e-Reading: Seeing books differently

January 7, 2010

"Studying" by tripu

During guided reading yesterday I was sharing a book of short stories with one of my groups who find reading challenging. We looked at the contents page and I asked what it was. One of the boys confidently replied, “I know, it’s the home page”. He continued to describe that the page contained “links” which “take you to” the different content in the book.

To me this offered a fascinating glimpse into the way he sees books, with some interesting implications. When I see a book of short stories I see it as a linear text. Granted, you can read the stories in a different order but I still see it essentially as a book with a start and a finish. My pupil’s comment made me realise that to him it is conceptually a non-linear text, potentially to be dipped in and out of like a website. At the age of 8 he has assimilated the conventions of a web text and appears to be bringing this abstract concept to bear on his developing understanding of more traditional media.

Although it feels like a bit of a paradox I find myself trying to explain old media to these pupils by comparing it to new; something which is difficult for those who have not grown up with technology to do. When introducing the class to email the best concept they could find to explain it was not as an electronic letter (which most of the visual clues in email software are based on). Instead it was described as ‘like a text message on a phone but longer and on your computer’.

To quote an old Apple slogan, these children really do ‘think different’.


1:1 Primary: The first few weeks

September 26, 2009

I had every intention of blogging on our 1:1 computer project every week, with specifics of what we had done each day. However, time has run away with me for these first weeks of term and I now find myself three weeks in and starting to think in a more reflective way about what we have experienced so far.

My overall feeling of the first few weeks is that it has been a positive experience, but one that has possibly had more learning curves for myself than for the pupils. We have had some great successes, a couple of mini disasters of lessons, and quite a  few niggly problems that need to be ironed out. Most of the issues could have been expected, a few of the technical ones were not predicted, but overall we have done some good work, and are starting to adjust to meaningfully use 30 netbooks as part of our classroom environment.


I decided to begin our work with the laptops on the first day of term by having a class discussion about the use of them, and how we should look after them. The children in our school have access to a lot of technology, so I took care to explain just how unusual it was for 8 year olds to be working with 1:1 laptops, and that we were really experimenting for something that people in other schools may decide to pick up. Suitably impressed with the responsibility that entailed, the children devised some guidelines for looking after the laptops. I was impressed with the thought they put into this, and they brought up issues which I had not considered, such as how to safeguard against pets damaging the laptops.

We then handed out the laptops and I allowed the children to explore what they could do with them, giving them free reign to use anything they could find on them. As our internet connections had not been set up this was predominantly the built in games, but I really think giving this time to explore and play with the ‘new toys’ was beneficial. I could have expected umpteen technical problems and user difficulties at this point, but in fact the only difficulty I had to help with was “Mr Quinlan I am stuck… I just can’t jump over this high wall to complete the level!”.

Their computer skills have on the whole impressed me, although I have found it important to spot those who are not confident and give them extra support. A couple of the class who do not use computers at home obviously felt overwhelmed and a little scared by the laptops, but with some encouragement they seem to be warming to them.

The next activity we looked at was tutpup – a competitive maths game. As many of the children had been drawn to the games on the machines I thought this would be a good way to channel this enthusiasm to more educational pursuits, and they have been really engaged by it. The game is based on basic maths drills, but it allows you to play against children from across the world, and if you set up a class league for the children to join they can compete against each other.

The first proper lesson we used the laptops for was our introductory history lesson on the Tudors. I began by setting up a wall using wallwisher, and asking the children to come up with questions that they would like to ask about the tudors. We then got out the laptops and the children used a selection of website I had collected to find some answers to these questions. Many children strayed from my links and began to search using google, and as a result came up with some interesting facts that I had not considered discussing. Some of the children found it difficult to multitask on the computers and switch between researching information and inputting it, but on the whole it was a successful first lesson. The wall we created can be found here.

Another  success was using the laptops for a PE lesson on Tudor dance. Having had a couple of fairly standard lessons looking at dance steps, my colleague decided to give each group a laptop and have them independently analyse a youtube video of a dance and try to emulate it. I also gave this a go in our lesson, and aside from a few problems with wifi reception in the school hall it worked quite well, and fulfilled the evaluation objectives for PE far more comprehensively than simply peer evaluating a few dances at the end of the lesson would have.

