A couple of years ago we were lucky enough to get to work with Google at The Sunday Times/ Wellington College Festival of Education to design a unit of work in English.
They were a delight to work with because, fundamentally, they clearly cared about education. And one key element of their interest in our Education Festival was that they wanted to do something which would involve our children. There were several questions that needed answering: most obviously, what would interest (and challenge) them? And perhaps just as importantly, what could they work on which could be linked to a set of core skills, as well as be transferred to other subjects?
We took a risk: three 3rd Form MYP classes were studying The Road, the dystopian novel by the American novelist Cormac McCarthy. It’s a difficult, sometimes unbearably moving novel, and it does not flinch from scrutinizing many of life’s most fundamental moral choices in stripped-down, brutal language. For this group of 13 year olds this is the most complex novel most of them will have read.
We went to Google and said that we wanted to work with them on a project which would be focused on The Road, and which would bring in new technology, but only if that technology extended the students’ learning: in other words, if it was gratuitous, or done for the sake of promoting a brand, we wouldn’t use it. The learning was the priority, the technology secondary. It was with a little trepidation that we emailed this message to Google. Their response was immediate: ‘we’re completely cool with that’ they said.
And so we set to work. One important decision we made was to bring in @tombarrett, a Google-certified teacher, who could show us the real potential of Google tools. We then asked all the pupils to write letters of application for this role outlining why they should be part of the team (a useful exercise in itself). We chose 14 pupils and over a whole day mapped out ideas for the project with Tom. Several trips to Google HQ in London followed so that our pupils could get a sense of the ethos of the company, as well as their high expectations of the project.
Through close collaborative planning, using tools such as Google Maps, Google Plus, Docs, Sketch Up, Google Sites, embedded clips from YouTube, as well as other tools (such as Skitch and Garage Band) the pupils were able to construct a diverse, interactive website which explored McCarthy’s novel in a number of different ways, but each extended their learning, and each approach developed skills which could be transferred to other subjects.
When the Education Festival kicked off our pupils were installed in the Google classroom and it was clear that for many of those attending they were one of the highlights of the two days: they explained clearly and perceptively the choices they had made in designing the site to the many adults who wanted to know more. And in so doing they made crucial transition: they were no longer students but, through their learning, had become teachers.
Last term, being out of school at a conference, I had to set cover.
Feeling guilty about missing my A2 English lesson (especially as this was early in the term), I made sure that they would be occupied and challenged in my absence. I asked them to come along to the classroom (in my absence) and to bring their computers (we run a BYOD programme and have school-wide Wifi) and a copy of the text we were currently studying: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
I set up a Google document that the whole class could edit, sent the link and these simple instructions: read one paragraph at a time, after reading each write two or three questions that you want answering then have a go at answering (as best you can) some of the questions that other members of the group have asked. All questions and answers were to be typed into the same shared document.
Sitting in one of the sessions at the conference, I opened the Google document on my iPad and started watching. An amazing thing happened: an extraordinarily rigorous conversation and debate started unfolding on the page in front of me. And I was able to take part: to answer questions, to challenge ideas, to affirm great readings (I know – I should have been concentrating on the conference presentation).
When I got back to school in the afternoon I caught up with some of the students who were positive and hugely enthusiastic about their ‘virtual’ lesson. The levels of engagement had been extraordinary. I was interested to see if there were further applications of this method (beyond providing virtual cover!)
The next day, Tuesday, I was being observed teaching an AS set by a New Zealand teacher looking at the use of technology in various British schools. I felt duty bound to ‘do something with tech’, and decided to repeat yesterday’s experiment.
The class were studying Robert Frost and we spent about 30 minutes reading and discussing the wonderful “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. No technology in play except paper and pens. We then ran a 20 minute “virtual conversation” along exactly the same lines as the day before: one Google doc, all students editing, questions and answers.
