of the mark. Alborough has two classes, one reception and year 1, so we are talking about  4 and 5 year olds here!! It is true that the spokesperson for Alborough explains that the after school activities will combine fun with learning, such as doing mental arithmetic whilst playing cricket, but that whiffs of gimmickry to me. What if the progress not made cannot easily be fitted to a social or sporting activity? What if teachers under pressure from management and governors to create remorseless progress, simply resort to repeating the lessons of the day to the unfortunate non learners? A final irony is the young children who are going to get this kind of cramming approach would not even be in school in a country in Finland where formal schooling does not start until 7.  Surely this approach will see the UK pull even further ahead of Finland in measures of international achievement?  Well not quite, the UK lags well behind Finland in the PISA tables. 28th position in Maths in 2009 as opposed to 6th for Finland. 25th position for reading as opposed to 3rd for Finland.  Rather than seeking new and unusual methods for cramming even more teaching into the school day, perhaps the English education system should be looking to countries to Finland to see how their policies which counter intuitively start formal teaching much later, have delivered much better results. We need to think about the Finnish concept of teaching less and learning more.

Ultimately what we can learn from this is that the debate about teaching and learning currently underway as a result, amongst other things, of Free Schools, is the need to increase the quality of the debate about teaching and learning.  The outline of the pedagogic strategy from Alborough suggests a school leadership which has a rather simplified and ultimately unrealistic notion of what learning is. Their position appears uninformed by any of the research work or even some basic reading of the vast literature about learning which is freely available.

  

 References

Wiliam, D. (2007) Assessment, Learning and Technology: Prospects at the Periphery of Control, Keynote at ALT 2007. Available from http://www.alt.ac.uk/sites/default/files/assets_editor_uploads/documents/altc2007_dylan_wiliam_keynote.pdf. Date accessed 3/09.2011

Image licensed through Creative Commons. Kindly given by FreeFlyer 09 and available from http://www.flickr.com/photos/freeflyer09/4841810469/sizes/z/in/photostream/

Jamie’s dream school and the education select committee

I'm a celebrity chef, I can fix education!!
I'm a celebrity chef, I can fix education!!

The Education Select Committee are summoning Jamie Oliver and his band of celebrity teachers from the TV programme ‘Jamie’s Dream School’ to a hearing to find out more about this experiment.  If you didn’t see dream school, it was a kind of TV reality show where 20 young people who were not successful at school were “taught” by a group of celebrities including David Starkey, Rolf Harris, Robert Winston, Simon Callow and Ellen MacArthur.

Like many shows it had some cringe making, toe curling moments especially when the celebrities hit the brick wall of realisation that many of the young people really didn’t give a stuff about learning things at school. When I was a kid I used to hide behind the sofa when the Cybermen moved ominously towards Dr Who, but now I’m a big boy I wedge myself behind a big block of DFS’s best product when scenes such as the King of Pomposity David Starkey lording it over his charges flicker onto my screen. Later in that episode Starkey resorted to jibes about a student’s weight when he realised the ‘kids’ were not about to suddenly rescind their chavvish behaviour and run to the library to borrow copies of Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’. Jamie’s Dream School was first and foremost an entertainment programme. It desperately tried to wrap itself in a cloak of respectability woven from the promises of how it was going to make learning immediate and relevant to the students, and also the experiment of using celebrities to enthuse learners, but it was created to be entertainment and consumed by the public as such. Nothing wrong with that, and much worse programmes have and will continue to be made.

But now the education select committee wants to spend some time with the teachers and students exploring what this all means.  This is astonishing to me for a couple of reasons.

Firstly the select committee seem to have jumped mindlessly onto the gravy train of celebrity culture.  Do they really think that a celebrity ‘teacher’ who taught for a couple of hours at the most, with cameras in the classroom and a production crew orchestrating’TV moments’, will have insights into education which real teachers who do the proper job day in day out don’t have?  The Guardian article (link at end of blog), mentioned that the spokesperson explained that they were looking for evidence from beyond its normal ‘loyal following of education specialists’.  I would like to think that the committee regularly invites successful teachers and head teachers who work in challenging real schools to present evidence and takes the time to understand the nuances and great skill required to work in these contexts, but I have not seen evidence that this has happened.  Instead the select committee saw a shallow piece of popular entertainment, realised it had some kinds of links to education (tenuous though these were), and realised it would be great fun to have the cast in to liven up proceedings and maybe bag a few autographs for their children. We get lectures nightly from politicians about how the country has ‘run out of money’ and how these are ‘austere and tough times’.  This is the case of course, so the committee should consider how they spend their time (and by direct linkage our money) and focus on proper work rather than media friendly publicity stunts.

Secondly, the decision to spend time (and waste money) talking to the dream school crew belittles the role of real education research. There are academics a stone’s throw away from the House of Commons who could spend an entire afternoon telling them about their findings and research work.  For instance Professor Dylan Wiliam could visit them and present his work on what really works in schools, how to reform assessment and why smaller classes do not make a difference to achievement. His findings are based on robust research, they have a statistical basis and crucially they move the debate beyond anecdote and onto a more structural basis for making important decisions about how schools should be organised.