The laptops have been used for independent research on a number of occasions and, despite the huge possibility for them to go of task when using them, they have so far been very motivated to complete the tasks they have been set. We have been working on encouraging their independent skills, and they have thought of some great possibilities for using the laptops in spare time once they have finished tasks in other lessons. Lots of my pupils are now starting to access the resources we are using at home, with several of them spending lots of their free time on tutpup, and some updating facts on our tudors wall once they have gone home.


Unfortunately the first few weeks have not been without significant technical problems. From the start many of out laptops were not charging, and this was narrowed down to a buggy version of the BIOS, which then had to be upgraded on all of the machines. This was then followed by a problem with the wifi access, with many of the machines forgetting the wifi key and being kicked off the network. It has taken some time to get all of these sorted, and I am still waiting to test wifi access of my class set at the moment. This has meant that we have not really had a whole class set of laptops yet, which has hampered some of the activities I had planned to do, although hopefully it should be sorted very soon.

I would urge anyone who is looking at implementing such a project as ours to look very carefully at the machines they are planning to buy and research the possible issues through support forums before taking the plunge. I am pretty sure that the issues we are seeing are largely due to the Acer version of Linpus Linux that is installed on the machines, which I am not very impressed with. However, it does start up very fast which is something that is very useful at our current stage of experience. I think eventually we might look at installing Ubuntu on the machines, but for now we are sticking with Linpus for speed and simplicity, at least for the end users if not for those fielding the technical issues.

For me the biggest challenges have been the over enthusiasm of both myself and the pupils for these new toys! They are obviously a great novelty to the children, and this has lead to some class management issues in my class, with it being difficult to gain and maintain children’s attention during and after laptop based lessons. I have had to implement fairly hardline rules about listening when asked to when the laptops are around, and although I hate to do it I have had to have several children working on paper, and once stop the whole class from using the computers. Hopefully soon the novelty will wear of somewhat and these issues will become easier, something which is especially likely once they have been allowed to take the computers home as planned.

My over enthusiasm for the possibilities of the technology has also caused a couple of lessons to go rather wrong. With so many possibilities it is easy to forget I am working with 8 year olds who sometimes need very clear step by step instructions to be able to achieve the ideas I have in mind. One such lesson was our introduction to Edmodo, which I had planned to use to manage the digital aspects of our classroom. This turned out to be rather complicated for the stage we were at, and I decided to revert to using a more static ‘class homepage‘ to distribute links and content. I would very much like to get the children involved in something with more two way communication, but I feel we need to start simple for the moment and build up to that when both myself and they are more experienced in working in this way.

So far this homepage has had the added benefit of being open to our pupils’ parents, several of whom have shown a great interest in keeping up with what we are doing through the twitter feeds and rss to our class blog.

So, the first few weeks have not been without significant challenges, but overall I think we have taken some good steps towards starting to adapt to using 1:1 computers. I really think it is once the machines become less of a novelty and more a core part of the way pupils participate in the classroom that they will really come into their own. In the next week I hope to introduce the class to google docs, at which point we will be able to start looking at using them more in our literacy work and for collaboration.

I feel like this post has turned into a bit of a ramble, but I hope it has been of some interest. In future I might try to post a bit more regularly and specifically on how we are using the netbooks. However, being 3 weeks into my NQT year I am facing many other challenges, so blogging time is a bit squeezed at the moment!

Moving forward

July 14, 2009

So I thought it was time for a run down of where I am at at the moment, and the issues and directions this blog is likely to take.

Around a week ago I completed my PGCE course, and I have been meaning to write some reflections on the course as a whole. However, I realised that really my head has been in my new job for some time now, so when the end of the course came it felt like more of a formality than anything else. I have met some really great and inspiring people in the past year, both students, lecturers and school staff, but I am sure we will keep in touch, and it feels like more of a beginning than an end to me.