But why do this with all students and the teacher present in the class rather than just have a discussion? Well, here was some of the feedback from the students at the end of the lesson:
- They really liked the relative anonymity;
- They felt they could work at their own pace;
- Several commented that they could ‘go back’ to a discussion and add comments and noted that in ‘real time discussion’ the class would often already have moved on;
- They enjoyed adding to and qualifying each other’s ideas in a way they felt they wouldn’t necessarily always be able to do in conversation;
- They loved the fact that they ended the lesson with a full transcript of the questions and answers (which they reviewed for homework, before writing up a reflection on their blogs).
My New Zealand observer (another English teacher) also started taking part in the online discussion. It was almost infectious. There was a buzz of engagement in the room.
I’m not without reservations: I certainly wouldn’t do this all the time and classroom discussion will remain a key element of virtually all of my lessons. I also worry slightly about the lack of moderation (how do I help the students to understand why some responses might be more successful than others?)
Nevertheless, I will definitely be using this relatively simple tool again. A class collaborating on one document is powerful. It’s a good example of technology letting me do something I couldn’t do a few years ago with, hopefully, tangible benefits for students’ understanding and engagement.
At the beginning of this term we set out to experiment with some new models for CPD or Professional Learning. One of the things we were keen to explore was whether simple technological models had any value in engaging teachers in discussion about teaching and learning that would help them to improve their practice in the classroom. We also had a hope that there might be better alternatives than the “all staff meet in one place at a particular time and listen to a lecture” model.
As one of the points of focus for the term was assessment and feedback, we set out to create a Google+ community to host a series of discussions. The idea was that anyone could sign up and that there would be no time-specific sessions so that individuals could interact when and how they wanted.
At the beginning of the course the “moderator” laid out a set of user principles for engagement over the 3 weeks that the community would be running. His short post read:
“Improving our assessment and feedback right across the school is a key focus for this term so this community could help to shape ideas and forge interesting ways forward as well as sifting our contacts and networks for examples of the very best that others are doing in this field.
I’m not sure what the outcomes will be (although I hope that a couple of you at least might be motivated to blog about our discussions and ideas). However, might I suggest the following as a kind of minimum requirement of being involved in the group? That, over the course of the 3 weeks we all:
- Post at least one link to an interesting idea/ blog/ link;
- Post at least one (however short) personal reflection on effective feedback and/ or assessment.
And that, in addition, we all:
- Comment at least once a week on any of the posts that have gone up.”
28 teachers signed up for the community and it remained open for the 3 weeks intended at the end of last half term. There was a fantastic range of curricular posts from English to PE to Maths to Economics and a decent discussion on many of them. Posts looked at a huge range of thoughts and ideas as well as curating blogs and recommending reading; the 3 headings for contributions were: general discussion; interesting blogs, websites and reading; reflections on interesting and innovative personal or departmental practice.
We discussed, as examples: the issues of grading work; ensuring the quantity and quality of all feedback; student reflections; using trackers; using digital strategies to support marking and assessment; peer-marking; critique; blogging as an assessment strategy, and much more. In fact, and on reflection, perhaps the range of material covered was almost too extensive and we might have been better focusing more on specific ideas and practices.
At the end of the course we sent out a very short survey to try to engage with how successful teachers felt that the process had been and whether this is a model that we could develop profitably in the future. The responses made for interesting reading.
Teachers who took part liked:
- “The flexibility to interact at a time that suited me and therefore allowed me to give it my full focus at that moment”
- “Learning about what was happening in other departments”
- “the ease of access and sharing ideas”
One of the feedback questions we asked was to challenge teachers to consider whether, in their opinion, the course had had any impact on student learning. The responses were surprisingly positive, several reporting that they felt there had been a significant positive impact on student learning in their classrooms.
A couple of respondents suggested a plenary session would be useful. This is something we will consider in the future; a Google hangout is obviously one way of conducting this that we might think about. Several contributors thought that more interaction would have made for an even more successful experience. Balanced against this, however, was an exhortation not to exhort: that requests to post made the experience feel “pressurized, and not natural.” That’s an interesting balance for future moderators to consider. Equally, some commented on the lack of quality control. That’s another one to think deeply about.
To finish: one final comment from one of the teachers who took part: “I am disappointed there is not a similar group next half-term looking at another topic.” Now it’s time to make that happen; step forward the next moderator, please.