The CBeebies Show Chuggington is based around the lives of animated trains. These trains can talk, solve problems, and they always run on time.  I look forward to the transport select committee inviting the makers of this programme in to give evidence about how Britain’s railways can be improved.  And of course the cast of Coronation Street and EastEnders could visit the Treasury Select Committee and give them insights into how to tackle the North-South divide. I’m going back behind my sofa…

Link to the Guardian Article

Reports of the death of the whiteboard are much exaggerated..

Is the whiteboard really dead?

It has become quite fashionable for pronouncements such as ‘the interactive whiteboard is dead’, or ‘IWBs are old technology’ or variants on that theme to be made recently. Blog postings are being written about how other technologies have supplanted the IWB as the classroom technology of choice for teachers. Those who have foretold the death of the interactive whiteboard are often keen to explain how other technologies are replacing it, such as iPads, netbooks or other devices which have caught the imagination of educators.

But the death of the whiteboard is greatly exaggerated for the following reasons:

1: Having an IWB in your classroom is about having a platform for content. Teachers need software to assemble content for lessons and increasingly this content is multimedia in nature with the need to integrate text, images, video, audio and flash type content.  The major IWB players provide teachers with that software and it is optimised for teaching.  Many teachers, particularly in secondary use PowerPoint, but this is not the same. PowerPoint has a different paradigm to a piece of software such as SMART’s NOTEBOOK, it forces you to design your content first and then present it.  It can lead to lessons where slide after slide of information is presented and the teacher does little manipulation of that content. Of course PowerPoint does not dictate this kind of paradigm, it is possible to use PowerPoint in very creative ways, although this is not something I have seen often in UK classrooms. It is precisely the manipulation of the content which is important when teaching. So take the IWB out of the classroom and you take the software out too, and if that means more teachers use PowerPoint because that’s the only thing suitable they have to hand for their slide stacks, then that’s not solving a problem, that’s making a bigger one, and creating a big hole in the teacher toolkit which will be expensive and complicated to fill later on.

2: IWB antagonists often cast this technology as forcing teachers into a ‘transmission based, teaching from the front pedagogy’. In fact one of my followers on twitter bemoaned the fact that the IWB was keeping pupils sitting on the carpet looking at the front too much. My comeback to that tweet was fairly easy to write, it’s not the board which is doing the “from the front teaching, it’s the teacher (DOH)”; don’t blame a technology for a teacher behaviour. Instead address the root cause of why a teacher allows a particular instructional practice to dominate and then find a way for the  technology to serve pedagogical practice rather than driving it.  Great teachers assemble their lessons using a variety of methods and techniques and they also vary how they organise the class, their time and the resources (both technological and human) available to them. They probably teach from the front for some of the time, and the IWB is an essential tool for those sections of the lesson. Without it there is no focus for the class, no sense of a shared space to create meaning and set tasks, nowhere for the class to come back at the end of a learning session and review what has been achieved, nowhere for the students to come and present to the rest of class. However great teachers do not allow from the front teaching to dominate; they set individual, pair and group work, skilfully orchestrating resources and using detailed knowledge of the class to create the conditions for learning without direct instruction from the teacher.  Perhaps in the early days of IWBs, teachers were so enamoured of what the technology could do that they overused them. As the saying goes, ‘to someone with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail’. But to repeat my point, IWBs can never be held responsible for the pedagogy in a classroom, teachers have to answer for that.  After all, the police don’t prosecute cars for driving badly, they prosecute the drivers. We don’t applaud the piano at a concert, we applaud the pianist.

3: In the UK there has been a massive investment in IWB technology, and ripping this out and replacing it with something else is wasteful, prodigal even.  Schools should concentrate instead on getting the most out of the technology they already own. I have visited many schools and worked with lots of teachers during my time working with a major IWB manufacturer, and I have found only a handful who use the technology to its maximum capability. Unfortunately most only use 10% perhaps or  less of the features.  This is not normally the individual teacher’s fault, it was a systemic failure to address training and professional development when the boards were first going into UK classrooms. It is a mistake being repeated in some BSF and Academy projects where professional development for teachers drops off the bottom of the list.  But senior managers in schools need to grasp this issue. They need to make it their business to understand the technology which their teachers have to teach with, and then invest (both internally and externally) to maximise the usage of this technology. They need to find courses and providers which set the technology usage in an overall pedagogical context and set clear expectations of the kinds of teaching which they want to see in their school, and then fund the necessary investment to give teachers the tools to do this.

So to conclude, ripping out interactive whiteboards and giving every student in the class an iPad or netbook won’t fix education anymore than putting the IWB into the classroom 6-8 years ago was going to fix education. We need to start every conversation about teaching with how we develop and empower teachers to marry technology usage and appropriate pedagogy, and we don’t need conversations which focus on a particular piece of equipment in isolation, as if somehow the technology itself has a magic power to orchestrate teaching and learning. Technologies do not have this power. Only teachers have this power.  Let’s focus on pedagogy rather than technology.