There is much I could say about issues I have had with teacher training, one big gripe being the prioritisation of everyone ticking the same boxes rather than discovering their own areas of strength and creativity. At times I have been known to get quite irate about issues surrounding the PGCE, but now in hindsight they seem relatively unimportant. I think this shift in my thinking really came about when I truly took control of my own direction and learning as a practitioner, and this really tied in to my own search for jobs and realising just how much there was out there in the world of education that was exciting and interesting.

I made a strong personal commitment that I wanted to start my career in a school that was outstanding, both in terms of being really effective, and in doing things differently. Through this job search I discovered the potential of networking and sharing practice (often driven by Twitter). Once I realised how many inspirational people there were out there sharing their unique ideas, any moans about not being prepared for teaching in the way I thought was right largely dissapeared- the responsibility for that preparation was my own.

So it was some time ago that I mentally moved on to my job for next year, as I was lucky enough to find a school that not only fitted my criteria, but surpassed it. In September I will be starting at Robin Hood Primary School in Birmingham, where I will be teaching in Year 4.

Lots of exciting things are happening next year, and I am sure it will be even more of a learning experience than the past year has been. For starters we will be introducing to year 4 a scheme of one laptop per child. Being firmly committed to an integration of ICT across the curriculum this is a perfect project for me, although I am sure it will not be without it’s difficulties. Number 1 on my list at the moment being organising keeping the things charged… However, that kind if access should result in a very different use of ICT, and I already have lots of ideas for using collaborative and Web 2.0 technologies throughout the curriculum.

I will also be involved in the development of an Internet radio station for the school, and hopefully their unprecedented Masters course in Educational Leadership & Innovation with a focus on New Technologies (see Neil Hopkin’s blog). Whilst I am obviously very interested in New Technologies, I feel very strongly that the use of such tools should be based on research and reflection on their true educational benefits rather than merely the ‘fun factor’. With 14 members of staff lined up to do the Masters, as well as many from other schools, there should be a lot of such reflection going on!

However, I am not just about technology, and I am really excited about becoming a part of the focus on learner independence, and the development of a ‘negociated curriculum’ at the school. This is something my PGCE has certainly not covered, but something I believe is a really beneficial step in education, and intrinsic to the way my own learning journey has panned out so far. This is one of the many areas in which I am keen to learn from the staff at the school, and having been to visit a couple of times now they seem like a great team which I am looking forward to joining.

So, this is the direction I am going in for the next academic year, and I am sure I will be sharing my experiences and reflections on these projects and issues in this blog. For me these are exciting times..

What is collaboration?

June 17, 2009

It was the last of our sessions at University for ‘Maths Specialists’ this evening, and despite coming at the end of a long day I found it very inspiring. Sue Johnstone-Wilder, a secondary Maths specialist, led us through a variety of open ended problems which reminded me of the importance of inspiring children to play with numbers and follow their own lines of enquiry.

One of the problems she set us got me thinking along slightly different lines. This was a task in which we worked in a group of three, each of which was provided with a number of cards containing facts about the building of a pyramid in an alien culture. Some of this information was irrelevant, with the rest of it providing the raw data for a several stage calculation to discover how long the pyramid took to build.

I have come across problems such as this before, usually in ‘team building’ type exercises to encourage collaboration, as the answer cannot be reached without information held by everyone involved. However, the first thing we did when approaching the task was to pool the relevant information and copy it out in a central place, and then all approach the problem fairly separately.

This got me thinking about what collaboration truly is, and how task design can influence it. Although all of us needed to communicate to solve our problem, we were only really contributing specific pieces of information, and once these were in the public domain our thought processes followed their own separate tracks. One person alone could solve the problem once they had all the information. I wonder if this is truly collaboration, or if what we should be aiming for with collaborative tasks is more of a sharing of thinking and skills rather than simple scattering the facts required between members of a group.

Is a more desirable model of collaboration that of a team with different skills working together on a project? Take the example of someone designing a project, someone else constructing it, and another person costing it. All of these skills are essential to completion and each person is bringing their own specialism to the table. However, is this true collaboration or is it simply three people doing their own thing and then passing it on to another to then add to?

I don’t think I have the answers to these questions, but I thought they were interesting things to consider when looking at designing group tasks, and thinking about what we really want pupils to get out of group work. The answer to this may be different things at different times, but sometimes it is all to easy to forget to consider what these are!

With tools like Google Docs, Etherpad, and the forthcoming Google Wave, I am looking forward to encouraging collaboration using technology in my classroom next year, however there are obviously a lot of issues to take into account way beyond the obvious classroom management ones…

Is engagement enough?

June 4, 2009

Earlier this week we had a presentation in my placement school from an ICT company trying to sell us a visualiser. Now I love visualisers, so much so that I bought my own from eBay to use on my PGCE placements! Mine is only an old analogue model, but by running it through the computer I can instantly display and annotate children’s work, allowing for some real extension of their learning by allowing them to assess and critique work clearly and immediately. We have e.ven used it to capture a live science experiment and annotate the forces involved  onto the video, bringing the abstract science concepts into context in a very immediate way.

Force Diagram

The presentation concluded with a demonstration of student response systems. Now although this was an ‘extra’, the staff were incredibly enthusiastic about using these for a game of ‘who wants to be a millionaire’, and this ended up making a far bigger impression.

Personally I am not a fan of such systems. To my mind they are a very expensive way to get pupil feedback, in a way that is really quite unnecessary, certainly at primary level. Of course, they allow people to produce impressive graphs of student responses instantly, and if the children respond like our staff did they are certainly engaging. However, I really question whether they actually enhance the learning going on, or rather are an expensive way of reproducing the age old method of ‘hands up’.

Having recently been discussing with colleagues the possibility of a paperless classroom, my thoughts were met with surprise. “Surely,” said a colleague, “this is fun, why wouldn’t you want these?”. Fun and engagement may be a necessity  in primary schools, and I.C.T. may often provide it, but when faced with a decision between something merely fun, and something which allows us to take the learning to a different level, I know which one I would choose.

The other problem I have with such systems is that by their very nature they promote multiple choice, closed questions, which have been shown to merely test recall and not provide the cognitive challenge required for the most important learning to take place (Alexander, Towards Dialogic Teaching, 2004). Whilst this kind of questioning undoubtedly has it’s place in moderation, I cannot help but feel a classroom which has just invested significant money in such a technology is going to be driven by a great deal of closed questioning.

Ultimately that leads to a question regarding educational technology- is the engagement, or ‘wow’ factor enough to justify the investment (both in money and time)? My answer would be ‘No’; when there are so many technologies with the potential to both engage and take children’s learning even further, why spend large amounts of time and money on merely providing a bit of excitement?

EDIT:  For more on how these issues are being dealt with in schools you can read Ofsted’s report: Beyond Engagement . (Thanks to @tricias for finding the link for me)

Time for reflection

June 3, 2009

This evening I attended an extra University session for those of us interested in becoming ‘Maths Specialists’.

We ended the session by reflecting on what it was that we believed the William report to mean by ‘deep subject knowledge’ (Williams Report). Whilst our conclusions were fairly vague, a very valuable part of the discussion was based on the usefulness of having time to reflect.

During this hectic time of our final placement it is so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of what we are doing rather than looking at the bigger picture. This evening was particularly useful, merely because it required us to set aside two hours to simply reflect on what we are doing, and the underlying issues. It also reminded me of the usefulness of verbalising this reflection with a group,when dealing with such cognitively challenging issues it really does help to develop and challenge your ideas in conversation with others.

Whilst there is a strong focus on straightforward tactics to encourage reflection and assessment for learning by children, I do wonder whether these short self evaluative tasks are really enough to allow children to truly engage with their own ideas of themselves and their work. This has made me think that such reflection time could be a hugely useful tool for children to really challenge their own learning, and something I will be working to develop with my own class. However, simply reviewing what they have done may not enough for this to be as truly useful as I think it could be, and I am keen to find ways for children to really engage and discuss what they have achieved and take it forward.

It strikes me that setting aside sufficient time for this to take place is a good first step. However, it is undoubtedly easy to talk about and much harder to achieve! So, I am looking for some practical ways to encourage true reflection with my pupils…